Does it matter what you teach? How great teaching differs between subjects

Physics, philosophy, programming, Portuguese, or performing arts, when you are talking about great teaching, does it matter what you teach? There are clearly some key principles that probably underlie all great teaching. I wrote about three in an earlier blog. Relationship is another – a topic that I will return to. But pause to consider the different skills, ideas and modes of thinking that are required to become expert in the five subjects above or any other divergent group you might choose. I believe this raises deep questions about how we seek to develop effective teaching and learning and indeed how we assess the quality of learning activities we observe.

Seven key questions

I would suggest that it is vital, when considering how to enhance the effectiveness of students’ learning in class or independent study, to start with some fundamental subject-specific questions. These questions may themselves need to be adapted to respond to the nature of the subject (technical, theoretical, practical, creative…) and also the level of the learner, but they would be similar in principle.

Try asking the following questions for your subject:

What does it mean to be a …(scientist, philosopher, programmer, performer, linguist…?)  What does it mean to think like a … or act like a …?

What fundamental skills, concepts and behaviours do students need to develop to become a …?

What are the crucial challenges and difficulties that they face?

What are the common misconceptions / failures that can disrupt their learning?

What are the key breakthroughs they need to achieve?

And then:

How can we best design our curriculum to enable this?

What particular approaches to teaching, learning and assessment best enable students to be successful in each specific area identified above?

Ask a colleague what they think. Do they agree or see things differently?

Answering these questions is a starting point for developing ‘subject-specific pedagogy’.

What research tells us

Educational research supports this. Rob Coe and colleagues, in a recent, authoritative review of research evidence into what makes great teaching, identified six key factors (as well as many myths). They identify subject-specific pedagogy or what they call ‘Pedagogical content knowledge’ as having this strongest evidence base in terms of impact on students learning.

Yes, they say, it is vital that teachers have a secure and relevant knowledge and understanding of their subject. But they go further. Teachers need to “understand the ways students think about the content, [are] able to evaluate the thinking behind students’ own methods, and identify students’ common misconceptions.” And then, the subtlest art of all, teachers need to know how to address inadequate understanding, skills or misconceptions and to enable students to develop more effective ways of thinking, acting or otherwise engaging with the subject.

And yes, there are a range of teaching skills and behaviours that are key to enabling this. These constitute the second factor with a strong evidence base. They include “effective questioning and use of assessment by teachers. Specific practices, like reviewing previous learning, providing model responses for students, giving adequate time for practice to embed skills securely and progressively introducing new learning (scaffolding)”. But all of these need to be developed and customised within the context of the specific subject. They will look very different in different disciplines. If you want to see this vividly illustrated, I recommend Harriet Harper’s account of 20 lessons that Ofsted inspectors judged outstanding.

My conclusion – let’s celebrate diversity

We need to reflect on our approaches to developing and enabling great teaching. Do they start with subject-specific questions such as those listed above? Do they enable subject teams to select and adapt (sometimes radically) generalised skills and behaviours to serve the needs of their subject and their students? Do they recognise and encourage the radical distinctiveness of teaching and learning in different disciplines? If not, then I doubt that they are fit for purpose.

We need to celebrate the diversity at the heart of the disciplines our students are learning and to set our teachers free of formulaic expectations of what great teaching will look like, as if the subject didn’t matter.

There is still plenty we can learn from observing or talking with teachers who teach subjects very different from our own. This can reveal new possibilities, stimulate fresh insights and wake us out of the trance of habitual thinking. Creative and reflective practitioners steal and adapt ideas from many sources, but they don’t feel obliged to slavishly imitate. 

Answers to the questions above, define the objectives of great teaching within any specific subject.  Educational theory, ideas and models of effective practice, need to be translated to serve these objectives and the needs of students seeking to acquire the related expertise. When aspiring to great teaching, it really does matter what you teach. 


Coe, R. et al, (2014) What makes great teaching? Review of the underpinning research, available here

Harper, H. (2013) Outstanding Teaching and Learning. Maidenhead: Open University Press


Uncomfortable learning

My previous blog talked of 3 words. This one begins with three questions.

In an age of universal information why do we need teachers? What do students think learning is? Why do so many of us, not just our students, avoid the very activities most conducive to learning?

In a survey I recently conducted, when asked “What is learning” over 90% of the A level students , answer in terms of gaining information or increasing knowledge. A minority also mention understanding. An even smaller fraction mention developing a skill (and this includes students on physical programmes such as A level dance). Whilst there can be little doubt that knowledge is a key element of much learning, it strikes me as significant that A level students, even those now in their second year, privilege information and its recall above all the various other aspects of learning.

This leads back to my first question, if learning is just gaining knowledge, and access to knowledge for anyone with an Internet-enabled device, whether mobile phone, tablet, computer or TV, is almost ubiquitous, why do we need teachers? Sugata Mitra, who became famous following his ‘Hole in the Wall’ experiments with computers in remote villages in India, would argue that we hardly do. And his model of ‘child-driven’ education has great emotional appeal to some of us who have become critical of centrally imposed curricula. I don’t wish to deny the importance of the questions that Mitra’s work poses. I believe his and others’ work on developing self-organised learning environments (SOLE) deserves attention. Indeed I am writing this blog precisely because I take these questions seriously.

(to be continued)

Further viewing and reading:

Mitra, S (2013) School in the Cloud TED prize wish:

ALTC blog (2012) The Self Organised Learning Environment (SOLE) School Support Pack:

The school in the cloud experiment:

Great teaching in 3 words?

P1070658Great teaching summarised in 3 words? Arguably a ludicrous aim, especially as you can’t talk about great teaching without thinking about all the complexities of the learning it must enable. Yet sometimes constraints inspire fresh thinking. This blog is my response to the challenge.


Who would want to cook a meal for people who have no appetite?

I am not sure whether to be unnerved or gratified to find myself celebrating the opening words of Ofsted’s latest descriptor of outstanding teaching and learning: “Learners are curious, interested and keen to learn”. It is a natural response as a teacher to think, ‘if only my learners were like that, my job would become so much easier, so much more enjoyable”. But that is part of why ‘inspire’ is my first word. Great teaching begins with inspiring students’ wish to learn what you have to offer and their belief that, with your guidance, they can. And that is true whether it is how to lay a course of bricks, to answer an intriguing question or solve an abstract problem.

Curiosity is the root of all learning and all human culture. Not only is this evident in young children who endlessly ask ‘why?’, ‘why is..?’, ‘why does..?’, ‘how..?’ but it is evident that without the deeply rooted impulse to ask such questions we would still be alongside the great apes grubbing for bugs in the earth. That native curiosity doesn’t die, though it might wither under the steady glare of teaching for graded outcomes.

Watch any great teaching and ask yourself ‘how is this teacher inspiring the students wish to learn?’. You will always find an answer, though that will differ depending on the teacher, the topic and where the students are starting from. Harriet Harper’s book ‘Outstanding teaching in lifelong learning’ has some great examples.


One of the great mistakes of teaching is to try to make learning easy. Game and puzzle designers know this. If Rubik’s Cube hadn’t been so hard, sales would never have reached 350 million. Challenges stimulate interest, and can inspire much greater engagement than easy work.

One of the great skills of teaching is judging the degree of challenge that stimulate learners’ interest and extend their reach without sending them into despair. This requires what Coe et al call ‘pedagogical content knowledge’: a deep knowledge of your subject and what learners find difficult within it. Andy Tharby writes about walking the fine line between comfort and panic. And, since working in this zone carries the real possibility of failure, you need to have established a culture that respects and values real effort and readiness to take the risk of being wrong.


Just as too little challenge dulls interest and denies learning, so does too much help. John Holt alerted us to this 50 years ago in ‘How children fail’. This is where the skill of differentiation lies: in judging just how much, and what kind of help individual learners need to succeed, without depriving them of the learning that they will only achieve if they do it themselves. Vygotsky called it ‘scaffolding learning’. It requires a deep knowledge of your learners or a close attention to how they respond to the challenge at hand, but there is no better way to build the confidence of learners who have low expectations of themselves. A culture of high expectations for all (not just those already labelled as high achievers) works because teachers have developed this skill.

None of this is easy but it is deeply worthwhile. And incidentally, it strikes me that these three words describe skills that great leaders need too.


Coe, R. et al, (2014) What makes great teaching? Review of the underpinning research, available here

Harper, H. (2013) Outstanding Teaching and Learning. Maidenhead: Open University Press

Holt, J. (1964) How children fail, available here

Tharby, A. (2015) Achievable challenge: Walking the fine line between comfort and panic, available here