Tuesday, 24 July 2012

The 60 minute discussion!

I've always been a firm believer in the idea that the heart of good RE teaching is the unpicking of, criticism of and reconstruction of ideas. One of the first rules of my classroom is "Don't accept anything at face value." (This comes third after "Listen to what other people are saying" and "Challenge the offensive and unjust idea.") Only if we are willing to subject ideas, beliefs and values - including our own - to true criticism can we develop as rational thinking people. To paraphrase Socrates "The unexamined life is not worth living." (We could get into a debate about the rationality/irrationality of faith positions but maybe another time? Or maybe on Twitter? [RPEteach] "Roll up! Roll up! solve the mysteries of the universe in 140 characters or less.)

However, if we return to our subject matter or discursive Religious and Philosophical education we find ourself in an old and venerable tradition that is global in its appeal. Consider:
  • The Talmud is essentially a discussion of the Jewish faith in the diaspora cultures.
  • TaNaKh is, itself, a response to the reexamination of Jewishness during the Babylonian exile. (I once spent the car journey from Sevenoaks to Peterborough discussing whether the Graf-Welhausen hypothesis was valid. The other two sojourners looked at us in what can only be described as bewilderment.)
  • The  Upanishads in Hinduism are a series of questions and answers.
  • The establishment of the Christian creeds were a discussion surrounding the meaning of faith - and these discussions go on.
(and this is only a surface consideration. Look at the Socratic dialogues, Boethius, Confucius, it's even there in the Gilgamesh epic.)

Why does this matter? It's quite simple. Every child that walks into my classroom brings with him or her a set of values, ideas, presuppositions and beliefs that ultimately are personal. Some, even many, of them cannot necessarily explain or justify them. A large number cannot even articulate them. Nevertheless they are the raw material for an RE lesson. These ideas are so important that for well over a decade the assessment targets for RE expect 50% of assessment to consider how students can articulate their response to issues of faith. Check this document from the QCA . By the way, as you read it note it does not support conversion, proselytisation or even that students agree with what is being taught.

So this is the situation. Students walk into classroom. They are presented with ideas. They work with these ideas. They walk out. 60 minutes gone. Job done? Not really. if we work like that we risk shallow lessons with no scope for the students to develop their own personal spiritual, moral, social and cultural understanding. (If you want to know why that matters check out the latest expectations from OFSTED. If you're sat there saying it shouldn't matter because I'm not religious try having a look at the British Humanist Association and search for RE and spiritual development. If you're a humanist and want to work to help develop quality RE teaching then get onto your local SACRE.)

So how can we ensure that the discussion promotes thoughtful and deepening discussion? Let me recommend a few pointers.

First, try and train your classes to work philosophically. Consider spending time looking at Philosophy for Children. (http://www.philosophy4children.co.uk/ or http://www.sapere.org.uk/ are good initial resources.) As you do this try and explore different ways of thinking about holy writings. Explore the difference between law, myth, poetry and history. (Yes, holy books do contain valid historical ideas. Here's a thought: what evidence do we have for Socrates?) Explore what is meant by symbolism in art, music, film, literature and even words. Consider teaching them critical thinking skills. Lay the groundwork for student-led enquiry.

Second, don't be afraid to let discussion be the lesson. As teacher we can, especially if in an observation framework, be afraid to step outside our pre-planned framework. However, a good discussion can tick so many OFSTED boxes. Just  make sure that you are able to link discussion to lesson objectives and justify deviation from the lesson plan. Which leads me onto ,

Third, choose your stimulus material with care. Don't show a random Simpsons episode with no consideration of it's educational value. Make sure that you are equipped with key questions that you can use to scaffold the childrens' learning.You may find that over the course of discussion they pick up on these.

Fourth, get everyone involved in the discussions. There are so many ways to do this. (A good resource I'd recommend is Paul Ginnis; A teacher's toolkit.) Three simple things you might try.

  • Think/pair/share. Each student thinks about this/her own ideas. They then discuss it with a neighbour, then another pair and then the class. The trick here is to make sure that the ideas are written down at each stage of discussion.
  • Use lolly sticks. Write each students name on a lollipop stick and draw names at random when you want to draw people into the discussion. Some people put the stick back in the pile after a response. Personally I don't since it makes sure each child responds.
  • Take a soft ball into the room. You throw it at student A as you throw out a question. They respond and pose another question. They throw this question and the ball at student B and so on.
Fifth, and this is most important, make sure that you scaffold your questions up so that you are not just focusing on questions of knowledge. You need to be looking to move onto getting the students to question for themselves, to analyse symbolism, meaning and impact and to connect what they are considering to their own beliefs and values. (Look at Bloom's Taxonomy for suggested ways of approaching this. I will look at this in a later blog.)

Finally, remember that you are control. Have your key questions thought out before hand. Challenge student thinking. Don't let them get away with lazy answers. They may believe what they believe because their parents do but get them to think about why that may/may not be the best way. (so many atheists and agnostics are just following the religious tradition of their parents. Have you noticed that?) Above and beyond anything else make sure that your discussion leads towards the meeting of your preset learning objectives.


  1. Another simple way to get everyone participating in a discussion: hand out a certain amount of tokens to every pupil. Whenever they say something they must hand in a token. This way pupils will think about what they want to say. Having only 2 or 3 possible interventions, you must make it count, and you can silence those that talk at all times.

    1. An idea that never occurred to me. Thanks :D