My mistake: using big ideas to address common misconceptions in RE

May 22, 2018
Think Pieces,

This short piece was given during the Association of University Lecturers in Religion and Education (AULRE) annual conference on Friday 11 May 2018, in a panel discussion on Barbara Wintersgill’s report on Big Ideas.


What is the opposite of a big idea in RE? It is always useful to ask this question for verifiability. There may be two possible answers: a curriculum design opposite, and a learning opposite.


In curriculum design terms, the opposite of a big idea is the inchoate mass of segmented information and experiential wanderings that constitutes many RE syllabuses, lacking any outline shape, any skeletal frame that could bring coherence and the tension that leads to progress. Barbara’s report speaks of big ideas pointing to the core or central concerns of the subject, as criteria for selecting and prioritising subject knowledge, as ‘constants’, cutting across subject knowledge.


In learning terms, the opposite of a big idea may be ‘pupils not getting it’ repeatedly – a series of misconceptions – failed pieces of basic understanding that never get fixed, no matter how much RE is taught. Barbara’s paper speaks of big ideas helping pupils to make sense of information and experiences; they provide lenses; they are memorable. Today I’d like to explore those misconceptions, and suggest how they could be put to good use as the shadow side of big ideas.


In RE we have too often been blind to the self-evident truth that pupils can make common mistakes recurrently, and that the mistakes are quite easy to fix. There are several factors behind this blindness: it is ideologically determined by multiculturalist pressure to prioritise respect for identities, and by child-centred pressure to make the child, not the belief system, the central subject. The blindness is also structurally driven by multiple religious stakeholdership in the system we call local determination. These factors have proved to be enemies of promise in RE: they are part of the reason why the quest to raise standards in RE must include some structural changes, as well as more CPD.


Recurrent pupil mistakes are straightforward to fix, if the above factors are addressed or neutralised. But if the misconceptions are not fixed – if, out of a well-intentioned desire to be inclusive of all points of view, the mistakes remain unchallenged – or if, out of haste in a desire to cover a breadth of religions and beliefs, there is no time set aside for challenging mistakes – then those errors will impede progress and set learners adrift from the constant disciplined accompaniment of the six big ideas. Those unchallenged misconceptions will blight learning. They will sit there like a rusting tractor in a farmyard, neither beautiful nor useful.


So let us explore the big ideas themselves as design principles, and match them to our own experience of mistakes in teaching and learning, to see what the common misconceptions might be.


Here I shall take each of the six big ideas, and turn it on its head to identify a common misconception in RE.


  1. Continuity, change and diversity: There is an amazing variety of religions, non-religious worldviews and ways of life in the world, each being characterised by continuity and change, and internal consistency and diversity.
    Misconception: Religions and worldviews are all the same at heart. The outward doctrinal differences and ritual variations are unimportant: at their core, all religions and worldviews are one.
  2. Words and beyond: People use both verbal and non-verbal forms of communication, literal and figurative, to express beliefs, values, experiences and identities.
    Misconception: Myth and ritual were created by people who knew less than we do. We live in a more rational age.
  3. A good life: There are many ways in which religious and non-religious worldviews provide guidance on how to be a good person and live a good life.
    Misconception: Sacred texts are magical books that show us how to live.
  4. Making sense of life’s experiences: Religions and worldviews are about experience as much as belief, and they can help individuals interpret their experiences.
    Misconception: Religions and worldviews are all about their beliefs and should be studied propositionally and cognitively.
  5. Influence, community, culture and power: Religious and non-religious worldviews interact with the wider communities and cultures, affecting and affected by politics, artistic and cultural life, social values and traditional rituals, sometimes having considerable power and influence beyond their own adherents.
    Misconception: Religion and belief is a private matter. I am entitled to have my views respected, whatever they are. There is no such thing as a wrong answer in RE.
  6. The big picture: Religious and non-religious worldviews provide coherent overall accounts, or ‘grand narratives’, of the nature of reality – life, the universe and everything.
    Misconception: In RE, it’s all about relevance. If I don’t believe something, it’s not worth studying.


Imagine if the big ideas, and their shadow side, the common misconceptions, were as sharply profiled as much content is. Imagine how that could transform curriculum design, teaching and learning. Imagine an RE classroom where the teacher has put up bunting across the room, showing ‘big ideas in RE’ on one side, and ‘common misconceptions in RE’ on the other. Imagine the pupils seeing those every day as a reference point.



Mark Chater is the Director of Culham St Gabriel’s Trust writing in a personal capacity