I’ve had a draft of this post for a long time but I thought I’d edit it and publish following #RExchange2020.
I’m not a normal RE teacher, in many ways! I don’t plan for students to give opinions in my classroom. I don’t ask them for it in my questioning nor in their writing. I was one of a few teachers disappointed when the reformed GCSEs allowed students’ personal opinions in evaluation questions. This is not because I think their opinion doesn’t matter; it’s more complicated.
Some say that it is one of the main selling points of RE; everyone has an opinion and no-one is wrong. I’m wary of this. Just giving an opinion on something is not what makes an academic subject. Academic papers aren’t just people’s opinions on an issue. Giving an opinion on something does not guarantee that a student has processed anything and doesn’t instantly add to lesson because they’re ‘engaged’. It’s much more subtle than this.
Now you’re thinking that I don’t allow students to give opinions in my classroom. This isn’t true. I do! But I want it to be part of a carefully planned process not just ‘Hey class, what do you think about abortion?’.
In my opinion, one of the main purposes of RE is that we want to develop religious literacy and for students to be able to have well informed, in-depth, confident discussions about religion & belief. And, where appropriate can go on to study more. Independently using the tools and methods we’ve taught them. It’s the informed part that matters in their opinion. Informed means that they know where they’re coming from in their opinion. They have the relevant substantive knowledge and they know and understand other perspectives on the issue. They’ve come to a considered opinion not just an instant response.
Using the idea of lenses has provided a tool for us to use that could be part of this idea of religious literacy.
I’m a pragmatist. I listen to what people say, synthesise with what I’ve read and come up with a practical solution for teaching. This is where our year 7 introduction to RE lessons have developed.
Freathy & John discuss ‘Encountering Oneself: Reflexivity, Reflectivity and Positionality’. This idea of how we view the world has become a key part of my recent thinking on how we introduce the study of religion & belief.
We were missing the role of the student in the study of RE because I have been adverse to random student views being used as an essential part of RE. I wanted something that is structured and useful as a tool in their future learning. I think the focus of having a lens might do this.
I want students to see that how they view the world is not how everyone views the world. Even in a room of 32 students who we may think have had a similar upbringing, their lens will be different to the person sitting next to them. The importance of understanding your own lens is shown when students encounter ideas that contradict or challenge their own view. We are giving them the tools to process these differences. I will be saying ‘ah but that’s because of your lens’ many times in the future! And I hope they start saying this to themselves and maybe to others as they develop their understanding.
It is these key points of seeing how other people see things that determines whether a student has a misunderstanding or superficial understanding of an issue. If they don’t understand the idea of context when studying religions & belief, they will make judgements based on their own lens.
Which is where carefully selected and planned substantive knowledge (or content) is essential. If we don’t provide students with in depth, contextual knowledge, they will apply their 21st century, ‘British’, teenage lens to something and make a judgement without being informed. Recently we’ve been discussing the laws on homosexuality in the UK and some of my year 11s have struggled to grasp how views have changed, because they don’t understand how anyone could have a different view towards homosexuality to them. Without contextual, historical, knowledge of the UK they won’t fully understand why the laws have changed. Not just the what, but the why.
We aren’t saying that anyone’s lens is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’; we’re saying that the existence of personal views will determine how we see things. If we try to understand another lens, we may not agree but we come from an informed place. We don’t just have an opinion, but an informed opinion.
In class & homework
So we presented this idea of lenses to Year 7 students and asked them to consider what things might have influenced or changed their lens over time. This is a big challenge for 11 year olds! It was really interesting to see who grasped this concept and those that didn’t. For a start they have to understand that we’re using a metaphor* which takes cognitive skill in itself.
We discussed what could influence the creation of a lens in general and I added some key ideas (see image) to start them off. I then set a homework for students to complete their own lens and annotate what has contributed to their own lens.
So far it really has been a mixed bag in terms of understanding. But this is not about understanding from two lessons, it’s a long term strategy.
A journey not a destination
I think that simple step of understanding that you have a different lens is the beginning of the journey. In RE we will try to reference it as we travel through the curriculum however their lens journey will continue for the rest of their lives.
I think instead of people trying hard to directly teach and develop empathy, or measure spirituality, just giving students an understanding of lenses might have a role in this. We don’t need to try to test or measure if students have grasped these things we need to focus on what we will include in our curriculum that provides opportunities to reflect back over and over. It’s am ongoing Golden Thread not a unit of work to be covered and assessed.
So, that’s where we are. Just to be clear, we’re nowhere near doing this perfectly. This blog is not about a finished product. It’s our goal for our curriculum and department development. Small steps.
*There was a discussion in Stephen Pett’s session at #RExchange2020 about whether using lenses is a good idea. He used a slightly different example of the lenses you put on top of glasses or the lens that opticians use to test eyesight. I think if the students can grasp the concept of their own lens through any of these, they will move on from the metaphor, so to some extent it may not matter.