"Completing my MA reminded me of how much I love to learn and especially, how much I love to take one idea/piece of work and dig deeply – examining concepts; making links; and exploring possibilities."

Dr Karen Walshe

Karen Walshe is a Senior Lecturer in Religious Education (RE) at the Graduate School of Education. Karen is a member of the Centre for Teaching Thinking and Dialogue and leads the Religion, Spirituality and Education Network. She is module leader for the Secondary PGCE RE course; an academic tutor on the Secondary PGCE School Direct programme; and supervises PGR students in Religious Education and Teacher Education.

I completed my BA in Religious Education at the Mater Dei Institute for Education in Dublin, Ireland, and studied English literature as my second subject. Having qualified, I followed my family to Cornwall and taught there for 10 years.

During that time I completed a part-time MA in the History of Modern Art & Design at Falmouth College of Arts. This allowed me to combine my interests in Religion and Art and my dissertation focused on Kandinsky’s iconography of the apocalypse.

Completing my MA reminded me of how much I love to learn and especially, how much I love to take one idea/piece of work and dig deeply – examining concepts; making links; and exploring possibilities. Inspired by that experience I applied for a Farmington Fellowship, which would enable me to take a term's sabbatical from teaching and conduct a small-scale research project. One thing led to another and I ended up working for the late Professor Terence Copley at the University of Exeter as a Research Assistant on the Biblos and the Teaching about Jesus in RE research projects.  I completed my PhD; was awarded a Senior Lectureship; became module leader for the Secondary PGCE RE course; and haven’t looked back since.

My research interests have developed over time and I am currently writing up the findings from a recent study which examined teachers' and trainee teachers' understanding of 'understanding' in RE. My interest in this stemmed from my PhD and the Teaching and Jesus research projects, which found that many young people equate understanding in RE with believing.

One of the aims of RE, according to curricular documentation, is to develop pupils' religious understanding.  What is meant by this term however, has been the subject of much debate. For some, 'religious understanding' refers to a particular type of understanding, specific to RE, and which some argue, is available only to insiders. For others, 'religious understanding' refers simply to an understanding of religion and as such, is available to all.

Our project explored these ideas with classroom practitioners and the results were fascinating. "If I really understood the laws of Karma", explained one of our participants, "wouldn’t I live my life differently?" It is clear, that teachers’ understanding of what it means to understand in RE has significant implications for their classroom practice the ways in which they seek to develop and assess pupils’ learning. 

The project has generated a lot of interest in the RE community and has led to several invitations to give Keynote lectures at RE teachers' conferences around the country.  I was also appointed, as one of four members, to the RE Expert Panel, whose remit was to complete Phase 1 of the national Subject Review for RE in 2013/2014.

The Religion, Spirituality and Education Network at the University of Exeter provides a formal opportunity to network with colleagues and PGR students working in similar and related fields. Each term we meet to share research ideas and discuss journal articles and project proposals.  Members of this Network include Dr Rob Freathy and Dr Shirley Larkin with whom I have collaborated on the 'RE-flect' and 'RE-searchers' research projects.

My research interests in Teacher Education have led to my involvement in the RETAIN project, for which I am the Principal Investigator. This project, which is in its second year, set out to examine issues relating to teacher retention in schools and to work with schools to develop inclusive and creative working environments. This is a European project funded by the European Commission in
The Lifelong Learning Programme (LLP). The University of Exeter is one of five project partners working alongside teams in Denmark, Belgium, Turkey, and Spain. We are currently collaborating with a number of partner schools to create a toolkit and training materials, which we will be trialing in the Spring and Summer 2015 terms.”

In addition to supervising both EdD and PhD students at the Graduate School of Education I am a tutor for the Farmington Institute and work with both primary and secondary teachers of RE in the South West who have taken time out to conduct research projects of their own.