Constructivism Revisited: The Theory in Practice
I have been a teacher of Religious Education for nearly three years and have recently been
awarded Advanced Skills Teacher Status. During my PGCE year at the University of
Birmingham, I was trained to plan lessons that focused on two attainment targets. AT1,
which sought to address ‘Learning About Religion’ and AT2 which aimed to address
‘Learning From Religion’. It soon became apparent to me during my own lessons and when
observing those of others that AT2 was rarely achieved successfully.
I found that pupils were competent in learning factual material about the religious content and
were subsequently well-equipped to label diagrams of places of worship, explain what
happens during religious ceremonies and complete other fairly low level tasks. Indeed, I
came to recognise as valid the criticism often mounted at RE that it only requires fairly low
level thinking skills, such as recall and description. The AT2 element in lessons was usually
added on as a quick plenary or starter and was often a rather rushed attempt at evaluating the
content or asking pupils to reflect upon it. Furthermore, the reflective aspect usually
attempted to make a somewhat tenuous link between the religious content and pupils’
experience. This often had the effect of trivialising the religious content and the deeper, more
spiritual aspect that the teacher was trying so hard to bring alive for the pupils was often lost.
Take for example, questions such as “What special journeys have you been on?” and “Why
was that journey so important to you?” These are typical AT2 questions that are often used
when teaching about pilgrimages, such as the Hajj, but it is fairly obvious that the Hajj
represents to Muslims far more than a special journey in secular terms. For example, an
important part of it is a preliminary to how one may appear before Allah on the Day of
Judgement. It is, therefore, inappropriate to compare this experience of Hajj for Muslims to
the sort of answers that pupils may give to the ‘special journey’ starter question. For
example, “my special journey was when I went on holiday last year to Spain; it was special
because I knew it would be fun!” While it is good educational practice to begin at a starting
point which is familiar to the pupils, it is essential that the learning outcome is related to the
meaning that the religious belief or practice has for the believer, while also addressing the
experiences of pupils far removed from the particular religious tradition being studied.
I am currently investigating the balance between AT1 and AT2 in RE through research for a
PhD at the University of Birmingham. My study aims to investigate whether the use of a
Constructivist Pedagogy in RE would better fulfil the long list of supposed and often over-
idealised outcomes of the subject. My work centres on active research in the classroom as I
am someone who teaches the subject every day and am therefore, well placed to comment on
the impact that this approach is having on the learning of pupils whom I teach. This article
aims to give a brief insight into what I have achieved so far. There is certainly further work
to be done, but I am beginning to feel that a Constructivist approach to RE is an appropriate
way forward to combating the charge that contemporary approaches to RE lack challenge and
fail to make the subject relevant to the interests of pupils.
I am working on my research in collaboration with Michael Grimmitt of the University of
Birmingham. The active research that I am carrying out is based upon the principles
described by him in chapter 11 of his book ‘Pedagogies of Religious Education’, (Essex:
McCrimmon Publishing, 2000). My work centres on putting the theory of Constructivist
Pedagogy into practice in the classroom. The method which I have employed has involved
planning Constructivist style lessons and then using digital video recording technology to
allow me to record and later analyse pupils’ responses to the tasks which have been set.
Constructivist Pedagogy is based upon the view that knowledge is a human construct and is a
method by which individuals and communities make meaning of the world and how they
order their experience of it. This suggests that knowledge (including knowledge about
religion) is not something that can simply be passed on from teacher to pupil, but is open to a
vast range of interpretations that are all equally valuable.
In his book, Grimmitt outlines a three stage pedagogical strategy which I began to work with
at the start of my research. The outcomes that I wanted to achieve in using it were as follows:
pupils are able to go beyond description of factual content towards higher level thinking
skills, such as evaluation, synthesis and analysis of the material; pupils are encouraged to
reflect meaningfully on the religious content; dialogue is encouraged between pupils through
collaborative work, pupils are encouraged to draw upon their own experiences and those of
other pupils and a critical approach is developed towards ultimate questions.
The first stage in Grimmitt’s strategy is Preparatory Pedagogical Constructivism, where
pupils engage in dialogic enquiry into their own experience which prepares them
“conceptually and linguistically for an encounter with the item of religious content.”1 To
address this stage I needed to discern the themes of human experience which are addressed
by the religious content studied.
It is through this process that pupils are able to reflect upon the material which is to be
studied and discern meaning within it. The links that pupils make from the outset are not
tenuous, trivial ones because their thinking has been carefully guided by the themes originally
devised by the teacher. Through applying this principle of planning by outcomes, a dialogue
is opened up at the outset between the pupils’ experience and the content to be studied. This
is due to the fact that pupils are given the opportunity to form a very early link between their
own experiences and those of the members of the faith community in question. Pupils are
subsequently more able to discern meaning in the religious practices that they are studying
and link them with their own questions and experiences.
The section of work that I want to outline here is a set of lessons I have recently taught to a
group of year 7 pupils on the Five Pillars of Islam. For the preparatory stage, I posed the
question ‘what makes a good person?’ A variety of answers were suggested, including:
kindness, patience, discipline and consideration of other people. I continued to ask ‘what
influences someone to be a good person?’ Suggestions included: parents, the people you
spend time with, teachers and religion. I then devised a set of themes which were closely
linked to the answers of the pupils, but would also prepare them for the work on the Five
Pillars. The themes were: Spending time away from everyday life; walking in the steps of
somebody else; assessing your life; being part of a community; discipline; being sure of your
Grimmitt, (2000), p. 216.
beliefs and coping with physically testing times. I devised a set of group tasks to allow small
groups to each reflect upon one of the themes. Here are some examples of conversations
with the pupils based around the themes:
1. What might the positive results be of taking some time away from your everyday routine?
You can feel refreshed and relaxed and it gives you time to think about your life. Are there
any negative effects? Yes, you would find it hard to get back into routine again. If you were
to design a computer game to give people time away from their everyday life, what ideas
could you suggest? Something educational, but fun. Perhaps something about other people’s
lives with set tasks to do.
2. What benefits could you gain from physically testing times? If you do sport, you might
win – that’s a benefit! You also learn how to get better at something. If you diet, you get
thinner! Is the achievement at the end worth the physical struggle? Yes, as you can learn
how to get better at things and learn how to improve yourself.
3. Do you think you have led a good life so far? Yes, but sometimes I am cheeky and have
got a detention. Do you think we can gain anything from looking at the bad and good that we
have done in our lives? Yes we can feel satisfied with the good things and try to improve on
the bad things in the future.
It is evident from this small sample of dialogues that pupils are drawing on their own
experiences in response to the questions on the set themes.
For the next stage of the pedagogical strategy, Direct Pedagogical Constructivism, Grimmitt
states that “pupils are confronted with the item of religious content directly…it becomes the
stimulus for them to begin to construct their own meaning and understanding of it by using
observation, formulating hypotheses, and drawing upon their own experience and that
represented in the group.”2 For this stage, pupils were given a diagram of the Five Pillars and
asked to colour-code it according to the six themes previously explored. This allowed them
to make a close link between the Five Pillars and their own experiences of the themes:
1. Tell me about the colours you have used for the Hajj. Well, when you go on the Hajj, you
take time out of your everyday life, it isn’t your normal life. For walking in someone else’s
steps, lots of people have been on the Hajj, so you are following them. Is there anyone else
who you are following? Yes, Muhammad and the other prophets when they did parts of the
2. Which of the themes is coloured green on your diagram? Physically testing times. We
have coloured in fasting in Ramadan, as not eating all day would be very testing! They are
testing themselves to see if they can do it. We also coloured in the Hajj as some of that can
be physically testing, like when it’s really hot there.
After further lessons when pupils were given additional or supplementary information on the
beliefs behind the Five Pillars of Islam, pupils were also encouraged to make evaluative
judgements about the content studied. Grimmitt calls this stage Supplementary Pedagogical
Constructivism. Pupils were asked whether they felt following the Five Pillars would make
you a better person. Here are some responses:
Grimmitt, (2000), p. 216.
1. I don’t think you would be a better person as you are made to give money to charity. You
should give it because you want to. (Another pupil) Yes I think it would make you a
generous person, because you are still giving money to charity, some people give nothing.
2. I think it would be a good idea to remind yourself and repeat your belief in God
throughout the day as it would remind you not to do bad things in your life, so you would be
a better person.
3. I don’t think they are a good idea as it depends on who you hang around with. There are
lots of other influences on you, not just religion. I think it depends upon how strong your
faith is. If you stick to them, they might help you.
It is clear even from the very limited sample of results that I have outlined here, that far
deeper thinking is happening about the religious content than traditional RE often demands.
Pupils taught by this pedagogy are more engaged with the content of the lessons as the Five
Pillars begin to hold more meaning for them because the content has been approached at the
outset from their reflections on their own personal experiences. Pupils taught in this way are
able to see more clearly why Muslims carry out the Five Pillars and, by the end of the unit,
they are able to give articulate, well informed evaluative judgements about the beliefs and
practices underlying the Five Pillars of Islam. It was also obvious that pupils enjoy this type
of work as they have been able to discern meaning in the practice of the Five Pillars of Islam
which has meaning to them.
There is still much more work to be done, but it is becoming apparent to me that the
outcomes of RE are better achieved through a Constructivist Pedagogy than a descriptive one
and that higher order thinking skills, such as analysis, synthesis and evaluation are also better
developed through this method of teaching and learning.