I spent an absorbing day last Friday at the Oxford Belfry near Thame attending the Oxford Diocesan Board of Education’s annual RE conference, entitled RE Central. It was well attended for an RE conference and it was good to see a number of clergy there, as much of the day was spent in discussion and exploration of “encounter” – and that meant how we can get the best from visiting places of worship near us, and the level of organisation needed on all sides. From Christ the Sower, there were four of us – myself, Wendy (who leads RE for us brilliantly and with great purpose), Ranbir (who teaches great RE lessons in Year 6) and Mike (whose ongoing commitment as a governor and pastor to us keeps the subject high on the agenda). Other folk from Milton Keynes were there, both from schools and the local SACRE, and I was pleased that so many had made it a priority.

The context for us is that we will be inspected thoroughly in RE next term, through our 5-yearly SIAMS inspection. To that end, Wendy and I have just completed an observation of 9 RE lessons, part of a fact-finding exercise in order to identify the next steps for us as a school in the teaching of this vital and increasingly-important subject. The overall outcomes I have recently reported to governors, and whilst I have still to observe three more lessons to “complete the set” so to speak, there is a provisional outcome that we can delineate:

  • RE is taught with integrity, skill and thoughtfulness across the school.
  • RE is a model of respectful teaching – respect for children, respect for faith and its adherents, for children’s opinions and in the say that it harbours a willingness for children to be respectful of each other.
  • RE is assessed better and better so that we have a clearer idea of which children improve and how they improve. As this is one of our SIAMS findings from 2012, this is just as well.
  • RE is taken seriously as a core subject in our curriculum.
  • Teachers use the religious experiences of the children they teach in the furthering of the common knowledge. This was seen as a distinct feature in Year 6, Year 5, Year 4 and Year 1.
  • RE is taught in a linked manner – in other words, previous RE learning is built on wherever possible.

What the survey also showed is that the theological/biblical-narrative understanding of Christianity in particular could be enhanced with some better CPD. It was, paradoxically, stronger in the teaching of Islam than it was in Christianity during this survey. A second development point (made all the stronger because in one class it was extremely well developed) was the enhancing of religious debate and argument toward a conclusion. A combination of good dialogic talk models and a willingness to use philosophical techniques to deal with ethical and religious issues was seen in one Year 4 class (thank you, Dan) and this could be spread over the whole piece.

So this provides the backdrop for an exposition of our learning on Friday. I hope that what follows accords with Ranbir’s, Mike’s and Wendy’s understanding of our learning during the day. I had to head off to South Wales mid-afternoon so have not had a chance to catch up with them. The following report is very much in note form, a way of recording the learning for myself and in the process hoping that some of it will stick through paying attention and repetition!

The keynote speaker was Julie Diamond-Conway, editor of RE Today, who showed us three areas where RE could impact directly on children’s understanding, and the reasons why we should keep teaching it. She began with a quote from Freathy et al (2015), indicating that today the relevance of religion was higher than it had been for some while, in social, cultural, economic, political, moral, local. global, personal and public life.

ENCOUNTER: We need tools to help visualise “the other” and encounter helps us not just to know this, but not to see them as the “abject others”, who somehow are not as good as me.

  • Thus opportunities to meet automatically break down barriers. Physical meeting is good, as it generates good dialogue between faiths or people from different branches of faith (about which more later) and identifies common areas of humanity straightaway, even without any “religious” discussion.
  • Psychological research is suggesting that encounter may also be imagined or virtual. Mere imagining a contact with a person from a different culture for just two minutes can help to change and challenge attitudes to people from that background, so powerful is the imagination.
  • Further, looking at religion in the real world is a powerful tool to dislodge prejudices and place people in the real communities in which they – and we- have our daily lives.

Ways of deepening this encounter in the classroom include persona dolls, films from members of a particular faith community (see for instance Natasha telling others about the Holy Cribs synagogue on True Tube, or the Faith in Schools website from Newham), charities inspired by specific faiths, the RE Today Photostories series, the use of visits and visitors, and the (great) use of great photos! The latter is a huge help because it generates so many good questions. Julia suggested a model of their use where you begin with picture extending (half a picture is shown, and children have to look for clues to see what the other half might be), then complete the picture and go through the process of naming, understanding, imagining and puzzling. This generates empathy and a diversity of questioning from children that shape their understanding as the questions find answers or just remain as good questions.

DIVERSITY WITHIN RELIGIONS: One of the problems facing RE teachers is that all religions are fairly messy things, for mainly historical reasons. They have different branches, so it is good for teachers to use the language of “some Hindus believe…” “most Christians think…” “many Muslims practise….” because there is an increasing chance that blanket statements will be challenged in class by some child who has more specific knowledge! The approach Julia recommended is to look at religion as lived faith, where the variety of experiences, for the sake of religious literacy, are no more valid or invalid than others. She quoted the recent difference of opinion between Rabbi Murvis, the Chief Rabbi of the UK, and Rabbi Jonathan Romain, from the reform Judaic tradition, over whether there ought to be a cap or not of 50% of religious adherents in religious free schools. This internal diversity happens all the time and should be both celebrated and used effectively in our teaching of religious faith. A good place to start is with a wonderful Secret Life of Muslims video called What is a Muslim? (Aman Ali, the comedian, is great on “there’s no pork on my fork, no swine on my mind…I’m not hostage to the sausage”).  A good place to follow up is the HarvardX course Religious Literacy: tradition and scriptures.

EXAMPLES OF RELIGION NOW: the third take on showing children the relevance of religious education is to demonstrate how religion is talked about in the modern world, and in the modern media. Julia began, by showing that religious education in schools is often illustrated with images of children in collective worship, a very different thing. She argued that a picture of religious education in a primary or secondary school would not look that different from an English lesson! However, the widespread use of media meant that we had plenty of examples to pick from in order to challenge children’s understanding of religious faith in the UK, because it was in general so poorly reported and therefore open to serious questioning. Accuracy is of course important – a rich theological understanding by the teacher is always going to be worth acquiring – and such a start can be made by walking around the school and looking for signs that religious faith is being pursued in the community.

She finished the session by giving us a number of cards describing different situations in school or the community where religion was referred to or used to justify a course of action and asked us to measure on a “respectometer” where the action fell.

The first seminar I attended after this keynote was run again by Julia and by Alex Wolvers, author of the RE:quest website which provides resources for the teaching of Christianity. Julia and Alex discussed issues around visits and visitors in RE, at a very practical level. Some of it was a shameless plug for RE:quest, but we also learnt about Ambassadors of Faith and Belief (AFAB) a Redbridge project now closed, but with many learning opportunities for us in Milton Keynes through the Youth SACRE. So, the learning:

  • The power of a personal story is both real and vivid for children. It brings a topic alive; it offers a range of different experiences, helps deeper understanding, offers different eyes on a familiar subject and makes issues of faith real to children.
  • Visitors really need to be selected carefully – no proseltyzing, no boredom, and no patronising of children – just relevant interesting material!
  • Alex provided 8 tips for getting good visitors into school
    • Can visitors be just for RE, or is their interest wider than that?
    • Where in the scheme of work is this visitor placed – when is the best time in the teaching sequence?
    • Get in a speaker for a specific topic (e.g. Ramadan in our family, how the Torah is used in everyday life, my baptismal experience, etc)
    • Write questions with the children beforehand.
    • Define the outcome of the visit for children: is it to be able to tell a story, to be ready to visit a place of worship, or to connect the learning from the visitor with a religious lifestyle?
    • Decide how many visitors to invite: sometimes they are better in pairs.
    • Use the visitors as part of a focus, not in a general way.
    • Take them on the class trip to their place of worship, so the children can see them in class and in their mandir, mosque or gurdwara.
  • Using the RE:quest website can be really useful for longer stories and to provide additional context. Alex showed us a set of short videos about a long pilgrimage from Chester to Lichfield on the Two Saints Way.

The other significant seminar I attended was by Kathryn Wright, who is the RE adviser for Norwich Diocese and a member of staff at Culham St Gabriels in North Oxford (amongst other things). She gave a talk, informed by some work she is doing for a doctorate, on how we promote religious literacy through RE. Defining religious literacy is tricky but she settled on one definition that seems to me to contain all the important features (when co-writing the Shropshire 2008 Agreed Syllabus I remember a long debate about this, so I have given it some thought):

Children and young people (and adults too, presumably) being able to hold balanced and informed conversations about religions and beliefs.

This is informed by:

  • Theology (the study of key concepts on which a religion or belief system is based; considering issues such as authority and diversity of interpretation; focusing on developing skills of textual analysis)
  • Philosophy (the study of diverse expressions of human wisdom; questions of meaning, purpose and truth; developing higher order thinking skills)
  • Social/Human Sciences (studying the lived and diverse reality of religion and belief; issues of pluralism, secularism and diversity; focusing on developing ethnographic research skills and emphasising encounter, engagement and impact)

This is a critical approach to religious literacy, focusing on a range of skills that we do not always allow into RE. I was particularly delighted to see the high emphasis on textual analysis – this seems to me to be the most authentic and respectful approach to religious faith: to take someone else’s (or our own) religious writings seriously enough to study them in class.

Seeking to answer the question How do we teach RE to ensure that pupils become more religiously literate? Kathryn indicated that this would have to take the form of enquiry, the “action of seeking” for what children would need to know. This would dovetail perfectly with the three strands of religious literacy outlined above. A model for it would be the OFSTED Best Practice Enquiry Process illustrated here. Whether we were using it effectively in developing religious literacy would depend on the quality of the teaching:

  • Asking questions helps engage with a key aspect of the enquiry, focusing on a “big idea” or concept, but only if it reflects what the children themselves want to find out.
  • Investigating the big idea or concept is an unending process – children and teachers can take this as deeply or as broadly as they wish.
  • Evaluating and drawing conclusions from the investigation needs to answer questions around impact and the difference the practice makes on the lives of believers or adherents. It also raises new questions to be fed into the cycle.
  • Ensuring the children reflect on and express an understanding of the enquiry question, and are considering other questions on the way, leads to the next phase of the enquiry.

Kathryn suggested three analogies for enquiry, none of which were completely perfect, but all of which posited ways of thinking about enquiry:

  1. Doing a jigsaw, with the box as the guide: this was possibly too prescriptive for some, assuming that there was a correct answer. An alternative was to paint a picture based on the jigsaw box, interpreting it as we went.
  2. Skiing, but then going off piste for a bit before ending up at the clubhouse for apres-ski! This had more appeal, as it allowed for variety in the direction, but had a clarity about a destination (i.e. insisting on an answer to the big question).
  3. Spiralling (essentially a hermeneutic approach): as the circle is repeated, layers of meaning emerge and understanding develops. This is how we teach maths, or music, with ever growing complexity.

From a discussion of these three analogies, she drilled down into some examples, based clearly around religious texts, where children could explore one verse of scripture, one part of an image, or look for emphasis or repetition (and therefore importance) in a passage. She began with John 6:35

I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me shall not hunger.

Looking for the emphasis in this verse – repeating it with each word stressed separately, or asking children to identify the most important word in the text – can lead to rich questions that then open up the discussion, leading to layers of meaning as each word takes its place and is presented and debated.

Another approach, akin to Berger’s gallery critique is to take a scripture, such as John 1, or a section of the Midrash, and make comments on it. Other children can then comment on the comments, raising questions and deepening the enquiry. Eventually there will emerge a vibrant theological understanding of the passage.

Yet another approach is to summarise a passage in 5 words. We tried it with Mark 2:1-12, where the paralytic is lowered through the roof and is healed and forgiven. Different people came up with different emphases (mine was resolutely practical: crowd, paralytic, roof, mat, legs). Others took a theological journey through it: preaching, need, noticing, healing, forgiveness. The conversations around this make the meaning in the story and create deeper understanding.

The final two approaches to enquiry that Kathryn showed us were

  • a double entry journal: children keep a journal of an event or conclusions from the text, and on one side write what they saw in the text, and on the other, what they thought with their mind or understood beyond the text. This is used often in English and in history, and in RE it has particular usefulness in clarifying the text and the interpretation, which helps learning to go more smoothly.
  • I wonder questions, similar to those raised in Godly Play. The sort of wondering might be I wonder what surprises you about this story? I wonder what difference this story might make in he lives of believers? I wonder if this story has value today? I wonder what would happen if this was left out of the Quran/Bible/Talmud? I wonder if this story connects with anything in your life?

At that point, I was full of thoughts and did not feel I had the energy to go to what I am sure was Dilwyn Hunt’s excellent seminar.

My thanks to Anne Andrews, the diocesan RE adviser, for putting this event on, which will sustain us in RE learning for a good while.

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About Huw Humphreys

I am a headteacher in the city of Milton Keynes, where I have been since April 2011, looking to make education effective for the whole child and keeping a distant relationship with the powers that be and their narrowing approach to education... but most of all I am looking to find out what it means to be both a follower of Jesus Christ and a passionate educator in the midst of an unsettled community. I am also a part time musician, part time linguist and lover of history and literature...committed both to freedom to learn and depth of learning for all our children. The views on this blog are all my own, and not in any way those of the school I lead!

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