Initial teacher training (or education) is currently under review, and one of the issues being raised is the extent to which teacher training does enough to develop teacher knowledge of what they are teaching. Although I see this as a vital component of teacher training, I do think it rather misses the point. For me, subject knowledge is not a ‘component’ of teacher training: rather, I think that subject-specificity should run through around 90% of everything that a trainee does during their training. I want to use this post to explain why.
I shall start with the 10% that I think does not need to be subject-specific. There are clearly some generic things where it makes sense to bring together trainees from a range of subjects. Behaviour management is perhaps the most obvious (though there are still important differences between the behavioural challenges one faces in history, drama and physical education), but there are also things that all teachers need to do that are generic: being a form tutor, talking to parents, handling child protection issues, and so on. For all of these, I see no problem in having generic training.
But what about everything else? What is it that a teacher needs to be able to do at the end of his or her training? This list probably covers around 90% of what a new teacher needs to learn to do:
- interpret a curriculum
- plan sequences of lessons
- plan individual lessons
- plan activities for lessons
- identify and adapt appropriate resources
- give instruction in lessons
- manage discussion between pupils
- ask questions of pupils
- respond to pupil questions
- give immediate feedback on pupil work
- mark the work pupils produce
- advise pupils on how to improve
- interpret and apply mark schemes
These are all the ‘skills’ of a teacher, and I think these are generic in the sense that teachers of all subjects have to do them. Does it not make sense, therefore, to base teacher training around these skills? Can we not run training sessions on ‘questioning’ or ‘planning’ or ‘feedback’?
My answer would be no. All of these things, I think, should be taught as subject-specific. The reason for this is that all of these skills are underpinned by knowledge.
Let’s take ‘questioning’ as an example. It is my historical knowledge that makes it possible for me to question pupils effectively in the history classroom. I know the kinds of questions that we seek to ask and answer in history (Why did something happen? What were its consequences? How quickly did things change? What kind of change was this? Did everyone experience those changes in the same way?). If I am to ask pupils a causal question (why did something happen) then I have a number of possible questioning routes open to me: I can ask sub-questions about short-term and long-term causes, I can ask about triggers for events, I can pose counter-factual ‘what if’ questions, I can ask about different kinds of causes (religious, political, economic) or I can ask about necessary and sufficient causes. All of these things have a specific meaning in the discipline of history and my questioning in the classroom is underpinned by my knowledge of the kinds of questions that are asked in the subject.
I am sure that all teachers have sat through training on giving formative feedback to pupils, but is this training really that meaningful if it’s divorced from the subject discipline? In order to give formative feedback I need to have in my head a model of what it means to get better at history. This means that I need to know what ‘good’ history looks like, and the different routes by which a pupil might move towards producing that kind of work. Usually generic sessions on formative assessment fall back on things like Bloom’s Taxonomy, which is simply not appropriate for history (and, I reckon, any other subject). If we teach how to give formative assessment in subject-specific ways, then we have a whole range of more helpful and more meaningful feedback available than ‘try to include more evaluation’. In training history teachers, for example, we might get trainees to consider how pupils might get better at using one event to illustrate a trend or addressing the economic dimensions of a question. It is quite simply impossible to get down to this level of detail in a generic session on feedback.
The same I think is also true of some of the insights from cognitive psychology. In my previous three posts I wrote about how the ideas from the book Make It Stick (spaced retrieval, interleaving, etc.) might apply in the history classroom, and it is quite clear to me that, although children are wired up in such as way as to make some things possible or efficient and others not, it is always necessary to ask so what does this mean in my subject? There might well be something to be gained from studying a bit of educational psychology in teacher training (as I wrote about here) but it is always necessary (and I think more time consuming) to then ask how these principles apply in one’s own subject.
My belief that 90% of training needs to be subject-specific does have some implications for the kinds of structures that might make that training possible. This model requires that trainees spend most of their training sessions in subject groups, and this requires some scale in order to be efficient (probably a network of over ten schools). It requires that mentoring (and the associated mentor training) is also subject-specific, which again requires some kind of network. It also requires that the person responsible for running the course (running sessions, training mentors, choosing readings etc.) is also an expert on the teaching of a particular subject. This, for me, is a role where universities are particularly well-placed to serve as hubs, particularly as an expert in (say) history education could interact easily substantive experts in a history faculty and experts such as educational psychologists. Other structures might well make this work, but, as I have written, the role of universities has always been to provide a home for experts in a range of fields, and I think we are missing a trick if we do not capitalise on this.
We have been playing down the importance of subject-specificity in education for some time. It was very fashionable for a while to say things like “I am a teacher first and a subject-specialist second” or “A good teacher can teach anything”. In reviewing teacher training, I think we would do better to start asking ourselves “what is it about my subject expertise that makes it possible for me to teach”. That, I think, should be the starting point for discussions about teacher training.