Curriculum planning

4 January 2021

Oak’s RE curriculum, for the nation without a curriculum

Miriam Kendrick

Miriam Kendrick discusses the uniqueness of Religion and Worldviews, providing detailed insight into the development of resources and guidance for schools across the nation, without a national curriculum

A curriculum for the nation with no curriculum

As those of us who teach Religion and Worldviews know, we are in a unique position in having no national curriculum for our subject. With many decisions about RE curriculum being made at a local level, we had the challenge of providing RE lessons and resources for schools across the nation with the view of making them as useful for as many teachers and students as possible. With this in mind, we wanted to ensure and balance between coherence and flexibility, while accessing depth for our students, and making use of the expertise of our teachers.

Creating a cohesive curriculum through the use of units of work

We’re not a school with students joining us in year 7 and leaving us in year 11. At my own school we focus on interleaving and in RE our curriculum spirals through the Abrahamic religions – adding depth to student knowledge each year. Although many Oak students will have been dipping in and out of the resources, cohesion is still important for them to genuinely learn, and for teachers to decide what will be useful to their classes.

A student faced with a myriad of standalone lessons covering innumerable topics and religions would likely be information overload. This is why we chose to create units rather than a huge variety of standalone lessons – a cohesive curriculum which in theory could take our virtual students through the learning they would cover from year 7 to year 11.

We know that many students are using Oak lessons to fill gaps where they’ve missed school, and we also expect them to make good use of our resources when exam season comes around. Having clearly laid out units of work helps students to have confidence that they have covered the key information they need for their examinations and to understand a particular religion.

This also means that in KS3 we wanted to provide schools with units which gave clear knowledge on the beliefs and practices within religious and non-religious worldviews which would easily ‘slot in’ or work alongside a school’s curriculum. At KS4 we wanted to include units which would mirror what the GCSE curriculum offers, alongside standalone lessons which covered examination skills. There is always a discussion of what should be included in RE – do we simply cover the largest 6 world religions?

Or should we cover Paganism? Rastafarianism? Ancient Greek religion? Many schools endeavour to. However, a level of pragmatism and a desire to offer depth of learning to our students meant that we could not represent every religion (can anyone!?).

Just as we have limited time in school with our students (some RE teachers having just an hour a week to complete a GCSE), we also had a limited amount of time and capacity. This meant the GCSE topics had a big impact on the decisions we made. Christianity is covered by the vast majority of schools, and Islam is the second most popular religion at GCSE.

In terms of cohesion, it would be inconsistent to do two Abrahamic religions without doing Judaism so this was an obvious choice for our KS3 curriculum. We also included Buddhism and non-religious worldviews, both of which fit with the curriculum for a majority of schools meaning that our curriculum could be as cohesive and flexible for as many schools as possible.

Supporting depth of learning to encourage a passion for the subject

I have already mentioned depth of learning, and personally, I love getting into depth when studying a particular religion. Standalone facts are interesting, but they are so much more satisfying when they are understood systematically within a particular worldview.

For example, most primary aged children can tell you that the wisemen gave Jesus gold, frankincense (or was it Frankenstein?) and myrrh. That’s an interesting fact about Christianity. But the meaning behind those gifts tell the whole gospel story!

Understanding that gold shows the belief that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah – the king whose kingdom would never end, that frankincense, used in Temple worship, shows that he was God, and that the myrrh, used to embalm dead bodies shows that he came to die, is the heart of Christianity in a nutshell! I could give a myriad of examples (although being advent, I thought this one was apt) of ‘standalone’ facts about religion are so much more meaningful when the religion as a whole is understood.

In teaching students depth, not only are we teaching them something inherently interesting, but we are giving them the skills to understand a religion and the variety of beliefs and practices held by its followers. This means that variety does suffer to an extent. As a lifelong student of religion I am keenly aware that there’s so much more to know.

I could study a single religion my whole life and not know everything about it, let alone other religions and worldviews. So, when we make choices about studying religion A in depth, to the detriment of not studying religion B at all, we need to keep in mind the skills and hopefully lifelong passion we are giving students, so that they can continue to pursue knowledge about religion B, C, E etc.

Making experts of the students and ourselves

As we wanted to give students this depth we were keen to recruit experts for the religions we made resources for. One challenge for RE is that it’s often given to non-specialists to teach in a way that would rarely be done with other subjects. For these teachers it must feel like a minefield – not only ensuring they get subject knowledge correct for student knowledge, but also having to tackle controversial and challenging topics.

We wanted to create resources by experts in their subject area, not only for non-specialists, but for those of us who are experts, so that we could dig into a wealth of knowledge with our students. One of the things I was most excited about was working with the teachers we recruited to make our lessons.

I learnt a huge amount from my colleagues while we worked together. I got reading recommendations. We discussed in depth what spellings should be used for translated words. We talked about those misconceptions that students, and even ourselves regularly have.

And I think this is one of the key things about both curriculum writing and being lifelong students of RE. We are trying to make experts of the students and of ourselves. In writing a curriculum we want to be sure of including the key knowledge and skills which make an expert.

Understanding the historical context, the beliefs, how practices stem from those beliefs, and how believers navigate application of their beliefs to challenges they face in life. The exception to this approach of having a unit on beliefs and a unit on practices has been the KS3 non-religious worldviews unit. Perhaps this is an area which has ventured more into ‘breadth’ than ‘depth’.

But there are obvious reasons for this – without a divine revelation of what is considered truth or correct practice there are new challenges to providing a systematic thought system. We also stray into the realm of philosophy rather than religion (somewhere we should all go for our holidays). Additionally, philosophy is as vast as religion. So here we do touch on the rise of atheism, humanism, sociology, psychology, ethics – showing students that non-religious worldviews have as much variety as religion itself.

Our Curriculum

To give a cohesive understanding of the religions we studied, our curriculum is organised through having a unit on beliefs and a unit on practices. Every unit also has a recap and practice lesson halfway through, alongside a revision lesson, a deliberate practice lesson and an examination practice lesson at the end of the unit. Most of these are self-explanatory, we know that students need an opportunity to revise and practice what they have learnt, and to learn how to apply it to examination questions.

Deliberate practice lessons may be less familiar. There is certain key knowledge which students need to know to unlock their understanding of a religion. When it comes to learning definitions of words and key quotations it is appropriate to require students to learn by rote – to memorise key knowledge so that it is instant and quickly retrievable. Just like in a French lesson, students will not understand the discussion if they don’t know their vocabulary.

In religion, students won’t be able to discuss beliefs if they don’t know key terms. In maths, students learn their timetables by rote which frees up their working memory to complete mental maths. When studying Islam, for example, students need to know the belief in Tawhid and how it is reflected in the Shahadah. But if they don’t know the words ‘tawhid’ and ‘Shahadah’, let alone the words of the Shahadah they’ll be stuck.

Therefore, the deliberate practise lessons give students an opportunity to commit discrete key knowledge to memory using deliberate practice techniques such as look, cover, write, check, repeat.

Although, as stated previously, we won’t be seeing students from year 7 up to year 11, we have stuck with a spiral curriculum approach. We have Christian and Islamic beliefs and practices at KS3 and at KS4. This has been part of having something cohesive to offer, as well as recognising that most school will also take this approach – it’s likely that if we had not included Christianity and Islam at both KS3 and KS4 we would have failed to cater for a large majority of schools.

This past year has brought unique challenges, but as there is light at the end of the tunnel (temptations to mention Jesus as the light of the world, the lighting of the Hanukah candles, or perhaps just NDE’s abound here), we hope that the resources we’ve created have been, and will continue to make life easier for RE teachers across the nation who’ve been juggling in school and remote teaching.

Looking at our curriculum for Religion and Worldviews from this perspective has been a unique and interesting challenge, particularly considering the variety of practice across the country with the curriculum being decided at a local level which could have been a frustration.

But I have been reminded that this variety is simply indicative of the huge wealth of knowledge encompassed by that title ‘Religion and Worldviews’ and that it is such a privilege to teach such an important and diverse subject.