Subject knowledge for primary teachers: the power of community?

By Rupert Knight

The challenge of subject knowledge

Like it or not, we’re working in an educational era where individual subjects are prioritised.

The messages are there in documents like the 2016 White Paper and in the very structure of the curriculum.  It’s notable that England is highly unusual internationally in defining its curriculum in terms of separate subjects.   For primary teachers in particular, this serves to heighten the perpetual challenge of subject knowledge and the debates that have raged about generalist versus specialist teachers.

What do we mean by subject knowledge? 

Perhaps the best-known work on this has come from the U.S. educationalist Lee Shulman, dating back to the 1980s.  In his attempt to categorise teacher knowledge, Shulman drew a clear distinction between the ‘substantive’ knowledge of a subject and what he termed ‘Pedagogical Content Knowledge’ (PCK). Put simply, PCK is knowledge of how to translate a subject into a teachable form.  This recent TES article makes the point vividly.

While much debated ever since, PCK as a specialist form of teacher expertise has an enduring appeal. So, how can teachers, now increasingly trained on school-based courses, develop strong, classroom-oriented subject knowledge across a broad range of disciplines?  One under-exploited resource may lie in schools themselves: the power of community.

Viv Ellis of King’s College has suggested that subject knowledge needs to be thought of in a dynamic and collective way, as some of his articles make clear. He rejects views of a static body of material to be mastered and refers to subject knowledge existing among teachers, heavily influenced by the features and culture of a school setting.  Although his work refers chiefly to trainee English teachers, this may be a powerful way of responding to this challenge more widely.

How might we work collaboratively within schools in order to rise to this challenge? 

More specifically, how might experienced teachers help to induct newer colleagues into this world of subject expertise?  Well, firstly we need to recognise that the whole idea of a subject-based community within a primary school is far from straightforward.  All too often, teachers operate behind closed doors.  A low status is accorded to non-judgmental, peer-to-peer development activity.  Based on published research in this field, it seems that a number of practices might be useful.  Here are just four to consider:

  • Within and beyond school networks: within school study or reading groups; the use of specialist leaders of education; networking through organisations such as maths hubs or the STEM Centre and links with subject interest groups at universities, including ours. Perhaps you also have links with local secondary school departments?

 

  • The creation and study of ‘cases’: compiling case study material, based on strategies for teaching particular concepts or on common misconceptions, can be a valuable resource for analysis and discussion. They provide models for examining teachers’ decision-making and professional judgment.  This idea is illustrated in a science context by John Loughran in this paper.
  • Team teaching: this can take a variety of forms for different purposes. Quite apart from the ‘safety-net’, this allows access, through collaborative planning, to teacher’s often tacit knowledge and decision-making.  This is illustrated, along with other aspects of this post, in this article.
  • Inquiry: collaborative inquiry might take the form of collegial problem solving such as the increasingly popular Lesson Study approach, as explained here, along with evidence of its impact,  or perhaps a more formal action research approach could be useful, as you implement and evaluate a particular intervention

How are you and your colleagues working collaboratively to develop subject knowledge?

This post was originally published on the Primary Education Network Blog (PEN).

The School of Education takes no institutional position and all authors’ views are their own.

 

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