Ways of Knowing: History

This term we will be exploring the idea of ‘ways of knowing’. How do we help our pupils, of any age, to make sense of the learning material as they grow and develop? The phrase ‘ways of knowing’ is found in Ofsted’s 2021 Research Review to describe how the substance of the lesson is framed.

In my own classroom I have been experimenting with a historical ‘way of knowing’. We have reshaped a Year 9 Unit to take a deliberately historical view. We make sense of Christian theology with reference to historical contexts. Through role-play, guided stories and discussions we explore emerging Protestant concerns in the 1500s, contrasting to Catholic trust in centuries of church tradition. Pupils are in actual fact contrasting ‘faith’ and ‘works’, without using these abstracted words. Although these are theological concepts, I found that looking through a historical lens allowed me a certain amount of freedom from the precise meaning of the different visions of salvation. The broad brush strokes of the argument suffice to explain the ensuing conflict as well as identify the core, shared Christian beliefs.

Our historical timeline has taken us to the English Reformation, the European Wars of Religion, the Troubles and finally to the work of Corrymeela in the modern era. We have been able to discuss at each point how far conflict between Catholic and Protestant groups is political or religious. My students have mastered the theological disputes comfortably without even knowing it.

And the students? In our first year of teaching they were, frankly, confused. ‘Why are we learning all this history?’ was the most common objection, and, ‘when are we going to learn about religious beliefs?’ I was unsure of myself. Coming in and out of lockdown added to the sense of confusion. However students’ reflected nuance and critical analysis. A more textured understanding of the impact of religion, politics, power and community was emerging.

This year I am confident. I see how the unit flows and small pieces of information connect to a bigger whole. My current Year 9s respond to my confidence, discussing the pros and cons of biblical translations, assessing Henry VIII’s ‘true’ Catholic soul and comparing traditional Catholic to various Protestant views of the eucharist.

A concern lingers; the sheer speed at which we work. Huge chunks of history, theology and politics are glossed over in a way that doesn’t feel historically appropriate. If we are taking a historical view of theological differences, we don’t really give enough time to context and place. It was in the penultimate week of the term that my concerns suddenly resolved into a solution. When considering Corrymeela’s work in conflict resolution and reconciliation, I had it- this is an ethical unit. We are looking through an ethical lens! The various case studies of conflict between religious siblings all point to an ethical question; is conflict in the name of religion ever acceptable?

My teaching next year will therefore adopt an ethical ‘way of knowing’. We will draw on historical context, power, theology and place to make sense of this urgent question of the world.

Through blogs and resources this term on RE:ONLINE we will be considering the what ‘ways of knowing’ means in the classroom and in our development. As always we welcome your questions, blogs and comments. What changes are you making, how can you assess their success, and how will you develop in future?


Kate teaches part-time in a secondary school in inner London, is an RE Advisor and is Culham St Gabriel's Lead Consultant for Professional Development. Email: kate@cstg.org.uk

See all posts by Dr Kate Christopher

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