The three essential ingredients of truly expert teaching

30th October 2015 at 00:00
Practitioners must understand content, pedagogy and context

We’ve all heard the aphorism “He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches”, coined by George Bernard Shaw. Surprisingly, there may be some truth in this statement. Frankly, many of those who teach, particularly in further education, currently “cannot”, in my opinion. Not through lack of ability but rather because of a paradox that exists in the sector.

After the 2012 Lingfield report on professionalism in FE, the 2007 Further Education Teachers’ Qualifications Regulations were scrapped, stripping the FE and skills sector of the legal requirement to have qualified teachers. This was a particularly ironic move, coming as it did in the same year that Ofsted’s inspection framework reverted to a relentless focus on teaching and learning.

Consequently, FE staff were required to fulfil the dual role of being a vocational expert and an expert teacher (although not necessarily a qualified one). Two years later shiny new professional standards were introduced, courtesy of the Education and Training Foundation. They consisted of a set of values, skills and knowledge to which all FE teachers should aspire.

Yet the standards appear to brush over the fact that FE teachers need to be both vocational and pedagogical experts. Educational psychologist Lee Shulman’s 1986 framework for effective teachers characterises three knowledge bases: content knowledge, pedagogical knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge (PCK).

Content knowledge is the specialist subject knowledge applicable to the vocation. Pedagogical knowledge means knowing about teaching and learning theories and practices. The term PCK was conceived because teachers need to understand not only content knowledge but also how to teach that specific content within the context of the learning.

So, in order to teach effectively, FE teachers have to complete the challenging task of becoming experts in three fields.

FE teachers are at another disadvantage. Although core knowledge of traditional primary and secondary subjects remains relatively stable, FE practitioners teach content that is constantly changing. Take, for instance, automotive teachers. The industry is undergoing a significant change with the move to hybrid and electric cars.

Some teachers haven’t worked as a technician for more than a decade, so they may well be experts when it comes to traditional motor engines but need to upskill to teach about modern technology. However, their experience of teaching will have allowed them to develop their pedagogical knowledge and PCK, which leaves the sector with a dilemma. Should current teachers with no experience of working with the cars but a good knowledge of pedagogy be trained in this new area? Or should FE providers recruit new teachers with fresh content knowledge but no pedagogical knowledge or PCK?

Industrial evolution

This evolution is not exclusive to the automotive industry. Think hair and beauty, engineering and construction. All these vocational areas undergo regular changes and require teachers to upskill and develop content knowledge.

And without compulsory teacher training, FE teachers are at risk of not having the underpinning pedagogical knowledge to become reflective practitioners and discover the strategies that will work best for their learners. Even for those with qualifications, CPD in the sector leaves much to be desired, often having little emphasis on pedagogical theory.

So how can FE teachers become pedagogical experts? First, there needs to be an investment of time and space for teachers to work with one another and engage in a community of practice. Second, there needs to be accountability. A set of standards is not enough. Teachers within the sector must take responsibility for making improvements. This could be done through internal CPD schemes focusing on the following:

l Improving content knowledge To develop their technical expertise, teachers need to be given the time to work in industry at least one day a term. This will allow them to maintain and enhance their skills.

l Improving pedagogical knowledge Aside from ensuring that all FE teachers become qualified, we must also work together to discuss and implement strategies that have been demonstrated to be effective in the classroom. There must be an evidence base and opportunities for teachers to critically assess each practice for its suitability, rather than being told how to teach.

l Improving PCK Within learning communities, teachers should explore what works in their context. They should also aim to investigate common misconceptions about the learning material and develop alternative ways to communicate concepts.

Teaching in the FE and skills sector is an extremely complex task. Yet, given the right conditions, having truly expert FE teachers is possible.

Dan Williams is an FE practitioner in the Midlands

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