Does good subject knowledge make you a good teacher?

No, says Adam Riches. There are other factors that are more important to success in the classroom

Subject knowledge

Recently, I’ve been pondering the question: is subject knowledge really important in the classroom – or is pedagogy of more value?

Like many others, I have always believed that to be a great secondary teacher you need to be a specialist in your subject. Lately, though, I have observed some amazing teaching from non-specialists and that has made me question my previously deep-rooted beliefs.

Where does this faith in subject knowledge come from in the first place? It makes sense that most people outside of the profession assume teachers have a degree (or equivalent) in the area that they are teaching; I think that if you talk to parents this is an assumed prerequisite. Of course, if you delve a bit deeper, you will find that not all teachers come from thoroughbred subject stock. But does that mean they aren’t specialists?

Most subjects require a certain level of knowledge to teach them, but the more you think about it, the more you realise that it’s difficult to measure exactly how much subject knowledge you need to be competent in the classroom – and that there are other things that teachers need, perhaps even more.

For me, knowing how learning takes place is what truly makes a good teacher. The ability to respond and adapt to learners, to help them achieve outcomes is key to success in the classroom. Does a good knowledge of your subject make this easier? Yes, of course it does. Do you need complete subject knowledge in order to do this? No.

Does subject knowledge matter?

I know some incredibly intelligent individuals who really struggle to teach concepts in the classroom. They have more subject knowledge than I could comprehend, but their students don’t succeed. Why? Because these teachers aren’t able to encode their knowledge in a way that makes it easy for students to access. It’s as simple as that.

Instead of focusing on the depth and breadth of subject knowledge, we need to think more in terms of teachers knowing what is expected in a subject. For example, I’m a specialist in English language and linguistics. Does that mean I can’t teach literature? I am certainly not as knowledgeable as some when it comes to literature, but I know what is expected of my students and I know enough (and then some) to help them on their way to success.

If you have studied a subject to A level yourself; if you know what’s on the curriculum and have the pedagogical knowledge needed to help students make progress, surely that makes you qualified to teach that subject at least to GCSE. After all, one of the best maths teachers I know was once a PE teacher and some of the most promising English trainees I’ve worked with come from psychology backgrounds.

Ultimately, with the numbers of applications for teacher training on the decline, we should perhaps be more open to the idea that teachers’ subject knowledge is not the be all and end all. When it comes to being a fantastic teacher, it seems that there are other factors that matter more.

Adam Riches is a specialist leader of education and lead teacher in English

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