What do you know? A simple way to revolutionise teacher quality

18th November 2014 at 12:01


Well, what do you know?


I want to talk about a topic so volatile and delicate it could be a kitten made of nitroglycerin: subject knowledge. And, for once, I don't mean looking at what children know, because that's a discussion that can currently be enjoyed on channels 1-100 on your Sky box (other cable providers are, of course, available). It's a good debate, and an important one. But it isn't this one.


This sermon is about teacher knowledge. What do you know about what you teach? It can be a sobering reflection, for me as much as anyone else. The personal is political, so here's some history. I studied philosophy, because that's where all the good-looking people earning big bucks started out [check this – Ed]. It was at the University of Glasgow, where you wisely begin with three subjects (English literature, philosophy and politics for me), narrowing one's focus in year three, continuing to an optional master's degree in year four. I received a joint honours MA in politics and philosophy. I learned a good deal about Thomas Hobbes and the social contract, type/token mistakes and the 100 best gags of Andrea Dworkin. You will note that, fascinating as these topics are, none of them particularly prepare you for a Year 7 lesson on the 5 Ks of Sikhism, the concept of authority and law in Judaism, or the Passion of Gethsemane.


And yet, here I was, years later, teaching just that. Of course, you shout from the gallery, you learned this through your teacher training. Well, no, not really. I took a PGCE, where the expectation was that you brushed up your own content in your own time, keeping a self-monitored check list of all the major themes and content required to teach the subject. I wasn't assessed on my knowledge of anything, not once. Even the paper I had to submit to qualify required no more than a cursory familiarity with the broadest of brush strokes. Mine was on gifted children, and I called it "How best are the gifted lifted?" and I was childishly pleased with it. In a manner that foreshadowed my later blog style, I even decorated it with pictures of children wearing dunce's caps and reading Deuteronomy. Because that's what all the best academic essays do.


Charitably, it could be suggested that part of my qualification process was the requirement to be certified by my training schools. But how would they have known that I was teaching the right content? I saw an observer perhaps half a dozen times in a year. I could have been talking utter rhubarb the rest of the time: Buddha invented the XBox, God is a DJ, etc. Who knows? My point is that I could reach a classroom and be only a page ahead of the kids, and no one could stop me. When it comes to subject knowledge, becoming a qualified teacher can be less a gold standard, and more an iron pyrite one.


Of course, that's a deliberately extreme example. And I'm sure most teachers are more tooled up for a tour of duty than I was. RE is a funny subject, left alone in the shadows by the microscopes and vivisectors of external scrutiny (I intend to write more about this charming anomaly later, along with suggested remedies). Maths teachers in the secondary sector would barely last a year without a solid, related degree, no doubt. In subjects like that, or physics, say, there exists a far more settled body of knowledge that confers expertise on its owner. 


And yet...


The problem


Even then, I meet a good number of teachers who, in private conversation, will quietly admit to feeling uncertain of their own subject base: heads of department who wouldn't, couldn't teach the A-level, and farm it out to colleagues; teachers Shanghai'd by senior staff into teaching outside of their field and miles away from their comfort zones; teachers who are required by a syllabus to teach content they've never encountered; primary teachers, expected to be experts in everything (and who, miraculously, often are – the breadth of expectation at that stage is humbling) and doing the best they can in the time they're given.


None of this is a criticism of the teachers. It's an observation of a system that doesn't require expertise in its members in order for them to be treated as experts. Now the $1-million question: is that good enough as a model of education? If you answered, "Sure, why not?", then leave me your email, credit card number and a good time to call, because I have some real estate in Narnia I want to sell you.


So, what do you know?


It took me a year cleaving to textbooks to get up to a reasonable level of subject knowledge – and that was because I sweated in a clammy pool of guilt, fraud anxiety and duty. Some days, I was barely a paragraph ahead. I experienced a similar sensation a few years back when I was an examiner for (insert exam board) at A-level, and they asked me to mark a completely different paper from the ones I applied for. When I told them I didn't feel conversant enough with the content to mark reliably, they sent me them anyway. Even when I repeated my admission, they simply sent me more. Never mind if it's right, they seemed to say, mark, fûcker, MARK.


The solution


So I have two suggestions, and you're not going to like them. In fact, some people will hate them.


The first suggestion is this: if you're a teacher of an externally examinable subject, sit the paper yourself, and see what you get. If you don't smash it, first time, what does that tell you about your subject knowledge, and your ability to communicate that knowledge fluidly and efficiently? You don't need to know everything, but you need to know a hell of a lot more than them.


The second will tickle some and aggravate others: make it a requirement of qualification that trainee teachers sit the papers they'll be expected to teach. See what they get. We could collate the data anonymously and build one of the most controversial and potentially informative data sets ever captured. How does it correlate with student outcomes? Teacher training institutions? Demographics? Hiring policies? Oh boy.


I'll slip in a third optional suggestion. Schools: instead of dreary whole-school insets with generic, blunt focuses that make you feel like jumping off something high, why not invest in subject-specific content training? I know a load of teachers who would love it far more than another day Building Learning Power, but who are afraid of looking bad, understandably.


Why not do any/all of these things? Cost, sure. But seriously, why wouldn't you expect to be at least capable of teaching your subject to an A-grade standard? Why wouldn't you want that?


The question should be: can we afford not to do this?