When I began teaching, back in 2003, I was frequently told that I was a teacher first and subject specialist second. There was a prevalent idea that we should be teaching generic transferable skills, such as evaluation or interpretation, and that our subjects were just a vehicle through which this was delivered (Marsden, 1997). For more on this debate, see Seven Myths About Education (Christodoulou, 2014).
More recently, however, there has been a growing recognition that a teacher’s subject knowledge is vitally important. In a review of research behind effective teaching, Coe et al. (Coe et al., 2014) found that a teacher’s subject knowledge, and their understanding of how pupils handle this subject, has the strongest evidence of impact on student outcomes. For a summary of this report, see pages 11-16.
We can see this need for excellent subject knowledge in Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction (Rosenshine, 2012). Like Coe’s work, this looked at the defining characteristics of effective teaching and found, among other things, that these effective teachers were able to provide detailed explanations of the material they were teaching. He writes that:
“In a study of mathematics instruction, for instance, the most effective mathematics teachers spent about 23 minutes of a 40-minute period in lecture, demonstration, questioning and working examples. In contrast the least effective teachers spent only 11 minutes presenting new material.”
Rosenshine’s examples of effective instruction show several occasions when a teacher’s subject knowledge will be important. We can’t lecture, demonstrate, question and provide worked examples unless our knowledge is sufficient for us to do so.
How can we maintain and improve our subject knowledge?
In many subjects, we need to ensure that our knowledge is broad as well as deep. Pupils learn best when they are provided with a wide variety of examples to illustrate an abstract concept (Willingham, 2009). In geography, I might want pupils to understand the idea of appropriate technology. To achieve this, I need to draw on a wealth of examples from my own subject knowledge: tractors in North Africa, the Play Pump scheme in South Africa or sanitation projects in rural India.
If we accept that subject knowledge is important to successful teaching, what can we do to improve the knowledge we have?
One strategy is just to prepare very well for each lesson. In his recollections of the effective teachers he encountered both in his own school days and, later, working in education, Fergal Roche, chair of a seven-school MAT in Surrey and CEO of school leader and governor network The Key, notes how teachers used to turn up to class with notes to use in their teaching (Roche, 2018). This is something that seems to have fallen out of fashion but that I have found useful in teaching new topics for A-level. Preparation needs to go not only into what you need to cover in your explanation but also into how you are going to explain it. What concepts are pupils going to struggle to understand? What analogies or examples could you use? What questions are you going to ask to really test their understanding?
The problem with this approach is that it can lead to teachers staying just one page ahead in the textbook, whereas lessons for many subjects rarely work this way when synoptic links to other parts of the subject are common. In the example above, about teaching appropriate technology, I would need not only knowledge of this concept and examples like the Play Pump scheme, but also knowledge of aquifers and different forms of aid. This kind of knowledge is more likely to accrue through a more regular immersion in your subject.
One simple way to do this is to continue to read about your subject. It can be difficult for someone new to the profession to make time to sit and read a book or article when it feels like there is so much else that needs doing. The solution is to recognise the importance of maintaining your subject knowledge and plan in time to maintain it – the same way you would set time aside to mark a pile of tests or plan your lessons.
A potential problem of relying on books to maintain your knowledge is the lag time between a development in your field and these developments being recognised in the literature. A second issue is that the content can feel very far removed from the subject at school level. The information needs to be recontextualised from an academic setting to a school one (Firth, 2018). This is where subject associations can play a pivotal role. Most have regular publications, with articles not only on teaching the subject but on improving the teacher’s knowledge of the subject as well. For example, The Geographical Association have recently published articles on the changing ideas about tectonic movement and the implications for the classroom.
Subject associations also offer training sessions and conferences, where new ideas can be shared and discussed and knowledge built. As well as the conferences run by official subject associations, there are also an increasing number of subject-specific TeachMeet events being organised by teachers around the country. These, almost always free to attend, tend to be held at evenings and weekends. They are usually advertised on social media and through word of mouth and help to show the importance of building a strong and supportive network of fellow subject specialists in those early years of teaching.
Social media has certainly made developing subject knowledge easier than ever, with communities of teachers willing to share resources, discuss teaching difficult concepts and help out those new to the profession. There are subject specialist groups on Facebook but it is Twitter where you tend to find the most immediate support. Most subjects have their own hashtags, such as #TeamEnglish and #GeographyTeacher, and many have their own dedicated group chat sessions where questions are posed by a moderator and conversations are followed with a shared and searchable hashtag.
One of the trickiest parts of teaching a topic for the first time is knowing the misconceptions that pupils are likely to have and so being able to address them early on. For example, I now know that pupils will think that global warming is caused by a hole in the ozone layer unless I address this directly, and that people migrate from one country to another because of the weather. A community of fellow teachers of your subject can be an invaluable place to ask these kinds of questions before you begin to teach it, whether that is a virtual community or one in your school.
A teacher’s subject knowledge is incredibly important. There are many things we can do to develop this subject knowledge ourselves and with the help of our colleagues, including:
Head here for a list of subject associations and links to more information.
Mark Enser is Head of Geography at Heathfield Community College. His first book, Making Every Geography Lesson Count, is due to be published by Crown House in early 2019. He regularly contributes articles to TES and tweets @EnserMark.