The History of Christianity scheme: a tale of personal failure

This blog is mostly a tale of personal failure. 

When I started trying to put the multi-disciplinary approach into practice I was absolutely desperate to do a history of Christian thought style scheme. I thought it would be a brilliant way of fleshing out the History curriculum, and give a good sense of what Christian thought is really about, beyond the usual beliefs-and-teachings approach. 

I had the then relatively fresh idea of RS as being comprised of Theology, Philosophy, History and Social Sciences in my head, and wanted to show just how well Theology and History could mesh together. It seemed like a great concept at the time, and a great chance to put the “multi-disciplinary” elements of RS into practice. But alas, it was not to be. 

It’s a shame it didn’t work because to be honest it was bloody fun to teach. One lesson I had a bunch of Year 7s all chanting “Arius” in support of his heresy, in another we re-enacted Luther nailing the theses to the Church; we read letters written by Church fathers, and debated the effects of the enlightenment on the Church at the time. 

It was a great series of independent lessons and the students did learn, but a series of great titbits does not a powerful scheme make.

Here is the scheme overview: A screenshot of a cell phone

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As you can see that scheme is massively ambitious and not really in a good way. 

Asking students to work out both the theological and historical causes for certain trends in thought, and big events in the Christian calendar is a massive ask. Just having a grasp of the trends in thought is a big ask. 

But this blog is not just a chance for to berate myself publicly. I’d like to make a slightly hesitant case (hesitant because I’m aware that other may disagree: just because I didn’t pull it off, doesn’t mean it’s not doable!) that “disciplinary mixing” causes problems. I’d say it causes more problems the further down the Key Stages you go. 

So, some takeaways from the enjoyable but incoherent History of Christianity scheme. 

  • Using disciplinary concepts from other subjects doesn’t always work. 

I highlight this because I’m aware that the RS community is very keen to take a lot from the History community, and while there is certainly a tonne to learn we must be very careful before we adopt things like “second order concepts”. 

You’ll see I used both causation and significance but tried to capitalise on the “theological” version of both. Turns out “theological causation” doesn’t really make sense as a thing. I’m less convinced that “theological significance” was a dud, but at best the convergence is accidental, at worst it’s unreasonable to ask Year 7 students to comment on it.  

By shaping my RS scheme through Historical terminology, I made it very hard for students to actually do, and as a result, the scheme could not have the coherence a scheme should have. 

In some ways this is a positive. It reveals something about the integrity of disciplines in that they come with their own organically grown tools. I am aware one of the stresses of RE teachers at the moment is not having a complete list of potential disciplinary concepts, but it seems that you can “stumble upon them” in scheme development. 

For example: something I realised was that the theological element of RE at least is concerned with the unpacking of “concepts” in an abstract sense. Alongside the historical context, and its impact on Christian thought, I was trying to also teach a broad and deep understanding of concepts like salvation and apostle. 

I realised I was also trying to unpack different categories of theological knowledge which helped clarify the full scope of a religious system. The metaphysical claims about identity and purpose on the one hand; the claims about authority in the Church and the different beliefs about who has it and how it is imparted; the role and impact of different schools of thought on “interpretation”; the claims Christianity makes about “religious knowledge” and how you get it, and relate to it; the ethical positions that resulted from these beliefs, and the rituals and traditions that accompanied them. 

These for me became tentative disciplinary building blocks for a theological approach to teaching religion. If schemes of work can address these issues over a period of say 3 years, then students might come out the other end with a meaningful sense of how the religious system works. 

This helps uncover potential enquiry questions like “What do followers of X religious system mean by concept Y?” Or “What is the nature and role of concept X in religious system Y?” Or broader thematic questions about creation, or how knowledge is imparted across Eastern and Abraham systems. “What can creation narratives reveal about the purpose of religion?” (there’s one for the supporters of “religious studies”!) for example.

  • “Disciplinary mixing” is tricky (and maybe doesn’t always work??)

You’ll note there is no enquiry question, which implies that I didn’t even know which one I’d be asking if I did, or even that I was actually asking multiple questions. 

My learned scepticism of disciplinary mixing is in part because I have bought into the idea that meaningful enquiry question enables students to encounter different answers to it in different lessons, thereby gradually complexifying, deepening and broadening their ability to answer it. 

The question is: can an enquiry question require the students to do two disciplines simultaneously? I’m not talking about referencing and using substantive knowledge from other disciplines to flesh out and contextualise (I still have some historical context in almost every lesson I teach). I mean: if a discipline mastery of particular kinds of knowledge, using specific tools to navigate, manipulate and analyse the knowledge then is it possible to use two different sets of tools simultaneously? Especially if they are quite different (take History and Theology for example)?

I think the answer is: sometimes, and even then only at mastery level, where an expert can flawlessly employ two or more different kinds of tools to answer complex question. 

But, I would argue that most of the time, experts use one or more disciplines to support and flesh out another, they’re not doing all simultaneously. Take Diarmaid Macculloch’s superb A History of Christianity. He employs theological understanding brilliantly, but that work is not a work of theology. (In hindsight, given I based my scheme on this book, my mistake should have been more obvious!)

For students who are taking their first steps towards expertise it is arguably better to have an enquiry that enables students to do one discipline, while including opportunity to employ the findings of others to help them in their enquiry. 

For example, I would love to do a scheme on sacraments: What is a sacrament? This might involve employing some history to help unpack the split between Catholic and later Reformed theology, it might involve some philosophy by looking at the philosophical arguments that led to consubstantiation, it might involve looking at the meaning of the Greek mysterium in the ancient world to help students understand the pre-existing nature of religious “mysteries”. But, the enquiry question is about the nature of sacraments, which is theological. So in this scheme, students would be doing theology, but employing other disciplines to help them. 

  • When you tap into a good enquiry question you can feel it

I’m about to finish listening to the His Dark Materials trilogy. In the books there is recurrent theme that describes the process of interacting with “dust” or “shadows” or sentient particles or whatever they are. The best way is to feel around until something clicks. When it clicks everything becomes clear and the path just makes sense. Designing enquiry questions and schemes or work is a long-term operation and I don’t expect to get mine right for several years yet, but you do get a sense when you stumble upon a great organic question that naturally threads its way through whichever discipline you are working with. 

I had a dark encroaching sense of “this doesn’t work” all the way through designing that History of Christianity scheme. I felt very much like the protagonist of HDM when he uses his magical atom-splitting knife to break into other worlds. I was constantly hitting invisible walls. The path of enquiry is blocked here; this lesson’s contribution is thin; I’m having to really signpost what I want the students to take out of this bit; I’m having to use far too many sentence starters in this assessment.  

I discovered a good way of checking is by having a go at the assessment yourself, even in bullet point form. If there are a great many things to be said, and a great many excellent ways to answer the question, you’ve got yourself a genuine enquiry. If you find that 

  1. it’s hard to answer coherently without giving them specific hoops to jump through, or
  2. there’s not that much to say without relying on a list of sort-of-related things that you just know you want them to learn

It’s a dud; go back and reshape. 

The above is a list of suspicions I have having had the experience of something really not working. If people have found other ways or doing multiple disciplines, I would love to hear about them. I would also love to hear about other failed attempts and lessons learned (for learning obviously, not just to make me feel better.)