How to write your own unit of learning

Nov 2, 2022 | Big Ideas for RE, Curriculum, Exemplar Units of Learning, Syllabus Designers, Teachers

The units of learning based on Big Ideas for RE are probably quite different from anything you have worked with previously. A central principle is the flexibility of the units and indeed the whole programme.

What is optional and what is not?

Because key features, such as learning objectives, progression, continuity, coherence, etc, are inextricably connected to the Big Ideas (BIs), they should not change. They are set out for each age group in Book 2 Chapter 6. Here you will find the topic-related questions (TRQs), which are pointers to the selection of substantive knowledge. Don’t change the TRQs or you will lose sight of the BI and all that it transmits. 

Each of the exemplars uses substantive knowledge, which is as the name indicates, exemplary. It is important to bear the following points in mind:

  1. Several of the units are very detailed. This is particularly the case where the content is new to RE and resources include additional information for teachers. Units include a range of activities and knowledge. How much you decide to use will be determined by factors such as the time given tor RE in your school and the ability of pupils. However, in order to retain the balance of the BI, make sure that if you don’t teach the whole unit your selection is taken from ALL the TRQs.
  2. In some cases you may find it practical to break a unit into two or three sections to be taught at different times. If you do this, remember to reinforce the connection with the BI and the other sections.
  3. In some cases you will want to replace the content of the whole or part of the unit. Just remember to leave the BI and the TRQs alone.
  4. Assessment: remember that you are assessing primarily how well pupils have grasped the BI. You will do that by finding out how effectively they can answer the TRQs. 

How does a unit of learning work?

I will explain this by taking you through the BI2 unit for 7-9 year olds; ‘Papa Haydn’s Musical Creatures’The important points are these:

  1. The age-related BI sets out what we want pupils to understand. In this case that People often express their feelings and beliefs through art, music, poetry, story, drama and physical movement – both creating and observing/performing. These creative forms of expression also play important roles in most religions and cultures. Our first question is ‘what substantive knowledge will illustrate these points particularly?’ Because the specifics will be suggested by the TRQs, at this stage it would be wise to jot down a few front runners. BI2 can draw on a huge range of knowledge. You could think about whether to draw on one or more art forms and if so which. We would not recommend more than two or you will sacrifice depth. Wherever possible choose something that you are passionate about – you are more likely to teach it well.
  2. Move onto the TRQs and see what they suggest. TRQ1 is general rather than specific: How do people express their deepest experiences and beliefs? You could use it to introduce the main ideas in the BI. Although it is important to address all of the TRQs, they do not necessarily have to receive equal time or depth. 
  3. Our exemplar uses music and the unit begins with pupils considering what emotions are stirred by particular music clips. 
  4. TRQ2 gets down to the detail: How can music, story, poetry and art express feelings, beliefs and values? This is where we recommend working with a music specialist. The unit uses, as an example, short extracts from a remarkable composition by Josef Haydn: The Creation. It offers pupils rich and varied experiences from the words, which include the text of Genesis 1 and 2 as well as interpretative text by an unknown author. The text lends itself to literacy work with its ‘tawny lion’, flexible tiger’, ‘fleecy, meek and bleating flocks’ and never to be forgotten, the worm, which ‘creeps with sinuous trace’. Haydn uses his musical tools to ‘paint’ each animal as well as other features of the creation, such as the sea and sunrise. 
    The unit suggests ways of involving pupils in a similar activity. By asking themselves how they would depict a tiger in music they have to reflect on their feelings about this and the other creatures and natural phenomena. Would their music be fast or slow, loud or quiet, happy or sad? Would the words be sung by a high or low voice? Pupils are also asked to reflect on a few short sections of the music in order to consider what Haydn wanted his audiences to feel. For example, does his musical picture of the sea suggest its power and danger, inspiring respect and fear or is it suggestive of paddling on the beach at Blackpool? 
    Haydn was a deeply religious man. Does this come across in his music? What does ‘The Creation’ say about God? 
    Controversy is never far away and this unit also reflects one of the key principles of the BI project, embodied particularly in BI1, that religions / worldviews are diverse. The Creation was banned from Churches because Haydn did not tow the party line in his interpretation of the Adam and Eve story, choosing not to dwell on the fall and original sin. Instead of being banned from Eden by an angry God, we leave them deeply in love, living in the beautiful garden with all it has to offer.
  5. The unit concludes with lessons which develop pupils’ creativity by encouraging them to give their own interpretation of the creation story, working in groups that share a preference for a particular medium – dance perhaps or art.

I chose this exemplar because it demonstrates how pupils can experience good RE from content that is not usually included in the subject. You may find the unit challenging, especially if you are not familiar with the genre. In fact the whole unit only includes about 15 minutes of music, presented in very short clips. An alternative would be to replace The Creation with a more contemporary piece; Jesus Christ Superstar for example and adapt the teaching and learning sections in the unit. But I suggest giving Haydn a chance. He’s worth it.