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: Consistency not Uniformity

If there is one thing Penguin books does really well it is consistency. Take a look at their Classics series, the black band with orange and yellow text has only been around for a few decades and yet it is instantly recognisable as a Penguin classic. Generally you know from looking at it that this is an authoritative version of the text, usually with a good introduction and notes. That said the Classics range covers texts from every corner of the world and every corner of literature. It covers Anglo-Saxon chronicles, French revolutionary novels and poems about the South Downs. In that way it’s similar to our curricula across a school day, a student might drop in to Gothic novels, letters from WWII fighter pilots, Buddhist scripture and the finer points of mathematical formulae before they even break for lunch.

nXxM1FNs

Each one of those topics, just like every Penguin Classic, has its own place in history, discipline and geography but each ought to be given some consistency as they are taught to students of the same age, in the same place just as Penguin publishes their books in the same series for the same English-speaking audience.

Penguin is really adept at using cover art to give their books a context. Above we can see that the use of paintings and photographs is done judiciously, some are directly connected with the text like the portraits of Cicero and Pepys, some are contemporary works of art like the manuscript illustration from The Age of Bede and some have a more abstract, artistic link like the use of cubist art on Descartes’ Meditations or the use of Caravaggio’s Sacrifice of Isaac to illustrate the central story used by Kierkegaard in Fear and Trembling. As designers of curricula and resources we can do the same when trying to teach beautifully, we can access just as wide a range of art and illustration to bring context and concreteness to our information.

The level of consistency varies throughout Penguin’s catalogue. If we move from Classics to their recent non-fiction publishing efforts we see from the covers it is difficult to see any hint of commonality – Hatherley’s exploration of communist architecture is accompanied by a pastiche of Soviet design, McCulloch’s books on Christianity use paintings of Jesus and an angel whilst Mason’s political text incorporates bold typefaces and plain colours.

iuBoi3by

Take a look then at the spines. Although (logo-aside) it is nearly impossible to tell from the cover that these books are all published under the same imprint when you see them on a shelf the bright orange, black and white spines immediately bring them together as a series and remind you this is a Penguin book you are looking at.

dRVJpDvd

At this point I really need to clarify something: I am not advocating for the kind of school-wide enforced consistency that is prevalent in many schools and MATs. That of colour-schemes, logos in every corner and the same front used without a fault. That is corporate design and not educational design. Educational design should focus on making teaching better and making learning as frictionless as possible – of course we can, and should, consider aesthetics but what is beautiful in the corporate world is not what is beautiful in education. We should have our own aesthetic, an educational aesthetic of art and design which is consistent when it aids teaching and different when disciplinary boundaries require it.

br-row-2

Instead of school-wide consistency (which is out of most of our remits anyway) it seems like a department-wide consistency is more achievable. Although I don’t think having a ‘style guide’ in the corporate sense is particularly useful for schools it could be useful to think about how and why they are used. British Rail’s (as seen above) makes sure that passengers are never confused by different symbols, fonts and logos being used across the system and builds a visual language which has variety within it but an overarching identity. Our resources could use something similar, reducing our student’s cognitive load and adjustment time and aiding learning in the process.

In my own practice, whether I’m teaching Buddhism or Plato, I make sure to use the same symbols for reading, writing, questioning etc. When I teach Christianity I always use the same key words to refer to concepts, the same images as visual stimuli to memory and the same format when presenting Bible readings.

Here you can see slides from four different lessons on four very different subjects but with one unified visual style. You might think these look dreary but this is the bread-and-butter of my teaching and it would be adding to cognitive load to make these slides (or booklets, or worksheets) too visually arresting. I’ve spoken at length about bringing in aesthetic beauty in the form of art but that needs to be apart from the ordinary in order for it to be appreciated.

I know that often planning and resource-making is a piecemeal process that occurs over the course of several years, often with many teachers involved. For that reason thinking about design is not as simple as implementing a style guide. Few of us have the time or inclination to change the typeface on every worksheet or add symbols to every presentation but it is something we can bear in mind for the future. Since the start of the year I decided on a font, a set of symbols and a colour scheme and (as seen above) I have used that in all new resources I’ve produced (as well as in notices for my room and personal projects). To my mind this consistency does aid learning by reducing cognitive load so it is worthwhile from a cost-benefit point-of-view – you can decide for yourself if you agree.

New Year’s Resolutions: three honest reflections on my own practice

This time next week I will be welcoming back students into my classroom and I feel okay. I don’t have the knot in my stomach I did last year before I began NQT, I know a lot of my students already, I know what my classroom looks like, I know what our schemes of work are. All of that gives me the chance to reflect on my practice over the last year and come up with some New Year’s Resolutions for the 2019/20 school year. I’ve decided to be brutally honest about my own critical reflections last year in the hope it will help some people do the same. So here they are:

 

1: I will devote more time to recapping last lesson’s knowledge.

I move on too quickly. I guess it’s good to be able to identify such a big flaw in your own teaching because it means you can fix it and become a tangibly better teacher. This last year I have had my scheme-of-work set out before me with a big deadline of an assessment or the end of term and I felt stressed about fitting in all the content so I tried and move through as quickly and serenely as possible. About two-thirds of the time I was getting to the week before half-term and thinking of a video to play or some other way of filling time. That’s me being brutally honest and saying I’ve not been the best teacher but then that’s why this is top of the list of ways to improve.

This year I will spend more time on recall and re-cap at the start of lessons. Mark Enser writes here, in the first chapter of his new book, about the value of recap and recall over the previously lauded ‘starter activity’. I already use my RE version of Retrieval Roulette and I have been using recall quiz slides in KS3 for a good few months but I want to add in time after these activities to respond to the results of the quiz. It seems blindingly obvious that we should be recapping last lesson’s knowledge and explicitly showing students where today’s knowledge fits in with that but when I’ve done the register and scored the quiz and settled the class that idea seems to leak out of my brain and I just leap into the work for today.

How am I going to practically ensure I bring more recap into my lessons? Where I’ve got my lesson notes written out on A5 paper I am going to add a post-it with the key points from last lesson and stick it over the top. I’m also going to try and stick more to a semi-formal lesson plan of recall > recap > explanation > questioning > modelling > writing. I will write that somewhere and stick it on my desk to help me keep on-track.

 

2: I will stop seeing feedback as an irritation and start seeing it as an integral part of learning

Okay so continuing with the theme of me being honest about my own failings: I have failed to use feedback effectively last year. I know how important feedback is and I have spent time on feedback from assessments and other pieces of work but I have too often viewed it as an irritation standing in the way of getting on with the “proper” work of delivering new knowledge. This year I’m going to see feedback, in all its forms, as an integral part of the learning process and something to be relished, not dreaded.

In Making Every Lesson Count the purpose of feedback is “fairly straightforward. Following the identification of a ‘learning gap’, the resulting feedback should be aimed at closing this gap”. I think it’s actually quite easy to identify the learning gaps in my classes, it’s hard not to when you’re marking 30 12-mark questions or looking at the results from 28 recall quizzes but I’ve often been too hasty in getting a bit of green pen into exercise books and calling that gap closed.

This year I am going to make a note of what I think those gaps are alongside my feedback to classes so that I can explicitly see that they are closed before moving on to another form of assessment. I’m fortunate that we have a pretty sensible marking and feedback policy in my school so I’m going to utilise it and see what works best. Whole-class feedback will definitely be playing a major role as I move from marking for its own sake towards quality feedback.

 

3. I will be warm/strict

I started my NQT on the wrong note and it very nearly led to the end of my teaching career before it even started. Reverberating around my head were the words of PGCE mentors about “too much teacher talk” and “behaviour is always communication”. I made an expectations slide covered in emojis and I thought I’d be a different kind of NQT, I didn’t need to be strict because I was young and passionate about my subject and I would make my lessons so interesting that they wouldn’t have the chance to misbehave. I then spent six weeks trying to teach Year 10 set 3 Buddhist Beliefs and I crumbled.

This year I have an overarching idea behind my approach to behaviour, relationships and expectations and it’s Doug Lemov’s warm/strict approach from Teach Like a Champion 2.0: “we’re socialised to believe that warmth and strictness are opposites: if you’re more o one, it means being less of the other. I don’t know where this false conception comes from, but if you choose to believe in it, it will undercut your teaching”. He argues that we shouldn’t seek to be strict then warm or warm then strict but both, exactly at the same time. I will be photocopying these two pages and putting them in clear sight of my desk so I can more consciously and explicitly think about how I deal with poor behaviour and difficult students in the moments where that behaviour is occuring.

Some smaller resolutions

4. I will use my (significantly reduced) PPAs to actually do planning and marking and not just sit and read EduTwitter and the Guardian website

5. I will find some way in which that thirty minute afternoon form time does not just become a colossal waste of time again

6. I will try and use social media with more grace and good faith and stop seeking out people to disagree with

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.

LVCOpelz

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.

2019-08-19 09_40_12

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.

2019-08-19 10_51_44

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

A very short ‘trad’ reading list – five books for NQTs

I’m not going to spend long going into the taxonomy of ‘trad’, you can read my defence of the pedagogy and my dislike of the terminology here, The Radical Case for ‘Trad’ Education. Instead I’m just going to accept the term (and the division between trad and prog) as something that (a) really exists and (b) something that is quite a useful way of describing a certain set of ideas about teaching. If you’re curious to learn more about ‘trad’ ideas, keep reading.

I wrote recently a short thread of tweets about how reading ‘trad’ teaching books and becoming more of a ‘trad’ teacher liberated me from a lot of anxiety and disappointment about teaching during my NQT year. As a result a few people reached out and said they would like to know where to start reading about ‘trad’ ideas so here’s a very short introductory reading list. Not every book on here is 100% trad and not every author would happily use the term, they are merely the books that have had the biggest impact on my teaching this year.

A Five Book Reading List

Rosenshine’s Principles in Action by Tom Sherrington

I think if I could only recommend one book for NQTs it would be this. Firstly it is short, secondly it contains the original paper in which Rosenshine put forward his Principles of Education which are, for me, the absolute backbone of everything I do in teaching. You’ll read them and, if you’ve not come across them before you’ll most likely have the same realisation I did: I already do so much of this! What Tom Sherrington then does is show you practical ways you can improve your practice in areas like retrieval practice and presenting knowledge. For me realising I did most of this already but could do it better, more efficiently and more often was the key to regaining my confidence in teaching.

Making Every Lesson Count by Andy Tharby and Shaun Allison

For me this has to be one of the most important and frequently-thumbed books on my teaching bookshelf. It builds on Rosenshine and brings others into the mix and provides an easily adaptable formula for teaching day-to-day lessons which I have found absolutely indispensable. There is a whole series of these which make the points specific to different subject areas which are really great for very specific, subject-based advice.

Trivium 21c by Martin Robinson

For me I think I’ve always been a bit of a ‘trad’ at heart. When I came to choose my degree I went with a liberal arts degree which focused on the Great Books and the Trivium and Quadrivium of the liberal arts. Those are the ancient and medieval ideas on which Western education was based and what Martin Robinson does is reclaim them for the 21st century. You don’t have to be a head of department or deeply involved in curriculum planning to enjoy this book but it will change the way you see value in knowledge and, for me, it really re-ignited by love for passing on knowledge from the past to my students in the present day.

Understanding How We Learn by Megan Sumeracki and Yana Weinstein

At the heart of ‘trad’ pedagogy is a strong bedrock of cognitive science. I can’t say psychology or science is really my strong suit but I do think it’s important that all teachers have some awareness of cognitive science and how it affects our teaching. This guide is really nicely illustrated, with quite complex ideas simply explained and it’s relevant to the classroom teacher.

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers edited by Katherine Birbalsingh

One thing I’ve quickly learned is that you don’t have to be right-wing to be a ‘trad’ and that you don’t have to love everything about the famous Michaela School or free schools or anything else, it’s important that there’s debate and dissent within the movement for traditional teaching. That said there’s no doubt that Michaela, small as it is, has changed the way many people teach and understanding what happens there (beyond the headlines and hype) is vital. This book is an impassioned defence of traditional education and even though I disagree with chunks of it I think it’s a written by teachers with great passion for their work and it is a fascinating read.

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.

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.

The Radical Case for ‘Trad’ Education

The fundamental question I have found myself asking as an early-career teacher is this: is my pedagogy compatible with my politics? At first I was really worried the answer was no when the advocates for “trad” pedagogy seem to be die-hard Conservatives and defenders of Roger Scruton. I have since come to believe that the answer is yes and way the left has ceded an effective, radical and popular educational culture to the right has been a huge mistake. Here I try to tackle some of the key questions I get asked, and I ask myself, when I reveal my status as a left-wing ‘trad’ and present a case for why the left need to embrace, not reject, ‘trad’ pedagogy.

Firstly, I think it’s important to state that I don’t find the term ‘trad’ or ‘traditional’ to be a helpful descriptor of the ideas it’s attached to. As far as I can tell ‘trad’ teaching has two strands: a strong link between pedagogy and cognitive science and a knowledge-rich curriculum. Calling this ‘traditional’ does it a huge disservice as it immediately brings to mind Thomas Gradgrind, drill-and-kill and the cane. Sadly I have yet to find another term in broad usage to neatly describe what is meant by ‘trad’ so I find myself reluctantly using it as a self-descriptor when I fundamentally reject the reasoning for the term, ah the life of a #leftytrad.

 

Isn’t dialogic teaching inherently authoritarian and anti-progressive?

No and I think this view has done a huge amount of damage to the education of working class students in this country. One of the benefits of teaching that is backed by cognitive science is that it works.

Why should we deny children in state schools access to effective teaching in the name of progress? To my mind it is difficult to think of any rigorous topic which can be more effectively taught through discovery learning than through good teacher instruction, modelling and practice. That is not to say that schools ought to resemble the Victorian classroom filled with wax models in a regional museum with students copying out chemical equations onto slate. In Why Don’t Students Like School? Daniel T Willingham argues that though sometimes we need to teach things by rote like the symbols on the periodic table or phonetic sounds, the vast majority of our teaching should be building and adding to internal schema so that new knowledge has meaning and interest for students.

Tom Sherrington in The Learning Rainforest comes up with the idea of Mode A and Mode B teaching which I have really taken to heart in my own practice. Mode A teaching is about building the knowledge structure, modelling work, guiding practice and teacher explanation, this should be the bulk of what happens in the classroom (80+%). Mode B on the other hand includes more ‘progressive’ teaching methods such as group work, projects and creative responses but this ~20% of teaching is (a) not the primary method of delivering knowledge and (b) interwoven with Mode A teaching. This further links in to Martin Robinson’s ideas in Trivium 21c about grammar, dialectic and rhetoric and Peter Hyman’s head, hand, and heart learning. I don’t have space here to fully discuss the importance of having Mode A and B teaching but it should show that accepting ‘trad’ ideas about cognitive science and effective teacher-led lessons does not mean a total disposal of ‘prog’ ideas about creativity and discovery.

 

Isn’t a knowledge-rich curriculum inherently right-wing and reactionary?

This is certainly a fair question and one I have been struggling with for many years before I even became a teacher. Whilst the left has been hugely successful at shifting the social conversation in this country, one of the biggest mistakes, in my opinion, has been to cede so much intellectual and cultural ground to the right whilst failing to provide metanarratives of history and culture which can compete. In my own subject of RE I feel like there has been too much emphasis from well-meaning teachers in providing students with the skills to be reflective and critical without giving them material and knowledge on which to practice.

The Bible seems to be the preserve of the right with Gove doling out copies of the KJV, yet, as a Christian Socialist, I want my students to engage with the radical Christ and the truly revolutionary messages contained in, for example, the book of Acts. Through this text, through this knowledge, they can then bring in their own questions and references but without it they leave school able to ‘think critically’ but under the belief that is prevalent in society that Christianity, and Christ, are naturally regressive, right-wing and conservative. Giving students a real knowledge of the Gospels gives them the ability to make their own decisions and, in my opinion, to make the right decision that that prevalent view is nonsense.

Similarly the idea that knowledge-rich necessarily means regurgitating an existing canon or traditional set of ideas and texts is not true. Look at Adam Robertson’s great work in developing resources for teaching a radical history of the British Empire and the accompanying arguments that Labour should support this knowledge-rich but radical history teaching in their education policy. I am not necessarily advocating an explicitly biased, ideological approach in the classroom (not that there is such a thing as an unbiased, unideological approach in the classroom). Rather, I think that through curriculum choice, through access to great works, through making young people clever, we do a much better job of preparing them for political, historical, cultural, scientific and ethical discussions and decision making than we do through a skills-based education.

There is a whole further conversation to be had about the absolute imperative left-wing teachers have to provide their students with cultural literacy (and/or cultural capital) but I have a separate post about that in the works.

 

Shouldn’t we reject harsh, authoritarian behaviour management in favour of allowing young people to thrive?

I’m going to steal a phrase from conservatives here and talk about the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’. I felt very strongly that when I was at school I could get away with a lot because I was in foster care and was seen as having a ‘hard time’. Teachers adjusted their expectations around homework and behaviour and even effort in class to try and take account of my difficult circumstances. I loathed it and I especially loathe it now when I think about the hugely damaging effect it has had on my development and opportunities. I was, and still am, prone to laziness and lacking in work ethic and with no appreciation of delayed gratification, I didn’t succeed at university until I was in my 20s and I have ended up five or six years behind in my career compared to my contemporaries as a result.

Rather than giving me the boundaries and high expectations I desperately craved as a teenager I found I was able to push and push and nearly always get my own way. I seriously worry that this the route that so many SEND, pupil premium, looked-after children and, generally working class students are still on today.

Of course I do not advocate a return to the cane or the installation of a Chokey in our department base. Instead I think Doug Lemov, in Teach Like a Champion 2.0, has hit the nail on the head with his idea of a warm-strict approach. He argues that we are socialised to believe that warmth and strictness are opposites but actually effective teachers must be both. Young people do not thrive when they are bored. A classroom where there is no order and no challenge is an incredibly boring place for students to be, they can’t focus, they can’t work, they can’t achieve anything. A classroom where order is enforced with warmth and where challenge is matched by excellent teaching is a fundamentally radical environment because giving working class kids the chance to succeed is a fundamentally radical activity.

 

Isn’t ‘trad’ teaching inextricably linked to Tory education policy, academisation and right-wing commentators?

I think, if I was being honest, I would have to say “sadly, yes”. On Edutwitter sometimes I look at my feed and see Katharine Birbalsingh and Toby Young arguing on the “my side” of the debate and feel like I’m in the middle of the famed “are we the baddies?” sketch. Fortunately I know there are many teachers out there breaking this link between knowledge-rich teaching and right-wing ideology such as the self-proclaimed #leftytrad gang on Twitter including Mark Enser, Adam Robertson and Adam Boxer as well as the numerous teachers you meet in school or at union events who aren’t on Twitter and who love this pedagogy because it works and are quite happy to stay out of the proxy-political ‘debate’ altogether.

I do not find it at all helpful when people claiming to represent teachers (whether through the unions or the Labour Party) make generalisations about ‘trad’ teachers and schools which do nothing but cede the educational successes and growing popularity of these pedagogical methods to the right-wing talking heads and policy makers. It is time the unions realised that they are there to protect us as workers and stand up for education not pick fights with their own members about how they choose to teach and where they choose to work.

Overall I think it is time to challenge this political-pedagogical link between ‘trad’ teaching and conservatism and find voices who will drown out the Youngs, Goves and Birbalsinghs in promoting ideas that work and empower young people. It works both ways, traditional left-wing spaces like unions and Labour have to acknowledge that ‘trad’ teaching is here to stay and not antithetical to their aims, and left-wing ‘trad’ teachers have to be more vocal and challenge those who want to claim our methods for the right.