CPD series: Subject knowledge is not enough

This is the third blog in a series of posts that unpack a little bit of where I think we had come in terms of professional development as a provision, but how we might now start to make further refinements that seek to move us along on our path of continual improvement. You can find the previous two blog posts of the series here and here. This post aims to unpack my #EducatingNorthants session that was shared on the 27th.

It is so refreshing that subject knowledge is becoming top of agenda within the school offer of CPD, but also communicated more widely within ITT and ECT as part a key priority for developing classroom expertise. Gone are the days of blanket-approach pedagogy on the most part, as we return to and recognise the importance of knowing the subject and not just the substance of teaching. At The Duston School, we’ve worked hard to live out ‘the teacher is the expert’ mantra, with curated subject-level programmes and time handed over to subject leads to be able to develop their own subject-specific CPD, which tends to the nature of their respective subject, but also the subject knowledge of their teams. Equally, subject communities at a regional and national level continue to support schools with this important work, and I find it a really exciting time for professional development in schools.

Now that we have begun to create a balanced approach to CPD at a subject level, with an astute understanding that CPD needs to pay service to the subject if we are to expect teachers to undertake meaningful curriculum development, then perhaps it is worth consideration as to how this might look.

How do we align pedagogy with our subject specialisms?

What have we learned from pitfalls of CPD previously encountered, and where can we tap into the incredible resource of the teaching body as it currently stands, so that we utilise subject experts beyond the legacy of a word document or slide deck within a unit of learning?

More importantly, how do we centre this work around a sense of collaboration, so that we equip curriculum designers of the future through paramount discussions with the curriculum designers that have come before?

First, there needs to be a developed understanding that subject expertise are not subject expertise in the context of the classroom. Knowing a literature text inside and out is not enough as an English specialist: I must actively seek to understand how that text can be perceived by students, and so my knowledge of the text becomes tailored to a classroom context. Speaking with teachers, it becomes increasingly apparent that whilst we are reluctant to adhere to the ‘rite of passage’ narrative with early career teachers, claiming that teaching is only possible through doing, there is some truth in the fact that teaching a text over and over develops one’s ability to see it through the eyes of the student. We begin to anticipate and prepare for where students may expose gaps in knowledge, but as the world evolves around us, are able to draw from historical moments of figures to make the abstract a little more tangible.

Seeking to align our perception of the text to the perception of the world requires not only an understanding of the text itself, but also how to handle such sensitivities in a nuanced way. But we are surrounded by teachers who have taught these texts for years; who are able to pass this baton of knowledge of not just the subject, but their experience of it. Through sharing such experiences of how to shine a line on the conceptual matter of subject curriculum for students, whether it be the questions we pose to students to draw their attention to the matter of gender exploitation at play as Gerald speaks on behalf of Sheila, to Juliet’s deliberate inversion of power through language when left with little else in her encounter with Paris, as he assumes ownership at a time when a women could be such an object. From handling the simple misconception that the poet is the speaker, and comprehending the value of beginning with such a misunderstanding within the context of a classroom, this shift of the academic knowledge of the subject, to knowledge of the subject for the primary or secondary classroom enables us to develop teachers to teach for the student as well as the subject. There develops an anticipatory nature to our teaching, as we teach for what might not be known, as opposed to just everything that could be.

Next, we might consider how our knowledge of cognitive science meets the needs of the subject discipline, and where , as a faculty, we are deliberately demonstrating how this might look to do it effectively in real time within a classroom setting. At a micro level, modelling, retrieval, selection of key moment questioning for our respective subject will be bespoke and encompass a degree of subject specificity, which means it is important for us to come together to actualise how this might look in practice. If I want to develop students’ capability to write effectively, what choices have I made around modelled examples to share with them? In what sequence? What does each respective piece focus their attention on? Why? How does this sequence of modelled examples not only enable me to gradually remove the scaffold, but also has an accumulative nature that means students are taken on a journey of what it means to write using the leading principles of rhetoric, or the complexities of tense shift, or the creation of a motif that runs like a thread throughout their writing?

Indeed, if we are making decisions around the type of retrieval to incorporate within teaching for the week ahead, what will students need to recall? How will this be used? Why that knowledge? If I want to teach Wordsworth’s Excerpt of the Prelude, having taught Shelley’s Ozymandias, can students first identify the concept of power? Or iambic pentameter? Or the nature of humanity? Or allegory? By making these choices, we are making trade offs of what not to focus on, because it is the best choice for our subject, and the discussions with other experts to reach such decisions help us to become more incisive in these decisions as we continue to develop as teachers.

Finally, Have we set aside time to partake in these conversations collectively, regularly, with meaningful discourse to build up mental models? How are we agreeing a common language beforehand? How would this be structured? Where do we work to transcend an organisational hierarchy and look instead to the knowledge of our teams? It is worth careful deliberation over how these discussions take place, and whether it forms part of a larger sequence that takes subject teachers on a journey of development, because ultimately, the professional dialogue that materialises aids to equipping curriculum designers of the future to have these conversations in their own subject teams at some point in the future. Not only that, but ask any teachers, and their eyes will light up at the prospect of subject-driven discussion. Debates of how we teach the subject are far from right or wrong, more or less effective, but absolutely necessary for us to ask questions of our own teaching, and open ourselves up to be challenged. This will lead to professional evolution for those involved, but also subject evolution, which is really something special.

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