Personal Knowldeged analysed

10 July 2024

Barking Up the Wrong Tree

A critique of targeting ‘personal knowledge’ in Religious Education


A tweet recently: a speaker at an online webinar tweeted:  “A worldviews approach that unpacks positionality leads to powerful knowledge for students of RE

In this article I fundamentally dispute this shallow thinking. I argue that the ‘religion and worldviews’ curriculum project is wrong to propose ‘personal knowledge’ as one of its three fundamental strands of study. I argue this on 6 grounds –  

(a) that Michael Polanyi’s original work on Personal Knowledge has little relevance to religious education;

(b) that introducing ‘personal knowledge’ as more than a heuristic tool biases the ‘ways of knowing’ towards scepticism and may underline to academic deputies within schools that this is not a subject for proper academic study;

(c) that the importance given to it is itself a confusion in the light of the second strand, ‘ways of knowing’;

(d) that high quality RE has always recognised a need to start from where pupils are already placed in their pre-understanding, and to move them on from this, but teachers should not elevate it as a study in itself;

(e) that assessing progress in personal knowledge is difficult and undesirable;

(f) that the connection of personal knowledge to substantive knowledge supports a minor role for personal knowledge;

I conclude that personal knowledge, as constructed here, is detrimental to good RE.  One also wonders just how closely intertwined are ‘personal worldview’ and ‘personal knowledge’ – the former cannot work without the latter, so personal knowledge must be analysed first.

What is ‘personal knowledge’?

Amira Tharani[i] says (Tharani, 2020):

…[Teachers should be] supporting children and young people to understand their own positioning – how their own ideas, background, experiences and worldview influence how they understand and interpret what they see. … This is an important element of what Richard Kueh has described as personal knowledge”.

So we are introduced to an idea which has a history and heritage under a number of names in RE, a useful idea as a way in to learning, namely to consider pupils’ starting-points.

The new R&W Handbook[ii] encapsulates, and develops, what is proposed in the CoRE Report[iii], namely that ‘personal knowledge’ should be a specific target for RE through all key stages:

‘Personal knowledge: pupils build an awareness of their own presuppositions and values about the religious and non-religious traditions they study’ (Handbook, p.94)

Innocent enough, but then:

‘in a religion and worldviews curriculum, by (teachers) facilitating their interaction with the content as set out in the NSE, pupils develop their understanding of the worldviews of others while developing and generating pupils’ personal knowledge. (Handbook, p57)

So personal knowledge includes formation,

the development and generating of pupils’ personal knowledge’?

Or as the Handbook puts it (p42):

‘The subject, as with all school subjects, includes the possibility of personal transformation’.

If ‘all school subjects’ are involved in this, why make it a target just in RE? And as proposed for RE, does it make each teacher into something between a psychologist and a sociologist (e.g. Handbook, pp 49, 107 n.10)? And religious education into something closer to a combination of PSHE, Citizenship and Social Studies? We should start with the late scientist-philosopher Michael Polanyi (e.g. Cooling, 2024),[iv] who has been a major source, especially for by Professor Trevor Cooling[v] among others.

  • Michael Polanyi

Michael Polanyi originally wrote ‘Personal Knowledge’[vi] in 1958. He was later to coin the term ‘tacit knowledge’ to explain much the same concept, with reference to the empirical sciences. He is quoted in the R&W Handbook.

Polanyi aimed to bridge the gulf between purely objective, verifiable knowledge so-called, and the impossible relativism of subjective knowledge. He says that we can transcend our own subjectivity in the passionate pursuit of, and obligations to, ‘universal standards’ (Polanyi, pp15–17). So there is our personal participation in the act of knowing, which will always colour and indeed frame what we believe we know, our ‘fiduciary framework’, which requires our intellectual commitment if ever it is to realise beyond itself the ‘universal intent’. He is insistent that ‘contact with reality’ is there to be discovered. All knowledge is a mid-point, one’s ‘fiduciary act’, and is neither true nor false but is an expression of one’s prior understanding in the belief that it approximates to reality. Polanyi states:

Personal knowledge is an intellectual commitment, and as such inherently hazardous’. (ibid, p viii)

For Polanyi,

‘belief … [is] the source of all our knowledge’.

However, Polanyi is writing for the empirical sciences, for which many of the categories of religion simply do not apply, nor did he consider them, e.g. revelation, mystical experience, spirituality or personal encounter with the supernatural, nor religious conversion. And he certainly never spoke of any transformative principle.

Polanyi’s  thesis in RE

In Professor Cooling’s contribution to a Theos publication[vii] (Cooling et al, 2020) – and affirmed in his recent article in the British Journal of Religious Education (Cooling, 2024) – he says:

‘Here being objective is being reflexive; it is being able to identify one’s own pre-understandings and those of others; it is to learn to represent the lived experience of others as best you can, but acknowledging that you can never be neutral’ (Cooling et al, p57).

This understanding he attributes in particular to his encounter with Michael Polanyi’s writings (Cooling et al, p101f.). For him it is the issue of pre-understanding, or personal knowledge, mixed with critical realism which inspire his new-found approach and provides the basis for using these concepts to ground R&W education, the project he directs for the REC.

Cooling has recently defended the use of personal knowledge in RE (Cooling, 2024):

‘Pupils should therefore learn that claims to knowledge are interpretive judgements influenced by our personal worldview and critical appraisal is required to test their validity. The educational goal is then that pupils learn how to make informed, reflective, scholarly and reasoned judgements as to truth such that they are prepared for adult life’. (p5)

4 comments to make:

  • This he calls a ‘Polanyian’/critical realist model. But if claims to knowledge are ‘interpretive judgements’ how can pupils make ‘informed, scholarly, and reasoned judgements’ without contradicting themselves?

And we are being asked precisely to go beyond understanding that knowledge is a ‘fiduciary act’ to a situation where the ‘validity’ of personal knowledge may be assessed: in which case we are in a vicious circle, where, if personal knowledge is really the case, then any act of validation is itself an act of personal knowledge and positionality.

  • This adoption of Polanyi has not really been what has been intended when teachers of RE identify pupils’ pre-understandings or ‘personal knowledge’ in religious education. This ‘personal knowledge’ sows the seeds of Scepticism: we can never really know objective reality. At the pupil level this could be interpreted as getting the message that we never know at all so religion is not worth studying.
  • It is an (obvious) fact that pupils, and their teachers, do have pre-understandings which they can either have reinforced, can amend or can change in order to grasp a more objective or better-informed understanding. To assume there is always in effect personal bias behind a belief or argument is counter-productive to knowing anything and returns us to neo-Kantian phenomenology, Idealism, or Wittgenstein’s Forms of Life. Or to opinions.

As the Teacher-led Framework[viii] puts it (p10)

A key element of RE curriculum design and implementation is to acknowledge the personal knowledge of the curriculum designer and the teacher delivering the curriculum in the classroom.

  • Confronted as they are by an overwhelming barrage of certainty in their other studies in the STEM subjects and elsewhere, RE will appear to be opinions and oddities, because the emphasis on personal knowing sits uncomfortably beside a proper grasp of ‘ways of knowing’, and further distances the subject from the ‘academic’ curriculum. As twice being responsible for academic direction within secondary schools, I am very aware of the numerous stake-holder demands on the curriculum.

(c) Ways of knowing and personal knowing

To explain this point, ‘ways of knowing’, the second of RE’s three goals, is defined as (Handbook):

‘Ways of knowing’: this is where pupils learn ‘how to know’ about religion and non-religion, incorporating methods from academic disciplines (e.g. p43, cf Ofsted 2021 )

This allows for the application of methods, for example those from theology, philosophy and from within the academic study of religion. Such disciplinary areas are valuable in helping pupils to understand how the study of religion and worldviews can be undertaken in different ways (p48)

On the assumption that ‘ways of knowing’ is a synonym for epistemology it is hard to find a school-level textbook on epistemology which even mentions personal knowledge (e.g. it is completely missing from the standard A Level and IB textbook Epistemology, by Cardinal, Hayward and Jones, 2004, published by John Murray, London), and the intelligent pupil is entitled to ask in what way, granted the presumptions of personal knowledge, any epistemological theory other than phenomenology can apply. This confusion is caused by the elevation of pupils’ and teachers’ pre-understandings or personal knowledge to a level worthy of study in their own right.

The whole point of epistemology is to explore how knowledge may be securely attained, if at all, of an external world despite one’s pre-conceptions: otherwise there is no point in introducing epistemology.

(d) So Is Pre-Understanding Really New?

Not really: when I started teaching in a London Borough (1976) we were required to use the 1966 West Riding Syllabus[ix], which expected reflexive learning (‘think about’) and acknowledged that pupils start from many differing viewpoints, or what we now call pre-understandings. L Philip Barnes[x] shows this lack of novelty in considerable detail. Back in 1970 John Hull[xi] (Hull, 1970) was acknowledging the variety of understandings and increasingly secular thinking among pupils, and seeking an approach geared to the place of pupils in the learning process. In 1975 Hull (Hull 1975) spoke of

thematic teaching…being more concerned with a religious interpretation of the child’s ordinary experience’[xii]:

Here ‘ordinary experience’ refers to the pre-understandings and life events children have and endeavours to link these to RE studies.  Hull combined an impartial study of religions with the development of students’ own personal views, owing a debt to Ninian Smart.

However actually, something is new:  Whilst all good teachers will find a way to relate material to be studied to the prior learning and understanding of their pupils, the NCS expects that teachers are not just working with pupils in their diverse backgrounds and attitudes, but aiming to develop these, to ‘build’ pupils’ personal knowledge: the Handbook (p53) declares an aim to be:

‘the creation of personal knowledge, arising through the interpretive action of engaging with the content of religion and worldviews’.

One wonders whether these goals of creation and of formation might not be considered forms of intrusion or even indoctrination, raising potential conflict with home and culture?

(e) Assessing progress

It is acknowledged that we cannot assess progress in personal knowledge. In the Handbook two of the eleven themes for the proper study of RE (here ‘Religion and Worldviews’) concern ‘position’, how pupils will gradually understand more about their own pre-conceptions. Having considered the assessment of types of knowledge in RE the Ofsted Review (Ofsted, 2021) says,

‘It may well be that personal knowledge, due to its highly individualised personal, intimate or abstruse nature, might be an aspect of RE that ought to be ‘unencumbered’ by assessment

Though in paragraphs 32-34 of this same report it actually then goes on to suggest ways to assess progress! I repeat my earlier comment: this being so, it should have a subsidiary role for RE teachers, as it does now, not the priority R&W assigns to it.

(f)Substantive knowledge

In the review of religious education by Ofsted (Ofsted, 2021) it says:

‘pupils build an awareness of their own presuppositions and values about the religious and non-religious traditions they study’. It goes on to add, ‘As ‘personal knowledge’ requires content for pupils to reflect on, the sequencing of ‘personal knowledge’ depends on the sequencing of substantive knowledge in the curriculum’.

So personal knowledge is dependent on substantive knowledge. The aim of RE here is to recognise the prior assumptions and background influences on pupils and to help them develop these constructively so that they ‘illuminate and …  inform’ pupils’ own self-knowledge: and this is to be an end in itself, two of the eleven strands or ‘attainment targets’ in old money, nearly 20%, are devoted to Positionality.

With a classroom full of perhaps 30 different pupils, very limited time and even more limited resources, it is not surprising that the 2024 Ofsted report complains again of the dearth of substantive knowledge:

‘Over half the schools visited used non-specialist teachers to teach RE. In the majority of these schools, teachers had not had any subject-specific professional development. These teachers did not have the training that they needed to be able to develop their subject knowledge… or to teach subject content’.

And apparently without this there cannot be personal knowledge.


It is revealing to re-read the blog post from the University of Bristol[xiii] (Lewin, Orchard, 2021) in response to the 2021 Ofsted subject report (Ofsted 2021); in this the authors criticise ‘’personal knowledge’, as presented in that report, as being synonymous with ‘understanding’, and the confusions therefore indicated in the Ofsted 2024 report (Ofsted 2024) could have been avoided if the RE world abandoned the confusion and misunderstanding of this concept.

High-quality RE has always recognised the need to start the education of pupils with an awareness of the ‘baggage’ they bring, not with the goal of recognising and dignifying such baggage, but the confusion and lack of scholarly agreement on the value of ‘personal knowledge’ undermines a significant strand of the whole ‘religion and worldviews’ curriculum project.

For curriculum managers in schools this third strand of study, as it cannot be meaningfully assessed and involves something close to pastoral skills, is better placed in PSHE/Citizenship, or as a cross-curricular theme; the pressure of SATs and EBac, of STEM subjects and of other humanities subjects, and of funding, mean that RE must challenge pupils academically, measurably, or be relegated to minimal timetabling if at all.  This is not to neglect the affective dimension of the subject, bot place it in the context of a truly academic and scholarly approach.

[i] Tharani A,The Worldview Project Discussion Papers; REC 2020, p18

[ii] Pett S, Developing a Religion and Worldviews approach in Religious Education in England  (2024), Religious Education Council

[iii] Commission on RE (2018), Religion and Worldviews: The Way Forward; A national plan for RE, RE Council

[iv] Cooling T, Knowledge in a religion and worldviews approach in English schools, British Journal of Religious Education, DOI: 10.1080/01416200.2024.2304693, (2024)

[v] Professor Cooling is director the Religious Education Council curriculum project on Religion and Worldviews

[vi] Polanyi M., Personal Knowledge (1962), London, Routledge and Keegan Paul

[vii] Cooling T, Bowie R, Panjwani F, ‘Worldviews in Religious Education’, (2020) Theos publications)

[viii] Teacher-led Framework An exemplification of a Religion and Worldviews Approach in RE Final Report The RE Council of England and Wales Religion and Worldviews Project Gillian Georgiou

[ix] ‘Suggestions for religious education’: West Riding agreed syllabus. 1966, West Riding of Yorkshire Education Department

[x]  Barnes LP, ed. Religion and Worldviews, The Triumph of the Secular in RE, (2023), London, Routledge, , pp77 – 98

[xi] Hull J.M. Recent Developments in the Philosophy of Religious Education, a review article, (1970), Educational Review, 23(1), 59–68.

[xii] Hull, J. M. History, Experience and Theme in Religious Education, (1975). Journal of Christian Education, os-18(2), 27-38.

[xiii] Lewi D, Orchard J, What’s What in RE, (2021), School of Education, University of Bristol; access