As I pointed out from the onset of the course, Islam in RE: Religious Literacy & Controversy Through Enquiry was created to systematically tackle the problems outlined in Ofsted’s Realising the Potential report. In that sense, Islam is used as an example religion; a placeholder for the content-void nature of the Cooperative Learning RE classroom.
In this post, I would like to walk through the course and connect some of the highlights outlined by Mr Alan Brine of the HMI, who gave the keynote speech at April’s University of East Anglia conference Realising the Potential. Headings below are taken from Mr Brine’s original slides.
There is no doubt the report sees enquiry as the key to effective RE and Mr Brine pointed out that more agreed syllabus focus on enquiry and more teachers are using the language of enquiry. However, this was “Rarely embedded in practice in schools and not embedded in subject rationale.”
“A number of transferable and scalable enquiry exercises were given: the experience of participating in these exercises was very effective.”
Laura Gabell, RE teacher, Notre Dame High School
Islam in RE, Norwich CPD, October 23, 2014
Speaking to teachers present at the conference, one of the concerns that cropped up was the issue of nomenclature: What does enquiry mean? Which school of thought are we talking about when it comes to the nuts and bolts in the classroom?
And assuming enquiry means student-centred learning in one form or another, it is hard to get in there: There is enough work to do as it is, given the huge burden on RE outlined by both Mr Brine himself and Mr Ashton’s recent posts at RE Online – but add to this that in all too many cases non-specialists are doing the teaching (p. 18) . So they don’t know the subject and will not be very likely to loose more control of the learning by trying to run a student-centred enquiry where all kinds of questions may come up.
The report actually pointed out that “teachers using such approaches were not always aware of their purpose” (p. 10), which is why I was quite keen on providing a meta-awareness about the specific aims and purpose of the various Cooperative Learning Interaction Patterns, rather than having the course end up as a one-size-fits-all lesson plan.
So these are some of the meta-aspects that should be kept in mind while reading the following.
Pupils rarely develop their skills of enquiry into religion
Using the structural approach to Cooperative Learning in RE, students learn enquiry at every turn on muliple levels, without winding up in “too much unstructured discussion and group work” alluded to in the report (p.12).
Islam in RE CPD course starts with what looks like a classic ice-breaker, where attendees mill around the room and ask each other questions.
The discretely guiding format is made possible by Catch1Partner with teacher-made question cards subtly aiming pupils’ attention at the LOs; the entertainment and excitement of getting out of the chairs and introducing oneself to a number of people is in fact designed to subtly direct the student’s mind towards the lesson objectives, what the Cambridge CELTA folk call “Activating Schemata.” i.e. activating prior knowledge, and here re-contextualising it to suit LOs.
Watch the demonstration video.
The questions on the cards are open, fat questions with lots of space to reflect on one’s own opinion and pre-cognizance. Depending on the situation, the teacher may choose to insert a step where the interviewer asks some follow-up questions, to further direct attention to specific areas, but in general we see there is always some form of follow-up comment.
Shortly thereafter, students are made to formulate and define what they wish to learn in a very open format of the 3-Way-Interview (“What do you personally want to learn about [named religion]?”) where students need to create and formulate their own aims as peers interview them for later presentation to the whole team. We talked a bit about high level of individual accountability involved for both interviewer and interviewee and the subtle social pressure afforded by CL which needs to be balanced by social skills and team building.
In this, a meta-awareness of learning is taking place. Even in CPD, I am always tempted to pose the question “What is your responsibility, if you want to achieve these aims?” afterwards.
More so as they actually process “religion” materials, where they not only enquire into materials and need to re-formulate what they are reading, but enquire into the minds of peers working from other materials, or who have other interpretations of the same material. The full format is outlined in previous posts, so there is no need to go into it here at length.
Skills of enquiry… In the following, I am proposing that we may take this as transferable skills in the widest possible sense, which will students to know how to approach any religion they wish to learn from.
I have already posited the idea that as time progressed, the meta-learning of the students, the “learning how to learn”, is achieved by constantly making students aware in an appropriate manner of why and how the Cooperative Learning Interaction Patterns are chosen, until the point where the students in Year 12 should be able to be assigned a task, look over the materials and one team member says “Ok, should we do a think-pair-share on this one first, or do you want to do it in a 3-Way-Interview?” and the other team member says, “Hmm, my material is too factual for deep thinking from the start, let’s just Word-Round key issues first to get everything on the table, and then choose how to proceed…”
Here, CL is a tool for teaching information processing collaboration as a skill, and this must be modeled in the same way as everything else. But here, modeling takes place in every subject and in every lesson, remembering the content void nature of CL allows it to fit in anywhere.
I recently attended an expo on Lord Nelson’s victory in the battle of the Nile. The presenter posited Nelson’s success to a large extent to his trust in his commanders. Rather than micromanaging them through signal flags, as was prevailing tactical orthodoxy at the time, he gave a general objective and allowed them to sieze the initiative as the situation developed.
Understanding was fragmented
One of Mr Brine’s crucial points was that understanding was fragmented and students made few connections between different aspects of learning in RE. One of the simplest and most effective ways to facilitate connections is the Mind Mapping exercise where students in quite a hands-on fashion, but still fully enquiry based, map out the connections between a host of issues.
As aim of “Islam in RE…” is proper religious literacy through enquiry, students must be made to focus on specific things and spot their interrelation as seen through the eyes of the adherents of the religion, rather than their own.
To achieve this for Islam in RE…, I first presented the Hadith of Gabriel which breaks down Islam into the three distinct areas of action, belief and spiritual awareness of the Divine. Thus forearmed with this triad of action (Islam), belief (Iman) and spiritual awareness (Ihsan), the aims of the reading exercise were presented:
- Discover the relationship between the three areas of Islam, Iman andIhsan.
- Discover which of the traditional Islamic sciences were related to these three areas.
- Discover subtleties and historical divisions in Muslims’ understanding related to these three areas, and the impact of modern reform movements, especially Wahhabism.
Each team was responsible for a number of texts (see detailed post). Every student was tasked to take one text at a time from a communal pile. They had 20 minutes to read through as many texts as possible and decide how each text relates to Islam, Iman and/or Ihsan and, crucially, to prepare a concise oral summary of ALL texts.
After the full exercise, which involved also negotiating, mind mapping on A3s and comparing resultant products with other teams in the informal knowledge-sharing exercise 3-for-Tea students were presented with model mind map (thanks to free xmind software) on the IWB, against which they could check their results.
A couple of benefit of allowing students to discover things you could just “tell them for yourself” at the onset:
- it evokes curiosity, which means that they actually pay attention when you finally presents the correct solution on the board – so the apparently wasted time is well-spent.
- it creates a personal reference framework prior information presented in which students can “land” the information, aiding understanding as well as retention.
- it provides excellent evidence of learning, as your unobtrusive monitoring and the both the stages and the final product give vital insight into the learning process.
In the next posts we’ll take a look at negating students limited ability to make meaningful links between “learning from” and “learning about” religion, as well as the issue of phobias and an example of mutually exclusive government aims of SMSC which are now keeling over independent faith schools.
I hope in the above outline to have presented at least a few examples of how enquiry may be fused with hard learning, and also to allow students a scaffolded discovery and negotiation of religious “facts” as confusing and irreconcilable as they may seem. As I pointed out in my reflections on Mr Ashton’s article, who is going to believe that upcoming DfE textbook telling us that Islam is Peace & Love and that Muslims adore having Jews and Christians leading their assemblies. It’s the sure way to radicalise a lot of Muslims AND non-Muslims. (See Deradicalisation; it’s not about what you do, it’s about who you are and related post for some research on this).
“…the subject leader recognised that the newly qualified
teachers (NQTs) and other new staff often arrived at the school
expressing low levels of confidence about teaching RE. In response, she
targeted the CPD opportunities on these staff, building a strong RE
component into their induction programme and, as a result, strengthening
subject expertise across the school.”
Realising the Potential (p.29), on CPD