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. 

References:

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

Advertisements

7 thoughts on “Does it matter what you teach? How great teaching differs between subjects

  1. pgcetoolbox

    I especially like the concept of ‘the key breakthroughs’; those checkpoints along the way.

    There is a connection between having the skills to ‘address inadequate understanding, skills or misconceptions’ within your subject and ‘the trance of habitual thinking’. We have to understand our learners and their experience and yet remain open to ideas that will move our practice forward. Being able to filter what is a fad/fashion and what is relevant to our learners is not always easy.

    I agree that great teaching and learning hinges on development within our teaching teams.

    Like

    Reply
    1. John Webber Post author

      Thanks for these comments, Maggie. I fully agree that we must stay open to ideas from outside our subject and indeed our school or college. Habitual thinking is not only easier it is comforting in its familiarity. We cease to learn if we hide there. My intention was rather to question the presumption that there are universal techniques and rituals that constitute good teaching and that need to be learned and reliably replicated to teach effectively.

      Like

      Reply
      1. pgcetoolbox

        I do believe there are some ‘universal’ techniques but it is dangerous to try & ‘replicate’ without fully appreciating the differences in context. I have been working on a ‘flipped learning’ action research project. I know that ‘replicating’ the technique cannot be effective without applying those fundamental subject-specific questions.
        Am interested to hear what others think. Thank you John.

        Like

  2. John Webber Post author

    You highlight a valuable distinction here or a need for one – between broad principles and practices and narrower prescriptive ones. I have been encouraging people to explore the potential of flipped learning for several years and have heard its potential confirmed by both teachers and students. But in essence flipped learning is just a new name for the general principle of stimulating students to think about or begin to acquire basic knowledge of a topic before they meet in class to develop it further. This is sufficiently abstract a notion to be adapted to many different subjects. It can take many forms from prescribed reading or watching a video to self-organised research or simply the invitation to consider a question.

    Other broad principles that I would subscribe to include getting your students to think not just to imitate or replicate; setting them challenges that move them out of their comfort zone (but not too far; cultivating a classroom climate that encourages risk and accepts failure as part of learning not a sign of limits on what someone is capable of.

    Thanks again for your comments. I too will be pleased to hear what others think about all this.

    Like

    Reply
  3. Veronique Lain

    Interesting posts. Maybe because of my role as a mentor, I can see the value, when learning or developing your craft as a teacher, for a “formulaic” approach. Perhaps similarly we teach our students the prescribed PEEE technique for essay writing. It is useful because it offers a supportive framework.
    The risk is to judge all Teaching and Learning through the same prescribed “Best Practice” lens. We have to listen to subject specialists and their students and be open to diversity.

    Like

    Reply
  4. Veronique Lain

    Interesting posts. Maybe because of my role as a mentor, I can see the value, when learning or developing your craft as a teacher, for a “formulaic” approach. Perhaps similarly we teach our students the prescribed PEEE technique for essay writing. It is useful because it offers a supportive framework.
    The risk is to judge all Teaching and Learning through the same prescribed “Best Practice” lens. We have to listen to subject specialists and students and be prepared for diversity.

    Like

    Reply
    1. John Webber Post author

      Thanks for this comment Veronique. I agree that there are certainly skills and practices that can be valuably developed and used in many contexts. Like you, my work as a teacher trainer, leading a team of development advisors and all the other ways in which I have sought to encourage the spread of ideas and techniques would make little sense, if I didn’t.
      All I am arguing, is that we should not presume that because a technique works well in one subject it would be appropriate for all. Instead we should respect the differences between subjects and the expertise of the subject specialists. And hence I believe that inviting deep answers to the questions embedded in my blog is a good place to begin.

      Like

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s