Want to improve your teaching? Study the teaching of your subject

What makes someone a good writer? There are various guides out there and one of the more famous is the list of rules in George Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language. The list runs as follows:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

My personal bible on writing (though I’m sure I deviate frequently) is Fowler’s Modern English Usage (2nd Edition) which provides helpful advice on grammar and syntax.

It is, however, obviously the case that learning a set of rules or principles for good writing will not on their own make you a good writer. You have to have something to write about. Not only do you have to have something to write about, but you also have to think long and hard about a whole range of questions related to the thing you are writing about concerning how the ideas link together, how they might best be structured, what kinds of examples best explain a point and so on. I am fairly confident that in most history books, the authors have spent significantly more time thinking about the period of history that they are writing about than they have thinking about the techniques they are going to use to write the book. The latter is vital and needs to be thought about carefully, but it is a smaller and (possibly) less demanding task than thinking about the content of one’s book.

This stands in stark contrast to what we hear about teaching. In teaching, the emphasis has for many years been on how we teach rather than what we teach. This, I think, is a problem.

This is not to say that teachers do not need to study how to teach. They do. Although it has taken many years to build up an evidence base that is not based on fad and nonsense, I would like to think that the next few years are going to see big strides made forwards in teachers learning about effective teaching techniques. Books such as Doug Lemov’s Teaching Like a Champion or Brown et al’s Make It Stick set out a wide range of effective teaching strategies based on a strong evidence base. As with writing, there is no magic bullet, but there are a set of principles that can be followed by teachers in terms of how they teach.

All of this is necessary. It is, however, not sufficient. As with writing, we have to think hard not just about how we teach, but also about what we teach. What kinds of questions do we need to ask in order to be good teachers? A large part of the answer, I would suggest, is that we need to ask ourselves curricular questions. The following are examples of what I mean:

  • What is a logical structure for what I am teaching?
  • In what order should I teach things?
  • What are the main ideas and concepts that I need pupils to understand?
  • What is simple and what is complicated?
  • What kinds of prior knowledge are required to make sense of the thing I am teaching?
  • In what places will I revisit the main ideas and concepts in this lesson / this scheme of work / this long-term plan?
  • How does what I am teaching today relate to other things I am teaching?
  • What potential conflicts or misunderstandings exist between what I am teaching now and what I teach at other times?
  • What is the ‘big picture’ I am teaching, and how is what I am teaching today related to this big picture?
  • What are the best examples I can use to get across these ideas and concepts?
  • What kinds of examples are likely to be confusing or lead to misunderstandings or misconceptions?
  • What kinds of misunderstandings or misconceptions might someone have about what I am teaching?
  • What would I expect someone to say or do when they have understood what I am teaching?

All of these questions relate to the thing that I want to teach. They all involve making sure that what I teach is structured in sensible ways that makes the content as easy to understand as possible by someone else. A good teacher, I would argue, is one who has thought very carefully about these questions. Deciding whether to teach the causes of the French Revolution thematically, chronologically, or in some combination thereof, is an example of this kind of thinking. Deciding to separate the teaching of perimeter from the teaching of area is another good example. Every subject contains hundreds (possibly thousands) of such decisions that a good teacher or department needs to make.

Addressing these questions in teaching requires a significant time investment. The basic principles of the how of teaching can be learnt relatively quickly and practised routinely in nearly in every lesson. The issues relating to what I am teaching are, however, greater in quantity by orders of magnitude. A brief look at the discourse surrounding effective teaching, however, will show that the opposite weighting is given: far more time is given over to reflecting on how we teach rather than what we teach.

So to be clear: I am very much in favour of teachers spending time in training (whether initial or CPD) learning successful teaching strategies – the how or ‘what works’ of teaching. There is increasingly a good range of materials out there (books and blogs are the obvious starting point) that help teachers with this. Good teaching, however, also requires careful reflection on curricular questions – the what of teaching – and there is for each subject far more here that needs to be learnt and considered. This is why I think that most teacher training and CPD needs to be subject-specific: it is not just that particular generic techniques need to be applied in a subject (true though this is) but. It is, rather, that the lion’s share of what a teacher needs to know in order to teach well is peculiar to his or her subject.

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2 Comments on Want to improve your teaching? Study the teaching of your subject

  1. I agree with your central point (I find I usually do!) that teacher training and CPD needs to be strongly subject-specific, whilst building on basic ideas about effective teaching and learning that apply across subjects. I think, perhaps more so in science than history (but pardon my ignorance of history teaching – I may be mistaken) it’s not just those curricular questions but also the underpinning of the answers to those questions with knowledge and understanding of how children think about science concepts – what their misunderstandings are likely to be and the specific practical experiences, models, ways of explaining, sneaky questions, and essential bits of rote learning (I do mean that – when you need recall first and better understanding follows) that tend to be effective in shifting these misconceptions. Perhaps these are curricular questions but some of the things I want my trainee teachers to know feel like they are more specific than your examples. Maybe almost three layers – actually, not layers, something else – but general knowledge about effective teaching and learning; knowledge about specific bits of teaching in one’s subject; and understanding of how to structure sequences of learning.

    A couple of pieces of pedantry too:
    I’m not convinced the evidence-base for Teach Like a Champion is strong – much as I like quite a bit of the content and use some of his ideas, the evidence-base is just personal observation of effective teachers and trying to spot replicated features in their teaching.

    And that Orwell essay…
    Surely Rule 3 should be: If you can cut a word out, do so! (Just by dint of invoking Rules 2 and 3). Unless that’s barbarous, of course. My slightly serious point being that neither writing nor teaching can be condensed down to a list of rules and so, whilst Orwell can be forgiven for one pretentious essay given the quality of Down the Mine or The Road to Wigan Pier, and Teach Like A Champion should be useful for experienced teachers and teacher educators, we ought to make sure we are showing teachers the questions to ask, not trying to straitjacket them into ‘the way to teach’ (although we should certainly be showing them some of the likely answers to their questions). This, I think, brings me back round to agreeing with the post.
    Best wishes

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