Codified Body of Knowledge – Response to Challenges – Part 1

Following my speech at the 2014 Festival of Education, the conversations over the past few months have been fascinating.  Having posted the transcript yesterday, the debates have been reinvigorated, and amongst the many voices who keenly and encouragingly cry out in agreement, there are several who also contest the idea.

The challenges to having a codified body of knowledge that all teachers are expected to know in order to qualify, and then to develop over time, are beginning to settle into a few categories.  One was voiced yesterday by PedagoginTheMachine.  It was one I had already pre-empted in my talk, but not to Pedagog’s satisfaction.  At first I tried to reply via twitter, but realised that wouldn’t work, so have instead opted to write some posts that respond to the challenges.

Here was the challenge (read from bottom to top):

Twitter 1

As I’m interpreting this, the assertions are:

  1. A degree qualification guarantees that you can develop necessary subject knowledge very quickly, as needed, even if you don’t have it all in advance
  2. What we need to know varies: between exam boards, and according to curriculum reviews
  3. ‘Complete’ subject knowledge is impossible, so rapid adaptability is more desirable

Point 1 is later modified in response to Jon, to become:

  1. A degree qualification implicitly guarantees certain subject knowledge, which serves as a suitable minimum, and that you can develop necessary subject knowledge very quickly, as needed, even if you don’t have it all in advance

A fourth point is also added:

4.  The subject knowledge required in totality is too vast to consume up front (triple science KS3-5 example).  It is therefore better to pick up as needed.

Okay, my responses to these:

Point 1

First, not every maths teacher has a degree in maths.  Not every maths teacher has a degree in a STEM subject.  Not even every teacher of mathematics has an A Level in maths, and some teaching today don’t even have a GCSE higher than a C.

Maths Qualifications

This speaks to a much deeper problem in education and the structure of our ‘profession.’  It also speaks to how little value we are institutionally placing on subject knowledge, in conjunction with how desperate we must be if pragmatically we *cannot* afford to place value on specialist knowledge (as hinted at by my example of the headteacher I spoke with – heading: ‘Once you teach, you can teach anything’.)

But next, let’s take someone with a STEM degree, such as myself.  The degree does *not* guarantee that we know what we need to know.  I chose the examples in the speech because I think it is *not* okay for a maths teacher, at any point, not to know most of those things.  Furthermore, the list presented is such a small sample of the real list of all I didn’t know, but should!

Speaking to the degree showing our capacity for learning / development: absolutely yes.  In fact, again, I feel I have experienced this personally, picking up enormous amounts of mathematical understanding over the previous four years.  However, I’ve only taught for three years… meaning I did have the rare benefit of a year to prepare before starting, and a lot of free time in that year to spend watching lectures and reading books on mathematics.  Some of the things from my example list I actually picked up by undertaking this personal study, something I was not required to do, nor assessed on.  Other things, despite all this time spent, I still did not know while stood in front of children, as their ‘teacher.’

Capacity or potential alone is not enough – it must be leveraged through instruction, guided reading, and ultimately, assessment, while being facilitated by time.  Without these things there’s no guarantee essential subject knowledge will even be picked up as needed; as once again, I can attest to.  I have in the past taught topics only to later realise that there were deeply important pieces left out.  This either leads to reteaching, and therefore time wasted, or if that’s not possible, it necessarily means a deficient education for those I taught.  I am unequivocally *not* okay with that.

I have plenty more anecdotes that speak to me arriving at certain subject or pedagogical knowledge too late. Often it really *could* have been communicated in advance, or at least written in a well-structured subject-knowledge book that I could reference as required (if I had the time…)

Point 2

This isn’t really much of a problem for maths.  Even for most other subjects though, including science, where I would set the bar for subject knowledge is just so far beyond the exam specifications as to render them obsolete as a standard.  Teacher subject knowledge should, in my opinion, certainly span everything covered by every awarding body, and far beyond as well.

Certainly, new things may arrive on our doorstep in the future, we may have more to learn; so we learn it if and when that happens.  It’s no reason, I believe, to suggest we shouldn’t know everything we need for the here and now.

Point 3

I agree that what we might want to define as a ‘completed subject knowledge’ is probably impossible, almost to the point of being farcical to speak of.  If anything, however, to me this just maps out a potentially very exciting branch of serious career development for teachers.  We could set out the minimum reasonable for whatever the given training period would be (I’m not defining that, note – I’m not necessarily suggesting this fits into any of our current training models) and from there create structured paths of further development and/or specialisation in something that can be quantifiably learnt and measured, and can certainly enhance a teacher’s classroom practice.

It also allows for the most experienced teachers to now be adding to and expanding the body of knowledge in a serious way, something I also hinted at in my speech.

Point 4

Finally, I don’t agree that this is true.  I do suspect that it’s probably too much for the direct to school models.  Having heard my friends tell tales of their training to become lawyers, however, they have committed to memory vast, vast amounts of knowledge in the span of, say, a year.   It was a year of full-time study, but they achieved it.  I don’t see why expectations should be set lower for teachers.

I would also reiterate here that I haven’t specified a particular training model, neither initial nor continued.  I sometimes wonder if hesitation is created because people try to imagine new ideas like this fitting into what we already have.  Rather, my view is that if you can agree that this *is* needed, well then if it doesn’t fit how we currently train teachers, perhaps it’s the teacher training that needs to change, rather than the codified body of knowledge that is to be abandoned.

About Kris Boulton

Teach First 2011 maths teacher, focussed on curriculum design.
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10 Responses to Codified Body of Knowledge – Response to Challenges – Part 1

  1. How about a two year PGCE: first year full time academic study, second year teaching and writing a paper on application of knowledge … But isn’t theoriblem that was being addressed that some people didn’t like the application of knowledge to teaching because the knowledge wasMarxist or shades thereof?

  2. Falcao says:

    Just worried about late bloomers – those who don’t desire the nourishment of higher education at 18 but are clearly incredibly intelligent. Speaking iq of 130+ here. There are plenty of them.

  3. dodiscimus says:

    I continue to find general agreement with you over the importance of ensuring that teachers start their careers with appropriate subject-specific knowledge. I think the vast majority of science tutors would go for a two-year training model if the DfE was prepared to fund it. As a half-way stage, I would be even keener for the DfE to fund SKEs for all science trainees in a position to benefit, rather than just those converting to physics or chemistry. However, science is a different problem to maths because of the breadth. It would be unusual for my maths colleagues to take anyone without a maths degree (even including STEM subjects like physics or engineering) without requiring a 24 week SKE focused entirely on building the sort of subject knowledge you are talking about. Quite possibly this is still not enough but I think your experience of maths teachers starting out with quite limited subject-specific knowledge is a reflection of differences between training routes rather than because there isn’t a reasonably effective model out there. It may well be that the way this subject knowledge is assessed, and delineated, even for provider-led training routes, is not rigorous enough though.

  4. Rob Brown says:

    On Teach First I have received no subject specific training (only training in ideas of how to teach topics). The standard of the subject assessment I went through was high but not exhaustive. In that I got to pick which parts of the curriculum I wrote about. I picked a lot of statistics and not so much on written methods. I heartily agree this should be tested.

    A simple task I found useful. Try to get 100% on a GCSE paper (both higher and foundation) in more than one way. Using different methods for each question. Takes you out of your comfort zone and away from the short cuts you ‘just know’. That would be a decent task to give any maths teacher prior to getting their training.

  5. Pingback: TeachFirst recruitment presentation | docendo discimus

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