The Importance of Subject Knowledge | @mrpepperrs

Rob PRobert is a teacher of religious studies and deputy head of sixth form at a selective state school. He is also Youth Officer of his local CLP.

I am beginning to write schemes of work and prepare my resources for teaching two new specifications at GCSE and A level in September. Perhaps my subject is unusually diverse, but at A Level I may well have to teach a unit analysing a gospel text, or present the weaknesses in the analytic philosophy of the Vienna Circle, or the criticisms of the Yogacara conception of ontology by the third century Indian philosopher Nagarjuna. If I were to change schools, I may be expected to teach Islam or Judaism at A Level instead. In order to derive any enjoyment from teaching, to gain the respect of my students, and, most importantly of all, to give them the best chance of success in their examinations, it is essential that I am an expert in these areas.

On this point, many readers will disagree. Certainly it has been my experience in the profession that some teachers believe their role is to ‘facilitate’ learning. This ‘guide on the side’ supports students with useful prompts and questions, but does not claim ownership of the subject material but rather ‘learns alongside’ the students. I would agree that this approach has significant and very real benefits. But it is not enough. A student needs to be guided, but by an expert. The requisite standard of expertise is not that of omniscience, but it must be above the top grade of the qualification one is teaching.

However, throughout my career no school time at all has ever been given to developing my subject knowledge. There is an assumption made that I am already an expert, or that perhaps for the ideological reasons briefly outlined above, other aspects of teaching are more important to focus on. I have had many, varied, and useful training sessions on pedagogy, and a range of performance management targets aimed at improving student performances. Never have I had a PM target or a CPD session based solely on subject content. Yet I believe it is utterly essential for outstanding teaching and learning.

It must be difficult to inspire enthusiasm for your subject in a child if your own passion is not sufficient to have spurred you on to develop deep knowledge. It must be difficult to inspire the very brightest students if you are not capable of the grades to which they aspire. The teaching process itself is much less enjoyable and much more fraught and tense if the teacher feels as if he or she might be ‘found out’ by a tricky question from a precocious student.

In Swift’s words, my ‘modest proposal’ would be to move subject expertise out from the shadows of CPD. Whilst many teachers make supreme efforts to achieve and maintain expert status, I believe they are entitled to expect significant help from their employers who should value this task highly. It is unreasonable for schools not to provide real support, both in terms of time and funding, to develop subject knowledge. This is especially true when new specifications are being introduced, or new members of staff join a department.

Schools could implement a host of measures. For instance, departmental meetings could include discussions about content, not just how that content can be best taught. Departmental funds could be allocated to purchasing books for staff, with a clear expectation that they must be read and where appropriate used in improving the provision of the course. If possible, support for higher subject specific degrees could be provided. Any measure that improves subject expertise in a school should be considered. Implementing any would be an improvement on the status quo.

2 thoughts on “The Importance of Subject Knowledge | @mrpepperrs

  1. The connection between subject knowledge and teaching ability is a complex one . I have also commented on this in a Labour Teachers blog called ‘A False Division on Education’

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