Why should we research the subject and not just the child?

fig_6A great deal is written about research in education and the problems it faces. I rather think that we are passing something of a threshold at the moment in terms of the contribution that research makes to our understanding of teaching. The development of the Education Endowment Foundation is a good thing, and, particularly because of the hard work of blogging teachers and the subsequent conferences that emerge from this, I am optimistic that evidence will come to better inform our teaching practices in the future.

The research that is getting an airing online is typically taken from cognitive psychology. Terms such as ‘cognitive load’ and ‘working memory’ are increasingly part of our professional vocabulary regarding teaching methods, and this has to be a good thing. As a non-psychologist (which no doubt shines through in this post – apologies for the errors and distortions) I find the comparison with computer memory to be helpful: short-term memory is like the RAM on a computer and long-term memory is like the hard drive (I found this blog useful on where the analogy runs out). If we do not account for the ‘hardware’ with which our pupils operate, then we are less likely to be successful. Dan Willingham, inter alios, has been an important publicist for this, using what we know about learning to criticise approaches to teaching that do not use our hardware effectively, and to explain why other approaches are more successful. All of this is a positive thing.

It is something of an irony that such work is, by its nature, child-centred. This is clearly not in the ‘vom Kinde aus’ tradition of progressive education (and I am being a little naughty in using the term child-centred here) but the cognitive research that is currently being drawn on widely by bloggers essentially takes a child and says ‘how do they learn?’ and ‘how can we harness that?’ Both of these questions are vital, and I hope that this is a line of inquiry that continues to be employed. Teachers have a great deal to learn from the field of cognitive psychology. It is interesting, however, that little attention is being given to the nature of the subjects being taught. We continue to obsess about the how and this leads us to overlook the what.

Rather than theorise about what is being taught, discussions about the curriculum tend instead to revolve around what should be learned. Should we be teaching traditional disciplines such as chemistry and history, or should we be teaching the skills required for employment? These are normative, ethical questions in the sense that they focus on the ought: what do we want pupils to learn, and why? It is interesting, however, that this debate rarely goes any further. Once we agree that we should be teaching history to all students of all abilities (and we should, by the way) then the debate quickly moves to questions about the learning process – what are pupils capable of learning, and how do we go about making the most of this? There is very little consideration of the territory in between: what is the nature of the thing that we are teaching. What are its internal structures? How does it work? And what happens to it when it becomes taught?

Examining the subject

So what might it mean to think about the subject? What are the kinds of curriculum questions that we need to ask in order to understand what it is that we are teaching? I would suggest some of the following are important to nearly all subjects:

  • How can knowledge in a subject be structured?
  • What happens to knowledge in the process of teaching?
  • What are the structures of the concepts that we teach?
  • How is knowledge of one thing dependent on knowledge of another?
  • What are valid questions to ask in a subject?
  • How do certain ideas gain and lose meaning in the process of generalisation?
  • What are the limits of what a subject can explain?
  • What would it mean to use a subject inappropriately?
  • What can be assessed in the subject, and in what ways?
  • What does it mean to get better at a subject?
  • In what ways can one subject interact with another, and in what ways can it not?

It should be noted that these questions are in many ways a sub-set of the philosophy of the subject discipline. If I want to teach history, then I need to know how historical knowledge is broken down and built up, and what risks and gains are made in this breaking down and building up. If I want to teach a concept such as ‘communism’ then I need to know what is entailed in this concept, and what difficulties we encounter in trying to define it. It does not matter how much I know about memory and learning: if I do not have a model of what it means to get better at history, then I am unable to help pupils learn the subject.

Importantly for teacher training, most undergraduates do not spend a great deal of time asking these questions. In history, for example, most students will do a paper or module at some point looking at the philosophy of history, but it is a niche field and most historians do not enter into it. The same can I think be said in the sciences: most chemists, for example, have the option of studying the history and philosophy of science, though I suspect that in reality most do not, and if they do it is not high on their list of priorities. This is why I think that most undergraduate courses are not in themselves sufficient subject preparation for teaching: a further period of study is required to work out (initially by reading the work of others) what some of the answers to these questions listed above might be.

Teachers as researchers

I would argue that I cannot teach a subject without understanding its internal structure, its rules and processes, and the way in which knowledge is formed within the subject. This kind of research cannot be done through large-scale studies: I can not use a randomised controlled trial to tell me how the subject of history works (though I can read extensively, which is perhaps the same thing). Most teachers do I suspect think about these things intuitively. The benefit of making this a research focus, however, is that this intuition becomes a part of shared, professional knowledge, subject to the crucible of criticism.

I imagine that some readers are jumping in their seats now and saying ‘this is exactly what Shulman meant by pedagogical content knowledge’. I disagree with Shulman. He was, I think, absolutely right to argue that teachers do interesting things with their subject in the process of teaching. I do not, however, think that they convert an academic discipline into a school subject. I rather agree with McEwan and Bull who, in their 1991 article, argued that all knowledge is pedagogical in character: when a senior research professor writes an academic paper or gives a conference presentation, what she is doing is teaching the other members of her field. What teachers do is different in degree (we handle breadth instead of depth, what we teach is not generally new, and our audience has less knowledge); it is, however, not different in kind.

This, then, is a field of enquiry where teachers can meaningfully contribute as researchers. We are interested in what our subject looks like. We have a sense of when the subject is being used well: I can, for example, teach two different lessons of equal difficulty (i.e. having the same cognitive requirements) but one lesson can be good history and the other not. In order to determine the difference between the two, we as teachers need to ask questions such as those I listed above.

Some of this work can be done outside of schools in the field of curriculum theory or the philosophy of particular subjects. Yet teachers do, I think, have much to contribute here. I would argue that the emphasis on teachers researching generic pedagogy has led to curriculum research being greatly overlooked. This is a shame, because teachers are very well placed to do this kind of research: curriculum theorising is an everyday thing that we do (every time we form a question, or give feedback on how to improve, we are drawing on how we think our subject is structured). We can all do this kind of research, whether working with one pupil or two hundred. It is a kind of research that can easily be communicated, and other teachers can benefit quickly from that sharing in that it helps establish a common body of professional knowledge about the subject discipline.

This is not the only kind of research that teachers can be involved in but I would suggest that it is some of the most powerful. Research that focuses on the hardware has to be psychological in character; by teaming up with psychologists teachers can help advance what is known about how pupils learn. It is pointless, however, to research hardware without at the same time researching what that hardware is being used to do: teachers, by teaming up with other subject specialists, have an excellent opportunity to endow the term ‘teacher researcher’ with some meaning.

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4 Comments on Why should we research the subject and not just the child?

  1. Predictably, I’m singing along with every word of this, but the way you present it for audiences for whom it may be new has helped me see fresh ways of explaining why trainees do the research they do in the Cambridge History PGCE (and MEd). Our mantra has always been (since about 2003), ‘problematise the “what?”, rather than the “how?” and it’s obvious to us – the history teachers who own the course – what that means but not necessarily obvious to other subjects. Indeed it’s sometimes seen as alarming: “the ‘what?’ is given, isn’t it, why would you want to analyse its structure, re-configure it, characterise it freshly or even choose one bit of it over another?” I would love, therefore, to see what the equivalent of this kind of teacher research is in other subjects.

    For those who don’t know what I’m on about, the kind of question history trainees and experienced history teachers research are as follows. Each would be tackled using the teacher’s own teaching and its results in the form of pupils’ work (but with frequent reference to works of historical scholarship by historians as well as relevant curricular theorising by other history teachers). Each results in a form of curricular argument, often challenging the status quo where it is deemed to lack rigour. What are the equivalents in English, geography, science …? Or what could they be? It would be really good to compare:

    (the numbers don’t correlate with your numbers Michael; they just illustrate the general territory: and please add some more to improve on mine…)

    1. How did my Year 7’s knowledge of X (a set of stories; a political narrative; a period feature) manifest itself in their work on Y?
    2. What is the relationship between substantive knowledge and causal reasoning in Year 8’s written causation arguments? How should that relationship be characterised?
    3. What is “sense of period”? What counts as *adequate* sense of period?
    4. What is the nature of a pupils’ accomplishment when writing an extended essay analysing historical change in 19th century British politics? (this is about re-thinking assessment; we have always trained trainees to shun Level Descriptions in routine assessment – so we train them to use their disciplinary knowledge to analyse the properties of knowledge and disciplinary thinking that they think *ought* to be rewarded or assessed; they regularly make their own markschemes).
    5. In what ways did the art/music/RS lesson/task/work connect with / differ from / surface in pupils’ historical accounts of the Reformation/ the Renaissance?
    6. How do pupils carry period-specific substantive concepts (e.g. revolution, empire, parliament, peasantry, civilisation) from one topic to another? What does weak/strong deployment of a substantive concept tell you about pupils’ historical knowledge?
    7. What hidden layers of knowledge are Year 10 indirectly calling up/failing to call up in historically rigorous / utterly terrible analyses of the rise of … (the Nazis, the Chartists, nationalism)?
    8. Year 9 learn about the Holocaust: was it historical or moral enquiry? Why might it matter?
    9. What different layers of knowledge seem to be tacitly operational in my Year 11 students’ oral debate (about the relative importance of X and X)?
    10. What does Year 9 fluency in / comprehension of a passage from Simon Schama reveal about their historical knowledge? (corollary of this: what kind of knowledge do you NEED to read Simon Schama? Result: a better/new/ complementary theorising of knowledge goals or progress markers for Year 8).
    11. What kind of comparison is taking place in an account responding to a question about historical difference?
    12. What are my Year 12 students doing when they are arguing about historical significance?
    13. In what ways are my Year 12 students being / not being *historical* in their arguments about historical continuity in Tsarist Russia?
    14. What were the properties of improved historical argument in Year 9’s paragraphs when I abandoned P.E.E.L.? How can I use this to re-think assessment goals, next year’s curriculum shape, the interplay of extended analytic writing and historical argument….?
    15. What are the hidden deficits / hidden strengths in work currently graded A/D or Level 4a/7b?

    Michael, please improve / critique/ extend?

    Other subjects, what are your equivalents of analysing the curricular what, rather than the pedagogic how?

  2. Katie Hall // 31 March 2014 at 08:37 // Reply

    An excellent post which is really useful to explain these ideas to people who are just beginning to think about making history as a subject central to their planning and thinking. I often try to describe to people why the work I did on the Cambridge PGCE was so helpful to my thinking every day and I flounder trying to explain the thought processes, so I will definitely be using these ideas in my training with departments. Thanks Michael!

  3. Alka Sehgal Ctuhbert // 27 July 2014 at 08:04 // Reply

    Heartening to read this. I do think the ‘ought’ question is important but as you say, needs to be followed through by study of important intrinsic characteristics of the subject. In English, following example from recent A level ( Lang. and Lit.)question indicates how spectacularly wrong headed current understanding is on (on part of exam boards – who really ought to know better): pupils asked to compare Wordsworth poem with transcript of (informal everyday speech) and a non-fiction extract describing a landscape. Not once are pupils asked to consider and evaluate what is being written about – only linguistic techniques (which frankly belong more to post grad. study than A level). Study of English literature today seems to be split between decontexutalized technique spotting or unanchored personal response with book as object of literary study takes a back seat to book (or more often part of book) as means to introduce something else .

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