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



Education Book recommendation for the Summer: Ecclesiastes

20140702-114319-42199272.jpgAs we approach the summer holidays it is a time when many teachers thoughts turn to their summer holidays and the reading material for those long, lazy days. On Twitter I have already seen a number of book lists, which seem to consist of weighty educational tomes (make sure you check your baggage allowance!) that all seem to be worthy contenders. I have a recommendation for your reading list and it is only 51p on Kindle and about sixty pages, it’s an easy, accessible treat. My recommendation for a summer reading is the book Ecclesiastes. Shockingly it is a book of the Bible. I am recommending it, not only because there are lots of gems in there to make you think about life, the universe and everything, but also because I think it can give an insight to a lot of what is happening in education at the moment.

The author is a shadowy figure, less accessible than say your Hatties and Dwecks. The author has no name as such, although is referred to as Qoheleth, which means the ‘wise one’ or the ‘preacher’, in fact in some versions this is actually translated as ‘Teacher’ so think of the connections there. They seem to be a philosophical kind of person, with their opening words, having more than a dash of Buddhism about them,

“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” (1:1)

Already I imagine there are some that might say, ‘Ah here is someone who truly understands the craziness that forms the basis of educational matters these days’. This quote certainly does set the tone for the one of the themes of the book. The author considers the meaningless nature of what we know. A wonderful epistemological question right from the outset. What can really be known? A question that, if we could answer it, might just guide our journeys through Teaching and Learning land. Qoheleth says that so many of the things that we consider to be important are really worth nothing; he says that it is just like chasing the wind. A lesson to be learnt there regarding levels perhaps, is there really such a thing as an objective benchmark and do we need one anyway?

Perhaps one of the most telling parts of the opening section of Ecclesiastes is when Qoheleth says,

What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there anything of which one can say,
“Look! This is something new”? (1:9f)

I recently came across the phrase ‘graphic organisers’ when researching new assessment and differentiation practices and wondered what it was referring to. When I looked further it was essentially the distilling of information into boxes or different shapes on a handout. Look back across the decades of teaching experience and you will see this practice existing in one form or another. We might give ideas new labels, but perhaps Qoheleth has a point, is there anything of which one can say, Look! this is something new! Perhaps instead of looking for easy new answers, or debunking myths, we should be considering permutations, in the words of one of Ian Gilbert’s Thunks (@ThatIanGilbert), can you really stand on the same beach twice. It is all too clear that education is forever in a state of flux, perhaps there is nothing new, but what we can do is learn to adapt to our ever changing environment,

If you feel like the emphasis on the meaninglessness is a little too much for the summer holidays, keep going, in the way you would with Its a Wonderful Life, because chapter three takes you to familiar territory. One of the most well known passages of Ecclesiastes has made it into popular culture, particularly if you know the 1965 hit for The Byrds, ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’. The passage famously examines the concept of time and the inevitability of certain events and rituals.

There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace. (3:1-8)

There is a time when certain things are right and a time when they are not. Inevitability requires an acceptance that there are things that are beyond your control. This is not the same as refusing to challenge injustice, but it is to recognise that ideas will come and go regardless. There is a time to search out, but there is also a time to give up. What is particularly noteworthy for teachers is the time to be silent. The space for peace and quiet can be a rare thing in schools and especially for those who work in schools. What better way to restore balance but to seek out a moment or two of silence over the summer. Even the tweets can cease some times. What is encouraged is to live your life to the full and to enjoy the pleasures of today, because they could be gone tomorrow.

This is what I have observed to be good: that it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labour under the sun during the few days of life God has given them—for this is their lot. (5:18)

If Qoheleth is to be believed then our lives should reflect the balance of all those things. One of the worst mistakes you could make, particularly as a teacher, is to imagine you know what is going to happen. The academic year might be sketched out, dates might be in place, calendars taking shape, but it has yet to be painted in. Students will return as new individuals and their learning pathways are yet to be written.

Qoheleth writes on the nature of wisdom and encourages us to persevere. A number of interesting ideas are included, which you might agree with or think are ridiculous, but they at least might give you something to think about. Some might give you comfort when faced with the latest educational headline.

Frustration is better than laughter,
because a sad face is good for the heart. (7:3)

Other points might be helpful for those who get embroiled in ‘educational’ twitter debates.

Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit,
for anger resides in the lap of fools. (7:9)

Another point might be helpful when you find yourself about to embark on yet another debate about teaching standards.

Do not say, “Why were the old days better than these?”
For it is not wise to ask such questions. (7:10)

If after all of this you feel at a loss as to what your goal should be, Qoheleth has something to say about this too, which may appeal in its simple nobility.

So I turned my mind to understand,
to investigate and to search out wisdom and the scheme of things
and to understand the stupidity of wickedness
and the madness of folly. (7:25)

Now I’m not saying it is always an easy read. Ecclesiastes is a strange, challenging, difficult, depressing, uplifting, bizarre, annoying, confusing and illuminating read. I do recommend that you read it, whatever your beliefs and if you do not believe in religion. I haven’t given the end away. Read it, you never know you might love it.



Last of the Letter Writers


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,



Radio 4 ‘In our Time