Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Pope Francis on TED: Lessons for Schools

Today the first Papal TED talk was published. Recorded in the Vatican rather than with the instantly recognisable black backdrop, Pope Francis shared his "idea worth spreading". He touched upon ideas of solidarity, hope and tenderness. Some have suggested our world leaders were at the forefront of Francis' thinking when he wrote this, however, I think there is genuinely something for everyone in the talk; my focus is looking at a message for schools and school leaders.

"None of us is an island"

The first point is a reminder of how we all need one another. As someone who has lead teams within schools, it's been made evident that you need to be working together, always. To be a year team, a department, an SLT, you need to stand together. Francis points out, we need to "restore our connections to a healthy state" - connection and interaction makes us happy; this is in our human nature.

I enjoy our short weekly morning briefings as an RE Dept, and as an SLT we meet on the other four mornings. At first it seemed like lots of meetings, yet it drastically cuts down on many emails over smaller matters. It also means we get a catch up, know everything that's going on - and share personal news too... we even have a laugh and share a joke on occasion! It means issues are dealt with quickly.

As a department, it can help with 'buy-in' and ensure a shared experience. I try to speak in person to every member of my department every day, but it doesn't always happen - that's the life of a teacher - it's always busy! However, if I don't talk to them, I won't know if they are happy. And this is important. Anyone who feels like a island in a school is unlikely to be working as the best teacher they could be.


"How wonderful would it be if solidarity, this beautiful and, at times, inconvenient word, were not simply reduced to social work, and became, instead, the default attitude in political, economic and scientific choices, as well as in the relationships among individuals, peoples and countries."

I believe that, in general, schools do have the 'default attitude' of solidarity - we fight for equality and social inclusion on a daily basis. Yet Francis goes on to say that each person is "not a statistic or a number." - and this is something we do need to fight in schools. A culture has been created (Ofsted? DfE?) where we have little choice but to focus of getting students to a 4 - or a 5? It is vital we don't lose sight of the individual human being..."a person to take care of."

Pope Francis then retells the story of the Good Samaritan; familiar but often overlooked despite it's richness. The paths of our students are riddled with suffering - anxiety, bereavement, housing issues, self harm, divorce. As are our colleagues too. School leaders need to ensure they are not like the "respectable" people in the parable; we cannot 'walk on by' ignoring the suffering, we cannot leave anyone on the side of the road. School leaders need to be constantly looking to the 'side of the road' - who is there? Students? Staff?

Thankfully, I think schools are genuinely places where we do we do not let the system "nullify our desire to open up to the good". Schools do show compassion, every day.

This leads to hope:

"Feeling hopeful does not mean to be optimistically naïve and ignore the tragedy humanity is facing. Hope is the virtue of a heart that doesn't lock itself into darkness, that doesn't dwell on the past, does not simply get by in the present, but is able to see a tomorrow. Hope is the door that opens onto the future. Hope is a humble, hidden seed of life that, with time, will develop into a large tree. It is like some invisible yeast that allows the whole dough to grow, that brings flavor to all aspects of life. And it can do so much, because a tiny flicker of light that feeds on hope is enough to shatter the shield of darkness. A single individual is enough for hope to exist, and that individual can be you. And then there will be another "you," and another "you," and it turns into an "us." And so, does hope begin when we have an "us?" No. Hope began with one "you." When there is an "us," there begins a revolution."

Schools are places of revolution; it happens every day in classrooms everywhere.

The Revolution of Tenderness

The third and final point from Pope Francis is one of listening. One of the most important things for school leaders to do. Listen: intently, carefully, attentively, relentlessly. 

One group that stuck out to me was, "listen.. to those who are afraid of the future". This is our students - do they need a 4 or a 5? What will it mean having a mixture of grades and numbers? What do universities want? Employers? Will I be able to afford a house? This is also our teachers - what do budget cuts mean? Will there be redundancies? Will I have a heavier workload? These worries are real. 

Francis points out the language of tenderness is one of shared communication. How do we speak to the students? How do we speak to those in our team? How do we explain complex concepts? How do we share difficulties without over burdening? 

This particularly resonated for me, as a relatively new school senior leader, "the more powerful you are, the more your actions will have an impact on people, the more responsible you are to act humbly". There is a real importance to ensure you connect your power with humility and tenderness. Power may seem like an over-exaggerated term within the school context, but in every moment we have the power to make or break a students day, and likewise with colleagues. Francis hints at the model of servant leadership, evident in Jesus' ministry (see more on this in a previous blog post  <here>).

He concludes with more hope: "the future is, most of all, in the hands of those people who recognize the other as a "you" and themselves as part of an "us."" - this is our job; as teachers, leaders and human beings. 

Read the script in full <here>

Watch the video in full here:

Image courtesy of TED

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Jesus Was An Only Son

"One of the first things that is shocking when you have a kid is that suddenly there is this thing inside you... that says there is nothing, nothing you wouldn't do to keep them safe and protect them from what the world is going to deliver, which of course you can't do... the choices that we make are given a value by the things that we give up for them, the parts of life we pass by..."

Bruce Springsteen may not be a practising Catholic, yet in his own words, "he is still on the team" and "once a Catholic, always a Catholic". His songs present a relentless optimism, hope, redemption and resurrection. Bible imagery often features heavily. If you are interested in reading a little more on this, try these: Catholic Herald or Christian Today .

The Holy Family, Mary, Joseph and Jesus are introduced to us in the Nativity narratives. They present a model, an ideal - God could have picked any woman, and any man - in the whole of history - to bring up his Son; He picked these. By Jesus' Passion, Joseph seems to have died and is no longer there to support his son, and his wife, through the pain and torment. Mary was there, and this is her story, according to Springsteen:

A mother prays, "Sleep tight, my child, sleep well
For I'll be at your side
That no shadow, no darkness, no tolling bell,
Shall pierce your dreams this night." (Full lyrics)

This song is not just about Mary and about Jesus. It is about fatherhood, motherhood and all that goes with that. My life changed on 8th October 2015, when my son was born. I underwent the transformation Springsteen describes in the introduction to playing 'Jesus was an only son' live. A friend of mine had his daughter just a few months before us, and when I asked how it felt, he simply said, "ontological" - a phrase that has stuck with me. In his Confessions, St Augustine describes ontological feelings as being beyond conception, without condition... and connected to the heart.

Naturally fatherhood changes your working outlook and practices.

Instead of getting into work at 6.30am each day, when I can I like to stay at home and spend a bit of time with T in the morning. I try to get home as early as I can too, especially one or two nights a week. This usually means a few late nights catching up on work at home, something I never used to do when I did 6.30/7am to 6pm in school each day. Yet the trade off is worth it - getting home and giving T a bath, putting him to bed is a highlight of my day. 

I'd only ever left school once in the middle of the day in 12 years teaching, the day my grandmother died, but I've already had to do it once this year when T had been sick at nursery. The students at school remain important in my life, but they are not my own son. The needs of my wife are also greater than ever before, I need to be there to help and support her too. 

There are many reasons your colleagues may be finding life tough outside of school (bereavement, illness, divorce to name but a few). Although I never fully appreciated what colleagues who were parents may be going through. When you son is ill or teething, you may have got one or two hours sleep. You may have been woken on the hour, every hour. You may have been sat in the nursery at 3am. These things naturally have an impact on your ability to function on a given day! Especially as it so often happens when you have that 5 period day.

Your evenings and weekends become far more precious. I am reluctant to give up my Saturday morning to do a revision session, as this is when I take T swimming. I will be very selective on which Saturday conferences I will attend, as that is one of my full days with T. I try to avoid too many evenings out as I don't get to see T and put him to bed, plus it makes a very long day for my wife.

Importantly, it has changed my outlook to dealing with students at school too. You look at the students differently knowing how you care and protect your own child. I think I speak to fellow parents a little differently. I am not softer, if anything tougher, as I would want my son to be treated - I wouldn't want his teachers to tolerate mediocrity or have low aspirations for him. I would want him to be loved, cared for and treated fairly. I now always try to make it even clearer to parents that this is why I am trying to help, this is where I am coming from - even if it means the use of sanctions. 

Working in schools is a great privilege because you know exactly how great kids are already. The other day I read this by Matt Coyne who blogs on Facebook as the brilliant Man vs Baby:

When my son Charlie turned one we took him to a wildlife park. While we were there we taught him the noise that a lion makes... and he hasn't stopped "rraaahhhhrrring" ever since. And every time he roars, it occurs to me that we could just as easily have taught him that a lion "moos" or "quacks" and he would have accepted that as truth. And it further occurs to me that there is real power in that and a responsibility that comes with it. (BREXIT! TRUMP! ISIS! TERROR! HOW FATHERHOOD WILL FIX THE IMPENDING APOCALYPSE)

This is the power and responsibility that we share in as teachers. We are already in loco parentis for a significant part of the day - maybe we even feel we do more parenting than the actual parents! Certainly our pastoral responsibility can often go beyond the basic teaching of our lessons. This can be a rewarding and really worthwhile part of our jobs. Those with pastoral leadership roles will (hopefully) real feel this - we do make a difference. We also get to share in the many of the joys, laughs and happy moments.

Does becoming a parent mean you should be treated differently at work? Not really, but you can hopefully expect a little compassion and understanding on occasion. Does it mean you are a better teacher? Not necessarily, but I feel it has helped me be even better. Is it great fun? Absolutely. Is it for everyone? Not at all. 

I do now know that although my job is important, and that it still feels like a form of vocation, that my own family is my highest priority. I have undergone that 'ontological transformation' whereby there is nothing, nothing, you wouldn't do for them. I'm a husband, dad... and then teacher.

Image courtesy: Intensity Advisors

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

GCSE RS: Extended Writings Questions

"We are all teachers of literacy"
(Every English teacher / literacy coordinator, ever!)

Many RE teachers have been panicking about content and delivery time with the new GCSE in RS, quite understandably. However I have come to the conclusion that actually we also need to explicitly focus on literacy, namely writing good 'argument' essays. There is a potential situation where we allow only our students with good knowledge and understanding of RS AND good literacy to succeed in our subject. 

I teach the new Edexcel RS GCSE and I realised in my first few assessments a number of students were not even attempting the D style essay questions. These carry 12 marks (or potentially 15 with SPaG) and this meant losing 12 out of 24 marks. On questioning, they shrugged and said they were too hard. Upon further probing, it was clear that they knew some key bits of knowledge; this was not the fundamental problem in their lack of response. 

Firstly, it is vital to get away from the 'old part D' mentality. For Edexcel, that meant "3 points for, 3 points against". We can't just tack a conclusion on it this and hope for the best. Yet I understand why this may be a reasonable start point for less able students. They can pick up some marks for this, which is better than achieving nothing.

Secondly, I admit that my thinking has moved on from when we were under pressure to complete my textbook and devise strategies to help students write Part D questions. I am looking forward to working in future publications to provide more help and guidance to students and teachers with this. We initially looked to a approach similar to above (with developed, rather simple points), as more information trickles out of Edexcel, I am sure we will review for future editions.

Thirdly, we need different teaching techniques to our marking techniques. We cannot use the old Edexcel system of "simple point = 1 mark, developed point = 2 marks". The exam board keep repeating the fact that we need to be looking at the level descriptors. If I am honest, I as an A-Level teacher, I am finding this an easier adaptation from a marking point of view. However, I feel that are not particularly accessible for GCSE age students. As such, I have produced a resource in a format that I have used for A-Level before:

(Please comment on the document if you can see ways to improve)

One Size Fits All?

Different questions may require different approaches. Edexcel published some timing guidelines and suggested that "2 minutes thinking time" was built into each question. I'd suggest this is thinking and planning time, considering what the multiple views are, or what the different religious perspectives are. A simple template, especially "FOR, AGAINST, CONCLUSION" just won't work for some. Sadly, a one size fits all writing frame also will not always work.

Some activities I have completed in class to help students:
  • Providing a list of statements from Part D questions and getting them to identify what the multiple viewpoints may be - and linking to various religious views.
  • "Walking Talking" (PiXL) practice - talking the students through answering it, before getting them to write themselves.
  • Drafting questions as a class / in pairs / with textbook and then redoing in timed conditions.
  • Providing the content, and getting students to focus on literacy skills (see below).
I am conscious of the cognitive load placed on students while completing these questions. If we are asking them to recall information that is not secure (in their long term memory), given we are completing the question in the lesson where content has been delivered, plus asking them to do some relatively advanced essay writing, it is likely to overload their working memory. Therefore, for many D questions in class, I give the students the basic content and ask them to construct a good answer, focusing on their literacy skills. (Read more on CLT <here>)

Edexcel Spec Language
  • Deconstruction: Putting in your own words as to show a full understanding, including the separation/identification of key ideas
  • Logical Chains of Reasoning: Accurately using key connectives such as: therefore / as a result / in contrast / however / this shows that / this means that / this demonstrates that
New Info
Edexcel have released an 'update' with some further guidance; download <here>. A few things are apparent:
  • Unless all bullet points are referenced, it is limited to Level 2
  • A lack of clear conclusion does not mean an award of zero marks (thankfully!)
The "Double Advantage / Double Disadvantage" of SPaG has always annoyed me. The way I see it, the student who can write well (a generally good proxy for intelligence and exam success in humanities) can get an extra 12 marks across the paper, which is more than likely an additional grade. Additionally, the level criteria in D already factor in elements of SPaG with "coherent and logical chains of reasoning".

Less able, SEND and EAL students therefore are put at a disadvantage I believe. Additionally, I have no idea how such a subjective criteria will be consistently applied. What is the difference between reasonable, considerable and consistent accuracy? The only one I'd be confident on is awarding 0 if nothing was written.

We are not using on unit tests, ie 24 mark questions; 3 mark SPaG is too significant. We will have to use on the mock no doubt. I am aware of some teachers who totally ignore throughout, therefore any marks they pick up for SPaG are a bonus.

I believe the inclusion of SPaG was a DfE requirement, not the choice of Edexcel.

Arguing: A 'New' Approach?
It was helpful that Charlotte Vardy shared this video from her GCSE training course detailing her suggestions for attempting AO2 questions. It is worth watching for yourself, and it is generic, but most exam boards share a similar structure:

She points out that these extended questions are not just looking for two views, that is simply information (and therefore presumably just AO1). This would be the mistake of using techniques from old Edexcel spec.

She argues that the best approach is to see questions as looking for a view (thesis) backed up with various reasons. Students should work out their position before starting to write (remember the 'thinking time'!). This allows responses to begin with a view; this fulfil the Level 1 requirements for a conclusion. It is not simply a personal response, but a confident belief in the right answer. It is necessary to have counter arguments, and it is vital to link to particular religious beliefs. 

The structure suggested is therefore:
  • View
  • Reason 1
  • Reason 2
  • Reason 3
  • Religious groups / Denominations who would agree
  • Religious groups / Denominations who would not agree
  • HOWEVER / BUT...  - this is the evaluation, allowing a counter claim, but dismissing it
  • SO in conclusion, repeat initial view (backed up by most significant reason)
This avoids a simple description of different points of view.

I'd recommend watching the video rather than relying on my notes / interpretation.

I used to often use exam questions as consolidation at the end of one lesson, or a starter of the next. I more frequently use them now as a teaching tool. We don't write notes and then use them answering a question. The exam question is often their 'notes'. This may help them actually remember the material better if Dan Willingham is correct in his belief that students remember what they think about (read an overview <here>). They need to think far more deeply answering a Part D than just copying notes down. 

I also think this is excellent preparation for A-Level RS study. It is not easy, and certainly a challenge for less able students, but if we reduce the cognitive load in the first instance, we can be teachers of literacy, getting them to write well, in the context of our subject. For me, there is a great joy in this. A joy that was not there in the previous Edexcel spec. Even now, some of my most able students are writing essays that are enjoyable to read! 

Images courtesy of TimeSlip Blog

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Portsmouth 2017 with Jonathan Doyle

Jonathan and me via Jonathan's Twitter

I was fortunate to be invited to Portsmouth Diocese during a week of talks by Jonathan Doyle. On Monday 20th March 2017, I travelled down to St Jude’s Catholic Primary School in Fareham.

Jonathan is an internationally renowned speaker on Catholic education. He has spoken to over 300,000 Catholic teachers to date, 400 schools sign up to his weekly formation programme and he has produced a wide variety of resources to help Catholic teachers. These are my notes on his presentation. They hopefully reflect the meaning and spirit of his work, but they are my notes and interpretation.

  • Cynicism, burnout and exhaustion are sadly a key feature in all schools. How do we ensure our teachers keep turning up?
  • It is not surprising as we spend all day dealing with people, getting blamed for stuff… teachers are on the front line.
  • However, every teacher has their first day; no teacher starts off cynical, exhausted and hating what they do! (Jonathan spoke about how his dad had a job that he hated all his life)
  • Even if you don’t feel it, someone you know does. And you probably know about it.
  • Mother Teresa spent her life on the front line - she didn’t only survive, she thrived!

The Simple Equation:  The demands and complexity in teaching will continue to increase; time and energy are finite
  • In education, your job is only going to get harder; it will get more complex, more demanding, more pressured, greater expectations, new initiatives.
  • As our culture loses sight of God, people become more aspirational about material things - they want more stuff! More education, leads to more money, and therefore more material gains - or so people believe.
  • Where will better and better outcomes come from? Where will we find this energy? Especially as our primary vocation with a family, as a mother or father, son or daughter, also continue to place demands on us.

In Australia, only 5% of students from Catholic schools step into a church within a year of graduating. There is nothing compelling enough happening in Catholic schools to make students want to keep going to church. These schools have good outcomes, producing good young people… but government schools can do that just as well. Have we failed our mission? Why do Catholic schools still exist?

Jonathan spoke about a Catholic-based sex education talk he and his wife gave in a Catholic school and the Principle pointed out that theirs was “just one story”. If we present the Catholic story as simply one among many, we are failing in our responsibility to present an authentic Catholic vision. If you don't agree with it, why are you doing it?

The 3 Objectives of Catholic Schools
Pope Paul VI said in Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975), “The Catholic Church does not have a mission; she is a mission.” We do not belong to a Church that ‘looks for things to do’, such as education; Jesus certainly didn’t say at the Ascension, ‘Make sure you create big, complex institutions’. There is simply a Body of Christ. We cannot separate our mission from this; quite simply we are looking to bring people into a relationship with God. Therefore…

  • Objective 1: To create disciples - If students have an encounter with the real and living person of Christ, they will want to have a relationship with him in an ongoing way. The school needs to ask,  how effectively are we creating an example of Jesus? Or at least, how are we creating the context to allow that to happen? Catholic teachers in the school must be living catechisms… no student is going to ask to borrow a catechism to read! Yet a good Catholic teacher can be a catechism, a book that is lived out. If students do not see that Jesus matters to us, there he won’t matter to them - “set yourself on fire, and the world will come and see you burn!”
  • Objective 2: Integral Formation - “Christ is the foundation of the educational enterprise in a Catholic school… The fact that in their own individual way all members of the school community shares this Christian vision makes the school.” (The Catholic School 1977) - a school with 10% Catholic teachers is different to one with 25% or 50%. Integral formation is not just an evangelical mission; students have a wide variety of gifts and talents (music, art, athletics etc) and these must be fostered by the teachers in the school. All those little moments where you give help, guidance and encouragement are vital in this too. Be proud of using the best teaching methods and most effective pedagogies as you are helping in this formation. “The integral formation of the human person, which is the purpose of education, includes the development of all the human faculties of the students, together with preparation for professional life, formation of ethical and social awareness, becoming aware of the transcendental, and religious education.” (Lay Catholic in Schools: Witness to Faith 1982)
  • Objective 3: Philosophical Anthropology - This means to form an authentic Catholic vision of the human person, the person created “in the image and likeness of God” - what you think a person is, will determine how you treat people. Jesus went to Calvary for the person you like the least, the person that annoys you the most. Catholic schools are quite good at social justice, good at being nice… but have we lost our Christology? When our young people go into business or marriage, how will they treat people?

Tools and Fuels - Jonathan’s new book
Jonathan is an obsessive cyclist but one day, for the first time, he didn’t finish a race. It had 3 hills. On the first, he didn’t set up his gears correctly, then for the second he didn’t hydrate properly… and ended up calling his wife to pick him up. He had the wrong tools, and the wrong fuel.

We can’t do a big task with the wrong tools and wrong fuels.

Generally speaking, we have the right tools; our pedagogy is good. Most teachers can teach, even with the impending budget cuts, they will be able to deliver a lesson. Our fundamental problem is our fuel.

The 2nd Equation: You cannot do a supernatural task, with just natural resources
  • How do we survive? Do we just keep trying harder? Are we just “people of goodwill”? (Saint Pope John Paul II) Do we just rely on our personal effort, energy and psychological strength? You cannot out muscle a system that will just expect more and more.
  • John 15 outlines a personal and intimate exchange between people that knew each other well: Jesus and his disciples. He makes it clear, “apart from me, you can do nothing” (15:5) - either he is right? Or we are right - and he is wrong? Was Jesus joking? Metaphorical? There is nothing to suggest this; it is direct.

The Solution: All you have to do is become a saint.

  • The only thing that will fix this and allow you discharge your vocation is become a saint - the ultimate suffering is to not become a saint!
  • The Pre-Vatican II Church was a manual focused, teaching people to be holy through a list of ‘do’s and ‘do not’s. Holiness was only for a subset, the bishops, monsignors, cardinals etc.
  • Jonathan’s dad used to say, “If I can just sneak in the back…”
  • Vatican II gave the Church a universal call to holiness. It is for everyone. Sanctity is for everyone. It is heresy to claim that it is just for a subset!
  • The Catholic Church does not make saints, it simply recognises them - we often have an association with the Saints in our stained glass windows, hands together, not having any fun.
  • There are a great variety of Saints: St Augustine had an illegitimate child, St Mary of Egypt was a prostitute - to be a saint, you need to have really lived! God is not looking for people who “creep” through life.
  • God is able to help strip away everything that isn't you - your projections, your fears - this is when we begin to understand sainthood.
  • Life shifts - we stop doing certain things in our lives because we want to give, love and contribute - we recognise we are in love, and when you are in love, you believe you can change the world.

Our Vocation: Called to be saints
  • Primary Vocation - This is the modality of life: married, single, priesthood etc - we need to be asking how can I be a better husband/wife/father? How can I love them better. Often the things that you resist are what God wants most for you. God comes disguised as you life! “Do I love my wife as Christ loves the Church?”
  • Secondary Vocation - This is the work you do. This creates a paradigm shift… but whatever Jesus did he elevated. He worked, but he didn’t have to. Work is a good thing; through our work, God makes us holy. When you say the one word that a child needs to hear, it is important to remember that nothing you do will go unnoticed. Our society and culture allows these things to go unnoticed, but God does not.

The Venerable Solanus Casey
He was one of a family of 11 from Chicago. He worked as prison guard, train conductor… but wanted desperately to be a priest. He was kicked out of seminary for not being bright enough. Eventually the Franciscans gave him another chance, and after some time became a simplex priest - he could not perform public ministry. He was given the job of sitting in the front room of the Franciscan house and answering the door to guests. He let them in and made small talk until the person they had come to see was ready.

He spent 22 years doing this.

However he developed a supernatural gift of listening, he heard “the deepest wounds of the heart”, and miracles began to happen as he prayed with people.

All he did in life was the one simple thing asked of him, open the door.

The Solution Continued
  • The way is a person.
  • Others will devise systems or programmes…
  • The only thing that will do it, is trying to be saints.

The Path of Dependence
  • The sun will come up tomorrow - will you rely on you or will you reply on Christ?
  • A real person who rose from the dead, will give you supernatural capacity to become most fully what you already are.
  • We can rarely beat problems on our own.
  • God’s grace builds on our very nature.
  • We need to learn a path of dependence on God and realise that we cannot do this with God

How do we practically do this?
  1. Return to the sacraments
    • We need a deep desire to be with Jesus in the Eucharist, the “source and summit”. The Saints all know this, it grants a supernatural grace.
    • Our students often do go, because we don't go - you cannot give what you don't possess; you cannot share grace you do not have.
    • In Eucharistic adoration we can say “I am here, I am going to keep coming”
  2. Return to prayer
    • We need to give time to God - can we find 10 minutes?
    • Pray for your students
    • Find a chapel, do you pass a church? Can you come in 5 minutes earlier?
  3. Return to an encounter with scripture
    • This is how God will most likely speak to us

We may end up cranky, anxious, depressed and exhausted as teachers. How can we not only survive but thrive? By being saints.

As Jonathan says, “the Catholic Church has the best product, but worst marketing department.”

I'd like to thank Edmund Adamus, Professional Advisor to the Episcopal Vicar for Education/Schools Commissioner in Portsmouth Diocese, for the invite.

I'd also like to say a huge thanks to Jonathan Doyle for his generous and inspiring witness - it was well worth a 2hr+ journey each way to hear what he had to say (and he had come from Australia, so that kind of beats my journey!)

I hope my notes are useful; “The hand is the conjoined instrument of the mind” (St Thomas Aquinas)

Further Questions

Upon reflection on this, I will be blogging more on some of the ideas here. Questions that have already come up in my mind are...

  • How does this help our non religious colleagues / colleagues from other faiths?
  • How does it enable us to help our non religious colleagues / colleagues from other faiths?
  • How do we best deal with resistance to these ideas?

Portsmouth 2017 - Day 2

Jonathan filmed his second talk of the week. This covers some similar themes, but also introduces and touches upon some other key ideas. I recommend Catholic teachers everywhere to watch:

Jonathan also features on the ARC website with some videos on Theology of the Body for teachers. View <here>

Tuesday, 28 February 2017


"[Dylan] Wiliam’s central point: multiple choice questions can be made to be extremely difficult and challenging, and they can certainly test higher-order learning objectives." Daisy Christodoulou on Principled Assessment Design by Dylan Wiliam

Since moving to a 'Google school', while already being a convert, I have been using GoogleForms extensively since they introduced their new 'quizzing' feature. MCQs that prompt the revisiting of key words, ideas and knowledge can only be a good thing, right?


These are self marking. You can create a copy of the quiz, set via GoogleClassroom and then copy and paste results into your mark book (in GoogleSheets of course!). I am working on a system for students to record in their books - they often forget! (Does this matter? For whom are they writing in their books? Ofsted...?)

Spaced Learning

All tests are available on our department website (see <here>) we are ensuring regular retrieval practice, and using principles of distributed practice. I am introducing a "Quiz Master" - I will pick a quiz at random each week, the last student who has completed that quiz will get a prize (chocolate).

Informing Planning

I can get insights into what my students know, and what they don't. For example, so far, it is clear they know exactly where Moses received the 10 Commandments, but not the book containing the 613 Mitzvot. This is can be used as a indicator of what areas to focus on. Over time, this could be far more focused. It could also inform what to put on assessments, knowing students will have to review after the test and 'fill the gaps'.

What next for students?

Unlike feedback based on prose, MCQs give instant feedback on what they don't know. They can look up what they got wrong and redo the test. I've found students hate getting less than 10 and will often redo over and over until they get 10.

MCQ Problems
  • Clearly they can't assess everything.
  • They are time consuming to produce (but can be used over and over)
  • Good MCQ are hard to write - there is no point in 'silly' answers
Further reading on MCQs by Daisy Christodoulou

I have set up all quizzes on our website as being for our students only - they need to be logged in. This is because I want to have data on just my pupils, and so I can see who has completed them! I am sharing a sample here:
I aim to write quizzes for all sections of the new GCSE RS spec (Catholic Christianity, Judaism and P&E Edexcel) and A-Level (Edexcel Philosophy, Ethics and NT). I am willing to share with people who wish to genuinely collaborate.

Forget Me Not: New GCSE Planning

The new GCSE courses gives us an opportunity to implement more of what we know about how memory works. Even last year, the homework I set for Y11 were tests on Y10 material. A colleague commented that I never set homework based on the work they were doing currently. I asked how they proposed, that a student doing a two year course, would have frequently revisited the material covered 18+ months ago. Her reply was, "I've never thought about it like that."

The Traditional Syllabus (8 units like old and new GCSE in RS)

Study topic A
Test topic A - Give a Working At Grade (WAG) based on study and then immediate test of A
Study topic B
Test topic B - Give a new WAG based on study and then test then immediate test of B, possibly somewhat averaged with A
Study topic C 
Test topic C- Give a new WAG based on study and then test then immediate test of C, possibly somewhat averaged with A/B
Study topic D
Test topic D- Give a new WAG based on study and then test then immediate test of D, possibly somewhat averaged with A/B/C
Y10 Mock - Wonder why student grade doesn't really fit with others WAGs... especially as their results were inconsistent across topics?

Study topic E
Test topic E
Study topic F
Test topic F
Y11 Mock - Often result well below other WAGs... it's the mock what do you expect?
Study topic G
Test topic G
Study topic H
Test topic H
Actual GCSE exam

Topic A was studied in September/October 2015. It was tested in October 2015, June 2016, December 2016 and then in the final GCSE. In many respects this is a reasonable number of revisits.

A New System (2016 onwards)

Study topic A
Test topic A
Study topic B
Test topic A
Study topic C
Test topic A and B
Study topic D
Test topic B and C
Y10 Mock - Test A/B/C/D

Study topic E
Test topic A and D
Study topic F
Test topic B and E
Y11 Mock 
Study topic G
Test topic C and F
Study topic H
Test topic G and H
Actual GCSE exam

Topic A was studied in September/October 2016. It was revisited (via testing) 6 times in the lead up to the actual GCSE (the 7th test).


All units are worth equal marks in the exam, however, some units are worth more in their value to answering other questions. For exam, the key concepts in Topic A (Catholic Beliefs and Teachings) underpin everything else - there is no way I want students to not be familiar with Imago Dei, Creation, Trinity, Incarnation, eschatology. If there is something I want revisiting 6 or 7 times, it is this.


All units are not equally difficult for students. For example, our current students have not studied Judaism since Year 8 (now moved to Year 9) and never at the level we are expecting at GCSE, I feel we need to revisit Judaism more regularly in order they learn key new terminology. 


The above proposed model is flexible. I need to pinpoint which topics need greater revisits. This will determine what is tested when.

Is that it?

No. I am creating multiple choice quizzes (see <here>) and encouraging - with prizes! - for students to do these regularly. GoogleForms also allows me to see where common misconceptions and gaps in knowledge are... for individuals, classes, the year group. The Learning Scientist principles are also being shared with students (see <here>). I am also looking at ways of sharing my understanding of memory with my department. 

How about A-Level?

The huge volume of content at A-Level also demands differing teaching techniques in RS. I have MCQ for 6th form which we do regularly via Socrative and GoogleForms. I admit there is much more work to do here!


While acknowledging learning and progress are not neat, tidy and linear this requires adaptive planning. We can plan for a test, but I will need to adapt that test to our needs. It may be that I need to redo tests next year. It may be that different classes need different tests. I also aim to create a full mark scheme for all tests so the following lesson is dedicated to redrafting, 'green pen work' and covering any gaps.

There is a real danger that you create excessive marking. In an ideal world, you could test all content at every test opportunity and it make assessments genuinely cumulative - but this is far too much marking. Selecting key things to test, knowing that review work will be done, will be vital.


The reason I am implementing this to my department is:

  1. More accurate WAGs  - although who knows if our grade boundaries are in any way accurate
  2. Greater use of the principles of spaced learning
  3. Allowing more 'forgetting time' (not testing topic just studied where content may have only be taught the previous lesson!)
  4. Increased learning, not just 'doing' - what is the point of ensuring you cover the content but not ensure the students have learnt key concepts?
  5. Knowledge to underpin skills - the most common reason for not being able to attempt longer essay questions is a lack of knowledge. The quizzes focus on this.
I welcome feedback.

Image courtesy of Pixabay

Thursday, 23 February 2017

CoRE: Evidence Presentation

On Thursday 23rd February 2017, I was able to speak at an evidence gathering session for the Commission on Religious Education (see <here>). This is not the view of the Commission; it is my own personal view. Here is a copy of my script:

2017 sees an unprecedented moment of change for secondary RE teachers: 
  • New GCSE
  • New A-Level
  • Life After Levels
  • Potential revamp of KS3
It is also worth asking the question - What will this mean for Primary RE?

I believe a fundamental problem in RE is the fact our aims and purpose are not clear.

Some see RE as a 'special' part of the curriculum, others a ‘safe space’, or a place where there is time for lots of personal opinion, somewhere there is no right or wrong answers . 

However - we are not the only subject that looks at 'big questions' and it should not be the only place for SMSC, Community Cohesion, PHSE, Citizenship and British Values - this colonisation has been allowed and even encouraged in the search for legitimacy, higher profile and curriculum time.

The decision to not include RS in the Ebacc has been damaging - but when teachers were able to deliver the previous GCSE in half the time of other GCSEs, is it any wonder? However, there have then been many complaints that new specs are too academic - and contain too much religion! Perhaps our subject has seen one of the biggest shifts in the new reforms? This undoubtedly requires support for RE teachers.

For me, the subject may well provide the 'other' development (personal, spiritual, moral, ethical, philosophical etc), yet at its core, needs to be an academic, rigorous, critical subject that teaches about religion and NRWVs. It should be more knowledge focused, enabling students to develop skills that will be useful for a lifetime. The ‘other’ development is important, and something I believe all teachers in all subjects have a part to play in ensuring students receive.

If there is to be legal change, it first and foremost needs to be the right to remove. The current situation indicates that what we are delivering is still RI, not RS. This may necessarily lead to a further change in the law regarding the compulsion to study it. This law has served RE well, but for the long term future of the subject, do we want to survive by being forced upon students? Can we survive by own merits?

I honestly believe RE is one of the subjects that has changed the most since the parents of our students were at school. Many schools have thriving RE departments with large numbers, even where it is an option. They lead on T&L and are well supported by SLT. I believe this is something for all to strive towards. 

Too much time is wasted on the ‘name of RE’ debate, again another search for legitimacy. My favourite is still Culture, Religion and Philosophy - it was only when the head of CRaP had his name badge printed that he realised an error had been made! We can call the subject what we like, but actually it is defined by what happens on a daily basis in the classroom. 

The great diversity of RE syllabuses is still celebrated by some, I’ve always found it impossible to find out exact numbers, but potentially anything up to 150 LASs. It’s hard to continue to argue the case for local determination - surely if something is good enough for students in one area, it is good enough for the next area, which in London might be another school just 100m down the road. Some argue there is a financial interest in keeping LASs - people are employed to do the writing every 5 years. It is worth noting some have had new LASs this year on top of new GCSE and A-Level - avoidable? At the heart of this, could this time, money and effort be better spent supporting RE teachers in the classroom towards a more universal RE curriculum?

If RE teachers were working towards something more centralised it would be far easier to share resources; an opportunity that the internet has offered in an incredible way. It would also allow RE teachers to move from one school to another and not have to learn and resource a whole new KS3 syllabus! Primary specialists could continue to be specialists, even in a different local authority. Currently RE teachers can get away with teaching what they want, how they want and then assessing how they want. Is there any real comparability before GCSE?

Save RE is a Facebook group that sums up what I frequently refer to as 'the Good, the Bad and the Ugly' of RE and it may be worth the Commission spending time looking at some of the threads on there. Some frequent issues that come up:
  • Lack of parental support - including parents wanting to withdraw, refusal to go on schools trips to Mosques etc
  • Lack of curriculum time - especially for the demands of the new GCSEs, some trying to deliver in an hour a week still
  • Lack of specialists - sometimes including the head of RE, linked to lack of subject specific provision of CPD, INSET etc (especially in school hours)
  • Lack of clear department teams - sometimes there is a head of RE with 8 or 9 non-specialist teachers doing 1 or 2 lessons each (and the workload this creates)
  • Lack of resources - especially for certain GCSE and A-Levels options, timescales imposed by DfE made resource publication for the start of courses impossible
  • Lack of guidance and advice - especially in 1 person departments
  • School refusal to follow statutory guidance - also confusion about law given academies, free schools etc
  • Burden of Citizenship, PHSE, British Values etc
However this group also highlights the huge inconsistency of what goes on in classrooms. Again there is some great stuff - and I would direct you to the blog of Dawn Cox ( for some of the best thinking on curriculum design and assessment in RE, often shared on Save RE - but there are ideas that have divided the 5000+ members: studying the Illuminati, holocaust cake baking, churches made of biscuits and “the crucifixion jelly hand” being some of the most controversial examples in my own personal memory. 

Some RE teachers spent June last year covering the murder of Jo Cox and the shooting at the Orlando nightclub. Both interesting topics, but when you only have an hour a week, is the 'teach what you like’ culture not damaging to the subject? Would these not be better covered in form time? Our search for relevance and engagement can be deeply damaging - and confusing - for students

(The above was shared with Commissioners as what I consider a good example of engagement and relevance)

The online community of RE teachers shows exactly what a “broad church” we are. There is great value in this, but also notes of concern. I strongly urge the Commission to get into as many schools as possible - and not just those who are vocal on social media and in existing RE circles. Perhaps find schools that wouldn’t normally extend an invite because they are under pressure and struggling? Find out why.

The GCSE Annex has provided a clear benchmark for RE. All specs needed to ensure this content was covered. As this has been put together by faith communities and curriculum experts, does it not make sense to transpose this document down to KS3 and primary? Even for faith schools with their own RE curriculum, this could provide a useful bench-marking tool.

RE has the potential to be a key and important part of every school’s curriculum. RE teachers are often up against it for a variety of reasons. How can we all work together to best use our time, money, effort, energy and resources to ensure every child in this country receives the best possible education in RE?

Read more about the session <here>