Improving our subject knowledge

In the Sutton Trust research review (2014) ‘What makes great teaching?’ (extract above) the subject content knowledge of a teacher is at the top of the six components of great teaching.

‘Teachers cannot help children learn things they themselves do not understand’

Deborah Ball, 1991

Despite the strong evidence base that sits behind this statement, very few teachers have access to CPD that keeps their subject knowledge up to date.  Here at Durrington, we have been addressing this to an extent with our fortnightly ‘Subject Planning & Development Sessions’ (SPDS).  During these sessions subject teams meet to discuss what they are teaching over the next fortnight and how to teach it well – more on this here.  Whilst this inevitably includes some input on subject knowledge, it is not quite the same as explicit subject knowledge development for teachers.

Deputy Leader of Geography, Sam Atkins, has been looking to address this.  Once a half term, geography teachers will be issued with a geographical article that links to what students will be taught in the next half term.  So, for example, in the autumn term, Y7 will study a unit of work called ‘Impossible Places’ which examines how humans inhabit inhospitable habitats.  To support this, this week Sam has shared this article from the New York Times – ‘China’s Last cave Dwellers Fight to Keep  Their Underground Homes’.

The geography team will then read this article and at the next SPDS discuss points such as:

  • What was the key new learning from this article?
  • How does this link to and enhance the knowledge that students have?
  • How can it be explained effectively to students?
  • What are the challenging aspects of the article?
  • What misconceptions could there be?

To an extent, this is a formalisation of what the department have been doing in recent years anyway. They are a team of passionate geographers, who often email each other with interesting articles, news clips and videos – so the culture within the team was right for this kind of approach.  However, there was no guarantee that this would go any further than the email inbox.  By structuring it in this way, there is a real likelihood that through discussion and collaborative planning, it will enhance the subject knowledge of the geography team.  In terms of making sure this is a manageable undertaking, there is a schedule for who is responsible for finding a piece of ‘required reading’ for each key stage 3 unit of work, each half term.

So, what does Sam hope will be the benefits of this approach?

  • An enhanced and up to date subject knowledge across the team of geography teachers.
  • Expands your subject hinterland as a teacher, so that you can respond and adapt flexibly to classroom questions and discussions.
  • Maintains an academic interest in your subject and so re-professionalises teachers.
  • Sharpens your appetite to find out more about your subject.
  • Models a love of your subject to students.
  • Contextualises the geographical knowledge of students, using contemporary examples.
  • Facilitate better explanation as many of the articles lend themselves to storytelling.

Posted by Shaun Allison

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