Time to REboot RE? #REConsult – Musings in response to Daniel’s Friday questions

IMG_0772.JPGTwitter has been buzzing ever since the consultation documents came out on the proposals for GCSE and A Level RE. Daniel Hugill (@DanielHugill) posted some excellent questions which reflected some of the Twitter debate. I decided to write My thoughts on these questions – I have been thinking some similar thoughts myself!

1. Seems to be some reluctance to teach about religion and belief. Are we embarrassed by it?

Embarrassment of belief? I think there is some truth in this. It’s not new of course, but I think with the increased focus on P&E there have been ways that RE has been able to be justified as being relevant. I find this odd because religion is everywhere! I was often asked about changing the name of the subject over the years but I always said that the majority of the world’s population are religious, how can it be irrelevant? With world events being as they are there are numerous ways to make connections, same goes for popular culture. There is even something of a backlash going on against comedians who get cheap laughs ridiculing religion. But this does lead to the next question…

2. Some students we teach are not religious. This means they aren’t interested in studying religions and beliefs. Is this true?

The religious beliefs of the students is not of immediate relevance. Think of parallels, do you have to be a Nazi to study the Second World War in History, or an animal to study Biology, or to travel to study Geography? Ridiculous obviously. However, even when we look to Art there has been a big push to include students who don’t see themselves as artistic. I would suggest you just need to be interested in two things – ideas and people. Some of the best RE students are the most passionate atheists.

3. That a focused study of religion involves lower level skills that belong in KS3 and not at GCSE or A-level. Is that right?

Agreed this seems to be a thought. It seems to be quite disrespectful of Theology. Perhaps it depends upon the kind of degree the teacher has and their own experiences of the subject? I’ve taught about 6 or 7 different A Level papers including a textual study of John and Patristic Theology! They are demanding, but it’s not impossible to make them attractive to students. Do English teachers have to justify studying texts at A Level?

4. That the popularity of courses will fall if we approach religion using a wider range of approaches. Do you agree?

The popularity of subjects is all down to how you market them and how you teach them – make both interesting and exciting then it works. If you build it they will come.

5. That a focused study of religion and belief cannot be made interesting and engaging by skilled RE teachers. Do you agree?

Doesn’t say much for teachers if they feel they can’t do this, unless they don’t believe it themselves? Don’t get me wrong, I love teaching Philosophy, I specialised in it at university, but I loved so much about my Theology degree and am thrilled when students have gone on to study Theology themselves. If some of these changes happen I can tell you I will be right there happily leading training days on the richness of RE that covers not one university degree but at least two entirely distinct disciplines. It might involve some hard work, but I think this subject is worth that. Why should RE be easy?

My view on REconsult – Celebrate the opportunity to give RE a REboot

 

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Thank goodness RE is complicated

complicatedWhy did I choose to teach RE? The answer was really simple, because I loved my subject. I was passionate about Theology & Philosophy of Religion, and by the time I reached the dizzy heights of 22, had been so for at least a decade. Why did I love it so? Because of complexity. It was the way in which humans encountered the divine in a number of ways, but each was beautifully complex. I had loved my university lectures on Systematic Theology, because I liked the nitty gritty of Incarnational or Trinitarian theology, for example. I even enjoyed coping with the complexities of early church history, because those Patristic leaders seemed to spend decades arguing over single words, because they wanted to agree to create creeds and canons. With Patristic Theology there never seemed to be a sense of, ‘Well, that’ll do for now’. Then there were the textual studies. Having been prepared for Theology by learning New Testament Greek, at my local comprehensive, by the most brilliant of teachers (see ‘I want to continue to develop professionally’ ) I was ready to dissect text with the rest of them. I was happy to translate Mark’s Gospel with all its hurried mistakes and clumsiness. Was challenged by the detail of Romans, but loved in particular John’s Gospel, with all its hidden symbolism, underpinning structural meanings, its theological clues that sent you on an exciting detective hunt. I loved the complexity. Even now, if I’m feeling in the mood for a little Greek jousting, I will happily answer the door to bewildered JWs to discuss the role of the definite article in Trinitarian theology. For me, there were frustrating, yet beautiful paradoxes to battle with and yet this was only half of the picture. Theology’s intricacies also sprung from the fact that people are complicated too. Not surprising if you believe in Imago Dei.

 

Why did I want to teach RE? Well that love and appreciation of complexity of belief, of people and of divinity had been nurtured in me by outstanding teachers. They loved their subjects too and had passed that on to me. The RE department that I attended did have its beautiful wall displays (albeit in a portacabin, too hot for summer, too cold for winter), but it had even more beautiful discussions. Nobody dumbed anything down, that I can remember. We were not a selective school, a nice rural comprehensive, so quite a mixed bag. There were a lot of ultra brights, Oxbridge classes for some, but some struggled too. I remember my A level class had about 20 in it. Students were drawn to the variety within the subject. I wanted to be able to pass that excitement on, just as my teachers had done.

 

Once teaching, I like to think that I managed to sustain that level of complexity, even being asked to teach an A Level paper on Patristic Theology and still using the Greek for analysing Mark’s Gospel at GCSE. Over the years the demands and expectations of the subject have changed, but the best RE is still a subject that embraces the complexity, rather than distils it into something unrecognisable. Watered down, the study of religious views loses its vibrancy. Maybe this is echoed in the ‘post-Christianity’ that Rowan Williams recently spoke about. Rather than a dismissal of Christian values instead an ‘in-the-background’ complacency. It would be easy for that to be a feature of RE too, if it wasn’t for the vigilance of great RE teachers. The classic ‘breadth at the expense of depth’ conflict, making sure we know something of what everyone says on the subject of abortion, at the expense of really knowing what anyone believes. How could you possibly

‘adopt an enquiring, critical and reflective approach to the study of religion’ (‘Religious Education: realising the potential, Ofsted, p5)

if religion has become a beige catalogue of pretty days and greeting card sentiments. No wonder RE organisations and teachers see the need to challenge the level of achievement in RE. It lifts the heart to see that the Religious Education Council’s first step in mapping out a way forward with RE is to acknowledge its complexity, not only in terms of its undefinable quality, but also in its encompassing of the complexity of people (‘A Review of Religious Education in England, p48). It’s a tough job out there.

 

So, the on-going challenge to teachers of RE is to embrace and communicate the challenge. One way in which faith was presented to us in a more sophisticated way was through the medium of television with the third series of Rev on the BBC. Here we met with Rev Adam Smallbone, his wide, his colleagues, and his parishioners. What we were shown was an exploration of what faith means, of the value and meaning of prayer, of forgiveness, of liturgy, of sin, of death, of tradition, of ecclesiastical structures, of Easter and perhaps most importantly of doubt. Nothing was explained away to the nth degree, questions were not always answered and it wasn’t always funny, but it was complicated, because belief in a divine being is complex, as are people. Encounters like this also serve to highlight where good RE teaching has always led the way in tried and tested educational theory (see Delivering the Perfect RE Lesson ). A discussion about Rev. could illicit some interesting and profound responses.

 

Why do I still love RE? Because now more than ever is a time to enjoy complexity. We even have a phrase, ‘dumbing down’ and we have books for dummies (of which I am happy to admit I am one). That’s fine, because we all need support and scaffolding to help us understand difficult things, but as with Wittgenstein’s early view of language as a ladder, it serves a purpose to help us climb to a different level, but we can kick it away once we’ve got there. It’s worth the effort, RE for dummies would be like ‘Wizard of Oz’ without the Technicolor. We need to embrace the complexity.

 

I can remember in the midst of my days as a theological student, going along with a friend to their place of worship to see what it was like. The people were lovely, the music was amazing, but as a rather too earnest theologian I can remember hearing a preacher say that ‘Kingdom’ was a tricky word, so for his talk he was going to use the word ‘family’ instead. I couldn’t tell you what he said after that because in my head I think I had begun to list all the ways, theological and otherwise, as to why ‘Kingdom’ was not like a ‘family’.

 

This is not an argument ignoring accessibility, instead it is a celebration of complexity. When I was a Head of RE I often had parents ask why it was still called RE, one even suggested it could be called, ‘Respect’. Hmm. My standard answer was always it is Religious Education because the majority of the world’s population are religious, it was about religion, even when it was about atheism and agnosticism, it was about religion. No need to hide from that. So, my hope, along with so many RE supporters out there is to embrace the details, light the fires of fascination and challenge each new mind you encounter, because complexity doesn’t get much better than this.

The Theology of Feedback

The Ancient of Days by William BlakeAn area of great interest to me at the moment is the value of effective feedback in raising standards. This is partly due to the prominence it has been given in recent research reviews of the relative impacts of different interventions in the classroom. When looking at the most successful interventions (see also the new course from @Dragonflytraining on ‘Research for Learning’) you see that findings from Hattie and The Sutton Trust rank feedback as one of the most influential ways that teachers can make a tangible difference to their students’ progress. Hattie is quick to point out that the teacher’s view of what is considered useful feedback often differs hugely from that of the student. The underpinning importance of the relationship of the teacher to the student prompted some interesting connections with key theological concepts that perhaps gives an insight into the true nature of effective feedback.

Firstly, what is crucial to a truly differentiated approach is an understanding that not all learners are the same. This is not news to teachers who have spent many a break and lunch time discussing their students as individuals. Good marking, reporting and feedback to parents has always been individualised and personal. This recognises the personhood of students rather than any attempt to define them as a collective which diminishes their individuality. Of course this can be hard work to achieve, especially when faced with large classes, and unfortunately sometimes the opposite does occur. I remember the schoolgirls who told me that they had no idea how to make progress in Maths because the whole class was always awarded a C3 when it came to termly reporting. I assumed this to be typical student exaggeration until I looked up the set’s results for the past few reports, only to see it was true. These occurrences are thankfully rare, as the majority of teachers spend hours attempting to personalise learning. The example however does highlight something that Hattie makes clear, that it is important to think about how feedback is received rather than merely how it will be given. In Christian Theology there are some amazing writings, particularly from the patristic era, concerning the idea of humans as a reflection of the Divine Personhood (Gregory of Nyssa et al). Even without a belief in the Divine Personhood it could be worth thinking about the individuals in the class as a reflection of the characteristics modelled by the teacher. Either way, feedback is feedback to an individual responding to their learning experience.

This is just one aspect in which I see a correlation between feedback and theology, but the main way I want to consider here is to look at the nature of the relationship between the teacher and the individual student. One of the hardest topics I would normally teach as part of A level Philosophy of Religion was the response of Process Theodicy (‘theodicy’ comes from the Greek, literally meaning the righteousness of God) to the Problem of Evil. The Problem of Evil states that there appears to be an incompatibility between the concept of a loving deity and the existence of evil. The two main Judeo-Christian traditional positions that are usually studied first are those of Augustine and Irenaeus. A third position that is often looked at is that of the Process Theologians, such as Alfred Whitehead and David Griffin, amongst others. Whitehead believed that God pushed the world forward in creative ways. These theologians argue for a neo-classical view of God that instead of being omniscient, omnipotent and infinite, God is located in time, not knowing what the future will hold. The reason for this is because by sacrificing these qualities God is able to be affected by human actions and to be able to respond to them. 20140220-173152.jpgThis quality was a particular focus for Jurgen Moltmann’s seminal work, ‘The Crucified God‘ which argued against the traditional view of God as impassible, meaning that humans were unable to affect God. Instead he argues for the passibility of God, that God suffers with humanity in their suffering. By sharing in the process, the future is a product of that reciprocal relationship. Humanity is comforted and encouraged knowing that God is alongside them. The Process Theologians argue that this is a truly loving relationship where God has initiated the creative process and urges it forwards.

Not surprisingly I have not done justice to the full arguments of these great thinkers, but it is the co-sharing relationship that I felt linked with the concept of effective feedback. Of course I am not suggesting that all teachers see themselves as gods (only a few and these are definitely in the minority – see Twitter), but there can be a sense, even a worry, that the teacher should play the omnipotent role in the classroom. Everything is known and it is for the students to aspire to their knowledge. We are the constant in every lesson, the unchanging absolute, whilst students come and go. What the recent work on feedback really highlights is the importance of the shared journey. Adaptive planning is a consequence of reacting to individual learning experiences with individual students.

Process Theodicy does not uses the language of coercion, instead God lures humanity through love into producing creative responses. The process is dynamic, changing, and one of interaction. This can also be said for the creative relationship between pupil and teacher. This example also links to the notion of praise, often mistaken as equating to effective feedback. In the divine relationship humans affect and are affected by God, but the individual can act with free will and as a consequence sometimes bad things happen as part of that dynamic process. So it is too that with an honest, reciprocal relationship there will be times when failure occurs, but lessons are learnt from those experiences. This idea would promote the importance of ventures such as Wimbledon High School’s ‘Failure Week’ that first happened in 2012. With feedback, meaningless praise has no effect on moving the process forward, but it is the exchange of ideas that can make the long-term difference. In the divine relationship the Process Theologians argue that God is genuinely loving, because He responds to the changing relationship with members of creation. The love is both absolute and present in the changing interactions. Writers such as Hattie and Dweck suggest that praise can dilute what should be learnt from feedback. This is not suggesting a ‘no praise’ approach, because it is part of the dynamic of the class, but it is not the coercion that determines the student’s next step. Creativity is not an optional extra that is sought and only sometimes achieved, instead the on-going interactive process itself is an act of creativity.

Hattie says that,

‘The more the teacher receives feedback from student engagement, then the more likely he or she is to adapt their actions and expectations and thus students are the beneficiaries’ (2014, p69).

This reciprocal relationship benefits both teacher and student and both can move forward together. It might be worth considering renaming feedback as ‘process feedback’ because it is part of the bigger picture. Just as with Process Theodicy, to enter into a relationship where you are affected by the interaction, involves taking risks. The ‘omnipotent’ position can be far more attractive because certainty means the outcome is known. However, by taking on board the personhood of pupils it is clear that the outcome cannot be established by pre-determined factors, education has to be reactive and adaptive if it is going to succeed in enabling pupils to make the best choices.

There are of course criticisms of Process Theology, including that it is not a solution to the problem of evil, because advocates have changed the definition of God, rather than answer the dilemma. One criticism that might be relevant to education is that the outcome of this creative process is not known. One can hope that everything will work out well, but there is no guarantee and unfortunately we are living in a time when guarantees are expected. So can you have both – a guarantee and the uncertainty of process? I would suggest not. Some think that finding the right piece of research will solve the problems of education, but with the personhood of pupils we have individuals to work with not objects and therefore research is on-going and dynamic. If we take risks, engage with the creative interaction, the outcome may be worth the gamble. Certainly feedback, or ‘process feedback’ appears to have one of the biggest positive impacts on learning and so I think it just might be worth taking that chance.

photo(1)Hattie, J & Yates, G (2014) Visible Learning & the Science of How We Learn, Routledge, Abingdon

Reflections on Nurture 1314

20140104-154250.jpgI’ve really enjoyed reading colleagues’ reflections on their past year. I have genuinely been in awe at the achievements of my Twitter contemporaries and have put off reflecting on my own path for fear of it being somewhat lacking. The past year has been a year of two halves, the pivotal moment being moving house during the horrible sticky heat of July.

The first half of my year was as a Deputy Head. Being a deputy is a fantastic job. You know how much Stephen Drew looked like he was having fun as Deputy in Educating Essex, well it’s true. One of the reasons why it is a great job is that you work with so many different people, not just amazing students, inspiring teachers, as you might expect, but also astonishing admin teams, incredible caterers, maintenance staff, medical staff, invaluable support staff and creative gardeners. Every day is different, new problems to solve, ideas to debate, plans to implement. There have been quite a few blogs recently that have really been critical of senior leadership teams. This seems unfair on a number of levels. Firstly, it is so easy for teachers to blame the SLT as some kind of non-human amorphous lump. I’ve even seen tweets along the lines of ‘please let us get on with it’ by poor beleaguered teachers, which makes me feel sad. I have no doubt there are bad leaders, ineffective teams and many, many examples of poor communication in schools where staff are not consulted, involved, listened to or recognised. However, there are some amazing, inspirational examples of leadership out there – you only have to read some great blogs to see that.

The second reason I find the ‘us and them’ approach sad is because it seems to be contradictory to the values and morals we are all trying to achieve in our work. Even on twitter, regulars will know of examples of snide comments, gossipy side conversations when hashtag chats are in full swing, it is so boring. We would challenge that in the classroom, but if we don’t challenge it in the staff rooms then we are surely guilty of hypocrisy. Finally, I think that there is a danger that sniping at senior leaders might put teachers off going for promotion – do they really want to take that on?

Before you think I’ve veered too far away from the path of reflection let me say that what was particularly important in that first half of the year was circumstances that convinced me of the importance of research in developing educational theory. Reading educational research on leadership and management in schools inspired me to be constantly reviewing and auditing what it means to be a leader. If, as a teacher, you inspire one child to think for themselves then you’re doing your job well. If, as a leader, you inspire one teacher that they should aim for leadership then you’re doing your job well.

To reflect on my time as a leader in the first half of the year, I hope I did my job well. I really enjoyed working with staff, training on a range of different topics, with the aim of encouraging leadership in others.

This leads me to the second half of the year. I decided to start this blog to accompany the exchanges I was already enjoying so much on Twitter. I continued to write training material on leadership, mentoring, differentiation and have been able to deliver these to different audiences, gaining so much from interacting with teachers in the process. I have also been able to return to writing about RE matters as well, a subject so close to my heart. I have been privileged to be able to carry on my work nurturing trainee teachers, embarking on PGCEs, either at the start of their careers or early on as a way of securing foundational skills. This at a time when the training of teachers is being questioned and PGCE courses closing. Crazy times.  With education constantly changing, technology advancing faster than we can keep up with it, new educational theory challenging us, this is a time for more teacher training, not less.  We shouldn’t think we know it all, there is so much more to know!

For my whole career to date I have been proud to see being a teacher as a profession. I liked that I ticked the professional box in questionnaires about occupations. What surprised me early on and continues to surprise me is the way that many outside of education seem to think anybody can be a good teacher. Even after the actual demonstration that being a good teacher is not about what degree class you have with Jamie Oliver’s academy, we still hear that content knowledge is the same as delivering knowledge. It seems bizarre to me to not see delivering knowledge, enabling learning in others, is a craft, a skill that can constantly be developed. This inspired me to pursue training others. Conversations with others also inspired me to continue to pursue my area of research interest, that different personalities have qualities that lend themselves to certain leadership roles. Women in education can sometimes be forced into certain gender stereotypes which makes them less likely to consider certain roles. Even this week we have been hearing about women in education sometimes being fearful of joining in fully with Twitter debates.

It wasn’t an easy year. It was a year of challenges but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing does it?

Looking ahead. I wonder.

Continue to read and write, but more so. Continue to work with teachers, trainee teachers and mentors, but more so.

Research leadership in education.

Try to paint more.

Stay true to my guiding values and vision.

Be happy.

Last of the Letter Writers

letterwriting

Earlier this week I caught Melvin Bragg on Radio 4’s ‘In our Time’ discussing Pliny’s letters with his guests. I, like many other theological students before and after me, had encountered Pliny during my degree. Pliny is particularly famous for the letters he wrote in the setting of first century Rome. He is one of the earliest non-Christian sources on what was happening with Christianity at that time. For example, Pliny was having to deal with the problem of what to do with lapsed Christians. Initially it reminded me of studying early church history and then teaching a paper on the Early Church, in my first year teaching A level RS, as a newly qualified teacher. I had a little advantage in that I did actually enjoy learning all about these characters, Origen, Pelagius and Tertullian. However, trying to persuade seventeen year olds that Tertullian was a funny guy and there was a great deal of wit in his writings was a tough gig. This made me think about the importance of letters and I tried to think about the last proper letter I had received. I suddenly realised that we have the difficult job of teaching new generations that really do not understand what it means to receive letters.

When I reflected on this further I thought that failing to really understand letters separates you from so much, obviously in literature, but particularly in RE. When I started to think about the meaning of letters I thought about the role they had played in my subject. You only have to think of biblical studies and the epistles in particular to see how hard it could be to have any sense of empathy with the letter writers. Biblical studies is a hard enough discipline, often limited to a quick romp through Mark for GCSE in schools, but it can be a an exciting discovery. Those letters are not short though and trying to equate them to an email exchange doesn’t quite capture the theological exploration. When I was at university my family and friends would write long, chatty letters and and cards, because communication was not immediate and easy. You had to wait and in writing back you thought about what needed to be said, which stories were to be shared. You didn’t summarise in an email, or even shorter in a text, or shorter still, a tweet. Can you even imagine the difference if Paul had had a mobile? He would have definitely needed a pay monthly contract with unlimited minutes in order to cope with the frequent calls to Corinth, Philippi and Ephesus.

I then realised that there were at least two other set of letters that meant a lot to me. These letters were connected to one man who I first encountered whilst studying A Level RE myself. I was lucky enough to study a paper on modern church hisdietrich-bonhoeffertory and one of the key figures was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. After the discovery of his involvement in a failed plot to assassinate Hitler he was imprisoned, eventually at Flossenburg. During the two years of his imprisonment he wrote extensively, the writings were then collected and published as ‘Letters and Papers from Prison‘. When you encounter these writings for the first time as an enthusiastic A Level student they have a profound effect on you. Bonhoeffer wrote about his quest for authentic living, costly grace and understanding ‘religionless Christianity’, radical thinking for his time. What was so tragic was that he was executed in Flossenburg only three weeks before the Nazis surrendered. When I was at university another set of letters were published in connection with Bonhoeffer, this was called ‘Love letters from Cell 92‘ and mostly consisted of the letters between Bonhoeffer and his fiancée Maria Von Wedermeyer. They had been engaged for just four months before he was arrested. Not only do these letters tell of their relationship but they also reveal most of their thinking and how they were able to justify their beliefs to each other.

One can now buy volumes of the love letters of famous historical figures because these were crafted works. I didn’t study the letters between Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, but encountered these later.  These only re-emphasise the point of what can be conveyed when someone takes their time over creating something meaningful. Time and effort went into their formation, thought went into the words that were chosen. Believe it or not this point is even photo-23highlighted in the first ‘Sex and the City‘ film when Big had to turn to the love letters of others because these days no one writes letters anymore.

My final choice of letter is something that I think becomes a philosophical rite of passage, something that Colin McGinn captures really well in his ‘The Making of a Philosopher‘, and that is the moment as a sixth former you first encounter Anselm’s Ontological Argument. I never like to spoil that moment so will not explain the magic trick of that first encounter, but one of the fun aspects of studying that for the first time is discovering that this is part of a prayer, a letter from Anselm to God and that changes everything.

The sad thing is that we are, if we are not careful, teaching the generation of lost letter writers, and not only to we lose the ability to write a good letter, but we lose that link with the letter writers of the past. It becomes harder to for us to make their words accessible to others. Why wouldn’t you just pick up the phone and ring? We, as the last of the letter writers, are now the custodians of the letters of our past and we need to make sure that they continue to be read.

Dear Readers,

Please keep reading and writing letters,

Yours faithfully,

Bethany.

Links

Radio 4 ‘In our Time