Developing your subject knowledge

There is an old adage that you are never too old to learn. I am a passionate RE teacher at heart and love acquiring new information about people’s lives. Every week is a new opportunity in my 30-year career to learn more about my specialist subject ‘Religion and Worldviews’. This last week I had the pleasure of running a tour of five places of worship for faith leaders in Newham as it was Interfaith week. I knew that there would be lots of new learning for them, but I did wonder whether there would be any for me!

I shouldn’t have worried as there was. I found out that Buddhist monks and nuns are not allowed a mirror in their bedrooms. Now I have visited and spoken with many Buddhist monks and nuns over many years but didn’t know this fact. It makes sense if you are trying to not be attached to life here, looking in the mirror and concentrating on your outward appearance wouldn’t be helpful. I could see immediately using a covered mirror in a RE lesson, and asking pupils why a Buddhist might not look in a mirror? Great speculation task potentially, with the answer being able to be revealed.

On the tour we also visited St Mary’s Magdalene Church in East Ham which was built by the Cistercian Monks in the 12th century and I got to see original decorations painted on the walls of the church by the monks (simple and beautiful flowers) and again was awed at the fact that there has been a worshipping community on that site for over 900 years. Finally, I got to enjoy Langar at the Gurdwara we visited and a piece of Guru Nanak’s 550th birthday cake – which was along with the rest of the meal very yummy! Each visit built on my subject knowledge and got me to consider what was important to the lives of the people who come into these buildings to meditate or worship daily, and I beg you the experiences will have enhanced my knowledge and therefore my command of what I choose to teach.

It is essential for us as teachers that we continue to add to and develop our subject knowledge in RE – otherwise, I believe that we will short-change the pupils that we teach. Research tells us that when teachers are not confident in their RE subject knowledge they tend to keep to simple activities around retelling, right & wrong questions, and simple comprehension. These activities do not help pupils to really get the flavour of why people chose or choose to live in certain ways – we need to apply facts and information to 21st-century life, and ask pupils to analyse, compare and contrast their learning if RE is to be challenging and effective. Thankfully it seems Ofsted are starting to ask these types of questions in RE deep dives. I think as hard as this will be in the short term, in the long-term having conversations about education and having the expectation that teachers will do what our teaching standards say is positive.

‘Demonstrate good subject and curriculum knowledge, have a secure knowledge of the relevant subject(s) and curriculum areas, foster and maintain pupils’ interest in the subject, and address misunderstandings.’.

But where to start? Here are places I have found helpful:

I am reminded of the words of John F Kennedy “The greater our knowledge increases, the greater our ignorance unfolds.” Adding to our subject knowledge is a lifetime of work, but I hope you will agree with me that a passionate, knowledgeable teacher is always who I want to be taught by.

Written by Claire Clinton, RE advisor to Newham, Barking and Dagenham and NATRE RE ambassador for London @ClaireClinton67


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