Jenny Berglund. Photo: Klas Backholm.

The numbers of pupils from Muslim or other minority religious backgrounds are increasing in Finnish schools. This brings teachers face to face with new questions concerning everything from fasting to the structure of teaching.

Klas Backholm

Jenny Berglund is a docent in comparative religion at the University of Helsinki in Finland, and a researcher at Södertörn University in Sweden. Mårten Björkgren is a lecturer in the didactics of religious education at Åbo Akademi University. Both argue for the viewpoint that it isn’t enough that it is only the teacher of religious or philosophical education that introduces various types of religions to pupils.

”It’s often the case that the responsibility for multi-religious issues is left to the teacher of religious education to handle. But it should actually be dealt with by all teachers and in the school environment as a whole,” says Mårten Björkgren. During the past year he has arranged, together with his colleagues within teacher training at Åbo Akademi, several seminars on how future teachers should approach the subject of Islam in schools. The task of school education is not only to provide pupils with knowledge and information on what religious diversity is; it should also give the pupils a sensitive and curious attitude towards this diversity. Teachers should be prepared to guide pupils in their encounters with people who, for example, wear different clothes or observe other traditions than their own.

“In a school environment religion takes the practical form of various arrangements, such as signs in the dining hall clearly indicating what Muslim pupils can eat,” Björkgren explains.
Jenny Berglund has studied how religious minorities can be included in teaching at various levels. In her doctoral theses (2009) she explored how Islam is taught in religious charter schools (‘friskolor’) with a Muslim focus in Sweden, and her recent research has focussed on the teaching of religious education in four countries in the Baltic Sea area.

In Finland, pupils are introduced to other faiths within the teaching of their own religion, or in philosophical education. Teachers are aware of variations within their ‘own’ religions, as it is obvious for those living within communities characterised by that religion. According to Berglund it is, however, easy to resort to generalisations when talking about other religions, as one does not have equally extensive knowledge of that subject. The variation that teachers need to demonstrate exists at many different levels – not just between groups with different interpretations of the religion, as for example Shia and Sunni Muslims, but also on an individual basis.

“Just like everybody else, Muslims behave in various ways. Islam is not one single entity; there are enormous variations and numerous different interpretations of it. One of the most important aspects of the teaching of Islam is the highlighting on this variation,” emphasises Björkgren.
“There is a tendency in textbooks and teaching to speak of people from other faiths as if they were robots. The teacher might say something like: ‘All Muslims pray five times a day’. But they actually don’t – there is an aspiration to do so, but far from all Muslims follow this ideal.”
Mårten Björkgren is responsible for the training of future teachers of religious education in the Swedish-speaking schools in Finland, and he thinks that his students need to challenge their own views of society, religions and cultures.

“The undertaking of future teachers is to be a good teacher to all pupils as well as a person who doesn’t shun or problematise things that are somewhat different from what they are used to.”
Björkgren is convinced that the teaching of, for example, religious traditions, can be turned into something which is fun and which in addition to the actual religious education curriculum might involve projects across various subjects focussing on the interesting features from all of the religions represented in the school. This will automatically illustrate the diversity of cultures and lifestyles.