The problem with teaching RE; it’s about opinions

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There are actually many problems. However this short blog will focus on the nature of RE and the unique issue it has; it’s about opinions.

I see it as our job to teach these opinions, with critique, in a neutral, balanced style* as possible.

Therein lies a problem, can a teacher teach something neutrally? And indeed should they?

If I follow religion or a set of beliefs will these not come through in how I teach, what I focus on and the language I use? Should we teach a balanced view of racism and homophobia ?

I personally don’t tell students (or colleagues in school or elsewhere) about my faith. I want them to see me as a teacher, not a Muslim teacher or a Buddhist teacher. Sometimes my opinions come through. It’s human nature. Last week I commented on the kind Mr Gove sending us all a huge King James Bible. The students were probably clear about my thoughts on this. I really do try to avoid it and generally refuse if they ask me an opinion on something that isn’t illegal or could confuse them.

However this blog isn’t about telling students about your faith (another blog in that) but how RE is unique in that people’s own faith can seriously affect how it’s taught. I’m worried about that. On RE forums I’ve seen a discussion on an issue start with critique and then people with a faith become angry and upset that people may have critiqued something they believe as truth. If they’re doing this on an RE forum (not a faith forum) then what are they saying to the children they teach? Are they allowing them that freedom of critique even if they don’t agree? I fear not. And therein lies a huge danger.

I think we should allow students to explore all opinions and we should move away from presenting them with opinions, to them thinking of the variety of opinions there may be and doing independent research to find opinions they haven’t considered. If we give them the skills to come to their own balanced judgment then we’ve done our job. Giving them the opinions and/or telling them what to believe/is right or wrong, is problematical.

This leads on to the controversial issues. If we teach racism from a neutral perspective are we condoning it? In my lessons I’m developing the art of critique and this includes logic of reasoning, credibility & reliability. Students need to work out the illogical reasoning & flaws of racism. If I just said to them were not going to look at the views from the perspective of a racist I’m limiting their ability to skilfully assess reasoning. I’m not there to tell them, I’m there to help them to work it out. This is why I have issues with some faith schools. Some are limiting the students’ ability to do this and therefore are not giving their students the opportunity for further study (again, another blog).

I think the power of RE comes to developing the skills needed to study religions to come to insightful, logical, fully reasoned balanced arguments, not telling them ‘right’ from ‘wrong’**. In my opinion that is confessional RE or Religious Instruction which for the majority of people was ditched in at least 1988.

RE really does have its own issues that other subjects don’t.

* when I refer to ‘neutral’ in this blog I mean looking at both/all sides of an argument rather than presenting only one side.

**I do however make British law very clear to them

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The role of keywords in assessing knowledge & understanding

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As part of my thinking on assessment I’ve been looking at how to assess knowledge & understanding. I’ve been considering stages of knowledge and whether it is possible to use this to ensure students’ thinking is based on solid foundations and then stretched further by more complex concepts.

One area I’ve been struggling to structure is the use of keywords. I added ‘keywords’ into all the stages and thought about how the vocabulary that is used in more complex concepts will differ.

I’m now considering how the use of keywords in themselves can be an indicator of knowledge & understanding.

I will try to explain using an example from my own subject area.

The new GCSE subject content gives the following for knowledge & understanding relating to the crucifixion of Jesus:

  • incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension
  • salvation, including law, sin, grace and Spirit, the role of Christ in salvation, and the nature of atonement

These are key concepts that students need to understand to truly understand what this event in Christianity means for Christians. 

I wil take the key concept of ‘atonement’. 

If we go from the simplest way to understand this concept, using foundation knowledge & vocabulary then we can see how the complexity of this concept may be broken down, as follows:

  1. Saying sorry for something you’ve done wrong (apology)
  2. Saying sorry and someone forgiving you (forgiveness)
  3. Sinning and asking God to forgive you (repentance)
  4. Sinning and asking God to forgive you, knowing that Jesus dying enables this to be accepted (salvation)
  5. Reestablishing (‘covering’) the pre-sin relationship between man and God ‘At-one-ment’ (Atonement)

Without an understanding of the prior concepts and keywords it would be difficult to understand the final concept of atonement. 

So how can this be used in teaching?

My new plan is to come up with the key vocabulary (alongside threshold concepts – another blog) for each topic or unit of work. I can then use these to check if the students have understood before I move on. This could happen in a lesson or over several lessons depending on the students foundation knowledge & understanding.

This checking can be done at the beginning, at intervals and/or at the end. Ideally as frequently as possible but realistically at least at the beginning and end.

This could be done in several ways:

Questioning – if I ask a student “what will God forgive?” They have to understand the concept of forgives to give a correct answer. Regular, targeted questions should give a good idea of what they do/don’t understand.

Written response – ask students a question, write a statement that means they have to show which concepts they know and understand. For example, “Salvation is possible for everyone” requires them to understand what it is to decide whether it can apply to everyone.

Multiple choice/diagnostic qu – I’m trialling this. A quick way to see what they do/don’t know and understand.

‘Final assessment‘ – however this is completed students will be told they must use the keywords learnt. They can have a list of them. It’s not a test to see if they remember the word, it is checking to see if they fully understand it enough by using it correctly in their work. Setting self differentiating tasks on this means all can achieve and show what they’ve learnt.

These keywords are essential in my new assessment systems as they are a key part of seeing if a student has understood the content.

This has already been highlighted in a student essay on marriage that looked great in terms of structure but had no key terms for the topic in it; it was essentially a sociology essay.

To avoid this from now on all assessed written pieces will have a set of student generated keywords as a part of the essay planning process.

DVD RE

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David Ashton has already blogged on the use of media in GCSE religious studies but I’ve been thinking more about how DVDs* are used in general in RE.

RE has its own challenges in that we are teaching beliefs and teachings that in some parts of the country seem as though students are in a different country. Their experience and perspective of their country, let alone the world is mainly if not totally white, Christian/atheist. As an RE teacher I have to somehow ‘bring to life’ something they may never experience in their entire lives;things that stretch their knowledge and understanding of how people live.

So it is little wonder that we resort to DVDs to help us out. They provide an insight into the complex world of faith that they would otherwise not see. Students can see real life believers discussing their faith and showing us how their faith impacts their lives. But there are also issues with using these.

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Issues with using DVDs in RE

1.My concern is that DVDs become the ‘go to’ lesson resource. Teachers relying on them to some how make learning about religions fun, or in some cases being deliberately controversial or to shock the students. There is a belief that DVDs are more engaging than books or discussion or teacher led knowledge. In a worse case scenario DVDs are used as a behaviour management tool; ‘Put a DVD on, that’ll keep them quiet’.

I personally find this dangerous and gives students the wrong perspective of a religion. Planning along the lines of ‘I need to teach forgiveness’ with the response ‘I have a good DVD to teach that’ becomes a common way to plan lessons.

2. These DVDs usually represent the faith in its ‘purest’ form. The reality is that many believers do not fully practice the beliefs and teachings that are presented in them. Conversely, when you show clips with some reality in the students end up with a skewed view of those believers. How can we use DVDs and still give the correct perspective?

An example is in a programme on Jewish matchmaking one of the men had been into prison. The students couldn’t separate this out from why some Hasidic Jews might find it difficult to match make in the UK. Their ‘go to’ reason was ‘because they might have a criminal record’.

3. DVDs date. Some of the best ones I use are really old;at least 15-20 years old. But they are the best version of something that I can find. They present the issue/belief well. Demand for uptodate resources outweighs the commercial value for any provider to produce new material.

4. Finally, linking to David’s blog there is a temptation to use DVDs to shoehorn religious teaching; Linking to point 1. Instead of starting with what we want them to learn and using the best possible strategy to do so, we desperately try to find a DVD that will do it for us. Or in the case of GCSE we HAVE to use a DVD to teach part of it to fulfil the requirements of the specification. Many forum posts have been seen saying ‘can anyone recommend a good clip for teaching…?’.

This blog isn’t intended to stop teachers using DVDs;I will continue to use them. But rather to highlight the traps and issues overusing DVDs in RE may have. The ideal scenario is that all schools have a personal link with several members of each religion so students can meet, experience and ask all the questions they want. Maybe SACREs should be a key partner here. Schools need free, child friendly, volunteers from each religion to work closely with the RE department/coordinator.

However until that time, whilst the cost of travel to visit a religious place of worship or for a visitor to have a meaningful interaction with every child is reduced, the £10 DVD will always take precedent.

* I will refer to DVDs but am referring all types of media including videos, YouTube, web clips etc

Reflections from #StrictlyRE – On the edge of something big

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Thanks so much to the NATRE team and everyone who ran sessions. I felt it was a conference at the front of the changes in RE. We are about to embark in a period of change and whilst it may be worrying, it has the potential to redefine how we teach & how children experience religions. We’re on the edge of something big…..

I thought I would reflect on my thoughts on the issues raised,mainly on knowledge and assessment. My thoughts are mainly a result of Deborah, Daniel and Dilwyn’s sessions and previous concerns about assessment without levels. I will, as usual, play devil’s advocate and ask questions. Please do respond to them in the comments.

Core knowledge

It was suggested that, like other NC subjects we should have a set of core knowledge that we expect every child to have at a certain point e.g at the end of each key stage. I agree with this. I think it would help to resolve an issue that secondary teachers have in that children come to us with a wide range of knowledge. If they’ve been in a faith school, their knowledge of a particular religion far outweighs that of those who may have had little/no RE.

However would this core knowledge apply to faith schools? I believe it should.

Assessing the core knowledge

  • Whilst new systems of assessment are up for grabs at the moment, is there a danger that the core knowledge will become like a check list and that proof of the knowledge will come in the form of testing over and over?
  • Will some teachers see the list of knowledge as the minimum and only address the minimum and do nothing more all year?
  • Will some schools aim to whiz through all the core knowledge in one or two days and then have no more RE?
  • Will core knowledge reduce our subject to rote learning of facts and lose the uniqueness of what else it has to offer?
  • How does this work with whole school data tracking systems which I’m sure schools won’t just ‘drop? 
Will core knowledge become a checklist?

Will core knowledge become a check -list?

A hierarchy of core knowledge

I missed Dilwyn’s second session where I think he went through this. Daniel briefly mentioned the importance of knowledge as well. We have a problem in schools the misinterpretation of Bloom’s Taxonomy has been used to perpetuate the myth that ‘knowledge’ is a low-level skill.

Would you say these surgeons were low level with their amount of knowledge?

Would you say these surgeons were low-level learners with their level of knowledge?

However we need to be careful that we don’t think that higher level knowledge is just about knowing more. It is about knowing more, in-depth. Higher level knowledge becomes very specific and focussed.

So if we go this way, will we start a whole new system, that is essentially levels of knowledge?

Were levels in themselves the issue or the way in which they were used? 

Should knowledge be the only thing we assess? 

Whilst sat pondering this I found some suggested models of hierarchy of knowledge. I haven’t yet had time to digest and apply these but here they are for reference. If anyone knows more about these it would be great to hear.

If I think about this in my own practice I have recently been teaching Buddhism to year 9 and have a very able group. I haven’t taught a class like this before so I’ve had to really think about what I can do to challenge them. I decided to focus at the concept of Enlightenment and how it is achieved. We really drilled down on different interpretations of how to gain Enlightenment & then critiqued these views in order to conclude which may be the ‘best’ way to become Enlightened. Students were encouraged to do their own independent research and I offered them some seriously high level, in-depth content. As it was the first time I’ve taught this there is so much I will do differently next time but I think I had an insight in how depth of knowledge on one aspect began to challenge them more than if I’d spent those lessons going through ‘more’ Buddhism with them.

In the next topic I am going to trial getting them to choose their own ‘drill down’ question that they need to research and write an academic argument on. I think I will have a wide variety of outcomes which I will risk being less than if I ‘dictate’ to them what they should do but I’m prepared to allow them to ‘jump into the deep end’.

This leads neatly into…

Academic Rigour

This group have taught me that I need to really begin to focus on what makes a high level RS student from the top down. I think that embedding critical thinking skills (reasoning & assessing credibility) will help us to achieve a high level of rigour.The TES reported that too many children are leaving school without the critical thinking skills that are needed for university. I really believe that this is an opportunity for RS to develop key skills needed in life and in turn help students to create high quality academic pieces of writing.

This idea fits in neatly with the new GCSE and A level draft objectives so developing it lower at key stage 3 seems to be a logical step for us to take.

Draft GCSE

The new draft objectives link directly to critical thinking skills.

Academic rigour – What I’m trying out

I am trialling using critical thinking skills with students to support them in achieving a good standard of academic writing.  I will be sharing some of my findings at #TLAB15  Sorry for the plug!) and will also blog on it.

Daniel Hugill also mentioned those disciplines that are mentioned in most Exceptional Performance descriptors at key stage 3.

‘disciplines and methodologies for the study of religion: history, sociology, psychology, linguistic analysis, literary criticism, and theology’

I really want to investigate what these might ‘look like’ at key stage 3. How can we, in such a small amount of time with the students, get them to use all of these in their work? It seems impossible but maybe now this is the time, to think how we can manage this effectively.

I’m also trialling the use of ‘optional research (homework)’ by putting some recommended articles on our ShowMyHomework system so if anyone fancies some ‘around the topic reading’ they have a starting point. Unfortunately I don’t know how much this is used. It would be great to have a ‘hit’ counter’.

Finally I’m training them to evaluate views and suggest conclusions without using the word ‘I’. some find it odd but I’m trying to teach them that a conclusion should be decided from logical reasoning not ‘just what they think’ or in some cases ‘what they’ve been told (by an adult?)’.

I’m considering how I can create a ‘tool kit’ (sorry for the edu cliché with huge respect to recently deceased Paul) to support students in achieving academic rigour in the study of religions. Is this possible?

Teacher Research & Reflection on Pedagogy

This wasn’t mentioned in any of the sessions I attended but I think it is also what we as a community need to engage in more. If we are putting more rigour into the study of religions then we too must engage in a study of how we are teaching it. Most of us probably do this without thinking. We try something. If it doesn’t work we ditch it or tweak it. Some of us share our successes so others can use it and tweak it. However I feel that with the statistics of how many non-specialists we have teaching our subject and people worrying about resources we are on a back foot with this one.

Do we as a community think about learning? how we teach? rather than asking people for resources for the topic we are teaching? There seems to be a current trend of sharing resources & worksheets rather than sharing HOW we’re teaching. The talented Andy Lewis has shared some research he is doing but in his Head of Year role (who cares!) however there is far less interest in this than if someone offers to share a scheme of work. Those of us that are specialists, do we need to spend more time thinking about the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ alongside the ‘what’?

This post was never supposed to be so long so I’m going to stop. Any comments very welcome.

Exciting times.

Faith & practice in RE – Are we presenting the reality?

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Inspired by an animated talk on this at the #RETeachmeet at the Culham St. Gabriel’s weekend last year and then more recently by Tom Sherrintons blog on homophobia, I’ve been thinking about how the RE key stage 4 curriculum could be developed.  

In the GCSE syllabus I teach we basically have to teach religious views on moral issues and be able to give an opinion on the issues and/or the religious views. Very basic reasoning skills are needed ( developed reason & simple counters) however there isn’t much scope for a coherent extended argument. Whilst the current format makes it easy to mark, I think we’re restricting developing the students reasoning and argument writing skills which is a high level skill that is transferable across the curriculum. 

So I have been thinking about some content that I think today’s children want and need to know and understand; the real life manifestation of religion in the UK, not just the core teachings & practices. They should be studied along side each other. I believe RE has a huge job in preparing children for life and the more they understand the practices of those around them the more chance they have of being able to engage in the UK as a truly multi-ethnic and multi-faith society.

I have posed it as a set of questions that could be turned in to statements. My thoughts are that they allow students to investigate real life examples and use these as kinds of case studies to back up their points. Some are based on common questions that students ask me I.e ‘Miss, I was christened, does that make me a Christian?’This also allows them to focus on their local faith communities as they can use examples from near them as case studies. These are just suggestions and are unrefined and unedited. I hope others can add/amend/delete as they see fit.

 

  1. Why don’t some believers in a faith follow all the teachings? How do they justify not following their holy book/leaders?
  2. What difficulties might a child face growing up in the UK being a Christian? Why?
  3. What difficulties might a child face growing up in the UK following a religion other than Christianity? Why?
  4. What is a faith school? How does it differ from a non-faith school? Why might a person go to a faith school who is not a follower of that faith?
  5. Where does religious teaching & practice conflict with UK law? What options does a faith member have?
  6. What religious rights does an individual/ group have in the UK? How do these compare to other countries?
  7. Why do people take part in celebrations of a religious nature if they do not believe in that religion? Is this a problem for members of the faith?
  8. In the world of work, how might religion be encountered?
  9. How is culture often confused with religion? Can they be totally separated?
  10. If you are brought up in a religion (and have taken part in religious ceremonies) does that automatically make you a member of a faith?
  11. How does the UK media represent religion? What bias may there be? Why? 
  12. Does the internet accurately reflect the belief and teachings of religions? How and why?
  13. Why might someone claim to be a follower or not be a follower of a religion when the opposite is true? Can it be justified?
  14. Is the UK still a Christian country? Why?
  15. How might living in a particular area of the UK impact your experience of religion? 
  16. How has the presence of religious buildings changed in the UK? What key issues are there regarding religious buildings?

Assessment

I think that students should have the freedom to create logical, balanced well supported arguments based on everything they have learned. They should be taught basic reasoning skills to construct their arguments. This means any topic can be applied. It requires a good knowledge and understanding for it to be coherent. Here is a suggested format…

 

“______________________”

Write an argument to either support or challenge this statement. In your answer you must include:

  • A clear conclusion of your point of view
  • at least two reasons that support your view
  • evidence/example/case study/quotes that support the reasoning
  • a counter view with dismissal

Example case studies/evidence/examples:

  • Catholic use of contraception
  • People that celebrate Christmas/Easter yet are not Christian
  • The UK law on polygamy 
  • UK census results
  • The Church of England selling church land and property

 

I would be interested to hear people views on this, including further ideas of key issues for RE students of today.

Why I am a teacher

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Sometimes on courses we’re asked why we became teachers. Interestingly I don’t think I’ve ever been asked why I became a teacher other than from someone ‘in’ education (students sometimes ask).

In year 6 I had the most inspirational teacher. During a time where things were tough at home, he provided a safe, challenging, exciting environment which I thrived in. I was above average yet he differentiated so I wasn’t bored. I remember him inspiring my love of Maths. Above all we had a relationship with him that meant that school wasn’t boring or run of the mill, but fun and character building. He is still a Head locally and I’m sure he’s gone on to inspire many many local people.

So then I arrived at High school. Hungry to learn and desperate to be challenged. (I used to do my sisters homework for her who was 4 academic years ahead!) Unfortunately it wasn’t to be. I remember a maths lesson in year 7. We basically followed through a set of levelled maths books. It was boring and I finished them extremely quickly. What did the teacher do? Gave me more of the same. I was experiencing the classic year 7 ‘dip’ that is widely thought to happen between KS2 and KS3 through lack of AfL and diagnosis of prior attainment.

I remember more of the same in English and in History. In fact other than the ‘new’ subjects that we did at KS3 I.e MFL I was unchallenged. Looking back, teachers clearly didn’t know how to differentiate.

I thrived socially but was bored academically. It wasn’t until year 9 that the school put an ‘express’ Maths set together. We sat the GCSE in year 10. I achieved an A (no A* back then!).

I don’t blame individuals but I recall lessons that were completely unstructured, unchallenging and now I’m a teacher, I know would be inadequate. Why? Because we were ‘good’ kids in a village school. There weren’t behaviour problems. We sat at our desks and did as we were told. So the teachers could ‘get away’ with it. Did the terms ‘progress’ ‘afL’ and ‘differentiation’ exist in the early 90’s?

I did however have an inspiring form tutor. She was kind and it felt as though she treated us as adults. She was like a second mum for me. We all loved her.

My GCSE results were very good but I should have left that school with ALL A*s. I could easily have got them if I’d been shown ‘how’.

Sadly the story continued in the same vein at Sixth Form. Teaching was dull and uninspiring. I wasn’t supported in the ‘jump’ from GCSE to A level. We were talked ‘at’. I can recall many lessons which would now be inadequate.

So how does this all come together?

I thought I couldn’t do much worse than some of these and would be incredibly proud if I could be half as good as my year 6 teacher and year 11 tutor. So I did a PGCE. Not in Maths or English which I really loved but in RE. A different kind of passion.

I am now a teacher because I love it. I love my job. I love seeing students develop and find out things they’ve never known before. I know what makes students ‘tick’ because I was one. I know how it feels to be bored and uninspired. I don’t want to be one of the teachers who didn’t differentiate. I want all students to achieve no matter what.

My teaching style means I support students to pass exams (all subjects I teach are 100% exam) but to hopefully enjoy the journey on the way. It’s one big game. A game they need to succeed at. But whilst learning the rules they should flourish, feel valued, learn how to work with others, all the things that all teachers should be ensuring we develop in the children we teach.

So, I teach now because I enjoy it. I’m lucky. Not only do I enjoy it but my employer values this and supports me as an AST. I don’t think all teachers do enjoy it.

I can’t really see myself doing anything else.

note: these are my views only. Not those of the schools I’ve been to or worked in, or any other employer of mine.