“Look at the monkeys!” – Temporary knowledge or ‘lies to children’?


Yesterday at the zoo I passed several cages of hairy animals with long tails and four limbs jumping around. Around each cage was a mum or dad saying to their child ‘look at the monkeys’. A normal day in a zoo, but it reminded me of an important issue I wanted to blog about, what my respected RE colleague Daniel Hugill  describes as ‘temporary knowledge’. 

Are there times when we have to tell children information that is reduced/inaccurate/simplified or miss out complex details, due to their level of understanding?

Just as the parents are telling their toddlers these are ‘monkeys’ when they’re technically not, it is the simplified term that allows that child to understand what the overall concept of a monkey is, should teachers do the same with key facts or concepts with students that currently don’t the have capacity to understand them fully?

Is this lying to children or providing them with ‘temporary knowledge’ that will change as their understanding changes?

This links in to the idea that there are threshold concepts in subjects that learners have to overcome to fully understand the concept. There may be stages or steps to understanding that omit or slightly skew the facts in order to get the basic foundations needed.

I will try and use a simple example in RE to explain.

You may tell a young child that Christians believe that when good people die they go to Heaven. You may omit any information about the possibility of hell (in fact there are views where this is correct;there is no hell).

Next it might be appropriate to develop the sense of doing right and wrong and these leading to Heaven or Hell. Vague terms like ‘good’ or ‘bad’ may be used without specific reference to what these may be.

Later a child may begin to understand the concept of sinning and what constitutes a sin. They may also start to develop an understanding of forgiveness of sins and salvation,

Later still a student could be taught about further linked concepts that were omitted in the early stages of learning: atonement, salvation, limbo, purgatory, repentance, Biblical descriptions of heaven & hell, examples of sins that may require maturity such as adultery, rape etc

The omission here maybe linked to emotional development (can they ‘cope’ with this concept at this age/maturity?) and/or their ability to progress and understand the concepts. Either way introducing them too early may result in problems with further learning. These are almost stepping stones in which learning is paced and designed to allow children to process the information.

So, the question is, should we teach temporary knowledge that we may later dismiss or is it just lying to children?

4 thoughts on ““Look at the monkeys!” – Temporary knowledge or ‘lies to children’?

  1. Interesting! It’s relevant in a lot of subjects I think – I have several colleagues in the sciences who start their A level teaching with ‘right, forget most of what you’ve learnt at GCSE’
    In addition to the general point on emotional maturity, and the fact that some higher level concepts may be too abstract without a a concrete (simplified) foundation I think in RE we also need to be mindful of students’ level of religious ‘development’. Not sure how much work like Goldman’s ‘Readiness for Religion’ is studied nowadays. I did it at A level and the ideas have underpinned something of my curriculum planning ever since I’ve been in the profession. There’s a sense in which our ability to conceptualise what religion is develops as we mature, many of our younger students are at the stage where their concepts are fairly concrete, questions of religious diversity and attitudes to authority literally make no sense until we move away from a concept of religion as a concrete, monolithic entity and its part of our job to guide them through this, and to help inform that development. No easy answers I’m afraid*

    *much like Hinduism 😉

  2. I think with RE it is about what they will understand – therefore as a primary teacher I see no problem with children learning through stories some of the key messages which relate to right and wrong, friendship, how to treat people, special places, etc. There is no need to omit. As for KS2, I am inclined to believe that with age children can cope but that questions about life and death for example are better left to Year 5 and 6 where they can cope with more complex questions. However, one aspect I would caution against is the assumption that young children don’t have much of a moral or spiritual side – I have seen nothing to suggest this but unfortunately it can and does affect how RE is taught, what stories are chosen, etc.

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