Takeaways from Primary RE

Over the past three terms I have had the rare privilege of being able to rewrite our school’s RE curriculum from scratch. The curriculum is still a work-in-progress and it will remain a work-in-progress long after I have finished writing each individual scheme-of-learning. This blog post comes partly out of the big picture planning which I have been doing on that curriculum and partly as a reflection on Christine Counsell’s keynote at the 2020 Historical Association entitled History curriculum planning: at KS2 and 3.

In her excellent talk Christine posits an important question for any subject, at any stage: what frameworks / schema do we want students to have at the end of our time with them? To phrase this more specifically to primary RE we will ask: what RE frameworks / schema do we want students to have at the end of KS2? These are the takeaways which I am going to talk about in this post.

What is the importance of the end of KS2?

As a Year 6 teacher I spend a lot of time thinking about transition and, as a Year 6 teacher who was a secondary school teacher previously, it is something I feel I have experienced from both sides. In other subjects teachers can rely on the National Curriculum for some guidance as to what students will have learned by the end of KS2 and what students will learn in KS3. For RE, sadly, this is not the case, we have Locally Agreed Syllabi of course but these are patchily adhered to and vary from area-to-area. The idea that we can rely on them is diluted further if either the feeder or secondary school is a faith school or if either has academised and chosen the option to digress from the LAS (as we have). All of this is to say that, in RE, the end of KS2 is the end of our certainty and control over what our students know in RE so it is the best time to stop and take stock of the effectiveness of our curriculum.

What is a takeaway?

It is easier to start with saying what a takeaway isn’t – it is not memorised knowledge. Christine Counsell rightly says: do not start with a knowledge organiser. A knowledge organiser, by its very nature, is a collection of facts but our aim for our students should not be that they simply take away a collection of facts. I am reminded of The History Boys and Hector’s outrage at being told that his lessons were providing gobbets for the boys to trot out in the Oxbridge exams – “every answer hung like a Christmas tree with the appropriate gobbets” – RE has to be more than mere gobbets. This is why I have always preferred the term ‘cultural literacy’ over ‘cultural capital’ – we should empower our students to be able to interact with culture and future learning in a fluent way – we should not be teaching them merely to store and recite gobbets in order to impress or influence.

Our takeaways should be predicated on the idea that our curriculum is knowledge-rich not knowledge-heavy. A takeaway does not come from memorising a knowledge organiser but from having moved through a story in detail and with analysis, from having encountered visual beauty or literary power and from having thought through some of the questions which the facts present. Memory, after all, is the residue of thought.

What makes a good takeaway?

A good takeaway is a rich schema which is developed in students’ heads – it is not just full of facts but also filled with visual and literary allusions, historically and culturally important stories and an understanding of their own context – nationally and locally. It may be essentialised but it points to complexity – it provides an opening for further, deeper study (crucial at the end of KS2) and it provides the framework for a student’s own thoughts and reflection.

Let me give more of a concrete example. I would like our students to reach KS2 with an understanding of Islamic art and architecture. The reasoning behind this is that it gives them a richer understanding of the religion of Islam, that it will allow them to engage in the future with both the study of Islam but also with museums and galleries and with the built environment around them. Of course they need to encounter the visuals of Islamic art but our curriculum also looks at both the historical and geographic roots of Islamic architecture and the theological connections between Islamic art and Islamic beliefs about God and shirk. They know what a mosque looks like, they can recognise the kind of visual archetypes used in mosque architecture, they understand the practical and theological reasons for the fountains, the mihrab, the minaret ,the dome, the prayer hall etc. All of this links together to provide a rich schema – the beginnings of a full religious (and cultural) literacy.

As Christine Counsell says in her talk: don’t start with the knowledge organiser. Start with an idea in your head of conversations you want your students to be able to have at the end of KS2 then work backwards to unpick the schema needed to facilitate those conversations.

Essentialism, Debate and Diversity: a curriculum and model of progression for RE

I’ve long been a believer that if you are going to take a negative view of something you ought to have a positive suggestion to put in its place. This blog post is a companion piece to Against Worldviews. It outlines my view of a subject that is fit-for-purpose. 

 

Fear of Essentialism 

There has been much debate about what progression looks like in RE. To my mind the inability to agree on a model of progression over time is linked to two developments within RE, one is the prevalence of thematic study which does not lend itself to a straightforward model of progression and the second is a fear of essentialism that makes the early stages of such a model very hard to theorise.

I can sympathise with the fear of essentialism. As RE teachers we want to feel as though we are representing religions as diverse and colourful bodies of belief and practice and not as single monolithic institutions to which followers pay absolute obedience. However, as Neil McKain so rightly describes in his chapter In defence of essentialism, in the book Reforming RE, “to essentialise is to simplify so as to enable understanding. Students should be made aware of diversity but only after we have taught them the basics” (p.194).

All subjects essentialise, this is certainly something I am certainly having to learn as a primary school teacher. RE, however, is not essentialising something distant like the causes of WWII or abstract like how to calculate the area of a triangle, it is essentialising belief systems that we ourselves, or our students, or people we know and respect, hold in a very real and earnest way. I recall a lecture on my PGCE from a member of a faith community who told us in no uncertain terms that to refer to their place of worship as the “x version of a church” or to compare their holy book to the Bible was a huge faux pas. I then remember talking to my fellow student teachers weeks later and sharing embarrassing stories of how we’d frozen in the classroom remembering this lecture and being unable to describe to our students without using these essentialisms. It was not helpful.

 

A Progression Model for RE

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I said I was going to present something positive so here it is. This is the progression model for RE that I have had in my head since my PGCE but which I’m only now confident enough to share.

Essentialism

Essentialism is … essential. I am a strong believer in the need to build up from core concepts as I wrote about in Seeds, Roots and Branches: a model of enquiry in RE. It’s natural for teachers to tie themselves up in knots finding ways in which the generally agreed upon key concepts are not, in fact, generally agreed upon. If we talk about the Trinity in Christianity someone will always bring up Unitarians. That may be true but there are only 7,000 Unitarians in the UK (0.02% of people who identify as Christian), so I would argue there is no need to add this confusion to a KS2 or even KS3 scheme of work.

Furthermore this essentialist stage is where we can lay some more groundwork in addition to theological concepts. We can introduce foundational stories, not just creation myths but stories that religions are built on like Buddha and the Four Sights or Passover or Abraham and Isaac. Of course interpretations differ but if we introduce them at KS1 and 2 we can talk about those differing interpretations at KS3, 4 and 5 without having to start from scratch. We can introduce specialist language that we will return to and we can talk about practices that are so widespread as to seem universal e.g. baptism, communion and prayer in Christianity.

Debate

Debate is a step beyond essentialism. It is still essentialising because that is what we do as teachers but it is introducing historical, long-standing or important debates. You cannot do this if you have not laid the groundwork above, I would say that is obvious but I have seen a lot of debate recently that suggests it might not be.

Once students understand the key concepts, practices and stories of a religion you can describe ways in which arguments have taken place over them throughout history. Most religions have a top tier division which has occurred at some point such as Orthodox and Reform Judaism, Sunni and Shia Islam, Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism, Catholic and Protestant Christianity etc. Now I can already hear some of you saying “what about Suffism? what about Pure Land? what about Orthodox?” and that is my gut reaction too but we are still essentialising in order to help simplify and build understanding so when those traditions are encountered they can be understood and investigated and not brushed over for the sake of diversity or completeness.

In addition to those historical splits you can look at contemporary debates both theological and in practices. This is where, in GCSE Christianity for example, we might look at liturgical vs non-liturgical worship or at literalist and non-literalist Biblical interpretations. We are starting to get to a richer and more true-to-life vision of religion by the time we reach the end of this point of progression. I have specifically designed this so that, if a student only studies RE until the end of KS3 or a core KS4 course they will still get to this debate stage. Though I’ve tied this section to upper KS3 and KS4 you can get here in Year 6 if you choose depth over breadth in your curriculum.

Diversity

This section is probably not hugely dissimilar to Worldviews but it is reserved for upper KS4 and KS5 for a reason. At KS5 students can access complex debates and disagreements which add a rich and interesting dimension to studying religion but which, I would argue, are not essential for a general level of religious literacy.

Here we are talking about individual thinkers and theologians, we are talking about how an individual believer can deal with seemingly contradictory or difficult choices, we can talk about heresies and the challenges they’ve presented to religions and we can look at the unorthodox or unattached individuals and denominations that develop from those beliefs like Mormonism or Kabbalah.

Meanwhile this all builds on, enriches and links into the work done in the essentialism and debate stages of this model. Not every student is going to reach the diversity stage of the model but those that do are most likely to continue to further study whether in Theology, Religious Studies or another related degree. Some people will be asking why this diversity stage can’t be taught simultaneously alongside KS3 or KS4. That is when it becomes tokenistic. To introduce Arianism to a KS3 scheme of work on Jesus seems like a noble venture but will never allow a student to understand fully the historical or theological context for Arianism or the effects of that heresy on the Church following it. Additionally a working knowledge of Arianism is probably not needed for even a high level of religious literacy.

 

The Curriculum

Perhaps this warrants a post on its own as but my response to the debate on what should be in an RE curriculum is fairly simple and perhaps not particularly revolutionary:

Six world faiths, non-religious worldviews, philosophy and ethics.

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The most common response to that is that there isn’t curriculum time to cover all those. I think if that’s the case then perhaps your curriculum is too cluttered. As you can see above there is enough time to spend a term on each of them and do a thematic or local area study. The order of religions is not fixed, in this example it is fairly arbitrary, you may chose to interleave them rather than go through them one-by-one. If you only have a 2 year KS3 then I would suggest covering all six religions in Year 7 and 8 and then studying the other elements in a core KS4 course. If your school doesn’t have core KS4 and has a 2 year KS3 then that’s a bigger issue! Of course even within this you could chose depth over breadth and choose to do two terms on one religion at the expense of another.

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In the primary curriculum I am in the process of designing and implementing, we only teach Islam and Christianity at KS1 and do an essentialist introduction to the other faiths and at KS2, that was a conscious choice to enable us to lay a groundwork for an ambitious KS3. One of the biggest issues with Primary RE is a lack of certainty about what appears at KS3 at any of the half-dozen schools where most of our students go. A National Curriculum would certainly be a huge help there. I feel confident that even if a student left KS2 and never studied RE again they would have covered a good depth of knowledge in Christianity and Islam and a good breadth of knowledge in the other faiths.

My reasoning for the inclusion of six faiths, NRWV and P&E is two-fold: a decision has to be made at some point, especially if we are to agitate for a National Curriculum for RE and, secondly, this selection of faiths is based on UK demographics which is as good a deciding factor as any. These six faiths and non-religious worldviews account for all but 0.4% of people living in the UK (source). As with any curriculum there would be room for manoeuvre for schools but any student who goes through the curriculum I’ve described and the model of progression I’ve laid out could really lay claim to good religious literacy.

So there we are, I said I would make some positive suggestions about what RE should look like, not just what it shouldn’t. I hope you agree that I have done that even if you disagree with my suggestions. Comments are open as always.

 

Featured Image is Composition in Blue Module by Saloua Raouda Choucair, 1951

Subject knowledge for RE: four quick recommendations

Fairly often I get messages from RE NQTs or from non-specialists asking for recommendations for boosting their RE subject knowledge. I thought I’d put together the four suggestions I usually make for an overview of religions and the concepts in religion generally.

 

 

Very Short Introductions

These are my go-to for a quick but academic guide to any subject. They have editions on the six major world religions but also on almost every other subject liable to come up on an RE syllabus from Socrates to Pentecostalism and India Philosophy to Augustine. Yes, some are better than others but I really like this format.

A Little History of Religion by Richard Holloway

This is an attempt at a chronological and narrative history of world religion. I, personally, really enjoyed reading it and I have even used sections of it in class with students. It’s not hugely academic but if you’re new to teaching religion it’s a good place to start.

A History of God by Karen Armstrong

Generally anything by Karen Armstrong is going to be good CPD for RE teachers whether it’s her books on Buddha or Muhammad or this zoomed-out look at the history of God in Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Armstrong, in my mind, is really good at treading the line between academic and readable and I really like her conception of religion as a whole.

Textbooks

These are usually overlooked as a good resource for teachers seeking to improve their own knowledge but I think that is misguided. It’s a commonly heard idea that teachers should be one key stage ahead of their pupils. Therefore I’d recommend to primary teachers the Knowing Religion series edited by Robert Orme. It is knowledge-heavy and that is a good thing when it’s subject knowledge you are after, I was also pleasantly surprised by how relevant these textbooks are to the 21st century experience of religion. For KS3 you can’t go far wrong with the Oxford AQA GCSE textbooks, I’ve always really liked these. For teaching KS4 and above you’re better off going for the books above because A Level Religious Studies and KS4 GCSE syllabi don’t have much in common.

 

Of course this barely scratches the surface of reading you can do but often the best advice is start somewhere and carry on from there. All the books I’ve mentioned will have a bibliography to give you further reading ideas on any topic that takes your fancy.

Teaching Beautifully: The best of what has been drawn and seen

If we are to teach, as Matthew Arnold argues, “the best of which has been thought and said” then I think it is incumbent on us, as teachers, to include in that the best of what has been, drawn, painted, illustrated and seen. Visual beauty, just like the beauty of texts, is something worth teaching for its own sake but also as an aid to both teacher explanation and our students’ cultural literacy.

When we talk about curriculum we are really talking about choice. Though we have different levels of choice over what we teach in the classroom, most of us have a fair amount of liberty in how we choose to teach and, especially, in what resources we actually put in front of our students. Of course we think about how we want our students to have rigorous, challenging and rich content to enjoy and to aid their learning but do we also stop and think about the visual beauty and value of our curriculum choices?

Mary Myatt writes in The Curriculum about giving students the opportunity to produce beautiful work. Work that is polished and refined, work that is “sophisticated, accurate, important and beautiful”. This is surely admirable, and it has definitely made me think more about the end product of my teaching but it does pose a question for me: can we expect students to create beautiful work if we pay so little attention to what is beautiful work ourselves? Unfortunately when faced with the pressures of a lack of planning time, perhaps a lack of subject knowledge and a lack of beautiful pre-produced resources teachers have a tendency to veer into the ugly. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Take Abraham and Isaac, a subject I’ve been teaching to Year 7 just this week. When I was considering what to use for the text there was little debate in my mind, of course we would read it from the Bible. With good teacher explanation the story is fully accessible to that age group and it is the most accurate and enriching way to teach the story. There are too many videos on YouTube claiming to tell the story whilst subtly adjusting it for their own theological purposes, so why not read it in the Bible?

Then I thought that I wanted students to have some visual stimulus for the story, something that would help them think about the emotions involved and the motivations for Abraham and God.  A quick Google image search for ‘Abraham and Isaac’ bought me a pretty broad selection from Renaissance art to cartoons to Simpsons memes featuring Homer about to plunge a dagger into Bart. I can see why some teachers here might choose the cartoons, they are ‘fun’ and ‘relatable’, they make a ‘dry’ story more ‘kid-friendly’. I would however argue this is misguided and that is choosing ugliness over beauty. Firstly there’s no point in trying to trick our students into believing our lesson is as ‘fun’ as a Saturday morning on CBBC or an hour spent on YouTube, they’re cleverer than that and most of them are pretty bored of being patronised by poor-quality cartoons. Secondly if we believe the Bible is relatable and accessible to students, despite being several millennia old, then why is the same not true for Renaissance paintings? These images have endured in the popular imagination for centuries in a way that Bible Storiez 4 Kidz is unlikely to do so.

 

Instead of looking at a cartoon timeline of the story my students got to have a close look at Caravaggio’s Sacrifice of Isaac, one of the most evocative, emotionally charged paintings of a Biblical scene. A painting that is beautiful in its own right but which is also a tremendous teaching tool in helping students understand the emotional depth of this story. And it’s not just the emotions on display here either, a passing knowledge of art history will help students and teachers go deeper here. After some discussion about how Abraham and Isaac felt I could get students to identify the source of light in the painting and the way that Isaac’s face is so brightly lit showing God’s approval (or perhaps just his presence). We looked at the way that the Angel’s face is in shadow because they are not God but a messenger of God and the way we could deduce God’s message by looking at where the angel was pointing to a ram.

 

I don’t know if my students will ever get to see this in the Uffizi gallery but, with a high enough quality JPEG and a decent projector I think I did a pretty good job of getting them up close to Caravaggio’s work. I hope that it is a painting that will stick with them in their long-term memory, I hope it will cement some of the abstract ideas about God and sacrifice and free will that the story of Abraham and Isaac brings up and I hope that they enjoyed the experience of looking at it and felt that I was challenging them with this because I trusted their intellectual capabilities.

Perhaps I’m wrong about this. Perhaps I have a fundamentally conservative and out-dated notion of aesthetic beauty and my students would have been better off with the cartoon. My hope is that this is the first blog post in a series about teaching beautifully and that people will want to discuss this.

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

Writing knowledge organisers – a step-by-step guide

There are plenty of blog posts and articles and book chapters extolling the virtues of knowledge organisers, that’s not what this post is. Instead this is a step-by-step guide to how I write my RE knowledge organisers.

1. Decide what knowledge you want to organise

This might feel obvious, you probably have a scheme-of-work for the half term and that feels like what needs to go onto the KO but it might be worth stopping for a second and considering what is the best chunk to try and represent here. A half-term of GCSE classes for us is about 15 lessons whereas a half-term of KS3 classes is only 6 and A Level is 9 (per strand) so if you divide by half-term you are putting wildly different amounts of information onto each KO. In my opinion the topic absolutely must fit comfortably onto one A4 sheet. If that’s not the case either you need to better condense the information or divide up your KOs differently.

2. Find a revision guide

I love using revision guides to plan my lessons and KOs. They condense down all the knowledge that’s required, usually onto a couple of pages and they focus on key words and ideas that you need to focus on in your planning. Of course textbooks, course books and other resources are absolutely required for lessons but a revision guide and the exam spec should keep you focused on the bare bones for planning a KO.

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3. Sketch out the key words and ideas

I use a planning sheet I’ve created and I fill it in as I read through my own notes and the revision guide. I try to stick to five or six key ideas (sometimes divided into two sections) and between 16 and 20 key words (fewer for KS3). This stage really helps you clearly see what the central themes are for your SoW.

4. Find a ‘flow’

The key words will need to be alphabetised but the key ideas section should flow for revision purposes. It can follow the lesson structure in your SoW but I prefer it to almost make a logical story. For example with Utilitarianism my KO starts with Act and the Hedonic Calculus then Rule and the Harm Principle then the applications to animal experimentation and nuclear weapons. Chronology can be useful here for history, foundational to applied knowledge in other subjects.

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5. Use a template to create your KO

All of my KOs look very, very similar. I use a slightly larger font for KS3 ones but I think it creates a sense of continuity to be giving students a summary formatted in the same way for every topic they cover in RE at our school. As such I stick very much to my template using tables in Word to simply divide up knowledge. I might split the table in two or four to help with chunking but the format is quite rigid and in this way it sticks to Oliver Caviglioli’s design principles of using a properly aligned grid when designing work.

6. Dual code with a consistent symbol

I use Noun Project to find the symbols for my KOs. I try, as far as possible, to be consistent in the symbols I use. When describing abstract concepts it can be hard to find a picture which is adequate. For example, I use opera glasses to show Mill’s Rule Utilitarianism which is linked to the idea of ‘higher’ pleasures – if I use that consistently in all my handouts and presentations then it is embedded with students, if I were to just use it once it is unlikely to stick and provide the benefits that dual coding does.

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7. Enjoy the process!

Let me tell you a secret: I love making knowledge organisers. There’s nothing as satisfying as sitting back and looking at the whole of a module or SoW summarised on one sheet of A4 in such a neat and attractive way. Furthermore I have found the process of making them for all of our GCSE to be really helpful for my subject knowledge, not only do I feel more aware of the key concepts and words demanded by the exam board but also less overwhelmed when I know I can condense everything into such a short amount of text.

8. Use them

I am terrible for making resources and then either forgetting or neglecting to actually use them with my students. There is no shortage of articles on how to effectively use KOs in the classroom so make sure you read them and alter your teaching to incorporate them if you’re going to take the time and effort to make them!

Links & Resources

Sweetening the apricot – how useless knowledge makes life more enjoyable

Bertrand Russell was a great proponent of ‘useless knowledge’ – knowledge that doesn’t seem to have an immediate instrumental benefit when learned but which holds a value just by dint of being interesting. It is this knowledge, he argues, that is what makes life that much more rich and makes idleness and leisure that much more enjoyable. Useless knowledge, he argues, “not only makes unpleasant things less unpleasant, but also makes pleasant things more pleasant“.

When we form our curricula and make those incredibly important decisions about what knowledge we include and what knowledge we exclude it can often seem like the most useful knowledge is the most valuable and therefore the most worthy of inclusion. The obvious problem with that is the direct correlation between the value of knowledge and economic value, something I think shouldn’t be the primary measure of value in education.

Sometimes, instead, we might consider the cultural importance of a certain piece of information instead of its usefulness and that is by no means a bad measure of value but it is also still subtlety linked to economic value. The whole idea of cultural capital is that cultural knowledge has a capital value for our students. I do not fully reject that but I think it is worthwhile to consider the pleasure, enjoyment and interest which knowledge has without the need to stress economic or cultural value.

Russell was very much in favour of this idea. Arguing that seemingly useless knowledge, in his case about the apricot he was about to eat, actually made the fruit, and by extension, his life, much sweeter.

I have enjoyed peaches and apricots more since I have known that they were first cultivated in China in the early days of the Han dynasty; that Chinese hostages held by the great King Kaniska introduced them to India, when they spread to Persia, reaching the Roman Empire in the first century of our era; that the word ‘apricot’ is derived from the same Latin root as the word ‘precocious’ because the apricot ripens early; and the A at the beginning was added by mistake, owing to a false etymology. All this makes the fruit taste much sweeter” – Bertrand Russell – In Praise of Idleness

Unfortunately, as with most opportunities to enjoy useless and idle pursuits, it has historically been the case that such things are reserved for those with the money to be leisured aid idle. I think that is a great shame and I think that, as teachers, we have the ability to share the joy and pleasure of knowledge with our students as well as the instrumental or economic value of what they learn.

Perhaps next time a student asks the inevitable question “sir, why do we have to do RE?” I might feel happier saying that it’s because it is interesting and important and enjoyable rather than saying it’s useful in various ways.