We need to talk about KS3 – Sam McKavanagh

December 21, 2018
Sam's Blog, Think Pieces,

I’ve written and tweeted plenty about what I’m doing at KS4, but there’s still something that keeps me up at night. KS3. Now, I’m sure that many of you might be in a similar situation to me, where you spend a lot of time playing catch-up with the curriculum and the recent changes were certainly a big task to contend with.
 
Background
In my school we have moved Religious Studies to an option subject, that’s a move that happened with the introduction of the new syllabus. We just couldn’t see a way in which we could cover the material of the new course within the hour a week timetable allocation that we were given as a core subject.
 
In the first year (and the year that I joined the school) we had an uptake of 17 students and we achieved an amazing set of results with a fantastic bunch of students. The year after we couldn’t attract enough students to run a class, the students had had a fairly negative attitude towards the subject. I had already started to change a few parts of the curriculum, but there was certainly a feeling that putting plasters on a sinking ship might have been more effective and that bigger changes were needed.
 
This year is the first year in which we have started GCSE from Y9, meaning that we have an option group in Y10 and in Y9 who are both starting their GCSE. They had both started to benefit from the changes that were being introduced, our Y10 class has 16, whilst our Y9 class has 25 (with another interested in joining us). Given the disappointment of not having a Y11 class this year, it has been a huge boost of confidence seeing the number of students growing like this.
 
What the kids think
Whilst it isn’t giving me nightmares, it doesn’t leave me feeling easy knowing that our KS3 offering isn’t where it needs to be, and if we want to keep building the profile of the subject at GCSE, then we not only need an engaging and relevant curriculum, we also need to develop a secure foundation of both knowledge and skills to ensure that pupils can succeed at GCSE, but before I started making any large-scale changes, I decided to speak to some students first. Some who are currently in Year 8 and others who are in Year 9 and 10 – I would then be able to use this to base my changes upon.
 
I had half expected a lot of respondents saying that they wanted ‘fun’ lessons – I wasn’t wrong, but when students were asked to explain what that meant, that’s where I definitely was wrong. I’d expected a strong showing of disapproval for topics involving religions – historically this was an area the pupils weren’t too keen on, with them much preferring the philosophical and ethical topics that we have studied.
 
This is where I was pleasantly surprised and it has given me real encouragement for how we are teaching religion now at the school. I’ve always believed that student voice is an integral part of a decision-making process – one that must be taken in consideration with other perspectives as well. Pupils had a real disliking (so did I to be honest) of the pub quiz, death by a thousand facts style of Religious Studies that they had before, an issue that grew out of (but isn’t excused by) the number of non-subject specialists that had taught the subject.
 
Whilst there was some spread of topics that they particularly enjoyed, the two most talked about units of study were Religion and the Media, and Philosophy (which I based upon a P4C course run by SAPERE that I attended). I was particularly pleased by these choices as they had been units of work that I had introduced to the school’s curriculum and is starting to show how we are making progress – not only in terms of our outcomes at GCSE, but also in making the subject a popular GCSE subject choice.
 
Religion in the Media
I’ve done Religion and the Media topics before and, if I’m honest, they’ve been pretty dreadful. Relying much too heavily upon the piece of media (usually a film) and not the subject content enough. This needed to change, so I got to work.
 
This unit took a focus from an Islamic and Christian perspective so that we could build a depth of knowledge over several lessons. The unit relied on newspaper articles, TV news excerpts and short sections of film or TV shows, whilst this is nothing unusual in a Religious Studies classroom, I wanted to avoid the ill-fated ‘Here’s a film, fill this sheet in as you go along’ lesson that we’ve all seen before.
 
To make it a success I knew that I needed to start from the end – what do I actually want pupils to know and what skills do I want them to learn? In terms of content I want pupils to have a good grounding in key theological concepts – such as the nature of God, or Biblical stories. For skills I want them, amongst other things, to understand, interpret and analyse different interpretations and perspectives. Once I had these in mind, I needed to select appropriate sources from the media. It is key that selecting the media source comes after, it is wrong to be forced into teaching the pupils something different from the key ideas you want them to know. This might take more searching – but it will be much more enriching as an educational experience (for you and your students).
 
Alllllllrighty then…
When it came to the nature of God (a topic important not just because it appears in the GCSE but is part of a well-rounded and well-informed religious education), I remembered that there is a short (ten minutes at most) section of the film Bruce Almighty which nicely sets out different examples of God’s qualities (Omniscience, omnipotence, etc.)
 
The lesson was shaped around the idea of God’s qualities, what these may look like in practice and the idea of how a Christian may respond when presented with a depiction of God in this way. This encourages some deeper theological thinking from the students, it’s not just a watch and note down exercise, they are really having to engage with some philosophical questions around the nature of God.
 
The vast majority of the lesson is spent exploring God’s qualities – what do the words mean, what are the implications of these ideas. The section of film allows pupils to see if they can ‘observe’ these qualities being demonstrated. The final discussion is around how religious believers might feel seeing God represented in this way, and does the nature of the film (a comedy) have any implications?
 
D’Oh
In another lesson, I wanted students to learn about Biblical stories and how these could be interpreted and represented in the media. Now there are countless retellings of Biblical stories out there, from short animations, to high-budget cinematic efforts such as The Bible (which I believe is widely available online). However, I wanted to choose something a little different and I went for the Simpsons. Choosing your media source is key and so is knowing your class, so pick wisely.
 
The episode I chose is called Simpson’s Bible Stories – I think it is season 10, you’ll have to get the DVD as you won’t find it on Youtube. The episode retells different stories from the Bible – Adam and Eve, the Ten Plagues of Egypt, King Solomon and a very loose reimaging of a David vs Goliath sequel. These episodes are easy to access, but to really understand them they need a high level of religious literacy.
 
To develop the religious literacy level required we start by looking at the original story. I normally just pick one part of the episode and it is either the Adam and Eve, or Ten Plagues story. These tend to work best as pupils tend to have a little familiarity with the story anyway. We start by looking up the story in the Bible, itself a lesson on how to use one.
 
Next, we really take our time reading through the story, getting to grips with what happened, understanding what certain words mean. If we don’t spend a proper amount of time on this, then what will come after just won’t make sense.
 
Once I’m sure they have a secure understanding of the story we talk about different ways of interpreting something and what the ideas of literal and metaphorical mean. Then we move on to why the Simpsons writers would want to do an episode on this topic. Then and only then, are we ready to the watch the relevant part of the episode.
 
Using the Simpsons episode, it becomes clear that the writers have moved quite far from the original story – we talk about parts that have changed, exploring what the original story said and what the Simpsons version did instead, we would then talk about why this would happen (i.e. the Simpsons is going after laughs, the Bible wasn’t)
 
The important thing is to really get to grips with the original story – the pupils will only get the maximum impact if their religious literacy is developed to a point where seeing a parody of the story will make sense. This means that you really have to ensure that you have taken your time with the original story, you need to explore ideas around interpretations and you have to explain how this story comes from a Holy book and therefore has a real importance to the followers of that religion.
 
Though the topic is called Religion in the Media – the focus is religion. Importantly it is about developing a solid understanding of key religious beliefs, teachings and stories. The ‘media’ is partly how that understanding is transmitted to and explored with the pupils.
 
Islam in the Media
When we turn to Islam, we explore ideas of the media portrayal of Islam. With pupils we explore some of the questions that they want to ask, but are worried about asking, the question of terrorism drives a large part of the discussion. As one of my pupils explained, ‘it is difficult, because I don’t know any Muslims and when I hear about them it is always bad things. So, I don’t really know what to think, because I don’t think what they say can be true. But I just don’t know.’
 
It is important not to shy away from this, nor to just close it down and tell pupils off for holding the view. They need to explore some of the key teachings and ideas from Islam and to be shown how there has been a media bias which has created a negative impression of the religion which is not rooted in any ideology and that terrorist groups such as Daesh is not rooted in Islamic belief.
 
This is obviously a huge topic and normally it stretches over several lessons. One where we get to grips with some key teachings and beliefs from Islam. Again, we learn about the importance of interpretation and understanding. We then see how these ideas sit at odds with ideas of violence and terrorism.
 
Next Steps
There are certainly some additional things that I’d like to introduce to this unit of study. The key one would certainly be speakers from different faith backgrounds. A fair amount of the interpretation that we are doing is from speculation. If I’m unable to bring speakers in, then I definitely need to make far greater use of RE:Online’s Email a Believer – getting students to create the questions that they want answers to.
 
Whilst this is only a discussion of one part of the KS3 course there have been lessons learnt, most importantly that gimmicky schemes of work won’t get you anywhere. Be ambitious, set the bar high and give pupils the challenge of a rigorous curriculum.
 
This unit really upped the ante and the pupils really strove to meet that challenge and they thoroughly enjoyed learning about religions (something that I know many schemes of works and school RE departments try to shy away from through fear of leaving pupils disengaged).
 
Don’t forgot to start with what you want pupils to know at the end and then work forward from there. If you’re having a more ambitious overhaul of your curriculum then you really want to start from where you want pupils to end up long term (maybe even considering what you want them to know long after they have left school), think about what knowledge and skills they need to end up with and then work out how you can build them up to that. That first lesson in Y7 is setting them on the right trajectory, so don’t see it as an afterthought.

Please reach out with any questions (@MrMcKavanaghRE) on Twitter.