Multidisciplinary argumentation in RE

Standard

I was lucky enough to teach A level Critical Thinking a few years ago because it taught me so much about argumentation that I didn’t know. It has heavily influenced my practice in RE especially with regards to assessment.

OCR Critical Thinking paper 2008 – Structure of an argument

One aspect of the course was that students had to know argument structures and the function of each element of an argument. It is this knowledge that heavily influenced me when ‘life without levels’ came along 7 years ago. I started with a design for RE based on argumentation. It was far too complex for key stage 3 based on the time we had and was too challenging for the students. However, it has been constantly refined each year to something appropriate and more manageable.

Writing arguments

I think that students should be able to construct simple arguments to communicate substantive knowledge. I prefer this to be an extended piece of writing but it doesn’t have to be.

I think students should know the basics of an argument; reasons and a conclusion. They can then add evidence to support their reasons which can come in several formats including quotations, statistics and examples. They can then begin to assess the quality of reasoning to begin counter arguments. This is a higher level skill that we do some of in our core KS4 when looking at the logic of philosophical arguments. We teach a simple version of assessing reasoning at GCSE in the evaluation questions when we look at the possible strengths and weaknesses of reasons presented in an argument.

If you are in a school with high attaining pupils you could certainly also begin to teach students logical fallacies that are a key element of weak reasoning. This could also include analysing analogies. Some of this is part of A level philosophy courses but can be adapted to start earlier in the curriculum.

Disciplinary knowledge

Now that my thinking is turning towards the multidisciplinary nature of RE I have been considering how important argumentation is and how we can use it as a foundation for the development of disciplinary knowledge and in turn, assessment.

Whilst I don’t think that our students should be writing academic papers I do think that we should keep in mind what we know about how theologians, philosophers and social scientists write in the field of production. Their writing shows the type of substantive knowledge they use and the disciplinary knowledge used in their discipline. Richard Kueh (2019) calls this the “sum total of the tools, norms, methods and modus operandi of the way in which humans go about exploring a field of human knowledge that has its own set of conventions”.

In our field of reproduction, in school, we should reflect how our subject ‘works’ by teaching students some of these tools and methods.

But what are they? I’ve not seen much written about this for key stage 3/4 so I’ve put together what I propose would be appropriate as a starting point; keeping it simple and manageable.

TheologyPhilosophySocial sciences
 Sources of wisdom and authority
 Arguments
Data & statistics
HermeneuticsLogicReliability, significance
Using quotations from sourcesIdentifying strengths & weaknesses of reasoningQuestioning the data & its source

Using enquiry questions (EQ) can help to teach disciplinary knowledge as the content that is taught in order for students to answer the EQ including the methodologies that you are focusing on. So, depending on the (enquiry) question that you want a student to answer, they will answer from at least one of these disciplines using the methodology associated with it.

Examples on the existence of God…
  • TheologyWhat sources of wisdom and authority do Christians use to support the existence of God? – Students may use the Bible & other Christian sources such as the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Church statements etc
  • PhilosophyWhat are strengths and weaknesses of the arguments for theism & atheism? – Students might look at the logic of the reasoning including probability, logical fallacies, false analogies etc
  • Social Sciences What do surveys about the existence of God tell us about theism in the UK/world today? – Students may use real survey data and question its reliability, significance etc

If you have plenty of time to teach & students grasp the different disciplines you could venture into the multi-disciplinary essay, where students use multiple methodologies in their arguments.

Assessment

When it was announced that the government were ditching levels, there was a fantastic opportunity for teachers and schools to come up with a new assessment model that would avoid the pitfalls of levels. Sadly, this didn’t really happen in most cases. Many teachers didn’t have the knowledge of assessment needed and schools didn’t provide CPD on it. Schools came up with systems which restricted teachers and the whole thing turned into, in the best cases just rehashed levels and other cases a mess of grades and flightpaths.

I think that using argumentation is a good way to give a disciplinary focus to assessment in RE. In key stage 3 we look at how students present substantive knowledge through very simple arguments.

For example…

  • Reasons – Have they given the key reasons? Have they explained them using evidence?
  • Evidence – We mainly use sources of wisdom and authority via quotations for this (our key stage 3 years 7-8 is Theology heavy) – Have they chosen an appropriate quotation that support their point? Have they explained it? Have they explained what it means for the point being made?
  • Conclusion – is it logical? Does it summarise the key arguments?

Where appropriate, the assessment of the evidence and possible counters comes from the disciplinary knowledge. If I use some statistics about the number of people that believe in life after death and Heaven when discussing Christian views on life after death, I can then assess the reliability and validity of the source and data as part of my argument. I can use logic or lack of it to critique a philosophical argument.

In this way, progression comes from students knowing more about the topic and being able to use disciplinary tools to present this information. They ‘get better’ at using the skills of argumentation to share their knowledge. Our assessments focus on how a student is developing in their use of argumentation, in a very simple manner. Progress means getting ‘better’ at it.

Problems with this method

One criticism of this method is that it seems ‘content free’ however we have designed task specific mark schemes which deal with the substantive knowledge being used in their arguments. The best student arguments include specific topic knowledge including key concepts, keywords and show a good understanding. ( We also do knowledge quizzes at key stage 3 on every topic).

Task specific mark scheme template – we decide what it is that we want to see in student essays for the elements used in the enquiry question

Another critique that I’ve heard from an RE colleague of our system is that it is just bringing GCSE ‘down’ to key stage 3. This misses the wider context of the role of argumentation in RE as a subject. Yes, students are required to do some of this at GCSE however it is also a disciplinary framework for presenting substantive knowledge. It is a developmental process that, if they choose, leads them to writing academic essays at university and beyond, it isn’t ‘doing’ GCSE at key stage 3.

Benefits of argumentation

The benefits for students in following this model for argumentation are numerous.

Firstly, argumentation is multidisciplinary which is a great benefit for RE as it pulls together its disciplines to give students a ‘format’ in which to present well presented arguments. This is appropriate across subjects. If we teach students that this is a good foundation structure for academic writing it will help them in their further studies.

Secondly, it provides order and structure in a way of organising the substantive knowledge students learn from a potential list of facts into something that has coherence and application.

Thirdly, as the origins of my thinking are from Critical Thinking, it teaches the important skills that critical thinking offers. If you had plenty of curriculum time or particularly high attaining students you could easily go deeper into logical fallacies. It provides challenge and dare I say ‘transferrable’ skills.

It offers a ‘golden thread’ of coherence across the curriculum. Otherwise we may be teaching a random set of topics without anything to hold it together. This overarching principle of argumentation pulls the whole curriculum together regardless of the substantive knowledge being learnt. Ofsted say that progress is ‘knowing more and doing more’. Argumentation does this. They know more about how the disciplines work and they can do more by creating reasoned arguments using this knowledge. The curriculum of substantive and disciplinary knowledge IS the progression model (Counsell 2019).

It is actually flexible in terms of task. Whilst I stick to the written essay, students could equally be assessed on arguing through an individual presentation or with an argument accompanying a creative task (as long as the creative bit doesn’t take longer than the argument?). If you are really quick and observant you could assess a class/group/paired debate but that would be quite complex.

It provides students a way of critiquing reasoning in a non-personal, logical manner. It’s not someone’s random opinion on religion or an issue but a well thought out discussion using logical and reasoning. Paddy Winter says “the need to induct students into the nuances of the disciplinary conversation ensures the subject is not reduced to ‘an opinion based subject’ but instead the academic, knowledge based aspect of the subject is recognised.”(Winter 2019). For me, the benefit of this is that it presents RE as an academic subject to students. There are agreed structures and processes that they need to learn and be able to do. It’s not just a free for all.

I’m not sure Fancourt et al (2020) would agree that our system does this but they say “A more refined approach to justifying and evaluating arguments could more powerfully promote both participation in a plural society as well as students’ epistemic and empathetic flexibility, and this provides a valuable intellectual space within the curriculum, since other subjects rarely offer such rich opportunities for such varied argumentation.

As ever, I’m not presenting a completed, perfect model. We’re nowhere near this.

References & Further reading

Fancourt, Nigel & Guilfoyle, Liam & Chan, Jessica. (2020). Argumentation in religious education in England: An analysis of Locally Agreed Syllabuses. British Journal of Religious Education. 10.1080/01416200.2020.1734916. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/339512009_Argumentation_in_religious_education_in_England_An_analysis_of_Locally_Agreed_Syllabuses

Kueh, R., 2019. A Matter of Discipline? On knowledge, curriculum and the disciplinary in RE. Professional Relection – REToday, Issue Sept.

Counsell, C., 2018. Impact: Journal of Chartered College of Teaching – Taking Curriculum Seriously. https://impact.chartered.college/article/taking-curriculum-seriously/

Paddy Winter (2019) – Farmington TT428: Professional Disciplinary Dialogue. Contact Farmington to access

4 thoughts on “Multidisciplinary argumentation in RE

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