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.

School Leadership shift: subject leaders as Teaching & Learning experts

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Here are some job descriptions for secondary, senior leadership, Teaching & Learning roles:

  • To ensure that all students have access to a high quality learning experience.
  • To monitor and evaluate student progress and achievement.
  • To support teachers to improve the consistency and effectiveness of teaching and learning
  • To promote Quality First Teaching so that all students achieve the best possible outcomes
  • To ensure Continuous Professional Development is relevant, high profile and supported by research
  • To ensure high attaining students are sufficiently challenged and inspired
  • To ensure students with SEND receive high quality first teaching in the classroom
  • To ensure disadvantaged students and those needing catch up are motivated and make good progress
  • To ensure all students develop skills for independent study and life – long learning
  • To promote effective liaison with other professionals across the MAT and outside the school to ensure best practice

Whilst I’m sure most people think these are important parts of an effective school, in this blog I am proposing that the responsibility for actioning these should mostly come down to teachers & subject leaders. In fact, it’s nonsense to think that they aren’t their responsibility but these senior leadership T&L descriptors seem to take an overall responsibility for something that involves many different subjects & potentially different approaches.

Most secondary schools will have an AHT or DHT in charge of teaching & learning. This role usually involves whole school approaches to assessment, CPD, teaching etc. There are several issues with this approach.

Current model issues

One of the big issues with the current model is that one person is leading T&L across multiple subjects but will probably only really know and understand the workings of their own subject or faculty area. Some of us will have experienced senior leaders from one discipline trying to enforce whole school T&L policies to all subjects because it works in their subject when they don’t work across subjects. For example, Maths senior leaders deciding that books should be marked once a week, basing it on their 5 classes and not an RE teacher’s 21 classes.

The T&L lead may supposed to be the ‘expert’ on everything T&L when in fact there may be other people in the school that know more than them on specific aspects of T&L. This hierarchical approach means that the school may not benefit from the expertise of all teachers. Whilst I can hear people saying ‘but I don’t do this’ I know there are are senior leaders that are firmly stuck in the hierarchical approach where their voice is more important and /or authoritative, even if they’re less experienced or knowledgable than others.

Things like observations and book scrutinies are problematical with a top-down approach of SLT members that may not be trained in a particular discipline, using whole school criteria making judgments on teachers. Whilst many schools have ditched these practices it’s the top down approach and out of specialism issue that added to their ineffectiveness.

In all of this, subject leaders’ roles are often limited to curriculum design, assessment (centrally aligned to whole school), exam administration, general administration & general management of the team as determined by whole school policies . Limited because they don’t necessarily make many subject levels decisions. The use of their subject expertise may be limited by whole school policies and processes.

I know some people will read this and say ‘we don’t do it like this’ but there are schools and leaders that do. It’s a model that doesn’t seem to appreciate that subject leaders should be the experts and in this be able to make subject level decisions that are appropriate. Also saying that you believe that your subject leaders are experts is not the same as actually treating them this way.

A ‘new’ subject level model – The ‘expert’ subject leader

This model focuses more on how a subject works and what good teaching & learning means for a specific subject. It is a distributed leadership model where subject leads have the power to make decisions independently of others. Subject level leadership means that pedagogy, assessment , CPD etc is relevant and appropriate for a subject discipline. Teaching and learning could be research informed but also subject discipline informed. The subject leader would be the ‘expert’ leading the team.

Whole school development plans would change for those that use a top down approach to a subject level approach. The whole school development plan would be constructed from the subject priorities rather than vice versa. Subject level development plans wouldn’t be written addressing whole school priorities but subject level priorities. They would be regularly reviewed and changed where needed depending on subject needs. (As an aside, my current Twitter poll is showing that 25% of respondents do not know what their school development plan says. What can this tell us?)

Instead of generic targets such as ‘increased progress for pupil premium students’ on the whole school plan, it would name which subjects this was a focus for and specifically which strategies each subject was going to trial for the year. If pupil premium students are achieving as their non-PP peers then a subject area doesn’t need to be spending time on this.

This model would also see a shift in how subject meetings are run. It may also impact frequency. Sessions might be wholly subject specific CPD or development of assessments. The important part is that they would be lead collaboratively by the subject leader because that is what the subject needs not what a whole school plan says.

A subject leader would have a CPD budget of money and time. It would be up to them to decide how it was best used. Subject leads would be told what time they have annually including INSET days and they and their team would be responsible for planning this. Probably a term at a time to be flexible in upcoming needs. Gone are the days of every teacher sitting in one room for a day learning about X or Y. There may well be people that already know about X and dare I say more than the person leading the session! They don’t need to be there. CPD should be personalised, subject context specific and sustained to make it effective.

In this model, subject leaders & their teams would be strongly encouraged to work with their external subject communities in developing T&L. Whether it be via their subject association, local networks, online networks or social media. Importantly this would be seen as part of their allocated time not a bolt on if you have time or are more motivated to do so.

Subject specific CPD would be a large part of what subject leads do. It doesn’t always need to be lead by them but coordinated by them. They know the subject knowledge strengths and gaps of themselves and their team. They would know if external support is needed.

If a school wanted to use afore mentioned accountability measures then these would be at subject level. The subject team would decide what would be useful for observations to focus on or what book scrutinies would look at. They would closely link with the subject level priorities and would use subject level paper work if necessary.

Centralised systems & associated paperwork wouldn’t be imposed on subjects. Frameworks might be suggested and particular research suggested as a foundation but it would always make sense for a subject’s needs not someone trying to get everyone to do the same. These might include:

  • Marking and/or feedback – frequency, type
  • Monitoring systems – How? What? Why?
  • Assessment – how? When? What?

Time and money?

Isn’t this just giving subject leaders more to do with insufficient time and the same money? If you take the current model in many schools where subject leaders do not have these responsibilities then clearly having one or two extra non-contact periods a week won’t work. This model would need a whole new perspective on timetabling. You couldn’t use the current timetable and squeeze the new responsibilities into it. You would also need to think carefully if there are things that currently subject leaders do that they would no longer need to do. This model would involve a rethink of school structures.

The role of the senior leader and Teaching & Learning

Won’t this all be chaotic? Every subject doing their own thing?

The senior leader job as per the job descriptions would need to change. Centrally made decisions would be shifted to subject level decisions. So what could happen to the senior leadership role? The role may totally be dissolved. Or it might be remodelled to support the new structure.

However this wouldn’t be just a shift in semantics of the role description. It is a big shift in decision making and accountability. The subject leader makes the decisions with their team and the senior leader works with them to help them happen. The expertise lies at subject level with the senior leader being a facilitator and supporter.

This new role could be a line manager to all subject leaders so they have an overview of everything that is happening. The person would have to develop a good understanding of how subjects work epistemologically, pedagogically etc. They would work closely with the subject leaders to understand what they are doing and why. This role would skilfully be able to support subject leads in identifying what may/may not be needed for subject development; a conversation not a diktat.

The senior leader role would particularly support new subject leaders in their role, mentoring them through the first year or beyond. They would also support those subject leaders that may find some parts of the role challenging. They would need to be flexible.

This model doesn’t fully negate the need for some whole school direction and specific CPD e.g. safeguarding, but non-statutory training would need to be carefully thought through if all colleagues/subjects really need it.

As this person would have a whole school overview they would be able to identify where subjects might work together on something. For example, if History and English were looking at metacognition they may join their subject session to share research, reading and strategies. This would be mutual development time.

The biggest challenge for this person would be consistency. But it’s a shift of consistency from making everyone do the same, to consistency of high quality subject leadership. It requires someone that is flexible and knowledgable. They would be highly sensitive to the balance between support and instruction. I would argue it might be a more challenging job than that described above.

This model isn’t without its own issues. However I think that the distributed leadership model means that school development works at a subject, micro level which has more chance of being owned by teachers and therefore potentially have more impact than a macro, top-down system.

I know there are some schools that already follow this proposed model but I think they’re a small minority. It would be interesting to hear from you on what the advantages and disadvantages of this model are.

NB I’ve not had time to add references to support these ideas but may come back to add them

The ‘Curse of Knowledge’ & foundational knowledge in teaching

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It is important that we, as teachers, don’t forget what we already know and what our students don’t know. The ‘Curse of Knowledge’ cognitive bias means that we have a (comparatively) in depth knowledge on a topic compared to those we’re speaking to. Whilst good subject knowledge is necessary to be a good teacher it isn’t sufficient. One of the most important skills of a teacher is knowing what students know and don’t know and how to build upon that.

I love Efrat Furst’s visuals to help explain the issues here….

Used with kind permission from Efrat

This diagram shows how our ‘knowledge’ builds to mastery levels. As subject teachers we have subject specific knowledge that we have built up (and continue to build) over time. Some teachers are incredibly knowledgeable in their field. But teaching isn’t about just telling students what we know; it’s the skill of being able to share with students what we know in a way that they can access.

I think the ‘curse of knowledge’ follows when our level of competence becomes unconscious. We forget that we have gone through this process ourselves to create our complex and in-depth schema. And the issue is, our knowledge has become so connected and embedded (the large triangles) that we find it difficult to unpick (back to the smaller triangles) in order to teach the small components of knowledge to those at the start of this process.

I know how this feels when talking to people whose knowledge of religion/teaching far outweighs mine. My brain tries hard to pick up any clues to link back to what I already know to pin the new information that they are telling me. However if there is too much information or I didn’t find a relevant peg to connect the new information to, that’s it, I’m lost! And I’m generally a motivated person.

Imagine you are a student that isn’t motivated and you ‘don’t like’ a subject. If a teacher doesn’t build up foundational knowledge and dives straight in with a complex concept you will be lost within seconds.

So what can we as teachers do to overcome this?

Literacy

We need to gauge the literacy of the students we teach and work to develop their vocabulary. The range of vocabulary our students have also act as ‘pegs’; they need a certain level of vocabulary to be able to access new knowledge. This includes all tiers of vocabulary. Without a student’s basic knowledge of vocabulary, the explanations that we give will have to be simplified and possibly therefore reduced in content. Developing rich and varied vocabulary is therefore key. Oxford University Press have done some research on this and have produced a free set of resources for primary and secondary which include subject specific guides for reducing the ‘word gap’. See here to access these.. https://global.oup.com/education/content/dictionaries/key-issues/word-gap/?region=international

Explicit linking to prior knowledge

Whenever we begin to teach new content we need to work out how it connects to prior knowledge and explicitly make the links for the students. Thinking about foundational prior knowledge needed for a topic is a good exercise to undertake; ‘what do you already know that means that you understand this?’ The more complex the concept the more foundational knowledge needed. This is particularly useful for trainee teachers. I’ve worked with highly intelligent trainees who struggle to understand why students don’t ‘get’ what they’ve taught them. Most of the time it’s because they have the ‘curse of knowledge’.

Back to Efrat’s great illustrations….

“Learning something new with and without relevant prior knowledge”

(First GIF ever, learning something new here; HT @Hubertjer for the inspiration)

Originally tweeted by Efrat Furst (@EfratFurst) on March 18, 2021.

This is a good way of showing how, even when we’ve identified what it is that we want students to know (represented by a small triangle) if we don’t set the foundations for them to peg it to they don’t connect correctly. The skill of a teacher is to pitch things so that students can build their schema with firm foundations. We cannot assume that students know the things we do!

When we plan to teach a concept we can unpick what the foundations are to that concept. What do you need to know and understand before you can fully understand the new concept?

I’ll take an RE example of the Trinity. Some of the knowledge you need to know..

  • Jesus
    • Human & God (Son of God)
    • The Incarnation
    • John 1
  • God
    • Not human or visible
    • As described in the Bible e.g. loving father
  • Holy Spirit
    • Genesis 1:2
    • Active in the world today

Then you can start to consider how God can be ‘three persons’ and the following discussions about what the Trinity ‘is’ and ‘isn’t’. Understanding the Trinity goes beyond knowing the three parts. You can only begin to understand the ‘holy mystery’ if you understand why understanding it is complex!

Actively doing this as part of planning is a good way to ensure we don’t make assumptions about prior knowledge.

Other strategies

I do 1-10 quizzes at the start of all my lessons. If teaching a new concept in that lesson I will try to ensure that some of these questions link to the new concept by asking prior knowledge that I know is part of the new concept. This means that we’re retrieving the content needed but when I go through the answer I’m also doing a mini-recap for those that may have forgotten.

Using visuals can also help students see the connections between concepts. Things like concept maps give clear visual links between concepts. These could be completed at the start/middle/end of a topic to help students ‘pull together’ their knowledge.

Using mind pegs from when you taught the prior knowledge can also be useful whether that be a resource your used or a lesson feature. ‘Do you remember when we watch the video of X?….’Do you remember the lesson when we did Y?’ Linking to classroom ‘episodes’ that the students experienced should help them remember the foundations.

I use the ‘what do we already know about this?’ strategy when I know we’ve covered some foundational knowledge. Some people call it a ‘brain dump’ or similar. Getting students to remember what they already know is not only the basis for building new knowledge but it gives confidence; ‘We already know some of this so it’s not so challenging.’

Using the tier 2 and 3 language is important. I use tier 3 vocabulary as much as possible but always following it with it’s definition so students don’t get lost. e.g. ‘Today we will be studying the Trinity – which means that God is three persons….’. I will carry on repeating this over and over until I think that I can use it in my explanations without the definition.

Key stage transition

One reason the key stage 2 to key stage 3 transition is problematical is that secondary teachers may not know what their year 7s already know. They then might over or under estimate this. Either way it can be disengaging for students. Some try to find out what they know by doing a baseline test at the start of year 7. The problem is that these are often ask questions from the huge subject domain. It could never cover everything you’d want to know about their knowledge so it becomes a waste of time. Maybe year 7 teachers visiting year 6 in the summer term could help with this. It won’t tell you what students know but you will get an idea of literacy levels and the level of challenge they are working at.

Teacher awareness

If you’ve only ever worked with students with a similar level of literacy and/or foundational knowledge you might initially struggle if you went to a new school to teach. I’ve seen this so many times in my career with others and with myself! Every time I have moved school I have had to realign how I teach. This isn’t about lowering or raising expectations. It’s about being aware of where you need pitch things.

I started my career in a school with challenges such as low literacy, social deprivation and behavioural challenges. I then went to an interview at a private school that didn’t have these challenges. The resource I provided was so far off the mark that the interviewers must have been bewildered! They may not have even realised why I had done that.

I now know that what was appropriate in my context was far from appropriate in that context. We can’t just pretend that all students can access the same resources. Again, this isn’t about lower expectations, it’s about a different starting point. I strongly believe that all students should access the same content but how we approach it may differ including the time it takes to teach it. If you don’t believe that, spend a year in a school different to yours and come back to me!

From what I see on social media, some teachers don’t realise that this is a thing. They have not worked in different ‘types’ of schools and therefore have the curse of knowledge of their own context and don’t understand how it can differ. I sometimes hear people talk about teaching and think that they have no idea what it’s like to work in a school that is different. We need to be aware that there are differences in literacy and knowledge and a great teacher differentiates (in the wider sense – not different worksheets!) for the students they have.

Great teaching

We cannot assume that students have foundational knowledge that we do and will therefore make appropriate links. We need to regularly be explicit about these connections. As soon as we do, we can build up their knowledge as per Efrat’s diagram to create complex schemas. If we don’t, students can become demotivated, confused, lose confidence and at worst completely switch off. The skill of a great teacher is to overcome the ‘curse of knowledge’ and make subject knowledge accessible for all students.

Disciplines: A new direction for assessment in RE?

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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….

How using lenses in RE supports countering misconceptions

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This blog is going to introduce the idea of using lenses in RE to help students to understand the way that the disciplines of RE ‘work’ but also specifically how the idea of lenses can help us as teachers address misconceptions in RE.

I’ve developed this idea of lenses to introduce to year 7 to help them understand how people view the world (some people like to call this a worldview). I have already blogged on how lenses are can be an important aspect of student views here and this helps them understand their own personal lens and how it might have been developed and will continue to develop over time. Some have called this ‘positionality’. Ofsted HMI RE subject lead Richard Kueh has shared their thinking on this here and refer to it as ‘personal knowledge’.

However the idea of lenses can be used for students to be introduced to other lenses. In RE this isn’t just ‘religious’ lenses but a wide range of variations and combinations. It gives a framework for them to understand that not everyone if the same as them and as they study religion and belief can give them a better conceptual framework to pin their knowledge and understanding to.

The analogy isn’t perfect and has flaws but for secondary students it is useable and those flaws can even become part of the discussion. Once they’ve been taught about this concept, the lenses can pop up at various times throughout the curriculum. I’ve found it particularly useful in spontaneous discussion with students as a reference point to go back to.

Big questions

This image helps students to consider how different lenses will mean different responses to ‘big’ questions in life and helps to appreciate that their lens or view will come from a different perspective to others’. This could be particularly useful when teaching moral and ethical issues.

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Disciplinary lenses

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I’ve discussed how disciplinary knowledge is part of argumentation in RE here so the idea of a disciplinary lens is an obvious way for students to be able to see that when we approach a topic or and idea we can also use a disciplinary lens. These lenses provide a way of approaching substantive knowledge (the content of what we teach) from the different disciplines (ways of knowing’) in RE.

Multiple lenses

This is where the power of the lens idea comes through; using multiple lenses.

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This image was designed to show that there are multiple possible interpretations to the story of Noah. In particular that there isn’t just one Christian interpretation but several. Also that just because they might associate it with Christianity to let them know that the story exists in other religious texts but this would mean that other religions have a different view of the Christian story.

I didn’t emphasise this at the time but now considering how the lenses overlap could become an important point to make. Where do views overlap on what they believe? What are these points of overlap? I could have my own non-religious view of a religious story that may well be similar in nature to a religious interpretation e.g. I can think that the Parable of the Good Samaritan gives a good guide for life without being a Christian.

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This image was designed to help understand Biblical interpretations. We use this for example when looking at the creation story in Genesis. This would support introducing students into Hermeneutics (exploring the different potential messages within a text and interpretations of a text).

Lenses & misconceptions

Whilst writing a different blog that touched upon misconceptions, I realised that this is where lenses are crucial. If I think about the classic misconceptions that students have in RE, so many of them might be prevented with a solid understanding of lenses or with the foundations of lenses already made, to support my explanations to address these misconceptions much clearer and logical for students to understand.

Let’s take some misconceptions in RE and think about how these lenses might be used to address them….

“Science is in opposition to religion”

This misunderstanding comes from the idea that lenses don’t ‘overlap’; the scientific lens cannot be used in combination with a religious one. This layering of lenses allows students to see that there are infinite layers of lenses. If we teach students that certain lenses are not necessarily unique or standalone then this misconception can be addressed by an image like this:

It is important for us to present these as ‘A lens’ it’s one of many potential lenses, not ‘the only Christian lens’.

A good example is looking at views on how the world was created. Many students assume that you either believe in science or if you’re a Christian you literally believe the Genesis narrative. Using the lenses here can help students appreciate that there can be a more complex relationship between them.

Again the layering could also be analysed. This Christian lens has ‘space’ that the scientific lens doesn’t. What does this Christian lens believe that the scientific lens cannot fully mirror? What does the scientific ‘space’ contain that might not mirror with this Christian view? How much do the lenses overlap? Why? Why might the ‘space’ be different for different people?

“Catholics are not Christians”

This may come from a lack of understanding of Christian denominations. Considering different denominations as different lenses can help students understand how lenses can have commonalties but also differences.

This first image illustrated that the denomination lenses are separate however this second image could be used to discuss similarities and differences. I guess it almost becomes a three way Venn diagram. It is important here to start unpicking the difference between doctrine and personal views as well.

Some historical substantive knowledge here would also probably help.

“Everyone in a denomination believes the same thing”

This links in to the misconception above and gives a good opportunity to explore the difference between doctrine and personal belief. Students need to understand that whilst someone may identify with a specific denomination/school/sect this doesn’t mean that they agree or indeed believe its official doctrine. An example of this is where a personal religious lens meets a doctrinal religious lens. Issues where this might provide a useful structure are controversial issues such as abortion, contraception & sexuality.

This shows that even within a denomination there are variations of ‘lenses’. You could explore what these might include and why they exist. This will mean looking through theological and social science lenses so should include a rich discussion on interpretation & personal belief.

“Sikhs have a kirpan to attack people”

Context is such an important concept in RE. Students need substantive historical & cultural knowledge to be able to understand that their 2021 lens may not interpret things in the same way as a 30CE or 640 CE lens or even a 1960CE lens. Having a sense of ‘time’ and ‘context’ can be help to prevent these misconceptions. Students can’t help but apply a 2021 UK lens when introducing the kirpan. Their context is “knives are used for cooking or for stabbing someone. The kirpan looks like a knife so….”. Using historical knowledge and ‘time’ lenses can help students to understand the historical, symbolic and spiritual significance of the kirpan for Sikhs

“A large % of the UK is Muslim”

I’ve heard this a few times. Students have an overinflated view of the numbers of Muslims in the UK. A social sciences lens is perfect here. Looking at the reality of numbers will help them to get a more realistic picture of the Muslim Community. And of course it’s important to then unpick where this misconception has come from e.g. the media, family etc

“Jesus was white”

A classic misconception but do students understand how this idea has come about? This is a great topic to look at sociological, cultural and historical lenses.

I’m going to stop now, I’m sure you get the idea. I’m sure there are other misconceptions that might use the lenses differently. This isn’t for every lesson; it’s for when the analogy can support understanding. As we gain experience as teachers, in some cases we do what we can to counter misconceptions before they arise. I hope this has provided some inspiration to how the lenses can help provide a framework for discussing and addressing misconceptions. I’d love to hear more examples.

Should we spend time finding out what students have learnt during a lesson?

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I will start by saying that I think this might be difficult for me to explain my thinking and I suspect I will give up trying to clarify! I also suspect that some of this is engrained in what people have always been told should be in their teaching and will defend it regardless. Regardless, I hope this blog gives some things to ponder on.


In normal times I hear teachers speak about spending time in lesson doing whole class activities with the purpose of finding out what students know/understand/have learnt in that lesson. I don’t mean independent practice (although there are possible issues with this) I’m thinking about tasks where the teacher makes the students all respond at the same time, in the lesson. For example, using whiteboards to hold up an answer or giving them a multiple choice and the students hold up their fingers to correlate with what they think the correct answer is. Also, in some cases individual activities in front of the whole class such as ‘targeted questioning’.

I’m also not talking about retrieval activities that have the purpose of helping students to remember in the long-term; this is a different purpose. I’m discussing when a teacher does an activity to find out if all the students know/understand what they have just learned/have made progress in that lesson which I think may be a waste of time in doing exactly that.

During online learning I’ve seen people spending time trying to replicate these activities however as there are additional issues with remote teaching I’m not including it in my argument here.

Bjork & Bjork (2006) back my concern when they say “teachers….are at risk of assuming that performance during instrcution…is a reliable index of learning – that is, that performance during instruction is a valid basis for judging whether the relatively permanent changes that will support long-term performance have or have not taken place”

So what we think we are finding out from these activities might not be quite what we think.

I suspect that a lot of this practice comes from the ‘proving learning/progress every 20 minutes’ phase in teaching which possibly originated from Ofsted inspections at the time. I wonder if these are just a hangover or if people have really thought about if they’re impactful? Whilst it might not be being done every 20 minutes have the activities continued?

It wastes time

I also think that they waste time. I’ve tried to think of an analogy to represent what I think happens with teachers that do this. It’s not a great one but here goes…

A child is NOT a dustbin

Let’s imagine someone is trying to fill a large dustbin full of mud as quickly as possible. They need 30kg of mud in the dustbin. They start filling it and then take it over to the scales to weigh it. It’s 5kg. So they take it back and continue filling. They want to check it again so take it back over to the scales and reweigh it;15kg. Time is ticking by, so they drag it back and carry on filling it. They must be nearly 30kg so they take it back to the scales and it’s 29kg. So they go back…..

I am not equating students with buckets! My point here is that it was probably a waste of time keep weighing the dustbin. The quickest way to fill the dustbin would be to just carry on and not keep stopping to weigh it. Ignoring all other flaws in the analogy I would say that the time and activities that is spent in classrooms finding out if students know things might be better used keeping on teaching them instead of trying to measure the learning.

I think this is one of the big issues with these activities; I can’t see how the time doing them is better than teaching students more or recalling for long-term memory.

In some classes, using whiteboards will take time to setup and take time on the inevitable training needed so that students don’t draw penises or wipe the ink all over their hands. At a minimum that would be 5 minutes total giving out and taking in? I know some schools have a whiteboard ready for each lesson but for those that don’t it’s a factor.

Imagine you’re the child that gets the questions correct every time. Assuming that there are occasions when others get it incorrect if the teacher chooses to go through the incorrect answer then you have to sit each time listening to something you already know. If you’re the student that often gets it wrong, the teacher may well say ‘Brian got this wrong so I’m going to go through it’ or ‘Brian how did you work out that answer?’. Poor Brian, being named. Easy solution, don’t say Brian’s name. But Brian knows that each time this repetition of explanation is for him. Not a great feeling. And then how do you know what his misconception might be?

And if you’re the student that doesn’t understand, you may feel pressured to write something on the whiteboard so any indicated of a misunderstanding is completely undermined by the fact they just wrote any answer down; there is no rationale for it (that the teacher my try and spend time doing).

And what if Brian still doesn’t get it after your second explanation? Do you keep on asking everyone? At which point does the majority understanding outweigh the few that don’t? How long do we carry on, on the same topic? If we keep diagnosing problems we’re making things very complicated

There are other uses of time that are much better for learning. Filling the dustbin more and more (overlearning?) is better than continuously weighing it.

We should focus on teacher exposition

This is one of the key factors. This model means that a teacher is spending more time repeating an explanation in the moment rather than the emphasis being on refining it for next time. As you become more experienced as a teacher you should pick up on common misconceptions on specific topics and pre-empt these before you teach the topic again. Does the in-class method prevent out of class reflection of exposition? Of course not, but I think that there should be a significant emphasis on refining for next time.

Also, if Brian got the answer wrong, there has probably been a misunderstanding somewhere. Without asking him you won’t know what that is. Again, asking him publicly isn’t ideal. And then what? Some teachers will repeat the exact same explanation. If they change their explanation to meet his misunderstanding, why didn’t you explain it like that in the first place? Once the misconception is there it is very difficult to ‘un-do’ it.

Asking ‘targeted’ questions

I hear people saying we should plan who we ask questions to to see what the group have understood. I find it utterly bizarre that you would calculate who to ask something that would be representative of anything other than what that the student can answer there and then. Being told to ask pupil premium students first is just ridiculous and frankly embarrassing. Asking your ‘high attaining’ student a difficult question to ‘challenge them’ – they’re probably clever enough to realise this. How frustrating to never be asked a simple question once in a while. And your low attaining student being the bench mark; if ‘Christine gets it then everyone else will get it’ is again just horrific rationale for asking her a question.

Using this type of targeted questioning to make inferences about learning in my opinion is not only a waste of time for everyone else in the class but has dubious foundations. Just ask them all the same question on a piece of paper to answer in their own time.

Does it really tell us what they’ve learnt?

This is where Bjork comes in again. There is a difference between performance and learning. And performance was exactly what people wanted for Ofsted inspections and high stakes lesson observations.

I’ve seen this most in maths teaching. A teacher teaches students a methodology of working something out, gives examples, the students practise. They can do the method themselves. Their answers show this. BUT when there’s an end of unit test which requires application of the same methodology, they all leave it blank or get it wrong. What happened?

Again, it’s not the fact that the teacher has got them to do the practice that matters; practice is important. It’s the inferences made from the results of the practice in one lesson that matters. Saying they could do it therefore they have learnt it is not true. A teacher needs to do much more for it to ‘be learnt’. Which comes back to the issue of time. I think a teacher should spend more time working on long-term memory in lessons (which may be independent practice!) that trying to prove they’ve learnt it. It’s the use of time and inferences that matter.

The teacher has confused ‘performance’ that they can correctly use the method with them having learnt it which is temporary with long-term learning.

The distinction between learning and performance is
crucial because there now exists overwhelming empirical
evidence showing that considerable learning can occur
in the absence of any performance gains
and, conversely,
that substantial changes in performance often fail to
translate into corresponding changes in learning

Soderstrom, N. C., & Bjork, R. A. (2015). Learning versus performance: An integrative review. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10, 176-199.DOI: 10.1177/1745691615569000.

Does it depend on the subject or what we’re asking them?

My perspective on this comes from teaching a humanities subject. I find that when I teach new ideas students are more than willing to ask questions about it. My relationship with them means that are happy to do this. Their questions bring up any misconceptions which I can deal with there and then. Maybe some students don’t want to ask and I’m preventing them from being able to share the misconception? Maybe a student has carried on with a misconception because they weren’t confident to ask me? I think I go over and over content and then apply it to new contexts that this may be just as good as spending time finding out individual misconceptions, but with the added benefit of overlearning & lots of retrieval.

I can see that subjects like maths and science might want to use whiteboards for example for students to put their answer to a numerical question. It’s a quick way to see if students have understood. But my previous arguments hold on this. Would individual practice without the pressure of answering at the same time as everyone else be better? Wouldn’t it be better if students that get stuck on work ask for help individually? Maybe this is also about teacher-student relationships?

Does it depend on teacher experience?

When you teach a new topic you won’t have such a clear idea of what the common misconceptions are so your explanations may not be refined to address them. Once you’ve taught it a few times you should pick up on these and change your expositions. So maybe these techniques are needed the first time you teach a concept, not necessarily to find out who has the misconceptions but for the long term gain of being able to identify them and address them before they arise next time the topic is taught.

But we need to deal with misconceptions straight away…

Yes of course we must but having 32 students holding up answers and then responding might not be the best way to do that. Students need to understand foundations to be able to move on to higher level understanding, I just am not convinced that these strategies are the best way of finding out if truly understand it or if they are ready to move on.


I’m a reflective teacher and want to find out what I’m missing out on in my teaching. I want to make things better. However with these strategies I just can’t see how my students are missing out. I’m just going to keep filling the dustbin….

Bjork, R. A., & Bjork, E. L. (2006). Optimizing treatment and instruction: Implications of a new theory of disuse. In L-G. Nilsson and N. Ohta (Eds.), Memory and society: Psychological perspectives.

Soderstrom, N. C., & Bjork, R. A. (2015). Learning versus performance: An integrative review. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10, 176-199.DOI: 10.1177/1745691615569000.

Scaffolding extended writing; a step-by- step process

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You may hear people say ‘teach to the top and scaffold up’ but what does this mean? This blog will look at how I do this with extended writing of a particular type. If you are teaching a mixed attainment group you need to ensure that those that may struggle with writing or applying knowledge in extended writing can be as successful as those that are fluent.

This process cannot be completed in one lesson or last minute before it is needed e.g. two weeks before an exam. It is a long term learning process and needs to be given significant time to each step.

Here is an example of how I’m developing this with AQA GCSE Religious studies evaluations questions.

Question types

I’ve chosen to focus on the longest, high mark question on our paper. It’s classed as an evaluation question although the exam board’s definition of what is accepted as evaluation is not the same as mine!

  • Choose the question type/command word that you want to focus on

Timing

We have a three year GCSE so we leave this question until year 10. This is so that they have developed confidence in their knowledge and other questions in year 9. They don’t need to do everything at once but they do need to do it early enough to be able to work in to long term memory. You’ve probably seen how subject knowledge is used for retrieval however it is important that we do the same with these ‘skills’ or knowledge of how to complete exam questions. Leaving this until the mocks in year 11 isn’t advised.

  • Think when it is best to introduce the different types of question

Know what makes a good answer

In this case I am using an exam question however knowing what makes a ‘good’ answer goes beyond a mark scheme. In some ways you need to decide a style of answer that you want students to produce that fulfils the mark scheme but gives students a model style or structure to follow.

I don’t give them a mark scheme. They are often a complex set of subjective, wordy criteria that in themselves would require a while to explain. Tell them what the examiner is looking for using language and examples that they will understand. Otherwise it is unnecessary cognitive overload.

Some people use mnemonics to support students in doing teaching a structure e.g. FARMER, ABCD, SONIC etc This has its pros and cons. You need to decide what is best for your students. It is important to remember that at the beginning stage it is better to over support and take it away than to under support. However, if you use a set structure it should allow high attaining students not to be limited and to be able to go beyond the structure.

In the past I have trialled using additional structures however we’ve now just used the bullet points in the question as a guide.

  • Read the mark scheme (if GCSE/A Level) so you know what is expected
  • Decide on the style/structure you will present

Modelling

The whole process is about modelling through several steps that go on over a long period of time. Modelling then merges into practice through scaffolding.

Reduce cognitive load (Use a nonsense question)

We start by modelling an evaluation question with a nonsense question. This will not be appropriate or necessary for some students/schools. Some teachers that teach in some schools may not understand why you would do this. You know your students. We use it because it takes aware the cognitive load of using subject content at the same time as exploring what an evaluation question requires.

We use an example of comparing chocolate bars because they all have the prior knowledge so don’t have to worry about this. It gives them confidence as they almost forget what they are doing; a complex evaluation. Anything we can do along the way to make it seem ‘easy’ is worthwhile in my opinion but without reducing the task of what they have to do.

In this case, it is also a good way of differentiating between their opinion and an analysis of the chocolate bars. Whilst the exam board have said that their opinion is acceptable I don’t think that evaluation is their opinion of the topic, its their analysis of the arguments used. I think that this will prepare them much better for A level than just saying their opinion is enough.

  • Consider how you can reduce cognitive load during modelling

Start with an easy question

When looking at the first ‘real’ example of a question, make sure that is an easy question in terms of the phrasing. Choose a topic that they have just done and you know they’ve all understood. As above this ensures their thinking is about the application and writing process and not about knowing the content, reducing cognitive load.

  • What would be an ‘easy’ question to start with?

Planning – Annotate the question

I begin with looking at the question with the students. We annotate the keywords with notes & linked ideas using prior knowledge and highlight the important phrase/s which are at the heart of what the question is asking. I model this on my visualiser and they copy.

The whole time I am narrating my thoughts with them (metacognitive talk).

This is part of the planning process that I want them to do every time they answer an evaluation question.

  • How can you teach students to annotate the question that will help them process what is needed?

Share a good example

Once we’ve planned the answer together I explain how this would be used to write a full answer. I write a simple model answer. We then read together and use highlighters to pick out the different aspects of the answer that fulfil the requirements. I use phrases like ‘what have I done in this paragraph?’ What connectives have I used?’ and ‘What is this sentence an example of?’ to help them see that I have put in everything we said is needed in a good answer.

If the question has extra details as our 12 mark does on what is expected, this can be used a tick list of what they can see in the answer and where.

Using good examples can carry on throughout the process. Either teacher or student written. Especially focusing on common errors/omissions.

First time alone……

So they now know what the question type means, what it is asking them, how to read the question, how to plan, how to structure and what a good one looks like. It’s now time for them to have a go at writing one themselves. I would not get them to do all these things by themselves in the first case. We do the following together which is the scaffolding:

  • Read and annotate the question
  • Allow them to use all their notes (subject content AND the notes they’ve made on how to answer the question including the model answer)

In this case I’m getting them to write an answer by themselves with maximum support. I have reduced the cognitive load of the process down to one aspect of the task. I want to see if they’ve understood how to transfer the planning into a structured answer. Nothing else.

The first time they write I give them all as much time as they need. I want to see that they can do the writing not that they can write quickly in this first instance. Timing comes later.

Don’t use marks or grades

Those of you that know me know that I don’t think we should use marks and grades on student work. I think during this process it is even more vital that we don’t. It is a huge challenge for some students to get into this process; the psychological effects of using marks/grades can potentially undo all the work of developing confidence.

Instead, feedback using the exact same criteria that you taught them at the start that are included in a good answer.

For feedback we give whole class feedback and use a simple tick sticker for what they need to do to improve.

They then improve their work.

They can then have this improved answer in front of them the next time they write an answer to check they complete the things they missed last time.

Praise & develop confidence

It’s so important that along the way you praise students for including the things that they’ve done well. This is why marks are unhelpful. Praising a student for getting ‘8’ is nonsense. Instead, ‘well done for annotating your question and using the bullet points as a tick list’ is promoting the skills you want them to develop.

Metacognitive talk

This is what I have been focusing on with my coach this year. We are both looking at how the EEF Metacognition report can help us with preparing students for writing extended answers.

We found that we both do much of what it says anyway. For example, explaining our thinking whilst annotating or discussing what makes the answer a good one. But one particular aspect that I know I need to develop is pupil-pupil talk.

To try this out in this context, I tried the following. On the practice question when I first got students to plan and annotate by themselves I gave them a few minutes to do this by themselves. I then asked them to discuss with their partner what they’d annotated and what they were going to use as their ‘different view’. I couldn’t circulate during this however I tried to listen in. In non-COVID times it is the perfect time to move towards certain students to hear what they discuss. If needed you can prompt and ask additional questions to help their thinking.

I plan on using pupil-pupil talk more in this process including getting them to talk about what they’ve done and why etc

Scaffolds

So in extended writing, for most subjects we can use these scaffolds:

  • Using notes for subject knowledge
  • Having a model answer (different topic) in front of them
  • Having one of their previous answers in front of them to remind them of things they forgot last time
  • A structure sheet or writing frame using simple section prompts
  • Going through the question & knowledge requirements together at the start
  • Going through the structure together at the start
  • Timing – allowing as much time as needed vs set timing
  • Metacognitive talk – teacher-pupil, pupil-pupil

These are the things that you might start with, depending on your students, and gradually take away. If you have a mixed attainment group you can make the use of notes/model answer/writing frame optional for a few of the practices. You need to be responsive to your students’ needs on this.

To me these are ‘differentiation’.

Extending thinking…..

Whilst scaffolding supports students to access writing a good answer, you may teach students that can go beyond a standard structure. To me, this is also ‘differentiation’.

Show answer variations

There are many ways to answer the same question. With fluent writers or high attainers you can show them how there are several ways to approach a question, whether that be through selection and analysis of subject content or indeed structure. Whilst our simple format ensures that students can access full marks in the exam, it may not be the most sophisticated of ways of arguing. More able students will be able to write in more of a debate style presenting arguments and counter arguments more fluidly.

They may also be extend their use of language. We use a simple ‘strong’ ‘weak’ phrasing in the initial stages but going through possible variants ensures that those that can process can use to make their writing more fluent.

Discuss possible questions along the way

When you teach new topics, point out how the content my be used in the specific type of question. ‘This could be a 12 mark question on this topic’. It reminds them of how the content could be assessed in this question format. As they develop confidence you can as them ‘what might be a 12 mark question on this topic?’.

Practice, practice, practice

So, the process does not stop after the first step. Each time you get the students to complete this type of question take some scaffolding away or give optionality. You can also make the questions more complex.

Students don’t always have to plan and write a whole answer. You can get them to practise one part of the process. Sometimes I get students to just annotate and plan their answer without writing the answer.

From introduction of the questions to the first time they complete an answer fully independently may be several months In fact for us it will probably be their year 10 mock exam in March. Some might have chosen to be independent by then but others may still be using prompts.

So teaching to the ‘top’ here means that I teach them all ‘how’ to get full marks on a 12 mark answer. It doesn’t mean that they will but they all have the knowledge of what it means.

Here are the steps and how they link to Rosenshine’s principles of instruction and the EEF metacognition report.

StepRosenshine’s principles of instructionEEF Metacognition
Use an easy questionLimit the amount of material students receive at one time.
Obtain a high success rate
the
strategies are mostly applied
in relation to specific content
and tasks, and are therefore
best taught this way
Planning/annotatingGive clear and detailed instructions and explanations.
Think aloud and model steps
A series of steps—beginning
with activating prior
knowledge and leading
to independent practice
before ending in structured
reflection
Modelling by the teacher is
a cornerstone of effective
teaching; revealing the
thought processes
of an expert learner
helps to develop pupils’
metacognitive skills.
Share a good exampleThink aloud and model steps
Provide models of worked-out problems
Modelling by the teacher is
a cornerstone of effective
teaching; revealing the
thought processes
of an expert learner
helps to develop pupils’
metacognitive skills.
Don’t use marks/gradesProvide systematic feedback and correction
Praise & develop confidenceObtain a high success rate
Metacognitive talkThink aloud and model steps
Ask students to explain what they have learned.
Teachers should support
pupils to plan, monitor, and
evaluate their learning
Promote and develop
metacognitive talk in
the classroom
ScaffoldsGuide students as they begin to practise.

Obtain a high success rate
Set an appropriate level
of challenge to develop
pupils’ self-regulation
and metacognition
Extending thinkingSet an appropriate level
of challenge to develop
pupils’ self-regulation
and metacognition
Discuss possible questions along the wayProvide models of worked-out problemsPromote and develop
metacognitive talk in
the classroom
PracticePresent new material in small steps with student practice after each step.
Monitor students when they begin independent practice
Provide a high level of active practice for all students (particularly those struggling to acquire the skill being taught).
Prepare students for independent practice
Explicitly teach pupils
how to organise and
effectively manage their
learning independently

Disciplinary discourse: Using subject vocabulary

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“Find the solution”

“Start your argument…..”

“Here is a theory……”

“What is a cell?”

What do these teacher phrases have in common?

They all have different meanings depending on the context, domain or the subject that the student is studying. Students, particularly at secondary school, will be faced with a huge amount of new vocabulary where they may already know a meaning however are unaware that it has another or multiple other meanings when used within a particular subject or discipline.

This blog is some musings on what this might mean for teachers. I’m not expert on this just a teacher sharing some thoughts and working some things out.

Disciplinary discourse

We want our students to think and communicate effectively within our discipline . In science we want them to think, talk and write like a scientist. Or in history, to think, talk and write like a historian.

But what does this mean and how can we teach it?

This blog will look specifically at language. Using language and subject specific vocabulary is part of disciplinary discourse and ‘making meaning’ within a subject.

An example based on science but can be applied to all subjects.
Linder, Cedric. (2013). Disciplinary discourse, representation, and appresentation in the teaching and learning of science. European Journal of Science and Mathematics Education Vol. 1, No. 2, 2013. 1. 43-49.

Each subject or discipline has its own rules and ‘language games’ (cf Wittgenstein 1958) that are played within it. In simple terms, students need to learn the ‘rules of the game’ that they’re currently playing and that these rules may differ when they work in different subjects. We need to be aware of these and be explicit about them with our students. This includes the vocabulary used within the discipline. Disciplinary literacy is a crucial part of their understanding of a subject.

The range of disciplines we initiate students into can be a cognitive challenge to our students, especially coming to secondary school having 10 different teachers speaking 10 different ‘languages’. This is a kind of disciplinary ‘code-switching’. They need to ‘code-switch’ between the language they use in each lesson and get their heads into the discipline they’re in. So what can we do to initiate and support them into the disciplinary discourse of our subject?

Know our disciplinary/subject examples

The problem in some cases is that subject specialists may know their vocabulary but may not appreciate that the same word means something different in another subject.

I asked Twitter for examples in other subjects and was overwhelmed with responses from every subject.

Here are some common examples for different subjects:

SubjectExample
Artmedia, tone
MFLmasculine, feminine
Sciencelaw, theory
Mathssolution, factor, translate
REargument, theory
Historysource, period, primary
Geography source, place
Computing/ITcell, redundancy
Dramawings, projection
Design Technologybias, volume
Businesscapital
Musictexture
Sociologysocialising, agency
Psychology random, affect
Economicsscarcity, capital
Englishtext, play, voice

See the thread here:

This thread also had some great discussion around some of the vocabulary used in different subjects
Temporary definitions

I was having a discussion with a trainee recently about giving students subject specific vocabulary and how the definition that they had learnt at university level was probably not going to work with year 7. So whilst it is important for us to use disciplinary vocabulary, it is also important that it is used contextually and is appropriate for students to understand it at the level that is needed for their current level of study. Roy Watson-Davis calls this ‘access language’. Sometimes we need to simplify things for younger students that might not actually be 100% accurate for high level study. I don’t think this is an issue. We can be really clear to students on this “I’m going to tell you a definition of X that I have simplified. If you go on to study this further you will learn a more complex definition”

Knowledge then understanding or understanding then knowing?

simple exposure to disciplinary discourse is not enough for students to experience disciplinary ways of knowing; students need practice in using disciplinary discourse to make meaning for themselves…..” p21 Airey and Linder (2009)

Knowing the vocabulary does not necessarily lead to true understanding or full engagement in disciplinary discourse. Students can use vocabulary fluently but still not have a complex understanding of how it works and links to other concepts (‘discourse imitation’). A bit like me and some of the concepts in this blog! Airey and Linder (2009) call these ‘learning slogans’ (from DiSessa)

In my subject at GCSE we get students to essentially rote learn a set of definitions before we teach them. So when we then teach the concepts they already have a ‘instant’ definition that they can ‘pin’ their new understanding to. Anecdotally, I think that this is the best way for our students to learn the new vocabulary. I think it reduces the cognitive load when teaching a new concept. They will make a connections between the words they’ve learnt as the definition and the deeper meaning of the word. Airey and Linder (2009)call this an “imitation-revelation learning trajectory”..

Students should be expected to initially make “fuzzy” meaning—that is their discourse will initially be a poor imitation of disciplinary discourse, but, with appropriate guidance, gradually this will spiral towards something closer to the discourse of the discipline (they achieve discursive fluency

Be explicit

We should openly tell students that a word has multiple meanings. It may be useful to start with any meaning they already have. Possibly compare multi-disciplinary meanings if you’re confident in alternative meanings. Either give them or get them to write clear definitions.

Use etymology

Using etymology where possible may help. If students understand the root of a word they may then be able to see how there are varying definitions. For example, the term ‘cell’ used in science and computing, is from from Old French celle or Latin cella, meaning ‘storeroom or chamber’. If students know this foundation meaning they can see how it relates to the specific disciplinary example.

Why bother?

If students understand that a discipline has its own vocabulary and discourse it will help them to understand the epistemological similarities and differences between subjects; it helps them understand ‘how things work’.

Using this vocabulary promotes discursive fluency. We want students to be literate in our subject. This means using disciplinary language confidently. Gradually learning disciplinary vocabulary allows a students to build up their knowledge and in turn they should be able to discuss the knowledge more fluently. They become literate in the subject’s discourse and can hold a relatively complex discussion using this vocabulary and understanding what someone else means when they use it. The knowledge and use of this domain specific vocabulary becomes a foundation for their learning.

Using disciplinary vocabulary promotes the academic nature of study. If we avoid using it because we feel it is too challenging or even boring, we aren’t presenting a subject in its true light. Teachers’ jobs are to take an academic discipline and make it as accessible but challenging as possible for students. We’re not expecting them to be university level academics in year 7 but introducing them to this discourse makes them part of the discipline from early on.

There’s also no space in this blog but we should also be aware of how our subject’s disciplinary discourse affects how we want students to write and present information. Another blog.

Questions for teachers

  • Do we know which words in our subject have multi-disciplinary meanings?
  • How do we introduce these words to students?
  • How do we model and repeat use of these words?
  • What opportunities do we give for students to practise using disciplinary vocabulary in a subject?
  • How do we ensure that all colleagues within a subject area use the same definitions and consider effective processes for introducing them?

A week in the life of…a visualiser in RE

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I thought I’d share how I use my visualiser in my RE lessons. It was actually over a fortnight but that doesn’t sound so punchy.

I use my visualiser for: admin explanation/modelling, model answers, modelling presentation/layout, sharing student answers, showing texts/artefacts, writing notes for students to copy, making expectations clear…..

It is important to say that these are all snapshots. The images work alongside much explanation/discussion & nuance that pictures may not show.

This is my visualiser.
It's an old model  (Lumens Ladybug) but I think it's a good one. It has a light, takes pictures & videos and auto-focuses. It’s also bendy so can move to any angle/height.

Year 11 GCSE

For some topics at GCSE we use guided note booklets. I write the notes in the booklet, with the students, under the visualiser.
Another example of note taking that we've discussed and added to together.

Year 11 have their mock exams this week so I spent 10 minutes reminding them what the papers look like....outside the religions papers...
Outside the themes papers reminding them to answer the correct themes!
Inside the themes paper which is presented differently to religions
Reminding them of each question's requirements.
And how to write their themes answers in an answer booklet.

Showing them how to write the number and leave gaps is important.

The more we can reduce anxiety about the administration of the exam, the more students can focus on content and formatting answers.

Year 7

I use an exercise book for my year 7 classes where I write in it and model everything we do including admin, taking care of a book and modelling presentation expectations.

I used the visualiser to remind students of the notes we've already made. I wrote these 'live' under the camera during the lessons.

These are useful if a student was absent as I put these under the camera at the start of the lesson for them to copy if appropriate.
Reminding students of previous notes.

When writing the title and dates etc I emphasise my expectations of presentation. Showing students this myself makes it clear.
I showed year 7 these rosary beads under the camera so they could all see them. We were talking about Ninian Smart's 7 dimensions, 'material'.
This was showing year 7 how to complete their homework trackers inside their books.

Modelling ensures they write the right thing in the right place.
I sometimes use a model structure on a writing frame for students that may need some support in their extended writing. In this case I modelled a simple answer to help some students see how to use their knowledge.
I explained my thinking as I wrote.

Year 9 GCSE

This is a GCSE style question that I went through with my year 9 classes before they attempted an answer.
We discussed the requirements for the question and what it was asking, it is very simple as I was focusing on them being able to structure their answer rather than knowing content.
Student answer* - We had a discussion of what made this a successful answer. Using the visualiser means they can all see a good format and successful structure.
Student answer* - We had another discussion around the successes and the omission of something I'd asked them to include.
I give 'whole class feedback' on common errors/omissions/praise etc. Our 'orange stickers' are quick feedback on an exam question and the next steps the student needs to take. It was the first 5 mark question for year 9 so I explained what it all meant. They then make individual improvements. 
When introducing a new admin system I use the visualiser to show exactly how I want it to be used.
We completed the first few lines so they could do this together and hopefully do it independently next time.
Have you ever asked students to put a label on a polypocket and write their name on the label? I have, without modelling it and have ended up with labels all over the place and tiny writing that needs a magnifying glass to read! I modelled this simple task so they can see exactly what I'm looking for.

Key stage 4 Core RE

This is a key stage 4 core RE sheet. We use a predesigned sheet per topic and students are required to fill it in as instructed. Sometimes I write on an absent student's sheet so the class can copy notes.

*Student permission to share here obtained.

Multidisciplinary argumentation in RE

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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