The power of “explore”

I started my teaching career thinking that every good RS lesson had some kind of evaluation in it (I blame Bloom for this). Obviously, in a challenging lesson kids would be given the tools to work out whether they agreed with something or not, or they’d be able to compare and contrast the beliefs of others. 

Since then, I have come to form the opinion that actually neither of these things are vital components of assessment in RE – whether it is formative in-lesson assessment, or “summative” end-of-scheme assessment. Instead I have in recent years opted for the “explore” model of assessment, which has shown some really positive results with the students

Apologies in advance: this is a long one. 

First an upfront disclaimer: I am NOT suggesting a complete ban on asking children their opinions. Discussion and debate is often useful. Asking students what they think about certain topics invites them in and gives you a chance to challenge them and get them to think further. What I am saying is that evaluation is not necessarily at the heart of vigorous RE and that actually, at times, obsessing over getting students to “evaluate” can be unhelpful and diminish the scope for high level thinking and engagement. 

The obvious elephant in the room here is that the bulk of marks a child can get at GCSE in RS, whatever the exam board, are got by doing just what I’ve criticised above. Unfortunately there’s nothing we can do about that just now, and this isn’t an exam-board bashing blog. But I do believe that using this “explore” model is helpful at KS3 and KS4 and can often prepare students for those testy 12/15 markers. 

So, what do I mean by evaluation in RS?

There are two kind of evaluation at play here. First, the “do agree?” where a student has to work out their own opinion on the validity/plausibility/ethical viability of a statement or argument. For example, “it is never right to kill”, or “God does not exist”. 

Then there is the “does group X agree?” where a student has to work out the extent to which a particular religious group would agree with some kind of statement. This usually asks students to compare different approaches within a religion, and/or between religions, and/or both of those plus non-religious worldviews (which at the moment tends to mean whatever strands of the collectiveness consciousness of modern secular Britain that the child has picked up). Examples might include “all religious people should care about the environment”, “sex before marriage is OK”, or “X is a belief accepted by all of group Y”, “Practice X is the most important practice in religion Y”. (A weird and notable quirk of almost every exam board is that they require students to do both “I agree” and “X agrees” simultaneously in the same long answer questions!)

Let’s start with the first. 

Imagine we’re in the midst of a KS3 philosophy-style lesson on arguments for God. Teacher A, has maybe introduced the Design Argument to the students, and their learning objectives for the lesson state that by the end students should be able to explain the argument, and evaluate it. Teacher A has taught them about Paley, the watch, the idea of an “argument from analogy”. Then comes the evaluation. Teacher A presents a table with some “strengths” and “weaknesses” of the argument and then asks students to work out which are which and then rank them from “best to worst”, explaining their top choices and giving their overall evaluation about whether the Design Argument is good or not.

Strong lesson? Well, let’s inspect a little more closely. 

Philosophical evaluation is important. The bulk of philosophy at a high level is constructing and deconstructing arguments in an attempt to get to some kind of “truth”. But ask yourself: can you, even with your level of education, articulate why a particular strength of the design argument is better than another strength, let alone why it is even a strength? What is a “strength” of a philosophical argument?? If you can, which you well might, brilliant. But now ask: can the average 13 year old do that? 

This is a very specific example, but the point is a general one: so often in RE students are asked to complete an evaluation about complex philosophical or ethical issues when they do not have the substantive knowledge to do so. The question is: can knowledge and progress be measured effectively by questions for which students do not have the knowledge base?

Are there not better questions we could be asking here? Why are we desperate to squeeze in those “discuss” questions when they are potentially a bit of an educational wild goose chase. 

Take a different kind of lesson: Year 7 students are learning about the different ways that Muslims express their faith as part of a scheme on religious expression. Students are learning about prayer and, about how some Muslims might donate money during Eid al-Fitr. At the end the students are asked to write their opinions on the statement “Religious believers should show their beliefs by doing more than just attend acts of worship”. They are told to include “more than one point of view” and maybe “refer to religious arguments” in their answer. 

The second lesson highlights the other part of the problem.  And that is that students are often asked to assess a statement which is not at its heart disciplinary. Imagine the assessment question at the end of this scheme is “Religious believers should show their beliefs by doing more than just attend acts of worship”. Which of our associated disciplines would be discussing this kind of statement? Theologians? Philosophers? Students of the sociocultural explanations of religion? Would any of these observe Sikh worship and comment on whether it should or should not happen that way?   

On what grounds is the student required to “evaluate” how a religious person should express their religiosity? Historically? Theologically? Culturally? Ethically? Are any of these actually appropriate? Arguably no, because no expert in the above fields would concern themselves with such a question. 

What we have here is further “disciplinary mixing” that I discussed in my previous blog. What discipline is being done here? It’s not really philosophy, theology or religious studies proper. Because there is no clear answer, there can be no organic fusion of knowledge and method. There is no natural internal schema by which students can connect and order what they’ve learned into a coherent response. 

Dawn Cox has written a brilliant blog summing up some of the work already done on “red flags” of poor enquiry questions, and the nature of strong ones (all of which can be applied to assessment questions). 

Let’s move onto “group X agrees”.

This is a more complex issue because sometimes it is completely appropriate and helpful to compare different the different responses given to different issues or ideas by a) different denominations, or b) different religious groups as a whole. You could argue that getting students to explain these different responses and their reasons is really doing “analysis”, rather than evaluation. 

But, so often we give students false comparisons. For example “Salat is more important than Hajj” or “Meditation is the most important practice in Buddhism”, or “Christians believe a loving God wouldn’t allow suffering”. 

In all these statements and many like them, there is no debate to be had. The desperation to do evaluation leads to a non-discussion. Religious systems do not generally involve hierarchies of importance except for a specific slice of issues. Therefore these statements are not theological in nature and students can never really have the knowledge to do them, because the knowledge does not exist.

So does this mean evaluation is dead?! 

Not at all. As I’ve said, there is still room for it, but the object of evaluation has to pass the tests of being something the kids actually have the knowledge to answer, and something with disciplinary integrity. Or, it has its place as a pedagogical tool to tease out Socratic-style interactions with students. 

I still think thought, that to get the most of students in short pieces of writing, and longer assessments there is a better way: the explore question. 

If religious systems are complex webs of connected knowledge, and understanding them is being able to navigate and translate these complex webs, then surely what we want a student to literally do when they are writing an assessment with disciplinary integrity is “explore” a particular aspect or aspects of a religious system. 

This could present itself in a number of forms, for example: 

Explore….

….different interpretations of X

….what X tells us about Y

….the relationship between X and Y

….the role and nature of X

Or more simply “what religious group Y believes about X”

There are several benefits to this style of assessment question (formative and summative).

  1. It means that essays are ram packed full of substantive knowledge

Arguably, the most complex thing a student does in both philosophy and theology is analyse: get into the flesh of a concept or argument, unpack it, see the parts, see how they interrelate and relate to things outside them.  I mean it can also be called explaining, or describing or whatever. It’s communicating the ins and outs of something complicated in your own words. 

The thing about this process is that it is totally object dependent. In an essay that asks a child to do this, not one sentence should be fluff or filler. You can tell the difference between a child who has succeeded, and one who has succeeded less by a) how much stuff they knew (i.e. had in their long term memory) and b) how well they could explain it all. As a specialist, you should ideally have had the schema locked tight in your head before you planned the scheme of work, and so you know how well they’ve mapped it themselves. 

If a student is “exploring” a concept or multiple concepts they are basically putting down everything they know, in an order they think helps explain the concept best. This might include talking about how one thing influences another, or different approaches and their causes.

  1. It avoids awkward hoop jumping to meet random criteria 

I have seen many odd marking criteria: students referred to two or beliefs; they used these specific words; they used signposting phrases; they talked about this specific idea etc. This is that classic performance measuring technique where students have usually been told in advance what is expected of them specifically, and so they focus on getting the “right” things in to get the marks. 

With an “explore” essay students can be given helpful preparation activities but also freedom to craft the essay themselves. I have found that they then have a stronger sense of autonomy and ownership over their “crafted” written piece. Other kinds of questions can achieve this too of course, but I have found starting Year 7 out with this method has produced some genuinely beautiful essays! 

I tell my students that their essay is theirs and there is no magic combination of ideas that will guarantee them a good mark. They know their essays must be packed with accurate and useful knowledge, they must include reference to where their ideas came from (scholars, scripture, teachings), and they must be detailed – no argument or idea used left unexplained. I mean what you have here is a glorified PEE paragraph, but don’t tell them that!

  1. It fosters genuine academic literacy as opposed to “tack on” quotes 

Students writing explore questions can be encouraged to spend entire paragraphs dedicated to explaining the stories, traditions and extracts they have read. If they are exploring every possible aspect of an idea, that includes aspects that are found in tradition/scripture/scholarly commentary and so they get used to there being little distinction. This partly depends on how they have been taught. If they have been taught “here’s a belief, here’s a quote to back it up” then they might write like that, but if they been genuinely spent the scheme investigating every aspect of how beliefs about a concept have been formed, the link is more organic.

As a very final note, although this post has been about assessment, it’s also really about enquiry questions and schemes of work. It’s not good having a series of fuzzy lessons with a question like that at the end – the scheme itself needs to be a deep, rich and rigorous exploration of whatever it is you’re looking at. The assessment, as always is just the best way to see if kids have explored successfully or not!