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:


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.


16 thoughts on “Which knowledge should you teach from the Bible?

  1. Hi! Just saw your post from a Facebook link. I really agree with what you have to say. I think your point about cumulative knowledge makes a great deal of sense – and generalises beyond RS. My particular interest is in developing essay writing, which I believe, faces similar challenges to those to which you allude.

    Keep the posts coming!


  2. As you say, not possible to cover everything. The meaning in the Bible, for Christians, does depend on the sequence of events. There is a coherence in the story line, with Christianity being rooted in the historicity of the narrative. Many of the New Testament events derive their full meaning only in the light of Old Testament events. With that in mind, I personally think that the calling of Abram and the story of Joseph are more pivotal than Cain and Abel, and the Near sacrifice of Isaac. (and I assume that the burning bush also covers the Exodus?). It would also be useful to end with the life of Paul, I think (the first to take Christianty out to non-Jews).

    As an aside, what translation of the Bible do you use? (I am guessing not the KJV)


    • Thanks for your response, I’m pleased you enjoyed it. I agree with you about Cain and Abel; there are more significant stories in the OT. But I thought it was referenced quite a lot in literature/popular culture which pushed me to include it. I think you’re right about Paul as well but, as ever, you can’t include everything.

      I use the Good News in class (because it’s accessible) but I’m in favour of some KJ translations when pupils are older and in a better position to make sense of them.


      • I personally like the NIV; accessible, but retains some of the KJV ‘weight’ of language. But, KJV has a wider resonance.

        On the issue of scepticism, I would prefer if a unit on humanism was taught, and a remark made about what others believe, rather than declare the various texts as the works of man. But, then, I am a believer ( 🙂 ).


  3. Thanks for sharing. I am attempting to incorporate an important ‘hierarchy’ of knowledge into my new schemes without levels for September.

    One feature will be to find out what the students already know when they start a topic. There is no point spending lessons repeating what they already know but with such a variance at key stage 1&2 this will be a huge challenge to then plan a lesson.


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  5. I’m a science teacher and an atheist, but found this very interesting. My eldest is still in KS2 so I’m afraid my memories of being in RE lessons are the only experience I can draw on for what I see as an important question. Where in this scheme would you explain to students the context of the stories? By that I mean the documented earlier versions (eg of the flood) and the disagreements on the dating of the gospels? I know that it’s something I was never exposed to at school.


    • Hi Ian, I’m pleased you found it interesting. As an agnostic and sceptic myself, I agree with you that some more context is needed. I’m very lucky to work at a school where we think about how to dovetail our curricula. In history I teach about Mesopotamia and include the Epic of Gilgamesh, where most scholars think the flood narrative was taken from. So I make a big song and dance early doors about the way in which scripture ‘justifying the ways of God to Man’ is still a human creation. In Year 9, I plan on creating a unit of work on scepticism where I hope to introduce pupils to biblical criticism such as the ‘Q’ hypothesis as well as some philosophers.


      • Thanks for the response – as parents we’ve so far found that RE is very one-sided, but maybe things will improve at secondary. I shafts find it interesting that in history we were explicitly taught about primary vs secondary sources etc, but nothing in RE!

        As a science teacher, I’ve had some interesting conversations – I’m sure you can imagine! One was with a biology colleague who was asking for suggestions to explain evolution in a way religious students might find less threatening. A topic on scepticism sounds interesting – bet the BHA ideas would be useful.


  6. I teach at a special school and we introduced a Biblical literature unit in ks3 English this year. From the list suggested above, we read creation and fall (including Cain and Abel), and the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus (plus the last supper). We also looked at Joseph (through the musical) – and students went on to make relevant links between his betrayal by his brothers and that of Jesus by one of the 12. I also felt it was appropriate to familiarise students with the 23rd Psalm (which they might encounter at a wedding or funeral), so we looked at a variety of translations and paraphrases (from Old English onwards). We also explored ideas of personified evil and heaven, which we will pick up again when studying science fiction. In an accompanying drama unit we tried out mystery plays (which enabled us also to revisit their knowledge of the Christmas stories), and which we will reflect back on when studying Macbeth.

    A member of SLT subsequently voiced their opinion at a book scrutiny that we should have done creation stories from different cultures rather than only Christian stories!


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  8. Hi,

    I really enjoy reading your posts and this one in particular has made me think. I’m a Y5 teacher at a primary school in the north east, and my training on RE teaching culminated 6 hours over three years at university. I’m really keen on developing my practice across the ‘foundation’ subjects, and planning next year’s curriculum, I am thinking carefully about the proposals in this post.

    Having taught in Y5 this year, and been quite surprised by the lack of bible knowledge among the pupils, I am keen to fill this gap. Would you advocate teaching the same list to upper key stage 2 pupils all at once, or perhaps concentrate on Old Testament stories first, then New Testament later in the year? Would you look at the ‘learning about’ and ‘learning from’ elements in your lessons, or do you use a different pedagogy?

    Thanks in advance for any advice you can give,



    • Hi Marco, pleased to be able to help. Generally, I’d advocate teaching stories from the Bible in chronological order. Start with the Creation, move trough the Old Testament and do the New Testament later on. I find ‘learning about’ and ‘learning from’ very unhelpful categories. In my view, there are two things that are important: what the story IS and what the story MEANS. So, what is the story of the Good Samaritan? And why is it so important for Christians? What does it tell us about what Christians value and how they try and live their lives? In primary, the emphasis should be on the story itself and making sure they can remember it. But, if you think they’re up to it, you should definitely push them to consider what it means to Christians. Does that help?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks, I appreciate the advice! I like your take on the pedagogy too. I’m always up for pushing the pupils so will definitely be challenging them to explore the meaning of the stories and understand their relevance. Thanks again for the advice, I’m hoping to use some of your ideas for developing geographical knowledge too!


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