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On subject knowledge–it’s not a dichotomy but a blend.


An interesting chat on Twitter yesterday has me pondering about the importance of subject knowledge.  The report into great teaching by Coe et al (available here) argues that pedagogical content knowledge has strong evidence of impact on student outcomes.  Now, I don’t see this as an Earth shattering observation as I’ve argued that for a long time, and consider teachers to be experts. I’m still pondering a fuller post in response to the article.  The conversation last night has provoked consideration of how schools can create systems to encourage the development of subject knowledge.

Now, before suggesting any practical steps, it’s worth considering what I consider to be subject knowledge.  I am a geographer, and consider myself to be an expert in the geographical subject knowledge needed for secondary education.  Indeed, by being a geographer I find that workload is reduced and well-being increased as I’m doing what I love.  However, I do not accept that there is a dichotomy between the following:

exam subjectHow  what to teach

It’s more like this:

venn examsVenn

I don’t think that you can separate pure subject knowledge from the practicalities of how to teach it, nor from how to pass the examinations.  There is overlap. For example, a Science department who wish to explore Physics and yet develop a Controlled Assessment practical that explores the nature of meteorite impact craters. The team had to first develop the specific subject knowledge, then develop teaching sequences and ,methods to develop the skills and knowledge needed and then ensure that the practical not only allowed students to explore and test the variables, but met the exam board criteria.  Any one who argues that exam board and specification knowledge is not needed, should go through the heartbreak of getting 80-odd students to rewrite their coursework as, although lessons were fun and delivered ‘quality’ geography, the resulting work was worth nowt. Other examples can be taking from Geography and IT & Computing.

There are many advantages of developing a stronger subject knowledge culture in schools.  This isn’t really a list, but a set of interconnected and interdependent variables:

  • We develop Teachers’ Standard 4, especially encouraging teachers to be scholars in their own subjects.  Teachers who love their subject and learn it for its own sake, pass on this enthusiasm and knowledge to students.  Not only that, they are more likely to support useful transgressions and explore tangents thrown up by students’ questions.  Finally, scholarly teachers are able to make links between the subject and the real world with ease, ensuring that young people move from familiar contexts to applying their knowledge and skills to wider, richer fields.
  • Wellbeing and workload improvements.  In a secondary school, we are teachers because we love our subjects.  At least I believe that’s the case with most teachers.
  • Educational outcomes are more successful, whether measured through attainment, achievement, resilience…..  Teachers that know their subject well are able to throw in extras.  For example, a GCSE examples to stretch a bright Year 7 pupil.
  • School subjects avoid becoming isolated and fossilised, ensuring that students continue to have the enthusiasm needed.
  • Teachers are in the unique position of being able to communicate their knowledge.  Not all experts can teach.

So how might it be done?  I think that there is a lot that already happens in schools to develop subject knowledge, but I acknowledge that there has been a shift toward generic CPD. Now, if teachers have the expert subject knowledge….  I’m trying to keep the focus here on what schools can do to encourage teachers to develop their subject knowledge in school time.

What can schools do?

  • The last two INSET days have been given over to the departments.  The first enabled them to explore the new subject knowledge needed for a changing exam landscape.  The science department spent the day developing new experiments; art spent the day painting whilst the IT and Computing department got to grips with coding.  During the second, we asked for departments to develop feedback and extended writing polices using this knowledge.  This allows middle leaders to repurpose department meetings away from mundane admin tasks toward the stuff that really matters. Sometimes the admin stuff needs to be done, and INSET days can be used to do that. (more on this below).
  • Use INSET days in different ways.  In the past, as leader of CPD, I’ve tried a number of approaches for this.  INSET shouldn’t be one-size fits all so as TLR holders attended a leadership conference, heads of department were asked to send their staff out in to other schools to investigate issues of their choosing.  For example, PE sent teachers into a number of different schools with teachers all investigating the same focus.  A few weeks later, during an evening Professional Learning Time, each department fed back to the rest of the school in a way of their choosing.  Everyone was able to visit and learn from each other.   INSET days could also be used to develop department ‘away-days.’  These are an intensive day spent developing specific schemes of work, resources and exploring ideas.
  • Ensure that subject specific periodicals and journals are on subscription and available in the school’s library.  I’ve always read journal articles (and lately iTunes U, TED and other areas have allowed me to access podcasts and other media) aimed at university level as well as those from the subject associations. Join the subject associations and provide the time to allow departments to explore the literature.  This could be done by reducing admin meeting time (year / tutor meeting time for me, could be a prime target) to allow a department ‘ed-book club’ to be created. Departments shouldn't have to pick this bill up and it should be an expectation.
  • Encourage and pay for teachers to take a subject specific MA course.  It could be something like the MA in Geographical Education, or simply an MA that is not even education related.  How many generic education / leadership MAs do we need anyway?  I’d love to be able to offer sabbatical years for this to happen.
  • Encourage middle leaders to develop bespoke subject knowledge packages for their staff and support this.
  • Set up a teaching and learning blog and get each department to ‘take it over’ for a fortnight – with subject knowledge posts. Give time for this.
  • We have Drop Everything And Read time, but many schools have silent reading.  Remind staff that they could use this time to read a subject periodical or article.
  • Free up time. Yes, this is expensive, but it can be done. 
  • Provide TLR 3 opportunities focused on action research.  Ultimately, action research is forged in the crucible of subject knowledge.  This year, we have four teachers researching various questions on a small scale.  What they are learning is fantastic.

What can middle leaders do? The subject leader is the key here.  It is their job to identify the main subject gaps and to feed this back to those teachers and SLT together with a plan to close the gap.

  • I always used to use local coffee shops, tea rooms and pub meeting space to hold some after school meetings.  These were free of admin (I’d already sorted that through cloud based minutes – some things really can be done by email) and focused on a teaching and learning issue.  A key example each year was the fieldwork component. This alone meant that we had time to explore and develop projects such as Olympic Geocaching and the Mobile at Priory project.
  • Repurpose department meeting time for teaching and learning / subject issues.  Schools are benign dictatorships, and so are departments.  Sometimes a middle leaders can just write the policy, make the detention decisions and write the action plan before communicating this.  Not everything needs consultation.  I’ve seen our Science department do this really well lately, and they are really using the extra Curriculum Meeting time well.  Middle Leaders should kick off more often and take control of CPD.  One of the departments I line manage is doing that brilliantly at the moment.  They have identified their own subject knowledge gaps and are now using the meeting time to close these.  They are learning from each other, but also taking advantage of external courses.
  • Some, no most, external courses are pants and have very little impact.  However, if directed by a subject leader and tied into department meeting time, they can be used very well. It should all be tied into appraisal and the department development plans (which should be tied into the school’s development plan)
  • Remember that simple things have a massive impact.  Encouraging teachers to share their subject knowledge and visit other lessons on peer observations have a huge impact.  As does looking through books focused on a particular topic.  How did everyone teach it?  This is the power of the campfire: telling stories to each other around a subject.
  • Create a subject knowledge audit.  What skills and knowledge do teachers require to create successful learners in your department? Is it explicitly listed anywhere?  Get teachers to self-evaluate themselves. Use this to identify and then fill the gaps.  Can you learn from each other? Do you need to get some external help or courses? 
  • Investigate the online CPD offerings.  There are many, free and low cost, options available. Online learning is much better than it used to be, ad it’s very flexible. 
  • Develop a subject specific CPD library.
  • Take the whole department to the same conference.  You’ll have to fight hard to fund this one, especially if in school time, but argued right it can be done.  Even in holiday time, I would encourage a department team to do this.  From external funding (giving some of the talks etc), I was able to take the whole department to the GA’s Annual Conference. That meant we could hit loads and loads of different sessions.  An informal meal afterward meant we could share what we had learned.  During the Keynotes we were able to debate the key issues from first-hand experience.
  • Listen to and demand that your staff look out for their subject knowledge.  Be aware of what CPD is out there (set up a Google Alert and scan your mail). For example, Goldsmith’s send teachers to CERN each year. For free.
  • Set up and nurture local subject networks.  This is a mission, but well worth the investment.
  • If you get subject INSET time, use it really well. If you don’t, you’ll lose it.

What can teachers do?

  • Stay positive. Understand that new legislation rarely needs us to throw the baby out with the bath water.
  • Take charge of your own CPD.  Don’t expect others to do this for you and not every middle leader takes my approach to CPD.  Find out what you need and use it.
  • I know that there’s loads and loads to do, but carve out a small section of your PPA each week to read an article or watch a subject specific Youtube video.
  • Don’t expect the answer to be yes! Ask for CPD with a plan of how it will impact the classes you teach. Don’t waste time going on pants courses.
  • If you love your subject, do a little light reading in your own time. I know, I know it’s that workload life / balance thing – but I love my subject so reading the latest journal articles aren’t an issue.  I think that schools should provide the time to develop your subject knowledge, but we are lucky to work in a great job that we are all interested in.  Personally, I still make time for this – 30 mins a week on a Friday. This used to be on the train during the 45 min commute, and now I sit in the lounge with a beer.

I realise that this post is written by a person who has engaged in Subject CPD wherever possible, including week long residential.  However, I really truly believe that a bit of reading and talking to colleagues can have a massive impact.

What goes on in your school to encourage the development of subject knowledge? What are the barriers to you developing a stronger subject knowledge?



Image Credit Pete Prodoehl ‘Expert’ Used under a Creative Commons licence.


  1. So true! If the 'subject self 'is strong the 'teaching self' will be stronger too.
    Comes down to will, time & money.

    1. Thanks Stephen. Subject knowledge is vital, and can also improve cross-curricular links. I don't think that any subject should become too inward looking.

    2. I recommend using Online courses too, such as this excellent one on Global Learning :)


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