What Makes Great Training? 10 ideas for developing subject knowledge and pedagogy

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The need to improve the quality of professional training for teachers is, I think, becoming increasingly well understood. In a time of shrinking budgets and teacher shortages, improving professional development has in some ways become as important about teacher recruitment and retention as improving student outcomes.

Recent publications have provided clarity to where leaders should target their efforts to improve in-school professional learning. The 2014 Sutton Trust report into Great Teaching, for instance, outlines the benefits on student outcomes of teachers who are well versed in their subject.

the most effective teachers have deep knowledge of the subjects they teach, and when teachers’ knowledge falls below a certain level it is a significant impediment to student;’ learning. As well as a strong understanding of the material being taught, teacher must also understand the ways students think about the content, be able to evaluate the thinking behind students’ own methods, and identify common misconception.’

The need to focus school CPD on developing subject-pedagogy alongside more generic forms of training is also a feature of the more recent Teacher Development review, Developing Great Teaching:

the findings from this review indicate the importance of focussing on generic and subject specific pedagogy, so it will be important to consider how subject expertise in particular can be developed alongside more generic aspects as part of CPDL.

In many respects, it should not come as any great surprise that the greatest impact on student outcomes is likely to come from a teacher who knows their subject well and how to teach the nuances and challenges of it to different learners at different stages of their development. The heavy focus on developing ‘generic’ skills was wrong and imbalanced.

As with most things related to teacher development, however, just knowing about what to do can be a far cry from actually being able to put it into practice. I know a lot of teachers, myself included, who broadly understand how to improve aspects of pedagogy, such as giving explanations, honing questioning or improving modeling, but they are not always able to do so themselves. Implementing the how often proves more difficult than understanding the why.

In similar vein, I suspect some school leaders understand the need to focus CPD efforts on developing subject pedagogy, but have not yet figured out how to do it effectively. I know from my own experience how hard it is to make a more subject-specific model of professional learning work. Time is a significant factor, but so are levels of expertise, particularly, for example, amongst some heads of departments.

For years, I suspect that many subject leaders have not really been responsible for shaping the professional development of their teams. Just turning over that responsibility– particularly at a time of considerable change in exam syllabus and assessment – is unlikely to bring about any significant change in the quality of professional learning. This responsibility is significant, especially for less experienced colleagues or colleagues schooled in genericism.

Last September, we changed our curriculum, which meant we could enshrine two hours of professional development a week. The majority of that time – around 40+ hours – is dedicated to improving subject knowledge and subject pedagogy. Whilst this is fantastic, just making more time available was only ever a part of the answer to reversing the failings of the past. We want departments to be in a position to continually develop a better understanding of their subject’s unique demands, so we need to provide them with the tools and guidance to make this happen, which takes time and careful planning.

10 Ideas for improving subject knowledge and pedagogy

In this post I offer 10 ideas about the kinds of activities and resources that we have looked to try and introduce to help teachers and departments to develop their subject knowledge and subject pedagogy. It is not an exhaustive list, but I hope it gives a few pointers about where to start the process of developing subject-specific CPD, or where further improvements can be made for those already in a strong position, such as Durrington School in West Sussex.

  1. Presentations and seminars 

Giving presentations or running seminars on particular areas of strength is an excellent way of sharing the responsibility for developing subject knowledge across a department and, moreover, for improving the ability of individuals to present to adult learners. Some of our departments have developed their own subject knowledge audits to identify strengths and design seminar schedules across the course of the year. In some of these sessions there has bee pre reading, or post seminar activities, such as discussion groups or lesson and curriculum planning sessions. It is our intention to have audits for every subject, partly to pinpoint training needs, but also to help identify and, in turn, circulate expertise more easily, particularly across larger departments.

  1. Subject knowledge audits

Identifying the spread of knowledge in a department is an important step in planning for the development of individual teachers and making sure the needs of the students are successfully met. Subject audits also provide an excellent means of identifying existing areas of expertise, which can be harnessed for the benefit of others. Threshold concepts might be a good way to audit knowledge, but whatever methodology is used it is important that the subject knowledge requirements identified are genuine. In some subjects, like English, PGCE audits like this  or this can be quite vague and unhelpful. Rating degrees of confidence with teaching Victorian literature, for instance, is not the same as auditing the books I have read on the subject or posing questions that pinpoint the concepts or historical details I know. This kind of audit is, I would argue, much more helpful for identifying gaps in knowledge or for throwing up important misconceptions.

  1. Lesson Study

Whilst Lesson Study is often conducted by teachers from across a range of different subject areas, in many respects it makes more sense for three teachers from the same subject to get together to investigate a subject-specific research enquiry question. Peter Dudley, one of the architects of introducing this form of professional development activity into the country, certainly sees its benefits. Writing about the ‘learning points’ of groups working on pedagogical content knowledge, he notes how:

…LS group members are held [to account] by the level of detail required in their planning and analysis discussions ([which] forces even tiny difference of view about practice or content to become exposed.

Lesson Study: Professional Learning for Our Time

If you have not yet looked into lesson study, this document is a great introduction into the format and how to implement it into your school. The Teacher Development Trust and their Network of schools across the country provide considerable guidance and ongoing support with implementing Lesson Study as part of an annual membership. I really cannot recommend membership to the TDT enough.

  1. Wider reading

Conducting wider reading or research takes time. Reading books, articles, reports and websites or blogs should therefore be seen as an entirely legitimate and justifiable professional learning activity. It may be that time is required to read a set text, or research recent developments in a subject area. Departments could pay for membership of their professional body and, as a result, receive publications and journals containing valuable advice, links and networking opportunities. Academic and specialist journals are also available online and local universities often have subscriptions and electronic access to periodicals. I wonder how many departments meet to discuss the ideas in a chapter from a text book, or share their thoughts around a poem. These may seem like frivolous activities, but eat up a lot of teachers’ time outside of school, and collaborative discussions such as these can help fuel debate, identify student misconceptions and lead to a shared approach to explaining difficult concepts to children.

  1. Online courses

Online seminar courses and programmes offer an excellent way for teachers to connect with professional learning communities, including some of the most prestigious university departments and academics in the world. There are a number of different online courses, which are perfect for matching up subject specific needs with personalised learning programmes. Many of the courses are free and those that do charge are relatively inexpensive given the quantity and quality of the material provided. It would be entirely possible for both individuals and small groups of teachers to follow the same online programme, or listen and discuss a particular lecture. Mark Miller has written a good post about how he listens to a lot of wider reading on his way to work in the car.

  1. University links

As Michael Young illustrates so well in Knowledge and the Future School, It is important for subject disciplines to stay connected with their learned communities. It is these communities, namely university departments, subject associations and professional bodies, that link classroom practice to current university research and help make sure that teachers have access to cutting edge insights into their subjects and the ways in which they these can be taught. These connections can take different forms according to the nature of the subject, but in each case they help keep teachers abreast of current developments in their field, which, in turn, make sure that students’ learning is at the forefront of knowledge both past and present. It should be perfectly acceptable for teachers or members of a department to use department or INSET time to visit a university library and research information unavailable elsewhere.

  1. Visits, exhibitions and public lectures

Visits to exhibitions, galleries or museums are often the only way for teachers to develop aspects of their subject expertise, perhaps by seeing important works first hand or learning about how an idea, style or period is represented in different formats. Public lectures by leading academics or subject experts are also a useful means of enhancing professional knowledge. Whilst it is more economical and desirable for speakers to speak to entire departments, this is not always be possible to arrange. This post by Harry Fletcher-Wood goes into more detail about why these kinds of visits are an important part of staff development.

  1. School collaboration

The same principles of external and local collaboration should be encouraged across networks of local schools. It may well be the case that individuals or whole departments in nearby schools and sixth form colleges have specific expertise that can be utilised for the benefit of all. As with the harnessing of university expertise, local teacher knowledge and understanding can be purchased or shared as part of a reciprocal arrangement. This could take the form of developing subject knowledge, or sharing specific insights and approaches gained from individuals working closely with examination boards or subject associations. In some instances, particularly in small similar departments and faculties, it may be beneficial to pair up colleagues with similar training needs for collaborative work.

  1. Leverage coaching

If you are lucky enough to have lesson observation equipment like IRIS Connect, then you have a fantastic tool that can help you to develop a shared understand of effective subject pedagogy. There are two main applications of the lesson observation equipment that can make a difference in supporting a department’s work on developing their understanding of effective subject pedagogy. The first is to develop a bank of masterclass videos illustrating different pedagogical techniques, contextualised within the subject and produced by members of the department. The group facility on IRIS Connect is a fantastic way to discuss points of teaching and keeping examples for posterity, such as an optimal explanation of tragedy for use with future trainees. Lesson observation equipment, such as the Discovery Kit option of IRIS, provides the ideal means for subject-specific coaching: short leverage coaching sessions could be a regular feature of departmental time. These again from Harry Fletcher-Wood are a wonderful primer on the methodology.

  1. Subject specific external providers

There are a number of providers of subject-specific training courses and development opportunities. Below is a short list of some of the main providers of subject-specific training. Departments may wish to invite teachers who have been on external training to feedback to the rest of the department, or to colleagues who would benefit from the information or approaches shared. This acts as a further layer of professional development. Subject professional associations offer another potential way of finding out about high quality subject-specific professional development opportunities. Often the website or professional journals of these associations provide details of current courses on offer and discounts for members are available.

Some providers of subject specific knowledge and pedagogy:

  • SSAT


  • The Prince’s Teaching Institute


  • Science Learning Network


I have written elsewhere of the impact of reviewing student learning as whole department activity, either as part of a learning review or joint planning and assessment via a collaborative teaching cycle. Both of these are great subject-specific development activities, which I hope to write about again in the future.

Here is a useful link to a list of subject associations.

Thanks for reading.


Where next for lesson observations: a tentative look to the future


I have wanted to blog on the topic of lesson observations for a while, but for a combination of reasons I have been a little reticent. Like others, I have undergone quite shift in my own attitude towards being observed. I am actually embarrassed to admit that about 18 months ago I even made a bit of a fuss when it was first mooted that we were no longer going to grade lessons. I was in part voicing the concerns of my department who – believe it or not – did not want to dispense with receiving grades. But I was also speaking on my own behalf: I liked the challenge of being observed and proving myself as a good, or hopefully ‘outstanding’ teacher. I wanted to be validated. It’s all rather ridiculous, I know, and shamefully selfish too. Where’s the students?

Looking back, I can see just how much I had been indoctrinated by a system of grading, one that made people like me care about the number they received, and worse defined themselves as a result of it. Utterly silly. In fairness – although I did not see this at the time – part of my frustration was that whilst we were ditching grades, we were still feeding back to colleagues using Ofsted criteria. I just could not see the logic in using the language of Ofsted, which I always thought was ridiculously onerous and dubious in nature, but not mentioning the grade. The grade would surely be obvious if phrases like ‘rapid and sustained’ or ‘insufficient’ were mentioned. It also seemed deceitful to record grades, but keep teachers in the dark about them.

We have moved on since then and no longer record grades for individual lessons, though I suspect that like many schools there is still a great deal more that we need to do to improve. The overwhelming evidence, particularly the research of Professor Coe, Robert Bjork and the late Graham Nuttell (championed tenaciously by the likes of David Didau and Joe Kirby), presents a compelling challenge to the very efficacy and validity of lesson observations. If learning cannot be directly observed and students don’t learn in the ways that we think they do, how can one teacher have any credibility in casting judgement over another? And even if they do have some ground beneath their feet from which to make a judgement, it seems that very ground keeps moving – according to Professor Coe if your lesson is judged outstanding there is between a 51% to 78% chance a second observer would downgrade it. In our heart of hearts I think we already knew this to be true; it’s worrying it took research like Professor Coe’s to help us to articulate our concerns.

The other main reason why I have been reluctant to post on lesson observations is because I am unsure of what, if anything, should replace them. As certain as I am that it does not make any sense to grade individual or ‘typical’ lessons, I am as uncertain about whether there is still benefit in teachers observing each other and, if there is, what form that should take. The changes to Performance Management complicate this matter further, posing some tough questions for the role and function of lesson observations within the wider system of professional accountability. I very much like the alternatives I have read elsewhere, which involve triangulating a range of factors like examination results, work scrutiny and professional reputation. However, even these can be considered problematic: who is responsible for a class with repeated changes of teacher or a legacy of underachievement? Are field notes about an individual teacher’s professional standing prone to abuse in the hands of the less benign?

For what it’s worth, I believe that there is value in continuing with observations. I recently attended the National Teacher Enquiry Network Conference on Lesson Observation and am convinced that Lesson Study has a considerable role in the future direction that observations take within our schools. The model of teachers planning lessons collaboratively and then observing and evaluating the outcomes in relation to a select group of students seems eminently sensible and in a way self-evident. With learning such a complex business, why would schools not encourage their teachers to work together to understand its complexity and work together to design ways to enhance their teaching in order to respond to the challenges provided by their students and their context? How daft to waste valuable school resources evaluating lessons after they have occurred, rather than front-loading what are ultimately finite resources to the planning stage, when something can actually be done to better understand the learning process through the eyes of the learners.

Yet as much as I admire Lesson Study, and despite all the overwhelming evidence challenging the efficacy of lesson observations, I still think there is a place for observations. It would need to be a greatly reduced role, one that looked and felt different, and had a different tone and structure of interaction between the observer and the observed. One such model is the one outlined in Paul Bambrook-Santoyo’s excellent Leverage Leadership. I have blogged before about how the English department are piloting this approach, but in short, this model sees one teacher observing a colleague for about 20mins each week with a subsequent debriefing. The observations are pencilled in for the same times each week to ensure they become routine. No criteria are used. The ‘more experienced’ colleague simply makes a couple of notes about the things they see and the two teachers discuss these observations later in the debrief. Between them, they agree an area to work on in the next lesson, which the observer helps them to plan for or talk through.

After some initial reluctance, the teachers are enjoying working with colleagues on specific development areas each week – they feel supported and observations no longer carry that element of fear. Teachers are openly identifying their own weaknesses and working with their observation partner to try and resolve them. There are similarities to Lesson Study in the nature of collaboration and the admittance of a degree of uncertainty. I can see a way that this model could be scaled up across a school, where (similar to the Uncommon Schools approach used in Teach Like a Champion) performance outliers can be identified and specific aspects of their practice analysed in order to draw up a catalogue of professional expertise. These lead learners could form the bedrock of a list of options that teachers could be linked with in order to develop their practice, perhaps as part of the appraisal process. I intend to blog more about what this framework might look like in the coming months when I have had chance to hone my thinking further.

Beyond this, I think lesson observations also have a place in relation to supporting colleagues with improving their behaviour management. Whilst the process of learning is undeniably complex, I think that there is much greater clarity (and dare I say consensus) around how best to make learning more likely to occur. I guess I am thinking here, though not exclusively, of inexperienced colleagues – those teachers who in the first year or two of teaching can find it hard to control classes and manage disruptive behaviour. It might be impossible to evaluate the extent of learning within a lesson, but I think it is possible to judge whether conditions for learning have been established. I also think it’s possible to know what those conditions look like and how best to help a teacher to create them within his or her own environment. In short, I am suggesting that lesson observations, following the regular, supportive approach described above, could still have a place in helping teachers master the art of classroom management. Where we need to be honest, though, is that beyond these ‘rules’ for establishing presence, there are only ideas, intuitions and probabilities.

The only certainty of learning, it seems to me, is that it is hard to be certain about it. Let’s stop pretending that this is otherwise and admit what we don’t know in order to help us to know more.