Can a good teacher teach anything well?

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I used to work for a headteacher who was fond of saying “We’re teachers of children, not teachers of subjects.” This was justification for having non-specialist teachers in certain shortage subjects. Like any axiom, there’s some truth in this statement: teaching children is an art unto itself. There’s definitely a case to be made for the fact that I might do a better job of teaching a maths lesson than a random maths graduate. My years of teaching experience mean that I’m well-versed in the essentials of persuading teenagers to sit down and do some work instead of snap-chatting each other. And being a reasonably intelligent chap, I can puzzle out the basics from a text book. The maths graduate may well be full to bursting with juicy mathematical goodness but not know one end of a whiteboard pen from the other. Putting someone who merely knows their subject in front of a roomful of surly teenagers is no one’s idea of a good thing.

But then no one in their right mind would want me to teach their child maths either. Although I have the skills to make them behave and look busy, I just don’t know very much about maths beyond the basics. I would have very little idea of where they were likely to make mistakes or what to do about it if I did. But, give me a Shakespeare play or some Romantic poetry and I’m in my pomp. I have a vast reserve of knowledge which means that not only do I know my subject, I know how best to explain tricky concepts, anticipate the mistakes pupils are likely to make and know how and when to intervene to prevent them making them. I have what is sometimes referred to as pedagogical content knowledge: understanding how students (mis)understand. Clearly it is desirable that students are taught English by someone like me. Having said that, when I taught AS level English Language I struggled. My knowledge of the subject was way too shallow and I lacked the understanding to explain anything beyond the confines of the course I had laboriously planned. I learned an awful lot along the way and had I continued I would have become better. But this was not an ideal situation. Teaching is no more a transferable skill than critical thinking.

I’m hoping that nothing I’ve said as yet is too controversial, but just in case let me reiterate: it is preferable that students are taught by subject specialists.

All of this is apropos of a tweet that appeared in my timeline earlier today:

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I am in no way impugning [name removed on request]‘s ability to teach. I have every reason to believe he is an excellent teacher. But he’s a law graduate and a trained citizenship teacher. So why is he teaching English? Because his head teacher asked him to take over an SEN class. I realise that schools are often forced to make tough decisions and the fact that this is happening mid way through a year speaks of some sort of unforeseen mishap and that this is an eventually which, in an ideal world, would have been avoided. But I think this is symptomatic of a belief that good teachers can teach anything.

Why is this problematic? Well, leaving aside the fact that it tends to be lower ability groups which end up with non-specialists for a moment, this reveals the lack of regard in which subject knowledge is held. Although there are very few people willing to argue that subject knowledge is irrelevant, there are some content to offer such foolishness as this:

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Hands up, who wants belly dancing lessons?

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Aren’t we teachers because we have something to teach?

There are very many who are happy to point out that subject knowledge is relatively less important than the skill of building relationships or managing behaviour. Who knows, maybe they’re right? It’s a fool’s game to attempt weighing and measuring such imponderables.

My point is this: the same people who claim that you can teach successfully without subject knowledge will also tell you that the debate about the relative importance of knowledge and skills is a false dichotomy and should therefore be dismissed as tedious and trivial.

For me, this debate has been crucial to my developing understanding of teaching and learning. Through discussion I have arrived at a carefully considered view of what is most likely to help students learn. There are, believe it or not, some folk who disagree with me, and this is entirely right and proper; the world is big enough to contain more than just my opinion. I don’t really care what anyone else believes: as long as your position is sufficiently considered I’m prepared to trust that you’re doing your best. The point of debate is to exchange ideas, sharpen our wits and open ourselves to the possibility that there might be something that we don’t already know. Who among us is so full of hubris that they want to stake out this territory?

The belief that a good teacher can teach anything reveals that the trivialisation of subject knowledge is alive and well and doing business in a school near you. Is this belief wrong? Well, yes, that’s certainly my opinion.  I’m more than happy for you to call me a fool and a charlatan, but for that to happen we’d have to allow that the skills/knowledge debate is still worth having., if only for you demonstrate how and why I’m wrong.

So, can a good teacher teach anything well? The consensus seems to be: up to a point. A good teacher should have the nous to make a decent fist of teaching any subject up Year 6. Maybe they can also do a good job up to Key Stage 3. And beyond GCSE, we need to know an awful lot beyond the curriculum we’re covering to truly do our students a good service.

Shaun Allison sums it up for me:

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36 Responses to Can a good teacher teach anything well?

  1. mrbenney says:

    I don’t know how you can blog so quickly. Blinking heck.
    I remember starting my teacher training year and my subject knowledge was pretty sketchy to say the least. I knew I had to improve it or the pupils would see through me. However, I had on my side enthusiasm, a growth mindset (before it became cool to have one) and a passion for being in the classroom. My ego is big enough to think I could do a decent enough job of teaching other non-specialist subjects, albeit I would be starting at an NQT level (again). If a talented teacher thinks he/she can teach anything because he/she is a good teacher I would take exception to that. However, If a talented teacher thinks he/she can teach other subjects because he/she is prepared to immerse themselves in the subject and work on getting subject knowledge to increase their legitimacy in the classroom then I’m quite happy with that.
    Half way through my career I had to switch science disciplines (biol to physics). Again my knowledge was not good enough but I worked so hard to get to grips with lots of the subject knowledge. A eureka moment with electron shells and energy levels really helped me deliver this concept in a way that students could grasp.
    Debate is always good and this is just my opinion,
    Damian

    • David Didau says:

      This is a reasonable caveat. Of course we can acquire the subject knowledge to teach other subjects, it just takes time.

      • That is exactly what I said. I said it takes time. And you can learn. You can overcome that lack of subject knowledge.
        And I am a HE!
        Also- I also said teachers can with skill of teaching and experience of learning be able to teach, but it will take time. Like starting at NQT year.

      • @HeadofEnglish says:

        Perhaps worth raising here that not all English degrees provide a sound basis for teaching all aspects of GCSE – never mind the associated English A Level subjects. I was lucky enough to take BA English Studies but I teach alongside colleagues with pure Literature or Language degrees. Would you still consider them ‘subject specialists’ if teaching outside of their discipline? Similarly, I now find myself 7 years in teaching A Level Media Studies. I wonder how many schools deliver this course via a Media graduate?

        Furthermore, plenty of excellent subject specialists do not feel the need to update their subject knowledge e.g. modern literature or critical theory. As above, the key must surely be acquisition then continued development.

        • David Didau says:

          You’re right. Most of us are literature graduates, often with little or no explicit knowledge of grammar. This may explain why grammar is, on the whole, so poorly taught.

          • I agree 100% with your comment about misconceptions and being able to prevent them or alert students to them before they happen. In terms of examinations, it could be hard to justify the lack of a subject specialist. Most good teachers could probably have a shot at teaching some other subjects (maybe not MFL or Music), but whether or not they do it well is a totally different issue. They may well do a great job of teaching content, but what about all the little anecdotes, years of experience of how to get to grips with difficult concepts, having a deep understanding of the intricacies etc?
            As an MFL teacher, I have to agree with your last comment, and frequently tear my hair out at the amount of hours wasted at A level teaching basic grammar because it’s not taught, or even understood on occasion, by the English staff.
            As has been reiterated, it’s great to have the debate!

      • mrbenney says:

        I’d like to make 2 additional comments. My comment about growth mindset was a joke (and to my mind a very funny one late on a Friday night). Secondly I would back Ali to be the type of teacher to quickly build his subject knowledge. This coupled with his experience as senco and aht should mean he will do the group proud.

  2. milkwithtwo says:

    I totally agree with you, if you want children to do well- they NEED a subject specialist because that’s the foundation. Excellent behaviour management et al can be crafted later and even your subject can be enhanced and honed. Any management who says otherwise is putting budgets before learning and that ends up with lower exam results.

    • I am an AHT- it would be cheaper to hire an NQT- I am taking over the class- with 4 statemented students. 8SAP students. Because I am also a SENCO and AST in T&L. I want to be able to teach them.

      • milkwithtwo says:

        But because if your roles, cheaper isn’t an option because you know cheaper won’t benefit your school in the long run. I salute your decision to take them on but I know as well you do, that it wasn’t a choice because you care too much.

        • @astsupportaali says:

          Ha! It was an absolute choice. I have surplus in my team. And I could have TOLD them to take the class. I choose to. I want to. As I feel I can have the most impact with THOSE students. And I will learnt the content. It will take me more work than my subject(s) but I will learn.

  3. David Wray says:

    Very impressive, David. Who am I to criticise blogging at 1am when I’m still tweeting at this hour!
    Well, my view, which you may consider foolish, is that you do yourself a great disservice to privilege subject knowledge as the key to your expertise and status as a teacher. I have witnessed your teaching (albeit to a group of fellow professionals) and your skill on that occasion was clearly not in the extensive subject knowledge you demonstrated, but rather in the way you engaged your audience / class and offered them ways into understanding the ideas you wanted to communicate. I suspect that you teach younger students in the same way. Your skill as a teacher is far more crucial to the learning of your students than the finer points of what you know.

    The research that I am most familiar with on this issue is inevitably primary school based but still relevant I think.

    I’m thinking of the Exeter Learning to Teach project (Neville Bennett) which I was involved with. We gave groups of trainee Maths, Science, English and Music primary specialists tests of subject knowledge but found no correlation with their expertise at teaching their subject (apart from the musicians). Having a degree in those subjects did not guarantee excellent teaching, or even better teaching than peers without such a background.
    The Kings College Effective Teachers of Numeracy project actually found a negative correlation between level of Mathematics qualification and teaching effectiveness in thus subject. If you know Maths well, it’s hard to put yourself in the minds of those who do not.
    Our own Effective Teaching of Literacy project found that effective teachers did not have high levels of abstract subject knowledge, even though they were teaching this knowledge, we conceptualised this conundrum as being about ‘embedded’ knowledge, embedded in the pedagogic procedures the teachers used very well. One caricature of our findings was that these teachers were very good at teaching about phonemes, a concept they appeared not to understand at all! My colleague Louise Poulson used this evidence in a powerful critique of the Shulman model of teacher knowledge, which seems to dominate these debates. And while we are on Shulman, he never described SMK (subject matter knowledge) as an essential ingredient of PCK (pedagogical content knowledge).

    I could go on…

    But the key point is exactly what do we consider to be the crucial characteristic of effective teachers? If we see that as subject knowledge, then teachers will never be “those who can” because those who can are lecturing in universities and teachers will always be less equipped in terms of knowledge. But if we see teaching expertise as engaging, motivating and enthusing youngsters (and that’s am impoverished description of pedagogy) then school teachers are far more skilled and expert than university lecturers (on the whole).

    And, yes, it is actually true that good teachers can often teach anything. A few years ago, as an experiment, a colleague in our Psychology department and myself swapped classes for a week. I taught her undergrad Psychology class and she taught my PGCE Primary English class. Guess who got the better ratings from the students?!

    • David Didau says:

      Having read the four research papers you tweeted last night I can reveal that they all make it abundantly clear that having sound propositional knowledge is absolutely a good thing.

      I would contend that my expertise in delivering CPD and training fellow professionals is very precisely underpinned by my extensive subject knowledge: I have something to say that is worth hearing. If that were not the case I would just be a stand up comedian or raconteur.

      Getting good ratings from students is the poorest possible proxy for measuring effective teaching. I remain convinced that first and foremost a good teacher must know something worth teaching.

      • moriarity says:

        “Getting good ratings from students is the poorest possible proxy for measuring effective teaching. I remain convinced that first and foremost a good teacher must know something worth teaching.”

        In part I might agree with this last comment, except for the sweeping dismissal of student evaluation of teachers. The recent large scale MET research out of the US looked closely at pupil perception surveys as part of the development of an strong teacher effectiveness measurement system and tools like the Tripod Survey do clearly show some correlation to teacher effectiveness. John Hattie has also promoted the idea of teachers using such surveys in an attempt to know their impact. In the field of professional development there has been some interesting research on how to measure the effectiveness of CPD and it some feel student perception of teacher effectiveness is a greater indicator of good CPD than efficacy data from the teachers themselves. In my school I am encouraging staff to use such surveys as part of the professional development and it does make people stop and think.

        My slight caveat aside I wouldn’t disagree with the general argument. Subject knowledge is very significant. This is why one of the most challenging are of teaching is the traditional end of KS2, where the class teacher has to have subject knowledge in these subjects: English, Maths, Science, Geography, History, Art, Music, Design Technology and Information Technology. In some cases you can add a MFL and RE, plus PSHE if it is to be done properly. Now in most primary schools there will be some sharing of the load or the presence of specialist teacher but still that is a pretty wide burden. Certainly for myself there was a long learning curve, which I actually throughly enjoyed. And in a primary school I would add that there is also a great deal of knowledge one needs to work anywhere across the year groups. There are basics that exist in KS1 and KS2 but any teacher worth their salt knows that who you teach is hugely dependant on the age and maturity of students.

        • David Didau says:

          To clarify: whether or not a students enjoys a lesson or rates a teacher is a dangerous way to evaluate teacher effectiveness. That said, teachers can benefit hugely from seeking feedback from students on their effectiveness and then acting on it.

          • moriarity says:

            David

            Thanks for the clarification. As I wrote before I still agree with your core premise, though probably without some of your zeal.

          • David Didau says:

            You really think I’m zealous? I thought this was fairly open minded:
            “So, can a good teacher teach anything well? The consensus seems to be: up to a point. A good teacher should have the nous to make a decent fist of teaching any subject up Year 6. Maybe they can also do a good job up to Key Stage 3. And beyond GCSE, we need to know an awful lot beyond the curriculum we’re covering to truly do our students a good service.”

          • moriarity says:

            Hi David

            I was thinking more of the general discussion about knowledge v. skills when using zealous… it was a little hash perhaps.

          • David Didau says:

            I’m zealous about the need for having the discussion. I don’t mind at all if your considered opinion is that you disagree with me.

  4. Richard Clift says:

    At what point do you become a ‘subject specialist’ is it a matter of choice followed by dedication to teaching that subject or do you require subject specific qualifications? I think the former. That’s why I also think subject specific CPD is as important as pedagogical. If we are life long learners in our own topic it keeps us fresh and interesting. It’s perfectly possible to change disciplines but it takes time to reach a depth of knowledge that makes for excellence

  5. I was asked to teach music to year sevens despite the fact that I don’t play an instrument of any sort (except voice when in a pub and there is the opportunity to sing Mac the Knife on Karaoke) suffice to say I kept order but for not much purpose. In the end resentment festered both in the kids and myself and I began to believe that the school clearly had little respect for the kids, me and the subject.

  6. Fran says:

    Let’s be grateful that hospitals don’t use the same principle. ‘Sorry, I’ve been a heart surgeon for 20 years but I’m sure I’ll manage your bowel surgery fine if I just look it up the day before.’

    • milkwithtwo says:

      Haha, I love doctor v teacher analogies. They always make me chuckle! Until the profession is not seen as babysitting by parents, Gove and budget conscious SLT then being asked to do teach outside your subject area will remain in many schools.

  7. A while back my line manager didn’t want me present while observing a candidate for a physics job as he said he would be able to tell if it was a bad lesson or if wrong physics was taught. Although I trust my line manager implicitly they are not a science specialist. The candidate was a non-specialist; I insisted. The lesson was graded good with outstanding features; the Y11 students were engaged and challenged and showed progress. However, a couple of incorrect statements were made and some misconceptions were reinforced which I had to address in the following lesson. Good teaching skills are important and so is good subject knowledge, particularly as students get older.

    I could learn to teach other subjects and have done. Did I do a good job? – I think so and the results said so. Could I teach any subject? – not really. Why do I teach my subject well? I have good teaching skills and a passion for learning but I also have a passion for my subject which I can share; I have years of anecdotes and stories to bring my subject alive (the sorts of things you don’t get from a textbook). These are the things that make the difference to students. A single characteristic for effective teaching; how about many characteristics?

  8. David Didau says:

    There are of course many characteristics of effective teaching, but the debate over the relative importance of subject knowledge speaks of a wider prejudice against teaching knowledge.

  9. benking01 says:

    Yes, but on balance it is in students’ best interest for a teacher’s subject knowledge & teaching experience to be high-level. I have taught GCSE Science, IT and, most recently, Business Studies to GCSE level. Some argue that being ‘one step ahead of the students’ adds something positive to the students’ experience; I think that this holds some truth. Close supervision and training by specialist teachers is needed, however, to ensure ‘Big Picture’ coverage.

    Some larger primary schools manage to re-deploy specialists in core subjects for their older students in order to maximise student learning.

    In a perfect system, there would be exactly the right number of specialist teachers for the number of GCSE groups in a certain year in a secondary school; this is not always possible, meaning that some teachers may be poorly deployed in some schools.

    Is this becoming more of an issue, as schools respond to tighter budgets?

  10. Simon Desborough says:

    I have to agree with you David. Not only is subject specialism important because of knowledge, it is also passion. I can remember advice regarding any interview for schools – they are not looking for a passion for young people (first and foremost, that is), rather, they are looking for a deep interest in your subject that you long to share with others. You are far more likely to transmit outstanding lessons to your students if it is your goal that they enjoy your subject and are enriched by it. I also believe that a subject specialist are keenly aware of the skills involved in the higher-order thinking around the content (hearkening back to your and/or debate), so to just give a teacher the textbook so that he/she can deliver the content is not helpful.

  11. I think it is instructive to consider if a non specialist, in secondary, can plan a great lesson. They would be less likely to be able to identify and deal with misconceptions, They would be less able to check/test learning. But they will be able to deliver a previously planned lesson.

  12. Great challenging post and an interesting discussion. Often it comes down to budgets and staffing constraints. You’re unlikely to deploy a non-specialist if you’ve got spare capacity from a good specialist. It’s one of those compromises that have to be made. But I’ve known people teach second subjects really very well, with great outcomes. I knew a Biology teacher who had a crack at English for Year 7 – she was fabulous – although, in truth, she didn’t have to generate her own resources. I’ve known plenty of dud specialists – usually due to poor classroom management or odd communication issues. Most recently at KEGS, I’ve found that there’s no question: A/A* teaching at GCSE and A level is specialist territory all the way… But back in the 90s at Holland Park, some so-called specialists were nowhere near as good as the general science teachers who could create stronger learning environments.

    Generally, I think the % of CPD time given over to improving subject knowledge should increase. My favourite meetings are when we get some physics apparatus out to discuss the quirks and nuances of how we’d explain the phenomena. We’re all continually improving our specialist knowledge even though some of us have more than others.

  13. […] I used to work for a headteacher who was fond of saying “We’re teachers of children, not teachers of subjects.” This was justification for having non-specialist teachers in certain shortage subjects.  […]

  14. […] Can a good teacher teach anything well? An interesting post by The Learning Spy and a healthy number of comments discussing the idea too […]

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