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


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

It’s all coming together, in several ways:

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

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

So what does disciplinary knowledge mean in RE?

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

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

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

Why is disciplinary knowledge important?

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

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

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

What does it mean for RE?

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

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

What should I do now?

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

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

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

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

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

Reflective questions….

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

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

References & Reading

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

Norfolk Agreed Syllabus 2019 Norfolk Agreed Syllabus

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

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

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

Models using the disciplines

The RE-searchers approach

Big Ideas for Religious Education– Barbara Wintersgill

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

‘Balanced RE’ documents


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

Balanced RE website

 Balanced RE video

RE in a broad and balanced curriculum: A practical tool

Self evaluation/audit – Primary

Self evaluation/audit – Secondary 

Book chapters

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

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

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

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


3 thoughts on “It’s all coming together – An introduction to the disciplines of RE

  1. Pingback: Curriculum building in RE | missdcoxblog

  2. Pingback: Teach Meet Religious Studies Icons References – Teaching ideas

  3. Pingback: The Golden Threads: Substantive concepts in RE | missdcoxblog

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