The Big Ideas Project and the Commission on RE (CoRE) set up by the REC (Religious Education Council of England and Wales) both began in 2016 and arose from similar concerns about the present situation of and future prospects for the school subject, religious education.
Dr Barbara Wintersgill was one of the people invited to make a presentation to the Commission as part of their extensive evidence gathering process. The Big Ideas were a major influence on the first version of the proposed National Entitlement for RE in the 2017 Interim Report Religious Education for All (see footnote on p.9) and the revised version in the 2018 Final Report Religion and Worldviews, the Way Forward. An analysis comparing the 2018 version of the National Entitlement with the six Big Ideas can be found in Putting Big Ideas into Practice in Religious Education 2019, pp.79-81.
The work of the CoRE was continued by the REC by an extensive exploration of the term ‘Worldview’ as used in the proposed change of name of the subject to ‘Religion and Worldviews’, which was the first of the eleven recommendations made by the CoRE (the second recommendation being the National Entitlement to the Study of Religion and Worldviews). This exploration included a thorough review of the use of the term in academic literature for a range of disciplines (Benoit, C., Hutchings, T. & Shillitoe, R. 2020, and a series of in-depth consultation events with senior academics, captured in Tharani, 2020.
As the Big Ideas Project moved on to the production of the exemplar classroom materials to be found on this website, the REC has produced a third version of the National Statement of Entitlement (NSE) in a draft handbook (Pett 2022), as part of a longer project, to produce a range of ‘curriculum frameworks’ that will show how a new National Statement of Entitlement (NSE) could be put into practice, with illustrative materials. Three teams have been appointed to develop these materials, and are expected to report back in 2024.
The ongoing influence of the Big Ideas on the third version of the NSE is explicitly recognised by the author Stephen Pett, who states that ‘while statements a-f in the revised NSE in this document are not exactly the same as the Big Ideas, the influence of the Big Ideas project sits behind the NSE’ (p. 27, para 13.4). Similarly, the Big Ideas project endorses the general direction of the ‘Worldviews Approach’ that has gradually emerged from the work of the REC.
The table below illustrates how the six core statements of content in this latest draft of the NSE (which may itself be finessed as the project develops over the next two years) may be matched pretty closely with the six Big Ideas, particularly as a guide for the selection of appropriate content for pupils to study. Note, however, that the REC and the Big Ideas Projects were asking slightly different questions about that content. Whereas the REC asked what it was that pupils should be taught in order to understand the nature of worldviews in relation to religion and belief, the Big Ideas team asked about the issues, experiences and questions related to religion and belief were people most likely to encounter in the 21st century.
Here’s how The National Statements of Entitlement compare with the Big Ideas:
NSE a. Nature/formation/expression
What is meant by worldview and how people’s worldviews are formed and expressed through a complex mix of influences and experiences.
Expanded statement: The nature and variety of worldviews, and how people’s worldviews are formed through a complex mix of influences and experiences, including (for example) rituals, practices, texts, teachings, stories, inspiring individuals, the creative arts, family, tradition, culture, and everyday experiences and actions. How these may also act as ways of expressing and communicating worldviews.
Big Idea 2: Words and Beyond
People often find it difficult to express their deepest beliefs, feelings, emotions and religious experiences using everyday language. Instead, they may use a variety of different approaches including figurative language and a range of literary genres. In addition, people sometimes use non-verbal forms of communication such as art, music, drama and dance that seek to explain or illustrate religious or non-religious ideas or experiences. There are different ways of interpreting both verbal and non-verbal forms of expression, often depending on a person’s view of the origin or inspiration behind them. The use of some non-verbal forms of communication is highly controversial within some religious groups, particularly their use in worship or ritual.
Note that ‘What is meant by worldview’ features in BI6 and BI1.
NSE b. Organised/individual
How people’s individual worldviews relate to wider, organised or institutional worldviews.
Expanded statement: How people’s individual worldviews relate to wider, organised or institutional worldviews (e.g. how individual worldviews may be consciously held or tacit; how individual and organised worldviews are dynamic; how individual worldviews may overlap to a greater or lesser extent with organised worldviews)
Big Idea 6: The Big Picture
Religions / worldviews provide comprehensive accounts of how and why the world is as it is. These accounts are sometimes called ‘grand narratives’. They seek to answer the big questions about the universe and the nature of humanity. These narratives are usually based on approaches to life, texts or traditions, which are taken to be authoritative. People interpret and understand these texts and traditions in different ways.
NSE b. Contexts
How worldviews have contexts, reflecting time and place, are highly diverse, and feature continuity and change.
Expanded statement: How worldviews have contexts, reflecting their time and place, shaping and being shaped by these, maintaining continuity and also changing; how they are highly diverse and often develop in interaction with each other. (This applies to organised worldviews as well as to individual worldviews.)
Big Idea 1: Continuity, Change and Diversity
Religions / worldviews involve interconnected patterns of beliefs, practices and values. They are also highly diverse and change in response to new situations and challenges. These patterns of diversity and change can be the cause of debate, tension and conflict or result in new, creative developments.
Note that this BI also considers what is meant by ‘worldview’ and ‘religion’.
NSE d. Meaning and purpose
How worldviews may offer responses to fundamental questions raised by human experience.
Expanded statement: How worldviews may offer responses to fundamental questions raised by human experience, such as questions of existence, meaning, purpose, knowledge, truth, identity and diversity. How worldviews may play different roles in providing people with ways of making sense of existence and/or their lives, including space for mystery, ambiguity and paradox.
Big Idea 4: Making Sense of Life’s Experiences
Many people have deeply felt experiences, which they may refer to as being ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ or simply part of what it means to be human. These experiences can take place in both religious and non-religious contexts and may produce a heightened sense of awareness and mystery, or of identity, purpose and belonging. The experience is sometimes so powerful that it transforms people’s lives. As a result, people may change their beliefs and allegiances and on rare occasions the experience of a single person has led to the formation of a new religion / worldview.
NSE e. Values, commitments and morality
How worldviews may provide guidance on how to live a good life.
Expanded statement: How worldviews may provide a vision of, and guidance on, how to be a good person and live a good life, and may offer ideas of justice, right and wrong, value, beauty, truth and goodness. How individuals and communities may express their values through their commitments.
Big Idea 3: A Good Life
Many people, whether religious or not, strive to live according to what they understand as a good life. Religious and non-religious communities often share an understanding as to the sort of characteristics and behaviours a good person will seek to achieve, as well as dealing with what is, or is not, acceptable moral behaviour. The ideal is usually presented in the lives and character of exemplary members. There are points of agreement and disagreement over the interpretation and application of moral principles both across and within different religions / worldviews.
NSE f. Influence and power
How worldviews influence, and are influenced by, people and societies.
Expanded statement: How worldviews influence people (e.g. providing a ‘grand narrative’ or story for understanding the world) and influence the exercise of power in societies (e.g. on social norms for communities, or in relation to conflict or peace-making). How society and people can also influence and shape worldviews.
Big Idea 5: Influence and Power
Religious and non-religious communities interact with wider society and cultures. These communities affect societies by shaping their traditions, laws, political systems, festivals, values, rituals and arts. The patterns of influence vary significantly in different societies and at different points in time. Some societies are influenced predominantly by one religion / worldview, others by several or many. Religions / worldviews often appeal to a highly respected authority or vision, and this can have significant impacts on societies and cultures, whether positive or negative.
The correspondence is not exact, but there is a high degree of overlap, and we believe that the Big Ideas programmes of study, together with the exemplars already developed, provides curriculum developers and teachers with a model of how such a statement of entitlement might be fulfilled in the classroom.
We find ourselves in complete agreement with the Draft Handbook’s proposal that, ‘children and young people in schools, whatever their context, are entitled to an education in religion and worldviews that:
- reflects the changing religious and secular diversity of the UK and the world
- is inclusive of, and relevant to, children and young people, whose worldviews may range across the secular and/or religious
- approaches the subject from the perspective of worldviews (incorporating religious and non-religious worldviews, personal and communal, individual and organised, plural and diverse) to help pupils navigate the diverse, complex world around them, in relation to religion and belief’ (p.18).
What really matters in RE / Religion and Worldviews
The REC Draft Handbook also identifies different ways in which pupils might engage with the content, as well as consider how pupils might reflect on, and develop, their own personal worldview. This is implicit in the Big Ideas materials, emerging through the exemplars produced so far. An account of how these exemplars might support the REC forms of engagement and position could be produced once the scheme is complete, with a view to supplementing units of learning as might be helpful.
What both the REC and Big Ideas programmes promise to provide, though, is a positive response to recent commentaries on the state of education, attempting to find ‘big ideas to guide the teaching and a plan for ensuring the learning’ (Wiggins & McTighe), while managing the content of the curriculum so that there are ‘fewer things in greater depth’ (Tim Oates), ‘cumulatively sufficient and collectively enough’ knowledge being gained (Richard Kueh) and that ‘content selection and curation… show clear understanding of how a curriculum subject is conceived and represented’ (David Lewin). There is agreement too, that ‘the criterion for selecting such material needs to be based upon educational concerns’: with young people at the centre (Pat Hannam).
Commission on Religious Education (CoRE). 2017. Interim Report: Religious Education for All. REC. www.commissiononre.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Commission-on-Religious-Education-Interim-Report-2017.pdf
Commission on Religious Education (CoRE). 2018. Final Report. Religion and Worldviews: The Way Forward. A National Plan for RE. REC. www.religiouseducationcouncil.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/1-Final-Report-of-the-Commission-on-RE.pdf
Wintersgill, B., Cush, D, & Francis, D. 2019. Putting Big Ideas into Practice in Religious Education. REonline. https://bigideasforre.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/07/R2-Putting-big-ideas-into-Practice.pdf
Benoit, C., Hutchings, T. & Shillitoe, R. 2020. Worldview: A Multidisciplinary Report. REC. www.religiouseducationcouncil.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/5-REC-Worldview-Report.pdf
Tharani, A. 2020. The Worldview Project: Discussion Papers. REC. www.religiouseducationcouncil.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/The-Worldview-Project.pdf
Pett, S. 2022. Religion and Worldviews in the Classroom: Developing a Worldviews Approach – Draft Handbook (REC). https://www.religiouseducationcouncil.org.uk/projects/draft-resource/
Wiggins, G.P. & McTighe, J. 2005. Understanding by Design. 2nd edition. Alexandria, VA. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
For Tim Oates on ‘fewer things in greater depth’, see, e.g., ‘Outline principles for the future of education’ at www.youtube.com/watch?v=hiprTSFyJAA
For Richard Kueh, see Ofsted Research Review: Religious Education. 2021. www.gov.uk/government/publications/research-review-series-religious-education/research-review-series-religious-education
Lewin, D. 2019. ‘Toward a Theory of Pedagogical Reduction: Selection, Simplification, and Generalization in an Age of Critical Education in Educational Theory 68: Issue 4-5. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/edth.12326
Hannam, P. 2021. ‘Religious education syllabus development and the need for education theory’ in Journal of Religious Education. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40839-021-00154-6