Core texts for RE; teaching key concepts through exegesis

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“Religion doesn’t inherently speak for itself; no scripture, no book, no piece of writing has its own voice. I subscribe to this view whether I’m interpreting Shakespeare or interpreting religious scripture”

Islam and the future of Tolerance: A dialogue, 2015, USA, p.5

I’ve blogged before how I’m not teaching the new GCSE RS with just the content on the spec but beyond that with important key concepts (see here). However I am also using key texts or selected ‘sources of wisdom and authority’ from the two religions we study: Christianity & Islam. These aren’t all directly mentioned in the specification.

I thought I’d share four key texts that I believe cover many of the beliefs and teachings that they themselves cover a lot of the specification. They directly or indirectly cover key concepts in each religion. In fact, they could easily take several lessons to unpick and link/extend to other concepts. And if we’re preparing for exams they provide quotations for students.

Islam

Muhammad’s final speech (copy here)

This is a really important Hadith. Teaching the context of the speech itself is important; why Muhammad said the things he did. If students understand the situation in Makkah when Muhammad started out, they’ll understand more comprehensively why he said these things.

It covers key ideas including:

  • Treatment of women
  • The 5 pillars of Islam/10 Obligatory acts
  • Interest/usury
  • Equality
  • Judgement
  • The existence and power of Satan
  • Belief in Adam & Eve
  • Ummah (brotherhood)
  • The ‘path’ of Islam
  • The final prophet
  • Sunnah

Each of these can easily be used to extend into other areas for example, by talking about Adam and Eve you can discuss creation, sin, Allah’s forgiveness, Prophethood, khalifahs, angels and Jinn etc Each aspect could easily be a lesson in itself.

The Hadith of Jibril (copy here)

The nice thing about this text is that it is a story. It deals with the core beliefs of Muslims and therefore can be used when teaching the Sunni five pillars and 6 articles of faith, alongside the Shi’a 5 roots of Usul ad-din and 10 obligatory acts.

Students can discuss the nature of the story; why would an angel come and speak to them? What distinguishes the angel? What does this tell us about Muslim beliefs?

Christianity

The Creeds (Nicene and Apostles) (copy here)

The useful aspect of these texts is that they can be used to discuss how Christianity developed since the early Church and why the creeds were created. Students can unpick why there are different versions and what the similarities and differences are. This can then also extend to look at Christian denominations and how they use the creeds today.

The Lord’s Prayer (copy here)

Questioning and discussion of the texts is important so students can really appreciate the meaning and beliefs behind the words.

  1. Why did Jesus give this prayer?
  2. How/where/when is it used by Christians today?
  3. What does bread represent here? Why is bread a key feature in Christian beliefs? How does it link to other stories/events? How is bread used in Christian worship?
  4. What does ‘kingdom’ mean in this context? Why might this word be used? How does it link to other teachings?
  5. Why is forgiveness important to Christians? What story links to being tempted? For some Christians this links to Original and Personal sin, explain the links. What other quotations can be linked to ‘forgiveness’?

Tips for using texts with students

  • Give paragraphs numbers – it makes it easier when discussing a specific paragraph or dividing up for students to read out in class
  • Ask students for any text comprehension questions at the start i.e if they don’t understand a word
  • Get students to come up with questions about the text. If needed, divide up the text for different students to focus on so it’s not overwhelming.
  • Plan the questions you want to ask students:
    • General context questions – when was it written? why? who for? what was happening at the time?
    • Specific beliefs & teachings questions
    • How it might be used by followers today
  • Model how students can annotate and add notes to the texts
  • Being controversial – what do these texts tell us that might be controversial? Do they always support other teachings? Plan for controversial discussions.
  • It’s actually very difficult to teach some of this. It requires confidence of subject knowledge on behalf of the teacher. However, whenever I’m unsure I tell the students and then find out the answer (usually through contacts on social media).

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Suggested reading: All Bob Bowie….

Bowie, R. (2016) Doing RE hermeneutically – learning to become interpreters of
religion. RE Today, 34 (1). pp. 60-62. ISSN 0226-7738.

Developments in Hermeneutics and Teaching the New Testament – Bob Bowie

http://www.academia.edu/attachments/38988993/download_file?st=MTUyMzM1MTUwOCw0Ni4yMDguMTkzLjIzOA%3D%3D&s=swp-splash-paper-cover

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Student crowd-sourced exam questions

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As we don’t have many  exam questions other than in the SAMs (and text books if you have them) some people have created their own practice questions for GCSE. However this following suggestion is work-light and hopefully also has learning benefits for students.

I tell the students which type of question they will be asked about. In this instance, AQA GCSE religious studies 4/5 mark questions. I gave them the question stem “Explain two……”  (I didn’t worry about the contrasting/influences/similarities on this example) and then they had their specification in front of them for the topic they were writing about, in this case Theme D.

I reminded them they can only ask questions as per the specification; nothing that isn’t listed in the topics will come up….

I then use Socrative app using Ipads. There may well be others that can do similar but I use the ‘short answer’ feature. They don’t need log-ins other than my ‘room number’ on my account. It’s simple to use and quick.

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I’ve already explained the task so don’t need massive detail…

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Allowing unlimited responses means that they can keep submitting answers. I put them in pairs or teams and get them to write a name for their team, this means that any stupid or inappropriate answers can be identified.  Some teenagers love to think they’re comedians…

I then press ‘start’ and they submit as many answers a they can. I don’t show their responses on the board, so they don’t copy each other and so they don’t deliberately write stupid things for a public audience.  I then allow as much time as appropriate; as long as they are still typing and the answers are still sensible.

I then get the answers emailed to me or you can download. It’s quick.

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The ‘results’ come on an excel spreadsheet. You can go through them as a group if you want. If I run it as a competition, (which group can come up with the most viable, different answers) I put them on the whiteboard.

Obviously there are poor spellings and typos which I’m not bothered by; I can easily edit afterwards. I can instantly feedback to students on the quality/viability of their questions and if relevant, why it might not be a question asked in the real thing.

Benefits

I think the benefits are:

  • Engaging with what specific exam questions could ask ( the more exposure and experience in a non-exam pressured setting, the better in my opinion)
  • Engaging with the specification content
  • The better they understand how exam questions are written the better they might become at answering them (?)
  • Discussion in pairs/teams of ideas
  • A bank of exam questions which took them minutes to create not hours for me (in the example below they gave 105 answers in about 4 minutes, repeats included)
  • A variety of questions that I might never think of

I can then do what I want with the questions.I will obviously edit and sort them. I will put them on their class web page to access and practise as they want.  They could also then answer the questions as and when needed.

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Spellings/Typos belong to the students….

The privilege of discussion

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Proficiency in oral language provides children with a vital tool for thought. Without fluent and structured oral language, children will find it very difficult to think.

Bruner,1983.

At parents’ evenings in my current school, I am often told ‘They come home talking about your lessons and we debate it’. This makes me very happy for several reasons. It means they’ve probably understood what we were studying, they’re confident enough to explain and discuss the topic with another adult (that may not know anything about it) and of course, it’s particularly useful in defeating that good old Ebbinghaus forgetting curve.

However, this report out today and a discussion with a friend that has just moved into the independent sector, has made me think more about this. Is quality discussion a social privilege?

The poverty of silence

You see, in previous schools, I didn’t hear this said by parents so much. The demographic of my previous schools were not the same as my current school. The privilege of discussion seems to correlate with socio-economic background.* There’s a lot of research to back this up including a huge discrepancy in the number of words a child may know at a certain age, due to socio-economic status.

Sadly, for some children, the nature of discussion and the range of vocabulary is limited at home. How much can we do to try to improve the experience of discussion a child is exposed to?

I know about the research;it’s just struck me this week how it might be a cause of the ‘gap’ and possibly what I do/can do about it. I’m quite lucky that I teach a subject that I mainly teach through discussion. We discuss everything. Students are exposed to a wide range of vocabulary and I love talking about etymology with students. They even learn some Hebrew, Punjabi and Arabic.

What can we do about it?

  • Use subject and pastoral time in school for discussion e.g form time. Example, watch BBC Newsround and then discuss an issue. Ensure all students contribute. Do this regularly. I know some English teachers lament the removal of ‘speaking’ in GCSE but that in itself didn’t go far enough. It’s not about presenting an issue. It’s about proficiency of spontaneous discussion on a range of topics, expanding vocabulary along the way.
  • Give younger students an opportunity to discuss a topic with older students
  • Encourage parents to discuss the topics from school at home. Not just ‘how was school?’ (I know that getting a teenager to talk at all can be a challenge!)
  • Set homework that involves discussion with others.
  • A debating club or better still debating as part of the curriculum for all students

*However we do need to be careful. Whilst FSM can be used as an indicator of financial status it cannot always be a direct indicator of home support and the discussion that occur at home.

Reading: includes lots of relevant research links http://www4.esc13.net/uploads/speech/docs/12_13/A_GOLDEN_Opportunity_Vocabulary.pdf

An increase in marks does not mean a student is making progress

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I don’t have a mark book. There’s little point.

Having a set of marks for a student doesn’t really tell you much. For them to be meaningful they need a lot of extra data that isn’t efficient to record in a mark book.

Example

Let’s imagine a test that is out of 20 marks; a 1/2/4/5/8 mark questions.

A student does 3 different tests in a term and my mark book looks like this:

10/20. 12/20. 15/20

It seems this student is making good progress; their marks are going up. But of course that isn’t true. There are far too many variables for this to have any sort of meaning.

  • What if the first test they only attempted the 2 mark and the 8 mark?
  • What in the second test they only attempted the 4 mark and the 8 mark?
  • What if in the third test they attempted them all but got 3 in the 8 mark?

None of those tests are anything like each other, other than mark structure. The questions aren’t even the same, nor are their answers. It is absolute nonsense to say that this student is making progress.

Yet so many people are fooled by it. Leaders are placated by the lovely ‘arrow up’.

We need to stop pretending that increasing marks mean progress.

Possible solutions

  1. Give them exactly the same test each time. Even then it is not resolved as the ‘make up’ of their score may be different each time.
  2. Ditch marks/grades/levels. They don’t mean anything and are a poor proxy for progress. Research also is very clear on how using them isn’t a great idea
  3. Use a method that looks at the work itself (see my blog here on how that could be done)
  4. Have an incredibly detailed mark book that records:individual question scores,what the questions were and the things they didn’t do for each question. Not exactly time saving.
  5. Get students to make a record of their answers and what they did/didn’t do. I do this for end of year exams via a google form. It relies on them being honest and understanding their gaps. Even then, it’s just a snapshot of one test.
  6. Redefine progress. Don’t use spreadsheets or data unless it really tells a story. Stop getting teachers to use grades and then using it to analyse progress. Just ask a teacher ‘do you think they’re making progress? How? Why?’. Give subjects time to establish how they think they can determine this.

Progress without data – How it can be ‘shown’ & benefit the teacher in the process

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Progress has become a feared term for some teachers. It’s a term used to check they’re doing their job, that they are pushing students to their limits or sadly, if they’re not doing their job. Yet, regardless of people’s views on how this has been done badly, I do have a responsibility to ensure my students are making progress over time, otherwise what’s the point of my teaching?

Sadly, teachers are compelled to make sure their spreadsheet shows acceptable increments in student data. The box must ‘go green’. The arrows must ‘go up’. It makes a mockery of data tracking as teachers are pressurised to massage some data or even make it look good to placate a leader that is checking. It’s a waste of everybody’s time. Hours and hours of it. It tells us nothing about the student and with some subjects in their first year of GCSE, is all a game of crystal ball reading.

I’ve been avoiding using marks/grades/levels with students for a few years now. Luckily my school mainly reports on ‘progress’ rather than using grades or levels. So, if asked to ‘prove progress’ and I don’t have a spreadsheet of marks, how can it be done?

Here’s how it can be done professionally and with the added benefit of teacher reflection…

I’ve chosen to look at one particular aspect of the GCSE at key stage 4: evaluation questions. I’ve chosen it because it has the biggest range of ‘skills’ needed in the GCSE: structure, using quotations effectively, selection of relevant knowledge, literacy,  analysis and of course, evaluation.

I’ve taken an attempt at this question from last year as a basis. You could start from the first time you get a student to attempt the skill. It needs to be something that can be repeated over a long period of time and has the same conditions for when it is produced.

I then looked at their work on this question over time. Each time they complete a question can compare their work and see what the gaps are in what they’ve done.

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I can clearly see what they’ve done that has improved over time.

Students answers must keep improving….shouldn’t they?

This then informs me of what I might do to move them on again. In this particular case lots of students had moved to adding some of the analysis but I wanted to be sure they could do this consistently.  During this time I read this:

3 times

This is interesting because it doesn’t fit with the narrative of constantly getting students to ‘get better’ by doing more. It’s about getting good by being consistent. This is a concept many leaders, need to take on board. We should probably be suspicious if data keeps going up and up!

So, all I needed to then do is ensure they could repeatedly do the same quality of analysis. My next support was not to ‘improve’ their work but was to try to get consistency. I created these:

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They will now use these every time they complete a question for at least the next three times. I want them to repeatedly show me they can do these with different content in the same conditions.

They then showed this in their work before they hand it in:

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Things don’t always go right but…

In my opinion, it isn’t always about the improvements from the children but about what I am doing to try to support the improvement. For example, I tried a strategy that I don’t think worked. It doesn’t matter. As I am being a reflective practitioner and this means that I am trying things out. What would a leader prefer, a teacher that doesn’t adjust and tweak things and students don’t improve, or a teacher that is reflective and tries things when some work and some don’t? Teachers should be supported in development not final outcomes.

It’s just another waste of teacher time, providing portfolios of evidence…

The students’ work is in their folders. If I have a conversation with someone about it, I lift up their folder and can show them. I can explain what I did in between attempts and how successful I think it was. Keeping their answers of these questions together really helps.

For ease, I’m taking pictures of work rather than copying it. It really is only a few seconds when I mark their work. I’m not creating a huge portfolio. It has actually really helped my diagnosis of what’s working and not working by looking at them. In some cases I hadn’t realised quite how their style of writing had improved; something a spreadsheet doesn’t record. It has been a good tool to help me understand what is happning with their answers.

Won’t teachers just play the game with the work instead of the data?

This is where controlled conditions are important. We have to trust that teachers will do this. We have to value this process of teacher development. It has to become a discussion about progress not just a presentation of evidence. Most teachers wouldn’t be able to make-up processes of development and student work when discussed, certainly not as easily as putting a an ‘arrow up’ on a spreadsheet.

I’m not suggesting progress can only be evidence through work. We know it can be a poor proxy for progress. It’s all about what the teacher has been doing to support students. This may not have paper evidence. Whole class feedback and discussion should not attempt to be evidence; conversations about planning and teaching matter.

Conversations instead of spreadsheets

If we replace observations with drop-ins to see how the teachers latest idea is going, if we replace data drops with a discussion of student work (not just paper), if we swap performance management numerical targets with a teacher’s reflections throughout the year maybe our understanding of student progress will be far more enlightening that through a spreadsheet.

Why won’t things change?

  • Some leaders prefer to spend their time analysing data on a spreadsheet
  • Some focus on outcomes rather than the process.
  • Some think that everything teachers do should have a positive impact (when it isn’t the case)
  • Some see failure of a strategy as failure as a teacher leading to lack of confidence
  • Some think they don’t have enough time
  • Some believe that progress means that there is always an observable difference in outcomes
  • Some believe progress happens in one lesson
  • Some over-complicate things with huge portfolios of paper evidence; there’s only one portfolio of paper evidence, the student’s work.

So, are you students making progress? Let me know what you’ve been up to…..

 

Student work used with their permission

How to learn keywords & quotations – weekly retrieval

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I’ve blogged before about how we have tested students on keywords. It forms part of their 3 set homeworks to learn the keywords. However we realise we need students to equally be able to recall and apply quotations in their writing.

We have therefore adapted our weekly quizzing to use one of the them to help learn relevant quotations.

Week A – They have to retrieve the 10 set keywords for the current topic (given to them on sheets for homework). They peer mark.

Week B – They used to have 10 random, interleaved prior topic keywords. We’re now changing to 5 keywords only and then 5 quotations. They will peer mark these too. The benefit of this is that they will see others students’ quotes and it saves me from marking.

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Students will be told a topic and sometimes a religion and they have to recall a quotation that could support a view (either ‘for’ or ‘against’). They will need to recall an appropriate quote (not word for word – paraphrasing is fine) and where it’s from. We’re not getting students to learn specific references. We are getting them to remember the source e.g The Bible, The Qur’an, Hadith etc

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At the same time we have reduced  and simplified the keywords as we originally included all given by the exam board but realised they’re not all necessary to be learnt in this way.

We’ve also created HW booklets for the quotations (from these HERE from AQA )to go with the key word booklets. We have attempted to keep these to a minimum ( possibly not successfully!), reusing quotes where possible so they can remember one and apply over several topics.

We will also give them index cards to help with their own retrieval practice. They can write a quotation on one side and the topic/s that it can be applied to on the other so they are useful to be used both ways round.

We’ve also started to add more quotations into the multiple choice online quizzes they do for another homework. We really hope this will help them to learn the quotations over the 3 years.

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‘Research’ based activities for learning

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I am currently reading this book:

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I thought that I knew quite a lot about memory and understanding (chapter 1) however, I’m pleasantly surprised to have learnt some new things which I can see impact my teaching. In particular I have been thinking about a part of it that says:

“activities which prompt learners to think about and process meaningful information should be encouraged” p12

This is important as it reduces the chance of the isolation of information which is easily forgotten. If students can link their learning it adds to their schema of knowledge and in turn has a better chance of staying in their long-term memory.

It then lists a few examples of how this might be done. I already do some of these and I have always thought they’ve been useful for particualr parts of the specification. This blog is for me to process these ideas and think how they might be practically applied to the classroom and hopefully improve my practice.  These are some further thoughts.

 

Making Links

The quickest and easiest ways of doing this is to ask students what they already know about X, knowing that you’re going to teach them about Y, which is in someway linked.

  • I start most lessons with a quick 1-10 of prior learning ( a mixture from a long time ago, a while ago and recent lessons). I will deliberately ask them questions in this that I know links to the topic that lesson.
  • Comparing concepts also encourages students to make links. I like using double bubble maps for this.
  • Venn diagrams can also help make links and connections
Suggestions for GCSE RS – compare: Sunni/Shi’a, angels (Islam/Christianity), Life after death (Islam/Christianity), Sacraments (denominations), Just war/Holy war

Categorising

 

  • Having a set of cards with keywords/ideas on a particular topic is useful (the dreaded card sort). Students can then sort them into the categories given or decided by themselves. Sometimes I give them a set of cards and get them to decide how to organise them (if I don’t have a specific outcome in mind but just engagement with the concept)
  • Alternatively, a set of images could be used on the cards.
  • Mindmaps ( or simpler spider diagram) – creating a mindmap of a topic can help them pull together a whole topic and can see how things link up. The branches of a mindmap are essentially categories within the overall topic. The more they can do independently the better. However I often do a whole class start where I ask the group what might be the better initial branches. This gives everyone the starting framework to add information. Mindmaps also help with making links as lines can be drawn between items that connect.Consider the best time for a mindmap. At the start of a topic and then add to it? at the end? a while after the topic to help with retreival pratice?
Suggestions for GCSE RS – set of images of different types of punishment, which are acceptable in Islam/Christianity? Why?,  set of cards with quotes from Jesus, which can be applied to war? 

Hierarchies

  • The same resources for categorising can be used for this. The difference is that students use the cards and put them into some sort of hierarchy e.g importance, influence, strength of argument, priority, frequency
  • Diamond nine – this forces students to create a differently weighted hierarchy. They have to choose a ‘top’ idea which can sometimes be difficult.
Suggestions for GCSE RS – This type of activity could be really useful for analysis of  reasons in evaluating arguments for the new GCSE.
Examples –  set of cards with reasons for abortion, which might a Muslim/Christian believe is most-least acceptable? set of cards with the events of Jesus’s life on, which were the most important? set of cards on the death penalty, which would be the strongest/weakest arguments?
Students could also complete the task from a faith perspective e.g from the point of view of a Christian, which teaching/belief would be most important when considering euthanasia?

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Caveats

The important aspect of all of these activities is that students have to think;think for themselves. They have to process the information they have in front of them. In my opinion, this is reduced if they work in a group or even a pair. If you’re not careful, one student can dominate and allow others to take a back seat. It’s the thinking process that matters so where possible these should be done alone.

They should be used sparingly and appropriately. Imagine walking into every lesson and having a card sort. It’s one of those things that should be used when you want students to be able to process the knowledge not just an easy lesson filler/time waster.

Thirdly, giving them the chance to explain their choices is very important. This can be done through written work, teacher questioning, paired/group work or as a whole class discussion. Again, the more the emphasis is put onto their own justification the more they have to engage with the content; they can’t just copy somebody else.

Finally, it is essential that the most time is spent on the processing of the information and not on the peripherals of the activity. For example, colouring a mind map or cutting out pieces of card are not a good use of learning time. The strength of these come from the cognitive process not on aesthetics or practicalities.