It’s what you know that counts: the importance of strong subject knowledge

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A lot has been written about the relative merits of a knowledge-based curriculum over one that focuses more on developing transferable skills and competences. More recently, a lot more has been written about the falseness of this dichotomy and the need for a curriculum that takes account of both these ideologies, seeing the one complementing the other.

This blog is not about that. Rather, it’s about what I see as a bit of an elephant in the room within this debate, namely how either of these approaches to curriculum design is ultimately dependent on the strength of teacher subject knowledge for its successful enactment. It does not really matter what set of core values underpin a programme of study if a significant proportion of those delivering it do not have a requisite grasp of its content.

For a number of reasons I have become increasingly of the opinion that the more teachers know about what they were teaching, as well as, of course, how they are teaching it, then the better placed the majority of them will be to teach more effective lessons and push their pupils more. If we view knowledge and skills as important and interrelated aspects of pupils’ learning experience, then the teachers providing those experiences should approach their own development in the same way. I am certainly not trying to suggest that good subject knowledge alone is a sufficient condition for great teaching, but perhaps it is a necessary one.

Much of my views on this topic are informed by my own experiences. I like to think I know a bit about how language works and about the world of literature. Yet I am continually surprised and invigorated by how much there is still to know. For example, I thought I knew quite a bit about poetry until I read Glyn Maxwell’s wonderful book ‘On Poetry’. His brilliant insights have really helped me understand for the first time the significance of the white bits on a page – the spaces at the end of lines and between stanzas that communicate as much as the black bits, the writing.  As a result I now feel able to teach line breaks and stanza breaks with real purpose. Likewise, one simple explanation in ‘Gwynne’s Grammar’ made me see something about participles I had previously never seen  – that they participate with the main verb in a sentence. Since then I have been so much clearer in my discussions around tense in the classroom. In both cases, what I have learnt for myself about my subject has enabled me to teach my pupils more effectively.

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In English there can be an extraordinary demand on the level of understanding a teacher needs to have in order to be effective. Someone who teaches across the key stages will often need to know about a significant number of set texts, along with their social, historical and cultural contexts, and their accompanying criteria and methods of assessments.  More often than not, as specifications change and decisions are made in light of experience, these texts change, making it necessary for teachers to learn lots of new things each year, particularly if they are first or second year teachers or they move schools. And this is just for the literature side of things!

I often think that to some English must appear an easy subject to teach. Surely any competent and literate teacher can engage a class with a few stories or get a bunch of pupils to spot obvious features in a text and then replicate them for themselves. But this is not really what English teaching is for or what I think it should be. I see quality English teaching as being about knowing exactly where pupils are in their language development, about helping children learn how words work, and how these small structures connect to bigger structures and how those bigger structures contain ideas, values and judgments about important things. For me, English teaching is about inspiring pupils to love and understand great works of literature and be able to respond to the needs of the learners as they unfold in a lesson, such as answering awkward questions like ‘is the Cat in the Hat a poem?’, or ‘why is the dialogue between Miranda and Prospero so boring’, or ‘is this –ing word a noun or a verb?’

From my experience of observing quite a few lessons in several different schools, a surprising number of English teachers lack confidence in aspects of their core knowledge and understanding, particularly in relation to grammar and punctuation. This vulnerability tends to find its expression in one of two main ways: avoidance, or worse, hiding behind a barrier of resources, which often consist of unrealistic, decontextualized activities. Often I think that if the teacher had had a deeper understanding of what they were teaching, their explanations would be so much better, their modelling that much clearer and the feedback that much more telling. I sometimes wonder whether detailed schemes of work and overly long Powerpoint presentations with all the information already laid out has had a negative effect on teachers – creating the impression that they really know about something and encouraging them to use sites like Wikipedia to offer pat information.

Of course, this lack of knowledge is not really the fault of the teachers. Time is always at a premium. Furthermore, as many others have already pointed out, the majority of English teachers are literature graduates, from courses where detailed engagement with the more technical aspects of language take a back seat to analysis and interpretation. Many of these teachers – whose knowledge about English is rooted more in language deconstruction rather than creation  – are also part of a generation of teachers who did not receive a thorough grounding in grammar and punctuation in their own education. These doubly-disadvantaged teachers (like me) are now expected to teach young people knowledge and understanding that they either do not possess themselves, or if they do, that they are not always confident enough to use as and when the need arises.

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Despite these challenges, I genuinely believe the raising standards of achievement is as much dependent on teachers seeking to continually improve their own subject knowledge, as it is about increasing their understanding of how pupils learn. The wholeness of teachers’ development is as important as the curriculum itself, whatever its particular leaning.

If the consensus agrees that knowledge and skills complement each other where pupils’ learning is concerned, then surely it follows that this same symbiotic relationship should apply to the teachers who teach them.

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One thought on “It’s what you know that counts: the importance of strong subject knowledge

  1. Pingback: Prospero’s knowledge: magic or curse? | must do better...

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