Using active learning to motivate disaffected students and their RE teachers

It’s the last half term of the year and we’re all exhausted. Some of you have had the added strains of exams this term,and motivating yourself to put extra effort into lessons seems like the last thing you ever want to do! Lessons become stale, report-writing takes over, behaviour goes awry, and we just can’t wait until the Summer break.

But in my experience, it’s here where we need to dig in. Students will thank you and even the most disaffected of RE teachers will enjoy teaching RE!


“Tell me, I’ll forget. Show me, I’ll remember. Involve me, I’ll understand.” Chinese proverb.


Much of our traditional schooling is based on an educational paradigm that has been around since the Industrial Revolution- the purpose of education was to prepare people for jobs on assembly lines. Here’s where the organised classroom was developed, where students sat and received their training from a skilled teacher. But times have changed in the last decades, and education has and must move on.

It is necessary for students to be involved in their learning, instead of having topics and concepts spoon-fed to them. I have found out that active learning benefits teachers and students. Active learning takes pupils from being passive recipients of knowledge to becoming active participants. It involves anything where students are doing things and thinking about what they are doing.

If we want excellent learning to take place (collaboration, motivation, emotionally intelligent, creative thinkers, students involved and participating, curious, questioning etc.) we need to ensure these processes can take place in our classrooms.

Think about your favourite lessons and experiences as a child. Some of our best memories will vividly recall scents, intense feelings, sights and sounds. Active RE lessons involving the senses can evoke memories in their learning; the bitter herbs at Pesach, the call to prayer being played, incense sticks being burned can bring a new dimension to their learning.

I have found that students remember best when they’ve had an experience. They may not remember everything about the festival of Rosh Hashanah, but my year 6s can tell me all about dipping apple into honey at Jewish New Year. They may never pilgrimage to a distant country, but year 8s can tell me how it felt to be dressed in Ihram, throwing stones (things that have upset them rolled up into little balls) at my makeshift devils. They may not pray to a God, but year 7s are able to explain how it feels to be forgiven when they put their Alka Seltzer tablets into the water and watched their ‘naughty thoughts’ bubble up and disappear.

Neuroscience has revealed that our brains are flexible. Brain plasticity means that our brains are physically altered by experiences as connections are made between neurones. These connections grow stronger if the experience is repeated- rather like paths through the woods: at first a new action or piece of knowledge is difficult to learn, as if you have to push your way through the undergrowth. Gradually, as you repeat the action or go over the knowledge, it becomes easier, until eventually the connection is so strong that you can perform the action or recall the information without effort. Active learning can thus be of huge benefit.

Active learning has become a vital element of our RE curriculum. Being creative in your RE teaching is not an easy ride, especially at this time of year, but boy does it pay off! My classroom has been turned into a Jewish synagogue, a Sikh Gurdwara and a Muslim Mosque. My school is predominantly white British, with less than 5% practising a faith. Seeing the faces of the pupils arriving at your classroom is priceless, and hearing that it was “the best lesson ever” as they leave, makes traipsing around the local markets and charity shops worth it.

There are many ways you can get creative in your lessons- art, drama, poetry and re-enactments are only some of the ways that the pupils choose to show their learning. They might perform modern day parables and psalms, write poems about sharing the world, create alternative endings to stories, make social media pages for characters they’ve studied, collaborate on news reels and film making, or spend time in stilling activities or guided meditations. We have held silent art galleries, had pilgrimages around the school, taken part in debates, created models from plasticine and shared karah prashad (a Sikh pudding distributed to the congregation). Candles are regularly lit for reflection times, music is played for atmosphere, and they have put stones into water to symbolise their sins being washed away.

By the way, while active learning can be busy and noisy, Susan Cain in her book, ‘Quiet’, points out that we must not forget the introverts in the classroom. Active learning does not have to include lots of talking but can also allow for reflection and thought. Indeed, research done shows that brainstorming does not produce as much creativity as individuals thinking for themselves.

When other teachers are complaining that they just can’t wait for the holidays as their students are unwilling to learn, be ready to keep your students’ attention and motivation because you’ve been willing to put effort in. I’d like to thank the Farmington Institute for giving me the time to research.


Written by Sarah Payne, South Central Regional Ambassador for NATRE’s RE in your Region project. Sarah is a teacher with 19 years’ experience, she leads teams teaching RE and PSHCE, as well as coordinating British Values, Pupil Premium and SMSC in previous roles. Find out more about Sarah on her Ambassador profile page. You can follow her on Twitter on @SPayneRE

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