Subject Knowledge

This is Part 2 in three quick posts for trainee teachers, about keeping the main thing the main thing, in the midst of all the complexity of learning to teach.

You’re going to get masses of, occasionally conflicting, advice on each of these themes, so I’m not going to say much – just a few observations from seeing a lot of trainee teachers at work.

This one is about Subject Knowledge.

If you don’t know it, you can’t teach it. Why not? Well it’s obvious init? But worth analysing a bit, I think. If you don’t know it really well then it’s very hard to break something down into the little steps you need to teach it properly. If you don’t know it really well then even a well-prepared explanation is likely to go awry. The developing understanding in your children’s heads is ever so delicate, and their working memories are stretched to the limit, bless them. Just a little muddling up on your part and they may well end up further back than when you started. What can you do? No shortcuts, I’m afraid. For Primary it’s particularly challenging with an awful lot to learn about teaching reading and, in some cases, some deep conceptual challenges in maths, but the scientists I work with normally only have one science to degree level, and often a third science specialism they never took past GCSE themselves. But although there’s no magic bullet, you will get better and you’re surrounded by subject experts in school. Make use of them! Identify what you find hard, when it’s being taught and you are free, and get into those lessons. You’ll be learning subject knowledge and ideas about how to teach it.

Do consider that anything you can prepare before your own lessons rather than making up as you go, is likely to help. Short video clips, with their carefully edited script, followed by questions, can help to underpin things. Rehearse your explanations and use crib cards – nothing wrong with that. Read short sections out from a textbook, then go carefully over the key vocabulary and ideas with the class. Some schools/departments will have booklets the children complete, detailed plans, or even ready-made (MAT-wide) PowerPoints. These can be very supportive but for heaven’s sake don’t think they mean you can have a quick skim and then teach from them without more work to know the curriculum content.

A subject expert with great communication skills is always a pleasure to observe but, if that’s not you, remember that it’s the learning that counts so just find ways to support yourself and don’t start to think that if you can’t do without, somehow that makes you a poor teacher.

There is evidence that suggests that knowledge of misconceptions – where the children are most likely to go wrong – and knowledge of particularly good ways of getting ideas across, are also an important part of knowing how to teach. Indeed it may be that this ends up being the more important knowledge in the end. Hopefully mentors and tutors will point you at appropriate sources of information, but also keep asking the experienced teachers in your school about sticking points with the different things you are teaching. Where the things you are teaching are abstract, think about providing concrete examples – from a number line to support working with negative numbers, to blowing through straws to illustrate why adding a resistor in parallel reduces resistance.

Mark written work (or prepare whole-class feedback) as soon as you get the chance. There’ll be plenty of teachers willing to have you roped in. Do (and mark) some past papers if you’re Secondary; that will help you to know what to emphasise.

That’s about it, I think. Subject knowledge really matters. Sometimes that focus gets lost in all the complexity of classroom practice.

Behaviour, coming next…

6 thoughts on “Subject Knowledge

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s