Monthly Archives: January 2016

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