Curriculum building in RE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Following the agreed syllabus

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

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

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

2. Systematic vs thematic

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

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

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

3. The golden threads

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

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

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

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

4. The disciplines of RE

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

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