The curriculum as the model of progress – reading list


A collection of blogs/articles on using the curriculum as the model of progress. Please let me know of any more to add – particularly at subject level.


Michael Fordham

What did I mean by ‘the curriculum is the progression model’?

Christine Counsell

In search of senior curriculum leadership : Introduction – a dangerous absence

David Didau

Why ‘using the curriculum as a progression model’ is harder than you think

Curriculum related expectations: using the curriculum as a progression model

Mr Vallance

Curriculum as the progression model: what are we really talking about?

James Wisechs

Progression in learning


An investigation into how to assess the quality of education through curriculum intent, implementation and impact

Subject level

Homework: how to make it worth while, without the hassle


Research on homework varies. Opinions on homework varies. Like many things, when done badly it has the potential to causes issues with learning but if it’s done well is it worth it?

In my opinion the main issues with most homeworks are:

  1. Students not knowing what it is or at least claiming so
  2. Students not knowing how to do it
  3. Parents/someone else helping students to do it or do it for them
  4. Some students not having a home environment conducive to completing homework
  5. Poorly thought out/last minute tasks
  6. Research shows that it creates anxiety and stress for some children (and no doubt some parents)
  7. Only set because it’s school policy rather than being based on learning
  8. Have specific resources that students might lose
  9. New information is presented to them which they may not understand or be confused by and they have no immediate way to clarify
  10. It can create a ‘gap’ between ‘groups’ of learners due to variation of home support

The final point is based on this research outcome from the EEF.

In order to prevent this potential gap, the research paper suggests that schools have homework clubs where students can complete their homework with the support and resources needed. This combats many of the issues with homework.

Why don’t we ban homework?

Apparently parents want it. I’ve been told this. I’m not aware of any large scale surveys on it but I’m sure individual schools ask parents.

It also gives extended curriculum time. If every subject has to set 1 hour homework a week that is 1 hour to extend the focus on a subject. For some subjects that don’t get enough curriculum time, homework is essential.

I’ve changed my mind on this. I used to teach without setting homework and the students did really well. There was no need for homework. However now I’ve read more on research of long term memory I can see homework as the perfect solution to spaced practice.

Is flipped learning the solution?

In my opinion, no.

A solution?

GCSE homework

I set 3 types of homework and only these. All my students know what they have to do for each as they are continuous throughout the year.

  1. Learning key words – they are given sheets with these on. I teach them strategies to learn them, give them cards, set up quizlet etc. They then have weekly in class keyword tests.
  2. Writing M/C questions (from the previous few lessons of learning)
  3. Doing online, self marking multiple choice quizzes (interleaved topics)

None of these require the students to do anything that they can get ‘stuck’ on. The m/c quizzes tell them the correct answers if they get it wrong. They then ‘know’ the correct answers. Writing the m/c questions is based on previous lessons. The only issue is if they weren’t in a series of lessons. It’s rare. Even if a child misses one lesson, they were still present for the others.

We use Showmyhomework so all instructions are on there. None require any resources except internet access. I make it very clear that they can do this in my room at any break/lunch if home internet is an issue. In our school it isn’t an issue but I understand for others it can be.

This structure reduces anxiety as the students know exactly what is expected of them for each and it is repeated so often it becomes a habit.

This homework has a purpose. It is linked to research that suggests that the best way to embed something into long term memory is to recall information. All of these do this. It also supports the spaced effect in that the quizzes are set at increasing gaps over a period of time. It gives students time to forget and then have to recall. (Further info on this via )

Does it resolve all issues?

I think it resolves issues 1,2,3,5,6,7,10.

4. – No-one else can ‘learn’ the keywords for them. No-one would be able to write the m/c questions for them (except another student from the class). In theory a parent or someone else could do the online quiz. However it wouldn’t be because they didn’t know what they should be doing it would be out of no desire to complete the task which is different to them not knowing how to do it. Most issues with help with homework are not 100% resolvable but I think the nature of these tasks reduces it.

8. The only potential resource that might be lost is the keywords sheet. However I have a stock of these in my room that students can easily access. The sheet is always attached to their homework on Showmyhomework and it is also on our subject website.

9. The only new information to them will be the new keywords. However the homework is not to understand them. It’s to learn the definitions. It’s rote learning. They will learn their importance and develop understanding of the terms during class. They can then easily ask questions about them.

How can we stop the ‘gap’ from occurring?

In my opinion there’s only one way to ensure there is no gap between students. If we ensure that all students have access to everything they need to know, work closely on diagnosing gaps and supporting them whilst they are in class, any added benefit from parental support or private tuition will be minimised.

Some of research on homework

Giving subjects the power of CPD


With a focus on curriculum being prioritised in schools the importance of a subject and its associated knowledge, pedagogy etc has become more discussed. This means a shift for some schools from a centralised (everyone in the hall together), one-size fits all (everyone needs to know about X), one person making decisions on content (i.e. an AH for T&L/CPD) approach to CPD. Teachers and subject leads can be keen to have significant role in making decisions about their own CPD and really value the opportunity to be reflective (this excellent blog by Freya @FreyaMariaO shows this).

This isn’t to say that there is no need for some whole school/staff CPD, for example safeguarding or things relating to whole school issues however there is a strong argument that subjects need to have the space and support to be deciding what is needed for them at a department level and taking control of CPD time to meet subject specific needs.

My school has been doing this for a while so I thought I’d share some of the things we’ve done and how we’ve utilised this power and time in the RE department.

INSET day subject time

Most of the time on INSET days is given to subjects. Heads of subject and their teams can decide how they want to use the time given. This can be divided up to be used as individuals, small groups or as a whole team (depending on numbers in the department). We usually talk about subject knowledge and curriculum development. I will have given some reading to do or a preparation activity e.g. look through the year 7 quiz for any adaptations we nee to make’. We get so much done and we also get personal preparation time. Our school is excellent at deciding when to schedule these in the year. They’re at perfect times for us to plan and reflect.

There can be some potential issues with this. It requires subject leaders to know exactly what it is that the team needs to work on which may not always be the case. It also requires them to either have the expertise within the department or know how to access external expertise to support on specific issues. Good school leaders will be able to support in this.

Subject knowledge reading

As part of our INSET time and sometimes as part of our department meetings I give my colleague some relevant reading that links to what we are/will be teaching. It might be a blog, an article, a chapter from a book or in some cases a longer text. We both read it ready to be discussed at an agreed time and to reflect on how this might improve our teaching/schemes.

Examples that we have read this year include:

Dharma: The Hindu, Jain, Buddhist and Sikh Traditions of India: Veena R. Howard, Veena R. Howard: 9781350224742: Books
We read the Hinduism chapter of this book to support our Year 8 Hinduism subject knowledge of dharma and are now reading the Sikhi chapter for our Sikhi scheme
We are reading this subject knowledge essay from REonline ready for our INSET day in January so we can add/tweak our scheme of learning
We read this over the summer holidays to improve our subject knowledge on the Bhagavad Gita for our Hinduism/Hindu dharma scheme

We are able to do this because I can use some of my subject budget to purchase books that I think will be of use. I know that not all subjects can do this so this should be a consideration for school leaders. I can also do this because I give us the time to discuss them and add them to our schemes.

Subject meetings

You’ve heard it said many times, subject meetings should be developmental not admin. I don’t 100% agree with this especially if you have a big team where messages/meaning can be lost in written text. The rule of thumb is that if it can be said in one email then do that, ideally if there are several things then a once weekly subject bulletin reduces emails. However I do think that subject meetings should include either some subject level teaching discussion or at least planning for it for another time.

We talk about how our year groups are getting on with schemes or assessments. We talk about concepts that students have grasped really well or struggled with (e.g. how Ramadan is linked to the moon and the sun) and how we are dealing with this. We talk about how we can adapt the scheme for next time or even ditch parts. We talk about a new resource we’ve found for a topic. We talk about something we read (e.g. the Ofsted RE research review) or saw that might be useful. We use external resources to increase our knowledge of the GCSE (e.g. This free, online AQA, marking guidance course) We talk about teaching and learning in RE all the time.

External expertise

If subjects are given a budget (of time and money), then they can access external expertise when there are gaps in the department. This does depend on knowing someone that has the knowledge/experience/expertise to address the need. This is where I think that social media comes in handy. Through subject networks you can find people that might be able to help out. Ruth Ashbee (@Ruth_Ashbee) ran a system in her previous school where subject leads had external subject specialist contacts to bounce ideas off and some of these had come via social media.

In 2021, we welcomed Inspiration Trust Religion and Philosophy Lead, Nikki McGee to our school to do some training on Hindu dharma. We had told Nikki what we needed help with and she shared her knowledge, links to resources and texts. The great thing about this is that we could ask our (sometimes silly?!) subject knowledge questions to her.

We have also watched videos of people talking about teaching (e.g. videos from the RE subject association, NATRE, annual conference) where we can pause and discuss as we need to and skip parts we don’t need!

Pedagogical development

How we teach things can be very subject specific. We should be beyond the ‘all subjects, all lessons must do X’ at a pedagogical level’ when sometimes it just doesn’t work and isn’t appropriate (I’m hearing of schools that are currently introducing a 5 part, non-negotiable lesson structure). If a school wishes all staff to consider a particular pedagogical practice then there must be time at subject level to discuss how it might work (or not) with their domain. When we launched our Principles for Learning 6 years ago we gave time to subject areas to consider what they already do that might use some of the principles and to discuss what else they might do. We need to also accept that if we do give something to all subjects to consider that they have the expertise to process and adapt or say ‘this doesn’t work for our subject’.

This year we have shifted some of our generic, whole school, 15 minute forums to subject level 15 minute forums. This means that we are able to decide what is shared and we take turns in leading this. It should be something that will be of use to colleagues that the individual does in their own teaching and is worth sharing. Sharing this amongst a team means that everyone gets to have the opportunity to share ideas but also the responsibility of sharing something. It’s timetabled after school and must not go over 15 minutes! This creates a space to focus on subject level pedagogy.

What senior leaders need to do to enable this

In summary:

  • Talking about subject teaching – The key to all of this is subject level discussion. Not ‘Can we buy some more text books?’ or ‘Who should move up a set?’ but subject knowledge and subject level pedagogical knowledge.
  • Time, time, time – This really is the key and is of no surprise. A mixture of longer periods when people can really get into things and shorter times for quick ‘bites’. We all have the same amount of time available to us in schools so the time exists. What don’t we need to be doing to give teachers time for subject level CPD?
  • Resources including money – A school should support subjects in being able to access the things they need to support subject level development. Even a budget of £50 for books for the year would be a start. If it could only be spent on subject knowledge/teaching (not student resources) books it could make a difference. Who can school/subject leaders go to for external subject support? What support and encouragement are subject leads given to do this?
  • A culture of development– We’re all doing our best but we can all also be better. The way in which leaders speak about teaching and CPD matters. Telling a subject lead ‘you must do X’ if they haven’t/can’t/won’t consider something important is not good leadership or management. It’s unlikely to lead to a culture of trust.
  • Trust – Subject leaders need to be trusted to do their job. This doesn’t mean that ‘anything goes’, there will always be some leaders than need some direction and support in this, especially if their own experience as a teacher wasn’t one of being trusted/supported.

My lessons are relevant, engaging & fun…


Have you been told that your lessons need to be engaging? Do you think lessons should always be relevant to the students you teach? Does a fun lesson lead to learning? Some thoughts….

Engagement isn’t always visible

Engagement is often interpreted as being something an onlooker can see when they’re in the lesson. Students should be active or talking or working in silence to be engaged in the lesson. But engagement is not always physical or verbal or only taking part in something. It can be thinking. In RE I think that thinking is a huge part of being engaged. The issue is that I cannot ‘see’ that thinking, so how do I know if a student is engaging? Well I can set tasks that require them to think. These can range from quizzes which require them to process an answer to asking thought-provoking questions. I cannot assume that because a student does not offer an answer that they haven’t thought about it. Plenty of students would prefer to be silent in class.

How can we ‘see’ thinking? I do think there is a difference with getting a student to share an answer and getting a student to share their own thinking on their learning. One is impersonal and one is more personal. I think we need to be careful when asking students to publicly share their own thinking. In RE this is particularly important. However, carefully crafted questions can be asked to reveal student thinking. The skill of a teacher is asking students the best questions to elicit thinking that is useful for the teacher to know.

So I think/hope my lessons are engaging; engaging students to think carefully about what they are learning. This does not have to be visible to an onlooker.

Fun comes in different guises

This is at the heart of the debate. Sometimes I think that some people interpret ‘fun’ in lessons as playing games or using relevant resources to engage students.

We all have different ideas of what is ‘fun’. On Twitter I see people running many miles each day and people sitting drinking in pubs in a large group. Neither are my idea of fun. We should not be trying to guess what our students may think is fun and then planning our lessons around it. We will fail. If we think fun means all students want to be active, running around a room then we’re ignoring the students who want to sit quietly as their home life is full of activity and running around. If we plan every lesson to be sat still in silence, we don’t allow those that want to work with others or discuss as a group, as they have no-one to do this with at home. If we think that linking topics to football will be fun and will engage boys, we are isolating those that aren’t interested in football (boys & girls).

We cannot possibly come up with one size that fits all. However I do feel that at secondary school, variety comes from the range of subjects that students study. When a school’s curriculum is truly broad and balanced it will include times when students can sit quietly, when they can run around, when they can work with others and when they can play a game as it is probably the best way to help them to learn something.

Of course fun isn’t about being active. If I were to describe to you my lessons, they’re pretty much all the same; they follow the same simple structure. Students walking into my classroom know what they’re getting. I’d sometimes even say that the predictability is ‘boring’. Yet, every year at parent’s evening I have students and parents tell me how much they love it; they think they’re fun. There will be some students that agree it’s boring but I guess they’re telling the teachers of the lessons that they enjoy how much they love their lessons and how fun they are. We can’t always be everything, to all students, all the time.

What we cannot afford is to think that fun means more learning. This is a trap that we have probably all fallen in to at some point, especially if we’ve had a tricky class that we feel isn’t engaged. We choose something that we feel that might make them laugh or pay attention to, to teach a point but in reality the learning is overshadowed by the experience. Students remember the ‘fun’ but not the learning. An example in RE is using the Simpsons episodes as a scheme to teach some philosophy concepts or acting out a Christian wedding ceremony to teach the importance of marriage. Is the time used on the additional material that makes it fun or engaging worth it in terms of learning? Do the students remember the learning or the activity? Some have called this ‘edutainment’; entertaining students to try to get students to learn.

Fun can be:

  • Working something out by yourself
  • Working successfully with others
  • Getting an answer correct
  • Having a discussion where you get to say your opinion
  • Completing a task
  • Feeling ‘clever’
  • Doing well/better on a test
  • Telling someone else what you learnt today
  • Learning

So my lessons are fun. But this is a result of the learning itself, not planned to try to entertain students to make learning happen.

The relevance/fun may not be here and now

This is what I think is really important about what I teach. The content I teach in a lesson may not seem to be ‘relevant’ at the time for students so may not seem fun during the lesson. I think that is where teaching can go wrong when we think only about individual lessons; ‘a’ lesson should be relevant.

When might it be relevant? In future studies In future conversations. When thinking about life. When processing life experiences.

When I teach beyond the specification at GCSE I really hope that this means that my students are learning things that will be useful in future studies/life. The sense of satisfaction that they might know things that connect to new learning or even they know something that someone else doesn’t is ‘fun’. Feeling clever is fun. Knowing answers is fun. Students love to ‘feel’ they are learning. Once in a while there is a jaw dropping moment in my classes when students realise something they hadn’t before. The adrenaline of this is part of the fun.

Every week I play #universitychallengeklaxon. Once in a while I can answer a question or two. It’s fun. I’m not a huge fan of the quality of the secondary education that I had, however I’d like to think that some of things that I teach students might be useful for them in the future for things that may seem unimportant but are a bit of fun. A pub quiz or a crossword answer. It’s fun to get things right.

But learning isn’t about a pub quiz. It’s about knowing and understanding the world. It is about engaging with others and the world we live in. The engagement from learning in a class may come at a future moment that the teacher can’t ever predict where/when it will be but it may come.

I often use current relevant examples to help students to understand key concepts. This is especially important in RE with abstract and practices that may be very ‘other’ to students. At the moment when I teach ‘salah’ (prayer) in Islam I mention Mo Salah (Salah performing salah) This will help some students to remember the Arabic word salah but I don’t spend lesson time watching clips of Salah scoring goals etc The learning is about salah, an example is Salah, not the other way round.

Also, remembering that students have their own personal worldview (read a blog on this here) helps me to think about when things may not seem relevant to them (why would 6th century Makkah be relevant? or the 16th century Punjab?) and how I might overcome any issues there may be in them understanding. There are so many ways that events from the past and from religion link to their own lives we would be foolish not to make the links but the links are the process to learn, not the always the content itself.

So my lessons are relevant, sometimes for students at the time they’re there but also sometimes for their future life. The skill of a teacher is to balance this enough so the optimum amount of time is spent on making links and the subject itself.

Barriers to schema building in RE (and other subjects)

Efrat Furst – Efrat uses this for illustrating long term memory but here I use it to illustrate linked schema development

At the NATRE curriculum symposium (4th-5th November) Christine Counsell spoke on Thursday afternoon about schema building (gradually building student’s substantive conceptual knowledge over time by repeating, linking and extending) and curriculum design. She gave an example of how it might be done in RE but as she was speaking I was thinking that if it’s a simple process then why don’t we all do it? This blog will explore some of the key reasons I think that we may not do it effectively in RE but most will apply to other subjects.


Supporting students to make links between prior learning and new learning relies on the teacher a) knowing the prior learning themselves and b) having the knowledge and expertise to make the conceptual links.

The solution to this is a tight curriculum that all teachers know well, even though they may not teach it. However should a year 6 teacher know the whole curriculum from EYFS upwards? Should an A Level teacher know the key stage 3 curriculum inside out? In some ways secondary colleagues may have an advantage as we tend to teach all year groups but issues arrive when teachers with other specialisms (TWOS) are given a random class. They won’t have (and may not want!) knowledge of the whole curriculum and also won’t have the subject knowledge (including hinterland knowledge) to be able to make spontaneous links. This is where giving TWOS set Powerpoints or booklets can give the core links but won’t help them with anything that students may bring up themselves. This risks making incorrect or inappropriate links e.g. comparing the Christian Trinity with the Hindu Trimurti.

However this isn’t just applicable to TWOS. Subject knowledge of all teachers creates a barrier. We cannot teach or make links to develop a student’s schema if we don’t have the subject knowledge to support it ourselves. During my career, subject knowledge wasn’t considered important for CPD or teacher development until maybe the past 5 years. Pedagogy was king. Now as a community we’re beginning to realise (maybe to the current Ofsted EIF?) that subject knowledge as part of the delivering a high quality curriculum is essential. I continue to learn each day. I find our things I didn’t know and clarify misconceptions that I have. This is why I think that as part of a well planned curriculum, schemes of knowledge are essential(clearly stating what it is that all teachers will teach in detail). Use of well designed booklets may also help here.

Cross key stage cohesion

We have a big issue in RE with key stage cohesion. As we’re not national curriculum and due to flexibility of syllabus due to academisation, we are essentially ignorant as to what students will and will have experience in past/future curricula e.g. a primary teacher won’t know what happens in KS3/4/5 and a secondary colleague won’t know what students have covered in EYFS/KS1/2. (To a lesser extent, there are similar issues between key stage 3 and GCSE.) I often hear of people trying to ‘bridge’ this gap but for most it’s a time consuming endeavour. This hugely impacts student schema building. At secondary we don’t know what students have conceptually developed over their primary RE ( if anything?). We have to make a curriculum decision; do we assume all students won’t know what we’re going to teach (at the risk of them becoming bored or disengaged if they do) or do we design a curriculum that covers such different content that it is irrelevant what they’ve done at primary school? Unfortunately we also sometimes have to ‘unpick’ misconceptions from primary.

‘Starting again’ at schema building in RE
(Images from Efrat Furst

This is why the RE community desperately needs to have some movement on a nationally agreed syllabus. I’m sure other subjects would say that things aren’t perfect buy having a national curriculum but it is a start. Imagine how developed a student’s schema would be in RE if cross key stage learning was organised and coherent. As Efrat says on her site, having a well developed schema means that students can also lead to flexibility, creativity and problem solving which are firmly rooted in sound knowledge.

Lack of continuity

Although touched upon above, issues arise when, although the curriculum may be planned to build a students’ schema, there are reasons that this is restricted. Attendance is an obvious one. The saddest thing about student absence for me is not only do they miss out on the learning from the lesson, they miss out on the connections to prior learning and create a gap for future learning. I can’t draw Efrat’s fab pictures but imagine someone that doesn’t have the connections in their schema. They will never or will have limited opportunities to make connections, thus hugely limiting their schema. But also, when they do return to school it is so overwhelming because they haven’t made the connections to develop their schema that it becomes cognitive overload.

A student that learns things but don’t/can’t make the links to build the schema – there are ‘gaps’
(Images from Efrat Furst

To a lesser extent, but particularly pertinent to RE, students being removed from lessons for other things also creates these conceptual gaps. Also, in some schools, a transient school roll can be a huge challenge.


And so to crux of schema building; our curriculum. Why aren’t all schemes designed to build students’ schema? Firstly, curriculum designers may not understand the concept of schema building particularly if they are someone that has the ability to do this easily themselves without support. Most of our students need this explicit development of concepts to develop their schema.

Secondly, people design curricula for different purposes. For example in RE some design their curriculum for ‘engagement’; what they think students will find interesting/fun. This is problematic because the ‘golden thread’ of the schemes are ‘engagement’ rather than RE specific threads. How can you make links between topics that have only been selected for relevance to students?

The curse of content coverage is also an issue. In our rush to cover as much content as we can we don’t give students the time and space to embed what they’ve already learnt. We favour breadth over depth. This can be felt at key stage 4 in RS especially if the GCSE isn’t given the correct curriculum time. We need to think carefully, what substantive concepts do we want to develop and come back to over time?

As part of our curricula, cross discipline definitions can prove a barrier to student’s understanding. Teachers need to be aware that there are differences in use of vocabulary across subjects. This is discussed more in my blog about disciplinary discourse here. For example, the term ‘cell’. Teachers will need to be aware of how/where different definitions are used to ensure that conceptual links are correctly made. This highlights the importance of explicit vocabulary exploration in any subject.

Finally, curriculum implementation. We can have the most coherent, well designed curriculum but the reality is how that is delivered in the classroom makes a different to it ‘working’. There are so many things that happen in lessons that might reduce or restrict conceptual schema development. Some are mentioned above but others include the pedagogy used, the activities chosen, the way things are presented/explained, the cognitive load of students and the behaviour/motivation of the students.

Huge thanks to NATRE for the curriculum symposium and Christine Counsell for inspiring my thinking in this blog. And to Efrat Furst for her brilliant images.

Giving opinions in RE: Why it’s problematic (in my opinion)

Legacy specification GCSE Religious Studies paper

This was a religious studies GCSE question from a previous specification. This is when students had to give their opinion (or at least write something that appeared as their opinion) on a wide range of topics. Some RE teachers still mourn its loss and want student opinion to be part of the GCSE assessment. I disagree and I feel that student opinions should never be part of assessment in RE and should be allowed in limited circumstances at other times. Here’s why….

It gives the impression that all opinions are equally valid….

If we say to our students that in RE we welcome all opinions and they are all equally valid then we are misinforming our students and potentially allowing students to share uninformed, prejudiced opinions. Whilst I know that teachers don’t really do or mean this, we need to be careful that we don’t give the impression to students that all opinions are valid in RE; they’re not. Racist, sexist, homophobic opinions are not acceptable to be shared in the classroom. I always tell my students that I cannot tell them what to think but I can tell them what is/isn’t acceptable for them to vocalise in my classroom. I have taught many racist, sexist, homophobic students however they are clearly told to keep these comments to themselves.

Of course, our added challenge as RE teachers is when we teach topics that have controversial elements to them. We need to be clear that are different opinions however we also need to say why some are unacceptable and why the laws have been made to support equality and to try to prevent discrimination. Using disciplinary knowledge with these topics is really useful (see below).

The Ofsted research review & personal knowledge

This review introduces ‘personal knowledge’ which is a new term for most in the RE community. This emphasises that we all come to studying RE with our own perspective or view and this will influence how we think and process what we learn.

The way we’ve started to introduce this to students is through lenses. We are explaining that we all have things that have contributed to what we think. Some which may be similar but also different to each other. We have used the metaphor of a lens to help illustrate this.

I’ve blogged more about this here.

I have taken personal knowledge to mean that they know and understand how their views have formed, not what their views are. I wouldn’t say to a student ‘do you believe in God?’ instead ‘How have your beliefs about the existence of God developed?’.

I’m concerned that personal knowledge will become synonymous with ‘your own opinion’ and that’s not how I’ve interpreted what is meant here. If we start thinking it is about getting student opinions on things we can get ourselves into difficult situations when it comes to having controversial opinions e.g. on racism, sexism, homosexuality. Why should I ask students if they believe in God or not? What value does this bring to the others in the room? I never get all students to give their opinion on something. Students regularly offer an opinion when discussing but it is not the aim of a lesson; it’s their choice and we need to be aware of what impact this may have on others.

But asking their opinion is more engaging for them…

If the aim of your lesson is engagement and you feel is achieved by them saying what they think then I fear that the subject has been reduced to ‘opinions’. RE goes ways beyond what we ‘think’ about religion and belief. I think there are many more ways to ‘engage’ students and it’s usually making things more ‘academic’ and making students feel empowered in their study (both substantive and disciplinary knowledge are important in this).

We want students to think hard in our lessons. Thinking hard comes from processing substantive knowledge. If a student spends more time thinking about what they think (and possibly not being able to ‘move on’ from this) we’ve missed a learning opportunity. In my opinion it is much better for developing understanding for students to be able consider where beliefs come from and their positionality (where their opinion has come from) than worrying about what they’re going to say their opinion is.

I don’t think we have any idea what impact our lessons in RE have on students and their thoughts. Whilst teaching, some students will have an inner dialogue trying to process their own position with what we are teaching them. I don’t think we need to do anything about this. It’s internalised. However sometimes students will share this thinking with us. They will share their thoughts or ask a question or respond to a stimulus. This is great if they feel that they want to but I don’t think that we should ‘make’ them.

I use a strategy stolen from Mary Myatt (many years ago she was the Suffolk RE adviser). Whenever we watch a video in class I say to students ‘Any thoughts, comments, or questions about what we’ve just watched’. Often there will be none, but giving students an opportunity to ask is important. Sometimes this is an opinion. This is fine but it’s not required.

We don’t know how our minds work

Imagine if I asked the class if they believe in God and they all said ‘yes’ except for one student. How would they feel? What would they think? I feel this is a real unknown. Equally if I tell them that I do believe in God and they don’t? I think we would be naïve to think that what others say and what we say (as role models and people in power) will influence them.

I don’t think that teachers should share religious opinions (that’s another issue) so why would I expect students to share theirs? It’s not our job to influence their views, instead to present them with content that they may or may not use in forming their own opinions. Alongside the idea of personal knowledge they will be more aware of what has shaped their thoughts and therefore have more understanding of themselves and of others.

They don’t know much to form the opinion with

If we ask students what they think about an issue we may well have forgotten that if they don’t know much about it may well be making a superficial, generalised view just as if you asked me my opinion on the English Civil war. We need to teach students where beliefs come from, how arguments work and the realities of belief way before they can form (more) informed opinions. Even then we can never present a full picture to them so I’d prefer to leave personal processing to them, for some, this will be done with their peers or at home with family.

The role of disciplinary knowledge

Disciplinary knowledge provides us with the framework to study religion and belief. Maybe this is the way to shift from student opinion to looking at opinions and belief.

The social sciences includes looking at ‘real life’ lived belief. It provides us with a rich set of data that can lead to much more structured discussion and analysis.

In this example we can have a really rich discussion and analysis of the survey and the responses in a non-personal way. If we ask the students their responses, it should be very clearly optional and with a clear understanding that they, as with academically processed surveys, they can opt-out. The times when I do use surveys in class its purpose is to model the survey process not to find out what they believe. They can always abstain. It is about comparing context and analysis of results rather than individual responses.

Theology (as I’m using it) can look at where beliefs come from especially from sources of wisdom and authority. We can teach students on what they say and use tools to analyse them, looking at potential meaning/s. This gives a structured way of looking at where beliefs come from with a clear emphasis of diversity of interpretation.

Using philosophy can allow students to think critically about opinions and the logic and evidence used to justify them. If they’re busy trying to process what they think (we’re not always sure what we think) they can miss this important analysis of arguments. It also can become too personal.

What we use in class we try to measure

Finally, in education we’re obsessed with measuring things that happen in the classroom. Is a student making progress? What grade is this essay? What marks does this answer get? If we make ‘giving opinions’ something that we use as part of our curriculum, some will be tempted to try to measure it with assessment. The Ofsted review is clear that this isn’t ideal for personal knowledge and I think that it is totally inappropriate for student opinions. Students are able to show understanding and synthesis of ideas without giving their own opinion. Whilst the GCSEs made a small shift away from giving opinions, they are still accepted in evaluation questions as a ‘judgement’ or conclusion. I strongly steer my students away from this and strongly promote argumentation strategies of evaluating reasoning to lead to a judgment on the quality of the argument themselves rather than their opinion on the topic.

All opinions welcome.

The Ofsted RE research review and assessment – thoughts & suggestions


One of my interests in education is assessment and so the inclusion of assessment in the recent Ofsted research review was welcomed. I think it makes important points about assessment in RE which I’ve not seen raised before.

This blog is my interpretation and opinion of what some of it means for RE teachers. I’ve tried to include as many practical examples (which usually involve links to other blogs) to help with exemplification.

The purpose of assessment in RE – What are we assessing?

I think this has been the ‘missing’ part of assessment for years in RE. We’ve never quite been sure of what we are ‘measuring’ and I still think there are differing views on this. The review strongly recommends that we use the curriculum as the model of progress so we should then assess if the curriculum has been learnt. Ask yourself, what do you want students to learn in your curriculum? Then that will be the focus of your assessment.

This is why having schemes of knowledge that clearly outline in detail (not just a topic but a long list of what it includes) what we want all teachers to teach and students to learn are really useful. We can then sample from this domain of knowledge because we wouldn’t be able to cover it all in one assessment; it would be very long!

For example, if your schemes of knowledge say:

  • Why Muhammad is important to Muslims
    • Final prophet
    • Al-Amin
    • Restored the Kaaba to monotheism
    • Hadith
    • Received the Qur’an

Then your assessment should find out if the students know what these things are and why they are important to Muslims.

However, if you’ve already taught students about the nature of Allah – Tawhid, sources of authority and Makkah they should also use this prior knowledge in their work. In fact, over time, you may be able to assess students’ overall understanding of concepts that have been taught over several topics. For example, if you’ve done units on the Hindu tradition, Sikhi & Buddhism you could have an assessment on the concept of ‘dharma’ across the religions or the nature of God in the Abrahamic faiths. These long term assessed tasks are useful to see if students have remembered content from a while ago (this could be a problem in schools where student rolls are transient) and also that they have made conceptual connections between them – the golden threads.

Assessment models that are not recommended

The review says that methods that ‘the object of assessment is considered separately from the RE curriculum that pupils journey through and learn.’ are problematical.. ‘They are not valid assessment models to assess specific RE curriculums’. Sadly since ‘life without levels’ we have had a case of replacing levels with levels (the emperor’s new clothes!). I believe this is because leaders and teachers don’t have a firm understanding of assessment and whole school systems have come first, instead of subjects coming first and contributing to the whole school system.

Let’s take an example from the old QCA national framework:

Level 4: Pupils can distinguish between some religions by describing some of the basic similarities and differences between their key aspects and in the ways in which religion influences people’s lives, locally, nationally and globally. They can use a religious vocabulary accurately, interpret information from different sources, and describe how beliefs, ideas and feelings can be expressed in a variety of forms.

This level statement for AT1 is supposed to be a ‘catch all’ no matter which topic it is applied to. Within this descriptor there is so much going on. If we divide it up into specific parts:

  • distinguish between some religions
  • describing some of the basic similarities and differences between their key aspects
  • the ways in which religion influences people’s lives, locally, nationally and globally.
  • use religious vocabulary accurately
  • interpret information from different sources
  • describe how beliefs, ideas and feelings can be expressed in a variety of forms.

Putting all of this together in one statement and giving it a level loses the specifics of what students can do and it is ‘contentless’ – it is detached from what we actually want to find out. If I said a student is a ‘level 4’ using this, what can I actually say that they have learnt? What if they can do some and not all of it?

The review also warns against using exam style questions in key stage 3. I see that RE teachers are doing this, for example using 5 mark questions in year 7. We need to be clear what it is that we are doing with assessment and bringing ‘down’ GCSE questions looks like this is all students need to be able to do in RE. I think the reality for most schools is that using AO1 questions with students for extended writing tasks is very limiting. Expecting students to write two short paragraphs because it is a 4 mark question and nothing else, for the majority of 12 year olds, gives the impression of low expectations. I believe that a good written, assessment task should allow students to write ‘infinitely’ on a topic, based on their knowledge and understanding and shouldn’t be limited by a mark scheme. For me, challenging tasks in key stage 3 will probably produce more sophisticated levels of writing than the GCSE expects.

The review doesn’t mention this but I also personally believe that certain other tasks done in RE for assessment purposes do not tell us how much of the curriculum has been learnt. Anything where students work in a group to produce something reduces the validity of our inferences as we don’t know who specifically has learnt what. Using creative tasks for assessment are problematic as we need to be able to differentiate the quality of the creative aspect of the work with the RE learning e.g. a student may make a beautiful image of their understanding of creation but it may not tell us if they’ve fully understood as a student that isn’t as creative may produce something that isn’t reflective of their deeper understanding.

Multiple choice (MC) questions

The review mentions using MC questions to ‘isolate portions of pupils’ knowledge’. They can be done on paper in differing formats or online, with different software/programmes. Good MC questions are difficult to write. We need to ensure that they aren’t too easy using irrelevant or illogical distractors (alternative incorrect options) that students don’t or are discouraged to guess and that they include common misconceptions so they challenge students.

I have blogged about using online questions here. I have also made some videos on how to use Google Forms to write quizzes using MC questions. Google forms are free and easy to use. There are other online platforms but from my initial investigations a few years ago, they do more than other platforms.

We use MC quizzes in different ways but at key stage 3 we write a quiz that asks questions from the whole of the domain/topic and then give the quiz at the start, middle and end of the topic. We then accumulate them over the topics, so when they’ve done the second topic they do the first and second topic quiz. Their end of year exam is all the quizzes from the year.

MC questions are brilliant because they pinpoint exact knowledge and understanding, are quick to administer, can be self-marked and give large amounts of data without the teacher having to do much. Issues arise when students guess, which is why I introduced the ‘I don’t know yet’ option which we train the students to select if they don’t know. MC questions cannot assess everything but they are a really useful tool. If you or a colleague are dubious about their use in schools, remember they are used in formal examinations around the world (including in the AQA GCSE RS exam). There are many great blogs on the different ways they can be used. Joe Kinnaird has a great blog outlining different ways of using them here and Blake Harvard explores different ways of using them here.

I really recommend investigating using these if you teach many students.

Composite tasks – One task fits all

The review says ‘Composite assessment tasks are fit for their purpose when they are based on curriculum-related expectations.’. This means that the task we give them should specifically reflect what we want them to learn.

I’m a big believer that we should give all students the same task but that it is designed so that all can access it and all can flourish with it. Enquiry questions (EQs) have the possibility of doing this (see here for a blog on these). I think that EQs are really great as they can be used to frame the content students are learning. I think they’re also particularly useful for RE because if they are carefully designed to cover several lessons then there are many ways of being answered and it doesn’t disadvantage a student that may have missed one lesson. So I think that an EQ that is introduced and covers at least 4 lessons is a great way to pull together learning. The important point to make is that the EQ is introduced at the start and each lesson (and homework?) contributes to the student being able to answer the question. Designing a question that does all these things can be tricky.

Designing an EQ needs careful thought. What exactly is it that you want students to learn? In the example of Muhammad above we want to see if students know why Muhammad is important to Muslims so keeping it simple with ‘Why is Muhammad important to Muslims?’ covers exactly this. Students can then choose from all that they have been taught and show their understanding. Some might pick one aspect and give a detailed response using the examples, use of texts (Qur’an/Hadith) that have been taught and make links . Others may give a brief explanation of each. Weaker students will just list the points with little development. Either way we can infer through their writing what they know and understand. It’s not perfect though. We are relying on good written literacy and need to be careful to be assessing their RE not just their writing style or presentation of knowledge.

This links to the point about argumentation. I think that using (simple) arguments can support the ‘ways of knowing’ or the disciplines of RE (I’ve blogged about it here!) A really simple way of bringing argumentation into student writing is using the ‘because, but, so’ structure suggested in ‘The Writing Revolution’ and brought to my attention by Joe Kinnaird and his brilliant blogs. This gives the simple reason/counter-reason/conclusion format which is such a neat way to get students started writing arguments. You can easily add to this to create more complex arguments including using examples and evidence (and counter examples/evidence) which includes using sources of wisdom and authority to support reasoning (being careful not to, as the review says “promote the use of textual sources as ‘proof texts’ to justify particular expressions of living or beliefs”).

But how do we then assess their response? We use subject specific mark schemes which are are writing together when we design the EQ. We identify what it is that we want students to be able to show us in their answer which is specifically on the topic. Which keywords are we expecting to see? What reasoning should they be including? These mark schemes are not limiting as students may take different approaches but if we have discussed what these might look like beforehand then we try to increase to the validity of our inferences. We could, if we had time, do moderation on each task as well.

For examples of EQs linked to the disciplines also see the Norfolk Agreed Syllabus p17-22.

A mixed method approach

If we start with the understanding that nothing that we can get students to do can truly tell us what they have/haven’t learnt then we can start to find ways that might indicate to us some of their learning. In this blog I have talked about the mixed method approach. To me, if we can use multiple choice questions which require time to set-up but beyond that no marking time they are a really useful part of our assessment. However they may not tell us certain things about learning which is where composite tasks come it. Taking a mixed method approach means we can get more information about learning, in different formats. In RE we need to try and keep things manageable as we often have many classes to assess. So far, this seems to be working for us.

When a school system doesn’t do what we want it to

If we do all of this thinking around assessment and decide how we want to assess in RE, a big barrier that teachers will face is whole school systems. You could design a great mixed method model which fits with your curriculum and then be told you have to report one grade or level in a whole school system 6 times a year. Grades and %s don’t tell us if students have made progress through the curriculum. I believe that many schools need to rethink their whole school reporting systems anyway. So many are confused about the purpose of assessment and are used to make inferences from data that should never be made.

A previous deputy headteacher I worked with came up with a perfect system for this which means that subjects could assess using the methods that are suited to their subject. Subject leads were given the autonomy to do this. All that teachers needed to report onto the MIS was if students were making expected progress or not. Isn’t that what we want to know? Isn’t it what parents want to know? Within the parameters of a subject, is a student making the progress that we expect them to? This mixed method model for RE could easily fit this whole school system.

What next?

We need to be honest with each other and point out where assessment models aren’t doing what we want them to do. The RE community needs to be supportive of teachers trying to develop new models that don’t fall foul of the things the review mentions. We probably all need some training on assessment (here’s a free, simple Seneca example) and time to work with subject specialist colleagues. It would be great for the RE community to share multiple choice quizzes and enquiry questions that have worked really well. As with anything these things take time but I am really glad that the Ofsted review has started the conversation.

School Leadership shift: subject leaders as Teaching & Learning experts


Here are some job descriptions for secondary, senior leadership, Teaching & Learning roles:

  • To ensure that all students have access to a high quality learning experience.
  • To monitor and evaluate student progress and achievement.
  • To support teachers to improve the consistency and effectiveness of teaching and learning
  • To promote Quality First Teaching so that all students achieve the best possible outcomes
  • To ensure Continuous Professional Development is relevant, high profile and supported by research
  • To ensure high attaining students are sufficiently challenged and inspired
  • To ensure students with SEND receive high quality first teaching in the classroom
  • To ensure disadvantaged students and those needing catch up are motivated and make good progress
  • To ensure all students develop skills for independent study and life – long learning
  • To promote effective liaison with other professionals across the MAT and outside the school to ensure best practice

Whilst I’m sure most people think these are important parts of an effective school, in this blog I am proposing that the responsibility for actioning these should mostly come down to teachers & subject leaders. In fact, it’s nonsense to think that they aren’t their responsibility but these senior leadership T&L descriptors seem to take an overall responsibility for something that involves many different subjects & potentially different approaches.

Most secondary schools will have an AHT or DHT in charge of teaching & learning. This role usually involves whole school approaches to assessment, CPD, teaching etc. There are several issues with this approach.

Current model issues

One of the big issues with the current model is that one person is leading T&L across multiple subjects but will probably only really know and understand the workings of their own subject or faculty area. Some of us will have experienced senior leaders from one discipline trying to enforce whole school T&L policies to all subjects because it works in their subject when they don’t work across subjects. For example, Maths senior leaders deciding that books should be marked once a week, basing it on their 5 classes and not an RE teacher’s 21 classes.

The T&L lead may supposed to be the ‘expert’ on everything T&L when in fact there may be other people in the school that know more than them on specific aspects of T&L. This hierarchical approach means that the school may not benefit from the expertise of all teachers. Whilst I can hear people saying ‘but I don’t do this’ I know there are are senior leaders that are firmly stuck in the hierarchical approach where their voice is more important and /or authoritative, even if they’re less experienced or knowledgable than others.

Things like observations and book scrutinies are problematical with a top-down approach of SLT members that may not be trained in a particular discipline, using whole school criteria making judgments on teachers. Whilst many schools have ditched these practices it’s the top down approach and out of specialism issue that added to their ineffectiveness.

In all of this, subject leaders’ roles are often limited to curriculum design, assessment (centrally aligned to whole school), exam administration, general administration & general management of the team as determined by whole school policies . Limited because they don’t necessarily make many subject levels decisions. The use of their subject expertise may be limited by whole school policies and processes.

I know some people will read this and say ‘we don’t do it like this’ but there are schools and leaders that do. It’s a model that doesn’t seem to appreciate that subject leaders should be the experts and in this be able to make subject level decisions that are appropriate. Also saying that you believe that your subject leaders are experts is not the same as actually treating them this way.

A ‘new’ subject level model – The ‘expert’ subject leader

This model focuses more on how a subject works and what good teaching & learning means for a specific subject. It is a distributed leadership model where subject leads have the power to make decisions independently of others. Subject level leadership means that pedagogy, assessment , CPD etc is relevant and appropriate for a subject discipline. Teaching and learning could be research informed but also subject discipline informed. The subject leader would be the ‘expert’ leading the team.

Whole school development plans would change for those that use a top down approach to a subject level approach. The whole school development plan would be constructed from the subject priorities rather than vice versa. Subject level development plans wouldn’t be written addressing whole school priorities but subject level priorities. They would be regularly reviewed and changed where needed depending on subject needs. (As an aside, my current Twitter poll is showing that 25% of respondents do not know what their school development plan says. What can this tell us?)

Instead of generic targets such as ‘increased progress for pupil premium students’ on the whole school plan, it would name which subjects this was a focus for and specifically which strategies each subject was going to trial for the year. If pupil premium students are achieving as their non-PP peers then a subject area doesn’t need to be spending time on this.

This model would also see a shift in how subject meetings are run. It may also impact frequency. Sessions might be wholly subject specific CPD or development of assessments. The important part is that they would be lead collaboratively by the subject leader because that is what the subject needs not what a whole school plan says.

A subject leader would have a CPD budget of money and time. It would be up to them to decide how it was best used. Subject leads would be told what time they have annually including INSET days and they and their team would be responsible for planning this. Probably a term at a time to be flexible in upcoming needs. Gone are the days of every teacher sitting in one room for a day learning about X or Y. There may well be people that already know about X and dare I say more than the person leading the session! They don’t need to be there. CPD should be personalised, subject context specific and sustained to make it effective.

In this model, subject leaders & their teams would be strongly encouraged to work with their external subject communities in developing T&L. Whether it be via their subject association, local networks, online networks or social media. Importantly this would be seen as part of their allocated time not a bolt on if you have time or are more motivated to do so.

Subject specific CPD would be a large part of what subject leads do. It doesn’t always need to be lead by them but coordinated by them. They know the subject knowledge strengths and gaps of themselves and their team. They would know if external support is needed.

If a school wanted to use afore mentioned accountability measures then these would be at subject level. The subject team would decide what would be useful for observations to focus on or what book scrutinies would look at. They would closely link with the subject level priorities and would use subject level paper work if necessary.

Centralised systems & associated paperwork wouldn’t be imposed on subjects. Frameworks might be suggested and particular research suggested as a foundation but it would always make sense for a subject’s needs not someone trying to get everyone to do the same. These might include:

  • Marking and/or feedback – frequency, type
  • Monitoring systems – How? What? Why?
  • Assessment – how? When? What?

Time and money?

Isn’t this just giving subject leaders more to do with insufficient time and the same money? If you take the current model in many schools where subject leaders do not have these responsibilities then clearly having one or two extra non-contact periods a week won’t work. This model would need a whole new perspective on timetabling. You couldn’t use the current timetable and squeeze the new responsibilities into it. You would also need to think carefully if there are things that currently subject leaders do that they would no longer need to do. This model would involve a rethink of school structures.

The role of the senior leader and Teaching & Learning

Won’t this all be chaotic? Every subject doing their own thing?

The senior leader job as per the job descriptions would need to change. Centrally made decisions would be shifted to subject level decisions. So what could happen to the senior leadership role? The role may totally be dissolved. Or it might be remodelled to support the new structure.

However this wouldn’t be just a shift in semantics of the role description. It is a big shift in decision making and accountability. The subject leader makes the decisions with their team and the senior leader works with them to help them happen. The expertise lies at subject level with the senior leader being a facilitator and supporter.

This new role could be a line manager to all subject leaders so they have an overview of everything that is happening. The person would have to develop a good understanding of how subjects work epistemologically, pedagogically etc. They would work closely with the subject leaders to understand what they are doing and why. This role would skilfully be able to support subject leads in identifying what may/may not be needed for subject development; a conversation not a diktat.

The senior leader role would particularly support new subject leaders in their role, mentoring them through the first year or beyond. They would also support those subject leaders that may find some parts of the role challenging. They would need to be flexible.

This model doesn’t fully negate the need for some whole school direction and specific CPD e.g. safeguarding, but non-statutory training would need to be carefully thought through if all colleagues/subjects really need it.

As this person would have a whole school overview they would be able to identify where subjects might work together on something. For example, if History and English were looking at metacognition they may join their subject session to share research, reading and strategies. This would be mutual development time.

The biggest challenge for this person would be consistency. But it’s a shift of consistency from making everyone do the same, to consistency of high quality subject leadership. It requires someone that is flexible and knowledgable. They would be highly sensitive to the balance between support and instruction. I would argue it might be a more challenging job than that described above.

This model isn’t without its own issues. However I think that the distributed leadership model means that school development works at a subject, micro level which has more chance of being owned by teachers and therefore potentially have more impact than a macro, top-down system.

I know there are some schools that already follow this proposed model but I think they’re a small minority. It would be interesting to hear from you on what the advantages and disadvantages of this model are.

NB I’ve not had time to add references to support these ideas but may come back to add them

The ‘Curse of Knowledge’ & foundational knowledge in teaching


It is important that we, as teachers, don’t forget what we already know and what our students don’t know. The ‘Curse of Knowledge’ cognitive bias means that we have a (comparatively) in depth knowledge on a topic compared to those we’re speaking to. Whilst good subject knowledge is necessary to be a good teacher it isn’t sufficient. One of the most important skills of a teacher is knowing what students know and don’t know and how to build upon that.

I love Efrat Furst’s visuals to help explain the issues here….

Used with kind permission from Efrat

This diagram shows how our ‘knowledge’ builds to mastery levels. As subject teachers we have subject specific knowledge that we have built up (and continue to build) over time. Some teachers are incredibly knowledgeable in their field. But teaching isn’t about just telling students what we know; it’s the skill of being able to share with students what we know in a way that they can access.

I think the ‘curse of knowledge’ follows when our level of competence becomes unconscious. We forget that we have gone through this process ourselves to create our complex and in-depth schema. And the issue is, our knowledge has become so connected and embedded (the large triangles) that we find it difficult to unpick (back to the smaller triangles) in order to teach the small components of knowledge to those at the start of this process.

I know how this feels when talking to people whose knowledge of religion/teaching far outweighs mine. My brain tries hard to pick up any clues to link back to what I already know to pin the new information that they are telling me. However if there is too much information or I didn’t find a relevant peg to connect the new information to, that’s it, I’m lost! And I’m generally a motivated person.

Imagine you are a student that isn’t motivated and you ‘don’t like’ a subject. If a teacher doesn’t build up foundational knowledge and dives straight in with a complex concept you will be lost within seconds.

So what can we as teachers do to overcome this?


We need to gauge the literacy of the students we teach and work to develop their vocabulary. The range of vocabulary our students have also act as ‘pegs’; they need a certain level of vocabulary to be able to access new knowledge. This includes all tiers of vocabulary. Without a student’s basic knowledge of vocabulary, the explanations that we give will have to be simplified and possibly therefore reduced in content. Developing rich and varied vocabulary is therefore key. Oxford University Press have done some research on this and have produced a free set of resources for primary and secondary which include subject specific guides for reducing the ‘word gap’. See here to access these..

Explicit linking to prior knowledge

Whenever we begin to teach new content we need to work out how it connects to prior knowledge and explicitly make the links for the students. Thinking about foundational prior knowledge needed for a topic is a good exercise to undertake; ‘what do you already know that means that you understand this?’ The more complex the concept the more foundational knowledge needed. This is particularly useful for trainee teachers. I’ve worked with highly intelligent trainees who struggle to understand why students don’t ‘get’ what they’ve taught them. Most of the time it’s because they have the ‘curse of knowledge’.

Back to Efrat’s great illustrations….

“Learning something new with and without relevant prior knowledge”

(First GIF ever, learning something new here; HT @Hubertjer for the inspiration)

Originally tweeted by Efrat Furst (@EfratFurst) on March 18, 2021.

This is a good way of showing how, even when we’ve identified what it is that we want students to know (represented by a small triangle) if we don’t set the foundations for them to peg it to they don’t connect correctly. The skill of a teacher is to pitch things so that students can build their schema with firm foundations. We cannot assume that students know the things we do!

When we plan to teach a concept we can unpick what the foundations are to that concept. What do you need to know and understand before you can fully understand the new concept?

I’ll take an RE example of the Trinity. Some of the knowledge you need to know..

  • Jesus
    • Human & God (Son of God)
    • The Incarnation
    • John 1
  • God
    • Not human or visible
    • As described in the Bible e.g. loving father
  • Holy Spirit
    • Genesis 1:2
    • Active in the world today

Then you can start to consider how God can be ‘three persons’ and the following discussions about what the Trinity ‘is’ and ‘isn’t’. Understanding the Trinity goes beyond knowing the three parts. You can only begin to understand the ‘holy mystery’ if you understand why understanding it is complex!

Actively doing this as part of planning is a good way to ensure we don’t make assumptions about prior knowledge.

Other strategies

I do 1-10 quizzes at the start of all my lessons. If teaching a new concept in that lesson I will try to ensure that some of these questions link to the new concept by asking prior knowledge that I know is part of the new concept. This means that we’re retrieving the content needed but when I go through the answer I’m also doing a mini-recap for those that may have forgotten.

Using visuals can also help students see the connections between concepts. Things like concept maps give clear visual links between concepts. These could be completed at the start/middle/end of a topic to help students ‘pull together’ their knowledge.

Using mind pegs from when you taught the prior knowledge can also be useful whether that be a resource your used or a lesson feature. ‘Do you remember when we watch the video of X?….’Do you remember the lesson when we did Y?’ Linking to classroom ‘episodes’ that the students experienced should help them remember the foundations.

I use the ‘what do we already know about this?’ strategy when I know we’ve covered some foundational knowledge. Some people call it a ‘brain dump’ or similar. Getting students to remember what they already know is not only the basis for building new knowledge but it gives confidence; ‘We already know some of this so it’s not so challenging.’

Using the tier 2 and 3 language is important. I use tier 3 vocabulary as much as possible but always following it with it’s definition so students don’t get lost. e.g. ‘Today we will be studying the Trinity – which means that God is three persons….’. I will carry on repeating this over and over until I think that I can use it in my explanations without the definition.

Key stage transition

One reason the key stage 2 to key stage 3 transition is problematical is that secondary teachers may not know what their year 7s already know. They then might over or under estimate this. Either way it can be disengaging for students. Some try to find out what they know by doing a baseline test at the start of year 7. The problem is that these are often ask questions from the huge subject domain. It could never cover everything you’d want to know about their knowledge so it becomes a waste of time. Maybe year 7 teachers visiting year 6 in the summer term could help with this. It won’t tell you what students know but you will get an idea of literacy levels and the level of challenge they are working at.

Teacher awareness

If you’ve only ever worked with students with a similar level of literacy and/or foundational knowledge you might initially struggle if you went to a new school to teach. I’ve seen this so many times in my career with others and with myself! Every time I have moved school I have had to realign how I teach. This isn’t about lowering or raising expectations. It’s about being aware of where you need pitch things.

I started my career in a school with challenges such as low literacy, social deprivation and behavioural challenges. I then went to an interview at a private school that didn’t have these challenges. The resource I provided was so far off the mark that the interviewers must have been bewildered! They may not have even realised why I had done that.

I now know that what was appropriate in my context was far from appropriate in that context. We can’t just pretend that all students can access the same resources. Again, this isn’t about lower expectations, it’s about a different starting point. I strongly believe that all students should access the same content but how we approach it may differ including the time it takes to teach it. If you don’t believe that, spend a year in a school different to yours and come back to me!

From what I see on social media, some teachers don’t realise that this is a thing. They have not worked in different ‘types’ of schools and therefore have the curse of knowledge of their own context and don’t understand how it can differ. I sometimes hear people talk about teaching and think that they have no idea what it’s like to work in a school that is different. We need to be aware that there are differences in literacy and knowledge and a great teacher differentiates (in the wider sense – not different worksheets!) for the students they have.

Great teaching

We cannot assume that students have foundational knowledge that we do and will therefore make appropriate links. We need to regularly be explicit about these connections. As soon as we do, we can build up their knowledge as per Efrat’s diagram to create complex schemas. If we don’t, students can become demotivated, confused, lose confidence and at worst completely switch off. The skill of a great teacher is to overcome the ‘curse of knowledge’ and make subject knowledge accessible for all students.

Disciplines: A new direction for assessment in RE?


In our book, Louise Hutton and I suggest that the disciplines of RE can be used for feedback. Having spoken to Stephen Pett about the Templeton World Charity Foundation Big Questions in classrooms project I think even more that the disciplines could play a role in reforming assessment in RE. (Since this draft Gillian Giorgiou also presented her thoughts at the #Waynesworldviews RE Curriculum conversations – recording here)

The challenges of assessment in RE

Every subject has challenges with assessment. Since levels were ditched a few years ago, teachers were given the challenge of creating new assessment systems. Of course, most, ended up being a levels rehash.

Could the disciplines be a way of solving these assessment issues?

What we could assess

We need to look very carefully at what it actually is that we want students to be able to know and do in RE. What is our curriculum aiming for? What do we want our students to develop over 5 years so that when they leave they can go on to further study with the tools they need? What is the procedural knowledge we want our students to be able to master?

  • Declarative knowledge – ‘Knowing that’ – facts
  • Procedural knowledge – ‘Knowing how’ – ‘skills’ (?)

Is declarative knowledge the substantive knowledge and procedural knowledge the disciplinary knowledge? Here Barbara Wintersgill (p4-5) has discussed this. Unfortunately lots of people have discussed it’s role in History yet there doesn’t seem to be much discussion about this in RE. Wintersgill frames the disciplinary as ‘Big Ideas’.

Big Ideas for RE are a product of disciplinary thinking and reflect both the processes of study and some of the key theories to emerge from the disciplines with which RE is most closely associated: religious studies, theology, philosophy, and others drawn from humanities, social sciences and the arts. Just as emerging theories change over time, so will the Big Ideas.
Like disciplinary knowledge, Big Ideas do not emerge directly from within religions / worldviews but from the study of religions / worldviews by communities of experts, which have provided the interpretations, connections and associations that bring factual knowledge to life

Barbara Wintersgill,

But is there a procedural & propositional knowledge trap that Michael Fordham describes about history here?

What does making progress look like in RE?

Ofsted they have said that the curriculum IS the progress model. As students work through the curriculum they should be making progress. But this can only be effective if the curriculum is very clear on what it is that we are developing in terms of knowledge and ‘skills’ (I argue here that skills are just a form of knowledge – you ‘know’ how to do something. People that have misunderstood a ‘knowledge’ approach claim that it is just students learning lists of information. Of course, this isn’t correct.) We need to be clear in our curriculum planning what these are so that we can think about how we want to assess progress in RE.

In an ideal world I would love to think that just teaching students is enough and we don’t need summative measurements to prove what is going on. The fact that they are present and engaging in RE, discussing it, applying it, questioning it tells me they’re ‘learning’. But the reality is that we do have to fill in data sheets.

So I will argue that, based on my belief that measuring progress in many ways is flawed, we need to do something that is simple (for the students and for us), efficient (in terms of completion and consequent checking/marking) and in terms of assessment, can give us the most valid inferences as possible.

How can we use the disciplines?

In this blog I have pulled out some very simple ideas of the ‘skills’ that might be developed in these 3 disciplines.

In the REtoday/Templeton Big Questions in Classrooms project so far they have identified:

  • Theology – coherence, faithfulness & significance
  • Psychology – reliability, validity, replicability, generalisability

I think we need to keep things simple and as condensed as possible. This can’t become a huge burden on teachers to base their curriculum on. With little curriculum time we need to balance what we do.

Possible methods

If we want to use the ‘skills’ or procedural knowledge derived from the disciplines themselves, what could this look like?

Multiple-choice questions

I have written several times about how we can use multiple choice questions as retrieval but we can also consider how we could use them for assessing disciplinary knowledge. I’ve had a go at doing this for ‘social science’….

One way would be to ask questions about the methodology of the discipline.

Whilst this is useful for explicitly assessing students on the methodology of the disciplines it is probably better with specific content.

So another way would be to use a specific content to test the ‘skills’ of the disciplines. You could use an ‘unseen’ source on the topic that you have been studying. Here’s an example on the resurrection of Jesus using social science research.

Or focus on the work/methodology of a person from the social science disciplines…

I know nothing about Durkheim. Please tell me if this is incorrect!

Have a go at the quiz here!

With Theology it could be text based. It would have to be chosen very carefully to reflect what students have learnt. It could either be on a text they’ve already studied or on an ‘unseen’ text.

Or using a scholar’s commentary…

And another religious text based one…

Have a go at this quiz here

And for Philosophy looking at critiques…

Writing good multiple choice questions is really difficult. I do not claim that these are good!

Whilst multiple choice questions are a great tool for assessment, we also want students to be able to write more extended writing using substantive and disciplinary knowledge. One reason for this is that what experts in the field do. In a discussion with Joe Kinnaird we debated whether we want students to ‘write like philosophers/theologians etc’ or write like a student of philosophy/theology etc. I think we need to be realistic that our students are are learning the foundations of the discipline and some of the substantive knowledge. They are beginning to see how the disciplines think and work. They don’t write as a philosopher/theologian/social scientist but use some of the same tools.

Extended writing

A possible idea is to get students to write using some of the tools of a discipline. For example, if they were looking through a philosophical lens they would be looking at logical arguments and critiquing the reasoning with its strengths and weaknesses.

This is where using GCSE questions (especially the smaller tariff questions) doesn’t really work at KS3. I strongly believe that if key stage 3 is done well it can provide much more of a challenge in writing than GCSE does. Limiting it to those formats doesn’t do the discipline justice.

But how to actually assess their work using the disciplines? Some people will want to give marks to an answer or even a grade. I’m not a fan. I’d prefer to focus on what outcome we want to see and compare their work to that.

We have begun to write mark schemes for a specific question/title in which we work together to create descriptors of what a ‘good’ one would look like in terms of the elements that make up the answer. For example, a question that focuses on Theology might require students to refer to specific texts and analyse them, acknowledging where they have come from and how they are used by believers.

I think that argumentation is a feature of the three disciplines suggested and we use this as the basis of our written assessments. I think if we use argumentation as our ‘progression’ model (where we have to do this for the data progress monsters) that there is consistency across the disciplines and students are building up important written skills. Here I have discussed the use of argumentation in RE. A discipline may have more of an emphasis on each argument element but they will all be used e.g. a piece of writing using philosophy would focus more on reasons and counter arguments whereas social science might focus much more on use evidence and examples. They will all follow an argument structure but with a slightly different emphasis.

There are strengths and weakness to using this approach as assessment. Criteria based assessment can still be very subjective and can lend itself to teaching to the criteria. However, if it is specific to the topic rather than generic descriptors it means that we can write criteria that are tightly focused and means that we can ensure that the curriculum is taught well. These have to be written before the topic is taught.

Our disciplinary methods can then be used to feedback, where appropriate. e.g. ‘You’ve said that the source may not reliable. Explain why this might be the case’ or ‘ You’ve included the arguments for X but you haven’t explored why they might be considered illogical. Choose one and explain why it isn’t logical.’

Final thoughts….

This is not a fully developed assessment model. I am still not 100% clear on many things.

  • What is the difference between knowing disciplinary tools and being able to use them? Do we want students to be able to do both?
  • What does disciplinary knowledge include/not include? Does this look different at different key stages?
  • What might the use of disciplines in assessment look like across key stages?
  • Should we include it in GCSE teachings where it isn’t specifically required?
  • Do we want students to ‘be’ Theologians/Philosophers/Social scientists’ or just to know how the disciplines work?
  • Is it realistic to want students to be Theologians/Philosophers/Social scientists or rather good students of Theology/Philosophy/Social sciences?
  • Should we bother using the disciplines in assessment at all?
  • How do we avoid assessment of the disciplines becoming ‘levels’?
  • How important is disciplinary literacy in RE? What part does disciplinary literacy play in religious literacy?

I would love to hear what people think.

Some linked blogs….