The CORE report and the Big Ideas project are milestones in curriculum development in RE, but are they on the same road? The final CORE report doesn’t mention Big Ideas, nor does the 2017 Big Ideas for Religious Education e-book mention CORE, though the publications were only about a year apart and two people were members of both groups.[i] Elsewhere, there was a suggestion that Big Ideas would complement CORE by providing a curriculum pattern for its recommendations as they emerged. [ii]
The overlap between the two initiatives is clearly not just one of timing or personnel. To give just one instance of curricular continuity, point 5 of the CORE national entitlement is that ‘pupils must be taught about the role of religious and non-religious ritual and practices, foundational texts, and of the arts, in both the formation and communication of experience, beliefs, values, identities and commitments’. There is a close connection here to Big Idea 2, Words and Beyond: ‘Many people find it difficult to express their deepest beliefs, feelings, emotions and religious experiences using everyday language. Instead, they may use a variety of different approaches including figurative language and a range of literary genres. In addition, people use non-verbal forms of communication such as art, music, drama and dance that seek to explain or illustrate religious or non-religious ideas or experiences. There are different ways of interpreting both verbal and non-verbal forms of expression, often depending on a person’s view of the origin or inspiration behind them. The use of some non-verbal forms of communication is highly controversial within some religious groups, particularly their use in worship or ritual.’ [iii]
May’s Research of the Month is an article by Rob Freathy and Helen John. [iv] It’s a powerful intervention, whose novel contribution is to add four Big Ideas about the Study of Religions and Worldviews to the set of six Big Ideas for RE. The argument is that Big Ideas are also required to reflect on how we study religions and worldviews. Pupils should learn to recognise the contested nature of religions and worldviews, including the very concepts of religion and worldview; that who we are ourselves affects or determines how we study religions and worldviews; how different methods and disciplines are used in the study of religions and worldviews; and how the study of religions and worldviews is a vital tool in understanding the world around us.
My April blog, with its emphasis on the need to use textbooks critically, reflected other research on the contested nature of religions and worldviews. [v] What I’d like to pick up this month is the need for reflexivity, also referred to by Rob Freathy and Helen John as positionality. They explain this by saying that pupils should pause to consider their own identity, formed by different aspects such as nationality, ethnicity, gender and sexuality; and how it affects their experience of the world, how they study religions and worldviews and the results of their studies. Thus, the pupils should develop understanding of themselves as well as religions and worldviews. [vi]
Whenever I remark that I am 95% positive about the CORE report, I am (understandably) asked about the missing 5%. One commissioner was surprised by my view that CORE needed to say more about pupils’ self-awareness, but having checked again, I would still suggest that the report could be more balanced in this respect. The nine elements of the national entitlement read as if pupils are looking outwards on religion and worldviews from no viewpoint and the need for self-reflection is not included. [vii] It is suggested later that ‘pupils reflect on their own personal responses to the fundamental human questions to which worldviews respond and learn to articulate these responses clearly and cogently while respecting the right of others to differ’; but this appears in a slightly isolated way, right at the end of the report.[viii]
By reminding us of reflexivity in learning, Rob Freathy and Helen John move the discussion on a way which is necessary. They don’t themselves make connections between CORE and Big Ideas, but there’s a sense that they could, to useful effect. There are prospective gains through looking again at CORE in the light of their Big Ideas about the Study of Religions and Worldviews.
A sequel to Big Ideas for Religious Education has appeared, Putting Big Ideas into Practice in Religious Education. [ix] This latest publication does set out to take account of CORE (see page 2), allies the Big Ideas approach with that of CORE (see page 6, on reflecting the complex, diverse and plural nature of worldviews; or footnote 23 on page 79, where different Big Ideas and CORE national entitlement items are linked together with different academic disciplines); and includes some recognition of pupil self-reflection (e.g. on page 10, regarding pupils’ personal search for meaning in the context of the study of religion and worldviews, or pages 47-48, where it is suggested that they might grasp the meaning of ‘sacred’ through conversation about their own precious objects). However, reflexive self-awareness is absent from the identification of what good RE students can do at different stages (see pages 76-78). Perhaps the writers will consider it when they turn to methodological questions, left open for now (see page 81).
On page 26 of Putting Big Ideas into Practice in Religious Education, in an outline key stage 1 topic plan, the following transferable question is included: is it possible to know the mind of God? I don’t know. Do send in thoughts from your younger pupils. Meanwhile, these are interesting times for curriculum development in RE.
[i] The final report of the Commission on Religious Education (CORE) can be found at https://www.commissiononre.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Final-Report-of-the-Commission-on-RE.pdf. The report on Big Ideas for Religious Education can be found at https://socialsciences.exeter.ac.uk/media/universityofexeter/collegeofsocialsciencesandinternationalstudies/education/research/groupsandnetworks/reandspiritualitynetwork/Big_Ideas_for_RE_E-Book.pdf .
[ii] Barbara Wintersgill, Big Ideas for Religious Education, unpublished paper, p.8.
[iii] CORE report p.12, Big Ideas for Religious Education report p.15.
[iv] See https://researchforre.reonline.org.uk/research_report/introducing-big-ideas-to-uk-religious-education/ . During March, this was our most read research report.
[vi] Rob Freathy & Helen C. John (2019) Religious Education, Big Ideas and the study of religion(s) and worldview(s), British Journal of Religious Education, 41:1, 35.
[vii] CORE report pp.12-13.
[viii] CORE report p. 77.
[ix] This e-book, which shows how the Big Ideas approach can be applied in practice and has been authored by Barbara Wintersgill with Denise Cush and Dave Francis, can be found at http://www.reonline.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Putting-big-ideas-into-Practice.pdf