Recreating a Third Space in the RE Classroom: Using Dialogue to Understand Faith

Arzina Zaver was working in complementary education when she conducted her study focused on recreating a third space in a religious education classroom in Vancouver, Canada. Her understanding of third space largely draws on the ideas of the literary theorist Homi Bhabha but has been re-defined within the context of this study to refer to a space of dialogue for Shia Ismaili Muslim adolescents


The impetus driving the research largely stems from my own  experiences as well as both previous observations and the challenges faced by minority youth as a result of globalization and the spread of religious ideas through mass media. Dialogue is seen to have great value in the classroom as it responds to the intellectual and emotional needs of the adolescent to ask, reflect and understand. There has also been a movement in education for a student- centered approach that values students as active participants in the learning process. Furthermore discussions and a space to ‘ask’ in this research was shown to increase students’ understanding of faith related matters such as practise and tradition. By ‘creating’ such spaces in the RE classroom, students were given the tools to re-conceptualize culture in a way that responds to their social contexts. Moreover, this research calls attention to the necessity for students to learn from peers and engage in a dialogue that enables them to understand faith with intimacy and clarity. In order for students to truly engage in faith, the space for deeper engagement with the practises and traditions of faith must be given value.

Discussion and student questions were the backbone of this research. In fact, I would like to view discussion not only as a process of data collection but as a method in and of itself. As this research revolves around dialogue as the third space in the classroom, discussion time in the classroom was the most crucial element of the data collection process.

Chat Time
During every class, students were invited to drop questions into a “Question Box‟. Anonymity and privacy was ensured as students questions were written on post its and students were told they did not have to write their names down. At the end of class a “Chat Time‟ was established to ensure time to answer questions. Examples of student questions (in verbatim) include:

“Do Ismailis believe in reincarnation as “hell‟?”
“What do we believe is hell?”
“Why can‟t we eat pork?”
“What is Halal meat?”
“Why do men and women sit on different sides in khane [the place of worship]?”

This time set aside to discuss these questions was the third space that students could explore, discover, analyze and reflect on ideas, thoughts, feelings and explanations. A space (literal and figurative) was created to facilitate the “Chat Time‟ which occurred in the last 20-30 minutes of each class. Chat Time occurred in the back of the classroom, where students could have space to sit on the floor on cushions. third space picI created this space as one that was meant to be welcoming and inclusive, so that it would add to the student‟s level of comfort. Furthermore, a shift from the traditional desks to cushions showed students that Chat Time was not meant to be constraining; it was hoped that such a space would enable students to feel relaxed in order to engage them in a discussion that felt natural and organic.

Class Discussions
Interestingly enough dialogue and discussion in the form of a created third space stepped out the boundaries of the created space to envelope the entire classroom so that third space and “Chat Time‟ essentially became the entire RE classroom. The dynamics of this phenomenon are explored in the full report.

What I concluded
Having researched identity construction occurring in our Ismaili Muslim supplementary schools, I conclude that we must help create identities that are not dominated by binaries. Rather than viewing ourselves as (say) Muslim, or Canadian, I suggest that we offer young people a third space where culture is merely a component. There is much work to be done here: identity is an ongoing, never- ending activity.  When the Caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland asks, “Who are you?” Alice replies, “I–I hardly know, sir, just at present– at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”

This work was conducted in an Ismaili Muslim complementary school classroom in Canada.  One of the questions that inevitably emerges  is how can third space be incorporated across contexts?

One way forward in creating a third space applicable to all contexts might be ensuring “teacher talk‟ does not dominate the classroom.  If at the heart of third space is a space for students to discuss their ideas about faith and learn from each other, teachers must value this process of peer interaction. The danger of teacher talk that became clear to me through this research is that it often is unintentionally controlling, and doesn‟t promote diverse perspectives nor value student ideas.   Paulo Friere attacks the traditional method of “teacher talk” as a mode of transmission that requires students to be passive bodies in the process of knowledge. He calls this method of teacher talk- student listening as “banking” where information from the teacher is stored in a student‟s mental bank.  To do away with this approach, Friere encourages dialogue which is “owned by its participants and not imposed as the transmission of officially mandated knowledge…critical dialogue makes it possible… for the community of learners to construct its own self-knowledge that is based on a genuine consciousness for social reality”.

photo (35)
The Author (on right)

We must provide a platform for students to ask questions that may not have a right or wrong answer, but just need to be voiced and seen “anew‟. What is culture if it does not have the power to continuously transform and provoke thought and reflection? And what is pedagogy without teacher and students engaging in a discourse that is raw in honesty and free from judgment but speaks from a place of understanding and empathy, a reciprocal relationship where every individual feels a sense of freedom? Curriculum cannot exist without lived experience, and I humbly conclude by suggesting such spaces should have a place in the RE classroom.

I conclude with words of Sufi poet Jalal ad- Din Rumi: “there is a field. I will meet you there‟.

Arzina Zaver works as a religious education teacher in her Ismaili Muslim community in Canada.  She is a PhD student with the Department of Integrated Studies at McGill University and is a course lecturer at McGill University.  Arzina is interested in areas around teacher neutrality, teacher identity and the pedagogy of religious education in secular states.

Her full report can be read here:  Arzina Zaver PDF


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