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.

Resource: Sri Lanka Attacks

As we all head back to school after Easter there’s been a lot in the news which I think RE teachers will want to talk about. Top of that list will be the attacks on churches and hotels in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday. By chance I am just about teach Year 9 about Christian persecution so I have prepared this short presentation about what’s happened a Christian response to the events and I wanted to share it.

The presentation includes some definitions, a description of Sri Lanka’s demographics, a brief description of events with images and video and a summary of quotes that might influence a Christian response.

Download: Sri Lanka Attacks PPT

Resources: AQA Religious Studies Knowledge Organisers

Over the past few weeks I’ve been in the process of making knowledge organisers for AQA Religious Studies A GCSE. You can find below the result, KOs for Buddhism, Christianity and Themes A-F from a Christian perspective.

The idea is to fit an entire topic onto an A4 sheet so these are mere overviews with many omissions. They are not designed to be used in lieu of teaching and other resources but to supplement them as a first port-of-call for students self-quizzing or re-capping knowledge. As you can see the first part is focused on key words (not a complete list but the most integral ones) followed by condensed overviews of key ideas. I have tried to dual code the ideas section using icon images from The Noun Project.

For a brief overview of the pedagogy behind knowledge organisers this article from the Chartered College of Teaching is a good place to start.

I hope you find these useful but if you do share, adapt and re-use them please link back to this blog post rather than sharing the files individually. Thank you!

 

 

 

 


Downloads

Christianity Beliefs

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Christian Practices

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Buddhism Beliefs

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Buddhism Practices

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Theme A: Relationships and Families

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Theme B: Religion and Life

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Theme C: Existence of God and Revelation

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Theme D: Religion, Peace and Conflict

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Theme E: Religion, Crime and Punishment

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Theme F: Religion, Human Rights and Social Justice

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