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. 

2019-10-06 13_26_00

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’. 

2019-10-06 12_16_31

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

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

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

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

References

Matt Burnage – What Knowledge? at ResearchEd Northampton 2019

Christine Counsell – Why curriculum breadth matters at ResearchEd Northampton 2019

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

Writing knowledge organisers – a step-by-step guide

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

1. Decide what knowledge you want to organise

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

2. Find a revision guide

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

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

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.