Scaffolding extended writing; a step-by- step process

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You may hear people say ‘teach to the top and scaffold up’ but what does this mean? This blog will look at how I do this with extended writing of a particular type. If you are teaching a mixed attainment group you need to ensure that those that may struggle with writing or applying knowledge in extended writing can be as successful as those that are fluent.

This process cannot be completed in one lesson or last minute before it is needed e.g. two weeks before an exam. It is a long term learning process and needs to be given significant time to each step.

Here is an example of how I’m developing this with AQA GCSE Religious studies evaluations questions.

Question types

I’ve chosen to focus on the longest, high mark question on our paper. It’s classed as an evaluation question although the exam board’s definition of what is accepted as evaluation is not the same as mine!

  • Choose the question type/command word that you want to focus on

Timing

We have a three year GCSE so we leave this question until year 10. This is so that they have developed confidence in their knowledge and other questions in year 9. They don’t need to do everything at once but they do need to do it early enough to be able to work in to long term memory. You’ve probably seen how subject knowledge is used for retrieval however it is important that we do the same with these ‘skills’ or knowledge of how to complete exam questions. Leaving this until the mocks in year 11 isn’t advised.

  • Think when it is best to introduce the different types of question

Know what makes a good answer

In this case I am using an exam question however knowing what makes a ‘good’ answer goes beyond a mark scheme. In some ways you need to decide a style of answer that you want students to produce that fulfils the mark scheme but gives students a model style or structure to follow.

I don’t give them a mark scheme. They are often a complex set of subjective, wordy criteria that in themselves would require a while to explain. Tell them what the examiner is looking for using language and examples that they will understand. Otherwise it is unnecessary cognitive overload.

Some people use mnemonics to support students in doing teaching a structure e.g. FARMER, ABCD, SONIC etc This has its pros and cons. You need to decide what is best for your students. It is important to remember that at the beginning stage it is better to over support and take it away than to under support. However, if you use a set structure it should allow high attaining students not to be limited and to be able to go beyond the structure.

In the past I have trialled using additional structures however we’ve now just used the bullet points in the question as a guide.

  • Read the mark scheme (if GCSE/A Level) so you know what is expected
  • Decide on the style/structure you will present

Modelling

The whole process is about modelling through several steps that go on over a long period of time. Modelling then merges into practice through scaffolding.

Reduce cognitive load (Use a nonsense question)

We start by modelling an evaluation question with a nonsense question. This will not be appropriate or necessary for some students/schools. Some teachers that teach in some schools may not understand why you would do this. You know your students. We use it because it takes aware the cognitive load of using subject content at the same time as exploring what an evaluation question requires.

We use an example of comparing chocolate bars because they all have the prior knowledge so don’t have to worry about this. It gives them confidence as they almost forget what they are doing; a complex evaluation. Anything we can do along the way to make it seem ‘easy’ is worthwhile in my opinion but without reducing the task of what they have to do.

In this case, it is also a good way of differentiating between their opinion and an analysis of the chocolate bars. Whilst the exam board have said that their opinion is acceptable I don’t think that evaluation is their opinion of the topic, its their analysis of the arguments used. I think that this will prepare them much better for A level than just saying their opinion is enough.

  • Consider how you can reduce cognitive load during modelling

Start with an easy question

When looking at the first ‘real’ example of a question, make sure that is an easy question in terms of the phrasing. Choose a topic that they have just done and you know they’ve all understood. As above this ensures their thinking is about the application and writing process and not about knowing the content, reducing cognitive load.

  • What would be an ‘easy’ question to start with?

Planning – Annotate the question

I begin with looking at the question with the students. We annotate the keywords with notes & linked ideas using prior knowledge and highlight the important phrase/s which are at the heart of what the question is asking. I model this on my visualiser and they copy.

The whole time I am narrating my thoughts with them (metacognitive talk).

This is part of the planning process that I want them to do every time they answer an evaluation question.

  • How can you teach students to annotate the question that will help them process what is needed?

Share a good example

Once we’ve planned the answer together I explain how this would be used to write a full answer. I write a simple model answer. We then read together and use highlighters to pick out the different aspects of the answer that fulfil the requirements. I use phrases like ‘what have I done in this paragraph?’ What connectives have I used?’ and ‘What is this sentence an example of?’ to help them see that I have put in everything we said is needed in a good answer.

If the question has extra details as our 12 mark does on what is expected, this can be used a tick list of what they can see in the answer and where.

Using good examples can carry on throughout the process. Either teacher or student written. Especially focusing on common errors/omissions.

First time alone……

So they now know what the question type means, what it is asking them, how to read the question, how to plan, how to structure and what a good one looks like. It’s now time for them to have a go at writing one themselves. I would not get them to do all these things by themselves in the first case. We do the following together which is the scaffolding:

  • Read and annotate the question
  • Allow them to use all their notes (subject content AND the notes they’ve made on how to answer the question including the model answer)

In this case I’m getting them to write an answer by themselves with maximum support. I have reduced the cognitive load of the process down to one aspect of the task. I want to see if they’ve understood how to transfer the planning into a structured answer. Nothing else.

The first time they write I give them all as much time as they need. I want to see that they can do the writing not that they can write quickly in this first instance. Timing comes later.

Don’t use marks or grades

Those of you that know me know that I don’t think we should use marks and grades on student work. I think during this process it is even more vital that we don’t. It is a huge challenge for some students to get into this process; the psychological effects of using marks/grades can potentially undo all the work of developing confidence.

Instead, feedback using the exact same criteria that you taught them at the start that are included in a good answer.

For feedback we give whole class feedback and use a simple tick sticker for what they need to do to improve.

They then improve their work.

They can then have this improved answer in front of them the next time they write an answer to check they complete the things they missed last time.

Praise & develop confidence

It’s so important that along the way you praise students for including the things that they’ve done well. This is why marks are unhelpful. Praising a student for getting ‘8’ is nonsense. Instead, ‘well done for annotating your question and using the bullet points as a tick list’ is promoting the skills you want them to develop.

Metacognitive talk

This is what I have been focusing on with my coach this year. We are both looking at how the EEF Metacognition report can help us with preparing students for writing extended answers.

We found that we both do much of what it says anyway. For example, explaining our thinking whilst annotating or discussing what makes the answer a good one. But one particular aspect that I know I need to develop is pupil-pupil talk.

To try this out in this context, I tried the following. On the practice question when I first got students to plan and annotate by themselves I gave them a few minutes to do this by themselves. I then asked them to discuss with their partner what they’d annotated and what they were going to use as their ‘different view’. I couldn’t circulate during this however I tried to listen in. In non-COVID times it is the perfect time to move towards certain students to hear what they discuss. If needed you can prompt and ask additional questions to help their thinking.

I plan on using pupil-pupil talk more in this process including getting them to talk about what they’ve done and why etc

Scaffolds

So in extended writing, for most subjects we can use these scaffolds:

  • Using notes for subject knowledge
  • Having a model answer (different topic) in front of them
  • Having one of their previous answers in front of them to remind them of things they forgot last time
  • A structure sheet or writing frame using simple section prompts
  • Going through the question & knowledge requirements together at the start
  • Going through the structure together at the start
  • Timing – allowing as much time as needed vs set timing
  • Metacognitive talk – teacher-pupil, pupil-pupil

These are the things that you might start with, depending on your students, and gradually take away. If you have a mixed attainment group you can make the use of notes/model answer/writing frame optional for a few of the practices. You need to be responsive to your students’ needs on this.

To me these are ‘differentiation’.

Extending thinking…..

Whilst scaffolding supports students to access writing a good answer, you may teach students that can go beyond a standard structure. To me, this is also ‘differentiation’.

Show answer variations

There are many ways to answer the same question. With fluent writers or high attainers you can show them how there are several ways to approach a question, whether that be through selection and analysis of subject content or indeed structure. Whilst our simple format ensures that students can access full marks in the exam, it may not be the most sophisticated of ways of arguing. More able students will be able to write in more of a debate style presenting arguments and counter arguments more fluidly.

They may also be extend their use of language. We use a simple ‘strong’ ‘weak’ phrasing in the initial stages but going through possible variants ensures that those that can process can use to make their writing more fluent.

Discuss possible questions along the way

When you teach new topics, point out how the content my be used in the specific type of question. ‘This could be a 12 mark question on this topic’. It reminds them of how the content could be assessed in this question format. As they develop confidence you can as them ‘what might be a 12 mark question on this topic?’.

Practice, practice, practice

So, the process does not stop after the first step. Each time you get the students to complete this type of question take some scaffolding away or give optionality. You can also make the questions more complex.

Students don’t always have to plan and write a whole answer. You can get them to practise one part of the process. Sometimes I get students to just annotate and plan their answer without writing the answer.

From introduction of the questions to the first time they complete an answer fully independently may be several months In fact for us it will probably be their year 10 mock exam in March. Some might have chosen to be independent by then but others may still be using prompts.

So teaching to the ‘top’ here means that I teach them all ‘how’ to get full marks on a 12 mark answer. It doesn’t mean that they will but they all have the knowledge of what it means.

Here are the steps and how they link to Rosenshine’s principles of instruction and the EEF metacognition report.

StepRosenshine’s principles of instructionEEF Metacognition
Use an easy questionLimit the amount of material students receive at one time.
Obtain a high success rate
the
strategies are mostly applied
in relation to specific content
and tasks, and are therefore
best taught this way
Planning/annotatingGive clear and detailed instructions and explanations.
Think aloud and model steps
A series of steps—beginning
with activating prior
knowledge and leading
to independent practice
before ending in structured
reflection
Modelling by the teacher is
a cornerstone of effective
teaching; revealing the
thought processes
of an expert learner
helps to develop pupils’
metacognitive skills.
Share a good exampleThink aloud and model steps
Provide models of worked-out problems
Modelling by the teacher is
a cornerstone of effective
teaching; revealing the
thought processes
of an expert learner
helps to develop pupils’
metacognitive skills.
Don’t use marks/gradesProvide systematic feedback and correction
Praise & develop confidenceObtain a high success rate
Metacognitive talkThink aloud and model steps
Ask students to explain what they have learned.
Teachers should support
pupils to plan, monitor, and
evaluate their learning
Promote and develop
metacognitive talk in
the classroom
ScaffoldsGuide students as they begin to practise.

Obtain a high success rate
Set an appropriate level
of challenge to develop
pupils’ self-regulation
and metacognition
Extending thinkingSet an appropriate level
of challenge to develop
pupils’ self-regulation
and metacognition
Discuss possible questions along the wayProvide models of worked-out problemsPromote and develop
metacognitive talk in
the classroom
PracticePresent new material in small steps with student practice after each step.
Monitor students when they begin independent practice
Provide a high level of active practice for all students (particularly those struggling to acquire the skill being taught).
Prepare students for independent practice
Explicitly teach pupils
how to organise and
effectively manage their
learning independently

Disciplinary discourse: Using subject vocabulary

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“Find the solution”

“Start your argument…..”

“Here is a theory……”

“What is a cell?”

What do these teacher phrases have in common?

They all have different meanings depending on the context, domain or the subject that the student is studying. Students, particularly at secondary school, will be faced with a huge amount of new vocabulary where they may already know a meaning however are unaware that it has another or multiple other meanings when used within a particular subject or discipline.

This blog is some musings on what this might mean for teachers. I’m not expert on this just a teacher sharing some thoughts and working some things out.

Disciplinary discourse

We want our students to think and communicate effectively within our discipline . In science we want them to think, talk and write like a scientist. Or in history, to think, talk and write like a historian.

But what does this mean and how can we teach it?

This blog will look specifically at language. Using language and subject specific vocabulary is part of disciplinary discourse and ‘making meaning’ within a subject.

An example based on science but can be applied to all subjects.
Linder, Cedric. (2013). Disciplinary discourse, representation, and appresentation in the teaching and learning of science. European Journal of Science and Mathematics Education Vol. 1, No. 2, 2013. 1. 43-49.

Each subject or discipline has its own rules and ‘language games’ (cf Wittgenstein 1958) that are played within it. In simple terms, students need to learn the ‘rules of the game’ that they’re currently playing and that these rules may differ when they work in different subjects. We need to be aware of these and be explicit about them with our students. This includes the vocabulary used within the discipline. Disciplinary literacy is a crucial part of their understanding of a subject.

The range of disciplines we initiate students into can be a cognitive challenge to our students, especially coming to secondary school having 10 different teachers speaking 10 different ‘languages’. This is a kind of disciplinary ‘code-switching’. They need to ‘code-switch’ between the language they use in each lesson and get their heads into the discipline they’re in. So what can we do to initiate and support them into the disciplinary discourse of our subject?

Know our disciplinary/subject examples

The problem in some cases is that subject specialists may know their vocabulary but may not appreciate that the same word means something different in another subject.

I asked Twitter for examples in other subjects and was overwhelmed with responses from every subject.

Here are some common examples for different subjects:

SubjectExample
Artmedia, tone
MFLmasculine, feminine
Sciencelaw, theory
Mathssolution, factor, translate
REargument, theory
Historysource, period, primary
Geography source, place
Computing/ITcell, redundancy
Dramawings, projection
Design Technologybias, volume
Businesscapital
Musictexture
Sociologysocialising, agency
Psychology random, affect
Economicsscarcity, capital
Englishtext, play, voice

See the thread here:

This thread also had some great discussion around some of the vocabulary used in different subjects
Temporary definitions

I was having a discussion with a trainee recently about giving students subject specific vocabulary and how the definition that they had learnt at university level was probably not going to work with year 7. So whilst it is important for us to use disciplinary vocabulary, it is also important that it is used contextually and is appropriate for students to understand it at the level that is needed for their current level of study. Roy Watson-Davis calls this ‘access language’. Sometimes we need to simplify things for younger students that might not actually be 100% accurate for high level study. I don’t think this is an issue. We can be really clear to students on this “I’m going to tell you a definition of X that I have simplified. If you go on to study this further you will learn a more complex definition”

Knowledge then understanding or understanding then knowing?

simple exposure to disciplinary discourse is not enough for students to experience disciplinary ways of knowing; students need practice in using disciplinary discourse to make meaning for themselves…..” p21 Airey and Linder (2009)

Knowing the vocabulary does not necessarily lead to true understanding or full engagement in disciplinary discourse. Students can use vocabulary fluently but still not have a complex understanding of how it works and links to other concepts (‘discourse imitation’). A bit like me and some of the concepts in this blog! Airey and Linder (2009) call these ‘learning slogans’ (from DiSessa)

In my subject at GCSE we get students to essentially rote learn a set of definitions before we teach them. So when we then teach the concepts they already have a ‘instant’ definition that they can ‘pin’ their new understanding to. Anecdotally, I think that this is the best way for our students to learn the new vocabulary. I think it reduces the cognitive load when teaching a new concept. They will make a connections between the words they’ve learnt as the definition and the deeper meaning of the word. Airey and Linder (2009)call this an “imitation-revelation learning trajectory”..

Students should be expected to initially make “fuzzy” meaning—that is their discourse will initially be a poor imitation of disciplinary discourse, but, with appropriate guidance, gradually this will spiral towards something closer to the discourse of the discipline (they achieve discursive fluency

Be explicit

We should openly tell students that a word has multiple meanings. It may be useful to start with any meaning they already have. Possibly compare multi-disciplinary meanings if you’re confident in alternative meanings. Either give them or get them to write clear definitions.

Use etymology

Using etymology where possible may help. If students understand the root of a word they may then be able to see how there are varying definitions. For example, the term ‘cell’ used in science and computing, is from from Old French celle or Latin cella, meaning ‘storeroom or chamber’. If students know this foundation meaning they can see how it relates to the specific disciplinary example.

Why bother?

If students understand that a discipline has its own vocabulary and discourse it will help them to understand the epistemological similarities and differences between subjects; it helps them understand ‘how things work’.

Using this vocabulary promotes discursive fluency. We want students to be literate in our subject. This means using disciplinary language confidently. Gradually learning disciplinary vocabulary allows a students to build up their knowledge and in turn they should be able to discuss the knowledge more fluently. They become literate in the subject’s discourse and can hold a relatively complex discussion using this vocabulary and understanding what someone else means when they use it. The knowledge and use of this domain specific vocabulary becomes a foundation for their learning.

Using disciplinary vocabulary promotes the academic nature of study. If we avoid using it because we feel it is too challenging or even boring, we aren’t presenting a subject in its true light. Teachers’ jobs are to take an academic discipline and make it as accessible but challenging as possible for students. We’re not expecting them to be university level academics in year 7 but introducing them to this discourse makes them part of the discipline from early on.

There’s also no space in this blog but we should also be aware of how our subject’s disciplinary discourse affects how we want students to write and present information. Another blog.

Questions for teachers

  • Do we know which words in our subject have multi-disciplinary meanings?
  • How do we introduce these words to students?
  • How do we model and repeat use of these words?
  • What opportunities do we give for students to practise using disciplinary vocabulary in a subject?
  • How do we ensure that all colleagues within a subject area use the same definitions and consider effective processes for introducing them?

A week in the life of…a visualiser in RE

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I thought I’d share how I use my visualiser in my RE lessons. It was actually over a fortnight but that doesn’t sound so punchy.

I use my visualiser for: admin explanation/modelling, model answers, modelling presentation/layout, sharing student answers, showing texts/artefacts, writing notes for students to copy, making expectations clear…..

It is important to say that these are all snapshots. The images work alongside much explanation/discussion & nuance that pictures may not show.

This is my visualiser.
It's an old model  (Lumens Ladybug) but I think it's a good one. It has a light, takes pictures & videos and auto-focuses. It’s also bendy so can move to any angle/height.

Year 11 GCSE

For some topics at GCSE we use guided note booklets. I write the notes in the booklet, with the students, under the visualiser.
Another example of note taking that we've discussed and added to together.

Year 11 have their mock exams this week so I spent 10 minutes reminding them what the papers look like....outside the religions papers...
Outside the themes papers reminding them to answer the correct themes!
Inside the themes paper which is presented differently to religions
Reminding them of each question's requirements.
And how to write their themes answers in an answer booklet.

Showing them how to write the number and leave gaps is important.

The more we can reduce anxiety about the administration of the exam, the more students can focus on content and formatting answers.

Year 7

I use an exercise book for my year 7 classes where I write in it and model everything we do including admin, taking care of a book and modelling presentation expectations.

I used the visualiser to remind students of the notes we've already made. I wrote these 'live' under the camera during the lessons.

These are useful if a student was absent as I put these under the camera at the start of the lesson for them to copy if appropriate.
Reminding students of previous notes.

When writing the title and dates etc I emphasise my expectations of presentation. Showing students this myself makes it clear.
I showed year 7 these rosary beads under the camera so they could all see them. We were talking about Ninian Smart's 7 dimensions, 'material'.
This was showing year 7 how to complete their homework trackers inside their books.

Modelling ensures they write the right thing in the right place.
I sometimes use a model structure on a writing frame for students that may need some support in their extended writing. In this case I modelled a simple answer to help some students see how to use their knowledge.
I explained my thinking as I wrote.

Year 9 GCSE

This is a GCSE style question that I went through with my year 9 classes before they attempted an answer.
We discussed the requirements for the question and what it was asking, it is very simple as I was focusing on them being able to structure their answer rather than knowing content.
Student answer* - We had a discussion of what made this a successful answer. Using the visualiser means they can all see a good format and successful structure.
Student answer* - We had another discussion around the successes and the omission of something I'd asked them to include.
I give 'whole class feedback' on common errors/omissions/praise etc. Our 'orange stickers' are quick feedback on an exam question and the next steps the student needs to take. It was the first 5 mark question for year 9 so I explained what it all meant. They then make individual improvements. 
When introducing a new admin system I use the visualiser to show exactly how I want it to be used.
We completed the first few lines so they could do this together and hopefully do it independently next time.
Have you ever asked students to put a label on a polypocket and write their name on the label? I have, without modelling it and have ended up with labels all over the place and tiny writing that needs a magnifying glass to read! I modelled this simple task so they can see exactly what I'm looking for.

Key stage 4 Core RE

This is a key stage 4 core RE sheet. We use a predesigned sheet per topic and students are required to fill it in as instructed. Sometimes I write on an absent student's sheet so the class can copy notes.

*Student permission to share here obtained.

Multidisciplinary argumentation in RE

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I was lucky enough to teach A level Critical Thinking a few years ago because it taught me so much about argumentation that I didn’t know. It has heavily influenced my practice in RE especially with regards to assessment.

OCR Critical Thinking paper 2008 – Structure of an argument

One aspect of the course was that students had to know argument structures and the function of each element of an argument. It is this knowledge that heavily influenced me when ‘life without levels’ came along 7 years ago. I started with a design for RE based on argumentation. It was far too complex for key stage 3 based on the time we had and was too challenging for the students. However, it has been constantly refined each year to something appropriate and more manageable.

Writing arguments

I think that students should be able to construct simple arguments to communicate substantive knowledge. I prefer this to be an extended piece of writing but it doesn’t have to be.

I think students should know the basics of an argument; reasons and a conclusion. They can then add evidence to support their reasons which can come in several formats including quotations, statistics and examples. They can then begin to assess the quality of reasoning to begin counter arguments. This is a higher level skill that we do some of in our core KS4 when looking at the logic of philosophical arguments. We teach a simple version of assessing reasoning at GCSE in the evaluation questions when we look at the possible strengths and weaknesses of reasons presented in an argument.

If you are in a school with high attaining pupils you could certainly also begin to teach students logical fallacies that are a key element of weak reasoning. This could also include analysing analogies. Some of this is part of A level philosophy courses but can be adapted to start earlier in the curriculum.

Disciplinary knowledge

Now that my thinking is turning towards the multidisciplinary nature of RE I have been considering how important argumentation is and how we can use it as a foundation for the development of disciplinary knowledge and in turn, assessment.

Whilst I don’t think that our students should be writing academic papers I do think that we should keep in mind what we know about how theologians, philosophers and social scientists write in the field of production. Their writing shows the type of substantive knowledge they use and the disciplinary knowledge used in their discipline. Richard Kueh (2019) calls this the “sum total of the tools, norms, methods and modus operandi of the way in which humans go about exploring a field of human knowledge that has its own set of conventions”.

In our field of reproduction, in school, we should reflect how our subject ‘works’ by teaching students some of these tools and methods.

But what are they? I’ve not seen much written about this for key stage 3/4 so I’ve put together what I propose would be appropriate as a starting point; keeping it simple and manageable.

TheologyPhilosophySocial sciences
 Sources of wisdom and authority
 Arguments
Data & statistics
HermeneuticsLogicReliability, significance
Using quotations from sourcesIdentifying strengths & weaknesses of reasoningQuestioning the data & its source

Using enquiry questions (EQ) can help to teach disciplinary knowledge as the content that is taught in order for students to answer the EQ including the methodologies that you are focusing on. So, depending on the (enquiry) question that you want a student to answer, they will answer from at least one of these disciplines using the methodology associated with it.

Examples on the existence of God…
  • TheologyWhat sources of wisdom and authority do Christians use to support the existence of God? – Students may use the Bible & other Christian sources such as the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Church statements etc
  • PhilosophyWhat are strengths and weaknesses of the arguments for theism & atheism? – Students might look at the logic of the reasoning including probability, logical fallacies, false analogies etc
  • Social Sciences What do surveys about the existence of God tell us about theism in the UK/world today? – Students may use real survey data and question its reliability, significance etc

If you have plenty of time to teach & students grasp the different disciplines you could venture into the multi-disciplinary essay, where students use multiple methodologies in their arguments.

Assessment

When it was announced that the government were ditching levels, there was a fantastic opportunity for teachers and schools to come up with a new assessment model that would avoid the pitfalls of levels. Sadly, this didn’t really happen in most cases. Many teachers didn’t have the knowledge of assessment needed and schools didn’t provide CPD on it. Schools came up with systems which restricted teachers and the whole thing turned into, in the best cases just rehashed levels and other cases a mess of grades and flightpaths.

I think that using argumentation is a good way to give a disciplinary focus to assessment in RE. In key stage 3 we look at how students present substantive knowledge through very simple arguments.

For example…

  • Reasons – Have they given the key reasons? Have they explained them using evidence?
  • Evidence – We mainly use sources of wisdom and authority via quotations for this (our key stage 3 years 7-8 is Theology heavy) – Have they chosen an appropriate quotation that support their point? Have they explained it? Have they explained what it means for the point being made?
  • Conclusion – is it logical? Does it summarise the key arguments?

Where appropriate, the assessment of the evidence and possible counters comes from the disciplinary knowledge. If I use some statistics about the number of people that believe in life after death and Heaven when discussing Christian views on life after death, I can then assess the reliability and validity of the source and data as part of my argument. I can use logic or lack of it to critique a philosophical argument.

In this way, progression comes from students knowing more about the topic and being able to use disciplinary tools to present this information. They ‘get better’ at using the skills of argumentation to share their knowledge. Our assessments focus on how a student is developing in their use of argumentation, in a very simple manner. Progress means getting ‘better’ at it.

Problems with this method

One criticism of this method is that it seems ‘content free’ however we have designed task specific mark schemes which deal with the substantive knowledge being used in their arguments. The best student arguments include specific topic knowledge including key concepts, keywords and show a good understanding. ( We also do knowledge quizzes at key stage 3 on every topic).

Task specific mark scheme template – we decide what it is that we want to see in student essays for the elements used in the enquiry question

Another critique that I’ve heard from an RE colleague of our system is that it is just bringing GCSE ‘down’ to key stage 3. This misses the wider context of the role of argumentation in RE as a subject. Yes, students are required to do some of this at GCSE however it is also a disciplinary framework for presenting substantive knowledge. It is a developmental process that, if they choose, leads them to writing academic essays at university and beyond, it isn’t ‘doing’ GCSE at key stage 3.

Benefits of argumentation

The benefits for students in following this model for argumentation are numerous.

Firstly, argumentation is multidisciplinary which is a great benefit for RE as it pulls together its disciplines to give students a ‘format’ in which to present well presented arguments. This is appropriate across subjects. If we teach students that this is a good foundation structure for academic writing it will help them in their further studies.

Secondly, it provides order and structure in a way of organising the substantive knowledge students learn from a potential list of facts into something that has coherence and application.

Thirdly, as the origins of my thinking are from Critical Thinking, it teaches the important skills that critical thinking offers. If you had plenty of curriculum time or particularly high attaining students you could easily go deeper into logical fallacies. It provides challenge and dare I say ‘transferrable’ skills.

It offers a ‘golden thread’ of coherence across the curriculum. Otherwise we may be teaching a random set of topics without anything to hold it together. This overarching principle of argumentation pulls the whole curriculum together regardless of the substantive knowledge being learnt. Ofsted say that progress is ‘knowing more and doing more’. Argumentation does this. They know more about how the disciplines work and they can do more by creating reasoned arguments using this knowledge. The curriculum of substantive and disciplinary knowledge IS the progression model (Counsell 2019).

It is actually flexible in terms of task. Whilst I stick to the written essay, students could equally be assessed on arguing through an individual presentation or with an argument accompanying a creative task (as long as the creative bit doesn’t take longer than the argument?). If you are really quick and observant you could assess a class/group/paired debate but that would be quite complex.

It provides students a way of critiquing reasoning in a non-personal, logical manner. It’s not someone’s random opinion on religion or an issue but a well thought out discussion using logical and reasoning. Paddy Winter says “the need to induct students into the nuances of the disciplinary conversation ensures the subject is not reduced to ‘an opinion based subject’ but instead the academic, knowledge based aspect of the subject is recognised.”(Winter 2019). For me, the benefit of this is that it presents RE as an academic subject to students. There are agreed structures and processes that they need to learn and be able to do. It’s not just a free for all.

I’m not sure Fancourt et al (2020) would agree that our system does this but they say “A more refined approach to justifying and evaluating arguments could more powerfully promote both participation in a plural society as well as students’ epistemic and empathetic flexibility, and this provides a valuable intellectual space within the curriculum, since other subjects rarely offer such rich opportunities for such varied argumentation.

As ever, I’m not presenting a completed, perfect model. We’re nowhere near this.

References & Further reading

Fancourt, Nigel & Guilfoyle, Liam & Chan, Jessica. (2020). Argumentation in religious education in England: An analysis of Locally Agreed Syllabuses. British Journal of Religious Education. 10.1080/01416200.2020.1734916. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/339512009_Argumentation_in_religious_education_in_England_An_analysis_of_Locally_Agreed_Syllabuses

Kueh, R., 2019. A Matter of Discipline? On knowledge, curriculum and the disciplinary in RE. Professional Relection – REToday, Issue Sept.

Counsell, C., 2018. Impact: Journal of Chartered College of Teaching – Taking Curriculum Seriously. https://impact.chartered.college/article/taking-curriculum-seriously/

Paddy Winter (2019) – Farmington TT428: Professional Disciplinary Dialogue. Contact Farmington to access

Student views -Developing the idea of lenses in RE

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I’ve had a draft of this post for a long time but I thought I’d edit it and publish following #RExchange2020.

I’m not a normal RE teacher, in many ways! I don’t plan for students to give opinions in my classroom. I don’t ask them for it in my questioning nor in their writing. I was one of a few teachers disappointed when the reformed GCSEs allowed students’ personal opinions in evaluation questions. This is not because I think their opinion doesn’t matter; it’s more complicated.

Some say that it is one of the main selling points of RE; everyone has an opinion and no-one is wrong. I’m wary of this. Just giving an opinion on something is not what makes an academic subject. Academic papers aren’t just people’s opinions on an issue. Giving an opinion on something does not guarantee that a student has processed anything and doesn’t instantly add to lesson because they’re ‘engaged’. It’s much more subtle than this.

Now you’re thinking that I don’t allow students to give opinions in my classroom. This isn’t true. I do! But I want it to be part of a carefully planned process not just ‘Hey class, what do you think about abortion?’.

In my opinion, one of the main purposes of RE is that we want to develop religious literacy and for students to be able to have well informed, in-depth, confident discussions about religion & belief. And, where appropriate can go on to study more. Independently using the tools and methods we’ve taught them. It’s the informed part that matters in their opinion. Informed means that they know where they’re coming from in their opinion. They have the relevant substantive knowledge and they know and understand other perspectives on the issue. They’ve come to a considered opinion not just an instant response.

Using the idea of lenses has provided a tool for us to use that could be part of this idea of religious literacy.

Lenses

I’m a pragmatist. I listen to what people say, synthesise with what I’ve read and come up with a practical solution for teaching. This is where our year 7 introduction to RE lessons have developed.

Freathy & John discuss ‘Encountering Oneself: Reflexivity, Reflectivity and Positionality’. This idea of how we view the world has become a key part of my recent thinking on how we introduce the study of religion & belief.

We were missing the role of the student in the study of RE because I have been adverse to random student views being used as an essential part of RE. I wanted something that is structured and useful as a tool in their future learning. I think the focus of having a lens might do this.

I want students to see that how they view the world is not how everyone views the world. Even in a room of 32 students who we may think have had a similar upbringing, their lens will be different to the person sitting next to them. The importance of understanding your own lens is shown when students encounter ideas that contradict or challenge their own view. We are giving them the tools to process these differences. I will be saying ‘ah but that’s because of your lens’ many times in the future! And I hope they start saying this to themselves and maybe to others as they develop their understanding.

It is these key points of seeing how other people see things that determines whether a student has a misunderstanding or superficial understanding of an issue. If they don’t understand the idea of context when studying religions & belief, they will make judgements based on their own lens.

Which is where carefully selected and planned substantive knowledge (or content) is essential. If we don’t provide students with in depth, contextual knowledge, they will apply their 21st century, ‘British’, teenage lens to something and make a judgement without being informed. Recently we’ve been discussing the laws on homosexuality in the UK and some of my year 11s have struggled to grasp how views have changed, because they don’t understand how anyone could have a different view towards homosexuality to them. Without contextual, historical, knowledge of the UK they won’t fully understand why the laws have changed. Not just the what, but the why.

We aren’t saying that anyone’s lens is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’; we’re saying that the existence of personal views will determine how we see things. If we try to understand another lens, we may not agree but we come from an informed place. We don’t just have an opinion, but an informed opinion.

In class & homework

So we presented this idea of lenses to Year 7 students and asked them to consider what things might have influenced or changed their lens over time. This is a big challenge for 11 year olds! It was really interesting to see who grasped this concept and those that didn’t. For a start they have to understand that we’re using a metaphor* which takes cognitive skill in itself.

We discussed what could influence the creation of a lens in general and I added some key ideas (see image) to start them off. I then set a homework for students to complete their own lens and annotate what has contributed to their own lens.

So far it really has been a mixed bag in terms of understanding. But this is not about understanding from two lessons, it’s a long term strategy.

A journey not a destination

I think that simple step of understanding that you have a different lens is the beginning of the journey. In RE we will try to reference it as we travel through the curriculum however their lens journey will continue for the rest of their lives.

I think instead of people trying hard to directly teach and develop empathy, or measure spirituality, just giving students an understanding of lenses might have a role in this. We don’t need to try to test or measure if students have grasped these things we need to focus on what we will include in our curriculum that provides opportunities to reflect back over and over. It’s am ongoing Golden Thread not a unit of work to be covered and assessed.

So, that’s where we are. Just to be clear, we’re nowhere near doing this perfectly. This blog is not about a finished product. It’s our goal for our curriculum and department development. Small steps.

*There was a discussion in Stephen Pett’s session at #RExchange2020 about whether using lenses is a good idea. He used a slightly different example of the lenses you put on top of glasses or the lens that opticians use to test eyesight. I think if the students can grasp the concept of their own lens through any of these, they will move on from the metaphor, so to some extent it may not matter.

The Golden Threads: Substantive concepts in RE

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If I teach a topic on Hinduism in one term and another on Christianity the next, what connects them? They probably will both include ‘beliefs’ maybe some ‘practices’ and maybe some textual sources. But is that enough to allow students to make connections and develop an understanding of religion as a whole?

I am going to argue that we can create a better picture of religion & belief by using substantive concepts through our curriculum.

Developing a schema 

Why do we need to do this? RE is a ‘horizontal’ or cumulative subject; knowledge isn’t all hierarchical. I don’t need to know and understand Hinduism to study Christianity (although there may be some cases where it might help). So progression in RE is based on knowing more, potentially disconnected knowledge, in order to begin to create schema. But what makes connections in those schema? There are two ways.

Firstly , the study of the religion itself becomes a schema. As soon as students start learning the basics they can start to pin more knowledge to create a picture of that religion, including the diversity and differences within it. If teaching systematically, this schema is usually a relatively short term one in that it is created in a topic which might be a few lessons a half term/term.

Secondly, we want students to create a much bigger schema. That of ‘religions and beliefs’. This is created over a much longer period of time. We’d hope this begins when they first hear about religions and beliefs and continues for life however the majority of the knowledge, for most, is likely to come from RE. But as RE has such a huge domain of potential knowledge, how can we start to build a student’s schema of the whole picture? How can we start to ‘pin’ knowledge that can seem very disparate and unconnected?

schema in RE

We need to develop a ‘religion’ schema to contribute to an overall ‘religions & beliefs’ schema.

This is where substantive concepts come in. To understand what these are we need to consider the role of knowledge in RE.

Knowledge can be divided into the substantive and the disciplinary. Disciplinary knowledge comes from the disciplines of RE (discussed in this blog). So this leaves the substantive which is the ‘stuff’ of RE. It is the content, the facts, the topics that we teach. Look in any textbook and it will be full of substantive knowledge. So, substantive concepts are the key or ‘big’ ideas within the domain.

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Categories of concepts

Many agreed syllabi reference substantive concepts. You may have seen them listed in categories. These are usually divided into three different categories as shown.

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I’ve added a fourth category to consider how diversity is an important concept within religions

These concepts are sometimes shown as hierarchical in themselves with a suggestion of teaching them at different key stages. I suggest that they aren’t intrinsically hierarchical but can be used to develop knowledge and understanding across topics.

 

Sometimes, these are used to create a topic in their own right. For example a topic on ‘prayer’ where students look at definitions of prayer and different beliefs & practices of prayer across religion & belief. I would argue that these kinds of topics can be problematical as they look at the concept in one block which may limit a student’s ability to be able to reuse and reapply that concept later on. However this can be addressed with use of strategies to help with long term memory such as retrieval and ‘testing’. Secondly, as different views of prayer are likely to be based on other key beliefs & teachings that are complex, covering those all those beliefs and teachings as well as looking at prayer itself would take a long time which people probably don’t allocate and therefore the topic may end up being superficial.

This is a thematic approach that, in my opinion, requires a lot of substantive knowledge of the religions being included before you can teach the concept itself, which I suspect is rarely done well.

However if we use these category A/B concepts explicitly across topics and religions, they are taught in context so students can build them as part of their topic schema (and then move on to thematic units if desired). If they are explicitly addressed across topics/religions then they can be used to build up their ‘study of religions & beliefs ’ schema. They become ‘golden threads’; the things that provide cohesion and coherence to our curriculum.

How to explicitly teach substantive concepts?

One suggestion is to use an enquiry question (EQ); that is a question that requires a series of lessons ( across a short/medium/long period of time), where clear substantive knowledge is needed to piece together an answer.

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This example shows how the concept of ‘the self’ might be repeatedly analysed across topics/religions through an EQ- It becomes a ‘Golden Thread’

This would need to be skilfully done. It would need to be introduced, either as a lesson introducing the EQ by itself and the explanation that it will be addressed across time or introduced the first time that it is met within a topic. 

Practical tips

  • Write the concepts into curriculum plans to map out where they occur
  • Take time to analyse yourself how a concept can be studied within each religion/topics. What is the substantive knowledge needed to explore the concept?
  • Highlight the EQ when you mention the concept – keep it as a central PowerPoint slide or use a simple image to bring students back to it
  • It needs to be repeatedly referenced and students reminded of the prior learning of that substantive concept. Ask students ‘what did we learn about concept X in Y religion?’ before looking at it in religion Z

The aim of this approach is that once they’ve understood what the substantive concept is they can use it independently to apply to new material (in the above diagram shown by the thread continuing beyond the schemes. Their overall schema can continue to grow due to the Golden Threads giving them ‘pins’ to anchor new knowledge on to.

However we need to be careful not to over rationalise a concept. They can be very complex and over simplification will not help student understanding. We need to be clear that a concept may have different meanings, diverse interpretations and varied influences on believers and their practices. Indeed the ‘non-existence’ of a concept is equally interesting, however should be explored with caution not to show a ‘deficit’ model. The knowledge and understanding of a substantive concept should allow a student to be able to analyse it in a variety of contexts, including in some cases, non-religious or secular contexts.

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The different ways a concept can be considered across religions & beliefs

The great thing about this model is that it promotes challenge as part of curriculum design. As students build up their smaller religion schema they are contributing their their overall ‘religions & belief’ schema. This is progression. The curriculum itself becomes the model of progression. They know and understand more and if it’s done well, can use it independently. It overall contributes to their religious literacy. They should be able to talk confidently, using in-depth subject knowledge, across religions & belief on a concept and where appropriate make inferences about how it might work in new contexts.

‘…..curriculum sets out the journey that someone needs to go on to get better at the subject. In short, it models the progress that we would hope (although cannot guarantee) that someone will make. The curriculum is the progression model.’

Michael Fordham 

Using this model also supports what I think is the main ‘form’ of expressing knowledge & understanding in RE: argumentation. If a student clearly knows a definition/s of a concept, can explain multiple interpretations and diversity of beliefs and practices linked to it, using sources of authority, picking out possible similarities, differences and summarising overall, they’ve constructed a reasoned argument. I don’t need to tell them how to construct an essay; their accumulation of knowledge has already done this for them. Whilst they may need help scaffolding it, they already have the substantive knowledge needed to construct a knowledgeable, well reasoned, logical argument. The content leads to a structure rather than me teaching them a structure that they then need to try to put the content in to.

None of this is new; but it’s relevance is core in curriculum design, which teachers are reflecting on more. This idea may be complex but it is supposed to be part of a well thought out curriculum. We need to be thinking carefully about how our subject works and what we can do to ensure that our students get the best understanding of what it means to study religion and belief. This is just one piece of the puzzle.

*This presentation was part of the TMRSicons conference July 2020.

Differentiation and multiple choice questions

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Using multiple choice questions (MCQs) with students has become more popular, probably due to online systems that can provide pre-made questions or that they mark themselves; both saving teachers time.

However, if you wish to write your own, research suggests that you follow some simple guidelines. I will be looking at these and suggesting how you can differentiate using multiple choice quizzes by showing how you can increase complexity. This might be appropriate when considering the different year groups or students that you teach or the purpose of the quiz. If you want it to be quick and ‘easy’, choose the first types of question.

The key for differentiation using MCQs  is to try increase challenge for students in the subject content rather than making the questions more complex in terms of procedure or literacy.

Research suggests:

  • 3 or 4 possible answers are the optimum amount needed
  • Not to use negative statements as much as possible e.g. which of these is NOT a feature of prayer?
  • Keep the incorrect answers linked to the topic, logical and possible, in that they are potential answers (distractors) rather than silly or obviously incorrect
  • Keep the answers to roughly the same length. We tend to write longer answers for the correct answer so ensure this isn’t always the case.
  • Randomise the order or the position of the correct answers so students can’t learn qu 1 is b, qu 2 is d etc
  • Avoid using ‘all of the above’ options

The following suggestions are roughly in order of increasing difficulty:

  1. Simple question, one word answers

Sticking to tier 2 vocabulary keeps things simple and with one ‘word’ answers these can be quick and easy to answer for students.

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This swaps ‘rules’ for ‘commandments’ which is a slightly more complex way to check vocabulary understanding

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Students need to know what ‘Decalogue’ means and then know what the answer is

Simplify: Make the distractors very obviously wrong. This may be appropriate in some educational settings, for some students.

Extend: Adding in tier 3 vocabulary means you are also testing knowledge of keywords which requires a ‘double step’; understanding the keyword and knowing the correct answer.

Extend: Answers that are more than one word

2. Identify the incorrect statement

These are more challenging as they require students to carefully read all the answers rather than scan for the answer that they know is correct.

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3. The best answer

This is more complicated because it requires students to read carefully to identify the subtle differences between the answers and know which is 100% correct rather than partially correct or is the overall ‘best’ answer. These are complex as the distractors can be correct but less likely or important.

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4. Extended explanations

Using extended explanations are appropriate in some subjects and are especially useful for A level where more complex, (literacy based) reasoning is needed.

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Extend: Use more complex subject language (tier 3) in the question and answers.

Strategies for differentiating all the above

5. Multiple correct answers

This is probably the easiest way of increasing challenge in content without increasing the literacy demands. Students need to select multiple correct answers.

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Extend: Don’t tell students how many of the answers are correct. This makes it significantly more challenging.

6. Give the option ‘I don’t know yet’

One of the key issues with MCQs for assessing knowledge is that students can guess and they always have a 1 in 3/4 chance of getting the answer right. If you really don’t want them to guess so you have true picture of what they do/don’t know, adding ‘I don’t know yet’ can help. However they need to be trained to use it! It can go against the whole ‘try your best’ mantra that students may have had drilled into them as they are admitting they don’t know when they could actually guess and might get it right. We spend time going through this with them.

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7. Carefully crafted distractors

This is where knowledge of potential misconceptions is really useful. There are certain topics/questions with students where there are often common misconceptions. Using these misconceptions as your distractors makes the question more challenging because instinctively students might go for the misconception answer/s.

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Further reading

View at Medium.com

Blake Harvard is the KING of MCQs and he has several blogs on them including different ways of using them for diagnosis:

 

View at Medium.com

Target grades – a round up of research & blogs

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Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be much research on using target grades with students in terms on their impact on attainment, progress or motivation. Yet, there is a growing consensus amongst many teachers that they either have no impact (and are thus a waste of time) or could have a negative impact.

Some have pulled together ideas using some of the research that may link to using grades so I’ve pulled them together here for ease of reference and some possible further reading.

As usual please let me know of any that I’ve missed.

James Theobald – https://othmarstrombone.wordpress.com/2014/07/18/how-to-eat-50-hot-dogs-in-12-minutes-and-why-setting-targets-may-hold-back-progress/

Dawn Cox – https://missdcoxblog.wordpress.com/2016/11/23/its-time-to-get-rid-of-marks-grades-and-levels-no-really-this-time/

Ben Newmark in the TES – https://www.tes.com/news/why-we-need-scrap-pupils-target-grades

 

Possible research links

Martinez, Paul, Great Britain. Learning and Skills Development Agency, corp creator. (2001) Great expectations: setting targets for students, 2nd ed.

Butler, R.  “Enhancing and Undermining Intrinsic Motivation: The Effects of Task-Involving and Ego-Involving Evaluation on Interest and Performance.”  British Journal of Educational Psychology 58 (1988): 1-14.

Butler, R., and M. Nisan.  “Effects of No Feedback, Task-Related Comments, and Grades on Intrinsic Motivation and Performance.”  Journal of Educational Psychology 78 (1986): 210-16.

Harter, S. (1978). Effectance motivation reconsidered: Toward a developmental model. Human Development, 21(1), 34-64.

Seijts, Gerard & Latham, Gary. (2005). Learning versus performance goals: When should each be used?. Academy of Management Perspectives. 19. 124-131. 10.5465/AME.2005.15841964.

Ames, C., & Archer, J. (1988). Achievement goals in the classroom: Students learning strategies and motivational processes. Journal of Educational Psychology, 80(3), 260–267.

Gorard, Stephen. (2005). “They Don’t Give Us Our Marks”: The Role of Formative Feedback in Student Progress. Assessment in Education Principles Policy and Practice.  https://www.researchgate.net/publication/234772850_They_Don’t_Give_Us_Our_Marks_The_Role_of_Formative_Feedback_in_Student_Progress

https://www.hepi.ac.uk/2019/01/15/1-school-exam-grade-in-4-is-wrong-does-this-matter/

https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/759207/Marking_consistency_metrics_-_an_update_-_FINAL64492.pdf

 

 

 

Curriculum building in RE

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“I’m rewriting our key stage 3 schemes. What would be your favourite topics to teach?”

This, or similar, is quite common on RE Facebook. People have some time and opportunity to review or rewrite their key stage 3 provision so are looking for some inspiration of what to include.

I have no problem people sharing and discussing what they teach but we must have a clear rationale ourselves, for what we believe to be ‘good’ RE and why we include it in our curriculum. There are also things we must follow such as a syllabus.

So what should we include? We can’t teach the whole domain of religion and belief so we need to make some important decisions. This blog is a short introduction of the kinds of things to consider. It’s the start of curricular thinking, not a step by step guide.

In my opinion there are some better rationales for what makes the cut in RE than others. I’ll start with those that aren’t great rationales (all my opinion)….

  • Choosing ‘fun’ or ‘engaging’ topics
  • Topics to try to make students choose GCSE as an option
  • Asking students what topics they want to learn about
  • Avoiding teaching ‘dry’ or ‘boring’ topics
  • Starting the GCSE content as per a specification
  • What another school is doing
  • Avoiding religion  e.g. because it’s not relevant to atheist/non-religious students

There are different reasons why I believe these aren’t great. I don’t have space here but am happy to expand elsewhere if people are interested. 

Instead we need to think carefully about building a coherent, curriculum that is intrinsically valuable in itself and which provides a firm foundation for any further study. And if students don’t go on to further study, it teaches the core elements that might help them continue to understand the world around them.

1. Following the agreed syllabus

There seems to be a misunderstanding by some that as we’re not national curriculum and if you’re an academy you can do whatever you want. This isn’t 100% true.

It doesn’t matter what type of (state) school you are, you have a syllabus to follow; even academies. Whilst academies can choose which syllabus this is, it needs to be followed. You can even write your own syllabus (check legal requirements – I’m sure a scheme of work would not cut the mustard on this) but the legal requirement is that what you teach reflects ‘religious traditions in Great Britain are in the main Christian whilst taking account of the teaching and practices of the other principal religions represented in Great Britain.’ (Education act 1996). You can’t avoid Christianity!

So, your first point of call must be the syllabus that you are following, rather than asking what other people do. They are likely to be following a different syllabus.

2. Systematic vs thematic

Systematic (by religion/belief) needs careful thought of what it is about that religion that we want students to know. We can’t teach everything so what to choose? I believe we should teach core foundational knowledge with which a student could go on to independently study that religion; they have learnt the basics so they can add to their schema. A whistle stop tour of ‘the founder, the holy building, the holy book, the festivals, the clothing, the worship’…..etc potentially gives a superficial overview of a religion. Instead I prefer to focus on the keys that unlock significant  further understanding, mostly beliefs, that can then easily be used to help understand practices. Teaching practices without beliefs well, would be virtually impossible.

Thematic teaching needs to planned very carefully. You cannot just pluck a topic out of the air (worse still be given a topic e.g it’s a humanities topic of ‘water’) and then wedge in every reference to it in any religion you can find.

The only way that thematic teaching can be done well is when students have a strong foundation of the beliefs that are connected with the theme. Otherwise, it will be superficial. Teaching views on abortion in Christianity without any understanding of sanctity of life, creation, the soul etc just becomes learning different views as facts in themselves e.g. ‘Catholic Christians think…..Other  Christians think….’, rather than having a deep understanding of beliefs and then how these can be the foundations of moral and ethical decision making. Before you plan a thematic unit, think carefully if your students have the core understanding to be able to look it the topic from a multiple perspectives or how the teaching of this will be part of the thematic unit.

3. The golden threads

This is where ‘block planning’ (planning disconnected termly topics) can stop a curriculum from being coherent. We need to consider what are the connections between each topic? The threads that we come back to and repeat, from a slightly different angle.

We need to think really carefully about what it is that connects what we’re teaching so that our curriculum is a journey (sorry I really hate that term – especially when it’s turned into a curriculum infographic) through the study of religion and belief. 

One way of doing this in RE is by concept. There are 3 main categories of concept: those relevant to all humans, those that go across religion/beliefs and those specific to a religion/belief. The 1st/2nd types could be used as our golden threads. For example, the concept of ‘truth’ can be explored across topics. Coming back to this concept in several topics gives a type of spiral curriculum where students are expanding their domain each time it is revisited.

Think carefully, what are your golden threads that your curriculum keeps coming back to?

4. The disciplines of RE

I’ve blogged on these here. It is essential that we think carefully about how the disciplines provide the skeleton to our curriculum. Without them we can fall into the trap of teaching PSHE or citizenship in RE or losing the ‘balance’ of what makes multi-disciplinary RE.

It’s all coming together – An introduction to the disciplines of RE

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In the past couple of years I’ve been reading and thinking more about disciplinary knowledge (alongside substantive knowledge – the ‘stuff’ that we teach, e.g. beliefs, teachings, practices etc). As with many things, it started by hearing about what other subjects are doing and what it means in different subjects. So what does it mean for the RE community? What has already been said and done in RE?

It’s all coming together, in several ways:

  • More of the RE community getting involved in discussions about the curriculum on social media & beyond
  • The disciplines of RE are being written about, discussed & used in curriculum planning
  • My thinking is coming together. I’m a pragmatist and I want to envisage what this looks like for RE teachers and HODs.
  • This blog is bringing together some of the blogs, articles & thinking on the disciplines in RE, which I hope is useful for those that also want to engage with what has been written and modelled.

This blog is for novices. It’s aim is to help those that have no knowledge about the disciplines in RE to start to think about what they are and what they might mean for their own practice. There will probably be more blogs….

So what does disciplinary knowledge mean in RE?

In simple terms disciplinary knowledge is the knowledge that comes from how RE ‘works’. If we were to look at those who study RE at an academic level, it is the ways that they work within their discipline and the ‘ways of knowing’.

The problem is that RE isn’t an subject or discipline by itself at academic levels. It has been suggested that RE is therefore multidisciplinary; it is made from different disciplines.

There are discussions about what the main disciplines in RE are. Many have decided on three: Theology, Philosophy and Human/Social sciences (see  ‘Balanced RE’ & the Norfolk Agreed syllabus). Some have included History (see Richard Kueh in ‘Reforming RE’) and some are suggesting that RS is a discipline.

Why is disciplinary knowledge important?

Looking at RE through the disciplines helps to structure what is learnt in RE. It helps us and our students to discuss the ways in which we can learn in RE. Sometimes RE is conflated with other subjects such as PSHE or citizenship, but when we view RE as it’s own subject, through the disciplines, it can help to differentiate them.

It can help us structure how we approach and discuss substantive knowledge in RE. Instead of teaching students that ‘anything goes’ and ‘all answers are right in RE’ it gives them a set of tools that they can use to look at an issue or a concept and critically engage with it, in a disciplined way.  It helps students to understand where knowledge has come from and how valid the claims are that it makes.

So for RE, if we take a ‘theological’ disciplinary approach, we will look at a topic/concept through a theological ‘lens’. For philosophy, a philosophical ‘lens’ and so on. The ‘Balanced RE’ documents and the Norfolk agreed syllabus have clear suggestions of what these approaches might look like and the ‘tools’ that students can develop using to engage

What does it mean for RE?

If we consider the disciplines when designing our curriculum we are providing a skeleton for our subject; a strong underpinning structure. This means it cannot be confused with other subjects and makes it it’s own subject, which some curriculum leaders need to understand.

Some have started to provide frameworks for doing this. The RE-searchers approach is designed for primary students but could easily be adapted for secondary. The ‘Big Ideas’ model has supporting documents that helps to realise what it looks like in the classroom.

What should I do now?

There’s no ‘right’ answer here. I suggest you read some of the recommended reading below first.  Richard Kueh’s article in REtoday gives a nice introduction to the thinking behind the disciplines, The ‘Balanced RE’ video would be a nice intro to what the disciplines are and how they work and the Norfolk agreed syllabus gives a possible approach. EDIT 8/6/20 : I’ve just read Paddy Winter’s Farmington paper on ‘Professional Disciplinary Dialogue’. It is a brilliant exposition of the issues and resources on the disciplines in RE.

If you want to review your curriculum approach to see what you’re already doing, I really recommend the ‘Balanced RE’ primary and secondary audit tools.

Look on RE social media for examples of what others have been doing. For example, #TeamRE, @TeamRE and the SAVE RE Facebook group. I know people have shared their curriculum ideas.

Whatever you do, I think that the best way to approach anything that is ‘your’s e.g. your curriculum, is not to just copy what someone else is doing. It’s the foundational thinking behind it that matters.

Join in with the conversation; it’s one of the best ways to help clarify thinking and ask questions.

Reflective questions….

  • How can we prevent superficiality (a tick list approach to the disciplines) and encourage deep thinking?
  • What can we do to help curriculum leaders in schools understand how RE ‘works’?
  • How can the disciplines help us distance from PSHE/Citizenship?
  • Are we already including disciplinarity in our curriculum/lessons? How do we know? If so, do we need to emphasise the disciplines more to the students?
  • Should we use a framework e.g. RE-searchers, of teaching the disciplines across key stages or should it be fluid?
  • What does a focus on the disciplines mean for ITE courses?
  • How might teacher CPD reflect this shift/refocus?

A huge thanks to everyone on social media, face-to-face, ‘virtually’ and on the old system of telephone, that have answered my silly questions and helped to develop my thinking. You know who you are. There’s a long way to go.

References & Reading

Paddy Winter – Farmington TT428: Professional Disciplinary Dialogue by Paddy Winter (Contact Farmington to access)

Norfolk Agreed Syllabus 2019 Norfolk Agreed Syllabus

A discussion about the new Norfolk Agreed Syllabus – Questions by Paul Smalley (NASACRE) and answers by Kathryn Wright. Here

A Smith – Blog– Disciplinary Knowledge and RE: an attempt at professional wrestling

Kueh, R. (2019) ‘‘A Matter of Discipline?’ On knowledge, curriculum and the disciplinary in RE’ (Professional Reflection, REToday, September 2019).

Models using the disciplines

The RE-searchers approach https://www.reonline.org.uk/re-searchers-approach/approach/

Big Ideas for Religious Education– Barbara Wintersgill

Putting Big Ideas into Practice in Religious Education By Barbara Wintersgill with Denise Cush & Dave Francis

‘Balanced RE’ documents

BALANCED RE: THOUGHTS ON RE CURRICULUM DESIGN – 

Key principles of a balanced curriculum in RE – Church of England Education office

Balanced RE website

 Balanced RE video

RE in a broad and balanced curriculum: A practical tool

Self evaluation/audit – Primary

Self evaluation/audit – Secondary 

Book chapters

Kueh, R. (2017). Religious education and the ‘knowledge problem’. In M. Castelli & M
Chater (Eds) We need to talk about RE: Manifestos for the future of religious education
(pp.53-69). London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers

Mark Chater (2020) , Reforming RE: Power and knowledge in a worldviews curriculum John Catt. Suggested chapters….

  • Richard Kueh – Disciplinary hearing: making the case for the disciplinary in Religion and Worldviews
  • Gillian Georgios & Kathryn Wright – Disciplinarity, religions and worldviews: making a case for theology, philosophy and human/social sciences

NB. I am aware the featured image does not include all religions