‘Subject knowledge is not enough – to be a great teacher you need a lot more’

The failure of some sports coaches to communicate their ideas to their players is illustrative of the fact that you need more than expertise to be a great teacher, writes one leading educationist

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Carl Hendrick recently drew attention to similarities between great teachers and great football coaches – building results on foundations of trust and respect. But other similarities have been noticed.

The US Soccer Federation, seeking to improve the quality of coaching at youth level, called in Doug Lemov, of Teach Like a Champion fame, to work with senior coaches. As Amanda Ripley tells it, experts in the sport seemed to lack the tools for effective teaching. One coach was reduced to standing on the touchline yelling, “Where should you be?” to a befuddled player in a practice game. After sessions with Lemov, the coaches restructured their sessions, giving clearer instructions, checking for understanding, not moving on until mastery had been achieved, engaging every player individually.

Both Hendrick and Ripley stress the importance of expertise underpinning instruction. Relationships, tools and techniques can leverage learning; but purchase is gained only if the lever is resting on subject knowledge. The US coaches had the expertise – what they lacked was the means of communicating it. Hendrick points out that great teachers, like great coaches, have “vertiginous knowledge” allied to an ability to put it across.

We had a discussion with pupil representatives from schools and academies in the Girls’ Day School Trust, to find out what they think makes for great teaching. The list encompassed characteristics (such as "approachable", "listens"), skills (such as "really explains", "gives constructive feedback") and tools (such as "varies activities", "good use of ICT"). But I was intrigued by the absence of subject knowledge – something that I’d assumed would be front and centre.

Challenged on this, the pupils were clear: surely that’s a given – you want us to specify it? Really? There is a danger that such a feature could be taken for granted to such an extent that it disappears from view – and worse, becomes devalued. We should celebrate the expertise of teachers.

As the sports-coach comparisons show, subject knowledge is not enough – it’s not unknown for teachers to be so into a subject that they find it difficult to empathise when someone genuinely can’t grasp concepts that they take to be obvious to the meanest intelligence.

Subject knowledge, enthusiasm about sharing and the ability to communicate are the three keys to effective teaching. Having one, or even two, of the keys is not enough. Great teaching is guarded by a triple-lock. Some of this can be learned but it is clear that character plays a very important part.

According to George Herbert Palmer in 1908, the ideal teacher has a wealth of knowledge and experience on which to draw, and the ability to invigorate life through learning. Heady stuff. But just to keep us grounded, he added two more characteristics: an aptitude for vicariousness and a readiness to be forgotten.

(Pictured: Joe Schmidt is coach of the Irish national rugby union team and a former teacher)

Dr Kevin Stannard is the director of innovation and learning at the Girls' Day School Trust. He tweets as @KevinStannard1

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