In my last post I posed the question ‘Why should we teach about the Bible?’ I made the argument that:
- You need to have a basic knowledge of the Bible to be genuinely fluent in the English language;
- An understanding of Bible stories functions like keys that open doors in other subjects;
- 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.
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:
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.
- The Fall. Pupils need to understand that Christians believe Adam and Eve’s sin created a barrier in the relationship between God and humankind.
- Abraham and Near Sacrifice of Isaac. Pupils should have some understanding of the ritual of animal sacrifice in the Old Testament.
- 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.
- 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.