Big Ideas 

‘Big Ideas’ is a technical term proposed by Wiggins and McTighe (2005) to refer to the main overarching ideas that students need to understand in order to grasp a subject in the school curriculum in a way which is transferable to life beyond the classroom. They help to make sense of what might otherwise be unconnected bits of information – interesting or not – with little relationship to the student. Big Ideas for RE are generalised summaries of what we want students to understand by the time they leave school in a way which will continue to be of use and relevance to their understanding of Religion and Worldviews.


The term ‘worldview’ is understood and used in a variety of ways, but the Big Ideas for RE project employs the term as recommended by the Commission on RE (2018) and the Religious Education Council of England and Wales ongoing Worldviews Project. It refers to a person’s overall approach to life ‘the way in which a person encounters, interprets, understands and engages with the world’ (Pett 2022). This does not necessarily imply a thought-out intellectual view, but encompasses behaviours, experiences, identities and commitments as well as beliefs, and things taken for granted in any particular context. The Commission distinguished between personal or individual worldviews, and organised or institutional worldviews such as religions, humanist organisations and some political ideologies (See What is a Worldview?).


The term ‘religion’ is in common use but means different things to different people. Some may see their religion as more about identity, or customs and celebrations, or how to treat people and the planet or beliefs and ‘truth-claims’ about ultimate reality.

Scholars argue that the current use of ‘religion’ mainly to refer to organised systems of belief is a relatively recent Western development and is not a very helpful label for non-Western or past traditions, carrying many Christian or Western philosophical assumptions with it. Some scholars suggest using other terms like faith, tradition or culture. Others say we can keep using ‘religion’ but need to explain how we are using it in any given context. In that spirit, the Big Ideas for RE project uses ‘religion’ to refer to either organised or individual worldviews that encompass emotions, values, customs and practices both ritual and ethical, and identity as well as beliefs, and, usually, focus on what people consider of most importance in their lives. In order to be classed as a ‘religious’ rather than ‘non-religious’ worldview, there is usually some reference to something beyond (or more deeply within) that which can be evidenced by the senses or the investigations of science. However, it is often quite hard to separate out what is ‘religious’ and what is ‘non-religious’, to the extent that there are those who identify as ‘non-binary’ between ‘religious and ‘non-religious’. (See What is ‘religion’? and Non-religious and secular worldviews.)

Substantive knowledge

This refers to the content of a subject, the ‘factual’ information which in the case of Religion and Worldviews, would include knowledge of the various teachings, beliefs, practices, communities, lifestyles, art and architecture, music, symbols, festivals, texts, stories, rituals, ethics, institutions etc of whichever of the myriad religious and non-religious worldviews are chosen for study. Substantive knowledge includes abstract ideas and core concepts as well as more concrete factual information. Given the massive possible substantive content, criteria need to be developed for selection. A ‘Big Ideas’ approach provides clear criteria for selecting and prioritising from this mass of substantive knowledge, by focusing on the main overarching ideas of the subject rather than any particular details. Other criteria might include the particular school context, individual teacher expertise, students’ experience, and the need to provide a balanced curriculum which reflects the diversity of religious and non-religious worldviews. Examples of substantive knowledge might include: the Five ‘Ks’ of Sikh tradition, the parable of the Good Samaritan and John Hick’s eschatological theodicy.

Disciplinary knowledge

This refers to the ways of knowing characteristic of a subject. Richard Kueh (Ofsted) helpfully summarised this as ‘the sum total of the tools, norms, methods, and modus operandi of the way in which humans go about exploring a field of human knowledge that has its own set of conventions’. Study of Religions and Theology at university level, as well as RE in schools, can be viewed as polymethodic disciplines. They do have their own ways of going about things, but draw upon the methods of many other disciplines such as history, philosophy and ethics, phenomenology, sociology, anthropology, psychology, literary criticism, creative arts, media studies and even at times the natural sciences, especially neuroscience. Although the Big Ideas for RE project has concentrated on how to select content, the six Big Ideas themselves are derived from the study of religions / worldviews and are thus a form of disciplinary knowledge. Four further Big Ideas focused on the methods (‘how to know’) of studying religion and worldviews have been developed by Freathy and John. Examples of disciplinary knowledge might be: using interviews to learn about ‘lived religion (tool), an approach which always tries to understand the adherent’s point of view before making critical judgments (norm/way of going about things), or an appreciation of different interpretations of a particular text (method).

Topic Related Questions

Framing programmes of study, units of work and individual lessons through key questions is a long-standing practice in RE. This helps to keep both teacher and students focused on the main learning objectives rather than getting bogged down in details of content and losing sight of the point and purpose. Key questions relating to the particular topic in hand are spelt out for each Big Idea for each age group of students in Putting Big Ideas into Practice in Religious Education and used by all writers of units of work on this website. An example of a topic-related question is: ‘What things do people regard as ‘holy’ or ‘sacred’, and why?’.

Transferable Questions

Transferable questions are more generalised and much less specific than topic- related questions. They are ‘transferable’ as they will reoccur throughout a student’s time at school and be revisited in (we hope) greater depth, and also because they relate much more widely to life outside of and beyond the subject and school. Transferable questions provide both a basis for continuity and progression within the subject and relevance to other situations and experiences. Each unit of work on this website suggests transferable questions arising from the particular topic. An example of a transferable question is: ‘what do we think religion means?’.

Photo: Oddrun Bråten