Barriers to schema building in RE (and other subjects)

Efrat Furst – Efrat uses this for illustrating long term memory but here I use it to illustrate linked schema development

At the NATRE curriculum symposium (4th-5th November) Christine Counsell spoke on Thursday afternoon about schema building (gradually building student’s substantive conceptual knowledge over time by repeating, linking and extending) and curriculum design. She gave an example of how it might be done in RE but as she was speaking I was thinking that if it’s a simple process then why don’t we all do it? This blog will explore some of the key reasons I think that we may not do it effectively in RE but most will apply to other subjects.


Supporting students to make links between prior learning and new learning relies on the teacher a) knowing the prior learning themselves and b) having the knowledge and expertise to make the conceptual links.

The solution to this is a tight curriculum that all teachers know well, even though they may not teach it. However should a year 6 teacher know the whole curriculum from EYFS upwards? Should an A Level teacher know the key stage 3 curriculum inside out? In some ways secondary colleagues may have an advantage as we tend to teach all year groups but issues arrive when teachers with other specialisms (TWOS) are given a random class. They won’t have (and may not want!) knowledge of the whole curriculum and also won’t have the subject knowledge (including hinterland knowledge) to be able to make spontaneous links. This is where giving TWOS set Powerpoints or booklets can give the core links but won’t help them with anything that students may bring up themselves. This risks making incorrect or inappropriate links e.g. comparing the Christian Trinity with the Hindu Trimurti.

However this isn’t just applicable to TWOS. Subject knowledge of all teachers creates a barrier. We cannot teach or make links to develop a student’s schema if we don’t have the subject knowledge to support it ourselves. During my career, subject knowledge wasn’t considered important for CPD or teacher development until maybe the past 5 years. Pedagogy was king. Now as a community we’re beginning to realise (maybe to the current Ofsted EIF?) that subject knowledge as part of the delivering a high quality curriculum is essential. I continue to learn each day. I find our things I didn’t know and clarify misconceptions that I have. This is why I think that as part of a well planned curriculum, schemes of knowledge are essential(clearly stating what it is that all teachers will teach in detail). Use of well designed booklets may also help here.

Cross key stage cohesion

We have a big issue in RE with key stage cohesion. As we’re not national curriculum and due to flexibility of syllabus due to academisation, we are essentially ignorant as to what students will and will have experience in past/future curricula e.g. a primary teacher won’t know what happens in KS3/4/5 and a secondary colleague won’t know what students have covered in EYFS/KS1/2. (To a lesser extent, there are similar issues between key stage 3 and GCSE.) I often hear of people trying to ‘bridge’ this gap but for most it’s a time consuming endeavour. This hugely impacts student schema building. At secondary we don’t know what students have conceptually developed over their primary RE ( if anything?). We have to make a curriculum decision; do we assume all students won’t know what we’re going to teach (at the risk of them becoming bored or disengaged if they do) or do we design a curriculum that covers such different content that it is irrelevant what they’ve done at primary school? Unfortunately we also sometimes have to ‘unpick’ misconceptions from primary.

‘Starting again’ at schema building in RE
(Images from Efrat Furst

This is why the RE community desperately needs to have some movement on a nationally agreed syllabus. I’m sure other subjects would say that things aren’t perfect buy having a national curriculum but it is a start. Imagine how developed a student’s schema would be in RE if cross key stage learning was organised and coherent. As Efrat says on her site, having a well developed schema means that students can also lead to flexibility, creativity and problem solving which are firmly rooted in sound knowledge.

Lack of continuity

Although touched upon above, issues arise when, although the curriculum may be planned to build a students’ schema, there are reasons that this is restricted. Attendance is an obvious one. The saddest thing about student absence for me is not only do they miss out on the learning from the lesson, they miss out on the connections to prior learning and create a gap for future learning. I can’t draw Efrat’s fab pictures but imagine someone that doesn’t have the connections in their schema. They will never or will have limited opportunities to make connections, thus hugely limiting their schema. But also, when they do return to school it is so overwhelming because they haven’t made the connections to develop their schema that it becomes cognitive overload.

A student that learns things but don’t/can’t make the links to build the schema – there are ‘gaps’
(Images from Efrat Furst

To a lesser extent, but particularly pertinent to RE, students being removed from lessons for other things also creates these conceptual gaps. Also, in some schools, a transient school roll can be a huge challenge.


And so to crux of schema building; our curriculum. Why aren’t all schemes designed to build students’ schema? Firstly, curriculum designers may not understand the concept of schema building particularly if they are someone that has the ability to do this easily themselves without support. Most of our students need this explicit development of concepts to develop their schema.

Secondly, people design curricula for different purposes. For example in RE some design their curriculum for ‘engagement’; what they think students will find interesting/fun. This is problematic because the ‘golden thread’ of the schemes are ‘engagement’ rather than RE specific threads. How can you make links between topics that have only been selected for relevance to students?

The curse of content coverage is also an issue. In our rush to cover as much content as we can we don’t give students the time and space to embed what they’ve already learnt. We favour breadth over depth. This can be felt at key stage 4 in RS especially if the GCSE isn’t given the correct curriculum time. We need to think carefully, what substantive concepts do we want to develop and come back to over time?

As part of our curricula, cross discipline definitions can prove a barrier to student’s understanding. Teachers need to be aware that there are differences in use of vocabulary across subjects. This is discussed more in my blog about disciplinary discourse here. For example, the term ‘cell’. Teachers will need to be aware of how/where different definitions are used to ensure that conceptual links are correctly made. This highlights the importance of explicit vocabulary exploration in any subject.

Finally, curriculum implementation. We can have the most coherent, well designed curriculum but the reality is how that is delivered in the classroom makes a different to it ‘working’. There are so many things that happen in lessons that might reduce or restrict conceptual schema development. Some are mentioned above but others include the pedagogy used, the activities chosen, the way things are presented/explained, the cognitive load of students and the behaviour/motivation of the students.

Huge thanks to NATRE for the curriculum symposium and Christine Counsell for inspiring my thinking in this blog. And to Efrat Furst for her brilliant images.