What does a teacher need to know?


Is there more a teacher does, can, or should know than a teacher thousands of years ago?

I filled out a reference recently for someone applying for a Head of History post. As anyone who has filled out references knows, you tend to get a list of criteria and then get asked to rate the applicant against the criteria. The one I had to do divided the criteria in two: ‘teaching ability’ and ‘subject knowledge’.

Under ‘teaching ability’ were (amongst others) ‘sensitivity to students’, ‘personal and emotional stability’, ‘discipline and classroom control’ and ‘relationships with staff and parents’.

Under ‘subject knowledge’ were ‘ability to manage time’, ‘work as a team member’, ‘meet deadlines’, ‘acceptance of positive criticism’ and ‘honesty and integrity’.

Something strike you as odd here?

Now don’t get me wrong: all of these things are important. Scrap that – they are all essential. Who would want to employ a teacher who did not have these attributes or skills? Yet what I find striking is that this emphasis on attributes and skills leaves knowledge completely out of the equation. Under the heading of subject knowledge there is not one reference to subject knowledge, or any other type of knowledge for that matter. No where on the form was there reference to knowledge of how pupils learn. This just does not seem right.

This is not uncommon on reference forms and job specifications – a quick browse through the TES shows that, when it comes to job criteria, knowledge is fairly low down the list. How on earth are we supposed to claim that we are a knowledge-based profession if we value this so little?

For many years this malaise ran right to the top. Teaching standards focused not on what teachers needed to know, but rather on their skills and competences. We school-based history mentors in the Cambridge partnership were so dissatisfied with the teaching standards and their lack of knowledge-emphasis and subject-specificity that we wrote our own version which met the national standards but went much further in what we thought mattered.

The most recent teaching standards, published in 2011, are a big improvement but even these (with quite a broad definition of teacher knowledge) have but a third of bullet points focused on teacher knowledge. Yet this message has not filtered through yet. I heard recently from one teacher who was part of an ‘Outstanding Teacher’ programme where the course leader asked what distinguished an outstanding teacher from a good one. ‘Subject knowledge and its curricular properties’ my associate suggested. ‘Oh, I don’t think so’, came the reply.

This complaint is not new. In 1986, Lee Shulman wrote a highly-cited paper called ‘Those who understand’ in which he lamented a loss of focus on teacher knowledge. He compared the late-twentieth-century teaching standards (in America states) with those from the late-nineteenth century and famously goes on to say that the knowledge base of teachers does not attract sufficient emphasis. Nearly thirty years later, I think this is still the case. It is not just a matter of subject knowledge: indeed Shulman and his students over the subsequent years formed a number of taxonomies of teacher knowledge, some parts of which (such as pedagogical content knowledge or PCK) have attracted some interest. For various technical reasons, I think Shulman gets a few things wrong, but I think his instinct is right: knowledge matters, and should be a key component of teacher standards.

So what might this look like? Here’s my quick go at setting out the kinds of things that schools should be looking for when they employ someone. This is (necessarily) subject specific, but I don’t think you’ll have difficulties converting this for your own subject. I’ve created an imaginary job description and a set of interview questions. Enjoy!

(1) Job Description

We are looking to employ a talented historian who seeks to teach children about the past. Our ideal candidate will be an advocate for the subject, making clear to pupils, parents and our wider community why an education in history matters. You will have a strong breadth of historical knowledge, stretching from the ancient to the modern world and, more importantly, you will be seeking to develop this knowledge continually throughout your career. You will have a passion for historical scholarship with which you will enthuse colleagues and pupils. We want a teacher who is well-versed in how the subject has developed in schools in recent years and the opportunities and problems this has created.

You will have a good knowledge of the ways in which history teachers have responded to these problems, and have a view as to what the major issues will be in future years. Drawing on the published works of other history teachers, you will have an in-depth knowledge of the curricular properties of the subject you teach, such as how to manage temporal and spatial overview and depth, how historically-rigorous questions can be formed, how scholarship can be used in the classroom and how pupil progress in the subject might be effected through the use of historical concepts such as ‘empire’.

We expect our teachers to have a grounding in how pupils learn, and we would want you to have a grasp of the basic principles of cognitive psychology. You should have sufficient knowledge to be in a position in which you could sustain a meaningful conversation with teachers in other subjects about the process of learning. This is an excellent opportunity to join a school which does not see a teacher as a collection of competences: we look forward to receiving your application.

(2) Possible Interview Questions

  • Why should we be teaching history to children of all abilities?
  • Take a period of history that is your particular area of expertise. How would you design a sequence of lessons on that period?
  • What do you understand by the term ‘working memory’? What implications does it have for your classroom practice?
  • Before the interview, we asked you to read a chapter from Chris Clark’s book The Sleepwalkers. How would you use that chapter with an A-Level class? How would you use it with a Year 9 class?
  • What role does practice play in terms of pupils getting better at history?
  • What role does historical knowledge play in pupil literacy? How would you be using historical knowledge in your lessons to develop pupil literacy?
  • What is the difference between good and bad teacher talk?
  • Can you give me a couple of examples of ways in which history teachers in the last twenty years have moved on in how they use sources in their teaching?
  • In what ways are you developing pupils as historians? In what ways are you not?
  • How would you describe a child who has good grasp of the term ‘revolution’?
  • What do you think is meant by the phrase ‘memory is the residue of thought’?
  • What does meaningful evidence of pupil progress in history look like? How would you create that evidence?
  • What do you understand by the term ‘effect size’? How useful do you think this term is in helping teachers use a research base in their teaching?
  • How would you approach, with your colleagues, planning a scheme of work on a period of history you know nothing about?
  • Imagine you have read two research papers that say different things: how would you handle that as a teacher?







4 Comments on What does a teacher need to know?

  1. Thanks for this – I think the key aspect of the Shulman paper is that there needs to be a balance between the subject knowledge and the pedagogic knowledge and he was lamenting that these were often ported as in opposition – something I still find happening. It is not that a teacher needs to be full of content knowledge but also full of pedagogic knowledge. He stressed the place which these overlapped (the PCT or pedagogic and content knowledge – this idea is picked up by many including Mishara & Koehler with their TPACK model.)

    It is in many ways this that makes the expert teacher stand out so the excellent teacher of history does not only have a deep and rich love or and knowledge of history but also of how history can be taught to children who may not (yet!) have the same love and understanding,

    This is the difference between the historian and the history teacher or the mathematician and the maths teachers and of course we must remember here that the necessary content knowledge between the history teacher of 7 years olds and the history teacher of 18 year old might be very different.

    Talking of standards and teacher education this is why the PGCE model in and of itself is a weak model we need to be thinking more of a 2-3 teacher education model (as happens in those countries farther up the OECD rankings) leading to teachers with Masters level qualifications – a different definition perhaps of the Master Teacher.

    • Michael Fordham // 26 April 2014 at 17:04 // Reply

      Thanks for commenting. I agree with your last paragraph – the idea that one is trained after a year is silly. I wrote about an alternative model here: https://clioetcetera.wordpress.com/2013/09/26/what-if/

      Where I disagree with Shulman is over this distinction between ‘content’ and ‘pedagogic’ knowledge. Have you read the McEwan & Bull (1991) paper? I think they nail it. All knowledge, I would say, has pedagogical characteristics as it is always being conveyed to someone else. As such, a historian writing an academic monograph is structuring knowledge in a certain way for a certain audience, in exactly the same way as a history teacher does for a scheme of work. James Banner is very good on this in his book ‘Being a historian’ – the error we make is to conflate ‘discipline’ and ‘profession’. History teachers, historians, documentary presenters etc. are all historians by discipline, but they have different professions.

      Of course, if there is no conceptual distinction between ‘knowledge’ and ‘pedagogical content knowledge’ then the very idea of an overlap (which so much of the PCK literacy is predated on) collapses.

      • I have not read McEwan and Bull (and cannot get access at this time) – I can see your argument re: pedagogical characteristics and to some degree agree with it in the idea of “fir for purpose” but I would argue that there is a difference in the “audience of choice” and the “audience of compulsion” the second being the school aged child who does not choose to be “in the audience” thus a range of other pedagogic skills are needed – I suppose I want to argue (perhaps self-induldgently) for a special set of skills for those who are specialist teachers as opposed to incidental ones – I guess because of this I like the idea of the distinction and have no problem with the idea of all those being of the same profession, in fact would be happy to argue this. The problem lies I think with those school teachers who feel that they are the same kind of mathematician or historian as those who do not have to be concerned with the “audience of compulsion” – perhaps this makes the 6th form teacher a different beast to the KS3 or the KS2 …

        I liked your model of the 6 year training – even more idealistic than mine (http://paulltnt2013.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/the-future-of-teacher-supply.html?view=magazine) – I am developing (as we ‘speak’) a 3/4 year model of an MA in Pedagogy and Praxis (MA)PP that will take the beginning teacher from the PG year into the first 2-3 years of school whilst not letting go of the university completely.

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