Monday, 26 March 2018

How to be a success at A Level

As we embarked on the second cycle of teaching the A Level in Religious Studies, it became apparent that I needed to do more work with my students on the skills that they need to note take, write, learn, review and test. We simply don't do enough of this lower down, and then just expect sixth formers to have some kind of magical transformation over the summer, whereby they somehow can. I feel it has been time well spent, and transferable across other subject areas... 

How to note take

I have introduced, and insisted upon, the Cornell Note Taking system:

See below for how it is used in the reviewing of work. Download Slides <here>. On average it takes 66 days to form a habit... <source> - someone asked what the disadvantage is, I can't work out one. 

How to write

The literacy demands of the new A Level (and GCSE) are far tougher than previously. For Edexcel RS, there are now a variety of different questions types rather than just a 'standard essay' form to learn. As such, I spent a lot of time 'magpie-ing' the best of what I could find to produce a literacy booklet. I get students to read the relevant section before writing an essay - it seems to have helped: 

Download <here>

Charlotte Vardy has also put together a video for RS essays, which can be watched <here>. It is really important to help students know the academic writing forms you want them to produce. Last year I left this too much to chance, or had to try and modify students writing style after they had already formed habits. 

How to learn

We watched this together in class, made notes on each one. We then looked on the Learning Scientists website - <here>. We've also added various resources to our department website <here>. We also have shared resources with parents to make it clear what their son / daughter should be doing - I gave each parent a copy of 10 Rules of Good and Bad studying by Barbara Oakley (adapted by M Smyth) - see <here>.

How to review

The ideal would be to get students to review at least 24-48 hours after a lesson, within a week and again with a month. These are the ideas that I suggested:

  • 24-48 hours: 
    • Add summaries and cue column to Cornell formatted notes - this note taking system forces you to review
    • Re-read lesson Slides on GoogleClasroom and add any further notes, or read from links provided in Slides
    • Watch a summary video to supplement the lesson [Philosophy and Ethics is particularly lucky in this respect - see <here>]

  • A week:
    • Allocate a review period on timetable - ie P3 on a Friday is RS review time
    • Work on a Knowledge Organiser for the topic - use GoogleDocs so it remains a live document that can be added to / ammended
    • Test by covering up main notes and just use summaries and cue column [Cornell], or parts of the Knowledge Organiser.
    • Attempt exam question
    • Use videos or podcasts on website - see see <here> and <here> including a 'method' - not just watching or listening
  • A month
    • Same things as within a week
    • Timetable - calendar it on your phone! 
    • Retrieval practice - start with a blank sheet...
How to test

I frequently talk about their 'unknown unknowns' - what is it they don't know, and how do they know?

We have planned our "Revision Power Hours" - see <here> - as well "The Pomodoro Technique" (25 mins focused, distraction free study, followed by 5 minute break), and the Leitner method for using flashcards.

Hopefully this will help our A Level students, it may also help yours... everyone wants that 'leap in the air' A Level photo in the local press - it could be you!

Thanks to all those who have helped along the way with changing my thinking on this. 

Monday, 19 March 2018

TES Article: Long read: The battle for the soul of RE

“Is it a mythical story?” says Andy Lewis, director of RE at St Bonaventure’s Catholic School, in East London. “A literal story? A symbolic story? If students understand the concept of the story, they can get into that debate.

“You’re asking questions about the nature of God. Year 7s really enjoy discussions about: who is God? They get to grapple with some quite difficult questions there.”

Read the full article <here>


A few thoughts from me on the article:

a) I do think the theological concepts are vital in RE. This is definitely our preferred approach within Catholic education, however we are not alone in this. Jonathan Porter at Michaela School has blogged about the important of scripture in RE (<here> and <here>), Robert Orme ensured that the Bible was covered in the new Collins Knowing Religion series with a 'double length book' on Biblical Literacy (<here>) and Michael Merrick (another Catholic teacher) recently wrote about religious literacy needing scripture and a focus on the spiritual (<here>).

b) I do think a really clear curriculum is needed, and should be followed. If the system is broken, we need to look at ways to fix it - something the Comission on RE are actively doing. What worries me is the 'teach what you like (or think appropriate)' remains a feature in RE. Things become sensationalised, and we simply debate unsubstantiated opinions. This also links to the colonisation of RE, and the resulting impact, squeezing all the other parts of the curriculum (Citizenship, RE, FBV etc) into an hour a week.

c) Topics such as abortion and euthanasia are not on all the new GCSE curricula, as they are not in the Annex document, however they still feature in my lessons for Edexcel. This is because we focus on key theological concepts such as imago Dei and how this leads to Catholic beliefs and teachings on start and end of life issues. You can meaningfully look at the application of the concept, once you know the concept. Too often I have been told Catholics are against these things because they "simply don't move with the times", rather than have a clear and coherent theological issue with them.

d) I enjoy the sociology of religion, it was a highlight from my A Level study when I took A Level Sociology. This complemented my A Level in Religious Studies. I remember sharing this revision PPT (<here>) and some RE teachers getting very excited saying this is exactly what should be taught in RE, forgetting that it was already on the Sociology curriculum.

e) I will be writing more soon about what I feel are some of the recent confusions surround theology in RE. For a start, it seems to now be defined by some as "faith seeking understanding" (St Anselm) and synonymous with a confessional approach, something I do not agree with.

And a clarification from Dr Anthony Towey:

a) I think that anyone can do Theology - Pope Francis, Richard Dawkins etc - insofar as they engage thoughtfully with the "God question/ hypothesis". In the RE classroom therefore, far from being an exercise in indoctrination, theology can and should be an adventure of the mind which critically considers the proposals of religious belief.

b) I myself use "the sociological method" at times in an RE context, my main contention, however, is that any claim that it be regarded as uniquely "objective, critical and pluralistic" is hopelessly flawed and philosophically untenable.

c) Re Jeremy Kyle - I regard lively but respectful debate as an essential ingredient of good RE. However, the Government's "knowledge agenda" has been a game changer for many subjects, particularly at GCSE. Rigour has improved with the need to reference sources rather than just take the temperature of opinions as often happens on daytime TV. One of the less positive consequences is that as teachers grapple with the new curricula, there is a feeling that there is so much to cover, there is almost no time for classroom discussion at all.

d) The RE Commission has a wide ranging brief that extends far beyond preferred methodologies which can, in any case, be regarded as complementary. Happily this is a view which the article demonstrates is not unique to me - I am confident that the eventual report of the Commission will reflect the vitality, variety, colour and cohesion of RE as a core component of our common educational endeavour.

e) As for my views on Genesis 1-3  - check out the video on the London RE Hub website - it presents "the drama of the gifted individual being challenged to choose the good" - and everyone of us is caught up in that - it's called life!

Anthony Towey
St Mary's University

Thursday, 15 March 2018

A to Z of RE

A brief introduction to the world of RE.

A is for Associations and Professional Bodies
There are quite a lot... here are some: NATRE (National Association of Teachers of RE), TRS-UK (Theology and RS UK, formerly “The Association of University Departments of Theology and Religious Studies” or AUDTR), AREIAC (Association of RE Inspectors, Advisers and Consultants), NASACRE (National Association of Standing Advisory Councils of Religious Education), AUL:RE (The Association of University Lecturers in Religion and Education), Shap Working Party [Amazingly, not an acronym!] - there are LOTS of members of the REC (Religious Education Council), find there <here>. Which ones to join?

B is for British Values
These are things the government believe we should be teaching. Many RE teachers felt they wanted to be the ones taking the lead; RE Today even published a book about RE and BV. Some RE teachers feel it should be a whole school priority and not left to RE.

C is for Collective Worship
The RE department might get asked to take charge of this… but it is a whole school responsibility. Collective Worship and RE often get muddled together. Many schools disregard the law on Collective Worship, they just have assemblies that cover PHSE, Citizenship, the news, or they just give notices. Many people feel Collective Worship has no place in schools.

D is for department
For some, you could be a department of one. This is great as you are your own boss, but you are likely to have a number of non-specialists who teach RE. Some will be great, others less so… the internet is a great way to form a virtual department - ask for advice and share resources, plus argue.

E is for EBacc
RE is not part of this. It probably never will be. The official reason is that RE is still compulsory anyway. Unofficial reasons may or may not include faith schools entering their whole cohort, the DfE wanting students to do History or Geography as a priority over RE, or the old GCSE being far easier than any other GCSE course.

F is for faith school
Or schools with a religious character. Most are Catholic or Church of England, there are also other Christian schools, Islamic, Hindu, Jewish and Sikh schools. They can determine their own RE curriculum. Some feel this divide makes RE irreconcilable, others feel lots can be learnt from one another.

G is for guided hours
For GCSE this is 120 hours. Make sure your school know this if they are trying to get you to teach the new GCSE in an hour a week. This is NOT the old GCSE.

H is for Humanism
This is just one type of non religious worldview (NRWV), but Humanists UK manage to dominate much discussion in this area. They do provide resources and speakers to schools, which can be helpful.

I is for the Internet
This is where you can join Facebook groups such as Save RE and take part in #REChatUK on Twitter. Some of it is brilliant. But there are arguments, and rows. Social media doesn't always have tone, or a sense of humour.

J is for Jehovah Witnesses
Like Mormons and other minority groups that may or may not be considered Christian. Navigating away from mainstream religion is exciting and but sometimes problematic.

K is for kirpan
And other religious artefacts. These are great in the classroom and cheap from eBay, or free from local places of worship. Bargain hunt.

L is for Locally Agreed Syllabus
RE subject content is determined locally. This means in London, each borough teaches something different. Be careful when you cross that border from Suffolk into Norfolk, RE isn't the same. Some people feel it is hard to justify 140+ LASs being rewritten every 5 years. Other people think it's important that RE reflects the local area, even though students may move away for university or employment.

M is for moral
Part of SMSC (Social, Moral, Spiritual and Cultural development). Another thing RE naturally does well, but may be lumbered upon the Head of RE - it's a whole school responsibility. 

N is for Networking
This is great for RE teachers. Culham St Gabriel's help RE out in lots of ways, one such is providing grants to arrange networking hubs. There are also NATRE Local Groups, and some SACRE's run network meetings.

O is for Ofsted
The last major report into the subject was written by Alan Brine in 2013 “Realising the Potential”. More recently some school reports have flagged up where the law is not being followed - see here.

P is for Prevent
This is recent extension of safeguarding. However some initially believed the RE department would need to become ‘terrorist spotters’ in a RE-themed CTU in the new season of 24.

Q is for Quran
Or Qur’an or Koran. Some words in RE are spelt in different ways. Check out key words in the fantastic app, RE Definitions.

R is for Religion
Some people think we need less of this in RE, which seems odd.

S is for SACRE
This stands for the Standing Advisory Council for RE. These exist in each Local Area Authority (LEA) and form a committee to write the Locally Agreed Syllabus as well as advise and support schools in the area. Some are really good and effective, some others apparently less so.

T is for Target
As in Attainment Target, AT1 (Learning About) and AT2 (Learning From). AT2 has resulted in some interesting RE tasks at times.

U is for (mis)understanding
Parents often don’t have a clue what modern RE is like. If they don’t, it is unlikely the media, politicians, “Dave down the pub”, your hairdresser have a clue either.

V is for visibility
This is the best way to improve subject perception - lead on T&L, run great trips, get students interested with challenging and interesting lessons. Forget making a department name change - teach well and students will do your PR.

W is for withdrawal
Some parents will try to withdraw their son/daughter from all or part of the RE curriculum. Often this will be Islam. This may be a reason we need to change the law on RE.

X is for a lack of agreement about our name
Lots of RE teachers will try to change the name of their subject. The best ones are Citizenship, Religion and Philosophy (or CRaP) or Religion, Values and Ethics (RAVE - "let's have a..."). It's a bit of a red herring debate.

Y is for the ‘why’?
Some people would like to see RE off the school timetables as they see it as irrelevant. Richard Dawkins lists 129 biblical phrases in the God Delusion that form part of wider literacy or culture. Even if people in the UK in 2018 are less likely to subscribe to organised religion, good RE has value. Don't exclude students from appreciating Victorian literature or Renaissance art.

Z is for zombies
Due to the confusion, deliberate or accidental misunderstanding of curriculum content, some RE teachers teach what they personally think is interesting or that students should learn. This may include the Illuminati, Ouija boards or Scientology - or probably zombies. This may mean they miss out on "the best that has been thought and said" about religion and belief. Our time with our students is precious, don't waste it.