Guest Blog by Head of Religious Studies Paul Forster

Common Sense

I have known Lisa since before she became a teacher, when she worked as a cashier on the checkouts at Makro. I can personally attest to the fact that her maths skills were less than perfect. Terrible in fact. So when she told me that she was writing a book about teaching Maths and Literacy across the curriculum, I was a little dubious.

Upon purchasing and reading a copy, I realised what she had produced was common sense. Using her disjointed school experience, she unpicks the problems faced by students in secondary schools. My eureka moment came when building a new fence in my garden. I measured the width, height and depth of the fence. I made a quick plan in my head and thought about what I would need to buy. To cut a long story short, I soon realised that I’d underestimated the amount of wood I needed, underestimated how many screws and nails I needed, and had mismeasured the height of the gate. After much coming and going to B&Q, my fence was up. However, as I had just read Manglish, I also realised how much maths I had needed in this project. If I’d actually used mathematics properly, I wouldn’t have made so many trips to B&Q. Like Lisa, I just didn’t get maths at school. Unlike Lisa however, I scraped a C grade first time and have made a concerted attempt to avoid it ever since (usually without much success).

Click the book to view more reviews on amazon

Lisa’s book is full of common sense. It makes me wonder why no one seems to have done it before. What she says is so embarrassingly obvious. What I have come to appreciate as an adult, is that the knowledge and skills required to be successful can be placed into neat little boxes or tubs like ‘PLaydoh’. No, they are more like that funny coloured brown blob you get when you’ve mixed all the ‘Playdoh’ together. We can make learning less brown and messy if we work together to make connections between subjects clear. There needs to be cross curricular collaboration in order to ensure that students not only develop the skills necessary but also come to appreciate the indivisible knowledge required to function in the 21st century.

Literacy in Religious Studies

Reading Manglish, I quickly began to see how it would work in my own school. I am Head of Religious Studies, Citizenship and PSHE at a school in Bedford. In terms of its intake the school has significantly lower prior attainment and higher than average percentage of students with English as an Additional Language and a higher than average number of pupils from a deprived background. It is with this in mind that our school has, in the last couple of years, begun to place a lot of emphasis on student progression and particularly developing the literacy of our students. Last year, our school decided to abolish the GCSE Short Course Citizenship and Religious Studies and replace it with the full course GCSE Religious Studies.

The Head Teacher gave me the challenge of using RS to specifically focus on the development of the writing skills of our students. Now this doesn’t faze me and it is something which I had spent the previous 12-18 months doing with the Short Course Citizenship anyway. As a result of this 59% of the final cohort had made at least 3 levels of progress in year 10 compared to a national average of 54% of year 11. Many classes did significantly better than this. In addition, I have had the opportunity to teach GCSE English language this year which has opened my eyes to how writing is taught and the terminology that is used in teaching writing. I have used this to develop my own teaching for literacy in Religious Studies. I am comfortable in teaching cross-curricular literacy and in helping the other team members to develop their skills too. Numeracy however, is a different matter.

Where’s the Maths in Religious Studies?

‘Numeracy’ is mentioned on the form that we use for lesson observations but I have generally ignored it for the past two years. After all, I teach Citizenship and Religious Studies so there is no maths in those subjects…is there? Now without meaning to offend many exceptionally talented colleagues, I am fairly certain that they probably have the same reaction too. So, like Lisa shows us in the opening of Manglish, I started with a question: “What mathematics do we find in Religious Studies?” The second question I posed was: “How is this relevant?” The question led me to discover that I have asked students to interpret statistics, draw graphs and pie charts, add, subtract and multiply calculate percentages, ratios, fractions and finally even trigonometry (if you’re really pushing it.). This was relevant mathematics, not a bolt on for observations but being taught by me day in day out.

Even in developing exam technique maths is involved. For example, there are four topics in each exam paper and 1 hour and 30 minutes to answer four questions. How long should you spend on each question? Within each question are four different sub questions worth a variety of marks. How long should you spend on each part? The GCSE consists of two papers. The total marks available are 168. How many do you need to get a C grade? What is this expressed as a percentage? In terms of teaching content, we have looked at statistics relating to immigration, the number of believers in the UK and the ethnic make-up of the UK. We have used surveys to find the opinions of their peers on issues such as whether God exists, transplant surgery, infertility treatment, attitudes to abortion, responsibility for the environment, bullying, the voting age and voting turnout out. In one lesson, we used this information and turned it into graphs and pie charts. This information can then be used when writing to argue, explain and to persuade others which are the skills the exam asks students to demonstrate. The advantage of using mathematics skilfully in this subject is that it is another way to communicate and interpret the world around them.

Essential Collaboration

The problem was, unlike literacy, I had no idea how Mathematics is taught or how students are taught to use it. Manglish is not about just doing great things as an individual. It is about collaboration and recognition of what children are learning in other subjects to enhance their understanding in yours. I approached the Head of Maths and asked him for some guidance about what I should be highlighting and what they could do with the numbers I was going to present to them. I wanted to make the maths obvious to the students too. I saw something interesting happen in my classroom. Students who are normally my stars looked slightly disturbed as I asked them to do dreaded ‘maths’. However, there were many others who are normally less than enthusiastic when asked to write about religion, now suddenly engaged and leading the discussion. I saw a whole new side to some of them that was positive and inspiring. It was also clear that the students knew a lot more than me! However, I am more than certain that if I received appropriate guidance and training from those ‘expert’ in the subject that what I could teach them would be useful and relevant. It is clear to me that Lisa’s approach is fundamentally right and sensible but it is also clear to me that as mere mortals, we need help to develop our confidence.

Beyond Mathematics and English, my experiences have got me thinking about what else can be done through a cross curricular approach. For example, our GCSE Religious Studies course also covers various ‘science’ topics including global warming, organ transplants, foetal development; euthanasia, and fertility treatment. Students often ask me ‘scientific’ questions about these topics and I am often unable to address these. How many science teachers get asked ethical questions about these areas and how do they feel about answering them? It is clear to me that cross-curricular collaboration is possible and necessary. However, in all of this, the big issue is with time. The ever precious resource that as teachers we never have enough of and always need more of. There needs to be a whole school ‘buy-in’ to the approach suggested in ‘Manglish’ with appropriate time given to developing ALL teachers‘ skills and confidence in numeracy and literacy but also in creating the cross curricular links between the different ‘subjects. There also needs to be a commitment from teachers to work together.

In his book ‘The Talent Code’, Daniel Coyle talks about success coming from ‘deep practice’. That is the repetition and practising of skills. However before people will practice deeply they need a spark or ‘ignition’ that leads to motivation to keep trying to practice. With a shortage of Mathematical skills in the UK, it is clear that the current approach isn’t working. Many, like Lisa and I, are left so bewildered in Maths lessons that we fear Maths. This change of approach in teaching Maths, English and other subjects as suggested by Lisa, would actually create that spark that leads to greater motivation and interest within our young people. What it would certainly lead to though, is the repeated practising of these key skills and the forming of habit so that using Mathematics and English become fully ingrained into everyday teaching and learning so that they hold little or no fear for students and simply become a ‘normal’ part of life. (See ‘The Power of Habit’ by Charles Duhigg.’

I have loaned my copy of Manglish to our Head Teacher and I have been encouraging other members of the Senior Leadership Team to read it too. In the meantime I will continue to experiment and will encourage my team to do so too.

Oh yes before I forget…..how do you get trigonometry in? The Holy Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit are represented in a triangle! 1+1+1 = 1 Three equal parts one equal triangle. ( I told you I was pushing it!)