Updated: Mar 8, 2020
What’s next for RE in Norfolk?
In a word; Philosophy. The need for a significant academic investment is needed in Norfolk schools starting with training teachers in Philosophy.
For over a year Norfolk, in particular schools in the control of the Diocese of Norwich, have been delving into the subject of RE as explored through three academic lenses. Namely; Theology, Philosophy and the Human and Social Sciences. This three lens approach is now firmly established in the new Norfolk Agreed Syllabus 2019, in place in schools from September 2020. The work of Dr. Kathryn Wright et al. is a direct response to the RE Commision Report, and Norfolk SACRE have written an agreed syllabus (with exemplar support material) that seeks to bring religious literacy to children living in an ever changing world.
During the Syllabus launch, held at the PDC in Norwich on the 1st November, I delivered a workshop aimed at starting a conversation about how to use the syllabus to plan and adjust RE curriculums in KS2 settings. The three lenses have added a serious layer of complexity to the planning and teaching of RE in Norfolk schools and although the core knowledge hasn’t changed very much, how we communicate and study it has.
Theology has long been a central part of RE and with the introduction of Understanding Christianity resources used in Norfolk Schools and beyond many teachers are comfortable interpreting holy texts, particularly the Bible. The need to engage with other sacred texts is a natural next step for teachers at this point but something I will not pursue further in this article.
The other lens that many teachers will be comfortable with is the Human and Social Sciences lens. Looking through this lens we are encouraged to see the effects of religion in the real world and the impact of religion on people in their everyday lives. This is a lens that every RE teacher will have been looking through for quite a while and is probably the most common way to observe and understand religion in an increasingly secular world.
There is one more lens that teachers must become familiar with and that is, it seems from my observations and conversations at the launch event and beyond, one that needs the most attention. Becoming familiar with and therefore equipped to teach Philosophy demands a significant academic investment from schools, teachers themselves and ultimately children. At a time when school budgets are stretched Heads are looking for more ‘bang for their buck’ and they will not find a more enriching way to look at the world than that of the philosopher.
The phrase ‘Thinking Through Thinking’ is the one picked out in the agreed syllabus to summarise the lens of Philosophy and this needs a little unpacking. The idea is simply to look at where knowledge and ideas come from, how we understand this world and whether there can, indeed, be another one. The question ‘Is believing in God reasonable?’ can be found in the core questions of the new syllabus and there cannot be a more exciting question for a philosopher to engage in. This question is also a wonderfully simple one. Indeed, the origins of philosophy are rooted in what it is like to be a child. Philosophy asks those questions we think might be impolite as adults, it asks if miracles are possible rather than simply assuming there aren’t or that it is simply a matter of Biblical authority and therefore belief. Indeed, philosophy questions authority at every turn but not in a petulant, contrarian way. Philosophy, when taught from a foundational starting point, such as the Socratic method, teaches and refines good old honest, childlike curiosity. That question that adults are meant to stereotypically hate; ‘Why?’ should now become music to your ears. ‘Why?’ is the very essence of philosophy and is traceable in its very roots.
The word ‘Philosophy’ means love of wisdom. This is not the same as love of knowledge nor is it the same as love of the truth. Wisdom is something greater and prepares children for life in a more profound way and serves to complement and frame a knowledge rich education. Something that I have always encouraged in my classroom is a healthy scepticism; the idea that things should not be taken at face value. The Royal Society, which can boast such alumni as Sir Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle had a great motto; Nullius in verba which translates to ‘on the word of no one’ and this seems like a great place to start from when it comes to studying anything. Questioning everything to see if it’s true leads to a real understanding of the thing you’re looking at. The Royal Society was famous for its member’s scientific advancements but during Newton’s day science was called ‘natural philosophy’ and was just a part of something greater that seems to have all but vanished from popular culture and education.
The age old quote from Socrates has never been more apt ‘The only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing’ and this is a wonderful place to start when it comes to any subject. We talk about children not understanding number in maths and see that they can’t make 10 out 3 and 7 because they haven’t yet thought about the oneness of one. This is a philosophical realisation that comes from practical observation as well as some internal mental processing. This is the place where the world and philosophy meet. The processes of reasoning, thinking, establishing cause and effect, explaining the connotations of words, studying how we think and whether we are correct, where proof comes from, what knowledge is and how it is arrived at; all of these things are vital to all aspects of education and are essentially philosophical pursuits. I firmly believe that if we want the children in our classes to understand things in a foundational sense and then later use and recall these lessons in life (as well as to an OFSTED inspector) they must have an understanding of philosophy because everything else will flow from this.
I would argue that a child cannot become moral until they know what morality is and where rules come from. This is philosophy and it may lead you to Theology and the Human and Social Sciences too. During our study of Religious Education we have the privilege of asking children these wonderful questions and when a 7 year old gives you an answer that could have come out of the mouth of an Ancient Greek genius then you’ll know how important this lens is.
Next, the teachers of Norfolk will need to engage with the philosophical questions found in the New Norfolk Agreed Syllabus 2019 and this will take two things. One is research. At the bottom of this article there is a list of places to start from including Podcasts and Youtube videos that will quickly help you improve your knowledge of the philosophers. Two is reaching out to other RE leaders and schools to form solid academically motivated networks. These networks are already in existence and need new members all the time. They are a place for comparison, exchange and motivation.
‘In Our Time Philosophy’ for BBC podcasts on philosophy - this is also great for other disciplines as it’s split into subjects like history, politics etc
RE:Online which has loads of links to resources
Crash Course Philosophy on YouTube - 5min videos about all the things you will need to cover in RE and rundowns of the work of great philosophers
TEDeD talks which are short but also link to free lessons on a chosen philosopher or branch of philosophy - this one is about Plato https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jLesc5lITvo
‘Philosophize This’ podcast.