When Bible and Science Interact: Teachers’ Pedagogic and Value Challenges in Teaching Religious Minority Students in Higher Education Settings

Mar. 24, 2016

Source: Teaching in Higher Education Volume 21, Issue 5, pages 487-500


The integration of highly religious minority students into institutions of higher education poses significant pedagogical and value challenges for students and teachers alike. We offer a framework for analyzing such challenges, distinguishing between practical concerns, identity issues and value conflicts. By contrasting a deficit perspective to ‘Diversity as resource’, we argue that the latter enables teachers to utilize a collaborative knowledge model in class, surmounting some of the value challenges involved. We present the case of ultra-orthodox students (UO) in Israel who have recently entered the gates of higher education for the first time in this society's history.

We analyze the narratives of 30 lecturers who teach this population. Most of them adopt a deficit perspective and see their role as academic gatekeepers, minimally adjusting content and pedagogy. A smaller group fosters cross-cultural dialog via a ‘Diversity as resource’ perspective. These findings lead to recommendations for successfully teaching highly religious students.


This paper analyzed the integration of UO female students into two higher education institutions in Israel. To study for academic degrees, UO students require gender-separate classes and academic teaching that does not clash with their values. One of the institutions that we studied addresses these challenges by creating a higher education environment for UO students only (MC) and the other offers a gender-separate track within a general college (AAC). In the course of this study, 30 non-UO faculty members who teach UO students at one of the two programs shared their teaching experiences.

Our findings highlight the complex interaction between UO students and non-UO teachers in Israel, uncovering a situation of structural inequality. Students are expected to conform to academic values, while lecturers are not expected to make use of the values and intellectual and spiritual properties of their students.

When considering how to integrate ultra-conservative religious students into academic settings, we offer the following recommendations, based on our findings:

  • On an institutional level, it is important to maximize equal opportunity for religious minority students, women in particular, who do not yet attend academic institutions. This means creating opportunities for mutual exposure between religious communities and academic institutions and promoting open dialog about the needs, expectations and goals of each group regarding the other.
  • On a class level, teachers should be provided with the tools and skills necessary for managing classes under conditions of cultural and religious diversity. This could include training-workshops run by advisors who have expertise in understanding and working with religious communities. Teachers should be encouraged to replace their deficit view of religious minority students with a cultural resources perspective. The institutional expectation from the faculty staff to be committed to fostering an open, tolerant and mutually respectful teaching setting, needs to be backed up by practical tools and applications. These may include encouraging contact between student and faculty beyond the classroom, promoting active learning and setting up small group discussions in order to engage students who are unacquainted with the academic learning style.
  • On a personal level, teachers should reflect upon their personal attitudes to highly religious students in higher education. A position of enabling – helping students acquire academic tools that they can then use within their own value-frames – rather than an expectation of fostering value change among students, might be more ethically defensible in culturally diverse educational settings.

Creating opportunities for meaningful dialog between teachers and students within the context of cultural and religious diversity could turn values difference into a teaching resource, and lead to parallel processes of student and teacher transformation. Inculcating habits of openness to religious diversity may promote a more general change in the way teachers enter into dialog with religious students in their classrooms. As a follow-up to this study, we propose testing some of these interventions and measuring the ensuing satisfaction of students and teachers in such settings.

Updated: Jun. 01, 2016