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How to get world-class subject knowledge from your sofa

Being an expert in your subject is one of the best things you can do for your students - and the rise of online CPD means you can easily be brushing up on your skills from home

Megan Tatum

Teacher accessing MASSOLIT from home

We know that the most effective teachers are the ones who know their subjects inside and out.

It’s an idea that’s supported by the research: educational charity the Sutton Trust has found that teachers’ deep subject knowledge is one of the best indicators of pupil success, with a stronger link to outcomes than elements such as class size or ability grouping. 

“While there’s no single ingredient that makes great teaching, we do know that teacher content knowledge is one of two main factors – along with the quality of feedback and assessment – in improving pupil attainment,” explains Sutton Trust CEO James Turner. 

“It is therefore crucial that teachers have high-quality professional development throughout their careers to deepen and update their subject knowledge and further improve their skills.”

The past few years have – thankfully – seen CPD released from the old stereotype of PowerPoint presentations delivered in chilly conference halls. The professional development landscape now includes a huge variety of creative, engaging opportunities to brush up on your subject knowledge and become the best teacher possible. 

Take BrewEd, for example – a grassroots initiative launched in 2019 that brought teachers together to learn and develop their craft in the infinitely more relaxed setting of the pub. 

And with so much of our lives already online, it’s no surprise that educators are increasingly looking to the digital world for CPD, with Twitter initiatives such as #edchat, #teamenglish, #historyteachers, #mathschat and many, many more enabling teachers to go in-depth with their subject knowledge from the comfort of home, sharing lectures, essays and other resources at the click of a button.

This digital CPD approach was a “life-saver” during lockdown, says Mathew Owen, senior enrichment tutor and classics teacher at Caterham School in Surrey. He and his colleagues have been using MASSOLIT – an increasingly popular education platform that curates video lectures from renowned academics across the arts, humanities and social sciences – to stretch their subject knowledge and ensure they’re at the top of their pedagogical game. 

Staff at the school have also been setting lectures as at-home preparation for students ahead of lessons on complex topics. 

“Pupils and teachers are feeding from the same trough, so to speak, which is a nice feeling for students, that the teachers are learning along with them,” he says.

And it means that even if teachers “reach the limits of their subject knowledge”, he continues, students have access to “an Oxford or Cambridge don able to talk about it with much greater erudition than we would be able to”. 

Staff at Cherwell School in Oxford have been using MASSOLIT since 2015 and head of English Vicki Hathaway says it’s been a huge help for her department, many of whom have had to get up to speed with new texts at short notice, as a result of curriculum changes. 

“It’s honestly invaluable if you’re teaching a new text,” she says. “It gives you so much information that you might otherwise not find. It’s brilliant CPD.”

The content is organised by exam board and module, so with a couple of clicks, you can be learning about The Canterbury Tales from a University of Oxford lecturer, or exploring Plato with a series from Sheffield University. 

Hathaway says that the lectures have been a hit with students, especially those aiming for elite universities. “They get a really early insight into what it’s like to have those lecture sessions from an academic and how to engage with them,” she says.

She recommends using the platform for “your own department CPD sessions first, if you have the capacity” as it “allows you all to know what is being said and to discuss the content that you do or don’t want students to focus on, in line with your own planning”.

Making time for CPD may feel like a challenge at the best of times, and especially at the moment. But the evidence shows that the time invested in ensuring you’re a subject expert will pay off, for both you and your students. So get comfy, grab a cup of tea, and get expanding your understanding, all from your sofa.  

More than 1,500 schools had a free trial of MASSOLIT during school closures this year. Sign up for yours here to access more than 3,000 lectures across six subjects

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