Helping teachers to ‘understand the content’

By Andy Tharby

Earlier this month, Evidence Based Education published an exciting new report entitled The Great Teaching Toolkit Evidence Review, the first step in the development of the organisation’s ‘Great Teaching Toolkit’. The aim of this project is to transform teacher professional development by creating a feedback system that encourages continual improvement. This first report lays out a model of teaching learning; it will be followed later by a set of tools that will help provide teachers with diagnostic feedback as they work towards specific goals; it will culminate in the development of networks of educators who will generate, share and apply the evidence.

The report itself presents a model for great teaching that composes of four broad dimensions:

  1. Understanding the content
  2. Creating a supportive environment
  3. Maximising the opportunity to learn
  4. Activating hard thinking

Over the next four weeks, the ‘Class Teaching’ blog will consider each of these components in turn, looking at implications for teachers and their professional learning.  This week we will look at ‘understanding the content’, an often overlooked area of teacher development, which has been further divided by the review into four elements.

1.1 Having deep and fluent knowledge and flexible understanding of the content you are teaching

1.2 Knowledge of the requirements of curriculum sequencing and dependencies in relation to the content and ideas you are teaching

1.3 Knowledge of relevant curriculum tasks, assessments and activities, their diagnostic and didactic potential; being able to generate varied explanations and multiple representations / analogies / examples for the ideas you are teaching

1.4 Knowledge of common student strategies, misconceptions and sticking points in relation to the content you are teaching

Questions for teachers and leaders

As yet, Evidence Based Education have not published the diagnostic tools that will accompany this project. In the meantime, teachers and leaders who want to start thinking about putting these ideas into practice might begin by considering the following questions when planning for next year.

  • Do teachers have deep and connected knowledge of all the topics they will be teaching next year?
  • How can you identify the gaps in teacher content knowledge? How can these be addressed?
  • Are teachers able to ask higher-order questions? Does their subject-knowledge enable them to promote higher-order thinking?
  • Do teachers have theoretical knowledge of the domain of learning? In other words, do they understand the role of key elements such as memory, metacognition, literacy and formative assessment in the learning process? How could CPD provision address these?
  • Can teachers explain how and why the curriculum should be sequenced?
  • Do teachers have a strong grasp of students’ existing knowledge and skills in all topics? Are teachers able to write plans that depend on correct sequencing and planned reactivation of prior knowledge?
  • Do teachers know how to select learning activities at the right level of challenge that will enable them to assess student learning?
  • Do teachers have opportunities to develop their repertoire of explanations, models, analogies and representations? Do they know how to employ these to fit the requirements of students?
  • Do teachers have multiple explanations, examples and other strategies at hand for when students ‘don’t get it’?
  • Does your CPD approach provide opportunities for novice teachers to be explicitly taught these explanations, models, analogies, representations and examples or are teachers expected to learn these through ad hoc means alone?
  • Do teachers know the common misconceptions surrounding each topic? Are lessons and learning activities designed to address these areas?

Potential CPD activities to develop these areas

As we all start to plan for the upcoming academic year, schools will need to think about how they provide teachers with CPD opportunities that will help them to enhance their content knowledge. Inevitably, this dimension of the toolkit has implications for how schools and wider networks deliver subject-specific professional development. The following practical CPD strategies may help schools, subject areas and teachers to put the evidence into immediate action.

Consider carefully the differences between generic and subject-specific CPD, and where these overlap. What do all teachers of all subjects need to know about the theoretical domain of learning? What do all teachers need to know about teaching the topics on the subject curriculum? A strong model of CPD is likely to be one that prioritises both and recognises the inherent relationship between the two.

Ensure that subject-specific CPD becomes the cornerstone of teacher development. Two useful questions to ask are ‘What are we teaching next?’ and ‘How do we teach it well?’ Subject expertise and smart leadership are crucial in making this happen. When the expertise is not available within the institution, teachers and leaders will benefit from looking outside their immediate context and engaging with outside agencies, networks and other educators. It is important to recognise that teachers’ subject knowledge needs are often very different – how will you ensure that all teachers receive the bespoke development they require?

Treat your CPD provision as a teacher development curriculum. Think carefully about sequencing and building upon prior knowledge. If you are leading a new team, use content knowledge surveys to diagnose the needs of your department. Design CPD sessions so that expert teachers can share and model expertise, but also ensure that opportunities for practice and feedback are built into this cycle

Provide opportunities for discussing and sharing common errors and misconceptions at a granular and topic-specific level. Use these discussions as the basis for improving explanations, analogies, examples and representations in your subject area.


If you are interested in the ideas expressed in this blog, then please take a look at the ‘Curriculum, Teaching and Assessment’ training programme that we will be running at Durrington Research School from January 2021.

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