Tuesday period 7 -The importance of being earnest about Subject Knowledge.

This week I had the privilege of speaking to the PGCE mentors at Nottingham University about subject knowledge. We were trying to think about the importance of subject knowledge when training teachers compared to all the other pedagogical an

d classroom management that goes on in helping shiny new teacher trainees as they learn the craft of the classroom. The stuff that inevitably has to go on – behaviour management, question technique etc made me think about the importance of subject knowledge in learning to be a teacherimage. You need a big erudite quote talking to a load of PGCE mentors at a prestigious University so I went for a Cloughie quote. “Players lose you games not tactics. There is so much crap talked about tactics by people who barely know how to win at Dominoes.” This made me think because Clough’s point really is that there are all sorts of people with opinions and views telling him how to run his team but actually it is players that win games. As a head teacher I am acutely aware we get all sorts of advice, guidance and “this is how to” BUT  it is teachers that make a difference.

  • teachers not systems
  • teachers not policies
  • enthusiastic, inspiring and knowledgeable teachers.

Policies and systems are important but no one decides to become a teacher because of policies and systems, they decide to become a teacher because they were inspired by a teacher or by a subject or both; they love children and now they have a subject they wish to share. My audience were present as PGCE mentors because of a deep desire to help the next generation of teachers, to create more teachers and we head teachers like to find inspiring knowledgeable shiny new teachers.

Some Subject Knowledge Myths

Graduates know everything about their subject when they graduate as though the things they didn’t quite understand when they went into finals having got their 2:1 or even 1st somehow mysteriously drop into the brain. The 30% you got away without knowing is now “in the brain” Well it sure isn’t! After graduation I did one year of reseach and in my first day of lab work used  a chemical (Benzoyl Chloride for those interested] which was described as a powerful lachrymator, but me and my arrogance not wanting to check  at what lachrymator meant just assumed it was the word that meant you went to the toilet a lot. so I took care not to drink or taste it [not difficult] having completed my experiment threw my solution down a sink to find a whole lab of chemists with tears streaming down their faces having to leave the room and as we were evacuated me being totally embarrassed. No the gaps of knowledge are not filled in!

Graduates knowledge automatically updates as the world discovers more about that subject new gaps occur. Or maybe some part of history you have to teach wasn’t covered in HE. Or suddenly as an English teacher you have to understand the new 19th century novel thanks to Mr Gove designing the spec. This can be seen as nuisance or you can have the attitude of my brilliant English staff and see it as a chance to read stuff you haven’t read before.

IMG_2928The school curriculum, the school content never changes hey have in my subject I can tell you a topic like Solubility has come and gone and came back it. The Born Haber cycle was in then out then back in a new form then gone and I’ve not checked the new specs!

 

 

Some Subject Knowledge Truths

Graduates know more about their subject than school students. We hope that’s true after 3 years and £27,000 and all of us should be able to keep ahead on knowledge

Graduates worry about other aspects of the classroom. Shine new ITT people have other bothers:

  • Will the pupils behave
  • Will I cope with the marking, feedback, will I even be able to answer the exam question myself
  • Will their parents moan about me
  • Will my classroom turn into an example of chaos and riot
  • Agh should I be a teacher

It’s nimageot just about knowledge. Back in the day when I did a PGCE we had what we called books and if you were asked a question the answer was in a book so you found it there or bluffed. Now you can google it, so can pupils, but learning is much deeper matter and, it’s really all about

  • Understanding,
  • reasoning,
  • application,
  • synthesis …..maybe more

Knowledge has to fit into a curriculum. Whatever knowledge the graduate has or does not have the demand is in a curriculum be that for Y7 for Y9 top sets or for GCSE or Level and maybe when we get this wrong we underestimate our pupils and maybe there is truth in the Ousted chiefs criticisms of the way we work with bright pupils

Graduates should be able to make a subject “come to life”. OK there is a curriculum but get the  best bits of your subject, the exciting and interesting stuff into the lesson. Children love this and if we keep winning them over they will enjoy the lesson, learn and see they can progress. That is the virtuous circle of success

Stay in the mainstream of being a subject specialist. I am a reasonable Chemist ( hey Ive a degree and an FRSC) Im an OK Chemistry teacher- but when you give me KS3 biology I can kill it. I never did any Biology, in my day an all boys grammar didn’t do Biology.

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Sir I don’t think you know how to use this microscope

I did a little in my degree and sure I can teach it BUT do I know if this lesson on photosynthesis is putting the right emphasis on the right foundations. Bet someone who taught KS4 or 5 would identify better the exact basics to grasp. One reason I think our Maths and English results are so good is because people teaching KS5/4 teach Y7 and Y8 – when they cover adverbs in Y7 they sure have an eye on what will be needed post16 or GCSE and make sure they start building it well. Drip feed complex ideas form an early age.

 

A few challenges

Pupil growth in understanding mirrors yours. There are always better ways to teach better ways to work out how to deliver your subject after a few years of working out that this be the topic doesn’t get a learnt very well in that particular way we is the subject experts can probably sit down and find a better way. in the 80’s I taught Chemistry the same way I had been taught and the same route as my degree. By the time of Salters I was teaching JUST the part needed at a particular stage, we revisited ideas, we did ideas in a circular way that genuinely held learning and it meant we revisited Chemical ideas. It worked and worked well and we  saw that in results in numbers carrying on in the subject and guess what – we saw it in their understanding. Avoid the errors of dropping really difficult concepts and ideas on pupils too early in their learning before they are mature enough to cope.

Importance of the story of the subject (even Maths). All subjects even Maths have a story to tell – a history, a set of characters, set of discoveries, a context, a baddie a discovery. I can name you all these in Chemistry. Have a fund of stores or look at my post on storytelling.

Importance of secuIMG_2943re understanding not teaching to test – PPS (past paper syndrome). No teacher reading this hasn’t had the frustration of a pupil asking “whats in the test?” or doing past papers sometime in January and not doing very well.  We need to use our own deep understanding of our subject to show pupils just how to grasp, understand, learn and progress.
No point doing exam papers (yet) be secure in your knowledge and understanding) and sure we might have to do some simple testing to see if you have and to see how we help.

Using new technologies. I love what I have in the toolbox for teaching so we must keep an eye on ICT or Activites to enhance BUT we use out subject knowledge. I’m reminded of some of the early software I was shown by enthusiastic software salesmen aiming  to show me how wonderful chemistry could appear  on the interactive whiteboard. Watch! You can pull a virtual bottle of acid from here and look you can pull across test tube and choose a bit of zinc or other metal to add. Now, drop it in and click here to open the bottle and look the equation is written underneath and there is the reaction: some bubbles of hydrogen the pupils can guess what it is and the little splint will come over and on imagethe screen appears the word “pop” what do you think of that? It’s quite nice but I’d rather g
et a bottle of acid out give it to my pupils and a test tube and let them do the pop test to see the delight in their faces and the motivation which will probably drive them to work out the equation ready for tomorrow when if they’ve worked it out they can do a few more themselves in real life. Use technology but use your subject common sense

Importance of the keepy uppy in your subject there is the obvious importance of keeping up in the subject and chemistry as in most subjects things has seen dramatic changes. Nanotechnology didn’t exist back in the 80’s. We need to keimageep up with our knowledge, we should enjoy that. It will get us excited: a new material anew discovery, scientist on the international space station. I teach my pupils about DNA and the structure and hydrogen bonding and it’s fascinating and actually give them the 1953 article (a single side of A4 paper) that was in nature and I remind them that in
1953 this won a Nobel Prize and in 2016 it might get them three marks in an exam.Surely there is nothing more important than us keeping up our frontier knowledge to excite and inspire the next generation – cos someone did that for us , a teacher a copy of New scientist a TV programme. Get in touch with your professional subject: ASE or RSC for me.

Delight of discussion of your subjectone of the best parts of the teacher’s job is spending time in the staffroom or on CPD opportunities OR with pupils, talking through some of the issues. How can we make this better? What does this mean? Did you know that? Have you seen this? Hey and if you can draw in other staff, the renaissaince people in te staffroom then the discussion makes the job richer, and all the better

Lifelong learning. You and I dream of creating lifelong learners, and we are lifelong learners of our sunbelt. Use the vehicle of your subject knowledge to sign the deal.


Some Questions

Q1 what importance does your ITT, NQT RQT or frankly your CPD programme place on Subject Knowledge?

Q2 Have we neglected subject knowledge at the expense of pedagogy and lost out

Q3 Should we try and wrestle subject knowledge back to being the “first love”?

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part 2 – from Teacher trainee to NQT*

untitledL PlatesCongratulations and welcome to the profession. You’ve chosen a great job and hopefully you already know a good bit about your new school. There is a clue in the initials about this journey “new”.

First the Good news

You passed your PGCE, schools direct, teach first training with flying colours but you are not quite the finished article, in fact even after 36 years I never felt I was the finished article, this is teaching and learning and we never ever get there! However you do now know how a classroom works, you have been observed and met required standards. In fact you might feel you survived – no one rioted, discipline wasn’t as bad an issue as you thought it might be and deep down you did experience the sheer delight of pupils learning in your classroom. You have had interviews and got a job and now you get paid too.

Now the challengeL Plates

1 Responsibilities

Last year another teacher taught a class, and you “borrowed” them for a term or less. now you have them for a whole year or if Y10/Y12 maybe two years. You are responsible for their progress, achievement, and to an extent their behaviour and ambitions. You have to report stuff to your head of dept, to a head of year and to parents…….oh and also to …….pupils.

2. You are the star not the extradownload

Sometime last year, you were an ” extra pair of hands” for example with a tutor group. You are now in charge and……on your own, at least in the classroom, but certainly not in the school. So start acting like the Star not the extra.

3 Welcome to Houston – Systems

Your mentor or class teachISS_Flight_Control_Room_2006er helped out with questions that you had or issues that arose. Now you have to find them in other ways. There should still be a mentor and there should be a senior leader in charge of NQTs. Speak to them often. There should be a programme of support, get along, take notes listen, learn act. However systems can be complicated and schools have a habit of socialising them such that experienced teachers just seem to “know” what to do. So don’t be afraid to ask even the simplest of questions, however you might need to put aside time to get to grips with say ICT systems for management information, for reporting, for taking registers. Just ask, ask, ask. Pay attention at all those sessions on child protection, health and safety, data protection dealing with…. the school knows what it is doing training you, make sure you learn.

4 Basics of preparation and practice

Teacher plannerDuring teaching placement you had time in school to prepare lessons and maybe try out the odd activity such as a practical. You will wonder how to fit that in but preparation is the key. You do have a few lessons from last year under your belt but these are different children – your children and now you have more classes and (see above) more responsibility. As quickly as possible find out where dept resources, schemes of work etc reside, how to access them and work with experienced teachers on planning. As for practicing those activities, well that’s after school now methinks. Remember this will get easier but take a deep breath just now.

5 Marking and feedback – you just knew they would be here

Oh for the luxury of teaching practice with maybe 1 set of workbooks to mark each evening, now it seimageems non stop. You must work out a sustainable way for marking and feeding back. Guess what, that is just like the rest of us, so again ask, ask, ask. Don’t think you can spend 4/5 mins on every book for every class. BUT do not get behind, if you letting it slip, talk to your mentor. What is the school policy, mark every week, what do they mean by mark, and what are they marking? A lot of judgment rests on the quality of what is in a pupil’s book – mentors will look, other assessors, in due time Ofsted but perhaps more importantly parents and children. You can have a big impact here. Personally I am not a  scary kind of teacher but I get good behaviour in part by what I put in books, odd comments about the written work but odd comments about behaviour, contribution: ” well done today Ash, loved your answers, keep it up – though I think the homework could have had more detail” and reinforce that verbally. Just occasionally you are sat at home, finished prep for tomorrow and a bit overwhelmed with marking – then stop, get to bed and turn into school refreshed and be on top of classes, far better than everything marked but you tearful by lunch through lack of sleep.

6 Background disruption – please No

If your classes experience this, which some almost certainly will do, then do not despair, but please please please do not ignore. You are not rubbish but you need to tackle the pupils and the situations. Discuss strategies, get ideas and maybe watch the group with more experienced staff and tease out what they do and therefore what you need to learn. You are after all an NQT and the ‘new’ gives it away you have stuff to learn.

7. Workload

I do sometime say to our NQT pace yourself through the day. Maybe get a class to read silently for a while, maybe have a very straightforward activity. As a Chemist I wanted every lesson to be fairly spectacular and soon learned I would probably not be surviving the year. You can’t do a lesson like you prepared for your PGCE tutor to watch for every lesson. So learn to pace yourself but get a great lesson in every few days to ensure you remind yourself what a great job it is and that you can do it.

8. Extra curricular

I thin0913-23k these activities are vital ( see this post) but you are an NQT with lots of years ahead of you and so only do what you can manage. At one interview I was asked by the chair of governors if I would help on a ski trip and an overseas trip. I really wanted the job and as this next sentence came out my mouth I thought I was kissing good-bye to the job but I said: “It seems to me the school needs  lessons well prepared, classes well taught, work marked and pupils prepared for public exams, and the labs tidied up to be interesting learning environments; as we have just had a baby I can’t see me getting away for skiing but once the day-to-day is sorted of course I will do my bit.” In all honesty I got up ready tp  leave but I did get the job and the deputy said that was exactly right for the school. Do something , maybe the odd bus or dinner duty, show willing, maybe something you really wanted to do as you were thinking of teaching like playing your flute in the orchestra but just dip your toes in. No one will thank you for taking the football team but not marking books or forgetting to order equipment until late.

9 Other wonderful people in a school

I’ve mentioned staff but now learn to love the support staff, people who photocopy for you, caretakers, ICT wizards, office staff who will always try to help, if appropriate lab technicians too. They will have seen a lot of new teachers like you, and whilst not necessarily knowing how you are doing they do know the pitfalls and if you can pass the time of day with them, appreciate them you will get lots of support just where you need it.


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10 Rhythm

Schools have their own diary or calendar and it brings a rhythm to the school. of course this is based around holidays ( half terms, start of year etc) , seasons (winter/exams) and then parents’ evenings and reporting. You need to try to watch out for this. Many an NQT overlooked or wasn’t told that “next week we need the assessment data completing, so hope you have done the test”. You haven’t or there is a work audit due and the work you needed to do for that will hijack  something else you had planned. Try to read beyond the dates and look over each year group and identify when the pressure points will be and work with others to minimise those pressures

11 Standards

I’ve never been sure about the “don’t smile until Christmas” malarkey but you must set out from the word go your expectations. You must keep to rules, you must in a sense do as the “collective wisdom “ suggests – otherwise there is trouble around the corner. So set high expectations of behaviour, of work ethic in your classroom, of standards of work, of standards of dress – including your own. Pupils actually like all that and will conform, they like to know where the lines are but they will try and cross them – someone will definitely not do homework so what will you do, exactly what will you do when that happens? You may not know but please don;’t say “Someone not doing homework, well that really was a massive surprise!”

12 Feedback and Self confidence

Get lots, the more the merrier. before you plan tomorrow reflect on today. My NQT notes I reread for this post and I discovered my plans were more brief than my reflections and I remember what a great resource that proved in my second and third year – ah yes, that didn’t quite work; ah no, that practical didn’t really illustrate the learning objective etc. However the most valuable is that from staff observing you AND you finding some time to observe them. These aspects should steadily build your confidence and help you grow into the role and you will see next year looks possible and manageable and you know what you can do better. You will make it through and be even better next year.

New teachers bring bags of enthusiasm and new ideas and new ways of doing things, we really love people like you – if you can learn some of the traditions in your school to get the best out of children and marry the two you will be just fine – but exhausted.

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There is a lot of advice on blogs and in the TES and if on twitter via @Ukedchat animaged #NQTChat . The TES supplement  “new teachers” published September 18th is a good read too. Meanwhile make sure you join a teacher union they often have lots of very useful stuff for NQTs.  Here is a good article from the Guardian too.

Some blogs

From @theheadsoffice 

and @lisa7pettifer

and @teachaholicblog

Some books|

Making every lesson count: six principles to support great teaching and learning by  Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby

Classroom behaviour: a practical guide to effective teaching,behaviour management and colleague support by Bill Rogers

Teaching in UK Secondary Schools – a PGCE, School Direct and NQT Starter Guide for that Long Road Ahead  by Hari Indran

Teaching in UK Secondary Schools: Being Organised from September through till Christmas: by Hari Indran

There  is a very good guide from the NUT

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