This is the 2nd post in a series on how my teaching has become more ‘knowledge rich’. The overview of the series is here.
- Planning schemes using knowledge
- Direct instruction with focus on context and linking of contexts
- Direct instruction & note taking
- Foundation knowledge & depth of knowledge
- Use of etymology & focus on keywords
This post will focus on curriculum; what we teach and how it’s organised.
To some extent my experience of teaching will be very different to most. With RE we don’t have a national curriculum with specified content. Agreed syllabuses vary in detail of what should be taught. Some give a small list of ‘themes’ without any detail about what should be taught within them. It essentially means that many Heads of RE are free to decide whatever they teach.
Also, lessons are infrequent. At the height of nonsense, I taught whole cohorts GCSE, on one lesson a fortnight. Just ponder that for a few moments if you’ve never done it. A child is off sick, you don’t see them for a month. It’s a bank holiday, you don’t see them for a month. It’s Easter holiday, you don’t see them for six weeks. Combine them and you realise you’ll be lucky to get 15 lessons a year; the equivalent to a few weeks for core subjects.
This is relevant to my teaching because now I am very lucky to be in a school that gives more time to RE than I’ve ever had before. This means I can cover more subject content and have to think more carefully about how it all fits together.
One key difference is in our schemes. I don’t really care what you call them but ours are schemes of knowledge or schemes of learning not schemes of work.
Some people write schemes that are based around a question or a statement and then the rest is activities or ideas of what the students can do in the lesson. They focus more on the student activity than what they need to learn.
Ours now take the format of a fairly detailed list of what we must teach the students. For example, instead of putting ‘The life of Muhammad’ and leaving it to teachers to decide what might/might not be included, we specify what we must teach. This includes the key vocabulary we want them all to know. It’s not differentiated. It’s the same for all students.
You might argue that this detail is down to teacher autonomy. It’s not taking this away. It’s up to the teacher ‘how’ they teach it but the important aspect is that every student in every class, no matter who the teacher, gets the same level of knowledge.
The rest of the document is relevant resources that can help explain, emphasise or be used to reinforce this knowledge. It’s about what helps them to learn the key content not what activities can fill the lesson.
Skills as knowledge
Without getting into the skills vs knowledge debate, I have rethought what I think a skill is and how it can be learnt.
I believe that skills can mostly be learnt as knowledge. That knowledge is the skill broken down into its parts. I will use the example of an essay to explain.
You could say that writing a good essay is a skill in many subjects. However if we unpick what makes a good essay we can teach it as knowledge of how to write a good essay. These might include:
- Using quotations to support points
- Logical organisation of points
- Use of paragraphs
- Selection of relevant and most important content
- A conclusion
You can then go into each of these and think what makes ‘a good one’ of these and unpick it further. For example with quotations:
- Use correct punctuation
- Correct use of ellipsis
- Reference to source/author/speaker
- Embedded into reasoning
- Linked to point being made
There is knowledge here of what correct punctuation is when using a quotation. Students can learn this as the knowledge of this skill. It is possible to teach these and to assess them fairly simply. I will discuss this more in the next blog.
Overall, students can understand the skill of writing a good essay as a collection of knowledge about how to do each element. I realise there are some elements that don’t lend itself to this method, for example writing ‘with flair’ or ‘coherence’ are much more difficult to teach. But in my experience these foundation blocks mean that all students can work on small aspects of a larger task and make small improvements which then contribute to the whole. Students will probably not just improve writing essays if you keep getting them writing essays. It’s these small parts of the knowledge that can help them to improve.
Foundation knowledge and depth of knowledge
I now teach in much more depth. In the past I would skim over key concepts or words. This was partly due to time. When you see them once a fortnight you rush through the basics of what they need to know and you have no time to do any more.
Now I have more time, especially at GCSE. I’m not ignorant of the fact that many colleagues don’t have this luxury. I have time to linger over these key things that are really important and crucially I give time to things that aren’t on the specification.
For example, the life of Muhammad. ‘Muhammad’ is on the specification but I used to do some basics of how he grew up and then what he did as the prophet. I missed out crucial details about what Makkah was like at the time, the focus on polytheism, social injustices and his final speech. Now we spend more time looking at these. If they understand these they have a much better chance of understanding things later on in the course e.g the role of women. They don’t realise it, but much of his final speech becomes the Islam specification content later on. The difference is that before I would teach the specification and link things in, now I teach these things as foundations and within context, knowing they will be applied later. This is foundation knowledge.
(As an aside, for RE colleagues, this is where I am wary of thematic schemes. They can lack the foundation knowledge needed for students to truly understand the concepts to then go on to compare and contrast.)
I also look more at things like etymology (discussed in my first post) and complex beliefs. My students seem to be fascinated the more we delve into things. I don’t find it dry as some colleagues do. It’s fascinating! What isn’t fascinating about discussing that some believe that the bread and wine become the blood and body of Jesus? They seem to love it. Mine know what transubstantiation is even if they don’t fully understand it (many Catholics don’t either!). Learning about holy mysteries are both challenging and interesting for the students.
Piecing together a curriculum
At key stage 3 we have designed our curriculum so that the knowledge of key skills is repeated over time. Their knowledge of how to argue ‘for and against’, how to use quotations to support points etc is repeated over the key stage. Their knowledge and understanding of these skills develops over the year.
We’ve also designed it so that the foundation knowledge builds over the year. We start with Judaism, then Christianity and then Islam. Not only does it help understand chronology but they can see the similarities and differences much clearer and the contexts of each of them. They probably can’t truly grasp why Jesus being a Jew was very important in his arrest and Crucifixion if they haven’t studied the mitzvot and context of Judaism at the time.
I will explain key stage 4 in more detail in the next blog which will look at pedagogy and testing.