GCSE Reforms in Religious Studies: A Blessing

This post is written as part of an RE ‘Battle of the Blogs’, you can read the opposition here.

It frustrates me that so much credit at GCSE can be given-over to the “in my opinion” response. I am interested the views of my pupils and enjoy giving opportunities for debate and discussion. But, I am not that interested. What I have seen in the RE classroom over the past 3 years is a worrying lack of time given over to enriching children’s’ skills in empathy for others views via a genuine critical assessment of their own views. This, I argue, is much more important. As we look to implement the changes which have been made nationally, I hope that this is might be on the cards for the future of RE. (Previous Blog – 14 May 2015)

I wrote the above a year ago; I was utterly frustrated with the lack of depth in GCSE specifications. I have always felt that the qualifications were low on substance, so I am delighted by much of the reform at GCSE. The changes have, I feel, brought about ample more opportunity for religious literacy, whilst retaining a focus on analytical skills and writing well-reasoned, carefully supported arguments.

The problem with some current specifications, particularly the one I teach, is that for too long has it focused merely on a broad and shallow ‘exploration’ of religious responses to contemporary issues such as abortion, drugs, and poverty.  Although I feel that these specifications include some worthwhile content, and enabled pupils to examine and discuss a range of religious and non-religious responses to current issues, as well as develop their skills of analysis, there has been little scope for real depth of understanding of religious belief and theology. Apart from the presumed ‘knowledge’ retained from KS3, there has not been a rigorous enough approach taken by exam boards to explore precisely why a religious believer might hold the view that they do. Indeed, pupils have been able to rote-learn a few stand-alone quotations and employ them to support their argument in a manner which is at best sketchy and at worst, haphazard. I am fed up of the ability to award a pupil full marks for an answer because they made some tenuous connection to the Golden Rule of “love thy neighbour”.

Indeed, if we are to best serve our pupils with love, it is to provide them with the opportunity to acquire an in-depth study of religious and non-religious perspectives, as well as the ability to analyse precisely how and why these opinions are held. As such, the newly developed GCSE specifications are a blessing.

One of the key things which worries me about the teaching of RE is the assumption that gaining credit on an exam for voicing your own opinion is 1) a good thing, and 2) that without this the opportunity for discursive exploration of personal viewpoints is eradicated. I agree that “the ability to reason, use evidence to sustain an argument and evaluate personal responses, is a fundamental and worthwhile skill to cultivate in students”. But this crucial skill is not found by simply arguing loudly that “It’s my opinion, and opinions can’t be wrong, Miss!”. I have written previously  that I am really not that interested in mere opinion. Although I do believe that expressing opinions in the classroom is the first step to finding some level of helping pupils relate to the religious believer; in order for RE to be rigorous and academic, it needs to do more than give a simplistic presentation of religion which enables links to be made with pupils’ lives. It needs to help young people critically asses their own perceptions, transcend them momentarily, and step into the shoes of others’ ideological perspectives. All this is going to be made much more possible in light of the current GCSE reform. It is a real blessing.

Some, particularly those in schools where the pupil body is broadly secular, have argued that the shift away from ‘philosophy and ethics’ towards a more in-depth study of religion is counter to the interests of pupils. (There has even been some talk of a ‘Philosophy’ GCSE, something which I have my doubts about). I couldn’t be more against this view. If anything, I have found pupils asking more questions, exploring much more transcendental and philosophical points. For example, my Year 9s  have explored the concept of Islam as ‘submission’ and ‘surrender’ with some significant insight. It was clear, but the questions they were asking, that they were interested, challenged and furthering their understanding of ‘what it might mean to be a Muslim’. This is what the new specifications have to offer; ample opportunity for development of genuine religious literacy.

Certainly, what will prove to be crucial in helping pupils really connect with understanding ‘what it means to be religious’ is our delivery of these big concepts. As RE teachers, we want to avoid ‘filling up the bucket’ with a simple distribution of facts, and present opportunities for questioning and engagement.

Below is an activity from a first lesson on Islam (You can download the Power Point here and use this worksheet with it). I was so uninspired of the prospect of teaching the basics and giving them a list of facts about the populations of Muslims globally: what the Holy Book is called, who the founder of the religion was…..  Such phenomenological approaches simply evolve into dry, dull vocabulary recall, with no real engagement with what it might mean to believe, live and breathe that faith.

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An Introduction to Islam- Lesson 1

1. Read:

Islam is an Arabic word which means ‘submission’, ‘surrender’ or ‘obedience’. Another meaning of the word is ‘peace’. It stands for a person’s decision to surrender totally to the will of Allah. Followers of the religion are known as Muslims and they believe that submission and obedience to the will of Allah is the only way in which a person can ever achieve real peace in the heart and mind, and in society as a whole.

2. Activity:

  • Two pairs of volunteers please!
  • Let’s go outside! Be quiet and sensible!
  • Everyone to stand in a space in silence to form a course. You cannot move!
  • In each volunteer pair: One pupil will be blindfolded and must ‘surrender’. The other will be carefully guiding the blindfolded individual around the course to help them achieve their objectives.
  • This game is about trust and care. The winners will be the pupils who demonstrate these qualities in abundance.

3. Discussion

  • What was the purpose of the task?
  • How did it feel to ‘surrender’?
  • What did we notice about the blindfolded pupils?
  • Do you think it was easy or difficult being blindfolded?
  • How similar/different do you think this activity would be to being a Muslim?

4. Write

What might it mean to be a Muslim?

  • Islam means ‘surrender’- what does this teach us about being a Muslim?
  • How does the guiding activity from last lesson link to the idea of ‘surrender’?
  • How similar/different do you think this activity would be to being a Muslim?
  • Pupils need to think about the meaning of Islam as surrender, obedience, submission and how that might influence day to day life of a Muslim. They should use the example of the blindfold activity to help them comment on how peace might be achieved through following the will of God.

 

This activity was not perfect the first time I ran it. During the discussion, a few pupils were a little indignant, seeming to think that some freedom had been ‘lost’ as a result of being religious and, as such, did not understand why someone would wish to follow a religion like that. Indeed, the ‘blindfold’ has a risk of being seen as a negative element, hence the inclusion of the final question requiring pupils to be more critical of the task. In time, they could see that this was not a perfect experiment, but that surrendering oneself to the care of a guide was where a parallel might be drawn to what it means to be a Muslim or ‘one who submits’.  

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I am sure that the type of depth of understanding is something which has been happening in many GCSE classrooms. However, it is not happening in all. Many exam boards offering the now ‘old’ GCSE specification contained the opportunity to avoid teaching much in the way of religious belief. Topics such as ‘Religion and Morality’ are far too focused on the contemporary issues themselves, to the extent where I occasionally found myself re-teaching some of the PSHCE curriculum. Although these issues are relevant and can lead to good opportunities for debate and dialogue, the application of religious beliefs was so lacking in substance that it bred broad assumptions, misunderstanding and the inaccurate use of some diasporic quotations. Now, teachers of RE will be required  to include an in-depth study of at least two perspectives. This is a great change for the better.

In her keynote at Energise RE 2015, Linda Woodhead spoke about the assumed decline of faith. She is right to call for a more closer examination of the socio-religious sphere of the UK as this does much to overcome the appearance of secularisation on our island and gives a very precise reason why religion is not only still relevant, but also why change in the GCSE curriculum is necessary.

So, I support the changes and look forward to providing lessons which enable pupils  not only to further their own knowledge of religious belief in a deep and meaningful manner, but also to give rise to a genuine critical assessment of their own views. In this, not only are we teaching understanding of the views of others, but also putting Religious Education back on the map as a subject with depth and academic rigour.

This post is part of #battleoftheblogs  as organised by the brilliant @MissDCox. and is wholeheartedly meant in the spirit of good debate. If it is your favourite then please vote on twitter!

#TeamCarter  – The GCSE Changes are a Blessing!

You can read the opposition here: The GCSE Changes are a Curse


Still can’t decide which board to offer? 

As an incoming Head of Department, one of my first responsibilities was making this choice. If you are deciding, there are a few questions you should be asking:

Considerations:

1. Content: What scope is there for ‘good’ RE?

2. Suitability: Does it fit in with the ethos of the school?

3. Assessment: Will the style of assessment enable your pupils to achieve to the best of their ability?

4. Subject Knowledge: What are the areas of expertise of members of the department?

5. Kerb Appeal: Will pupils want to study this qualification? (Particularly relevant where RE is an ‘option’)

6. Links to A Level: Will this provide a good foundation for further study?

I have also been giving consideration to the new A Level Specifications for teaching from 2016. You can read my thoughts here.

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This blog is part of #BlogSyncRE. For information please follow @REEchoChamber or go to https://thereandphilosophyechochamber.wordpress.com/

 

 

 

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