Coaching Skills in Religious Studies
Updated: Jun 24, 2020
I have recently embarked on the terrifying process of supporting my 17-year-old as he learns to drive. Over Christmas, I decided to take my life in my hands and give him as chance to practice as much as possible. Our first trip out was a challenge for both of us!
I quickly realised that because he had had several lessons, I had assumed that he already had certain skills. I directed him from the passenger seat, assuming that he knew how to use the hand brake properly and understood what it was for or that he knew how to move into a right-hand lane when I asked him to make a right turn. These things were new for him and he had not mastered them enough to cope in a different car with his mother sat next to him!
We all do this to some extent when our students come into the Religious Studies classroom. We assume that since they have had RE in school before, they must understand certain basic vocabulary. They have been raised in a Christian country so they must know that Catholics are Christians. They have done their GCSE examinations so they must know how to write a coherent essay. It quickly becomes clear when they don’t know this, and everyone is frustrated. But if previous colleagues have also made these same assumptions about their students, then they may never have been taught some of these skills by anyone.
Over the years, I have observed that teaching any practical skill, be it driving, music or sport, involves key processes that are directly transferable to the Religious Studies classroom and that we sometimes could make more structured use of. I’d like to share with you, some of those processes from the practical arena and how we can use them effectively when teaching Religious Studies.
This is the part that we all do. It is the staple role that we revert to as teachers. When teaching my son how to use the handbrake, I chose first to explain the process. He didn’t like this. He was not convinced that there was any need to use the handbrake when finding the biting point. He saw his current method as being perfectly sufficient (first releasing the handbrake, getting into gear second, finding the biting point on the foot brake, and then moving to the accelerator to move off). He tried to do what I said but kept releasing the handbrake too early and driving off before we could go back a step and practice again.
All too often, we see this with students who are writing essays. We have given them instructions on how to evaluate. They may already think they know what evaluation is as they have tried to do it in the past. They follow their own routine and are resistant to exploring the methods we try and teach because they are new and there is a risk of looking silly if they get it wrong. Best to stick with what they think they know! So how do we move forward?
It is useful with a practical skill, to see it done well. I have watched endless sport videos on YouTube to help me imprint in my mind the movements I need to improve my swimming stroke or my climbing or lifting technique. My kids all listen to the music they are trying to learn to play when they are practising so that they can hear how it should sound. If we look on social media, the requests for exemplar responses are frequent as many of us try to build up banks of exemplar essays to give out. I have mixed feeling about this. I have noticed that if I overdo the demonstrating, it can quickly become demotivating. I end up telling myself that I can never be as good as that more accomplished or professional person. The result can be a tendency to give up quickly.
When teaching my eldest to use a handbrake, I chose to demonstrate effective use. He could see what I was doing differently, but he still couldn’t grasp why it was better than his own method of using the foot brake. I added in some explanation and showed him how there was a risk of rolling backwards on hills, or of stalling when preparing to move off, or of an uncontrolled lurch forwards into a pedestrian, but he was quite accomplished at doing it his own way, so didn’t see why I was fussing. Just seeing something done is quite different from actually being able to do it. Our students may still get marks for the work that they are doing and don’t see why we are pushing them to do things in a different, sometimes more difficult way.
Some useful ways to demonstrate:
· Demonstrate something that is wrong. So, give them an exemplar paragraph that has mistakes in it. Get them to spot the errors and suggest improvements.
· Give them a weak example and ask them to make suggestions about how to move it up by one band on the band descriptors. They can then re write the example on their own advice.
· Demonstrate paragraph structure in real time, on the white board in front of students. Encourage them to make up a question for you and then demonstrate in front of them how you would write just one paragraph. Talk about it as you go along, then ask them to analyse it. They spot what is good and bad, they offer suggestions about how to improve it and then they do this themselves.
· Give them an exemplar essay that is good but then, in pairs, ask them to work out what the good features are. E.g. they can spot that the writer used an example or showed more than one point of view.
There is a big difference between seeing something done, understanding how or why it is done and doing it. This is why the next stages are so important.
When learning any practical skill, it often must be broken down into its component parts before a student can understand how to fit it all together again. At the gym, learning dead-lifts, my PT went through firstly how to position my feet, then my knees, then back and shoulders before I could even lift the bar safely from the floor. Doing it wrong means a back injury. At the climbing wall I got some coaching, learning to use what are called ‘slopers’ which is code for ‘bits of plastic you hold with your hands that are so smooth you can’t grip them’! The coach taught me an acronym that reminded me how to hold my shoulders, my core, my mind and my balance before I tried each move. By breaking down a skill, we can more easily teach students how to achieve it. Rather than scaffolding the whole of my sons driving, I just focused on the one skill first of effective handbrake use. We addressed other skills on other days. I sat with my son in the drive and got him to practice using the handbrake without witnesses or the pressure of traffic. I talked him through it and got him to perform each stage, one bit at a time. Handbrake on, engage clutch, find biting point with accelerator, release handbrake, move off. We stopped then repeated, one step at a time until he had understood the routine.
Some useful ways to scaffold:
· Rather than structuring a whole essay, structure one paragraph. Look at how to write one effective evaluation paragraph and consider what features it should include.
· There are many structures out there – Point, Explain, Example, Link is a common one. Try out several and encourage the students to make the choice of which one feels the nicest to them. Get them to consider the pros and cons with each.
· Use a tick list of features rather than giving them a rigid recipe. So, somewhere each paragraph should have an example and an argument saying why the view is effective or ineffective, but how they put those features together is their choice.
· With stronger students, consider reducing the scaffolding so that they have the freedom to structure the work themselves once they are confident.
There is much work out there in the way of scaffolding in RS essays and I have written on it before. I strongly believe that our weak or beginner students benefit from this scaffolding when they are starting out or gaining confidence. Giving them a writing frame to start them off on how to write a response is so useful to make them feel successful. But it must eventually be removed to give that student the ability to make independent decisions or their work will become rigid and limited.
Each sloper hold is slightly different. I must remember my acronym, but I must change the way that I balance under it depending upon its shape or the slope of the wall. Each essay question is different and so good essays will adapt a structure to allow them to move and write freely in response to the question.
When learning a new skill sports coaches use drills that are useful to help us to master the techniques. In music, the musician must learn scales. In karate, one of my sons has set katas or movements that he must pace out. Teaching my eldest to drive has reminded me that he must drill the ‘mirrors, signal, manoeuvre’ mantra, so that he always pulls away safely.
In our classroom we have so much content to cover in so little time but drilling key skills should still be part of preparing our students for exams and for mastering the material. We know how to drill vocabulary by finding fun ways to test them or make them use these key words, but what about drilling evaluation? Once my son was applying the handbrake correctly in the drive, I took him to the mouth of the drive and got him to use it when pulling out onto the road and reminded him at each junction or place that we stopped. By the end of the journey he could see the value. He was able to make use of the skill and pull off more effectively, actually using the handbrake, rather than it being merely a decoration. Drilling in Religious studies is more than slogging away writing whole essays…
Some useful ways to drill:
· Practice evaluative paragraphs or even just an evaluative sentence.
· Take three essay questions and ask them to write three introductions, each that addresses the key word in the question
· Use mini whiteboard and make it a race to see who can list the most evaluative words in a given time for a prize.
· Drill BUGging lots of exam questions (Box the trigger word, Underline the focus, go back and refer to the question after each paragraph)
5. Practice / Repetition
Once we have explained, demonstrated, scaffolded and drilled the skills we want them to master, they should be well on the way to being independent writers. But the key of course to effective use of any skill is always practice. On our drives out, I must remind my son of the skills we have as he hasn’t quite mastered them yet. He still needs the scaffolding of which order to do things in. He has a tendency to release the handbrake first before putting the car in gear, or before finding the biting point. He needs more practice as the skills are new. I cannot just assume because I have taught it that he automatically will perform them now. However, if I continue to force the scaffolding of reminders indefinitely, then he will quickly become very frustrated. Once has mastered the skill, I must step back and just gently correct when he goes wrong. There are also times when a process is unhelpful. If I make him follow the handbrake procedure in every situation, his driving ability and more importantly his decision-making skills will be inhibited. There are times when a smoother, safer drive involves moving forward without having engaged a handbrake. Even if he gets through his test, it will not make him an effective driver as he will be unable to function without me in the passenger seat.
Some useful ways to practice:
· Students can take four example essays and place them in a rank order of best to worst. They can then use the band descriptors to level them and grade them
· Give them a set of arguments that are relevant to a question, get them to choose the best two and the worst to and use them in an evaluative essay.
· Students can set their own questions and get a partner to write an answer to them. They can even list their own mark scheme and mark each other’s work.
· They should do as many essays as they can under timed conditions, handwritten (if that is how they produce their real examination work) to get used to writing in this situation.
When our students are faced with different questions in an exam, or they come across new ways of thinking, they may have to develop new ways of responding that our scaffolding does not help them with. Our ultimate goal by the time the exams roll around, is to have as many students as possible, thinking for themselves, making their own arguments and writing independently. They obviously need to be coherent and make a journey from the question to an appropriate conclusion, but there are several possible roads they might take to get there. This is an adventure that they are now equipped to go on, but with the safety of knowing that if they get into difficulty, they can come back to their structure, remember their drills and move on from there.