Resisting the pull of the generic: knowledge, specificity and teaching

This is a talk I gave to new trainees on the Future Academies SCITT in July 2017.

It is a real pleasure to be invited to speak here today at Pimlico to a new cohort of teachers. I have been briefed with talking to you today about ‘knowledge-based pedagogy’, and it is my intention to get to a point where I talk to you about teaching methods and their association with a knowledge-rich curriculum.

But, for reasons that I hope will become clear as I go on, I want to reach that point by a rather circuitous route, taking in ‘why we teach’ and ‘what we teach’ before I get to ‘how we teach’. I have outlined on your handout the basic argument of this talk.

Throughout, I’m going to be arguing that, as teachers, we are constantly pulled towards the generic, away from the specificity of what we teach. The problem with this, I shall argue, is that our purpose as teachers lies in the specificity of what we are teaching. To comment on a generic set of ‘teaching methods’ that apply in all circumstances is I think a mistake, for it is always necessary to give primacy to the peculiarities of our subject.

Why do we teach?

I want to begin by setting out a little my case for why we teach. This is a question that everyone in this room will have asked themselves recently, and some of you – perhaps many of you – will still be asking this question right now. Certainly after teaching Year 9 on a hot, sweaty afternoon in July, I still sometimes ask this myself.

But my question here is not about individual motivation to teach – everyone in this room will have a different story that has brought them to sit where you are today. No, my question rather is “why do we have teachers at all?”

Some of you will be aware that a new organisation has been created recently called the College of Teaching. Hopefully many of you will have already taken up your free trainee teacher membership. The college is however surrounded by a whole series of questions as to who should get to be a member. No one doubts that a Year 3 teacher should be eligible for membership, or a Year 11 maths teacher. But what about a university lecturer? They teach, after all. What about a driving instructor? Are they not teachers? What about a local vicar, who teaches her parish in church every Sunday? Is my grandfather, who taught me to fish, not also eligible for membership?

The problem, of course, is that teaching is a very natural activity. We all in this room are teachers of a great many things. Young children teach each other to play games. And they do this without any training, without learning any ‘pedagogy’ and without having to have first demonstrated that they have met a set of Teachers’ Standards.

So in asking ‘why do we teach’ I am not asking about this in a general sense – humans have always taught and will always teach, regardless of whether we have qualified teachers or not.

Instead, I am asking, why do we bring a group of adults together in an institution known as a school, and ask them to teach children? Why do we, as a society, spend billions of pounds of tax payers’ money (and it is still not enough) running these institutions? To put it bluntly, why should someone pay your salary or mine?

Vocational Education

One answer to this question has been to say that we are preparing children for careers. I am not even talking here about the “we’re training children for jobs that don’t yet exist” nonsense that you still hear from time to time. It is nevertheless a commonly held view that we send children to school so that they can get a good job, or even just a ‘job’. In your careers, every year you will hear senior business leaders bemoaning the fact that 16 year olds or 18 year olds leave school unable to read and write properly, or lacking basic mathematics.

And, on the one hand, I have some sympathy for this argument. It is our job as school teachers to teach children to read, write and add up. And it is true that we haven’t always been as good at it as we should have been.

But I do want to raise some caution as to this line of thinking.

First, there are thousands and thousands of possible career routes that our children might follow, in hundreds of sectors. To push children into one particular route at a relatively early age does, I think, limit rather than open up their life choices. I don’t think children should be learning to be hairdressers or car mechanics at age 14 any more than they should be learning to be police officers, lawyers or bankers.

I think more important, however, is that the vocational argument has a corrupting influence in that it forces all of us to take the subjects we want to teach, and to put them towards some other purpose.

Thus history, my subject, is not to be pursued for the fascinating insights it gives us into the human past, but because it teaches transferable skills such as ‘analysis’ or ‘communication’.

Physics stops being the pursuit of answers to the most fundamental questions, and instead is learnt because the statistics and programming are useful to an investment bank.

Time here prevents me from going into a detailed critique of the idea of ‘transferable skills’, but the current prevailing wind in psychology is that skills are not transferable, but domain specific. All of this would suggest that employers are better off training up someone for the precise job they want that person to do, rather than expecting schools to produce ‘off-the-shelf’ employees for them to collect.

So I have issues with the vocational argument for why we teach. I wince when someone says “what job will studying history get me?” If I believed that the principal purpose of teaching history to school children was to get them a job, I don’t think I’d standing here now talking to you.


Another major justification given for why we teach is something called ‘citizenship’. This is the argument that the children of today are the citizens of tomorrow, and that they need to know some things in order to be citizens.

Now for reasons I shall come to in a moment I find this a more persuasive argument. But I want to deal first with a problem.

We in this room only have so much time. I have already commented on the third most important resource in schools – which is money – but the second most important resources is time. Every decision someone makes about what to include in school excludes something else.

And, just as the business leaders line up to take a pop at teachers for not preparing children for jobs, so too does just about every lobby group that wants schools teaching something else. In (almost all) cases one cannot quibble with the rationale. Children should learn to manage their finances. Children should learn first aid. Children should learn to cook. Children should learn to care for babies. Children should learn how to vote. Children learn how to read a payslip. And so on.

The problem with this line of argument is that is assumes education and schooling are the same thing. I would argue that all of those things should be part of a child’s education, but we cannot possibly teach all of those things in schools. And, if we did want to make this our purpose, we would not employ historians or physicists or mathematicians: we would instead employ trainers from St John’s Ambulance or a financial adviser.

Yet, as a society, we have decided to employ you, the people here, to teach children in schools. And lest anyone think I am making an argument that applies only to secondary teachers, I think this applies as much to primary teachers as well. You are the renaissance men and women of our age, required to master a wide range of subjects.

So why have we employed you? I think the philosopher Alasadair MacIntyre had the answer when he argued that

“an educated public is constituted by educated generalists, people who can situate themselves in relation to society and to nature, because they know enough astronomy, enough geology, enough history, enough economics, and enough philosophy and theology to do so.”

For MacIntyre, the children we teach should leave school with a grounding across the academic disciplines, because this is what will enable them to participate in educated society.

A good example here is to take the BBC. The BBC is a public broadcaster – it has a responsibility to keep us informed about developments in the wider world. Yet what does one need to know in order to access a BBC news article? If you read through a typical BBC article on their website, then you will see a complex array of words that mean something

  • anti-corruption
  • general election
  • paramilitary
  • working-class
  • foreign investment
  • civil servant
  • separatists
  • ceasefire
  • annexation
  • marginal land

Research into reading – and much of this is summarised in the works of ED Hirsch and Dan Willingham – shows that good readers have to know an awful lot. To put it in Willingham’s terms, a fluent reader of (say) a broadsheet newspaper has a knowledge base that is a million miles wide and a few inches deep.

To be clear, this is absolutely not about learning lists of definitions. If I were to say the word “working-class” to you, I am confident that you would not immediately think of a definition, but rather of examples of the many contexts in which you have heard that word used. This is not to say that learning definitions might not serve as a useful proxy, but rather than it is not sufficient. The key to cracking an idea such as ‘working class’ is to encounter it in lots of contexts.

It is worth here making a brief but vital point that children from less affluent families are far more limited on this front. There is a vast vocabulary gap between a child who is from an affluent background and one who is not, and you teach many such children here in Future Academies as we do in Inspiration Trust in Norfolk. The affluent child is far more likely encounter this wide pool of knowledge outside of school: it is our job to ensure that this becomes the entitlement for all children.

Subject disciplines

And this is what leads me to my third justification for why we have schools, and also the reason why you in this room – every one of you – are special.

It has become commonplace to assume that subjects – such as chemistry, geography and art history – are just boundaries drawn around knowledge: arbitrary lines in the sand whereby we divvy up what we want to teach

But that – as you all know – is to miss the point of a discipline. A discipline is living, breathing phenomenon. We have not always had chemistry or economics – these disciplines have emerged over time as the best means we have for studying the nature of different parts of reality.

For those seeking to make sense of reality and the scale of galaxies, or at the quantum scale, there is no better discipline than physics.

For those who want to study the complexities of the human past, there is no better discipline than history.

And for those who want to study the nature of life on earth, you won’t find a better discipline than biology.

Each discipline brings with it its own sets of ideas, rules and methods. I would try to answer a question in chemistry by reading some sources in an archive any more than I would try to answer a question in history by trying to recreate the French Revolution in a controlled experiment.

Each discipline brings with it its own interpretations of ideas such as proof, truth and evidence, and its own argumentative structures.

Educated citizens – as Alasdair MacIntyre put it – have learnt enough of each of these disciplines to be able to participate in the wider discourse in society. This is perhaps what is meant by ‘the great conversations of mankind”.

Each of us in this room has an area of expertise. Some of us have several. For those of you training to be primary school teachers, you are the great Renaissance thinkers, able to move swiftly from one discipline to another, although no doubt you feel there are some of these that you will need to develop over the coming years.

And so if money is our third most precious resource and time our second, then our first post precious resource in schools is you and your subject expertise. You have spent years specialising in particular fields, and those specialisms are what makes you valuable.

What should we teach?

What then should we be teaching? Which disciplines make the cut, and which do not?

It is worth pointing out that there will always be arbitrary decisions to make. My starting point here is to ask:

What are the disciplines that help us make sense of our reality?

For making sense of the nature world I think we could do worse than studying mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, although I am open to persuasion that we should be teaching some of the more specialist sciences discretely – such as geology, psychology, astronomy or zoology. Some parts of geography fall naturally into place here as well. A child who has studied all these disciplines is well placed to read further and enter into discussions about the natural world and how our knowledge of it is changing.

As for the human world, it strikes me that history, religion, literature, art and music all provide deep insights into the nature of humanity, and again we could push the boundaries here and say, for example, that the study of art incorporates the study of design or that music incorporates the study of dance. Particularly for older students, I think there is a strong case for studying economics, sociology and politics.

I would just like to say something briefly here about so-called ‘cross-curricular’ work. It becomes fashionable from time to time to collapse the subjects down into ‘themes’ or ‘topics’, and indeed  this is still the dominant mindset in primary education.

If you have followed thus far then my objection to this should be clear: academic disciplines are not just arbitrary boundaries drawn around content, but rather structured ways of knowing the world. When these subject boundaries get broken down, then the knowledge we teach just becomes ‘stuff about stuff’.

More sophisticated arguments for breaking down subject boundaries often tie things back to ideas such as ‘critical thinking’ and ‘creativity’ – the idea is that, in some way, cross-curricular work allows these ideas to shine through more clearly.

I think this is a mistake. It certainly is true that some of the most interesting cutting edge work is being done at the boundaries of disciplines, and those of you who have come with PhDs will know that ‘interdisciplinary’ is a buzz word to get into any research grant. But interdisciplinary work is predicated on the existence of disciplines. In order to break the rules one must first learn the rules.

And this is what a ‘knowledge-rich’ education means to me. It does not mean teaching lists of content, although sequencing a curriculum carefully is one of the greatest intellectual challenges we face. Rather, it involves recognising that knowledge gains its explanatory power from the disciplinary framework in which it sits.

This again brings us back to specificity. If I am teaching history, why would you or should you expect to see something similar going on in my classroom to a teacher of mathematics? The two disciplines are remarkably different. Is there anything which teaching these two quite different things might share?

How should we teach?

All of this brings me to the final question of ‘how should we teach?’

Let me say something first about this idea of ‘evidence-based teaching’. This is not a new thing. In the past, it has given rise to a whole range of monsters, and I have no doubt that you will in the coming weeks hear about bogus ideas such as Brain Gym and the idea that people learn better when taught in their preferred learning style.

But the more dangerous issues arise when a theory with good evidence support it gets corrupted in practice. The best example of this is Assessment for Learning. As a teaching approach, it is better called ‘responsive teaching’, and it is the idea that children learn better when teachers establish what has and has not been learnt, and adjust their teaching accordingly.

Yet what is a perfectly good theory turned into a monster in the late 1990s and 2000s. ‘Assessment for Learning’ came to mean, for example, children assessing each against infantilised grade criteria. It came to mean that teachers should use regular ‘mini-plenaries’ rather than sustained practice. In short, because the theory was not well understood – especially by senior leaders – it was introduced in a corrupted form that placed more emphasis on its appearance than its purpose.

At present, the new kid on the block is cognitive psychology. I am broadly a fan. As a field, it has given us a set of ideas with which to think about our practice. You will now begin to hear teachers talking about ‘interleaving’, or ‘cognitive load’, or ‘dual coding’. I am not an expert in psychology, but my reading of the research suggests to me that this field is full of potential and possibility for teachers but that, as ever, the devil will be in how the ideas become manifest in the classroom. On this front, at best, I can just encourage you to be enthusiastic but sceptical.

Are there then any general ideas we can apply to how we teach?

I have just two.

The first is: “Get the children thinking what you want them to think about”.

The psychologists tells us that we learn what we think about. As Willingham put it, “memory is the residue of past thought”.

About ten years ago, I tried out an activity in my history classroom with some Year 8 pupils who had to learn about Elizabeth I’s decision not to marry. I used an idea, stolen from elsewhere, where I set up a ‘blind date’ activity – each suitor had to present their best qualities, and then Elizabeth had to choose.

The problem was that the children were not thinking about Elizabeth and her suitors. They were thinking about the blind date activity. In the following lesson they could all remember doing something fun, but few could remember any of the specifics.

Making posters or board games about history is another good example – and I have done both on numerous occasions. If you as children to make a board game, and they spend half the lesson thinking about the rules and not about the history, then they are not spending time thinking about what you want them to think about.

Both of these examples also fall foul of my second mantra, which is

“Don’t waste time”.

If children are spending time colouring in bubble writing (unless it’s an art lesson!) then that time could be better used elsewhere. A complex role play might get children thinking about what we want them to learn, but if it takes three times as long, then have we missed an opportunity to do something else in that time?

None of this is to say that we should not be cognisant of how people learn. Humans have not evolved to learn history, maths or French, and it would be a mistake I think to assume that there are specific processes in the mind for each discipline. We should therefore as teachers be aware of things like the limitation of working memory, or how retrieval practice improves the storage and retrieval strength of our memories, or how interleaving new knowledge with old results in better retention in the long run.

But in all these cases, it is necessary to think through carefully exactly what that means for what you are teaching.

You should be regularly asking children to retrieve knowledge from memory, but what knowledge should they be retrieving? What counts as a chunk in your subject to be interleaved? And in what way is knowledge in your subject ‘chunked’ in long-term memory?

These are fundamental questions that are specific to your subject. If you attempt to apply these ideas generically, then you risk making the same mistake as was made with Assessment for Learning when I was training to be a teacher just over a decade ago.


I have tried to persuade you this afternoon that subject-specificity matters, and that a knowledge-rich pedagogy is one that is driven by your subject’s own internal logic and rationale. Over the next year, it will be your job to learn how the specifics of your subject shape the nature of your practice. In all cases, you should be asking “what does this mean for me teaching maths?” or “how does this idea pan out in the teaching of French?”

Your primary specialists here have the dual challenge of asking what these questions mean across all of the subjects that you teach, and your challenge is all the harder for it. But I think it’s also more exciting.

I would finish then with a plea that you remember why you are teaching what you are teaching. What you teach matters. Bringing it to the mind of a child is one of the greatest responsibilities and joys that we have.

5 Comments on Resisting the pull of the generic: knowledge, specificity and teaching

  1. A fascinating and thoughtful post which I am sure was enjoyed by the audience. I hope they had the opportunity to listen to alternative views (debate) and make up their own minds.

    I have taught in various systems during my 22 years as a teacher. I have taught towards the trad end of the spectrum and also towards the prog end.

    I now teach at an International Baccalaureate world school as part of a concept based curriculum delivered via an inquiry approach.

    I have studied teaching, learning, epistemology, cognitive science etc etc over the last twenty years or so an I can confidently say that in my experience an education based upon a mixture of subject specific knowledge and generic principles and ideas is by far the best. By far.

    I think this approach reflects the way that stuff is organised in the real world and although subjects can be useful in the expedient search for efficiency, alternatives will likely be more effective in the long term endeavour to create wisdom.

    I understand just where you are coming from but I feel you have the right answer to the wrong question.

    We will see.

  2. Tom Burkard // 20 October 2017 at 07:16 // Reply

    One of the best posts I’ve read in quite a while–and that’s up against some pretty stiff competition.

    One quibble: when Assessment for Learning addressed, teachers were struggling to get to grips with an excessively detailed curriculum, and in the pressure to cover every detail confirmation of learning all but dropped out of the picture. Already, the routine testing that was commonplace until the 1960s had already disappeared. Although AfL addressed a real problem, it would have been difficult to think of a less workable solution–which is why it was never really adopted in any but a tiny minority of schools, and why there is almost no quantiative evidence that it ever improved pupils’ learning. Put simply, the notion that teachers can personalise learning in any meaningful way when they’re lucky if their pupils stay in their seats is pure moonshine: see

  3. Thanks I enjoyed reading that.

    I sometimes write a comment and realise that the writing of it has indeed furthered my understanding even changed the view that I had when I started the text.

    A problem that you have highlighted is one that all reflective practitioners will suffer either because they are keen to try new ideas or the ideas are being ‘shoe-horned’ into learning and teaching methodologies by enthusiastic senior leaders who haven’t road tested the initiatives sufficiently so that they can cherry pick out the bits which are juiciest. Forgive them because the initiative was introduced by CPD/INSET providers who have juiced the cherries even less. However if we can simply tweak the nomenclature here we need not be binning useful strategies that enhance learning. So for learning styles read VARIETY and for AfL read CHECK then GO we are left with useful strategies.

    Cognitive Psychology will be the new kid on the block for a while but what will it leave us with when it evolves or is superseded by the latest ‘beau’?


    1. Check prior

    2. Revisit regularly

    3. Layer / Interleave

    4. Reduce cognitive load

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