The case for a national curriculum for RE

As I typed the title of this blog post I had already made my first concession: I don’t think there will be a National Curriculum for RE any time in the near future. There is not the political will to overcome the significant obstacles that would be required to dismantle the current system and replace it with something fit-for-purpose. That having been said, it does not alter the strong case for a nationally standardised RE curriculum but it does mean it will have to look different and that’s why I’ve started talking about a ‘national curriculum’ instead of a ‘National Curriculum’.

How do you solve a problem like a locally agreed syllabus?

No other subject has a curriculum-by-committee which varies from county-to-county and borough-to-borough. There are great people working on great syllabi but all of that work is obscured by the inapt system they are working in. To my mind one of the most powerful and overlooked agents of ensuring educational quality and equity is consistency and the current system of dozens and dozens of RE curricula, the right to withdraw and the patchy coverage in all stages of education actively works against that for RE. There is increasingly a groundswell of teachers now who are sharing their frustrations of the inconsistencies, vagaries and eccentricities of the fragmented system of locally agreed syllabi.

As an RE community we are very clear in our messaging that all schools have a legal duty to teach high-quality RE but when someone messages me saying their SLT or their trust has taken heed of this and now they need to plan something for that legally required RE I am usually at a loss. If they are lucky they live in an area with a high-quality, well-resourced LAS (locally agreed syllabus). If they are not then I point them to Norfolk’s and to some textbooks I think are high quality and hope they’ll be able to spend hours and hours putting together something themselves. This is not a sustainable way to build a consistently high-quality national subject.

The transition chasm

Transition from primary to secondary is not easy for any subject, trust me, I’m a Year 6 teacher. That being said RE has put itself into a uniquely ruinous situation where there is a huge mis-match between what is happening at primary and what is happening in secondary. A Year 7 RE teacher will be faced with pupils who might have done seven years of high-quality, rigorous RE covering 6 world religions, philosophy and non-religious worldviews sitting in the same classroom as students who’ve never done a lesson of RE in their life. This is where the lack of consistency leads us. Similarly I might send my Year 6 students off to a dozen local secondaries where they will either have a really exciting and interesting encounter with religion and philosophy right up until Year 13 or where the subject they’ve enjoyed at primary will get mushed in with PSHE in a termly drop-down day in a 2 year KS3.

What to do?

Firstly, read Wayne Buisst’s vastly superior blog post which lays out his vision for a grass-roots curriculum entitlement: National Entitlement of Dreams.

I am increasingly hearing the refrain that we need to do something to move this conversation forward and I strongly agree. Instead of hoping that the DfE or any other organisation which seeks to ‘support’ RE teachers will produce something usable in the next five years, we ought to look into our own classroom collective and build on the incredible goodwill and generosity of our subject community to try and create something ourselves. If you think of how easy it is to find teaching materials and aid with the nationally-standardised GCSE specs, that is what I think we should aim for with KS1-4 RE.

So, the vision is thus: a Reception – Y11 curriculum map with some core material, some optional pathways and a local study building on the stellar work of RE curriculum thinkers like Richard Kueh, Dawn Cox, Louise Hutton, Kathryn Wright and many others. Once this is created and QA’d we can begin the process of compiling high-quality, freely available teaching materials for this: booklets, PPTs, reading, worksheets, planning documents, knowledge organisers and more. The more schools and teachers get involved the greater the economies of effort are, the more attractive the curriculum becomes.

A time comes when you have to stop complaining and start planting your flag in the ground. I think the time has come to say this is good RE. Drop me a DM if you’re interested in getting involved.

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.

Against Worldviews

This is a response to the concept of Religion and Worldviews in the Final Report of the Commission on RE and, to a lesser extent, the essays in the first half of Reforming RE
What is a worldview?

According to the CoRE report a worldview is:

a person’s way of understanding, experiencing, and responding to the world. It can be described as a philosophy of life or an approach to life. This includes how a person understands the nature of reality and their own place in the world.

(CoRE Report, p.4)

If that feels like a woolly description I don’t think you’re alone in feeling that. For me the term worldview and its description feels dated, as though I’m reading about it in some well-meaning 1980s attempt to make the curriculum more inclusive. Ultimately acknowledging that worldviews exists, that “everyone has a worldview” and that worldviews are rarely perfect reflections of religious doctrine or political ideology is, to me, obvious and unremarkable. I don’t see in that definition a pressing need to replace our systematic study of religious beliefs with a study of worldviews.

What about institutional, rather than individual, worldviews?

The report does provide an alternative to this individualistic worldview when it describes an “institutional worldview” as “organised worldviews shared among particular groups and sometimes embedded in institutions” (p.4). So, religions? Well, yes but also that definition does extend itself to the much-discussed ‘non-religious worldviews’. In the CoRE report those are listed as “Humanism, Atheism and Secularism”. I think that is a mistake, I would find it very difficult to lay out systematic beliefs behind atheism and secularism – they are one-dimensional worldviews which have little to offer adherents beyond a simplistic, negative view of religion and I certainly don’t think I could lay out any beliefs shared by atheists or secularists beyond ones related to religion and its place in society.

How about Humanism?

Humanism is different and is, by far and away, the most-cited and widely taught non-religious worldview. That’s not the liberal humanism of the Renaissance but the philosophy of life put forward by the British Humanist Association since 1967. British Humanism has an organised structure with a professed membership, they have a decent enough claim to shared beliefs beyond atheism but at 85,000 members they fall way behind Buddhism (261,000) as much smaller than the ‘big six’ religions in the UK.

They have definitely made an effort to be considered for inclusion in RE curricula for the last few decades, going as far as taking legal action to ensure inclusion on SACREs. I’m sure many RE teachers are familiar with the efforts made by HUK (formerly BHA) to create and disseminate resources. More power to them, I have certainly written and taught a scheme of work (available on this very blog) which looks at Humanism and don’t begrudge any faith organisation that wants to produce quality resources for free.

That said if, as Mark Chater suggests in Reforming RE we are to rid RE of the influence of the influence of faith organisations then surely we must resist the same move to influence non-religious worldviews by an organisation that represents only 0.3% of all non-religious people in the UK. It seems they are far from above the “unseemly and self-interested competition for space in the classroom” (p.70) that Chater describes.

What other non-religious, institutional worldviews could be studied?

That leaves me with a big question then: aside from Humanism with it’s representation of 0.3% of non-religious people what other non-religious worldviews warrant inclusion to make up for the fact that Worldviews is now contrasted alongside Religion as half of our subject’s name?

It’s a good thing Reforming RE has a chapter devoted to this very question by Luke Donnellan. Except that the chapter, entitled “What does it mean to teach about non-religious worldviews” talks only of Humanism once it has dismissed atheism and secularism as possible systematic worldviews. Okay, how about the CoRE report? “Humanism, existentialism and Confucianism are examples of suitable non-religious worldviews […] while nationalism, global capitalism and Communism are examples of worldviews which would not be included” (p.75). I am pretty unconvinced that a study of existentialism or Confucianism would help students to understand the worldviews of the 99.7% of non-religious people not covered by Humanism. This could perhaps be an argument for improved PHSE or citizenship but I am yet to feel like it’s a coherent argument for a fundamental reform of RE.

Where does this leave us?

At this point I really have to put my head in my hands and feel a sense of despair. I really hope that the grand reform to RE which the report is supposed to herald doesn’t just look like one half-term of Humanism in Year 8 and a change of name.

I do not see a fundamental difference between religious education and “religious worldviews” – that is partly because of how ill-defined and woolly “worldviews” is but more importantly it is because I don’t really think a lot of work and thought that’s gone into knowledge-rich, culture-rich, ambitious and academic RE by the likes of Mary Myatt, Andy Lewis, Robert Orme, Dawn Cox and Christine Counsell is reflected in, or benefited by, Worldviews.

It is difficult to tell whether Worldviews is a well-intentioned throwback to the 1980s that lacks any real meaning because of RE’s need to avoid conflict, confrontation and difficult decisions or whether Worldviews is a Trojan Horse through which the study of religion in schools can be diluted and then dismantled in favour of an entirely secular new subject. The report gives the first impression, the first half of Reforming RE gives me the second.

I have a great deal more to say about the early chapters of Reforming RE and I will tackle that in a later post. For now I will continue to call myself a teacher of RE, I will resist any attempts made to replace RE with Religion and Worldviews or even Worldviews and I will continue to feel disappointed and angry about the fudge that Worldviews has become. The comments are open.

 

Image is Magdalen from the Cherwell by Robert Tavener

Seeds, Roots and Branches: a model of enquiry in RE

What is the enquiry of RE? It’s a question I’ve been wrestling with a lot lately. I think that in order to move on from such a fundamental question you do, sooner or later, have to plant your flag in the ground and say “this is what I am doing”. In that spirit here is what I think we are enquiring into when we enquire into RE: we seek to understand the worldviews of others by developing an understanding of the concepts that underpin them, by building a knowledge of the theology and philosophy that deepens and diverges within those concepts and by looking at the ways in which those concepts are expressed through religious practice. This blog post is an attempt to put forward this three-stage disciplinary enquiry in RE and show how a curriculum model can be built around it.

I’m not sure if I should apologise in advance for the metaphor that follows. My experience tells me that metaphors in teaching have a tendency to oversimplify what is being discussed but then I also know the power of metaphors to make complex ideas easy to understand and I wouldn’t be the first person to torture a metaphor for the benefit of education. 

The model I want to put forward for this RE curriculum is that of a well-managed forest enclosure. Imagine a few acres of trees, mature and healthy, well spaced and deep-rooted. Each tree represents a different enquiry into a religious concept – the concept itself is the seed which begins the growth, the roots are the theological and philosophical knowledge which that concept is grounded in and the branches and leaves are the practices which express the concept within that faith. The whole tree becomes the answer to an enquiry question, the kind of question which history teachers have spent decades discussing as the basis of a series of lessons. It is a form of disciplinary knowledge that I think we should use as a model for developing the discipline of RE.

Though we are now imagining that mature plantation of trees we must also remember that 12 years ago we had to stand here on barren ground and plant the first seed. As ever with the curriculum: when we are at the beginning we must plan toward the end and when we are at the end we must always keep in mind the beginning.

 

The Seed – a concept

At the heart of this enquiry model will be the concept. I do not think anyone has ever described what a concept in RE looks like better than Mary Myatt in her blogpost 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”

In this metaphor concepts are the seed from which the roots and branches of knowledge can grow and flourish. Part of planning out the curriculum forest we will grow means deciding, as early on as possible, what concept enquiries we will plant and nurture. There is no point in trying to fill your acre with forty saplings, they will never grow to be happy trees. Instead you have to be realistic with yourself and look at the curriculum time you will have to decide how many religions you can explore and how many concepts within each religion you can do justice to. 

We can use the concept as the foundation for our disciplinary enquiry. An initial series of enquiries into Christianity might focus on the triune God, sacrifice, love and the soul. In Buddhism perhaps the seeds you will grow will be the concepts of suffering, impermanence, moderation and enlightenment. From here you can begin to plan out an initial enquiry: why did God send down his son only for him to be executed by the Roman state? What does it mean for a Buddhist to be able to end suffering? Do Christians need to understand the Trinity in order to believe in it? There is more to be said on formulating enquiry questions in RE.

 

Roots – the theology

scripture – theological writing – heresies and schisms – religious leaders – parables – myths – philosophy 

From this point, once the seed has been planted, a strong root system is needed to support and sustain the tree that will grow. What is the disciplinary route of enquiry in RE? It is not necessarily a chronological one but it should have some internal logic to it. I would argue that nearly every enquiry should start with a grounding in scriptural sources of authority – without that familiarity it would be incredibly difficult to accurately answer the enquiry questions we are asking. Even within scripture there is often an internal logic to follow – should we begin an enquiry into the nature of God with the Old Testament and work forward or with Paul and work backward? 

When we’ve laid the first set of roots in scriptural study then we can develop deeper roots by looking at theological writings and the writings of religious leaders. In Christianity we can go to Aquinas, Augustine and Julian to deepen our thoughts on God. Then our roots can begin to diverge, there is a great value in teaching schisms, heresies and splits within religions. Arian, Luther, the Council of Nicea, even Paul deciding on what to advise the early Churches. All of these represent turning points where one option was seen as being correct and another incorrect (or at least divergent). We can bring those differing beliefs to our enquiry alongside the interpretation of scripture.

In order for a healthy tree to develop the roots need to go deep and wide. You might choose to study a piece of scripture for an entire lesson but then next lesson do you continue to go deep into scripture and find supporting stories that will bring more depth to the concept or you may choose to bring in four divergent voices to allow students to compare and contrast differing viewpoints on the concept? Striking the right balance is tough but absolutely necessary in order for students to be able to answer the enquiry question with the optimal level of depth and breadth.

 

Branches – the practices

prayer – meditation – ritual – visual art – poetry – pilgrimage – architecture – festivals – liturgy – social action

Above the ground, what we see of the tree, is what grows from those roots. The trunk, branches and leaves of religious practice. And I mean practice in its broadest sense from traditional forms of practice like worship to the exploration of religious ideas in visual culture and the ways in which religious people enact their faith in their everyday life. 

Learning about these different forms of practice in the light of theological knowledge about the concepts behind them is the apotheosis of RE. In some cases knowledge of practices can be used to enrich an ongoing enquiry: the use of light in Renaissance religious paintings can help to illustrate Christian ideas about God. In other cases the knowledge of practices will be an answer to a secondary enquiry question: “and how does this influence [religious people]?”.

Ultimately either way students will be growing their understanding of the place of religion in both the contemporary world and the historical-cultural world and here is where the metaphor comes to fruition. The enquiry question can now be answered with depth, with breadth and with illustration and an understanding of influence. The tree, now it has grown to maturity, will have a beauty and a value of its own and we can take time to step back and admire it but it will also begin to produce fruit or berries or pinecones or catkins and each of these contains seeds that can find their way into the soil to grow another tree. 

In this way the curriculum grows naturally. It is the beginning of a sequence and from here we have to plan our way forward to that end point of the mature forest enclosure. Sometimes we will plant entirely new seeds which are unfamiliar, sometimes we will revisit growing saplings, sometimes we will allow a tree to grow where seeds have naturally fallen.

Thank you for bearing with this metaphor. It is a very preliminary model at the moment and I want to take time to think about it further and go deeper into the meaning of disciplinary enquiry in RE but I hope it gives some shape to the discussion that is being had at the moment.

 

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

What’s the point in RE?

I was really fortunate to be involved in a PhD project this year where the object was to interview RE teachers and gain an insight into the thought processes at work behind their teaching. As a result I got the opportunity to sit down a few times and have quite lengthy and in-depth discussions around my subject and my teaching with someone who was happy to listen and question me on my answers.

One question kept returning to me though and it is probably the most basic question anyone can ask as a teacher: why do we teach the subject we teach? In some ways I feel very jealous of teachers who can have quite straightforward and perhaps even instrumental answers to that question. Why learn French? So I can speak French and read French writing. Why learn mathematics? So I can be numerate. I know that those are wildly simplistic responses and that people in those subjects have written passionately about the many, many reasons they teach what they do but it’s hard to come up with such a simplistic answer for RE.

I know what some of the stock answers are which find a lot of currency amongst RE teachers on Facebook and elsewhere: community cohesion, stimulating “critical thought”, tackling bigotry and misconceptions, giving students new lenses through which to view the world, creating empathy. Whilst I don’t disagree with those as happy outcomes of RE (for the most part) I would be dishonest if I said any of those were my own answer to the question of why I teach the subject.

I dislike the idea that RE exists as an adjunct to SMSC (social, moral, spiritual and cultural) education and, even worse, the idea that it can be the sole provider of it on the curriculum. I know it plays a really important role in any school’s SMSC provision and the many schools that don’t offer any kind of RE past KS3 are failing in their duties to create a broad, balanced and diverse curriculum but I also feel that those students are missing out on more than just SMSC or ‘character’ education. I feel like they’re missing out on knowledge which justifies it’s presence on the curriculum in other ways besides.

Here I must confess that I’m not an objective arbiter of what RE is or why it is important. I am a Christian and I come from a background of theology and philosophy and the liberal arts where knowledge has a value in and of itself because thought and intelligence and engagement with culture is valued in and of itself. That said I don’t think I teach RE because I’m religious and I don’t think I would stop teaching RE if I lost my faith. I love teaching Christianity because it is fascinating and beautiful and completely beguiling when you dig down deep into its foundations and the way it has influenced people for millenia. I feel the same way about Buddhism and any other religion that I get to dive into and I feel the same way about the chances I get to bring art history or architecture or natural history or philosophy or history into my classroom. That’s not to say there’s not something uniquely and wonderfully odd about teaching religion but I think that is probably the case for all subjects.

Ultimately I can’t give you a neatly parcelled answer as to why I love teaching RE and the fact is that this post could easily have become a 6,000 word essay on the historic divides in religious education and the different places people place value. I hope you agree that no-one particularly wants to read my PGCE essay on that topic.
To me it’s difficult to think of any other subject area where the breadth of curricula is so wide (especially at KS3) and that’s probably a big part of it. Giving students a religious literacy that will help them get a richer experience out of life, art and literature is a big part of it. Re-telling the myths and stories which have been re-told for thousands of years and taking my students to the same questions is really special as well.

Matthew Arnold famously says that culture is “the best of what has been thought and said” and I think that not only does that include a lot of religious thought but also, without an understanding of religion, it’s unlikely our students will be able to understand that thought and speech as well as they should.

Resources: Bible Quote Posters

I wanted to share some posters I’ve designed (with the help of Canva) to go up in my classroom. I’ve always had quotes up on the wall but I thought it would be good to have something a bit more modern and visually pleasing.

Download the posters

Blessed are the peacemakers

Do not be overcome by evil

Faith by itself

For I was in prison

For whenever you eat this bread

Forgive us our sins

Go and make disciples of all nations

God created man in his own image

God saw all that he had made

I will give thanks to you

Love your neighbour

The word became flesh