Which knowledge should you teach from the Bible?

In my last post I posed the question ‘Why should we teach about the Bible?’ I made the argument that:

  1. You need to have a basic knowledge of the Bible to be genuinely fluent in the English language;
  2. An understanding of Bible stories functions like keys that open doors in other subjects;
  3. These stories should be taught simply because they represent some of the best that has been thought and said: the thought-castles of antiquity.

In this blog, I’m going to go into a bit more detail about which knowledge I would choose to teach from the Bible and why deliberate cumulative sequencing is needed to prevent the Matthew Effect.

Which knowledge?

Teachers in the humanities often have to teach their subjects with only an hour a week (or less) in KS3. This is the elephant in the room: we can talk all we want about all the things we could do in our curricula, but if we only have an hour a week to deliver the best our subject has to offer then this obvious practical constraint must fundamentally shape our priorities.

In my last post I explained why I thought that Bible stories should be the first thing on any religion teacher’s scheme of work. The table below is what I would argue is the bare minimum of what a child should know about the Christian Bible.

Lesson (1hr) Old Testament New Testament
1 How to use a Bible Groups around at the time of Jesus
2 Creation Birth of Jesus
3 The Fall Parable of the Good Samaritan
4 Cain and Abel Parable of the Prodigal Son
5 Near Sacrifice of Isaac Jesus heals a paralysed man
6 Moses and the Burning Bush Jesus is sentenced and crucified
7 The Ten Commandments Jesus’ resurrection

There are some obvious omissions, but you can’t do everything. If you’re someone who looks at this list and thinks it’s just bleeding obvious (warning – it is) then you’re definitely someone who has benefitted from knowing it already. Like money, it’s easy to be complacent about knowledge when you have lots of it.

But shouldn’t they know this already? Surely they do this in primary school? This a bit like saying that children should know their timetables before coming up to secondary school: they should, but they don’t. You either: a) say that such knowledge is not worthy of study b) stick your head in the sand and hope that Ofsted isn’t interested in your curriculum (it isn’t), or c) teach it explicitly at KS3. As tempting as option B is, we have to choose the latter.

Part of the reason for this is not just because I think these are pleasant little stories to ease children into Year 7. It’s because I believe they need this knowledge to be able to make meaning out of new knowledge. If you want to teach religion at KS3 that is genuinely challenging, and not just the ‘colour in a mosque/twitter feed from the cross’ variety, then you have to give pupils a schema from which they can start to make meaningful judgements. Then you need to make sure they remember it. ‘Analysis’, ‘evaluation’ and the phantasmagoria of ‘higher order skills’ simply do not exist outside of it.

Deliberate cumulative sequencing 

This is one reason why the deliberate cumulative sequencing of a unit of work is so important: teachers often underestimate the wealth of knowledge needed for analysis.

‘For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken even that which he hath.’ – Matthew 25:29 

How apt, then, that Stanovich, described the tendency for slow readers to increasingly fall behind their peers as the ‘Matthew Effect’. Stanovich suggests that slow reading ability inhibits the development of other cognitive skills and affects performance on other academic tasks. The opposite is also true: strong reading abilities allow the development of cognitive skills and enhance academic performance. In short, advantage begets advantage.

This is something I spoke to David Ashton (@thegoldencalfre) about when he came to watch me teach a lesson on the sentence, crucifixion and burial of Jesus. This is the textbook that I used for the lesson – Susan Grenfell’s ‘Religious Studies for Common Entrance’. Common Entrance is an exam taken by those leaving independent prep schools hoping to get into public (private) schools. If you have any doubts as to academic level of (some) privately educated 12 year-olds then have a look at this:

photo

The first thing you’ll notice is the level of vocabulary expected of the reader. Words like ‘blasphemy’, ‘atonement’, ‘sacrifice and ‘sin’ point to a pre-existing schema that is both rich and cumulative. There is a core body of knowledge that must be learnt before pupils can make any sense of the significance of Jesus’ death for Christians today. I’ve marked these in red on the picture.

  1. The Fall. Pupils need to understand that Christians believe Adam and Eve’s sin created a barrier in the relationship between God and humankind.
  1. Abraham and Near Sacrifice of Isaac. Pupils should have some understanding of the ritual of animal sacrifice in the Old Testament.
  1. Groups around at the time of Jesus. Pupils need to know that the Romans controlled Jerusalem and that the local administrator was Pontius Pilate. They also need to know about Jesus’ relationship with the Jewish authorities.
  1. Jesus heals a paralysed man. Pupils should know that Jesus claimed he was equal to God and had the power to forgive sins. This led to accusations of blasphemy from the Jewish authorities.

To teach in a way that challenges our pupils, a body of knowledge must be presupposed. It is what this story means for Christians that is worthy of study, not the order of events or who said what to whom. But the knowledge the pupils need to approach such analysis must be explicitly taught, sequenced and tested for recall. If we are to avoid the Matthew Effect in our classrooms then we cannot just hope that our pupils arrive at our lesson with this schema already place; we must know that it is. If we cannot, then we allow ourselves to become bite-size teachers teaching bite-size knowledge and getting bite-size thinking for our troubles.

Why would you teach about the Bible?

I posed this question on Twitter the other day: ‘Why would you start your religion curriculum with anything other than Bible stories?’ In this blog, I will make the argument that:

  1. A basic knowledge of the Christian Bible is needed to be genuinely fluent in the English language.
  2. Knowledge and understanding of these stories is necessary to access a range of other disciplines: English literature, history, art and music, to name the most obvious.
  3. Together, they represent some of the most powerful stories ever written.

Literacy

‘No one in the English-speaking world can be considered literate without a basic knowledge of the Bible’ – E. D. Hirsch

One of the lesser-known appendices to Hirsch’s tome ‘The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy’ is ‘Appendix B: Supplement on Biblical Literacy’. That Hirsch did not include biblical literacy in the body of his work can in part be explained by the complicated relationship between religion and the State in American public life. I’m not going to delve into that philosophical bear pit right now. What is important here is that Hirsh does not see teaching about the Bible as an apologetic activity: for him, and for me, teaching about the Bible is something that we do because it produces ‘literate and historically informed citizens.’ I think there is more to it than that, but I’ll explain more about that further on.

exodusnw For the moment, stop to consider the number of allusions made to biblical stories in newspapers, books or in casual conversation. You’ll see the extent to which knowledge and understanding of such references dramatically affects our comprehension – a point that Daisy Christodoulou and others have made much more effectively than I can. Consider, for example, this cover of ‘Newsweek’ last year.

Add to this some of the phrases that we use in our everyday speech. Consider, for example, what it means, literally and figuratively, to cite ‘chapter and verse’. Or what it means to say someone is a Good Samaritan? Or – as Colonel Tim Collins warned his troops before the Second Gulf War – to take care not to take life needlessly for fear of the ‘Mark of Cain’? In each case, a basic knowledge of a biblical story dramatically empowers the listener. When I read Tim Collins’ speech for the first time (and I’d thoroughly recommend you do) I couldn’t help wonder whether all of his soldiers would have understood this reference, and how damaging their ignorance of this might have been.

Knowledge

I also think that Bible stories make the teaching of other subjects more enriching. I am very fortunate to be at a school where we think very hard about curriculum design and how we can dovetail subjects that are too often considered to be totally discrete. You can read more about this in Joe Kirby’s blog here. I’m not going to spend the next 20,000 words writing a thesis on the myriad ways in which a basic knowledge of Bible stories supports teaching in other subjects. But here is one example:

Katie Ashford is currently teaching ‘Tyger, Tyger’ by William Blake to her Year 7 groups. This is a challenging poem to do with Year 7s. But it’s even more challenging if pupils’ knowledge of the Bible and Christian theology is so poor that they have no purchase on the poem. It’s for exactly this reason that many English teachers would shy away (I think understandably) from teaching it. This in turn impoverishes our curriculum, which in turn impoverishes their learning. In Katie’s case, the discussion was that much more enriching because of the knowledge the pupils brought into the lesson: they understood that the ‘Lamb’ was a metaphor for Jesus and why it is a symbol of innocence. What could have been a totally impenetrable poem was made that little bit easier because of the knowledge they had to bring to it.

Power

Most importantly, though, you should teach Bible stories because they are some of the most powerful stories that have ever been written.

Hirsch is right to say that children should learn about Bible stories because it makes them ‘literate and historically informed citizens’. But to justify their inclusion in the curriculum simply on these grounds is to neglect the intentions of their authors and power of their message. You do not have to believe in God to find the story of the near sacrifice of Isaac one of the most arresting in the whole of the human story. Such was Abraham’s devotion to God that he was prepared to sacrifice his only son. Now that’s something for the pupils to chew on. And if you can’t make a lesson on that interesting, frankly, you’re in the wrong job. Kierkegaard wrote a whole book about it – Fear and Trembling – in which, among other things, he seems to argue that Abraham was right to suspend the normal ethical rules because of his absolute devotion to God – what Kierkegaard calls the ‘teleological suspension of the ethical’. It is a terrifying argument: as powerful and pertinent now as it was when Kierkegaard first wrote it.

Next time, I’ll be discussing curriculum design in religion, how important this is, and suggesting some possible ways forward. I’ll be looking at the teaching of religions outside of the Judeo-Christian tradition and what ‘philosophy’ might look like at Key Stage 3.