Festival of Education – 2014

I’ve been meaning to put this up for a while now.  It’s the full transcript of my speech from Wellington this year.  I’m still keen to hear other teachers’ thoughts on and challenges to the ideas here.

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I’m just a teacher, but as a teacher I noticed something early in my career, and I’d like to share it with you. People said I was brave, to become a teacher.  Funny, I never really thought of bravery a as component of joining a profession!  Of course I knew what they meant; Brett Wigdortz is the founder of Teach First, and in his book ‘Success Against the Odds,’ he describes Teach First’s strategy to ‘change the conversation happening on campus.’  He recognised that when someone talked to a friend about joining a teacher training programme, they’d receive a response: “Brilliant, you’re so brave!”  Subtext: ‘What a weirdo.  At least you’ll have good stories.’  He wanted to change that response into: “Brilliant, you’re so lucky!”  Subtext: ‘Bastard.  I’m so jealous.  You are one of life’s winners that I want to become.’

I used to think Wigdortz had been successful, that Teach First had indeed changed the conversation.  In fact I do still believe they have, on campus, but in the wider world, as I entered teaching, I realised there was another conversation taking place: people would debate whether or not teaching was a profession at all.  Well… whether it is or it isn’t, or it should or it shouldn’t be, no-one can be truly convinced it’s a profession if that’s a debate that needs to be had, and it certainly is not a prestigious one.  John Blake offers what is perhaps a more nuanced alternative: “Teaching is not yet a mature profession.”

I’m a teacher, and I’m not happy with that being the status quo.

What Lawyers, Doctors and Accountants need to know

So what’s the problem; why are we not yet a mature profession?  Well I live with two lawyers, who are now training to become barristers.  I asked them to gather up all the notes and books they needed to know to qualify to enter the profession.  Here it is.

Law Books

Another friend is three years into training to become a doctor.  I asked him to do the same, and he sent me this picture.

Doctor Books

Finally, a third friend spent a year training to become a chartered accountant , but left the profession to join teaching; she’ll be training next year.  As an accountant, she needed to know this.

Accountacy Books

As a teacher, she will need to know this.

Teacher Books

Don’t believe me?  The teachers in the room will know it’s true; we never sat an exam to qualify for our PGCEs, and we were never given a body of knowledge like lawyers, doctors or accountants that we had to study.  Yes there are textbooks, and yes there are the latest fashions and fads of teaching that we are made familiar with, but no real body of knowledge.

Once you can teach, you can teach anything

To illustrate that point further, in his recent book, Rob Peal describes a conversation he had with his head teacher when he visited his school in the summer before he was due to start training.  “So Rob, what will you be doing over the summer to prepare for September?”  “Well I think I’ll probably bone up on my knowledge of history.”  “Oh I shouldn’t worry about that!  History is a skills based subject, you should be able to teach it without knowing any history at all!”

Personally, I spoke with one head teacher who said to me: “I believe that if you’re a teacher, you can teach anything.  All that matters is that you know how to teach.”  All that matters is that you know how to teach…  It doesn’t matter what you know about a subject, just that you ‘know how to teach,’ and if I were to read between the lines, by that I suspect she largely meant ‘know how to manage a class of thirty kids!’  What’s interesting here is that no lawyer is automatically assumed to be able to deal with any and all case types, just because they know ‘how to law…’

A Parent’s Perspective

Imagine you’re a parent – if you’re not – about to send your 11 year old child off to secondary school for the first time.  Imagine what it might be like to send this small person, whom you cherish more than anything else, into the care of strangers.  You will abandon them for roughly eight hours a day, and trust that people you don’t know will take care of them in your stead.  You will also trust that those people will educate them; teach them everything they need to know to leave school intelligent, and with an abundance of hope and opportunity still before them.  You might hope that they will return from school knowing even more than you do about various subjects, despite your decades-long head-start.  What kind of teachers would the school have to employ for that dream to become a reality; for your child to out-perform you in their knowledge of mathematics, science, English literature and grammar, history and geography amongst others?  How will you make sure in advance that the school employs teachers who do know more than you alone could teach your child?

It’s not possible to know what a teacher knows

Here’s an interesting open-secret: there is no way for you to know what your child’s teachers know about the subject they are teaching.  Even if you had the time and the inclination, there is no book you can pick up, no resource you can interrogate that will tell you the minimum that every teacher of mathematics, or English, or science, must know in order to be called a teacher of mathematics, a teacher of English or a teacher of science.  When you go to a doctor, when you hire a legal representative, and when you employ a financial advisor, you know there is a minimum standard of knowledge they have been required to meet.  You might not know what it is, and you might not have the time to find out, but you can at least rest secure in the knowledge that it’s there; and books documents exist that you could read to give yourself an overview of the kinds of things in which these professionals are assessed, to ensure they understand, before being permitted to call themselves doctor, or lawyer, or accountant.  As a parent, you will have to trust to blind-luck that the teachers of your children know what they need to in order to best educate your child; not just to help them pass an exam, but to really educate them in their subject specialism.

A minimum standard

Of course, no matter the situation there will always be some natural variation.  There will always be the doctors who are good, and those who are better; the lawyers who are good, and those who are better – this is not a call to eliminate variety in teaching or elsewhere, nor do I think we could succeed if we tried!  At this point, I’m simply acknowledging that there is a certain minimum standard, a bar set extremely high, that exists for other professions and that doesn’t exist for teaching.

Three weeks ago I found myself back in Birmingham, where I trained.  I sat drinking a delicious chocolate milkshake, as a friend sipped a cup of tea, and she pointed out to me that I was wrong: such a minimum standard does exist.  That minimum is guaranteed by our degree qualification.  Not only that, but ‘subject knowledge’ certainly is something that we are assessed for in becoming teachers.

Well, yes some of us do have relevant degrees, but not all.  Some of us have A Levels studied a long time ago, and some others have neither degree nor A Levels.  Some teachers have degrees or A levels in one subject, but then find themselves teaching another, completely different subject. As for assessment of current subject knowledge, some of you, like me, will be teachers, or will have been in the past.  You will already recognise what I’m about to say; for those who haven’t trained yet as teachers, I’d like to you give you a sneak peak at our world, from the inside.  Yes, we may have degrees, and yes there is a box on a sheet that grades our subject knowledge as ‘inadequate, requiring improvement, good or outstanding.’  We see it on observation forms, and we see it in termly reviews.  So let’s look at how that system works at its very best.

I teach mathematics, and I have a 2.1 Masters level degree in physics, an almost entirely mathematical discipline.  My subject knowledge is the only teaching standard that was and has been assessed as ‘outstanding’ in every single observation or review I have ever had, right from the start.  On paper… on paper I think it would be accepted that I represent the highest standard of teacher subject knowledge, and now I hope that what I say next will dispel any hubris that might be connected to that statement, because what I’m going to do next is confess to you what I didn’t know.  I can’t stand here and list for you all the things about mathematics that I didn’t know, as I stood in front of a hundred hopeful children; there just isn’t time for that.  What I can do though is give you a flavour, and hopefully some of these will be shocking, because it should be shocking for a maths teacher not to know these things:

  1. I didn’t know how to multiply decimal numbers.
  2. I didn’t know how to subtract numbers on paper. Actually I didn’t know many paper-based methods of calculation, including division and even long-multiplication.
  3. I didn’t know what number bonds were, or the hierarchy of strategies that exist for mental calculations
  4. I never realised that squaring a number was the same as actually constructing a square, hence the name!
  5. I never knew that statistics is the inverse of probability. In fact, I would bet that nearly all maths teachers still don’t know this.
  6. I knew that Pythagoras’ theorem was a squared plus b squared equals c squared, but I never once realised that the theorem was literally about constructing squares off the sides of a triangle. For me, it was nothing but a pointless-process for finding the answer to an exam question.
  7. I didn’t even know the difference between an equation, a function, a formula and an identity, and again, many other maths teachers don’t either.

I suppose a person might argue that I didn’t know these because I’d never used them; therefore they’d never been useful to me, and perhaps therefore they’re not useful for me to teach.  To argue this is to be foolish.  I can recall a time I attended an assessment centre for a highly competitive and prestigious global consultancy firm, and during their quantitative reasoning test, which involved awkward numbers and no calculator, I struggled slowly using my sluggish, error-prone mental strategies while I was consciously aware of a girl to my left feverishly scribbling paper-based calculations using standard algorithms.  Needless to say I didn’t even get to the second round of three.  We can never know how our ignorance has held us back in life.

Furthermore, the more restricted the knowledge of our nation’s teachers, the even more narrow the minds of our future generations.  Teachers should be trained to be the very most well-educated, knowledgeable professionals we have in our service, not left to wallow as classroom managers, with just the right amount of knowledge necessary to tip kids over a C grade in an exam.

Should teachers fear more rigorous assessment of subject knowledge?

By this point there’s a question that might have come to some teachers’ minds: should I fear what is being said?  Is he trying to undermine my professionalism?  Is he suggesting I’m not very good at my job, or not very knowledgeable?  Is he proposing more hoops to jump through; more evaluations?  Is he saying I should be licensed or struck off a teachers register if I can’t demonstrate knowledge of some esoteric part of my subject that I’ve never and will likely never need to teach?

Unequivocally, no, to all of the above.

Rather, if you’re a teacher, should not your knowledge and expertise be recognised, accredited and rewarded?  Where there are gaps in your knowledge, shouldn’t you rest assured that your initial training will recover and augment all of the fundamental knowledge you require to deliver your subject, well, from the very first lesson?  Shouldn’t you feel secure that there is an ongoing programme of professional development which will seek to further advance your subject knowledge?  Shouldn’t there be ways for you to develop in the career you love, as a teacher, teaching children, rather than management being the only progression available to you?

Instead, for teachers today CPD is an endless cycle and recycle of the same staid subjects: B4L, AFL, EAL, SEN, VAK, group work, project work, engaging lessons, questions in lessons, outdoor lessons, independent lessons and so on.  Having a codified body of knowledge that teachers learn would help set forth serious career progression in one major aspect of teaching.  Beyond that, it would provide an opportunity for those at the peak of their craft to contribute to and expand the body of knowledge.

What might a codified body of knowledge look like?

So what would it look like?  I find that most people overlook the idea of actual ‘knowledge of the subject’ of being a part of something teachers need to be taught; we all assume that a teacher with a degree, and having gone through school themselves, must know everything they need to know, or can easily pick it up again, and that we will insult them if we propose otherwise.  I hope I’ve shown from my own experience that that assumption doesn’t hold – we really don’t know everything we need to, and we really do need to be reminded, or in some cases, even taught again, properly.

In fact I’m going to allude to the former US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, in acknowledging that in the list I gave you there were some things I knew I didn’t know, ‘the known unknowns,’ such as how to divide or subtract on paper, but more worryingly there were many ‘unknown unknowns,’ such as the very existence of number bonds, or that Pythagoras’ theorem could be anything other than a formula for finding the length of sides.  Of course I do know these things now, but I’ve happened across them only through a combination of my own individual efforts, and random chance.  I was never taught these things as part of any structured development, and I’m far from knowing everything I feel I need to be a confident, qualified professional, and the weight of the known unknowns bears down upon me, while I live in fear of just how many unknown unknowns might still be lurking out there.

Subject Knowledge, Theories of Learning and Instruction, Question Complexity, Common Misconceptions, Relationships Between Areas of Mathematics, Excellent Explanations and Examples

There is no shame in admitting teachers don’t come to the table already knowing everything, rather it would be loopy vanity to think we do.  Setting forth what we need to know in a subject, as a foundation, is a good first step.  There are then many other pieces of pedagogical knowledge that fit around this.  For example in maths, knowing that there are precisely four kinds of addition of fractions, and what they are, or knowing how different topics relate to one another, e.g. that similar shapes are enlargements of one another.  Knowing the limits of complexity in question types that an ‘average’ pupil should be expected to face, or knowing excellent and broadly-accepted ways of explaining ideas, or even what the most common misconceptions a child might face when encountering a topic for the first time.

What about subjects other than maths?

Maybe this all sounds very reasonable for mathematics, but surely it can’t work for the other subjects as well?  After all, English teachers choose different books to teach, and history teachers focus on different parts of history and so forth.  I’ve chosen to speak mostly about mathematics because it’s what I know, but the principles can be applied elsewhere.

Languages

For example, of all subjects, surely it’s in languages where we could expect near perfect knowledge on the part of the teacher?  Well for the most part probably so, but do all French teachers know the hundred most high-frequency words in the French language, or the size of the active vocabulary of an average French speaker?

Science

In science, I was shown a slide that compared the 2007 National Curriculum against the E.D. Hirsch Core Knowledge curriculum.  I posted it on my blog, and two people remarked that the Core Knowledge curriculum was wrong, NaCl is not a molecule.

Science Curriculum

Well how brilliant!  Now that we’ve written down precisely what needs to be known by teachers of science and pupils studying science, we can publicly debate, and then spot and correct mistakes.  On my own, despite being scientifically trained, I didn’t realise that NaCl was not a molecule; at the time it made sense to me!

English

In English, it seems obvious that we should train all teachers to ensure they are the elite grammarians, with knowledge of grammar second to none.

With respect to literature, Katie Ashford published a series of knowledge grids which contain ideas such as context, key themes, important quotes and so forth for a series of novels – wouldn’t it be great if one existed for each of the most commonly taught books, with new ones being created by teachers, added to a curated public repository, and subject to public debate.

History

In history, sure a teacher with a history degree might know a great deal of historical knowledge, and they may know even more about the philosophical underpinnings of historical study, but do they know for example that it’s important for all pupils in our country to be made aware of some particular piece of our historical narrative?

Near the start, I mentioned that Rob Peal, a recent history graduate, still felt the need to spend weeks over the summer refreshing his historical knowledge.  Wouldn’t it be great for Rob to have had a central resource, debated and curated by history teachers and other members of our democratic citizenry, which he could refer to, to know exactly what he needed to know before he passed it along to those in his care?

Conclusion

Today, teachers teach what comes to mind, or what might come up on an exam.  What if tomorrow, all teachers taught what they knew would best educate their children?  Today, teachers are divided and fragmented.  What if tomorrow teachers were united and unified?  Today, teachers are isolated and pitted against one another in league table competitions.  What if tomorrow, teachers were unanimous in how their subject knowledge should be passed to our future generation?  Today, teaching is called a low-status profession, an immature profession, and sometimes not a profession at all.  Well what if tomorrow, teachers were respected and envied as an elite in our society?  Highly competitive entry, highly-trained, highly-knowledgeable, on a par with doctors, lawyers and others.  What if tomorrow the conversation we could all have is ‘Hi, nice to meet you, I’m a teacher,’ and the response we hear could be ‘Brilliant, you’re so lucky!’  Subtext: ‘Bastard.  I’m so jealous.  You are one of life’s winners that I want to become.’

There are several facets that go into creating a mature, prestigious profession.  A codified body of knowledge is only one of them, but I think it’s a good place to start.

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About Kris Boulton

Teach First 2011 maths teacher, focussed on curriculum design.
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27 Responses to Festival of Education – 2014

  1. Sue Sims says:

    Personally, I agree with you completely. However, in our profession there is still that ghastly debate going on about knowledge versus skills. My school has for several years been running a ‘Learning to Learn’ day for Year 7s, which they enjoy (mainly because they don’t have to wear school uniform and do a lot of running around), and this year for the first time we are supposed to spend one of our lessons with Year 12 on Monday on ‘Study skills’. (As far as I can see, if they haven’t learnt anything about how to study during the last five years, they won’t have gained enough grade Cs at GCSE to be in the sixth form anyway.)

    While this sort of idiocy is still the norm in our schools, I fear that your common sense won’t receive much of a hearing.

    • Kris Boulton says:

      I wouldn’t be altogether opposed to a ‘study skills’ session if what it taught them was about memory storage strength vs. retrieval strength, the testing effect and distributed practice!

  2. dodiscimus says:

    Thanks for this post, Kris. I didn’t get to your session at the Festival of Education – I had it highlighted but there were some hard decisions to make about what to miss. I’m thinking now maybe that was an error. I completely agree with you about the importance of subject-specific knowledge, and you have a clear understanding that there are three elements to this: higher-level subject knowledge that comes from a relevant degree (or at least good A-Level grade); foundational subject knowledge (like how to add fractions); and pedagogical knowledge (i.e. the best ways to teach something).

    Our Provider-Led trainee teachers get about 30 days of subject-specific training in university, plus they start on a very small timetable and are never on more than a 50% TT on placement, so there is enough time for them to observe experienced teachers, and think about different ways of teaching their subject in the school setting. When I think about my own subject-specific knowledge, I am still learning after nearly twenty years of teaching physics so obviously it isn’t possible to say how many days is “enough” however, my feeling is that single subject trainees (e.g. maths) with relevant degrees should have made a fair start on pedagogical knowledge, and should have tidied up most of their own personal short-comings (like re-learning how to multiply decimals) by the end of their training year. One of my big concerns about the big move to School Direct is that dedicated training time with a subject specialist can be hard to organise in the school setting, partly because of very small subject cohorts and partly because pulling experienced teachers off timetable to do the training can be understandably problemmatical. Our SD partners are very conscious of this issue and we have worked with them to re-organise the Provider-Led timetable to allow SDs to access more subject-specialist training but I still think this is a weakness of the SD model. I don’t have any experience with Teach First so I would be really interested to how what I’m describing compares with your training experience.

    I guess the other issue is about how this subject-specific knowledge – however acquired – is assessed. For all of our trainee teachers (PL or SD) the expectation would be that they keep a subject knowledge folder during the year. Different subjects have different approaches but scientists do an initial test-based audit of personal subject knowledge at KS3/4 across all three sciences, a second test-based audit using GCSE questions for all sciences and IB for their specialism in January, and a final audit identifying targets for their NQT year; they do a minimum of three formal subject knowledge observations focusing only on this aspect of teaching; and they complete an extensive series of tasks (about 20 of them) related to subject knowlege during the year. Normal, formal observations should all also comment on subject knowledge. They have to present their best evidence as part of their portfolio to meet Teachers’ Standard 3 for QTS.

    I’m certain that everyone we assess as meeting the Teachers’ Standards, exceeds the standard in their specialist science, as required, but they’re not perfect, and there are quite a few with significant work to do in their other sciences. We would try to be very clear about this in their NQT targets but I think a lot of schools think it will happen organically (and I guess you and I are evidence that it does) and there isn’t any formal checking of this to come. This is where your ideas about being a profession come in (and the long on-going saga of low quality CPD in many schools). Have you seen Michael Fordham’s suggestions? http://clioetcetera.com/2014/09/29/the-royal-college-of-teaching-membership-and-fellowship-requirements/ Can I also point you at my post on the Carter Review, particularly the bit about SKE and SKE+? http://dodiscimus.wordpress.com/2014/08/04/the-carter-review-and-the-future-of-itt/comment-page-1/#comment-139

    A final thought. I know the Institute of Physics is developing an audit of the physics that teachers should know (or something like that). I am very keen to use this with my trainees when it’s ready but maybe it points the way to a role for similar learned societies in helping with this professionalisation.

    Best wishes

    • Kris Boulton says:

      Thanks for your thoughts. You’re probably right about the direct-to-school model; back when I thought time was simply being used ineffectively, and a shift to focus on more useful theories of learning and instruction would yield significant gains, I still believed ITT could be all we need it to be in an SD model. As I increasingly view subject knowledge per se to be an integral component facilitating the very, very best teaching possible, the more I come to believe training cannot be all we need it to be if not at least a whole year of study. This is simply due to the vast amount of subject specific knowledge out there, before you start delving into the subject specific pedagogy which also surrounds that knowledge. There’s just too much.

      It’s something that, as many have observed, a teacher will probably never ‘stop’ developing; there can be no definite end-point where ‘understanding’ is concerned. However, this is just the same in any profession; it’s the same in law and in medicine as well. As in those professions, what we *can* do is mark off a line that sets an acceptable minimum, and when I say ‘minimum,’ in my head that a very high bar, and a very large body of knowledge.

      As for how we assess it – I don’t really know, and it would change from subject to subject. I don’t think resitting GCSEs, for example, is such a bad idea, though perhaps more initially as a learning tool than for trainees to pass or fail. I actually think any exam sat for assessment must go far beyond the GCSE – not necessarily in terms of content e.g. into A Level and degree necessarily (though perhaps…?) but certainly into understanding of those ideas and the relationships between them. It should also account for ‘ways of teaching’ topics, which are teacher-style neutral; simple things for example such as how kids could/should set out their working for particular areas of maths. If we were to talk about multiplication of 2-3 digit numbers, for example, it would be great to first, set out all the commonly accepted methods (long, grid, lattice, Napier’s Bones etc.) and then have as a part of that knowledge of the discussions as to the relative merits of each. A teacher might not be forced to use one or the other, but they should *at least* be aware they all exist, and what people are saying about their pros and cons!

  3. Ali Messer says:

    Not all PGCES are the same. See Michael Fordham on this subject (specifically the development of subject knowledge for teaching in History). It is also possible to focus on development of subject knowledge for teaching or pedagogical content knowledge at Masters level but it is not widely supported by government.
    Agree that much CPD is too generic though.

  4. mrlock says:

    Reblogged this on Mr Lock’s Weblog and commented:
    This is brilliant from Kris, and reflects insecurities I have myself.

  5. Stonking post Kris – persuasive and clear. I think you are correct in saying that a codified core knowledge can and should exist for subjects other than maths. It is fair to say that this is more difficult for certain subjects than for others, but just having the debate about what is and is not fit for inclusion within subjects like English, History, Geography would have a galvanising and ‘professionalising’ effect. Without a set body of knowledge, it is difficult for teachers to progress learning beyond the hoop-jumping of schemes, other people’s lesson plans and test-prep shortcuts. We must build our knowledge considerably ‘beyond the test’ if we want pupils to do the same.

  6. srcav says:

    Great post Kris, but how, did you not know some if those things?! I think you have made some excellent. And important, points here.

    • Kris Boulton says:

      Fair question! Well some of them, frankly, most teachers still don’t know. Others, like the geometric interpretation of square numbers and Pythagoras’ theorem, we just weren’t taught at school, or since. Others, like multiplying decimals, well I had ‘strategies’ for getting there eventually, and I have a pretty strong number sense, which helps, but what I didn’t have was the unbelievably simple strategy of ‘remove the decimal points, multiply the integers, reinsert the decimal point!’

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  11. Jill Berry says:

    Always interesting to read your posts, Kris. I’m going to be involved in the professional development side of the HMC Teacher Training scheme, from autumn 2015, which will recruit graduates directly from university to teach in independent schools for two years, while they study for PGCE/QTS at the same time, and this post, with the issues you raise, is something we will need to think about as we plan the programme.

    Just one thought re English and deciding on a “codified body of knowledge” – I’ve seen the controversy resulting from the discussion of an appropriate ‘canon of literature’ to be studied in schools, so I can only imagine how problematic this body of knowledge might prove to be. ‘Knowledge of grammar’ would be the easy part.

    I studied for a PGCE following my English Language and Literature degree, and then taught for 30 years. One of the reasons I wanted to be an English teacher was because I loved my subject and wanted to carry on learning. When choosing texts for GCSE and A level I would choose some texts I’d studied in depth and knew well, but would also always choose new texts which would require me to do reading/research/thinking and learning over the summer break – and I loved that. I learnt a huge amount about English over my career. I was also secure in my knowledge of grammar, as we’d done a lot of that in the Grammar School I attended in the 1970s, plus I was a linguist and learnt a lot more through my study of Latin, French and German (and Anglo-Saxon as part of my English degree).

    I do recognise how many teachers of English may not have studied for an English degree, though, and wouldn’t have the grounding I had. I know the younger teachers I worked with over the years didn’t always have confidence in their knowledge of grammar/English language, either, and had to learn on the job, often from more knowledgeable colleagues. It’s definitely something we need to address, and I’m absolutely with you on your conviction that we want teaching to be a mature and well-respected profession.

    Thanks again for the post, which I’m about to share with others involved in the HMC Teacher Training scheme.

    • Kris Boulton says:

      Great to hear from you Jill.

      You’re completely right about the English, and history actually – they’re typically the two subjects that struggle the most with the concept. The fear is over some centralised control of culture and knowledge, and while that may be something worth keeping in mind, the alternative we’ve selected is a mix of watery education provided an enfeebled profession – where more seems to be said about PEA paragraphs and marks per minute than the kind of enriching literary study you describe – and abdication of responsibility onto teachers who are not equipped to be making such choices on the behalf of their pupils. I would hardly say that I know comprehensively what mathematics it is best in the interests of my pupils to study! I have relied on other people to set that out for me, and then I contribute my own thoughts once that particular body of knowledge, or parts thereof, have been assimilated. Actually even worse than this is the abdication of responsibility onto the pupils themselves! As happens in the ‘pupil choice / what would you like to study?’ train of thought. Completely well-intentioned; completely reckless.

      I suppose in summary I’m thinking that while you’re right, there is much controversy surrounding English and history – as two of the most significant cultural touchstones in our curriculum – and the question of ‘who decides,’ in reality by avoiding any kind of real nationally accepted body of knowledge for all teachers to start from, we’ve ignored the fact that there is *always* someone, somewhere, who decides. Currently we’ve thrust that great burden of decision almost entirely onto the shoulders of teachers, who behind closed doors make choices out of necessity, rather than following years of carefully considered full-time study and ongoing public debate.

  12. What about insisting that every teacher takes the exams that they are teaching kids for say every 3 years? The fear of not getting an A/A* would be enough in most cases to make sure teachers stayed current!

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  14. I found that a very interesting read. In terms of assessing subject knowledge for my schools direct student, I had the opinion that knowing how to do the maths was a given – if you’re going to be a maths teacher that’s a basic prerequisite that you need to get sorted. Depending on the level of maths you teach that might be an on-going task (teaching A level maths or further maths for instance might mean that you have to revisit things each time you teach them!), or might be something that you already know, or ensure that you know.

    For me, the real subject knowledge is: knowing how topics are assessed on the exam board your school uses; knowing what misconceptions students are going to have with a particular topic; knowing what knowledge they will need to allow them to access a particular topic; knowing how to extend a topic to stretch a student who finds it easy (without just moving them on to a harder topic!); knowing how to support a student who *just doesn’t get* a particular topic. This subject knowledge takes work to gain – it involves looking at past exam papers, thinking in detail about how a topic is going to be taught and where students might fall down, speaking to more experienced colleagues. This is the difference in the knowledge of a maths teacher, and the knowledge of a mathematician.

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