Asking Better Questions in RE

Asking Better Questions In RE

This post is based on the talk I gave on 7 July 2020 at The Big Think teach meet, organised by Jo McShane, Senior Lecturer in Education and RE PGCE Lead at Sunderland University.

Teaching RE is and always has been a tricky business. Unlike most other subjects, where the topics are purely academic, RE brings with it a lot of very important baggage. I don’t mean baggage in the negative sense, although it can sometimes feel that way when things go wrong in the classroom. Instead, I mean that alongside the academic aspect of RE, there is also an intensely ‘personal’ aspect too.

RE has always been, for better or worse, THE subject that stirs up controversy. For one thing, it’s a statutory requirement to teach it in England. This sets some people’s teeth on edge (and not just atheists), as they often think that the time spent studying RE should be spent on other subjects that are “more worthwhile”, whatever that means to them (practical? career-related?).

Secondly, some people argue that RE shouldn’t be taught at all, as it involves the promotion, or at least the consideration, of beliefs that not everyone holds. Faith schools suffer this criticism the hardest of course, as they seek not only to inform, but also, to varying degrees, to evangelise and promote their own beliefs and practices.

Thirdly though, RE is often delivered by schools as an afterthought and not given the attention it deserves, regarding timetabled hours, specialist teachers, or is combined with other subjects like PSHE and Citizenship, removing RE’s distinctive nature and effectively diluting it and removing what makes it fascinating.

It is in reply to these issues that I write this post. RE is an incredible subject, worthy of study in its own right and is equal to, if not more important than other core subjects like English and Maths. This is a bold claim, but hear me out, I’ve spent my whole teaching career so far (since 2006) contemplating this idea. And we all know how much RE teachers love to contemplate. Anyway, I’ll get to that bit later on.

Right now, I want you to think about questioning. What questions do we ask in RE? Do we ask the right questions? Do we ask our questions in the right way? Why are we asking questions at all? These questions themselves are incredibly important, because in general, if you want to get better answers from your students, you really should ask better questions. But what does that look like?

What questions do we ask in RE?

In RE, we ask a lot of different types of questions. Some are purely academic, some much more vocational, often they are practical and more often than not they are philosophical, at least on some level. Understanding this whole range of question types and knowing when and how to ask better questions makes your day as an RE teacher fly by. By asking the right questions, in the right way, to the right students, at the right time, you create vibrant discussions and delve deeper and deeper into the lives and beliefs of people all over the world, but also and crucially, in your own classroom.

On the other hand, asking the wrong questions, at the wrong time, or to the wrong person and in the wrong way, can have devastating effects. The consequence of getting this wrong in RE is so much worse than if a teacher of Physics got it wrong. Not because Physics matters less, it’s clearly vital to have at least an appreciation of light, motion, forces, etc. It isn’t something someone is likely to be bullied for though. Unlike Physics, which is purely “physical” (the clue is in the name), RE explores the lives, beliefs, practices and motivations of people. It is spiritual, psychological, emotional. Students often cover up these hidden aspects of their lives between 9am and 3pm, for fear that they will be outed as different in some way. In RE you must ask your questions with extra care.

The types of questions, whether in examination papers, or in the classroom, vary tremendously, from straightforward definitions and descriptions of festivals, to explanations of beliefs and practices, to moral dilemmas and the value of religion in the 21st century.

But does it matter which of these we ask? It’s not as straightforward as yes or no. Clearly there are some topics which seem more central than others, so questions should be asked about those. But no matter what you decide to put in your curriculum, there will always be gaps. We just can’t teach all the intricacies of all the major world religions in a way that does them justice. Something has to give. But with carefully chosen questions, we can at least give students an excellent working knowledge of RE, that will help them navigate the subject, and their lives, with greater ease, satisfaction and joy.

It’s important to understand the different question-types that we use in RE, to ensure that we can deepen our students knowledge whilst helping them to understand the personal implications, socially, psychologically and spiritually, of the topics we teach. Using a broad range of question-types also helps us to identify gaps, not only in attainment, but also in our own curriculum, as we often realise that we’ve assumed prior learning has happened, when in fact it may not have done (even when we’ve taught it).

Why do we ask questions?

There are two main reasons why we ask questions.

Firstly, to get our students to think. If we want our students to build up both a good working and long-term memory of interconnected ideas, then we need them to think. Memory is the residue of thought, after all. I call these “thinking” questions.

Secondly, we ask questions to check understanding. This is an important distinction to make. These two reasons for asking questions are the ones that matter the most, when it comes to teaching. I call these “assessment” questions.

But, when it comes to asking these types of questions in class, we must be mindful of our reasons. It’s very easy to slip into a questioning style that looks like we are checking understanding, when actually we aren’t. Take for example, a typical lesson, where students have completed a task. You then ask a verbal question to the class, supposedly to check understanding. One student raises their hand politely and gives the correct answer. You ask the rest of the class, “does that make sense?”, to which they all reply “Yes”. In your head, as a teacher, you feel like you’ve completed that section of the lesson and can move on to the next one, confident that your job is done.

Except it isn’t. You can’t know that your job is done, because you only really know that one student out of thirty knows the answer. You might have caused the rest of the class to think, rather than assess them. You don’t have that information though from the questioning method you used.

Deep Singh Ghataura (@DSGhataura), someone who you really should follow on Twitter, if you’re interested in assessment says this: When you’re assessing students, you really must ask yourself two questions:

  1. What do I want this assessment to tell me?
  2. Given everything I know about learning, performance, memory and bias, how likely is it that this assessment satisfies Q1?

You absolutely must, therefore ensure that you do not make inferences that aren’t supported by the assessment data, e.g. that ALL students know “x”, just because one student showed they knew it.

This is why Professor Dylan Wiliam (@dylanwiliam) advocates the use of hinge questions in your lesson, to check whether or not the class is ready to move on to the next thing. A hinge is a point in a lesson when a teacher needs to check whether or not students have grasped a key concept and are ready to move on to study another.

There are different ways you can use hinge questions in your lessons, some involving tech platforms like Plickers (show example on slide) and some simply using good old fashioned pen and paper/post-its.

A quick way to check understanding is by using a short multiple-choice question, or set of questions. Every student has to answer them independently and present their answers to the teacher, who can then see, at a glance, who has fully understood. The key to this is to ensure that students do not just copy their friends’ answers, as this invalidates the data you get.

You don’t need a 100% “pass rate” in order to move on, but you need it to be high enough that you are able to spend time with those who didn’t fully understood, whilst the rest of the class moves on. I’d recommend 90% or higher in most cases, given a class of thirty, as you may not have enough time to re-teach more than a small number of students the information, whilst making sure the new task is supported for the rest of the class.

For advanced questioners, I would recommend adding to at least one of your multiple-choice answers, a red-herring or a common misconception, as well as a slightly more obviously (to you) wrong answer. This does two things. It helps to show not only who got the right answer, but also, who nearly got it right and finally who just didn’t have a clue. Of course, some students may just guess correctly, but they won’t get away with it that easily, as this won’t be the only time you ask this multiple choice question, or variation of it. Remember: the most questions you ask, the more likely and more often the “correct-guessers” will be revealed, distinguishing them from the truly knowledgable.

Dylan Wiliam goes further and says that the crucial thing about creating useful hinge questions is that “kids cannot get it right for the wrong reason.” If they can, then you need to ask a better question, one that distinguishes between students who understand and students who don’t.

The key to this is designing your questions, carefully, in advance of the lesson. You don’t have the time to examine every students’ reasoning for each question you ask. The question should do it for you. Plan your questions in advance and remember, are you trying to assess your students’ knowledge or are you trying to get them to think? This might determine which questions you should ask them.

Useful question types to use in RE

  • Rank the order questions
  • Enquiry Questions
  • Ultimate Questions
  • Open and Closed Questions (BOTH are extremely useful)
  • Moral dilemma questions
  • Interpretation questions
  • Comparison questions

A question you should ask (and also have a good answer to)

Why should we study RE?

For me, RE is the one subject which speaks not only to what is out there in the world and beyond (or not out there at all, depending on your faith-position), but it speaks to the nature of your own existence and purpose in the world. This can be attempted in a biological sense in Science lessons, but Science can only explain the “how” and not the “why” of existence.

Asking “How did we get here?” is not the same as asking “Why are we here?” The first question is scientific, or even historical. The second question requires us to think about our purpose, our motivations, what we ought to be doing, rather than simply what we are doing. It invites us to examine our lives as persons, not just as a species or category of life-forms.

The study of RE encourages us to pursue what distinguishes us from the animal kingdom (so far as we know) and to explore what Aristotle described as the “intellectual virtues” and to be self-reflective, treading the virtuous middle path between the vices of excess and deficiency. This is what it means to be human beings, in the fullest sense, as persons, not just mammals with a particular genetic code. We are emotional, critical and social. But we are also story-tellers and empathisers. We judge ourselves and others on factors not linked to the basics of survival, sex and food. We plan for the long-term (not just within one lifetime either) and not just for immediate gain. We search for meaning, beyond the empirical and the immediately obvious.

We can, of course, find isolated examples of this sort of behaviour in the natural world, but nowhere near the same scale and with the same regularity that humans do it. We’re more than just biological creatures. Comparing humans and animals is like comparing a 10-second doodle on a napkin to Michelangelo’s frescos on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Sure, the doodle might have some interesting or redeeming feature, but really, there’s no contest.

If you would like a copy of my presentation on Asking Better Questions in RE (to accompany this blogpost), then just contact me on Twitter and I’ll get back to you.

You can find me on Twitter @guruteaching. Say hi!

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