Teaching and subject expertise: let’s not fall for genericism again

I have a great deal of respect for those currently pushing ‘grass-root’ teacher movements, such as ResearchEd and the College of Teaching. I’m very excited to have signed up to a ResearchEd event in Cambridge, and the profession is advancing quickly at the moment in part as a consequence of these movements. My hunch, however, is that such organisations are working from a false premise, which is that teaching can in some sense be understood to be a generic form of activity. I want to use this post to explain why I think this premise is false.

In a nutshell, it comes down to the fact that I see teaching (like ‘writing’ or ‘researching’) as being domain-specific. I do not think there is much a historian can teach a physicist about how to do research (or vice versa), and, if a budding crime writer wants to be taught how to write novels, I would not suggest (at least in the majority of cases) working with someone who writes cookery books. Practices such as ‘teaching’, ‘writing’ and ‘researching’ are domain-specific: the form they take in different domains is dependent on the nature of that domain. Let’s take this a bit further.

Consider, for the moment, one of the world’s leading mathematicians who has made a major breakthrough in number theory. In order for this mathematician to share her new discovery (or invention – I’m staying out of that one) she has to teach other mathematicians about it. She might do this by writing a paper for a scholarly journal in which she aims to bring readers to an understanding of her discovery. She most probably will stand up at a conference and explain to her audience about her work. It is quite likely that she might have to answer a question from a member of the audience. In all of these cases, this expert mathematician is making judgements about her audience. What do they know? What possible misconceptions might they have? Where might I need to use an analogy to explain something? At the same time she probably has to think about the forms of explanation that might best convey what she wants her audience to understand – she has a whole range of appropriate methods available to her, such as giving a structured explanation of a proof. As an expert, she is working to bring about an understanding of something she knows about and they do not: she is teaching her fellow mathematicians.

Let’s move to a different world. A cricket coach is teaching boys in a village junior team how to play the forward defensive. The cricket coach is confident that he knows how to do it: he has played the shot a thousand times on and off the pitch, but the boys do not have much idea about it at all. The coach decides to teach this through a session in the nets. He gets the boys to look at a diagram first, then he demonstrates how to play the shot himself, and then he gets each boy to have a go, repeating time and again the correct footwork and movement of the arms and bat. He might use a bowling machine and get the boys to practise time and again the shot until they do not get it wrong. In the match on Sunday he watches the team bat, and then tells each of the players how well they were playing that shot. Again, it is worth considering what this coach is doing. He is working out what his players need to know. He knows where they most commonly go wrong, and he knows which techniques are particularly useful for getting the boys to play the shot correctly. He is acting in such a way as to bring about the boys’ ability to play a forward defensive: he is teaching them.

These two examples are deliberately not taken from secondary schools: I want to demonstrate that teaching as a practice is intricately tied up with the thing that I am teaching. It is highly unlikely that the cricket coach could help the mathematician teach others about her research any more than the mathematician could advise the cricket coach on how to be a better teacher. Yet it is a common assumption in secondary schools today that a teacher of one thing is well placed to give advice to teachers of another. I would strongly recommend reading Heather F’s blog on this as an example of the importance of subject expertise in giving feedback to another teacher.

So how does all of this pan out in the current drive for a research-based profession? I would begin with a large dose of scepticism about the notion of ‘what works’. This is not to say that we cannot have better or worse teaching methods: it is self evident we can. This is also not to say that it is not possible to do research in order to discover what those method are: I am convinced we can. Whether or not those methods are good or not, however, is completely dependent on the nature of the thing being taught. Being facetious, if you want to teach someone how to ‘do Brain Gym’, then getting them to rub their temples and what not is actually quite effective!

This is why ‘what works’ research bothers me. It is not that I disagree with the principle that we can find out better and worse teaching techniques. This research, however, has to take the form ‘what works for teaching x’.

The implications of this might well be unsettling for those who are fans of intra-school research communities. Running a whole-school training day on teaching methods is (if teaching is domain-specific) a waste of time, as a strategy that works very well in one subject may well not work very well in another. Insights from cognitive psychology might well sound generic as they handle things like ‘memory’ which have to be employed when learning all things, but the moment one prods the surface of this it again becomes apparent that things have to be subject-specific. We know that regular knowledge recall is important – but which knowledge? What knowledge structures? What concepts? These immediately become domain-specific questions.

I am not a sceptic when it comes to teaching being a research-based profession: I am writing this post in part to avoid having to finish off a PhD thesis on the kinds of curriculum research that history teachers have done over the last decade. I am quite sceptical, however, about anything which situates research outside of subject domains.

For my posts on doing research as a teacher, see:




For my posts on using insights from cognitive psychology in a particular domain, see:





7 Comments on Teaching and subject expertise: let’s not fall for genericism again

  1. misskearey // 21 December 2014 at 13:49 // Reply

    I completely agree Michael, great post. It was getting bombarded with recommendations for generic approaches that made me forget why I love teaching history and almost led to me leaving teaching altogether. Thank goodness for the HA Conference to sort me out!

  2. Michael Fordham // 21 December 2014 at 15:11 // Reply

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  3. Hello Michael,

    I do think much of our teacher training should be subject specific, but I think that the position where you state “running a whole-school training day on teaching methods is (if teaching is domain-specific) a waste of time” doesn’t ring true for me. Having time in such a training day in subject teams would surely be desirable in any school, but I disagree with your blanket stance.

    If I take the cricket analogy you use to state my perspective. Yes – a cricket coach would predominantly focus on skills relevant to cricket, such as bowling drills, like a footballer would train using a ‘rondo’ drill. And yet, both cricketers and footballers undertake fitness training, as one aspect of their professional role, that can often be rooted in the same principles of physiological development. A tall bowler would do weight training, stretching routines, yoga and the like. Both cricketer and footballer would also work with sports psychologists (the leap to the analogical status of cognitive psychology for all teachers would not to too large). A famous example is the work of Steve Peters, with cycling and footballers (his work with Liverpool patently not doing the trick!) is a case in point. Of course, you would then apply the understanding of psychology through the lens of your own sport, but many of the best breakthroughs in a sport derive from the outward looking approach to advances in other sports/disciplines; to thinking that enriches our knowledge of our own discipline. Steve Peters uses the same core principles in his work with all sports-people. A interesting example would be how Premier League football teams have used the sabermetrics approach made famous in Baseball; whilst cricket has used many of the methods applied in baseball training to improve throwing technique and catching and throwing strategies; to best maintain arm strength etc. Does it mean Freddie Flintoft or Steven Gerrard would make good baseball players? No. Could they learn from a training session from another discipline? I would say yes.

    I lead an approach the is predominantly subject based CPD. There is some inter-disciplinary fertilization of the dreaded ‘generic’ approaches. We share approaches, individuals reflect on their own practice, then return to their subject teams to discuss the ideas and apply them to their subject-specific practice. On a personal level, I always get a great deal from watching the coaching videos of teachers working in other subjects and the attendant discussions, debates and applications. As an English teacher, the approach to grammar in MFL has proved fascinating, to cite just one example.

    Have a great Christmas!

  4. Really interesting post this, and chimes with what we are trying to do at school (I’ve written about it here: http://thinkingonlearning.blogspot.co.uk/2014/12/teachers-talking-about-teaching.html ). My own view is that there are a few fundamental principles which apply across the very large majority of teaching contexts (namely: making good choices of what to teach them and knowing the subject really well, organising activities well, skilful modelling / explanations, and feedback), and it’s worth bringing attention to these across all subjects, so some whole school training etc is warranted. Beyond that, it’s best to arrange learning in domain-specific contexts I think – quite agree with your points.

  5. “Specialist classroom teacher” (who gets more pay to tell all other teachers what to do better) is therefore a complete nonsense. And so too is classroom supervision by anyone other than your own subject leader or a subject colleague, especially is it comes to deciding who, in the staffroom, gets any performance awards. It certainly cannot be placed in the sole hands of the principal.

  6. I really like this post. While there are undoubtedly some insights that are generic to most teachers for example stressing the importance of practice for learning, I totally agree that they only have real meaning when put into a subject specific context. So much time is invested pushing generic solutions when these will only work if subject teachers, without any of the CPD time do the actual donkey work of making them work for the subject. Then any accountability framework is generic which means teachers get sent the message that ‘good teaching’ simply means seeing those generic practices in lessons. Lessons are then observed by non specialists who can have no notion whether the fact the generic practice is present really means good learning is happening in that subject. The net consequence is the nonsense of Ofsted outstanding lessons which can have all the appearance of good teaching and yet can be empty shells. I think the sad thing is that so many now genuinely have no notion that these generic solutions don’t equal good teaching. Those that do realise are used to doing the ‘real work’ behind the scenes without questioning the system. Finally, you are right, so much of what I have done when my teaching has been successful has absolutely nothing to do with what is on generic check lists, even the good ones which list things like practice. It is all about breaking down the actual content. Your post questions a system currently taken for granted which is brilliant. I’m really glad my blog is useful in that endeavour!

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