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Rising to the challenge

Critical thinking skills offer pupils a new way of approaching RE and can motivate even the most disaffected learners. Elaine Williams reports

Steven Walker has already gained a GCSE in religious studies at age 14. It is the thing, he says, that has kept him motivated at school. It wasn't boring. He wasn't going over the same simple things over and over again, as he seemed to be in other subjects. It has made him think about how you think, about how people come to the beliefs they have, and what effect that has on their perception.

Steven, who gained a B in RE and a D in sociology, says: "It made me try harder, because I needed to. It was a challenge."

Steven is in Year 10 at Burnholme Community College in York, an 11 to 16 school of around 500 pupils, where Sue Williamson, the school's gifted and talented co-ordinator, introduced a "critical thinking skills extension scheme" to motivate 24 of her bright Year 7 pupils.

Once those pupils were in Year 8, she adapted the scheme using a critical thinking approach to teach religious studies and sociology GCSE syllabuses, which pupils sat with notable success - an A*, a few As, a string of Bs and Cs - at the end of the year.

Although she could see that pupils responded positively to being taught critical thinking, she wanted to give them evidence of their achievement, hence the move to GCSE, which they completed in two hours a week of curriculum time, staying behind after school for support with homework.

"This has got to be a massive boost for their self-esteem," says Sue.

She chose AQA's religious studies specification B, because she felt it allowed for a more philosophical approach and offered the opportunity to consider topics from different perspectives. She expected the pupils to enjoy learning about Buddhism and discussing contemporary issues, and they did.

Now in Year 9, 11 pupils are going on to take A-level philosophy. Emma Whittaker, who gained Cs in RE and sociology, is one. "I really enjoy learning how to think - not just being told what to think, but using my own free will to say what I think," she says.

Sue, who teaches English as her main subject, says: "Students enjoy studying RE from a more critical standpoint, rather than looking at belief systems as if they are truths".

Hazel Normandale, aged 15, who gained an A* in RE and an A in sociology, says studying the subjects in this way has given her "a different view on most things".

"I think in a different way about things I had never thought about before," she says.

Driving this initiative is Sue's deeply held belief that bored children easily become disaffected and that the answer to disaffection is not necessarily counselling or an educational psychologist, but to make the curriculum more exciting and more challenging. If pupils are stimulated intellectually, she says, they are far more likely to achieve beyond expectations.

As the school's former child protection co-ordinator she has used counselling to help pupils, but while this "contains" children's difficulties because it "makes them feel understood", it does not always move them on or equip them for achievement.

Sue was a bored and "massively" disaffected pupil herself while at a Kent comprehensive. "It was very inclusive, but failed to stretch able pupils," she says. "I remember truanting and walking past the teacher's window whose lesson I was bunking off from, just to make sure they could see me. I remember sitting at the back of the class lost in the creation of graffiti.

I would tune in for the first five minutes of lessons and think 'nothing new here' and tune out again."

Sue achieved six Cs at O-level, when teachers predicted she would fail everything, and went on to take A-levels and become the first female at her school to go on to university, studying English and philosophy at Essex.

"For me it was a way out of a trap," she says.

York is largely affluent, but Burnholme draws children from the Tang Hall area - one of the poorest quarters - and has all the related problems of an inner-city school, including the highest number of statemented pupils in the authority. It was while doing a Masters degree in education, in which she looked at the mismatch between able but disaffected pupils for reasons of social class and the rigid national curriculum, that Sue alighted on the idea of introducing a critical thinking course. Later, she developed it to include all able pupils, not just the disaffected.

She insisted on basing her selection solely on their performance in Cognitive Abilities Tests (CATs), rather than teacher recommendation. She says: "CATs is a hard measurement of potential however a child may be, even if they have behavioural problems."

One of the girls who ended up with two Bs in RE and sociology had been moved down sets, largely because of her disaffection, and had had exclusions: "Now she really knows how to argue. She is still disaffected, but doing A-level philosophy with it."

Another girl who attained an A in RE was on the school's special needs register for lack of confidence and oracy difficulties in literacy. Sue says: "She really engaged with the subject, stayed on after school, responded to being given a chance to say how she thought."

Sue doesn't use textbooks in her teaching, but requires students to work from original texts. So, for example, when studying Buddhism, students base their discussions on their direct reading of the Dhammapada - the poetic sayings of the Buddha. In philosophy they read directly from Plato, Descartes, Nietzsche.

"Textbooks are very restrictive; if you want really to engage then you have to go to original works," she says. "I try to make them accessible without watering them down. Children can engage with them - they do develop skills of analysis; they love to have the chance to express their opinions about these things."

Sue, who is also undertaking a PhD at York University on the perception of education by gifted and talented pupils, ran a music business before entering teaching. As a player of the saxophone, guitar and drums, she ran a music tuition company and then a record shop. Now she says she wants to be a "thorn in the side" of the education system, proving in concrete ways that children are under-stretched.

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