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The Small World Project

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The Small World Project is based at Stranmillis University College, Belfast and co-ordinated by James Nelson and Norman Richardson who lecture on teacher education courses at the College. Both lecturers have considerable experience in publishing textbook and curriculum materials for schools in Northern Ireland as well as carrying out academic research in the fields of Religious Education, Education for Mutual Understanding and Citizenship Education.

The title for the project is borrowed from a book, Small World, written by Maurice Ryan (Ryan 1989), a former member of the Religious Studies' department of Stranmillis University College, who pioneered the development of curriculum materials on World Religions within a Northern Irish context for local Primary school teachers. The context of the current project is Post-Primary classrooms but it still embodies the aims of Ryan's work of opening a window to the wider world of religions and demonstrating to pupils that the world is smaller and closer to them than they might think by revealing the religious, ethnic and cultural diversity that exists in their own community in Northern Ireland.

The project was initiated in the academic year 2003-04 when 7 student researchers were recruited to carry out ethnographic work with families belonging to six different religious traditions. The Northern Ireland Interfaith Forum was approached and asked to help with locating families who would be interested in participating in the project. They responded enthusiastically and all students were successfully placed with a family through this route. Since then the researchers have compiled portfolios of young people from different religious backgrounds in Northern Ireland and information about the beliefs, practices and local manifestations of each religion. The information gathered by the students has been used to form the foundation of two textbooks for use at Key Stage 3 (11-14 year olds) in local schools.

Both texts have now been published:

Local People Global Faiths 1: Sikhs, Jews and Hindus in Northern Ireland (2005) James Nelson and Norman Richardson

Local People Global Faiths 2: Muslims, Buddhists and Bahá'ís in Northern Ireland (2006) James Nelson and Norman Richardson


The methodological approach used when undertaking the data collection and preparing the textbook materials has been influenced by the interpretive approach to religious education developed by Robert Jackson and the Warwick RE Project (Jackson 1997, Jackson 2004, Jackson 1999) .


As a result of ethnographic work carried out with Hindus in England the Warwick team became aware of the importance of issues of representation and interpretation when attempting to convey a picture of the lives of individuals and the community in an educational context. They also felt that the issues of representation and interpretation were generally neglected issues in the development of classroom materials for use in schools. Standard textbooks tended to present religions as discrete belief systems suggesting that all Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs, for example, participated in their religions in a largely uniform way. By contrast, the interpretive approach takes account of diversity in traditions and attempts to portray religions as ‘vibrant, flexible and organic' (Jackson 1997). Adopting a three level model (individual, group, tradition) each religious tradition is seen as a 'contested broad picture' (Jackson 2004).


The Small World Project has utilised the three level model to create textbooks which focus on individuals, communities and broad traditions. Chapters on ‘Who Am I?' introduce young people from different religious traditions. Chapters on ‘Who Are We?' explore the religions at community level. And chapters on ‘What is [religion]?' give a basic overview of the tradition as a world religion.

The Textbooks

The books are structured in the following way:

Local People 2 Book 1 Sikhs, Jews and Hindus

Local People 1 Book 2 Muslims, Buddhists and Bahá'ís

Each book is designed to be interactive, experiential and reflective in nature. It is hoped that through using the materials children will:

•  Develop a sensitivity to and awareness of a range of cultures and religions which exist within Northern Ireland
•  Understand how major world religions seek to answer key philosophical and religious questions
•  Engage in meaningful active learning tasks relating to some of the main world religions represented in Northern Ireland
•  Develop positive attitudes to diversity
•  Develop empathy skills and have opportunities to reflect on how those in society who are perceived to be different should be treated

For further details of the Small World Project contact either James Nelson ( or Norman Richardson ( ) and for information about the Local People, Global Faiths textbooks see Colourpoint Books
( or email .


Jackson, R. (1997) Religious Education: an interpretive approach ( London : Hodder and Stoughton ).

Jackson, R. (1999) 'The Warwick RE Project: An Interpretive Approach to Religious Education' Religious Education 94 (2), 201-216.

Jackson , R. (2004) Rethinking Religious Education and Plurality: Issues in diversity and pedagogy ( London : Routledge Falmer).

Nelson, James and Richardson, Norman (2005) Local People Global Faiths 1: Sikhs, Jews and Hindus in Northern Ireland (Newtownards: Colourpoint Books)

Nelson, James and Richardson, Norman (2006) Local People Global Faiths 2: Muslims, Buddhists and Bahá'ís in Northern Ireland (Newtownards: Colourpoint Books)

Ryan, M. (1989) Small world: a handbook on introducing world religions in the primary school ( Belfast : Stranmillis College ).

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