Folding-in: concepts and efficiency in the RE curriculum

In Making Every Lesson Count Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby introduce the idea of ‘folding-in’ concepts to the curriculum as a more organic way to allow students time and space to practice and a way of making teaching more efficient in the age of the content-heavy GCSE. They pose two questions to think about when planning a scheme of work:

  1. Which ideas and concepts are absolutely crucial to the overall mastery of the topic?
  2. How many opportunities to return to these ideas in different contexts can you include in the plan?

The idea is that you then take these absolutely crucial concepts and fold them into the whole scheme-of-work so they are both unavoidable and consistently and repeatedly recalled and practised. Reading this it was one of those moments I seem to be experiencing a lot as an early-career teacher where someone in a book or a blog or a podcast systematises and rationalises something you’ve been instinctively doing in your own classroom practice and gives it a name and a thought-through rationale.

RE lends itself very well to this kind of folding-in of concepts and I am going to write about it in the specific context of Christianity and the AQA RS GCSE but it could be applied across the curriculum.

I think we should clarify early on what we mean by concepts in RE and, thankfully, Mary Myatt has done this beautifully in her article On a cardboard curriculum.

My argument is that concepts are ‘holding baskets’ for facts. They help to make sense of multiple pieces of information and this makes them efficient. Concepts are largely, but not exclusively expressions of important ideas within an academic discipline. Our pupils are entitled to know them and to use them. Concepts enable connections to be made across a disparate range of facts; they reside in the long-term memory and can be called on to make sense of new information. Concepts provide the intellectual architecture on to which new knowledge and insights can be pinned.

I love that phrase “intellectual architecture”. I think that concepts are what really make the difference between a knowledge-rich curriculum which is open to accusations of ‘exam factory’ and ‘drill and kill’ and a knowledge-rich curriculum that provides students with cultural and intellectual capital that will stick with them beyond their formal exams.

Let’s look at a concrete example from the AQA RS GCSE. We start our GCSE students off on the Religion and Life module which looks at a seemingly disparate array of subject matter from animal abuse to abortion to the stories in Genesis. Before we tackle any of these specific ideas though we need to embed two concepts:

  1. Imago Dei – man is made in God’s image, life is sacred
  2. God gave humans stewardship and dominion over the Earth

Through these concepts, through this “intellectual architecture”, we can begin to ask ourselves how Christian responses to moral issues are formed and we can start practicing the essential GCSE skill of being able to apply these concepts to specific moral questions. In addition to outlining these two concepts it is absolutely essential to affix them to a quote in the student’s memory, that is not only to satisfy the Q4 and Q5 requirement for a reference to scripture but also, the quote is coded differently to the concept in the memory and provides a short-cut for recall.

  1. Imago Dei “God created mankind in his own image” Genesis 1:27
  2. Stewardship “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” Psalms 24:1
  3. Dominion “Rule over […] every living creature that moves on the ground” Genesis 1:28

Once you have embedded the concepts and quotes you can begin to fold them into the curriculum. I will often explain the basic facts of an idea, for example abortion being the termination of a pregnancy,  legalised in England, Scotland and Wales, before asking students how one of these concepts could be applied, prompting recall of the quote and practicing the application of concepts. Here I have used a statement from the Pro-Life Campaign’s website which is secular in nature and I am asking students how it connects to the idea of sanctity of life and mankind being a sacred reflection of God’s image

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Without the architecture of the concept pre-existing in the student’s heads they would just end up learning a list of ‘for and against’ arguments which would not be connected to other specific ideas like euthanasia. With a solid knowledge of a few Christian concepts students can begin to build cognitive schema which take them beyond factual recall and into mastery of RE. After embedding this practice repeatedly students have a framework with which to absorb new concepts and to parse new ideas.

How can you embed this idea of folding-in into your own practice?

  1. Identify between two and four concept/quote pairs for each term
  2. Put those quotes on display, making sure they are relevant to the current scheme-of-work
  3. Continually refer to these concepts both by name and using the quotes, do this during recall, explanation and practice
  4. Explicitly identify the concepts required in scaffolding for pieces of extended writing

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