Disciplinary Knowledge and RE: an attempt at professional wrestling

When there is no easy answer to the question of disciplinary knowledge the temptation arises for the classroom teacher to disengage with the debate. That is, quite honestly, the place I have been occupying for the last two years of my practice. I have put a big focus on the substantive knowledge in RE, I have digested down the GCSE into 175-odd simple questions for my students to know the answer to and I have written knowledge organisers for the modules I teach, I have retrieved and recalled and quizzed with my students until the exams hit the desks. If I am honest I think a lot of my impetus to do this has come from being given exam classes from sets 3-5 instead of 1-2. I have been laser-focused on substantive knowledge and on improving my practice in that area and I am really proud and happy of the work I’ve done but now, now I’m ready for a bit of what Matt Burnage calls professional wrestling

What is disciplinary knowledge anyway? Matt, in his talk at ResearchEd Northampton, suggested it is the “organising structures” of the substantive knowledge that we teach. It is the knowledge which makes substantive knowledge a worthwhile enterprise and not just learning-by-rote. The history subject community have been, from my standpoint, the real leaders on this topic and I have often looked on with jealous eyes at some of the discussions they have been having. They have framed their subject with certain disciplinary ideas which cut through history curricula from KS1 to undergraduate courses like words in a stick-of-rock, ideas like causation, chronology, conflict, change and continuity. 

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The idea that an RE teacher could come up with a similar list of ideas to sum-up our disciplinary knowledge is beguiling but probably misguided. Richard Kueh, writing in RE Today, argues that such discussions in RE are always fraught with problems. RE is not a subject with such a clear academic lineage as history but the history it does have is long and contentious. It is somewhat telling that even the name of our subject is up for constant debate, are we Divinity (as at Eton) or Religion, Philosophy and Ethics or Theology & Philosophy or Religion and Worldviews or simple RE? 

Though these name debates are often a proxy for something else they do illustrate a major point about the ‘discipline’ of RE. We are a composite subject, in the same way that “English” covers the study of literature, linguistics, creative writing and textual analysis so RE covers the study of theology, religious studies, anthropology, ethics, philosophy, social history, societal change and (if I have my way) art history. Keuh argues that because substantive knowledge, interpreted by one of these disciplinary areas, can often be questioned by another RE needs a ‘sophisticated approach to knowledge’. 

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That said this plurality of approaches can actually be a real benefit to our subject. It gives RE the chance to embody the depth of discipline and breadth of curriculum which Christine Counsell argues is necessary for our students to become literate in the real sense of that word. We can build schema which are rich but also contain links between the different disciplines embodied by RE. When we look at the actions of Martin Luther King Jr. in Year 8 we are primarily looking in a historical and cultural discipline in the context of the struggle for Civil Rights but, because we are RE, we also make links to Christian ethics, to the idea of the Church as a community, we can draw comparisons between the sacrifice of King and Jesus, between the struggle of Civil Rights and the internal struggle to do good in the world. We become a microcosm of the wider thrust toward cultural and academic literacy. 

Probably the most frustrating part of all of this is how we, as RE teachers, can possibly attempt to do the good and necessary work of thinking deeply about our disciplinary knowledge when we have only about 80 hours of KS3 teaching in which to try and give our students access to the best substantive and disciplinary knowledge RE has to offer. In order for RE to become a well-respected discipline in its own right I think we probably have to kill some of our babies. If we are serious about passing on the disciplinary skills of the study of world religions then we have to say goodbye to the “six religions in six half-terms” idea and instead offer more time to a more limited selection. If we are serious about the idea of theology, exegesis and understanding Christian influence in social action then maybe one lesson on the Sermon on the Mount isn’t going to cut it before we move on to miracles. A rigorous approach means asking tough questions about our curricula.

Kueh argues that “the disciplinary tradition sets the boundaries for discussion, the conventions to follow, the rules of the game and the legitimacy of the products of pupil work” – not to forget the parameters for what is relevant substantive knowledge. What do we want our pupils to be at the end of their time with us? Once again the answer for RE isn’t obvious, I often say “religiously literate” and I stand by that but it’s a bit of a cop-out for a much more difficult discussion.

I want to post this before it becomes a 5,000  word essay and I feel I have left a lot unsaid but that will be good. I would like to see more ‘professional wrestling’ going on in my Twitter feed and even on Edufacebook so if you want to respond to this please do either in the comments or a post of your own. I guess our ‘enquiry question’ will be: what is disciplinary knowledge in RE?

References

Matt Burnage – What Knowledge? at ResearchEd Northampton 2019

Christine Counsell – Why curriculum breadth matters at ResearchEd Northampton 2019

Richard Kueh – A Matter of Discipline? On knowledge, curriculum and the disciplinary in RE in RE Today, Autumn 2019

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