Filling subject knowledge gaps

I ended one of my previous blogs with this sentence: “I have become a better teacher in recent years by trying to become a better English teacher”. This is definitely true, but in all honesty I have tended to try to get better at the things that interest me, or the things that are most obvious, such as teaching writing. I get excited about something like rhetoric and then direct all my energies into it, but some areas inevitably get neglected. I am now going to tackle those areas- not weaknesses as such, but subject knowledge gaps that I need to fill.

The 19th Century

I am currently writing a scheme of work on 19th Century Literature and once I started putting together a knowledge organiser I realised that a) I knew nothing about the century and b) fitting a whole century on a knowledge organiser is not a task that should necessarily be undertaken.

So many holes in my knowledge were uncovered as I started. I didn’t know the first passenger trains were in 1825 for example. I didn’t know when the Crimean War was, or even the decades of important moments such as the abolition of slavery. To illustrate how problematic this lack of history is, imagine that we were studying “20th Century Literature.” We know instinctively how a book written in 1950 would be different to one in 1970, how one in 1912 would be different from 1920, but it is harder to understand how 1850 is different from 1870. Lumping everything together into the same 19th Century shaped box is not helpful. Dracula was published in 1897 and Frankenstein so much earlier in 1812, yet they are placed together in the same category of 19th Century Literature, with 85 years between them. To put this time gap in perspective, Tarzan and the Apes and The Lost World were published in 1912 while 1997 saw the publication Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone.

SKGAps 2To try and combat this breadth of ignorance, I have been listening to one of the Great Courses on Victorian Britain on my commute this term. I imagined that this would be a bit of a chore but I absolutely love it. The course is 18 hours long and I’m about a third of the way through. It’s constantly surprising and endlessly fascinating. It is changing how I view history and how I consider the texts produced in that time- it will help my teaching of 19th Century Literature no end. No more will I just say, “they were very religious in those days” as a catch-all statement about context for virtually any text before 1950.

Grammar

SKGaps 1I know my grammar fairly well, but looking at the list of terminology that students in year 6 are expected to learn, I know that I couldn’t explain them easily to a novice. I think this is sometimes the case for teachers. We know our stuff, but teaching that stuff is another thing entirely. Even seemingly simple terminology such as ‘verb’ is much more complex than “It’s a doing word”. Mark-schemes for AQA mention ‘sentence functions’- easy to understand but quite difficult to get students to comment on effectively. I need to improve some of my knowledge of, and all of my teaching of, grammar. So the question is how do I get to the point where I am a grammar expert? The answer to this one- as it often is for me- is reading. Gwynne’s Grammar is the guide that I have chosen to read. However, I have owned this since 2013 and not read a word, so that might be easier said than done. I’m going to read 5 pages a day, starting today. By putting it in writing on this blog, at least my 63 readers will hold me to account.

New specifications

I am delighted to see the back of controlled assessment and I am already enjoying teaching new specifications. But the unfamiliarity can be a problem. I have brought myself up to speed with specifications and examinations, but there are always nuances that are not apparent until you start teaching, and sometimes only after you have taught it through. We have started teaching poems from the AQA Power and Conflict cluster and I have made sure that I am very familiar with every poem that I have taught, but I don’t yet know all of the poems that I will be teaching later on in the school year. At first I wasn’t so concerned about this, but it has become apparent to me that an overview of the whole selection of poems would make teaching each individual poem easier- for me and the students. Common patterns across the poems- themes, viewpoints, language techniques- have been discovered almost by accident, and a more thorough understanding of the whole body of poems would have meant that sequences were designed around this, rather than spotting them when they come up. This is my holiday reading for my two weeks off in October- a poem a day.

All of these things at first seem to me like the least exciting parts of being an English teacher: specifications, history and grammar. Yet reading some of the best poetry ever written, finding out about a century that shaped modern Britain and becoming more accomplished at the mechanics of language should never be described as ‘least exciting’, should they?

Further reading on English teaching:

Andy Tharby’s list of essential English teacher blogs: 25 Practical Blogs for the English Teacher

My original post on improving English teacher subject knowledge: Trying to be a Better English Teacher

My post on books to develop subject knowledge in English: An English Teacher’s Library

 

Subject specific practice

Last week I wrote about how we practised classroom routines on the very first day back at Dixons Kings Academy and the benefits are still clear two weeks in. But while whole school routines undoubtedly have value, they aren’t the only things worth practising. That is why we followed up that first practice session with one designed by individual departments.

Some departments chose to continue to develop routines unique to their settings, with Science looking at practical lesson routines and P.E. focusing on changing rooms. In English, we considered the teaching of structure in the new GCSE.

The MFL department focused on getting better at using target language and they invited me in to watch a follow up practice session this week. The session was designed by the Principal Teacher of MFL, Amy Evans, following the method designed by Simon Gayle, who leads on practice across school. It was a joy to witness and I thought it would serve as a good model to illustrate the key elements of practice.

Create an effective model

MFL PracticeThe model is crucial, because if you practise something that isn’t good enough, then you are getting better at the wrong thing. In this instance, the MFL department were looking at the language that they would use to manage lesson transitions, explanations of tasks and mini white board work.

While the pre-planned model was strong, the team identified some things they would still need to translate e.g. the best name for working in pairs. It wasn’t as simple as translating word for word because they needed to use cognates, words in the target language (in this case Spanish) which sound similar to their English counterparts. Often, with practice sessions, this discussion would occur after the model had been practised and suggested improvements come to light, but here it was an important part of ensuring that they were practising the right things in the first place.

Practise

Now that the model has been established, one teacher practises. They are the teacher and the others are the students. This is the part where purposeful practice might descend into horrible role-play if we let it. It definitely isn’t about pretending to be kids and acting in a childish manner- there is nothing more cringe-worthy than an adult pretending to be Kevin the Teenager (unless the adult is Harry Enfield). We should be experiencing something that is likely to occur in the classroom- the whole purpose of practise means to effectively rehearse for regular classroom situations. Of course it can never be exactly like a classroom but David Beckham didn’t practise free kicks because the practice was exactly like a game; he practised because when a free kick inevitably came up in a game, he was drilled in exactly what to do.

MFL4The teacher practising needs to try to eliminate self-consciousness, which I know is difficult for some. Once the first tentative steps are made, practising becomes easy and routine. The MFL team, with a shared purpose, were able to put this self-consciousness to one side so they could focus completely on making speaking in target language second nature.

MFL3Like any department, the MFL team has a range of teachers with different levels of experience and different areas of specialism. We have the experienced Head of Faculty still striving to improve their teaching, the Teach First participant developing their craft, the French specialist benefitting from practice in Spanish, the native Spanish speaker reflecting on a novice’s perspective. Well designed practice will have something for everyone.

Throw a spanner in the works

Each round of practice has a ‘spanner in the works’. We felt that an unpredictable element in practice sessions would be beneficial, and the ‘spanners’ are designed to ensure that. They should be about testing the model, rather than just throwing in something ridiculous like a bumblebee in the room (hay un abejorro en el aula). Two examples of ‘spanners’ for this practice session were:

‘Purposefully use the wrong gender when completing the Do Now activity for person 2.’

‘Use ‘me gusta’ + verb in the ‘I form’ e.g. ‘me gusta nado’ for person 3.’

Most of the time, teachers make mistakes practising anyway, so there are always plenty of spanners.

Give feedback

After the teacher has practised, somebody feeds back. Ideally, they then practise again following the feedback, although this isn’t always possible. In many cases, the one practising has already given their own feedback! It’s not unusual to see someone pop out of practice mode to reflect: ‘I wonder if it might be best to…’ or ‘Can I try that again because…’. It was great to see the MFL teachers do this because  this means that they can practise on their own, and can reflect quickly in a real classroom situation.

MFL2Feedback can and should be ‘nitpicky’. In this case, a mispronunciation or a grammatical error here and there needed to be picked up. If a ‘student’ makes an error, accidentally or on purpose, and the teacher didn’t spot it, it must be identified. Here, in this supportive environment, with a focus on a tiny sequence of teaching, the MFL teachers were getting the most helpful subject-specific feedback. Honestly, they won’t get this highly focused feedback from non-specialists.

I hope this is a clear portrayal of the habits and benefits of subject-specific practice. The team clearly value practice, because this actually took place in the time allocated for department meetings, and they had not been ‘directed’ to practise. All admin had been taken care of so they could concentrate solely on improving their teaching. If only all department meetings were like this.

 

 

 

 

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.