“Tone it Down a Bit”

The Importance of Subject Knowledge and Why I Can’t

I can remember at the end of a whole staff session, where I had proudly shared our new areas of focus which would provide the basis for the development of teaching and learning, someone coming up to me to congratulate me on a job well done. However, despite their praise, there was a sting in the tail. It was a well done and they could see how this would really move us forward, but could I maybe downplay the importance of subject knowledge a bit? Although they recognised it was important, it also had the potential to cause issues for the staff and for the leadership.

The main issue was going to be around timetabling. In a relatively small school, there were many people who were called on to teach outside of their subject areas; the harsh reality of being unable to employ people to cover the few hours unallocated. Sometimes, even in areas where overstaffing existed, they simply weren’t available to teach in some of those slots.

The other side of that of course was that people in a secondary school, those who had often been driven specifically by their interest and passion in their subject areas, were sometimes less than enthusiastic when finding themselves picking up one hour a fortnight of science when they were an MFL or History specialist. In my first year as HoD, I had found myself overseeing a department of 18 people, where only 5 were specialists and most of the others were covering the lessons from a range of different backgrounds, mostly with a single lesson on their two-week timetable.

That wasn’t to say this school leader wanted subject knowledge to be removed from the list. They could see that it was a necessary step forward or else I would never have been allowed to include it on the plan, but maybe I could be a bit . . . well, a bit less excited about it.

But excited I was. When the changes to the specification came about, I, along with many others, initially moaned about how all of a sudden texts we had loved teaching were no longer on the GCSE specifications. And change is of course hard work. We rarely have anywhere near enough time to feel we had planned in any depth before we needed to get on and teach the new content. However, for the first time in maybe 14 years of teaching, I was finally feeling that I was getting the opportunity to dust off my degree. As much as I had enjoyed what I had been teaching, which had always included the likes of Shakespeare, it could feel like I was sleepwalking through the lessons, covering the same content and to the same level over and again. The bar now felt like it had been raised, and if I was going to be able to do my students justice, I needed to ensure that I really, really knew my stuff.

The changes were getting me to reconsider the knowledge I had and the knowledge which needed to be taught and I took a close and honest look at myself and, to be honest, found myself wanting. I hadn’t always been explicit enough in some of my work with my team about the kinds of knowledge we needed and why it mattered. I hadn’t always taken the time to sit down with them and really unpick those key concepts and explore what they did and don’t know. Just as we can all be guilty of doing with students, I had assumed a certain level of knowledge and understanding as they were all holders of English degrees, but that is a very simplistic way to look at it, and as we began to dissect this, we realised that our experiences and understanding varied widely.

Take my degree. Although it covered medieval literature, some Chaucer, Gawain and the Green Knight, Shakespeare (a specular of six plays in twelve weeks), it didn’t contain any Marlow, any Milton and only a smattering of the Romantics. After the first year I had greater freedom of choice, and whilst there were still core units you had to study, I branched out into a bit of sociology, some European Literature and philosophy, a unit exploring post war film and women’s studies. These enriched my studies no end and without them I don’t know I would have developed an even greater love of the likes of Zora Neale Hurston, Primo Levi, Borges and Calvino. I certainly wouldn’t have found a love for the likes of Toni Morrison or Angela Carter. Other people on the exact same course took different routes and didn’t discover these particular writers, but they will have discovered others which I may still only having a passing knowledge of. The options are vast.

In my own department in school this was an even greater spread with some focusing almost entirely on modern literature, only having A Level Shakespeare studies to fall back on when teaching it, and others who had followed a path into linguistics or had a dual award with politics. This meant that there was a wealth of knowledge in the team, but no one body on which they could draw on and work needed to be done to ensure that all had the right content knowledge to be able to really provide the depth our students needed.

This for me was an exciting journey, and led to a newfound love of my subject, something I had felt perhaps a bit disconnected from in the previous few years. It led me to begin studying for an MA, something I not only enjoyed, but also gave me a further opportunity to consider the gaps which existed in my own understanding of the world of literature and language, gaps I could potentially never have time to fill.

The fact is we can never know everything in our subject. Despite having completed my MA dissertation focusing on Macbeth, a play I have taught at various levels over many years, I am not done with that play yet, and every time I return to it, or study another play, or find out something new about the world of Shakespeare, it feels like I am coming to it afresh.

The beauty of English is that there are so many options. There are so many texts, so many readings, so many new ways to explore it all and so many ways to write about it. Being the holder of an English degree means I have some of the tools available to me to tackle these things as they arise, but even new eco-critical or philosophical readings, can change the way we read a text or how we might approach an idea. That is before you even step into a classroom with all of those pedological approaches and assessment criteria to consider.

What having a strong base in your subject does mean is that we can adapt more quickly. We are more likely to be aware of gaps and how to fill them. We are more aware of connections and references and allusions, which we can then translate to our students.  It saddens me then to think that there may be practioners out there who don’t recognise this and think that we will always just automatically be holders of all the information we need and never need to devote proper time to studying, thinking about and exploring the wonders and intricacies of our domains. Some subjects have a more stable knowledge base and perhaps have narrower and/or  more clearly defined area on which to focus, but many others are constantly shifting and changing with a myriad of possibilities to include on our curriculum and in our content. That is both what makes it exciting but also very difficult.

This returns me to that moment in the hall, being told, in the nicest possible way, to downplay my excitement about subject knowledge. As I always do I reflected and considered what these implications could be and if I could put the genie I had unleashed back in to the bottle. Did I? Could I? Well no. I knew that giving staff time to really explore their subject was going to be invaluable. I wanted to share the possibilities it offered to our students and reignite the spark for those who may have had it extinguished amongst the mountains of AOs and APP grids and various other methods which had shifted our focus to assessing not teaching. I knew that those teachers teaching outside of their subject areas, needed even more investment from the team to ensure they could do the best possible job and work towards a point where they could fluently and effortlessly weave knowledge throughout their lessons as opposed to getting students to complete a task. I appreciate there are be practicalities to consider and I appreciate giving the time is really hard, but I think we owe our students, and our staff, the opportunity to develop best understanding of the subject as we possibly can and for that I make no apologies. 

Zoe Enser is the lead specialist English advisor for Kent schools with The Education People and an ELE working with the EEF. Her second book, The CPD Curriculum: Creating Conditions for Growth, is available for pre-order now.

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