Scholarship in the RE classroom: where can we go next?

It is first worth noting that many of the reflections in this piece are not original. They are regurgitations and extensions of the excellent academic work on scholarship and reading that has gone before in the history community. I explicitly mention work done by Christine Counsell, Rachel Foster and Tim Jenner but I am aware that hundreds of others have contributed to the growing web of nuanced thought currently influencing teachers from all subject areas. It is also based on the many valuable conversations and planning sessions I had with Richard Kueh when he was my HoD and NQT mentor back in Cambridge. 

My aim here is to try and be scholarly in my writing about scholarship. I want to carefully draw on the varied and nuanced work that already exists, wrestle with some of it and attempt to add my own questions and suggestions to the gradually building body of thought around high-quality, discipline-centred, powerful RE. 

What do we mean by “scholarship”?

From my reading it is apparent that it is more helpful to talk about what scholarship does, or is supposed to do than what scholarship is. I am a theologian by trade (and possibly by nature) so let’s start with some helpful negatives: scholarship should not be reduced to a single activity, or kind of activity; it should not be reduced to a thing we tack on to our teaching and it should not be something that starts with choosing what texts we select for our students. 

Instead, scholarship should be seen as inextricably mixed up with high-quality teaching of a subject. It is not only a way of teaching a discipline, but, if done well, it helps us understand what it means to teach our discipline in the first place.

Christine Counsell, in her excellent book History and Literacy in Year 7: Building the lesson around the text asks if “subjects are different ways of thinking and ways of knowing. Surely they are also ways of reading?”[1] For a subject like RS: it doesn’t just involve particular kinds of reading, it is a kind of reading (or several, given our multi-disciplinary nature). 

Texts aren’t simply static sets of information. They are living and useable examples of our discipline being done and so their successful use can create a foundation for meaningfully understanding the kind of knowledge our discipline deals with. In other words, “disciplinary knowledge” is knowing the kinds of things these texts know, including knowing how their knowledge has been constructed and organised, and knowing their “character” i.e. their assumptions, flaws and weaknesses.

If texts provide such dynamic gateways into disciplinary knowledge, then “scholarship” in the classroom simply refers to the gradual and timely induction of students into masterful interactions with these texts and all they have to offer. Is it unreasonable to say that scholarship, or the kinds of texts a subject discipline has available, should be instrumental in curriculum shaping? 

This is problematised by Rachel Foster in her article Passive receivers or constructive readers: pupil’s experience of an encounter with academic history where she suggests that scholarship should help students develop a “consciousness” of the discipline they are studying.[2] Note: consciousness suggesting that the one of our aims is to imbue students with a natural and organic instinct to engage with subject specific substantive knowledge in the way that a master might. Is this not what we really mean by “disciplinary knowledge”?

If this is true, then the aim should not simply be providing opportunity for interaction with texts, but should be oriented around maximising the quality of those interactions, and providing mechanisms (activities, questioning, assessment) for improving that quality over time. By the end of their secondary education children should know what kinds of text exist in their subject, how these texts come about, why they exist, how they can be used, the idiosyncrasies of form, style, epistemology that make them texts of a particular discipline. Ultimately a child should have begun to synthesise their own mini-versions of these texts in the form of assessment. 

Where do we begin with this massive project? In one of those precious conversations I had with Richard Kueh back in the day we talked about the idea of “overflow”. Scholarship in the classroom should first and foremost begin with the teacher saturating themselves in the scholarship of their subject. This passion and expertise should then naturally “overflow” into the teacher’s practice and shape their curricula thinking. We will all be at different stages of this journey ourselves, and it is a true shame that many schools don’t seem to prioritise giving teachers the time to immerse themselves in that journey (I can’t see a more valuable interpretation of CPD). Rachel Foster describes this as cri de ceour – or a passioned appeal.[3] She notes that teachers who have a “sense of faith in the power of texts” often have it because they themselves have been moved by the power texts have had over their lives, and their journeys as subject specialists and educational practitioners.

So what is the true “scope” of scholarship?

Richard Kueh once said to me that scholarship does two extremely useful things:

  1. It exemplifies how others have wrestled with the question/topic being studied
  2. It gives you a way to abstract about the disciplinary tools of your subject

Dealing with the first: within a disciplinary framework, no fact exists in a vacuum. Whatever is considered the current body of substantive knowledge did not appear out of nowhere – it has been investigated, researched, discussed, written up, changed, discussed again etc. by a series of experts in the field over a long period of time. 

For RS, this body of knowledge is often highly contentious. Take any explanation of almost any concept in Christianity – miracles, salvation, sacraments. There is no objective definition of these concepts, no universally accepted interpretation. Our job as scholarly teachers is to work through the mass of disagreements and present something children can understand and work into their existing schemas. Part of this “working through” involves thinking about how we highlight the current scholarship on a given topic. I would argue it is extremely important that we do this as often as possible from as early as possible, exactly so students can begin to understand the nature of wrestling that has gone to arrive at any definition. 

Tim Jenner in his article Making reading routine: helping Key Stage 3 pupils to become regular readers of historical scholarship”[4]describes scholarship as something that provides “authentic encounter with the discipline”.[5] Jenner argues for the use of longer texts, as he believe their use helps to: “develop a broader culture of reading”, “accelerate a pupil’s acquisition of both topic-specific and wider historical vocabulary”, and I think most importantly, helps students grapple with the complexity of the topic they are dealing with and gain a sense of the wider disciplinary complexities they will have to face in their study of the subject.

The steady and continuous reliance on these texts makes our teaching more nuanced because we have to let the natural complexities and tangents found in any academic text not designed for bite-size consumption in a classroom shape the child’s interaction with the topic. They must work through weird bits, and in the process gain an understanding of how this text came to be written, and why.  

Similarly, Christine Counsell in History and Literacy in Year 7: building the lesson around the text says:

“Where pupils are encouraged to see history as free-floating facts, and texts as buckets of information from which to pluck them, then it is hardly surprising if, wherever there is cause for doubt, pupils slip back into that well-documented helplessness of, ‘I wasn’t there so I don’t know’ (Shemilt, 1987). I found it depressing when early cross-curricular literacy work that came from outside the subject in the 1990s moved us back to these pre-SHP ideas of ‘information’ and ‘reading for information’. Historical helplessness is bound to worsen when pupils think that history is about Romans eating dormice and what colour the togas were. This is not history; it is antiquarianism. We are left with mere information, shaped only by a ‘find out about…’ question. By contrast, a genuinely historical question will launch the search for a historically significant conclusion, allowing pupils to see – if not actually to carry out – aspects of the knowledge-construction process. This may require attention to the status of the text as evidence or as interpretation, to the author’s deliberate choice of detail from a myriad of accurate details, or to the qualifying, speculative language in which a narrative or a problem of historical causation clothes itself. Whether contemporary source or second record, pupils need to read texts for argument, for position, for deliberated construction, for unwitting or witting message. And (this book will argue) these are precisely the things that fuel motivation to persevere with a demanding text and, above all, to enjoy that text, as much for its texture as its plot.”[6]

While this is history focussed, there are many lessons for RE teachers. Counsell talks about that “well-documented helplessness” that a child experiences if they simply feel that there is too big a gap between themselves and the knowledge with which they are presented. For RE students History’s “I wasn’t there so I don’t know” might well be “well it’s all just opinions isn’t it?”. If students are simply presented with a bunch of things religious people think and do without any reference to scholarship that has led to them then it’s not surprising that students also think these beliefs have absolutely nothing to do with them, and cannot be investigated or questioned. They belong to religious people. I am not religious. What is the relevance?

Counsell writes: “By contrast, a genuinely historical question will launch the search for a historically significant conclusion, allowing pupils to see – if not actually to carry out – aspects of the knowledge-construction process.” Similarly, a genuinely religious/theological/philosophical question will allow students to both see and carry out that process of construction themselves and therefore be drawn into the discussion that is absolutely relevant because they too are students and scholars: this is what they come to school to do.  

Finally, Counsell highlights that using scholarship usually involves an active and deliberate drawing of attention to some elements of the text that make it a text throughout the scheme. This brings us onto the second extremely useful thing that scholarship can do: it gives you a way to abstract about disciplinary tools.

What does this mean? Part of the answer is given above by Counsell. Disciplinary tools are revealed by scholarship. When schemes and lessons are built around scholarship, they will naturally encourage students to engage with the text as a text. A quality interaction with a text will involve students thinking about what the text tells them substantively, but also thinking about the nature of the text itself: who wrote it? When? What tradition does it come from? What are its limitations? What does our knowledge of author, style, aim reveal about the “wrestling” that has come before on this topic? In grappling with these questions, they are both doing the discipline, and thinking about the nature of the discipline.

Foster notes that mature readers of historical texts often conceptualise these texts as “interpretative”, and see the meaning-making process of engaging with a text as “knowledge-transforming”.[7] Knowledge-transforming interactions ideally enable students to adjust their substantive and disciplinary knowledge at the same time, helping them to adjust, and complexify their schema of knowledge both through the substantive lens of adjusting what they know, the disciplinary lens of adjusting their knowledge about what they know.

How can we be scholarly?

I am going to suggest five possible tips for being more scholarly. Some of my summer will be spent putting these ideas into practice, so scheme and activity examples will follow.

  1. Get. Reading.

I talked above about the idea of “overflow” and cri de ceour. The best thing a teacher can do for their students in terms of scholarship is be immersed in it themselves. I am very aware of my areas of weakness: Eastern religious systems and philosophy in particular. My job, before I plan a decent scheme is to read the heck up. Introductory books to start, and then use the references and bibliographies to diversify and specialise. 

This doesn’t mean just reading books you want your students to read, but reading your subject and your level and reading it well. If you don’t have a background in either sociological religious studies, theology or philosophy – find the introductory undergraduate reading lists from universities like Cambridge, Oxford, Edinburgh, Exeter, Durham. Read the intro texts, then read the hard stuff. Get a sense of your discipline beyond what the school-designed textbooks tell us. 

I’ll be honest, this was a large part of my motivation for starting the #REBookClub!

  1. Be led by the scholars themselves 

In Counsell’s book, the scheme upon much of the discussion is based is shaped by a) an appropriate text and b) an appropriate enquiry question.

Counsell says that she chose Horace partly because an ancient text provides an obvious “puzzle” to solve, which inducts students into the detective style work historians do; it is “concrete and comic” (p6) i.e. uses vivid imagery and is funny; Horace was himself looking backwards into the past, adding a further dimension to the value of the text; the content of the text gives students a sense of period both in terms of how it was written, how it deals with its subject matter, and what it says about its subject matter. The text is rich because it reveals substantive knowledge, but demands that the students think about that knowledge like historians with, through about their text in a variety of ways. We don’t have to have the same reasons, but it is worth thinking about our reasons: how do we choose the perfect text for Year 5, Year 7, Year 9? What qualities do we want it to have?

For example we might want to ask ourselves:

  1. Is it more appropriate to be led by a primary text (like scripture/religious text, or a work of philosophy/theology) but introduce 1-2 secondary “takes” on it, and problematise these. This way, we can amplify issues of interpretation, or hermeneutical foci. We can exemplify how others have wrestled with whatever EQ we are using 
  2. Or is it better to be led by a secondary text (ie. How the World thinks) but make sure we include activities that help students understand the inferences and level of interpretation that has gone on to create such a text 

If we have found a text but are struggling with a way to use it – is it worth looking at the questions the text itself asks and using those to help you form a good enquiry question? One that will enable you to guide students to: 

a) work with the text and learn from and build their understanding of the kinds of disciplinary enquiries academics of RS do 

b) work through the text and learn about the topic from the text 

c) engage with the text as a text 

  1. Be casual about it

It’s important to note that the reading comprehension elements absolutely do not have to be central, or the basis upon which you choose a text. In fact, I would argue that we should move away from a “now we’re doing the scholarship bit of the lesson” approach. Let the scholarship shape the entire learning process. Let the students “converse” with the texts and their authors and let this be led by the most mature scholar physically in the room: you. 

This can be done through discussion, timely questioning, setting up context of the author, genre and style. It can be done through engagement with the extract, through activities that help maximise that “quality” interaction. 

An example of this can be found in Mastin and Counsell (2014)[8] – a scheme based on Voices of Morebath – a brilliant book looking at the effects of the English Reformation on one town, Morebath. Having spoken to people who have taught this scheme, one of the beauties of it is the relaxed and organic way the text is introduced as a text, and the fact that because of this it doesn’t need to rely purely on extracts and guided reading.

  1. Centre the dialogic

This is particularly important in RE. Above I talked about exposing students to the intellectual “wrestling” with a topic that has gone before. The disciplines within our subject are all extremely contentious, and so introducing that contentiousness as a part of the discourse is essential for painting a fair picture.

It is important that we centre this constant wrestling with ideas and arguments. There are variety of ways this could be done:

  • In philosophy: this might be a person. Take Plato: introduce him, his life, his interests and then along the way some commentators on Plato and his works, especially if they disagree
  • In religion: take a story, primary text, contentious topic (free will in Islam, suffering in Buddhism, salvation in Christianity) and then introduce different thinkers on this topic, explore them and how they interact
  • Maybe you have based your scheme on a secondary text: what other authors have written on these same topics? Who disagree? What traditions do they come from? Why might their disagreements exist?
  1. Problematise

The history education community has been so successful because of the constant process of problematisation made up of micro-contributions and reflections, further problematisation of these reflections and so on until a complex schema of principles and ideas is formed – and continues to be formed. 

This is exciting because the RE world is beginning to do this same thing but we must not fall into the trap of stopping and applauding prematurely. We must problematise the wellspring of ideas in our community, work them into our current schema, adjust them, critique them, question them. Only then can we have the nuanced approach necessary to truly rigorous RS teaching. 

We should not be aiming to compile a list of great things we do in the classroom (retrieval, DI, scholarship), but developing our own interactions with our discipline, our vocation and then carefully nurturing our approach and practice over time. One of the most sound pieces of advice I received in my NQT year: this is a long game. Aim for the long-term, slow-grow wins – not the silver-bullets and superficial ticks. 

I have hopefully made some small headway in our collective thinking on scholarship, but don’t take me at my word. This should be one of many springboards for discussion. 

In the spirit of “problematisation”, here are some questions I feel I have not answered (and would love your thoughts on, reader):

  1. To which subjects can this approach be applied? Why? Is it appropriate for the “lived experience” elements of RE? Why/why not?
  2. How much scholarship is appropriate? Every lesson? Every scheme? How early should it start?
  3. Coming off the back of Rachel Foster’s research: do we think it’s possible that zero scholarship throughout KS2 and even KS3 impoverishes a student’s understanding of a discipline and therefore makes it harder for them to engage with texts at an older age?
  4. I mentioned the idea of feeling free from picking the perfect: what kinds of texts are good options for us? We obviously can’t give 12 year olds Kant, but also we don’t want to give them purely trivia books. What are some possible solutions?
  5. The issues in this blog post raise questions about pedagogy: if these claims about scholarship are true, then how can we integrate successful pedagogies and strategies based on the research done by cognitive-scientists? 

[1] Counsell, C. (2004) History and Literacy in Year 7: Building the Lesson around the text, London: Hodder Murray, p.iv

[2] Foster, R. (2011) ‘Passive receivers or constructive readers: pupil’s experience of an encounter with academic history in Teaching History, 142, p43

[3] Ibid, p5

[4] Jenner, T (2019) ‘Making reading routine: helping Key Stage 3 pupils to become regular readers of historical scholarship’ in Teaching History, 174, p12

[5] Ibid, p43

[6] Counsell (2004), op. cit, p1

[7] Foster (2011), op. cit, p45. Foster’s article raises interesting questions about the lack of research on the way that immature readers interact with texts, and suggests that more needs to be done on the how a student processes a text. She does highlight how a student’s interaction with a text is often determined by their understanding of the discipline and how it works. I think this raises an interesting question about the power texts can have when they are sequenced particularly well. Does her research suggest that years of RE empty of scholarship actually makes it harder for students to engage with it later on?  

[8] Counsell, C. and Mastin, S. (2015) ‘investigating knowledge and narrative in lower secondary pupil’s characterisation of historical change’ in International Review of History Education, Volume 5: Joined-Up History: new directions in history education research’. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing