Disciplines: A new direction for assessment in RE?


In our book, Louise Hutton and I suggest that the disciplines of RE can be used for feedback. Having spoken to Stephen Pett about the Templeton World Charity Foundation Big Questions in classrooms project I think even more that the disciplines could play a role in reforming assessment in RE. (Since this draft Gillian Giorgiou also presented her thoughts at the #Waynesworldviews RE Curriculum conversations – recording here)

The challenges of assessment in RE

Every subject has challenges with assessment. Since levels were ditched a few years ago, teachers were given the challenge of creating new assessment systems. Of course, most, ended up being a levels rehash.

Could the disciplines be a way of solving these assessment issues?

What we could assess

We need to look very carefully at what it actually is that we want students to be able to know and do in RE. What is our curriculum aiming for? What do we want our students to develop over 5 years so that when they leave they can go on to further study with the tools they need? What is the procedural knowledge we want our students to be able to master?

  • Declarative knowledge – ‘Knowing that’ – facts
  • Procedural knowledge – ‘Knowing how’ – ‘skills’ (?)

Is declarative knowledge the substantive knowledge and procedural knowledge the disciplinary knowledge? Here Barbara Wintersgill (p4-5) has discussed this. Unfortunately lots of people have discussed it’s role in History yet there doesn’t seem to be much discussion about this in RE. Wintersgill frames the disciplinary as ‘Big Ideas’.

Big Ideas for RE are a product of disciplinary thinking and reflect both the processes of study and some of the key theories to emerge from the disciplines with which RE is most closely associated: religious studies, theology, philosophy, and others drawn from humanities, social sciences and the arts. Just as emerging theories change over time, so will the Big Ideas.
Like disciplinary knowledge, Big Ideas do not emerge directly from within religions / worldviews but from the study of religions / worldviews by communities of experts, which have provided the interpretations, connections and associations that bring factual knowledge to life

Barbara Wintersgill, https://www.reonline.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Putting-big-ideas-into-Practice.pdf

But is there a procedural & propositional knowledge trap that Michael Fordham describes about history here?

What does making progress look like in RE?

Ofsted they have said that the curriculum IS the progress model. As students work through the curriculum they should be making progress. But this can only be effective if the curriculum is very clear on what it is that we are developing in terms of knowledge and ‘skills’ (I argue here that skills are just a form of knowledge – you ‘know’ how to do something. People that have misunderstood a ‘knowledge’ approach claim that it is just students learning lists of information. Of course, this isn’t correct.) We need to be clear in our curriculum planning what these are so that we can think about how we want to assess progress in RE.

In an ideal world I would love to think that just teaching students is enough and we don’t need summative measurements to prove what is going on. The fact that they are present and engaging in RE, discussing it, applying it, questioning it tells me they’re ‘learning’. But the reality is that we do have to fill in data sheets.

So I will argue that, based on my belief that measuring progress in many ways is flawed, we need to do something that is simple (for the students and for us), efficient (in terms of completion and consequent checking/marking) and in terms of assessment, can give us the most valid inferences as possible.

How can we use the disciplines?

In this blog I have pulled out some very simple ideas of the ‘skills’ that might be developed in these 3 disciplines.

In the REtoday/Templeton Big Questions in Classrooms project so far they have identified:

  • Theology – coherence, faithfulness & significance
  • Psychology – reliability, validity, replicability, generalisability

I think we need to keep things simple and as condensed as possible. This can’t become a huge burden on teachers to base their curriculum on. With little curriculum time we need to balance what we do.

Possible methods

If we want to use the ‘skills’ or procedural knowledge derived from the disciplines themselves, what could this look like?

Multiple-choice questions

I have written several times about how we can use multiple choice questions as retrieval but we can also consider how we could use them for assessing disciplinary knowledge. I’ve had a go at doing this for ‘social science’….

One way would be to ask questions about the methodology of the discipline.

Whilst this is useful for explicitly assessing students on the methodology of the disciplines it is probably better with specific content.

So another way would be to use a specific content to test the ‘skills’ of the disciplines. You could use an ‘unseen’ source on the topic that you have been studying. Here’s an example on the resurrection of Jesus using social science research.

Or focus on the work/methodology of a person from the social science disciplines…

I know nothing about Durkheim. Please tell me if this is incorrect!

Have a go at the quiz here!

With Theology it could be text based. It would have to be chosen very carefully to reflect what students have learnt. It could either be on a text they’ve already studied or on an ‘unseen’ text.

Or using a scholar’s commentary…

And another religious text based one…

Have a go at this quiz here

And for Philosophy looking at critiques…

Writing good multiple choice questions is really difficult. I do not claim that these are good!

Whilst multiple choice questions are a great tool for assessment, we also want students to be able to write more extended writing using substantive and disciplinary knowledge. One reason for this is that what experts in the field do. In a discussion with Joe Kinnaird we debated whether we want students to ‘write like philosophers/theologians etc’ or write like a student of philosophy/theology etc. I think we need to be realistic that our students are are learning the foundations of the discipline and some of the substantive knowledge. They are beginning to see how the disciplines think and work. They don’t write as a philosopher/theologian/social scientist but use some of the same tools.

Extended writing

A possible idea is to get students to write using some of the tools of a discipline. For example, if they were looking through a philosophical lens they would be looking at logical arguments and critiquing the reasoning with its strengths and weaknesses.

This is where using GCSE questions (especially the smaller tariff questions) doesn’t really work at KS3. I strongly believe that if key stage 3 is done well it can provide much more of a challenge in writing than GCSE does. Limiting it to those formats doesn’t do the discipline justice.

But how to actually assess their work using the disciplines? Some people will want to give marks to an answer or even a grade. I’m not a fan. I’d prefer to focus on what outcome we want to see and compare their work to that.

We have begun to write mark schemes for a specific question/title in which we work together to create descriptors of what a ‘good’ one would look like in terms of the elements that make up the answer. For example, a question that focuses on Theology might require students to refer to specific texts and analyse them, acknowledging where they have come from and how they are used by believers.

I think that argumentation is a feature of the three disciplines suggested and we use this as the basis of our written assessments. I think if we use argumentation as our ‘progression’ model (where we have to do this for the data progress monsters) that there is consistency across the disciplines and students are building up important written skills. Here I have discussed the use of argumentation in RE. A discipline may have more of an emphasis on each argument element but they will all be used e.g. a piece of writing using philosophy would focus more on reasons and counter arguments whereas social science might focus much more on use evidence and examples. They will all follow an argument structure but with a slightly different emphasis.

There are strengths and weakness to using this approach as assessment. Criteria based assessment can still be very subjective and can lend itself to teaching to the criteria. However, if it is specific to the topic rather than generic descriptors it means that we can write criteria that are tightly focused and means that we can ensure that the curriculum is taught well. These have to be written before the topic is taught.

Our disciplinary methods can then be used to feedback, where appropriate. e.g. ‘You’ve said that the source may not reliable. Explain why this might be the case’ or ‘ You’ve included the arguments for X but you haven’t explored why they might be considered illogical. Choose one and explain why it isn’t logical.’

Final thoughts….

This is not a fully developed assessment model. I am still not 100% clear on many things.

  • What is the difference between knowing disciplinary tools and being able to use them? Do we want students to be able to do both?
  • What does disciplinary knowledge include/not include? Does this look different at different key stages?
  • What might the use of disciplines in assessment look like across key stages?
  • Should we include it in GCSE teachings where it isn’t specifically required?
  • Do we want students to ‘be’ Theologians/Philosophers/Social scientists’ or just to know how the disciplines work?
  • Is it realistic to want students to be Theologians/Philosophers/Social scientists or rather good students of Theology/Philosophy/Social sciences?
  • Should we bother using the disciplines in assessment at all?
  • How do we avoid assessment of the disciplines becoming ‘levels’?
  • How important is disciplinary literacy in RE? What part does disciplinary literacy play in religious literacy?

I would love to hear what people think.

Some linked blogs….


One thought on “Disciplines: A new direction for assessment in RE?

  1. Pingback: Disciplines: A new direction for assessment in RE? — missdcoxblog – The RE and Philosophy Echo Chamber

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