Better teachers of our subjects

What makes a good teacher?

Teachers should have good subject knowledge, but anyone who saw David Starkey on Jamie’s Dream School knows that it isn’t enough. Teachers should have good knowledge of pedagogy, but you wouldn’t want me teaching German. Is good teaching just a sum of these two things? Subject knowledge + pedagogy? Not quite. Effective teaching is an understanding of the way that these two combine very specifically in our subject areas.

What makes your subject unique?

In the Venn diagram of subjects, the areas of crossover are quite small. Yet we spend much of our time in school CPD sessions designed to fit around all subjects when this may have little impact. That’s why we have to focus on pedagogical content knowledge– how to teach our subjects well.

Let’s start with behaviour management as an example (This is obviously not about teaching subject content but good behaviour is crucial for good teaching). There are certainly a number of useful strategies that can be shared with everyone. We know that there are ways of using language, certain routines and habits which tend to work in all subjects. However, there are very subject specific issues which can only be addressed by those subject areas. Students in music practice booths. The Wild West of P.E. changing rooms. The moment a student in Science discovers that pulling on goggles makes them hit the face with a satisfying ‘whack’. These are highly specific to each subject area so time should be spent with those departments working on those areas.

Another example. For many years, a typical training session in schools might be designed around ways to identify misconceptions. I’ve delivered them myself. Ways to check on whole class understanding such as using mini whiteboards and hinge questions. But it isn’t just about the methods we use to check for understanding but the depth of knowledge about the types of misconceptions students might have and how best to identify them. The Sutton Trust report into good teaching stated the following on this topic:

As well as a strong understanding of the material being taught, teachers must also understand the ways students think about the content, be able to evaluate the thinking behind students’ own methods, and identify students’ common misconceptions.

Spending time on these aspects will be where the greatest gains are, rather than looking at a hundred ways to identify them. For a great example of a subject teacher doing just this, have a look at Harry Fletcher-Wood’s extensive work on hinge questions in History.

And the list goes on. Feedback. Explanations. Modelling. All unique. Literacy is especially problematic and can lend itself to whole school initiatives that never really have a chance of working because of the different ways that subjects work. Of course there are some things which can be communicated as good practice and getting the whole staff body together can be the most effective way to do it, but time for staff to explore subject implications should always be built in.

Department meetings are a place where this can happen too. The best subject areas are the ones who remove as much admin as possible from their meetings and concentrate on teaching. But subject teams do not always have control of how often they meet and there can often be competing focuses.

Leaders need to know subjects

To support teachers in developing their ability to teach their subjects well, leaders need to develop a clearer understanding of what effective teaching is in every subject. I am seeing a greater number of lessons at the moment in a number of subjects and I find it fairly straightforward to give feedback on general pedagogy but there are some aspects where I am simply not an expert. For example, I have observed a number of science lessons this year. I have tried to familiarise myself with what makes good practice in Science, but I would be unlikely to notice if a basic error in terms of subject knowledge was made. While I feel that I know a little about Mathematics, I would struggle to tell you if a concept had been explained properly and understood. Whereas in an English lesson, I’d be very confident in providing highly developmental feedback because I know the subject very well.

How can leaders develop at least a working knowledge of subjects? I’d recommend reading Ofsted’s subsidiary guidance for each subject as a useful starting point. Not to use as a ticklist, but to get a sense of the kinds of things that might make the subject unique. There are often more detailed subject reports like ‘Moving English Forward’ and ‘Music in schools: wider still, and wider’, where the following is found:

Promote teachers’ use of musical sound as the dominant language of musical teaching and learning by:

–       ensuring that lesson planning includes a strong focus on the teacher’s musical preparation as well as defining lesson structures and procedures

–       establishing musical sound as the ‘target language’ of teaching and learning, with talking and writing about music supporting, rather than driving, the development of pupils’ musical understanding

–       developing and refining teachers’ listening and musical modelling skills, so that they can more accurately interpret and respond to pupils’ music-making and show more effectively how to improve the musical quality of their work.

This won’t make up for my lack of musical knowledge but it will give me a start in understanding a key part of excellent music lessons. The next stage is to listen to the experts- the music teachers. When Ofsted say, ‘establish.. musical sound as the target language of teaching’, we need to work with music teachers in our schools to understand what that means in the classroom. If we don’t know then we can give feedback which is inaccurate and unhelpful- and potentially harmful.

Paired observations with subject experts and meetings with relevant teachers before seeing them teach will help to make the process easier and help us with what we need to know. We need to know that students in P.E. might do well in the half term on badminton but regress when they are assessed in gymnastics (I did!). We need to be aware that ‘target language’ is crucial in MFL. We need to consider that an R.E. teacher may see 20 different classes in a week. We need to know that progress in one subject is different from another nationally. And so on.

I’m not dismissing the need to look at general pedagogy but I feel that I have become a better teacher in recent years by trying to become a better English teacher and the greater focus we place on subject expertise, the better.

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