There has been much discussion on EduTwitter and on teaching blogs about the need for a knowledge based curriculum. A lot of this seems to be coming from either those with an English teaching background or from Primary education where there seems to have been a focus on skills in the past. For those of us teaching Geography we can also see a move from a pressure to teach generic transferable skills towards a focus on subject knowledge.
What I have been thinking about recently though is the role of subject knowledge for the classroom teacher and how this has been neglected. It seems especially important to consider this now in light of a recent report questioning the value of subject specialism in raising attainment.
Subject knowledge brings a topic to life. Over first couple of days of this new term I can think of numerous occasions where I have drawn on this deep well of subject specific knowledge – usually on the hoof. For example:
- A year 13 lesson on the hazards posed by volcanoes. A student made the point that unpredictable hazards would be more hazardous than those that were expected. I illustrated this point with a reference to Lake Nyos in Cameroon.
- A year 8 lesson on the diversity found across Africa (responding to the Secret Teacher column in the Guardian with a headline that started “I moved to Africa and…”). They were considering the variety of sizes of countries and their relative population densities. We were looking at the reasons why this is one of the few parts of the world where you find straight national borders and I explained how this happened with reference to the fascinating territory of Bir Tiwil.
- A year 11 lesson looking at different types of aid and evaluating their effectiveness. I illustrated the potential problem of of aid schemes with a reference to the tractors that were supplied to northern Africa.
These examples and illustrations didn’t appear on a scheme of work or on a lesson plan. In many cases I didn’t plan to use them but they were used to respond to misconceptions or to aid explanation. They were however vitally important. Over the years I have been amazed when marking exam questions and assessments to see pupils refer to something that had just been a passing reference in a lesson. Something had clearly stuck.
This though should not be a surprise. Daniel Willingham, Cognitive Scientist and author of “Why Don’t Students Like School” explains that students remember material best when they have had to think about its meaning. This is what the use of examples does. It takes the abstract point (Aid should rely on appropriate technology) and makes it real (so don’t give tractors to people who can’t maintain them). The meaning becomes clear.
He also explores the power of stories and that the human mind is programmed to remember them. This is what I am doing when I illustrate something in class with an example. I am telling them a story. There is a beginning, a middle and an end. Often there is a mystery which is going to be solved (Did I tell you the one about the rusting tractors in Ethiopia?).
So how does this need for deep subject knowledge square with a report saying that a relevant degree has little impact on results? The examples that litter my teaching rarely come from my degree. They come from the books I read (Off the Map, Prisoners of Geography and Edgelands are current favourites), from newspaper articles and documentaries. My “knowledge well” is deepest in the subject I am passionate about but I can draw on it when teaching Science and even History. I pick up facts and squirrel them away.
I do think that the role of subject knowledge has been neglected though. Too much CPD is spent sat together in a hall listening to someone bleat on about a current fad or fashion. Department time can quickly be given over to admin tasks and data analysis. This year I want to make sure that the sharing of subject knowledge becomes much more central to our department. We have already made a start with a blog that collects relevant news stories that is used by our students but can also be drawn upon by us.
If we see our role as one in which we impart knowledge then it is vitally important we are secure in this knowledge ourselves. We need to keep up to date in our subject and keep the passion alive.