A focus on knowledge – how my teaching has changed (short series)


I often see people on Twitter talking about a ‘knowledge rich’ curriculum or a ‘knowledge based’ curriculum and think, if I wasn’t teaching knowledge before, what was I doing? Of course, I’ve always taught knowledge however I have changed my view of it, particularly in how I teach my subject.

This small series of blogs will help to clarify in my own mind what I believe these terms to mean in my own teaching and how I have developed and changed what I do in practical terms. I aim to take it beyond the soundbites of politicians and tweets, to real life exemplification in my classroom. The posts will focus specifically on what I do in the classroom and my justifications.

I don’t know why I changed but almost certainly listening to others on Twitter, reading blogs, books and reading research have had a significant impact. The structures of how I teach has not changed very much; I’ve always believed in teacher exposition, students practising and getting feedback to improve, as a learning cycle. However, the emphasis on what I teach has changed. This small series of blogs* explains what I now teach is more knowledge or content focused.

The things that I feel make my teaching more knowledge based are:

  1. Planning schemes using knowledge
  2. Direct instruction with focus on context and linking of contexts
  3. Direct instruction & note taking
  4. Testing
  5. Foundation knowledge & depth of knowledge
  6. Use of etymology & focus on keywords

The term ‘knowledge rich’ has been accused by some as being the new fad in education. In my case if a new fad means how my teaching has developed in recent years then I seem to have fallen for the fad and it seems to be working.

*I will add the links to the blogs on the list as I write them

Further reading




Why the holidays may not matter when it comes to learning and why my first lessons back will be tests


“Forgetting focuses remembering and fosters learning; remembering generates learning and causes forgetting; learning causes forgetting, begets remembering, and supports new learning.”  Bjork 2011

I’ve seen some online articles that raise concerns with the length of the school holidays. Whilst there may be other concerns, I don’t think they’re overly problematical in terms of learning.  This is because this time can be classed as ‘forgetting time’, which research suggests may help with learning.

Why forgetting is important

I’m not going to do a literature review on why. I will just recommend this brilliant chapter from Bjork (2011) to do that. He says that “forgetting [is] a facilitator of learning”. It is actually part of the learning process.

He goes on to say “any forgetting will therefore increase the acquisition of storage strength”; forgetting during the holidays, might just be a useful thing. However, most research focuses on comparatively short delays between learning and retrieval e.g. hours, days, 1 week.  There is little that suggests what the length of the forgetting should be for a two or three-year GCSE course, for example.

Twitter colleague Damian Benney has written a great blog on what he thinks the optimal time should be. He references Cepeda et al (2008) that are clear on this, “To put it simply, if you want to know the optimal distribution of your study time, you need to decide how long you wish to remember something.”. We know this for GCSE. It’s not 100% guaranteed but if we start to consider our forgetting gaps, as Damian is, could we begin to work on finding some suggested optimal timings for retrieval?

Conversely, they also conclude “If a person wishes to retain information for several years, a delayed review of at least several months seems likely to produce a highly favorable return on the time investment”. Is this evidence that the holidays might not hinder but actually support learning? It seems a possibility.

There is however, a caveat to regarding holidays as ‘good’ forgetting time. I believe that this doesn’t work if the first retrieval is after the 6 week break. A teacher cannot just give a test on the first day back and expect students to do well without the previous retrieval opportunities. The classic Ebbinghaus model of forgetting suggests that without retrieval we will quickly forget what we learn over a matter of minutes/hours.  Taking the research into consideration, it suggests that it only works when there have been previous recall opportunities with increasing gaps.

This has implications for the learning 1-2 months before the holidays. Spacing of topics needs to begin from the moment something is ‘learnt’ with increasing gaps. All the holiday provides is the larger gap between retrievals. If a student hasn’t ever retrieved something before the holiday then the forgetting curve kicks in and it becomes much more difficult to retrieve.  Unscientifically, I suggest that the first retrieval after the holiday should be the 4th or 5th time it has been retrieved, not the 1st.

If we followed this argument through, I might even suggest that the last week/s of the summer term should be dedicated to retrieval practice. You might call these end of year tests (that are truly at the very end of the academic year in the last days i.e without time to mark and write reports as sometimes they’re used for). Or you could have a ‘quiz week’. It really doesn’t matter what it’s called, but two things could be important: 1) There is no new content being learnt at the end of term, as there won’t be the time for the initial retrievals in school and 2) They are part of a planned, spaced, retrieval programme.

A test the first lesson back

So, whilst some may think I’m an evil teacher giving students a test on the first lesson back, that’s what all my GCSE classes will get. Not because I’m evil but because I want them to learn from day 1. It will get them to retrieve learning from the previous year/s of the course to try to breach the 40 day gap of forgetting.  Instead of just reminding them of what we’ve learnt before, Kornell et al 2011 suggest that “Retrieving information from memory produces more learning than does being presented with the same information”. Their test might just be best for learning itself.

I don’t care about their result. I don’t use marks/scores. It’s the importance of this event in the forgetting/long term memory plan that matters. Bjork 2011 says that “retrieving information from memory is a learning event”. My students are used to this. We do it all the time in class. I believe that students do want to get back into their school routine in September, in my classroom. Some will be relieved to start answering the questions. I’ve not heard a complaint from any of them to date. They know it’s about learning not performance.

Considering these points, might teachers begin to plan their curriculum around the gaps that holidays create to be the ‘forgetting’ part of learning? Could we consider holidays to be one of the key aspects of learning instead of worrying about students forgetting and not remembering? With some considered planning, I think we can use holidays to our advantage.

Referenced reading/research

Why we need to structure learning for students


I’m really lazy. I have an online exam to complete. I’ve done very little work for it. Even though I sit blogging about the importance of spaced practice, I’ve completely ignored the research and gone for cramming. Why? Because humans are generally rubbish at organising themselves and are that awful word, ‘lazy’.

So if we as adults can’t structure our own learning, why do we expect students to be able to do it? At worst we expect them to do it with no guidance on how they could do it but similarly expect them to self organise by saying ‘study at home’ or ‘revise’. Depending on your school, maybe 5% will do this. The rest will either not do it or do the minimum at the last minute.

It’s our job, not just to teach our subject but to teach how to learn effectively and model it in our teaching. Sadly, this has got a bad reputation in some areas. Earlier in my career I was involved in ‘Learning to Learn’ lessons which, I know now, had some dubious content and ironically didn’t cover some of the main research on learning itself.

Giving students lessons or tips or booklets on how best to learn in their own time will probably have limited effect. Just like me, they will know what is best but just won’t do it. Teachers need to base everything they do on learning; from curriculum structure and content, to lesson planning and homework. We need to ensure that all of these have the foundations of learning built in them to make learning as hassle free but structured as possible.

I’ve already blogged on how we do this for:

However there was a gap in what we do that will be a new structure for 2018-2019 for my students.

One of their homeworks is to learn new keywords from given lists. To support them they can create revision cards (last year we made them make the first set as an example) and we have the words as Quizlet quizzes (non-account based so I don’t see who has done what). However, we are trusting students to do this between the keyword tests.

As students have to improve their score each time, there is a small incentive to do the work, but I’ve found that with 3 groups this year, some just haven’t bothered. They make excuses like ‘I can’t learn them’ or ‘I’ve never been able to do this’. I just don’t believe them. The huge majority can improve by 1 mark each week if they test themselves over and over; they just don’t bother. They probably cannot self regulate over the two weeks the repeated testing. So I’ve decided that, as soon as a student doesn’t improve in the subsequent test, I won’t be using their break to help them I’ll be giving them structure ready for the next time. It’s not that they can’t learn the keywords it’s that they can’t strcuture the process themselves that’s the usual problem.

We use google forms a lot as they can help with retrieval practice and self mark; a double win. Up until now these have mainly been on content and the keywords have been down to the student. Now I’m making a quiz for each set of keywords.

I did ask Twitter for any research on how best to structure these:


However as yet I don’t have any research, either way. The easiest for me to organise is to give the definition, and this is how it will be in their exam. However the test that this links to, they have to write the definition themselves so it may be better the other way round. If I have time I’ll do both and mix it up.


The students that haven’t improved since last time will be given the link to this quiz and will be told to complete the quiz, probably 4 times, in a spaced way over the two weeks. How will I know if they have done this? This is the beauty of a google form:

It tells me who has completed, it, their score and crucially for this purpose, when they’ve done it. I can check that they complete them at spaced intervals. If they then can’t do this themselves, I will provide the spaced intervals for them (at break/lunch). The aim is to get them into the habit. This should then provide one week of success which can then be used to show them it ‘works’ and then the excuses can only be ‘I haven’t done it’ as opposed to blaming their learning capacity. I think this should help give students the structure that they need for this part of their 3 homeworks.

I will also put another copy of the quiz for students that just want to use it as part of their own spacing. I won’t check that one; it’s just for themselves.

This is what I’d call ‘closing the gap’; finding the holes in what we do and filling them with something that structures learning for students. It’s like using stabilisers. Some will need this at the start and then will hopefully go on to see that these processes work and can do them themselves. I really wish my teachers had done this for me.

Constructing a coherent key stage 3 assessment system


I’m embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t really considered how assessment might be a coherent system in key stage 3 until recent years. This process began when we were asked to consider how we would assess in our subjects when levels were no longer necessary. We’ve been lucky enough to be given the time to continue to develop our ideas over the past couple of years rather than having to have a  system that we were stuck with. Sadly, some schools hastily implemented new systems that were essentially levels rehashed. I blogged on the ‘Emperor’s new clothes’ of levels here and how some have replaced levels with levels.

At the start of this process, I initially thought about what it is that we wanted to assess. I ended up with a lot of potential ideas. This is where RE colleagues are divided; what can/should we assess in RE. I took ideas from the new A Levels and GCSE. I don’t believe that it is our job to attempt to assess things like empathy or students’ own opinions. I think that students should be taught argument writing skills and key ideas of critical thinking in order to create coherent, well evidenced arguments. Alongside this we should be clear what knowledge we want them to learn and be able to apply throughout the keys stage.

assessment chart

Our original ideas started with far too many things for the curriculum time we have. We have reduced what we assess down to very few things. We see year 7 once a week; it would be impossible to assess everything all the time. Reading Daisy Christodoulou’s book ‘Making good progress’ confirmed my instinct that we don’t need to assess everything all the time. I’ve come to the belief that less is more; they shouldn’t be doing everything needed for GCSE at key stage 3 and key stage 3 shouldn’t be full of GCSE exam questions. However, key stage 3 should be a foundation for those who take GCSE but also a foundation in logical argument skills if they choose not to continue their study of religions.

We’ve treated the skills as we have treated knowledge. In order for students to develop and improve their skills we have repeated them and spaced them over time. However knowledge itself is really important. It is included in two ways. Students are tested using multiple choice quizzes at the start/middle/end of each topic and then these quizzes are spaced/interleaved throughout the year. We’ve yet to do this across year 7 and year 8. I’ve not heard of anyone doing this and I’m not sure that it’s necessary with so little curriculum time. I’m prepared to be challenged on this.

The second way we look at knowledge is through these written assessments. We look for depth of knowledge and use of specific keywords to show their understanding of the content they’ve been taught.

The tracker above shows the frequency of coverage and at the moment they are used as a RAG system. We have 6 ‘assessments’ over the year, one each half term indicated by 1a, 1b etc. These are linked to clear, ‘objective’ criteria for each element. For example, using quotations includes using quotation marks, referencing and explain what the quotation means.

I’m currently pondering if this is sufficient as there can be many ways that a student partly meet the criteria yet the system isn’t detailed enough to show this. I want to keep it simple but it needs more clarity of development. Any thoughts/ideas on developing this, welcomed.

Is it a levels system?

The key to ensuring that this isn’t levels rehashed is that we don’t have to amalgamate these individual aspects of their learning to create one letter/number/level/grade. We use this tracker and other sources to use out professional judgement on whether students are making progress. It’s not a science but we’re moving towards making it as clear and objective as possible.

This system has the same issues as many assessment systems. One written assessment is not necessarily a true snapshot of what a student can do. Using it to consider progress is full of flaws. However, as we continue to refine it I feel it is better than using generalised summary statements or grades that conflate everything into one. We’re still working on it. Suggestions welcomed.

5 simple ways to encourage meta-cognition


It is important that supporting pupils’ metacognition and self-regulation skills isn’t seen as something ‘extra’ for teachers to do, but an effective pedagogy that can be used to support their normal classroom practice.

EEF 2018

1. Why this is wrong

If in class questioning/discussion, you can ask the student themselves why their answer is wrong or ask another student to explain why. If in written work use WTIW (Why This Is Wrong -I just made that up) and get students to write a brief explanation to show they’ve understood the error.

At GCSE our students write their own multiple choice questions. This is always a good time to identify misconceptions if they credit an incorrect answer. WTIW is a quick way for them to correct their work and learn from their error. They won’t learn from a  ’X’ on their work.

2. Use a visualiser* 

There are lots of ways it can be used but using it alongside your own live commentary whilst ‘being a student (guided practice)’ is very useful.

I put a GCSE question on it, and unpick and annotate ready for answering the question. What does this word mean? What quotation could I use? What core knowledge/teaching can I reference?

They don’t even need to answer the question. Practising the thought process and annotation is powerful by itself.

* other methods are just as effective: interactive whiteboard, annotation on whiteboard, overhead projector…

3. Why did we do this?

A simple strategy to get students thinking about the value of an activity; ask them why you got them to do it. If there isn’t an answer that links to learning then you may want to rethink the activity.

4. This is a good one (or WAGOLL if you want another acronym)

Modelling a good version of the outcome you want from students gives them something to visualise. A worked example or a sample answer does the job. Discuss why it’s good. Annotate and highlight the important parts.

One way I do this is to write a ‘perfect’ answer on a slide and for the following slides copy the same answer then take one element away from it each slide . I get students to identify which part is missing each time. A kind of spot the difference that allows them to identify all the aspects that make it a great paragraph.

5.  What do you need to focus on?

None of the nonsense of walking into a classroom asking students what their target is or what they need to do to get to the next level. If teachers are explicit in what students need to be able to do in the specific skill or topic they’re studying they should also know what they need to improve on which cannot be answered in a simple sentence to the stranger coming in the lesson.

Students won’t know what they need to do better by osmosis; give them the criteria of what makes a good one and then use their own work to identify what needs improving. Teacher feedback should use the same language. Ambiguous phrases like ‘add more detail’ and ‘revise more’ are not acceptable.

A simple way I do this is to feedback on a piece of work with one or two things they need to do to improve. In their next piece of work they write these on a sticker (could easily be written at the top of the work) and then they must ensure that they complete these things in the new piece of work. They can colour code them and then highlight in their work where they’ve addressed  them. Repeat with the same targets in the next few pieces of work. Just because they’ve done it once does not mean they’ve nailed it.


EEF Metacognition and self regulated learning (2018)


Summary poster


Progress is being able to do it again…and again


I sometimes think about sport when thinking about learning. In this case, basketball and shooting a hoop. It’s one part of the game but an essential one. Practising shooting is important as when you get the ball it’s a chance to score. Leaving it to chance would seem foolish. Being able to do it once in a while isn’t good enough otherwise we might all be in our national basketball team! It needs to have a high rate of success, through regular practice. A player needs to do the same thing, over and over. That’s what makes a great player.

This however isn’t what some people have thought or do think learning is about. Doing the same thing over and over in class has been frowned upon. I am saddened to say that in the past I have been a victim of ‘your lesson didn’t show progress because they didn’t learn something new’ but also, was made to tell others the same when I observed them. Something instinctively told me it was nonsense at the time but I didn’t have the evidence to the contrary nor was I likely to change things as it was what ‘Ofsted wanted’.

But now, not only do I think that it is essential to progress, it is part of what makes learning itself. There are many ways to make progress but in my opinion, one important way is that you can do something again and again and maintain a high standard, over a period of time

This is where some teaching goes wrong. The classic example is that in maths during a lesson, students are taught how to solve equations. They can all do it and do lots of practice during the lesson, the teacher then thinks ‘we’ve done equations’ and that’s it. They then wonder why in the future they can’t do it. Students need to practise the same type of equations, over and over, over a long period of staggered time (see research on spacing).

It seems sensible to think that if a student can repeat something then progress has been made. But how many times until you can confidently say that it is ‘learned’? Rawson and Dunlosky (2011) in ‘Optimizing schedules of retrieval practice for durable and efficient learning: how much is enough?’ suggest…

On the basis of the overall patterns of durability and efficiency, our prescriptive conclusion for students is to practice recalling concepts to an initial criterion of 3 correct recalls and then to relearn them 3 times at widely spaced intervals.

This has huge implications for those that teach a topic and move on, never for it to appear again until revision. The problem is teachers will say they don’t have time to do these repetitions. Rawson and Dunlosky (2012) explore durability and efficiency; we need to be able to do this using a minimal amount of time yet be as effective as possible. They call this process ‘distributed test–restudy’. The restudy is important. You cannot just teach/practise it once and hope it sticks. It will only work for a few students. Their research suggests certain amounts of practice testing and relearning improves overall learning.

Ideally we need to explain this to our students, and then use a similar model in our curriculum. If we struggle for time, homework can be used. In fact, I believe this is the best way homework can be used at secondary. Also, when doing pieces of work in written subjects, we shouldn’t be afraid to do the same thing, again and again. Without complicating it or adding anything to it, just repeating to get it right. One way I’ve been doing this is explained in this blog.

So, if you still have observations and someone wants to see something ‘new’ to prove students have made progress, send them to these links below and maybe mention basketball hoops.


Rawson, K. A., & Dunlosky, J. (2011). Optimizing schedules of retrieval practice for durable and efficient learning: How much is enough? Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 140(3), 283-302.


Rawson, K.A. & Dunlosky, J. (2012) When Is Practice Testing Most Effective for Improving the Durability and Efficiency of Student Learning Educ Psychol Rev (2012) 24: 41


Rethinking planning – what if we plan not to finish?


Whenever I think of lesson planning, it is usually in the form of filling the lesson time with a series of ‘activities’/actions that will happen during the lesson. The activities fit neatly into the time available. A trainee may ‘overplan’ or ‘underplan’ but most teachers get used to how long things take and adjust their timings. It will be one topic of part of a topic, neatly arranged into the lesson, so that it covers ‘everything needed’.

In this model each lesson is a stand-alone lesson of content. I see many lessons shared with other teacher where these are literally named ‘lesson 1’, ‘lesson 2’ etc so each lesson is a stand-alone, in a series.


However, I generally don’t do this. Luckily I don’t have to write lesson plans in my school so planning is ‘in my head’. The difference to what I do from above is that I don’t plan activities that fill the length of the lesson. I plan for us to do things and I judge how long they will take at the time. I roughly know how long they’ll last but many times a side discussion on a linked topic will take more time or students will ask more questions.

(I have previously read a blog that links to this idea that a lesson isn’t a unit of learning by Bodil Isaksen ,A lesson is the wrong unit of time ,however sadly it no longer exists)

What if we deliberately plan not to finish something?

Instead of making a lesson the unit of learning*, make the ‘learning’ the unit of time; the learning dictates the timing not the other way round.

*learning being the set of things done that enable long term knowledge and understanding.



Without planning for this I’ve come to realise it means that it helps with long-term memory. It means they have to retrieve what we were doing last lesson and we have to recap. It makes them think about last lesson. They have to re-engage with the content.

It’s useful for those that are absent for a lesson. It means they haven’t fully missed out on something because we were partly through it. There’s more logic to trying to quickly copy notes and engage as it’s still a ‘live’ topic.

It also means an activity can carry on for as long as is needed; it’s not restricted by time. In my subject, we can discuss some topics more than others, students have examples they can share and we can expand or contract the timing as needed.

I also don’t have PowerPoints of lessons. (My use of PowerPoint isn’t ‘normal’ compared to others anyway). I have one PowerPoint of the entire topic all in one. It’s not neatly divided into lessons because I don’t know how long a lesson will be. Sometimes I add slides, sometimes I jump them. They’re not my lessons; they just hold useful stuff I don’t want to keep rewriting or re-searching for.


If time is an issue for your subject/class it may feel disorganised or not moving at the pace needed to cover the content needed. Planning each lesson has a certain neatness and certainty of covering all the syllabus needed.

I teach some classes every fortnight. I don’t use this with them. It is probably too much to ask them to do this and if someone was absent it would take them too long to catch up. It would be a constant catch up. I do use quick 1-10 quizzes at the start of lessons but I wouldn’t fully use the model above.

This model would be problematical for colleagues that have to hand in lesson plans in advance (which of course is nonsense in most cases) as you wouldn’t know how far you’d got along the way to write the next plan. You could however deliberately plan to split the end of lesson activity to go into the next.

If you have a trainee or you plan lessons in these neat blocks, consider if this might be a useful way to rethink lessons.

“Sorry Sir/Miss, I’ll stop doing it now”; Why we need to model responses for children


This week I have been thinking a lot about how children speak whilst in school, especially how they respond in certain situations. I’m particularly interested when what they say isn’t polite or tries to justify poor behaviour.

I’ve heard people say ‘it’s because they do it at home’. Of course, in some cases, this is true. This is the only school I’ve worked in where some students say ‘thank you’ after a detention! But some children lack the structure of polite social interaction as their parents don’t model it or allow them to argue or be rude, often in desperation of not knowing how to deal with them; it’s easier to let them say what they want than to battle with them. However, school doesn’t need to be like this. We are a separate part of their lives and we need to behave within our own environment’s boundaries.

There are things that can/can’t be acceptably said in each environment but for some students they don’t experience what is needed for the ‘outside world’. We need to decide what we want our school environment to look like and how we will model it; we can create a different language within our environment.

Having thought about it, saying ‘we model good behaviour every day’ to our students isn’t enough. If a child isn’t used to a way of behaving or speaking, they’re not just going to naturally identify that one adult at school is speaking differently than another at home and then imitate. We need to give them a model, link it to when it needs to be used and explicitly discuss it. Which is what I’ve been doing this week.

When a student is on the phone (against our school rules), I will tell them to put it away however it is often responded to with, who they’re on the phone to or why they ‘have’ to be on the phone or ‘they’re just going to be a minute’. None of these are appropriate responses, they are attempting to argue their point instead of acknowledging they’ve broken the school rule. As we haven’t modelled to them what is a good response, they revert to speaking to me as though I am a parent or a friend, not a member or staff telling them to stop breaking a rule. We need to give them the best response in a situation when they break a rule.

So, I’ve tried it with my form. I modelled a sample, appropriate response for them and reminded them of it every day. “Sorry Sir/Miss, I’ll stop doing it now”. Of course some of them probably think I’m mad as I’m telling them something they would already naturally do (or they wouldn’t break the rule in the first place) but others need it. If I’m in a situation with them where this applies I’m now saying ‘you’re breaking the rule….what is the correct response?’ And (sometimes begrudgingly) they say the modelled response; they have to think about the model before their natural response.

Criticisms of  modelling responses

They’re just saying it, they don’t mean it

Does that matter? They are learning and practising the polite and best way to deal with a situation. The point is that this might impact them in daily life, even when they leave school and it might just be the best way to stop the police officer giving them a fine!

We shouldn’t have to do this; we’re not their parents

No we’re not. But we have two options. Ignore it and use constant (often ineffective) sanctions or build up a school language that prevents further escalation in a situation from a simple breaking of rules to an encounter where a student argues and is rude to a member of staff. In my eyes, breaking a rule is one thing but a student trying to argue makes it ten times worse.

Part of our wider social support for students is that we provide a model of the ‘best’ way to behave in the wider society. In some schools this might be needed, in others it isn’t. Ignoring it is doing a disservice to our students.

It also reinforces the idea of context and that specific contexts require specific behaviours. If they behaved the same way in a place of work than in their lounge with their mates, they may find themselves in trouble. We can easily make school a different context from home but we need to do this explicitly for some.

It’s just dealing with the negative

I’ve given examples of the negative. We also need to model the positive. So after a week of the above, I modelled a positive; saying ‘thank you’ to someone. I stole the idea from Twitter (Michaela school) and got them to write a ‘thank you’ note to anyone in school for absolutely anything. Again, some thought it was weird, but others may not have said the words ‘thank you’ for a while. It hopefully made them think of what others do for them, not always ‘just’ teaching them, as part of a different environment than home. Their responses brought a tear to my eye and when I delivered them to the staff, it was so lovely to see their response to this unexpected ‘thank you’. I will tell the form about the response from staff and how important it is. I will challenge them to do this face to face with someone next week. I will model as much as I can with them as well.

These models of how to speak have the potential to make schools such nicer places to be, even if rules are broken; it makes it manageable. Now I’m thinking further about how what I say can be tweaked to explicitly model the ‘best’ response.

Core texts for RE; teaching key concepts through exegesis


“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.


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?


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).


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


Student crowd-sourced exam questions


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.


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

socrative 2

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.

socrative 3

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.


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.


Spellings/Typos belong to the students….