4 things you need to teach that aren’t on the GCSE Religious Studies specifications


We are lucky to have a 3 year GCSE course and so we have to time to cover the course. However when we chose AQA we soon realised that there are really important concepts that have been omitted from the course. These concepts are essential for a deeper understanding of other concepts. Otherwise the GCSE becomes the superficial; ‘some think X and others think Y’ with little explanation behind it.

I thought I’d share four of those concepts. There are more but these seem to be really important to understand the two religions we study: Christianity and Islam.

Christian denominations

There is no specific requirement for students to reference the specific teachings from a denomination but I believe that if they don’t understand how there are different groups of Christians they will never really understand the different practices.

I teach it chronologically: The life of Jesus, Pentecost, the Great Schism, and the Reformation. Not in a huge amount of detail but enough to show them how Christianity developed from the life of Jesus. Classic misunderstandings like Jesus being a Christian are covered and some very basic history. It’s all very simplified but it gives them the basics and can see why we now have many different Churches.

How this helps with the course

The learning from this that applies to the rest of the course is huge.  For example, they learn about the power of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost) which can then link to religious experiences, miracles, differences in sacraments. It provides them with the key foundations of Christianity.

It also helps them understand that leadership is also important in Christian moral decision making. If they don’t know about the role of the Pope for Catholics they won’t understand the range of sources of wisdom for Catholics.

Biblical Interpretations

This follows on from denominations. Many differences in views in Christianity comes from how the Bible is interpreted. Students should really see this  for themselves, so we teach them how to use a bible. In my experience it opens up the study of the Bible to them as they’ve been previously (especially in faith school feeder primaries) come with an understanding that the Bible has a fixed meaning. Again we keep it simple, using basic terms like ‘literalist’.

It’s a useful activity to pick an issue and present them with several verses and ask them ‘what would a Christian believe?’. They can then clearly see that with most things it comes down to interpretation not definitive answers.  They can also see that the Old Testament and New Testament can have different roles in Christian belief.

How this helps with the course

This understanding helps when they have to give different views to social and moral issues. They have a deeper understanding that views can be based on teachings yet be different in nature. For example, views on abortion balancing the idea of murder versus a loving and forgiving God; both which can be based on Biblical teachings.

The life of Muhammad

It is so easy to teach religion out of its original context. We spend quite a few lessons looking at the social, cultural background of Makkah and the society that Muhammad was alive in. Again, in simple terms, but students learn about polytheism, the treatment of women and polygamy. Without these, Islam can be misinterpreted in a Western context.

One key Hadith that they learn from these lessons is Muhammad’s final speech. We spend a lesson unpicking it. It’s a great source for looking at core beliefs and practices. For example, it names the 5 pillars of Sunni Islam. In fact, it’s in these lessons that they learn the sources of wisdom for Muslims: The Qur’an, the Hadith and the Sunnah.

How this helps with the course

It gives a deeper understanding of the quotes they use when referencing the Qur’an and the Hadith. They can also see the cultural background of some important practices for example, the importance of Makkah when studying Hajj and Salah.

The Sunni/Shi’a split

I will be honest, before I taught this course I knew nothing about this. I’d never had to teach it. I attended a fabulous session at the London RE hub a few years ago with Zameer and Wahida (link here) that really inspired me with this. It gave me some subject knowledge confidence. Without teaching this split after the death of Muhammad, we risk students just knowing there are different Muslims without a deeper understanding of the reasons behind it.

How this helps with the course

Students do have to know some of the differences in beliefs and practices between Sunni and Shi’a. This knowledge helps them to have a deeper appreciation. For example the difference between the six articles and five pillars alongside the 5 roots and 10 obligatory acts. It gives the students a better understanding if they need to evaluate these views in the evaluation questions.



There are lots of other teachings we add in but these four cover so much of the rest of the specification and add depth to their knowledge and understanding, if you cannot fit them in at GCSE I would highly recommend putting them in to key stage 3.


Using multiple choice questions to practise GCSE skills


It’s easy to see how using multiple choice questions can test knowledge. Ask a question on a topic with viable answers and if a student selects the correct answer/s then they probably ‘know’ that piece of information (assuming they don’t guess).

We use multiple choice questions in key stage 3 and key stage 4 in different ways but mainly for recall to aid long term learning, not always as diagnosis of what they do/don’t know. Part of all key stage 4 homework is to write their own multiple choice questions. This is a brilliant way to find any misconceptions. In fact, when sitting with our trainee this week to explain how to mark this homework, the first student had done exactly this. She had misunderstood a concept. We immediately cross referenced this with the class notes and could see a general misconception that can be addressed in feedback next lesson.

However, up until now, we have only expected the students to create questions that are content based. Now we are moving on to making the skills more explicit.

For GCSE RS this will be two main new features in the multiple choice questions; use of quotations and evaluating arguments by their strengths and weaknesses.


In a question 4, students need to explain two aspects of religion and then add a quotation somewhere in their answer. So far, when students have answered these questions without prompting, some forget the quotation, which limits them to 4 marks. This is for two reasons: they genuinely forget or they can’t think of a quotation to support either point. Our aim is to rectify the second so the first is less likely. On Monday we have an INSET day and we are going to agree as a department quotations for each topic that we will use and learn. There are so many that could be used, we will aim to narrow it down as much as possible and start to promote, repeat and plan for recall of the selected quotations regularly over the GCSE.

These can be put into multiple questions in several ways:

  • To help them remember the wording of quotations

  • To help them select an appropriate quote

  • To link a quotation to a particular view

  • To link to a particular teaching

Evaluating arguments

In question 5, students have to write an argument based on a given statement. The skills here are about analysing and evaluating arguments along the way. Some teachers are allowing students to give their own opinions however I am trying to stop students from doing this as I don’t think it helps them understand the concept of evaluation; unpicking the relative strengths and weaknesses of an argument. Giving an opinion can move away from dealing with the objective, logical analysis to personal opinion and potentially, inappropriate criticism of religion.

To help them learn some common evaluations of the issues we study, we are starting to add multiple choice questions on the relative strengths and weaknesses of arguments studied. These will have been taught and discussed in class and so the quiz will be a form of recall and hopefully will help with long term retention of the critiques.

We have gone with the terms ‘strengths’ and ‘weaknesses’ to create consistency and ultimately so an examiner can see the clear analysis and evaluation throughout their answer.

These new types of MC question are actually testing knowledge and understanding of appropriate quotations and arguments but their knowledge of these will help with answering questions that require more than just recall of content. I think they’re the best way to practise these important aspects of the skills without getting them to write full answers and requiring me to spend hours marking.

From now on we will require students to include at least one quotation and one evaluation type question in their homework multiple choice questions which will hopefully start to embed these skills. We hope to see their application when they answer questions 4 and 5 and will try to evaluate the impact of this next step in the next year.

The invisible practices in teaching: watching a teacher teach


Watching teachers teach is a good thing for trainees (and anyone), to do but I am dubious of the value of just watching a teacher and then walking away from the classroom. So much of what we do is ‘invisible’; there are unseen practices with rationales that may not be obvious. If we want to use observing teachers as part of training it needs to give time to unpick these practices and give time for discussion. A trainee may then decide whether they want to do similar, think about how they would do them or not do them at all.

I’m keen that teachers engage with research and so have thought about how this might be utilised when watching a teacher teach. Experienced teachers may (or may not) be able to ‘see’ these practices and will only need a blank sheet of paper to take ideas from watching someone else teach; they’re experts. Novices however may pick up on some superficial practices but not some of the subtleties or long term strategies that teachers use. These proformas are designed to help a trainee explore an aspect of teaching and discuss it with the teacher. Please feel free to share and use but please do credit them. I will add as I go along.

Links to proformas


Cognitive load

I may also blog further about the discussions that I have, in order to unpick the hidden practices in my classroom.