A teachers subject knowledge has strong evidence of impact on student outcomes. So how do we get deep and fluent subject knowledge?
Why do we need deep subject knowledge?
Professor Rob Coe and colleagues wrote in their 2014 What Makes Great Teaching? report that “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 students learning”. What is significant about this is that of all the factors they analysed, only effective instruction was found to be as important.
Prof. Coe also highlights the need for deep subject knowledge in the Great Teaching Toolkit Evidence Review. In the review the authors place subject knowledge in Dimension 1 and Element 1.1. The write:
The first element of Dimension 1 is essentially content knowledge, of a deep and connected kind. Teachers need to know how different ideas in the subject or domain are related, similar, sequential, analogous or distinct. They needGreat Teaching Toolkit, Evidence Based Education
to have thought about, and have good answers to, the kinds of ‘Why?’ and ‘What would happen if…?’ questions that students may ask and that teachers themselves should ask to promote connected and higher-order thinking.
Rosenshine also documents the need for deep subject knowledge in Principles of Instruction. Rosenshine looked at the defining characteristics of effective teaching, with regards to subject knowledge he found that effective teachers were able to provide detailed explanations of the material they teach. To exemplify this 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.’ (p. 14)Principles of Instruction, 2012
In the paper Rosenshine also notes that effective teachers don’t overwhelm students by presenting too much information at once. Instead we can give short presentations, check for understanding and provide many examples. I’d go as far to say that we can’t provide quality lectures, demonstrations and worked examples unless our subject knowledge is deep enough to allow us to do it well. Furthermore, we wont be able to ask a lot of questions without knowing what we want the students to think about.
Going Off Piste is one of my favourite teaching strategies outlined in Making Every Geography Lesson Count by Mark Enser. I also spoke about this being a great strategy from The Learning Rainforest by Tom Sherrington. Both are great books. In MEGLC, Mark Enser writes about shifting away from a lesson plan to tackle student misconceptions. Enser writes:
Without this underlying knowledge in place, it would be negligent to just continue with the planned lesson. Instead we need to stop to address the area of confusion with a clear, albeit ad hoc, explanation and then provide the opportunity for students to practice using this new knowledge.Making Every Geography Lesson Count
Mark then goes further by outlining that this approach would not work unless the teacher has a ‘deep well of knowledge to draw on’.
So i’m sure by now we all agree that having a deep subject knowledge is essential for effective teaching, the question we now need to consider is how do we develop a deep and fluent knowledge of our subject and how do we maintain this knowledge throughout our time in the classroom.
Developing and maintaining deep subject knowledge?
Despite the success of the What Makes Great Teaching? report many initial teacher training courses and in-school CPD focus on what the authors call ‘less significant elements’. Because of this many teachers take matters into their own hands when develop their subject knowledge through reading books, joining associations and discussing their practice during breaks and lunches.
If we accept that a teachers subject knowledge is incredibly important then we need to build in time for it during the working week. A great example of this for school leaders to consider is Subject Planning and Development Sessions (SPDS) used at Durrington High School. Shaun Allison describes the approach by saying:
These sessions have been calendared once a fortnight, in subject teams. They will provide the opportunity for subject teams to meet and work together to plan high quality teaching, through regular, subject specific collaborative planning & CPD – placing the focus very much on our core purpose….great subject teaching.Shaun Allison in Class Teaching Blog
If this isn’t possible in your school for whatever reason as an individual teacher you can take control of your subject specific development, as Kate Jones writes in Love to Teach you should ‘own your CPD’. Teachers can develop their subject knowledge by doing a number of things:
Read around your subject – I have written previously about why you should develop a reading habit. I would recommend that you read subject specific books to deepen your knowledge on the topics that you will be teaching. This deep knowledge will allow you to provide clear ad-hoc explanations and go off piste.
Plan lessons with colleagues – each member of your department will have expert knowledge in a different area of the course. Just like how Shaun Allison tasks his teams during SPDS why don’t you get together with a colleague and plan explanations, identify potential misconceptions and co-create lessons to teach and discuss afterwards. There is something to learn from everyone and it is my opinion that teaching is most certainly a team sport.
Join your subject association – each subject has an association that is often brimming with resources and like minded colleagues to bounce ideas off of. Many associations also offer department memberships which is often underused.
Find a wider community – social media is a great place to chat with teachers and about teaching. Many subjects have their own hashtag (#teamenglish for example) and thousands of teachers sharing resources, ideas and challenging one another. If used well it really is a great community. There are also loads of conferences, TeachMeets and BrewEds that you can get along to. They are often organised by teachers that just love collaborating with other teachers.
Developing your subject knowledge is incredibly important so I encourage you to prioritise it. I’ve offered a few suggestions to develop and maintain your own knowledge but there are many other options. If you are a school leader I implore you to prioritise time for teachers to develop their subject knowledge. After all, the evidence suggests that it has a ‘significant impact on student outcomes’.