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.

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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