Introduction to the RS Argument at GCSE research project, Tim Hunting
The research project started from the desire amongst colleagues to work together improve teaching of students the skills needed to reach the highest level in RS GCSE essays, which require ‘logical chains of reasoning leading to judgement(s)’. The essays are supposed to be short -guidelines suggest 250 words- and the time frame is around 15 minutes maximum for planning and writing time, so there is a lot of pressure on students to analyse the claim in the title and construct a quality answer very quickly. The idea was to think more deeply about what we mean by argument and concentrate minds on how to teach these skills through deeper reflection, learning and experiment in the classroom, as well as sharing our experience. Kathryn at CSTG put me in touch with Nigel Fancourt whose research with the OARS project was invaluable. Nigel became a regular member and interlocutor for the group along with Kevin O’Grady.
Nigel’s work with the OARS project was a really helpful foundation for our own research. A second aim was an interest in forming a local group for RE teachers in the Brighton area as a means of mutual support. In the event, we met on Zoom so the group quickly expanded and became open to teachers everywhere. (Although the research project finishes this September we hope to meet in the coming year and continue to help contribute to study of argument in RS. If you are interested please contact me. email@example.com
What? The Process:
We met online and shared the challenges of teaching essay writing and helping students to construct arguments. Our shared reading of S. Toulmin’s seminal ‘Uses of Argument’ which bridges argument in philosophy with everyday reasoning helped to deepen our reflection. Covid did later bring limitations to what we were able to achieve in the classroom but the fruits of our discussions can be seen in the different materials that the teachers in the group came up with. Some such as Hannah’s and the teachers’ at SGS – Grace, Molly, Hanna and Gwilym – are based on adapting Toulmin’s model of warrant and backing and evidence. Other teachers developed effective metaphors for helping students to understand argument- Julia the courtroom scene- and Fay the tug of war. I concentrated on resources to help students analyse essay titles. All these resources are listed below. Feel free to adapt them for your own classroom practice.
Nigel Fancourt writes:
The broad process of developing one’s own argument has a vital place in current GCSE and A level syllabuses, and indeed across religious education. A recent review of locally agreed syllabuses (Chan Fancourt & Guilfoyle 2020) showed that while it was explicitly mentioned fairly frequently. Argumentation is generally poorly explained; different disciplines are referred to, such as theology or philosophy, but what this means is not developed. The group decided to adopt Toulmin’s (1958) model as a heuristic lens, which had been adopted by the OARS project (https://oarseducation.com/) – a cross-disciplinary study of RE and science teachers at KS3 (Erduran et al. 2019). Toulmin did not define philosophical logic, but rather identified general features of argumentation within and across disciplines and practices. He highlighted its ‘field-invariant’ elements: a claim supported by evidence or data, justified by a warrant, but subject to rebuttal and qualification. This provided a coherent external framework to against which to review current pedagogy, and which had proved workable in schools.
Questions arising from the project:
There are still a lot of questions we all have about helping students to answer the evaluation essays. One issue is helping students to recognise the nature of the claim- is it about judging the importance of a belief or practice, or something very different? Secondly, what materials should students draw on for evidence and warrant? Surely not just texts from scripture and tradition- but what empirical evidence about, for example, the effectiveness of prisons as a means of punishment are relevant?
There are also aspects of the specification which need more detailed understanding in RS specifically such as ‘logical chains of reasoning’. The latter is also part of the A level Economics specification, but here it means analysing a possible sequence of consequences of a policy, for example. In RS it is more difficult to develop such a sequence.
Questions for discussion:
- What are the main challenges you experience as a teacher and your students as learners, regarding evaluative essay writing for GCSE in Religious Studies?
- What strategies have you adopted to help overcome these challenges? Are any of the resources below helpful to you?
Jessica Chan, Nigel Fancourt & Liam Guilfoyle. 2020. Argumentation in religious education in England: an analysis of locally agreed syllabuses, British Journal of Religious Education, DOI: 10.1080/01416200.2020.1734916
Erduran, S., L. Guilfoyle, W. Park, J. Chan and N. Fancourt. 2019. Argumentation and Interdisciplinarity: Reflections from the Oxford Argumentation in Religion and Science Project. Disciplinary and Interdisciplinary Science Education Research1 (8). https://diser.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/s43031-019-0006-9
Toulmin, S. 1958. The Uses of Argument. Cambridge: University Press.