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

http://www.ssatuk.co.uk/cpd/

  • The Prince’s Teaching Institute

http://www.princes-ti.org.uk/what-we-do/teacher-subject-days/

  • Science Learning Network

https://www.sciencelearningcentres.org.uk/

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.

 

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Miltonic Vision Part I: Trivium 21C, Threshold concepts and the power of ‘powerful knowledge’

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A few years ago, at my previous school, I taught Milton’s Paradise Lost for the first time. Whilst I had read some of the early books in my first year at university, I never managed to complete the poem and I certainly didn’t think I knew it. The thought of teaching such as challenging text to my A2 class was a little to daunting to the say the least. Faced with this vulnerability and my commitment to teach the best of my ability, I did what I always do to prepare: I hit the books.

As you can see from the picture below, getting the time to read what I should have learnt at university was not easy. Somehow, despite the clammerings of a small person, I managed to find the time to learn a lot about the poem – about Milton, his incredible life and his fascinating, yet extremely complex, religious beliefs. The more I read of and about Paradise Lost the more I understood the complexity of the poem, and the more I could enjoy and appreciate its beauty.

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Teacher subject knowledge

Recently, I’ve been thinking quite a lot about my experiencing of teaching Paradise Lost. I suppose the hours I put in to learning the poem are an expression of my belief in the primacy of strong teacher subject knowledge as the key to great teaching – the deep understanding that helps a teacher to guide students to exam success and, perhaps more importantly, fosters a love of learning that remains after exams have been sat and results received. For me, strong teacher subject knowledge operates as both means and ends: ‘means’ as a way to inspire, challenge, provoke, articulate and clarify; ‘ends’ as promotion of the ideal that beauty and complexity are goals in and of themselves.

A lot has been written of late about the importance of strong subject knowledge. I have certainly seen it side-lined in teacher education and training programmes, which too often favour the generic at the expense of the domain specific. I have also seen the marginalisation of teacher subject knowledge in the national curriculum (and hence in the classroom), which has focused more on all encompassing themes and developing skills and less on exploring the intricate networks of knowledge that exist within and across disciplines. The dominant mood has seemed to be that teaching comes first, and knowledge of the subject comes second. It is encouraging to see this imbalance being readdressed, with excellent suggestions here, here, here and here on how to improve initial and ongoing teacher training, as well as curriculum design.

Powerful knowledge

So far I have been focusing on the knowledge of the teacher and how the relative strength of that knowledge can impact the relative strength of the learning within the classroom. Of course, the end point is obviously the learners themselves – and our job is surely to ensure that all students have the opportunity to access, engage and wrestle with the knowledge that is organised and accumulated within disciplines. I am particularly drawn to Michael Young’s notion of ‘powerful knowledge’ in this regard. Unlike my use of the term ‘strong subject knowledge’ – though important, is ultimately more orientated towards the teacher rather than the student – the term ‘powerful knowledge’ distinguishes between ‘knowledge of the powerful’, the knowers of knowledge, and ‘powerful knowledge’ which is concerned with the intrinsic power of knowledge in itself. The entitlement for every young person in education.

Future School 3

‘Powerful knowledge’ lies at the heart of what Young and others describe in their excellent book Knowledge and the Future School: Curriculum and Social Justice. The Future School 3 curriculum model is one of three possible curriculum models open to us in the years to come. Young et al argue that Future School 3 is the best way to achieve a fair and equitable knowledge entitlement for all learners, regardless of background and context. Their model runs counter to what they see as the two curriculum ideologies that have dominated the educational system of the past – Future School 1 and Future School 2.

Future School 1 treats knowledge as largely fixed and the role of the teacher as the deliverer of static bodies of learning to future generations. Its model is ‘compliance’ and ‘transmission’ and is characterised by adherents of the Arnoldian belief in the ‘best which has been thought and said.’ Future School 2 reacts against this thesis on the basis that it is elitist and removed from the lives of young people today, particularly in the digital age. It believes knowledge is changeable and the curriculum should be constructed from and for the experiences of learners in the real world. This is the curriculum model, to a lesser or greater extent, that I have seen dominate my time in education.

Future School 3, however, rejects both these positions and for me offers an exciting way of aligning the way that teachers make use of strong subject knowledge within their subjects to the idea of powerful knowledge accumulating for students across their experience of the whole curriculum. The Future School 3 model emphasises ‘powerful knowledge’ – not as a ‘given’, as with Future 1 – but as ‘fallible and ‘always open to change through the debates and research of particular specialist groups.’ In the Future School 3 framework disciplines collaborate with their learned communities (university departments, subject associations, etc) to create ‘curriculum based on engagement’ not adherence. This model helps learners develop powerful knowledge by deliberately taking them away from their own experiences – defamiliarising their worlds in order to represent them with alternative realities filled with possibility and scope.

It seems to me that one of the most profound possibilities of a Future 3 curriculum is that students are likely to better equipped to ask meaningful questions about the worlds in which they inhabit both now and in the future. I think this is empowering and moral, and in many respects sits nicely alongside what I take to be the main thrust of Martin Robinson’s concept of Trivium 21C: that schools should teach students the facts or knowledge of a subject from the past (grammar), but also give them the necessary tools (rhetoric and dialectic) to be able to interrogate the validity of these truth claims so they can shape their futures. A synthesis of past and present – not from outside in, but from inside out.

Young’s delineation of ‘powerful knowledge’, which I have barely even sketched, also dovetails with another theoretical model I have been mulling over for some time now, Meyer and Land’s notion of Threshold Concepts. I particularly like the way that Powerful Knowledge and Threshold Concepts are both concerned with the underpinnings of disciplines, and how they focus on what is true to subjects in their purest form, not interpretations of them by exam boards, which have become increasingly detached from their learned communities. The way I see it ‘powerful knowledge’ effectively lays out the ideal of what we want our young people to be taught; the Trivium’s grammar, rhetoric and dialectic offer a means of making this simultaneously coherent whilst also open to the possibility of change through a combination of debate and synthesis. Threshold concepts can here become the overarching framework that recognises and identities the nature of progression within each of the disciplines as students inhabit the tension between knowledge of the past and experience of the present.

Paradise Regained

And this is where I return to Paradise Lost, and in particular to my experience of preparing to teach it for the first time. Whilst it would certainly have helped if I had learnt more about the poem during my time at university, the reality was that I was a first year undergraduate reading a incredibly complex text that I was not really equipped to read: my previous studies (which yielded an E at A level literature and a C and D in English language and Literature respectively in the age of 100% coursework!) had left me woefully unprepared for degree level study. I simply did not posses the requisite knowledge of Milton, of poetry, of Literature itself, to properly make sense of one of the finest works in the English Literary Heritage. I did not possess ‘powerful knowledge’.

Some years later as a teacher, through a combination of hard work and the support and kindness of number of inspiring, knowledgeable tutors, I returned to the poem again. By this time I had completed my degree as well as masters in literature. I could understand the poem much better – I understood much more how it worked, what Milton was up to and some of the ways in which he achieved his aims. Above all, I could appreciate the beauty of Paradise Lost, and why I thought it sill had considerable relevance to my life today. I had experienced the way that ‘powerful knowledge’ begets further ‘powerful knowledge’ – the oft quoted, and rather fittingly given the Christian context of the poem, Matthew Effect.

In the second part of this post I intend to look at the poem itself. In particular I want to look closely at Milton’s use of the epic simile as a way of exploring the inherent power of ‘powerful knowledge’ in a little more depth. In this post I wanted to tie together my thoughts about how I think schools can create the conditions where strong teacher subject knowledge meet powerful student knowledge. I hope I have at least partially achieved this aim. Maybe.

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.