Religious education (RE) has been described as ‘an uneasy coalition of several disciplines in undisciplined competition with each other’ (Chater and Erricker, 2012). It has been criticised in recent years for a lack of clear purpose, for confused and confusing curriculum design, and for a student experience identifiable by its lack of parity across the country (Ofsted, 2013) (APPG, 2013) (Dinham and Shaw, 2015). A series of professional conversations with colleagues about this lack of consistency and clarity led to a collaborative research project that aimed to provide better support for teachers through a clear and consistent approach to scaffolding curriculum in RE. The driving purpose of this work was not simply to ensure that teachers feel more confident about teaching the subject, but also to ensure that students would be better able to develop secure religious literacy. Although there is debate about what the phrase ‘religious literacy’ means, it is widely accepted that gaining or developing religious literacy is an appropriate definition of the purpose of teaching RE. For the purposes of this research project, it is defined as ‘the ability to hold balanced and well-informed conversations about religion and belief’. Through a range of methods, including surveys, interviews, professional development sessions and small-scale action research projects, the team worked alongside teachers and other educators in their specific regions.
Why focus on curriculum design in RE?
Christine Counsell describes the school curriculum as that which exists to give students new power (Counsell, 2018). It is the mechanism for communicating what Michael Young calls ‘powerful knowledge’, which enables students to effectively engage with and communicate about the world around them (Myatt, 2018). If the RE curriculum is confused, the students are being failed, and the subject is not contributing as effectively as it could to the wider school curriculum. Nevertheless, curriculum design in RE is not straightforward because teachers are required to work with such varying expectations in terms of purpose, aims, content and outcomes.
The starting point of this research was a conversation with teachers in a range of educational settings. The research team found that RE in primary schools tended to focus on what religious people do: festivals, places of worship, key practices, etc. In secondary schools, the focus tended to be on philosophical and ethical questions. Students seemed to spend little time critically analysing what people believe and relating this to both religious practices and philosophical/ethical questions. In other words, students were simply not encountering and engaging with many of the threshold concepts central to a secure understanding of religion and belief. This led the research team to engage in further conversation with teachers, academics, RE advisers and RE consultants on the key disciplines that contribute to RE, with a view to exploring these as a mechanism for curriculum design.
A multidisciplinary subject
Unlike many other school subjects, RE is multidisciplinary in nature. This can be highlighted by considering the jurney a student may take from school to university. If a student has a passion for maths, it is likely that they will pursue a degree in maths. Similarly, if a student decides to follow their interest in history at university level, it is likely that their degree course will have ‘history’ in the title. The same cannot be said about RE: RE as a school subject has no direct equivalent at higher education level. Students of RE tend to go on to study one of three key disciplinary areas, which necessarily contain a degree of confluence and interrelation – theology, philosophy and the human/social sciences (an umbrella term for a collection of subjects that explore what it means to be human, e.g. sociology, psychology, anthropology). Although many universities contain departments in religious studies, this disciplinary area does not necessarily have parity with religious studies courses at GCSE and A-level, nor with religious education from Early Years Foundation Stage to Key Stage 3. For the purposes of this research, we understood religious studies as a disciplinary area that sits within the human/social sciences category.
Whilst both philosophy (i.e. asking ‘big questions’, exploring issues of morality, etc.) and the human/social sciences (i.e. exploring how religion and belief impact on the ways in which humans live and interact with each other) seem to have a place on the RE curriculum in schools, the research team identified that the sorts of critical analysis of beliefs and believing to be found in university theology departments did not have a clear equivalent in schools. As such, we set out to create definitions of these three disciplinary areas that related to the context of the classroom:
This is about believing. It looks at where beliefs come from, how they have changed over time, how they are applied differently in different contexts and how they relate to each other.
Imagine teaching a Key Stage 2 lesson on evacuation in World War 2. You present your students with an excerpt from Michelle Magorian’s Goodnight Mister Tom. You ask students to copy out the paragraph, draw a border around it and then rewrite it in their own words. This would be a lesson with minimal impact. Instead, it is likely that the teacher will ask students to analyse and interpret this text in age-appropriate ways: ask who wrote it, when and why; ask what is happening in the passage; consider what may have come before and what will come next; reflect on how reading the passage makes them feel; think about how others may interpret it differently, and so on.
Now imagine a Key Stage 2 lesson on the Ten Commandments in RE. More often than not, students are asked to copy out the Ten Commandments and then produce their own ten commandments. A more appropriate lesson would ask similar analytical questions of the Ten Commandments: who wrote them? When? Why? What events preceded this? What do you think happened next? What do they actually say? How do you feel when you read them? How do you think others may feel or respond differently? Such deep critical analysis of these beliefs about God and human beings provide students with a much firmer foundation to then reflect on how they may be expressed in Jewish or Christian practice. They also provide students with a much stronger position from which to ask philosophical questions, such as, ‘Do you have to believe in God to be good?
This is about living. It explores the diverse ways in which people practise their beliefs. It engages with the impact of religion and belief on individuals, communities and societies.
A key element of gaining secure religious literacy is the ability to understand the ways in which religion and belief impact on human living. This helps students to explore both the nature of religion itself and the diverse ways in which people understand the term ‘religion’. Crucially, it provides an opportunity for students to understand that religious communities are internally diverse. This is the difference between teaching students that ‘all Christians are baptised when they are babies in a ceremony involving a font, some water, a vicar, a candle and various promises’ and teaching them that someChristians are baptised as babies in this way, others as adults, others are baptised as adults in a special pool inside the church or are not baptised at all. Whilst it cannot be expected that all teachers are experts on this diversity, it is vital that teachers help students to understand that diversity exists. This ensures that students are avoiding the kinds of generalisation that can lead to stereotyping. It also means that they have the tools to counter any extreme or stereotyped views they may encounter beyond the classroom.
This is about thinking. It is about finding out how and whether things make sense. It deals with questions of morality and ethics. It takes seriously the nature of reality, knowledge and existence.
At the heart of the discipline of philosophy is a process of reasoning. Philosophy is as much about the process of how we try to seek knowledge and truth as it is about seeking answers to difficult questions. It uses dialogue, discussion and debate to refine the way in which we think about the world and our place in it. Philosophy contains three fields of enquiry that would be applicable to RE: metaphysics, logic and moral philosophy. Metaphysics considers the nature of the world around us, logic investigates our process of reasoning (the way we think about ourselves and the world around us) and moral philosophy considers the nature of good and evil.
Students can explore these areas in age-appropriate ways throughout the RE curriculum. For example, a child in Reception class who has produced a picture of God as an old man could be asked why they think God is so old. Reasoning about what people believe and the ways in which that impacts on how they live is a key element of building secure religious literacy. It equips children and young people with the tools they need to critically engage with the views about religion and belief that they may encounter beyond the classroom, as well as helping them to understand that religion is, in fact, something that many people (believers and non-believers alike) think about very deeply.
How might these disciplinary areas relate to an RE curriculum that functions effectively? We worked on the basis that an effective RE curriculum functions both proximally, ensuring that students have what they need to progress to the next stage of learning, and ultimately, ensuring that students develop secure religious literacy. Our research indicated that the key to an effective RE curriculum is to incorporate a balance between these three disciplinary areas. Where the RE curriculum incorporated a balance of ‘believing’, ‘living’ and ‘thinking’ across a unit of study, an academic year, a phase or a key stage, students were far more secure in their knowledge and understanding, were better able to connect threshold concepts, were more receptive to a diversity of views and were deeper thinkers; in other words, they were more religiously literate. Moreover, teachers felt more secure in their understanding of why RE belongs on the school curriculum and what good RE looks like. They were also more consciously aware of the need to think about how an RE curriculum is constructed in order to produce religiously literate students.
The research process continues in conversation with a wide range of educationalists. The next stage is to develop a theoretical framework to scaffold the practical results that are already beginning to be seen in classrooms across the four participating dioceses, which cover 11 local authorities in England. What is clear is that a balanced disciplinary approach to designing an RE curriculum is providing more rigorous teaching and learning, which appropriately reflects the ‘multifaceted matrix of RE’ (Kueh, 2018). It can be applied across a variety of local RE syllabuses and pedagogical approaches, and can help to provide a clear and consistent approach to teaching RE. Like a rope of many strands, an RE curriculum that balances these three core disciplinary areas is stronger than the ‘multidisciplinary chaos’ (Chater and Erricker, 2012) experienced in classrooms around the country.