All/Many/Some/Few/One…… Diversity & language in RE

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Jews don’t eat pork.

Catholics don’t use contraception

Muslims don’t drink alcohol.

Sikhs wear turbans

Non-religious people are atheists

These may be commonly heard statements about religious people. But are they true? I think in RE we need to teach students how to speak about religion and religious/non-religious living and this comes down to how we approach diversity and our use of language in the RE classroom.

Doctrine vs reality?

This week I have started Theme A of AQA GCSE with my students. I’m not a fan. It’s the relationships and family unit which includes contraception, sexuality and divorce. I started the lesson explaining to the students that this unit includes things that are controversial and may be uncomfortable. It includes teachings that I know they won’t agree with and it’s really difficult to manage their perception of a religion from this. So I explained to them that the religious beliefs and teachings I will be teaching them stand alongside the reality of how people live. Religion isn’t just what the sources of authority say but is a much bigger thing that I want them to know about. I think that we can partly manage controversy and diversity by including what religious people do when we know what their sources of authority actually say.

This is where the use of different disciplines in RE can be useful. My interpretation of this is that when we’re looking at doctrine we are using Theology and the sources of authority that give beliefs and teachings linked to the topic. We can then use Social Sciences to reflect on the reality of how these beliefs and teachings are followed (or not) in real life.

For example, looking at the use of contraception in Catholic Christianity….

These two sources allow us to consider the doctrine and compare it with some data on the reality. Of course, we should always analyse the text and the data with the students; what’s the source? what might it tell us? How can it be interpreted? Is it representative of a whole group? But this is what allows students to really think about the doctrine and its impact on followers.

All or many or some or few?

I think this is the crucial part for RE teachers to be clear on with students. Which of these is correct to use with the topic/issue we’re teaching and how do we know?

An example is that in recent times there have been suggestions that in RE we should be changing how we speak about Hinduism and Sikhism. I’ve seen a few discussions where there have been views that say we should always use Hindu Dharma or Sanatana Dharma or Sikhi. I’ve then tried to look into the roots of all the terms and the views of people around which should be used and when. What I’ve yet to find is how many Hindus/Sikhs have a preference of which terms should be used. Our students have made it clear to us what they think but are they representative? It’s easy to think that one or two adult voices on social media mean ‘a few’ but its more complicated than that.

So how do we know what the reality is? I’ve found that an internet search is sometimes useful on this. It’s surprising what surveys have been done with religious themes and with respondents for specific religions/groups.

I’ve put together a list that might be useful here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1CUmVPbWMgVdyN08-bxeif6PmfrN-q1tMfVEojrgTRdQ/edit?usp=sharing

Also, I ask people. I ask people on social media and when we have trips/visits, about their views and interpretations. And I share these. It’s important that students know about what people are saying about their beliefs.

And in the cases where we can’t be sure, ‘some’ is the best bet. It doesn’t indicate a value of how many (like many/few do) and is sufficiently vague. And I am honest with the students when I don’t know. I say ” I don’t know how many _______ would say this”. This promotes the idea that lived religion is complex and we can’t always have a clear answer. I even make this clear with data that we do have. Instead of saying “According to the 2021 census there are 272,508 Buddhists” I say ” In the 2021 census 272,508 people clicked the Buddhist option”. There’s a difference and that difference leads to important discussions about data itself.

Overall it’s the discussion and debate that we need to teach students. It’s the heart of diversity; not just knowing what the diverse views are but WHY they are diverse. I think this should be core to all of our curriculums. It requires subject knowledge and confidence from a teacher but it makes RE a richer and more worthwhile subject.

Helping students to understand

I think this is probably a threshold concept in RE and there are plenty of adults that haven’t crossed the threshold! Doctrine is not always reflected in real lived religion and we need to think carefully about how we present that.

This activity has been so useful that I have done it with all groups and will repeat it throughout their RE experience.

I give students the following sentence starters (example for year 7):

They then need to complete the statements with accurate/true endings. It’s actually quite tricky to come up with an ‘All’ that is correct and only applies to year 7s, and that’s the point. There’s also very little that we can say is true for all followers of a religion. Have a go yourself! How many ways could you finish the sentence “All Christians….” which is accurate? I can think of a few endings.

I then link it to the religion/view we’re studying. I sometimes then get students to complete one of them in their starter quiz. It is a real indicator of understanding of what they’ve been taught.

I then use and emphasise these as I teach and encourage the students to use them. The language in itself acknowledges diversity and an understanding of reality.

GCSE and diversity

If we consider diversity in the GCSE then it mostly comes down to diversity of belief/religious practices from interpretations of doctrine. The exam does not require students to talk about the reality of lived religion. Whilst some argue that we should go back to the old exam assessment where all opinions were valid and could be credited, I think we need to actually combine both doctrine and lived religion (not ‘anything goes’). A good bit of Theology and some structured Social Science is what I would like to see. Anyway, I do think, for AQA at least, there is room for the reality (apologies if you don’t know the AQA assessment).

4 and 5 mark questions are generally questions that require students to answer questions about doctrine. However, in 12 mark questions I think a rich, informed argument would involve the reality. Students can give the doctrine and agreed interpretations from religious leaders however they can use real lived religion as part of a logical argument. For example, “Whilst the Catholic Catechism describes the use of artificial contraception to prevent conception as ‘Intrinsically evil’, some Catholics will use it because…..”.

This is especially important with the binary options given in some 12 mark statements; using knowledge of how people really live can enhance their answers. So, I’m going to teach them the reality alongside the doctrine.

Diversity

So how do you approach diversity of belief/practices/views in your classroom? Do your students understand that a ‘religion’ doesn’t mean one way and that it is rich and varied? Is the language that you/students use appropriate for the reality? How do you know?

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Assessment in RE – the beginning of something new?

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The RE community have been busily thinking about curriculum alongside other curriculum subject communities. We have engaged in webinars, learning journeys, a NATRE symposium, resources shared and conferences (rightly) focusing on what we teach, why we teach it and when we teach it. However a few of us have been turning our focus on the next important step – how do we know if our curriculum is doing what we want it to do? How do we know that students know, understand and can do what we have planned and enacted for them?

It’s time to delve into the education hot potato of assessment.

We’ve been reading, looking for research, discussing with each other and with experts to start to build up a picture of what is good assessment and where RE currently is in this complex domain.
And the general conclusion so far is, there’s not much out there that is RE focused. As with many other subjects, RE has mainly continued to follow a levels-type system, often with age-related expectations. Engaging with more general educational research on assessment (from this country and beyond) has been a really helpful starting point, but we are aware that whilst a particular approach might work well for one subject, it doesn’t follow that it’s the most effective model for another. We’re on a mission to learn from and build upon what is out there, in order tounpick what might be a better way to assess in RE and consider how that might work across contexts and settings. Of course, being experienced RE teachers and leaders, we’re doing this with the caveat that RE has its own particular challenges and there is a huge possibility that there is, in all likelihood, no perfect assessment model!

Watch this space for updates on our project and please do get in touch with any suggestions or insights……

Dawn Cox & Gillian Georgiou

Suggested reading….

Free Seneca intro to assessment course https://senecalearning.com/en-GB/blog/free-assessment-cpd-course-for-teachers/

£ ResearchED book on assessment https://www.johncattbookshop.com/the-researched-guide-to-assessment-an-evidence-informed-guide-for-teachers

Research Informed Teacher Enquiry (RITE) – A whole school teacher development model

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This blog aims to outline our school approach to teacher development through a research informed teacher enquiry (RITE) process. We launched it in 2020 however due to COVID we’ve not had a full year of implementation yet. It will take you through the process I went through to create the process and then what it involves.

Looking at what others do

I had seen on social media and heard at conferences what some other schools were doing so I contacted some of these people or read their book/blog etc to pull together some idea of good practice.

I am grateful to these people for sharing what they do and in some cases giving up their time to help me collate ideas:

•John Tomsett & Jonny Uttley – Book – Putting Staff First: A blueprint for revitalising our schools: A blueprint for a revitalised profession

•Severn Vale school via Kirsten Prescott

•Cockermouth school via Dr Rob Petrie

•Bridgwater College Academy & MAT via Chris Moyse blog/presentations/Twitter

It’s important to note that without people sharing we would all be starting at square one and that some of these people gave up their own time in the spirit of making education better for everyone. We can learn from their developments and avoid the pitfalls they found along the way. So much of what follows is copying what they’ve done and tweaking it for our school. We don’t take any credit for the ideas!

Research & ‘working out what works’ on teacher development

I also wanted to see what research might have to offer for our teacher development and read whatever I could find online including:

Teacher Development Trust https://tdtrust.org/about/evidence/ & https://t.co/lz9AXzrD5R

Amy Forrester blog https://t.co/r2x0eJb96F

Jonathan Mountstevens blog https://t.co/dJGOtY10b8

Chris Moyse – Growing Great Teachers – https://t.co/eegHOr847o

Twitter threads https://twitter.com/lawrence0881/status/1277327816967806978 & https://twitter.com/teacher_theory/status/1174002584396468227?s=11

Pulling things together

I wanted to start by thinking about the foundations of what we wanted for our school in this new process. We already had a coaching model in place, where everyone was being trained as a coach so we could utilise this in this approach. We also are research informed in our teaching & learning principles so it was important that we combined these two things together.

I came up with the following to encompass the rationale and process we wanted for our school:

Teacher development not pay progression

It was important that this process was not about ‘success’ but about development and the willingness to work on developing your own teaching. It was not to be linked to any relevant pay progression other than via participation and genuine engagement with making their teaching better. This was made clear to teachers.

Keeping it simple

I’ve seen some teachers/schools promoting the use of action research projects for development. Whilst this might give a structure for development, if done to the letter it can be incredibly time consuming and paperwork heavy. We didn’t want this for our process. We wanted it to involve looking out beyond our school, considering appropriate research but keeping things manageable with the time we had available.

Enquiry questions (EQs)

From my discussions and reading, the use of enquiry questions looked to be a good way to ensure that we focus on very specific aspects of our teaching but also keeps things small enough to try things out with. We used the model suggested in ‘Putting Staff First’:

The deputy head takes in everyone’s EQ to see if he feels that it is suitable for the teacher. Sometimes we can chose things that are too vague or too complex in a limited space of time.

Using research – still keeping it simple

For some staff, asking them to focus on something in their teaching and then looking for research to support their EQ would be a new experience so we wanted to ensure it wasn’t overwhelming. For those people we suggested taking a look at these documents and the research behind them to help them keep things manageable. Other staff, will have the desire to go beyond these and look for subject specific or look at the original papers, behind them. We wanted to keep it open enough for those that are more confident in using research and supportive enough so no-one felt lost.

Beyond this we also have the following to support staff in finding out further research

  • CPD library of books/articles/magazines
  • Videos, research reports, articles, resources shared (in Google classroom ‘staff class’)
  • Encouragement to engage with subject community e.g. within MAT, local network, social media, subject association

Working with a coach

The idea to use the coaching model was to ensure that the process is developmental rather than instructional. Staff were already used to having coaching pairs but it wasn’t as tightly focused as this. The use of coaches gives teachers the opportunity to regularly discuss how the enquiry is panning out and to possibly consider things that they hadn’t considered themselves. The deputy headteacher for T&L is in charge of allocating coaching pairs.

A clear process

I wanted the process to have a clear structure with plenty of time to review and come back to the enquiry so it doesn’t get lost in the busyness of every day school life.

This was then put into the school calendar as regular meetings. This is important to give teachers scheduled timings to meet with their coach and just reflect on their enquiry.

I also created a simple form for teachers to complete throughout the year to keep track of what they’ve read and discussed with their coach.

A successful process?

As I said at the start, we’ve not had a full year of RITE yet (hopefully this year will be the first!). We will reflect on how things have gone this year and possibly do a more formal review next year once it’s been embedded more. We need to hear from teachers to work out what has worked and what needs to change to ensure it does the job we want it to.

Whilst it is important to note that the whole point is the EQ intervention may not ‘work’ we hope that through consideration with the coach and use of research, we can see that these may have an impact on learning. I can only talk from my (biased, of course) perspective on the process. I chose to look at metacognition and how speaking about their work might help students in completing longer length answers at GCSE. Luckily my coach wanted to focus on something similar so we could share articles and research we had read.

My Enquiry Question focus – metacognition and ‘talk’

Looking at student work and performance in internal exams, I believe that the work that I did has made a positive, and quite significant difference to their written work. This will now be how I teach extended writing questions at GCSE from now on. We have had the opportunity to share out RITE focus and possible outcomes with our subject departments which is meant we can share beyond our coaching pair (which probably won’t be the same subject).

We haven’t got to the final stage for sharing outcomes yet. We have pondered making very simple research posters or a kind of ‘speed dating’ event where we share. The deputy head will decide what he feels is best for colleagues in this.

Learn from us….

Please do feel free to take any of this to use in your context. A few things that I would recommend to consider carefully…

  • Coaching pairs – The relationship and pedagogical approach matters here (I think!)
  • Time – giving timetabled meeting times (after school in our case) is essential
  • Support with EQ writing – keeping a clear focus and keeping it manageable
  • Emphasis on being research informed and trying things out not ‘success’ or failure’ of the enquiry –

The curriculum as the model of progress – reading list

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A collection of blogs/articles on using the curriculum as the model of progress. Please let me know of any more to add – particularly at subject level.

General

Michael Fordham

What did I mean by ‘the curriculum is the progression model’?

Christine Counsell

In search of senior curriculum leadership : Introduction – a dangerous absence

David Didau

Why ‘using the curriculum as a progression model’ is harder than you think

Curriculum related expectations: using the curriculum as a progression model

Mr Vallance

Curriculum as the progression model: what are we really talking about?

James Wisechs

Progression in learning

Ofsted

An investigation into how to assess the quality of education through curriculum intent, implementation and impact

Subject level

Homework: how to make it worth while, without the hassle

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Research on homework varies. Opinions on homework varies. Like many things, when done badly it has the potential to causes issues with learning but if it’s done well is it worth it?

In my opinion the main issues with most homeworks are:

  1. Students not knowing what it is or at least claiming so
  2. Students not knowing how to do it
  3. Parents/someone else helping students to do it or do it for them
  4. Some students not having a home environment conducive to completing homework
  5. Poorly thought out/last minute tasks
  6. Research shows that it creates anxiety and stress for some children (and no doubt some parents)
  7. Only set because it’s school policy rather than being based on learning
  8. Have specific resources that students might lose
  9. New information is presented to them which they may not understand or be confused by and they have no immediate way to clarify
  10. It can create a ‘gap’ between ‘groups’ of learners due to variation of home support

The final point is based on this research outcome from the EEF.

https://www.suttontrust.com/research-paper/extra-time/?utm_content=buffer41bf1&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

In order to prevent this potential gap, the research paper suggests that schools have homework clubs where students can complete their homework with the support and resources needed. This combats many of the issues with homework.

Why don’t we ban homework?

Apparently parents want it. I’ve been told this. I’m not aware of any large scale surveys on it but I’m sure individual schools ask parents.

It also gives extended curriculum time. If every subject has to set 1 hour homework a week that is 1 hour to extend the focus on a subject. For some subjects that don’t get enough curriculum time, homework is essential.

I’ve changed my mind on this. I used to teach without setting homework and the students did really well. There was no need for homework. However now I’ve read more on research of long term memory I can see homework as the perfect solution to spaced practice.

Is flipped learning the solution?

In my opinion, no.

A solution?

GCSE homework

I set 3 types of homework and only these. All my students know what they have to do for each as they are continuous throughout the year.

  1. Learning key words – they are given sheets with these on. I teach them strategies to learn them, give them cards, set up quizlet etc. They then have weekly in class keyword tests.
  2. Writing M/C questions (from the previous few lessons of learning)
  3. Doing online, self marking multiple choice quizzes (interleaved topics)

None of these require the students to do anything that they can get ‘stuck’ on. The m/c quizzes tell them the correct answers if they get it wrong. They then ‘know’ the correct answers. Writing the m/c questions is based on previous lessons. The only issue is if they weren’t in a series of lessons. It’s rare. Even if a child misses one lesson, they were still present for the others.

We use Showmyhomework so all instructions are on there. None require any resources except internet access. I make it very clear that they can do this in my room at any break/lunch if home internet is an issue. In our school it isn’t an issue but I understand for others it can be.

This structure reduces anxiety as the students know exactly what is expected of them for each and it is repeated so often it becomes a habit.

This homework has a purpose. It is linked to research that suggests that the best way to embed something into long term memory is to recall information. All of these do this. It also supports the spaced effect in that the quizzes are set at increasing gaps over a period of time. It gives students time to forget and then have to recall. (Further info on this via http://www.learningscientists.org )

Does it resolve all issues?

I think it resolves issues 1,2,3,5,6,7,10.

4. – No-one else can ‘learn’ the keywords for them. No-one would be able to write the m/c questions for them (except another student from the class). In theory a parent or someone else could do the online quiz. However it wouldn’t be because they didn’t know what they should be doing it would be out of no desire to complete the task which is different to them not knowing how to do it. Most issues with help with homework are not 100% resolvable but I think the nature of these tasks reduces it.

8. The only potential resource that might be lost is the keywords sheet. However I have a stock of these in my room that students can easily access. The sheet is always attached to their homework on Showmyhomework and it is also on our subject website.

9. The only new information to them will be the new keywords. However the homework is not to understand them. It’s to learn the definitions. It’s rote learning. They will learn their importance and develop understanding of the terms during class. They can then easily ask questions about them.

How can we stop the ‘gap’ from occurring?

In my opinion there’s only one way to ensure there is no gap between students. If we ensure that all students have access to everything they need to know, work closely on diagnosing gaps and supporting them whilst they are in class, any added benefit from parental support or private tuition will be minimised.

Some of research on homework

Giving subjects the power of CPD

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With a focus on curriculum being prioritised in schools the importance of a subject and its associated knowledge, pedagogy etc has become more discussed. This means a shift for some schools from a centralised (everyone in the hall together), one-size fits all (everyone needs to know about X), one person making decisions on content (i.e. an AH for T&L/CPD) approach to CPD. Teachers and subject leads can be keen to have significant role in making decisions about their own CPD and really value the opportunity to be reflective (this excellent blog by Freya @FreyaMariaO shows this).

This isn’t to say that there is no need for some whole school/staff CPD, for example safeguarding or things relating to whole school issues however there is a strong argument that subjects need to have the space and support to be deciding what is needed for them at a department level and taking control of CPD time to meet subject specific needs.

My school has been doing this for a while so I thought I’d share some of the things we’ve done and how we’ve utilised this power and time in the RE department.

INSET day subject time

Most of the time on INSET days is given to subjects. Heads of subject and their teams can decide how they want to use the time given. This can be divided up to be used as individuals, small groups or as a whole team (depending on numbers in the department). We usually talk about subject knowledge and curriculum development. I will have given some reading to do or a preparation activity e.g. look through the year 7 quiz for any adaptations we nee to make’. We get so much done and we also get personal preparation time. Our school is excellent at deciding when to schedule these in the year. They’re at perfect times for us to plan and reflect.

There can be some potential issues with this. It requires subject leaders to know exactly what it is that the team needs to work on which may not always be the case. It also requires them to either have the expertise within the department or know how to access external expertise to support on specific issues. Good school leaders will be able to support in this.

Subject knowledge reading

As part of our INSET time and sometimes as part of our department meetings I give my colleague some relevant reading that links to what we are/will be teaching. It might be a blog, an article, a chapter from a book or in some cases a longer text. We both read it ready to be discussed at an agreed time and to reflect on how this might improve our teaching/schemes.

Examples that we have read this year include:

Dharma: The Hindu, Jain, Buddhist and Sikh Traditions of India:  Amazon.co.uk: Veena R. Howard, Veena R. Howard: 9781350224742: Books
We read the Hinduism chapter of this book to support our Year 8 Hinduism subject knowledge of dharma and are now reading the Sikhi chapter for our Sikhi scheme
We are reading this subject knowledge essay from REonline ready for our INSET day in January so we can add/tweak our scheme of learning https://www.reonline.org.uk/knowledge/sikhism/
We read this over the summer holidays to improve our subject knowledge on the Bhagavad Gita for our Hinduism/Hindu dharma scheme

We are able to do this because I can use some of my subject budget to purchase books that I think will be of use. I know that not all subjects can do this so this should be a consideration for school leaders. I can also do this because I give us the time to discuss them and add them to our schemes.

Subject meetings

You’ve heard it said many times, subject meetings should be developmental not admin. I don’t 100% agree with this especially if you have a big team where messages/meaning can be lost in written text. The rule of thumb is that if it can be said in one email then do that, ideally if there are several things then a once weekly subject bulletin reduces emails. However I do think that subject meetings should include either some subject level teaching discussion or at least planning for it for another time.

We talk about how our year groups are getting on with schemes or assessments. We talk about concepts that students have grasped really well or struggled with (e.g. how Ramadan is linked to the moon and the sun) and how we are dealing with this. We talk about how we can adapt the scheme for next time or even ditch parts. We talk about a new resource we’ve found for a topic. We talk about something we read (e.g. the Ofsted RE research review) or saw that might be useful. We use external resources to increase our knowledge of the GCSE (e.g. This free, online AQA, marking guidance course) We talk about teaching and learning in RE all the time.

External expertise

If subjects are given a budget (of time and money), then they can access external expertise when there are gaps in the department. This does depend on knowing someone that has the knowledge/experience/expertise to address the need. This is where I think that social media comes in handy. Through subject networks you can find people that might be able to help out. Ruth Ashbee (@Ruth_Ashbee) ran a system in her previous school where subject leads had external subject specialist contacts to bounce ideas off and some of these had come via social media.

In 2021, we welcomed Inspiration Trust Religion and Philosophy Lead, Nikki McGee to our school to do some training on Hindu dharma. We had told Nikki what we needed help with and she shared her knowledge, links to resources and texts. The great thing about this is that we could ask our (sometimes silly?!) subject knowledge questions to her.

We have also watched videos of people talking about teaching (e.g. videos from the RE subject association, NATRE, annual conference) where we can pause and discuss as we need to and skip parts we don’t need!

Pedagogical development

How we teach things can be very subject specific. We should be beyond the ‘all subjects, all lessons must do X’ at a pedagogical level’ when sometimes it just doesn’t work and isn’t appropriate (I’m hearing of schools that are currently introducing a 5 part, non-negotiable lesson structure). If a school wishes all staff to consider a particular pedagogical practice then there must be time at subject level to discuss how it might work (or not) with their domain. When we launched our Principles for Learning 6 years ago we gave time to subject areas to consider what they already do that might use some of the principles and to discuss what else they might do. We need to also accept that if we do give something to all subjects to consider that they have the expertise to process and adapt or say ‘this doesn’t work for our subject’.

This year we have shifted some of our generic, whole school, 15 minute forums to subject level 15 minute forums. This means that we are able to decide what is shared and we take turns in leading this. It should be something that will be of use to colleagues that the individual does in their own teaching and is worth sharing. Sharing this amongst a team means that everyone gets to have the opportunity to share ideas but also the responsibility of sharing something. It’s timetabled after school and must not go over 15 minutes! This creates a space to focus on subject level pedagogy.

What senior leaders need to do to enable this

In summary:

  • Talking about subject teaching – The key to all of this is subject level discussion. Not ‘Can we buy some more text books?’ or ‘Who should move up a set?’ but subject knowledge and subject level pedagogical knowledge.
  • Time, time, time – This really is the key and is of no surprise. A mixture of longer periods when people can really get into things and shorter times for quick ‘bites’. We all have the same amount of time available to us in schools so the time exists. What don’t we need to be doing to give teachers time for subject level CPD?
  • Resources including money – A school should support subjects in being able to access the things they need to support subject level development. Even a budget of £50 for books for the year would be a start. If it could only be spent on subject knowledge/teaching (not student resources) books it could make a difference. Who can school/subject leaders go to for external subject support? What support and encouragement are subject leads given to do this?
  • A culture of development– We’re all doing our best but we can all also be better. The way in which leaders speak about teaching and CPD matters. Telling a subject lead ‘you must do X’ if they haven’t/can’t/won’t consider something important is not good leadership or management. It’s unlikely to lead to a culture of trust.
  • Trust – Subject leaders need to be trusted to do their job. This doesn’t mean that ‘anything goes’, there will always be some leaders than need some direction and support in this, especially if their own experience as a teacher wasn’t one of being trusted/supported.

My lessons are relevant, engaging & fun…

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Have you been told that your lessons need to be engaging? Do you think lessons should always be relevant to the students you teach? Does a fun lesson lead to learning? Some thoughts….

Engagement isn’t always visible

Engagement is often interpreted as being something an onlooker can see when they’re in the lesson. Students should be active or talking or working in silence to be engaged in the lesson. But engagement is not always physical or verbal or only taking part in something. It can be thinking. In RE I think that thinking is a huge part of being engaged. The issue is that I cannot ‘see’ that thinking, so how do I know if a student is engaging? Well I can set tasks that require them to think. These can range from quizzes which require them to process an answer to asking thought-provoking questions. I cannot assume that because a student does not offer an answer that they haven’t thought about it. Plenty of students would prefer to be silent in class.

How can we ‘see’ thinking? I do think there is a difference with getting a student to share an answer and getting a student to share their own thinking on their learning. One is impersonal and one is more personal. I think we need to be careful when asking students to publicly share their own thinking. In RE this is particularly important. However, carefully crafted questions can be asked to reveal student thinking. The skill of a teacher is asking students the best questions to elicit thinking that is useful for the teacher to know.

So I think/hope my lessons are engaging; engaging students to think carefully about what they are learning. This does not have to be visible to an onlooker.

Fun comes in different guises

This is at the heart of the debate. Sometimes I think that some people interpret ‘fun’ in lessons as playing games or using relevant resources to engage students.

We all have different ideas of what is ‘fun’. On Twitter I see people running many miles each day and people sitting drinking in pubs in a large group. Neither are my idea of fun. We should not be trying to guess what our students may think is fun and then planning our lessons around it. We will fail. If we think fun means all students want to be active, running around a room then we’re ignoring the students who want to sit quietly as their home life is full of activity and running around. If we plan every lesson to be sat still in silence, we don’t allow those that want to work with others or discuss as a group, as they have no-one to do this with at home. If we think that linking topics to football will be fun and will engage boys, we are isolating those that aren’t interested in football (boys & girls).

We cannot possibly come up with one size that fits all. However I do feel that at secondary school, variety comes from the range of subjects that students study. When a school’s curriculum is truly broad and balanced it will include times when students can sit quietly, when they can run around, when they can work with others and when they can play a game as it is probably the best way to help them to learn something.

Of course fun isn’t about being active. If I were to describe to you my lessons, they’re pretty much all the same; they follow the same simple structure. Students walking into my classroom know what they’re getting. I’d sometimes even say that the predictability is ‘boring’. Yet, every year at parent’s evening I have students and parents tell me how much they love it; they think they’re fun. There will be some students that agree it’s boring but I guess they’re telling the teachers of the lessons that they enjoy how much they love their lessons and how fun they are. We can’t always be everything, to all students, all the time.

What we cannot afford is to think that fun means more learning. This is a trap that we have probably all fallen in to at some point, especially if we’ve had a tricky class that we feel isn’t engaged. We choose something that we feel that might make them laugh or pay attention to, to teach a point but in reality the learning is overshadowed by the experience. Students remember the ‘fun’ but not the learning. An example in RE is using the Simpsons episodes as a scheme to teach some philosophy concepts or acting out a Christian wedding ceremony to teach the importance of marriage. Is the time used on the additional material that makes it fun or engaging worth it in terms of learning? Do the students remember the learning or the activity? Some have called this ‘edutainment’; entertaining students to try to get students to learn.

Fun can be:

  • Working something out by yourself
  • Working successfully with others
  • Getting an answer correct
  • Having a discussion where you get to say your opinion
  • Completing a task
  • Feeling ‘clever’
  • Doing well/better on a test
  • Telling someone else what you learnt today
  • Learning

So my lessons are fun. But this is a result of the learning itself, not planned to try to entertain students to make learning happen.

The relevance/fun may not be here and now

This is what I think is really important about what I teach. The content I teach in a lesson may not seem to be ‘relevant’ at the time for students so may not seem fun during the lesson. I think that is where teaching can go wrong when we think only about individual lessons; ‘a’ lesson should be relevant.

When might it be relevant? In future studies In future conversations. When thinking about life. When processing life experiences.

When I teach beyond the specification at GCSE I really hope that this means that my students are learning things that will be useful in future studies/life. The sense of satisfaction that they might know things that connect to new learning or even they know something that someone else doesn’t is ‘fun’. Feeling clever is fun. Knowing answers is fun. Students love to ‘feel’ they are learning. Once in a while there is a jaw dropping moment in my classes when students realise something they hadn’t before. The adrenaline of this is part of the fun.

Every week I play #universitychallengeklaxon. Once in a while I can answer a question or two. It’s fun. I’m not a huge fan of the quality of the secondary education that I had, however I’d like to think that some of things that I teach students might be useful for them in the future for things that may seem unimportant but are a bit of fun. A pub quiz or a crossword answer. It’s fun to get things right.

But learning isn’t about a pub quiz. It’s about knowing and understanding the world. It is about engaging with others and the world we live in. The engagement from learning in a class may come at a future moment that the teacher can’t ever predict where/when it will be but it may come.

I often use current relevant examples to help students to understand key concepts. This is especially important in RE with abstract and practices that may be very ‘other’ to students. At the moment when I teach ‘salah’ (prayer) in Islam I mention Mo Salah (Salah performing salah) This will help some students to remember the Arabic word salah but I don’t spend lesson time watching clips of Salah scoring goals etc The learning is about salah, an example is Salah, not the other way round.

Also, remembering that students have their own personal worldview (read a blog on this here) helps me to think about when things may not seem relevant to them (why would 6th century Makkah be relevant? or the 16th century Punjab?) and how I might overcome any issues there may be in them understanding. There are so many ways that events from the past and from religion link to their own lives we would be foolish not to make the links but the links are the process to learn, not the always the content itself.

So my lessons are relevant, sometimes for students at the time they’re there but also sometimes for their future life. The skill of a teacher is to balance this enough so the optimum amount of time is spent on making links and the subject itself.

Barriers to schema building in RE (and other subjects)

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Efrat Furst https://sites.google.com/view/efratfurst/visuals – 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.

Teachers

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 https://sites.google.com/view/efratfurst/visuals)

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 https://sites.google.com/view/efratfurst/visuals)

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.

Curriculum

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.

Giving opinions in RE: Why it’s problematic (in my opinion)

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Legacy specification GCSE Religious Studies paper

This was a religious studies GCSE question from a previous specification. This is when students had to give their opinion (or at least write something that appeared as their opinion) on a wide range of topics. Some RE teachers still mourn its loss and want student opinion to be part of the GCSE assessment. I disagree and I feel that student opinions should never be part of assessment in RE and should be allowed in limited circumstances at other times. Here’s why….

It gives the impression that all opinions are equally valid….

If we say to our students that in RE we welcome all opinions and they are all equally valid then we are misinforming our students and potentially allowing students to share uninformed, prejudiced opinions. Whilst I know that teachers don’t really do or mean this, we need to be careful that we don’t give the impression to students that all opinions are valid in RE; they’re not. Racist, sexist, homophobic opinions are not acceptable to be shared in the classroom. I always tell my students that I cannot tell them what to think but I can tell them what is/isn’t acceptable for them to vocalise in my classroom. I have taught many racist, sexist, homophobic students however they are clearly told to keep these comments to themselves.

Of course, our added challenge as RE teachers is when we teach topics that have controversial elements to them. We need to be clear that are different opinions however we also need to say why some are unacceptable and why the laws have been made to support equality and to try to prevent discrimination. Using disciplinary knowledge with these topics is really useful (see below).

The Ofsted research review & personal knowledge

This review introduces ‘personal knowledge’ which is a new term for most in the RE community. This emphasises that we all come to studying RE with our own perspective or view and this will influence how we think and process what we learn.

The way we’ve started to introduce this to students is through lenses. We are explaining that we all have things that have contributed to what we think. Some which may be similar but also different to each other. We have used the metaphor of a lens to help illustrate this.

I’ve blogged more about this here.

I have taken personal knowledge to mean that they know and understand how their views have formed, not what their views are. I wouldn’t say to a student ‘do you believe in God?’ instead ‘How have your beliefs about the existence of God developed?’.

I’m concerned that personal knowledge will become synonymous with ‘your own opinion’ and that’s not how I’ve interpreted what is meant here. If we start thinking it is about getting student opinions on things we can get ourselves into difficult situations when it comes to having controversial opinions e.g. on racism, sexism, homosexuality. Why should I ask students if they believe in God or not? What value does this bring to the others in the room? I never get all students to give their opinion on something. Students regularly offer an opinion when discussing but it is not the aim of a lesson; it’s their choice and we need to be aware of what impact this may have on others.

But asking their opinion is more engaging for them…

If the aim of your lesson is engagement and you feel is achieved by them saying what they think then I fear that the subject has been reduced to ‘opinions’. RE goes ways beyond what we ‘think’ about religion and belief. I think there are many more ways to ‘engage’ students and it’s usually making things more ‘academic’ and making students feel empowered in their study (both substantive and disciplinary knowledge are important in this).

We want students to think hard in our lessons. Thinking hard comes from processing substantive knowledge. If a student spends more time thinking about what they think (and possibly not being able to ‘move on’ from this) we’ve missed a learning opportunity. In my opinion it is much better for developing understanding for students to be able consider where beliefs come from and their positionality (where their opinion has come from) than worrying about what they’re going to say their opinion is.

I don’t think we have any idea what impact our lessons in RE have on students and their thoughts. Whilst teaching, some students will have an inner dialogue trying to process their own position with what we are teaching them. I don’t think we need to do anything about this. It’s internalised. However sometimes students will share this thinking with us. They will share their thoughts or ask a question or respond to a stimulus. This is great if they feel that they want to but I don’t think that we should ‘make’ them.

I use a strategy stolen from Mary Myatt (many years ago she was the Suffolk RE adviser). Whenever we watch a video in class I say to students ‘Any thoughts, comments, or questions about what we’ve just watched’. Often there will be none, but giving students an opportunity to ask is important. Sometimes this is an opinion. This is fine but it’s not required.

We don’t know how our minds work

Imagine if I asked the class if they believe in God and they all said ‘yes’ except for one student. How would they feel? What would they think? I feel this is a real unknown. Equally if I tell them that I do believe in God and they don’t? I think we would be naïve to think that what others say and what we say (as role models and people in power) will influence them.

I don’t think that teachers should share religious opinions (that’s another issue) so why would I expect students to share theirs? It’s not our job to influence their views, instead to present them with content that they may or may not use in forming their own opinions. Alongside the idea of personal knowledge they will be more aware of what has shaped their thoughts and therefore have more understanding of themselves and of others.

They don’t know much to form the opinion with

If we ask students what they think about an issue we may well have forgotten that if they don’t know much about it may well be making a superficial, generalised view just as if you asked me my opinion on the English Civil war. We need to teach students where beliefs come from, how arguments work and the realities of belief way before they can form (more) informed opinions. Even then we can never present a full picture to them so I’d prefer to leave personal processing to them, for some, this will be done with their peers or at home with family.

The role of disciplinary knowledge

Disciplinary knowledge provides us with the framework to study religion and belief. Maybe this is the way to shift from student opinion to looking at opinions and belief.

The social sciences includes looking at ‘real life’ lived belief. It provides us with a rich set of data that can lead to much more structured discussion and analysis.

https://yougov.co.uk/topics/philosophy/trackers/brits-beliefs-about-gods

In this example we can have a really rich discussion and analysis of the survey and the responses in a non-personal way. If we ask the students their responses, it should be very clearly optional and with a clear understanding that they, as with academically processed surveys, they can opt-out. The times when I do use surveys in class its purpose is to model the survey process not to find out what they believe. They can always abstain. It is about comparing context and analysis of results rather than individual responses.

Theology (as I’m using it) can look at where beliefs come from especially from sources of wisdom and authority. We can teach students on what they say and use tools to analyse them, looking at potential meaning/s. This gives a structured way of looking at where beliefs come from with a clear emphasis of diversity of interpretation.

Using philosophy can allow students to think critically about opinions and the logic and evidence used to justify them. If they’re busy trying to process what they think (we’re not always sure what we think) they can miss this important analysis of arguments. It also can become too personal.

What we use in class we try to measure

Finally, in education we’re obsessed with measuring things that happen in the classroom. Is a student making progress? What grade is this essay? What marks does this answer get? If we make ‘giving opinions’ something that we use as part of our curriculum, some will be tempted to try to measure it with assessment. The Ofsted review is clear that this isn’t ideal for personal knowledge and I think that it is totally inappropriate for student opinions. Students are able to show understanding and synthesis of ideas without giving their own opinion. Whilst the GCSEs made a small shift away from giving opinions, they are still accepted in evaluation questions as a ‘judgement’ or conclusion. I strongly steer my students away from this and strongly promote argumentation strategies of evaluating reasoning to lead to a judgment on the quality of the argument themselves rather than their opinion on the topic.

All opinions welcome.

The Ofsted RE research review and assessment – thoughts & suggestions

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One of my interests in education is assessment and so the inclusion of assessment in the recent Ofsted research review was welcomed. I think it makes important points about assessment in RE which I’ve not seen raised before.

This blog is my interpretation and opinion of what some of it means for RE teachers. I’ve tried to include as many practical examples (which usually involve links to other blogs) to help with exemplification.

The purpose of assessment in RE – What are we assessing?

I think this has been the ‘missing’ part of assessment for years in RE. We’ve never quite been sure of what we are ‘measuring’ and I still think there are differing views on this. The review strongly recommends that we use the curriculum as the model of progress so we should then assess if the curriculum has been learnt. Ask yourself, what do you want students to learn in your curriculum? Then that will be the focus of your assessment.

This is why having schemes of knowledge that clearly outline in detail (not just a topic but a long list of what it includes) what we want all teachers to teach and students to learn are really useful. We can then sample from this domain of knowledge because we wouldn’t be able to cover it all in one assessment; it would be very long!

For example, if your schemes of knowledge say:

  • Why Muhammad is important to Muslims
    • Final prophet
    • Al-Amin
    • Restored the Kaaba to monotheism
    • Hadith
    • Received the Qur’an

Then your assessment should find out if the students know what these things are and why they are important to Muslims.

However, if you’ve already taught students about the nature of Allah – Tawhid, sources of authority and Makkah they should also use this prior knowledge in their work. In fact, over time, you may be able to assess students’ overall understanding of concepts that have been taught over several topics. For example, if you’ve done units on the Hindu tradition, Sikhi & Buddhism you could have an assessment on the concept of ‘dharma’ across the religions or the nature of God in the Abrahamic faiths. These long term assessed tasks are useful to see if students have remembered content from a while ago (this could be a problem in schools where student rolls are transient) and also that they have made conceptual connections between them – the golden threads.

Assessment models that are not recommended

The review says that methods that ‘the object of assessment is considered separately from the RE curriculum that pupils journey through and learn.’ are problematical.. ‘They are not valid assessment models to assess specific RE curriculums’. Sadly since ‘life without levels’ we have had a case of replacing levels with levels (the emperor’s new clothes!). I believe this is because leaders and teachers don’t have a firm understanding of assessment and whole school systems have come first, instead of subjects coming first and contributing to the whole school system.

Let’s take an example from the old QCA national framework:

Level 4: Pupils can distinguish between some religions by describing some of the basic similarities and differences between their key aspects and in the ways in which religion influences people’s lives, locally, nationally and globally. They can use a religious vocabulary accurately, interpret information from different sources, and describe how beliefs, ideas and feelings can be expressed in a variety of forms.

This level statement for AT1 is supposed to be a ‘catch all’ no matter which topic it is applied to. Within this descriptor there is so much going on. If we divide it up into specific parts:

  • distinguish between some religions
  • describing some of the basic similarities and differences between their key aspects
  • the ways in which religion influences people’s lives, locally, nationally and globally.
  • use religious vocabulary accurately
  • interpret information from different sources
  • describe how beliefs, ideas and feelings can be expressed in a variety of forms.

Putting all of this together in one statement and giving it a level loses the specifics of what students can do and it is ‘contentless’ – it is detached from what we actually want to find out. If I said a student is a ‘level 4’ using this, what can I actually say that they have learnt? What if they can do some and not all of it?

The review also warns against using exam style questions in key stage 3. I see that RE teachers are doing this, for example using 5 mark questions in year 7. We need to be clear what it is that we are doing with assessment and bringing ‘down’ GCSE questions looks like this is all students need to be able to do in RE. I think the reality for most schools is that using AO1 questions with students for extended writing tasks is very limiting. Expecting students to write two short paragraphs because it is a 4 mark question and nothing else, for the majority of 12 year olds, gives the impression of low expectations. I believe that a good written, assessment task should allow students to write ‘infinitely’ on a topic, based on their knowledge and understanding and shouldn’t be limited by a mark scheme. For me, challenging tasks in key stage 3 will probably produce more sophisticated levels of writing than the GCSE expects.

The review doesn’t mention this but I also personally believe that certain other tasks done in RE for assessment purposes do not tell us how much of the curriculum has been learnt. Anything where students work in a group to produce something reduces the validity of our inferences as we don’t know who specifically has learnt what. Using creative tasks for assessment are problematic as we need to be able to differentiate the quality of the creative aspect of the work with the RE learning e.g. a student may make a beautiful image of their understanding of creation but it may not tell us if they’ve fully understood as a student that isn’t as creative may produce something that isn’t reflective of their deeper understanding.

Multiple choice (MC) questions

The review mentions using MC questions to ‘isolate portions of pupils’ knowledge’. They can be done on paper in differing formats or online, with different software/programmes. Good MC questions are difficult to write. We need to ensure that they aren’t too easy using irrelevant or illogical distractors (alternative incorrect options) that students don’t or are discouraged to guess and that they include common misconceptions so they challenge students.

I have blogged about using online questions here. I have also made some videos on how to use Google Forms to write quizzes using MC questions. Google forms are free and easy to use. There are other online platforms but from my initial investigations a few years ago, they do more than other platforms.

We use MC quizzes in different ways but at key stage 3 we write a quiz that asks questions from the whole of the domain/topic and then give the quiz at the start, middle and end of the topic. We then accumulate them over the topics, so when they’ve done the second topic they do the first and second topic quiz. Their end of year exam is all the quizzes from the year.

MC questions are brilliant because they pinpoint exact knowledge and understanding, are quick to administer, can be self-marked and give large amounts of data without the teacher having to do much. Issues arise when students guess, which is why I introduced the ‘I don’t know yet’ option which we train the students to select if they don’t know. MC questions cannot assess everything but they are a really useful tool. If you or a colleague are dubious about their use in schools, remember they are used in formal examinations around the world (including in the AQA GCSE RS exam). There are many great blogs on the different ways they can be used. Joe Kinnaird has a great blog outlining different ways of using them here and Blake Harvard explores different ways of using them here.

I really recommend investigating using these if you teach many students.

Composite tasks – One task fits all

The review says ‘Composite assessment tasks are fit for their purpose when they are based on curriculum-related expectations.’. This means that the task we give them should specifically reflect what we want them to learn.

I’m a big believer that we should give all students the same task but that it is designed so that all can access it and all can flourish with it. Enquiry questions (EQs) have the possibility of doing this (see here for a blog on these). I think that EQs are really great as they can be used to frame the content students are learning. I think they’re also particularly useful for RE because if they are carefully designed to cover several lessons then there are many ways of being answered and it doesn’t disadvantage a student that may have missed one lesson. So I think that an EQ that is introduced and covers at least 4 lessons is a great way to pull together learning. The important point to make is that the EQ is introduced at the start and each lesson (and homework?) contributes to the student being able to answer the question. Designing a question that does all these things can be tricky.

Designing an EQ needs careful thought. What exactly is it that you want students to learn? In the example of Muhammad above we want to see if students know why Muhammad is important to Muslims so keeping it simple with ‘Why is Muhammad important to Muslims?’ covers exactly this. Students can then choose from all that they have been taught and show their understanding. Some might pick one aspect and give a detailed response using the examples, use of texts (Qur’an/Hadith) that have been taught and make links . Others may give a brief explanation of each. Weaker students will just list the points with little development. Either way we can infer through their writing what they know and understand. It’s not perfect though. We are relying on good written literacy and need to be careful to be assessing their RE not just their writing style or presentation of knowledge.

This links to the point about argumentation. I think that using (simple) arguments can support the ‘ways of knowing’ or the disciplines of RE (I’ve blogged about it here!) A really simple way of bringing argumentation into student writing is using the ‘because, but, so’ structure suggested in ‘The Writing Revolution’ and brought to my attention by Joe Kinnaird and his brilliant blogs. This gives the simple reason/counter-reason/conclusion format which is such a neat way to get students started writing arguments. You can easily add to this to create more complex arguments including using examples and evidence (and counter examples/evidence) which includes using sources of wisdom and authority to support reasoning (being careful not to, as the review says “promote the use of textual sources as ‘proof texts’ to justify particular expressions of living or beliefs”).

But how do we then assess their response? We use subject specific mark schemes which are are writing together when we design the EQ. We identify what it is that we want students to be able to show us in their answer which is specifically on the topic. Which keywords are we expecting to see? What reasoning should they be including? These mark schemes are not limiting as students may take different approaches but if we have discussed what these might look like beforehand then we try to increase to the validity of our inferences. We could, if we had time, do moderation on each task as well.

For examples of EQs linked to the disciplines also see the Norfolk Agreed Syllabus p17-22.

A mixed method approach

If we start with the understanding that nothing that we can get students to do can truly tell us what they have/haven’t learnt then we can start to find ways that might indicate to us some of their learning. In this blog I have talked about the mixed method approach. To me, if we can use multiple choice questions which require time to set-up but beyond that no marking time they are a really useful part of our assessment. However they may not tell us certain things about learning which is where composite tasks come it. Taking a mixed method approach means we can get more information about learning, in different formats. In RE we need to try and keep things manageable as we often have many classes to assess. So far, this seems to be working for us.

When a school system doesn’t do what we want it to

If we do all of this thinking around assessment and decide how we want to assess in RE, a big barrier that teachers will face is whole school systems. You could design a great mixed method model which fits with your curriculum and then be told you have to report one grade or level in a whole school system 6 times a year. Grades and %s don’t tell us if students have made progress through the curriculum. I believe that many schools need to rethink their whole school reporting systems anyway. So many are confused about the purpose of assessment and are used to make inferences from data that should never be made.

A previous deputy headteacher I worked with came up with a perfect system for this which means that subjects could assess using the methods that are suited to their subject. Subject leads were given the autonomy to do this. All that teachers needed to report onto the MIS was if students were making expected progress or not. Isn’t that what we want to know? Isn’t it what parents want to know? Within the parameters of a subject, is a student making the progress that we expect them to? This mixed method model for RE could easily fit this whole school system.

What next?

We need to be honest with each other and point out where assessment models aren’t doing what we want them to do. The RE community needs to be supportive of teachers trying to develop new models that don’t fall foul of the things the review mentions. We probably all need some training on assessment (here’s a free, simple Seneca example) and time to work with subject specialist colleagues. It would be great for the RE community to share multiple choice quizzes and enquiry questions that have worked really well. As with anything these things take time but I am really glad that the Ofsted review has started the conversation.