Deep Learning and Religious Education 


My research into deep learning in Religious Education came about our of frustration at my failure to motivate my Year 11 students to work on RE outside our class time. 

Deep Learning

What is deep learning? The term derives from research carried out by Marton and Saljo (1976) at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. Susan Toohey (1999) defines deep learning in the following way: 

When students adopt a deep approach to learning their motive is to gain understanding; they adopt strategies, such as reading widely and discussing the concept or topic with others; they seek to make sense of new knowledge in terms of what they already know about this topic and related topics (p.9). 

The opposite of deep learning is "surface learning".

Religious Education

Epistemological Framework

Each person’s world is filled with social groups, beginning with family and opening out to include peer groups, school, parish, the local community and social groups beyond this relatively intimate gathering of significant others. It is proposed that people construct reality through the influence of the social groups to which they belong.

Knowledge is “the product of particular communities, guided by particular assumptions, beliefs and values.” Gergen

Such a view of reality is referred to as “social constructionism” and the influences are referred to as “discourses.” Burr (2003) defines discourse as "a set of meanings, metaphors, representations, images, stories, statements and so on that in some way together produce a particular version of events." (p.63) She states that “discourses make it possible for us to see the world in a certain way, producing our ‘knowledge’ of the world, which has power implications because it brings with it particular possibilities for acting in the world.” (p.25)

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Social constructionism and discursive psychology, to which Foucauldian Discourse Analysis (hereafter referred to as “FDA”) belongs, are related in that both work from the premise that knowledge is socially constructed. Whereas some psychologists and philosophers have directed their attention towards language, others have focused on the relationship between knowledge, power and discourse.

Social constructionism challenges the view that knowledge is created from “the objective, unbiased observation of the world” (Burr, 2003, p. 3) For the social constructionist, knowledge is an artefact of culture. Knowledge is constructed through the daily interactions of people in society. In this view, language is essentially a social interaction.

The words "to construct" and "construction" are used to convey the act of making meaning from interactions with others in a variety of contexts, notably home, school, the church and friendship groups.

Social constructionism focuses on the relationship between power and language. Thus the language of the texts presented for use in Catholic schools in Western Australia presents a particular view of the world, a view predicated on the principle that there is a direct correlation between knowledge and reality. However, many students would argue that we construct our reality through interacting with others. Social constructionists would argue that language is a necessary precondition for thought. When language is used, there are consequences.


FDA is a social constructionist approach to research. Burr (2003) draws a distinction between micro social constructionism, which focuses on the construction of knowledge by individuals through social interaction, and macro social constructionism, which uses the concept of power to describe how knowledge is constructed. The focus in this form of social constructionism is on “material or social structures, social relations and institutionalised practices” (p. 22). FDA is an example of a macro social constructionist approach to research. This research project draws on both strands, a position advocated by Potter (1999).

FDA is problematic. It is considered to be imprecise, even apologetic as a method, however, the stages described by Professor Carla Willig are more than adequate for providing a plausible interpretation of the function of language in discourses about religious identity.

The data analysis will be carried out using a form of FDA developed by Carla Willig (2008), who has described a six stage analysis of the relationship between power, knowledge and language.

The first stage requires several readings of each transcript to identify the discursive constructions in the texts. For instance, in keeping with the purpose of the study, it would be expected that there would be discourses emanating from family (particularly parents), parish (usually the parish priest), the Church, school teachers and curriculum) and peers. 

The second stage involves a process of differentiating between discourses according to what each contributes to the construction of religious identity. To keep the reading focused, the object of the discourses is identified. In this study, the differentiation of the discourses led to the formulation of two objects, the first being evident in “integrated repertoires” and the other in “antithetic repertoires.”

The third stage of FDA involves an interrogation of the sources to determine the orientation of actions. Willig proposes the following questions as the central elements of this stage in the analysis: "What is gained from constructing the object in this particular way at this particular point within the text? What is its function and how does it relate to other constructions produced in the surrounding text?"

Evidence of the positioning of subjects, such as parents, teachers, within the structure of rights and responsibilities is sought in the fourth stage.

The fifth stage, known as practice, refers to the ways in which discursive constructions and the subject positions contained within them open up or close down opportunities for action. By constructing particular versions of the world, and by positioning subjects within them in particular ways, discourses limit what can be said and done. In Morgan’s case, her description of her mother’s autocratic style blocks any possibility of her mother being a listener, a confidante, and a guide.

The sixth stage of FDA is known as subjectivity.

Data Collection

  1. What happened at the start of the lesson that signalled to you that the time would be well-spent by you and others? (Consider your attitude, the attitudes of your peers and your teacher's attitude towards you.)
  2. How did the teacher communicate with the class during the period? Consider his attitude towards you and the others in the class. Does your teacher like you and respect you? What about the others in the class? How important is it to you for the teacher to like you? 
  3. How does the teacher communicate the content of the lesson? What technology does the teacher use? Remember, this is your dream lesson. It is important that you describe what you hope for in the lessons that you attend in this subject. 
  4. How is the lesson structured? What is there about the structure that energises you and motivates you to develop your mastery of the content of the course? What activities do you engage in that leaves you feeling satisfied with your performance and more confident about performing well in assessment tasks? 
  5. What contact did you have with your teacher during the lesson? How did he communicate his confidence in your development in this subject? How will you maintain the contact out of class so that he can continue to help you with those aspects of the course that confuse you? 
  6. What happened at the end of the lesson that helped you to feel good about being in the class? How did the teacher show you that he valued your presence in the class? 
  7. How has the teacher helped you to relate the lesson to your personal life? (This question assumes that you hold that what is taught must have some application to life, that education has to be about personal development. Perhaps you don't think in this way.) 

Data Analysis


Deci and Ryan developed their self-determination theory, which states that people have three innate psychological needs: the need for competence or mastery, the need for autonomy and the need for relatedness or purpose. Pink reports on their theory: 

Human beings have an innate inner drive to be autonomous, self-determined, and connected to one another. And when that drive is liberated, people achieve more and live richer lives" (Pink, p.73).

Ryan speaks about the human capacity for interest. We depend on the fulfilment of these needs to remain interested in what we do.

Pink comments on people's interest in "internal desire to control their lives, learn about their world, and accomplish something that endures" (p.78).



Marton, F. and Saljo, R. "On qualitative differences in learning: I - outcome and process. In XVVC, Vol. 46, Issue 1, February, 1976, pp. 4-11.

Pink, D. H. ( ). Drive: the surprising truth about what motives us. Edinburgh: Canongate. 

Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci, "Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitating of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being." In American Psychologist, 55 (January, 2000).