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.


Everybody’s Reading – student voice

This month we are discussing Lessons learned: student voice at a school for pupils experiencing social, emotional and behavioural difficulties by Edward Sellman. Click on the link the download the article.

How you can get involved:

  1. Read the article and leave your thoughts and comments using the ‘Comments’ facility on this blog post. We hope others will respond, and the conversation will develop.
  2. Join our twitter virtual meeting.  We will be discussing this article on twitter – on 13th December 2016 – 7pm-8pm UK time. Our twitter handle is @whatmattersUoN and we will use the hashtag #wmedchat. Please use the hashtag or we wont see your tweets! (We will ‘storify’ the chat if you can’t make it, or time zones make it impossible to participate).
  3. Why not organise your own reading group to discuss the article?  You can arrange this when you want, where you want, with whom you want! From two of you over coffee to a whole staff meeting or with colleagues from other schools.  Whatever works for you. All that matters is that you read, think, discuss. If you do this, why not write a short summary of your discussion and post it on the ‘Comments’ section here?
  4. We would like to invite anyone interested in the project to join us for a festive drink on Tuesday 13th December at the Hemsley on University Park Campus from 5.00pm onwards. Just send us an email to let us know that you are coming.

Does handwriting matter?

by Jane Medwell.

In 2012 a survey of 2,000 people in the UK reported in the British press found that one in three people had not written anything by hand in the previous six months and two thirds of people said that anything they handwrote was only meant for their own eyes, such as scribbled notes. So it is reasonable to ask whether handwriting still matters. Is it really worth teaching handwriting to our children? After all, parts of the USA and Finland no longer teach joined writing.

We think there are some persuasive reasons why it is still important for both young children and older learners to learn handwriting..

Why handwriting matters for young children

The research evidence suggests that handwriting plays a part in young children’s cognitive, sensory motor and phonological development. Learning to write involves a complex mix of cognitive and meta-cognitive skills (Jones and Christensen, 1999) including fine motor control, bilateral and visual–motor integration, motor planning, in-hand manipulation, visual perception, sustained attention, and sensory awareness. These skills support early reading with a clear causal link having been identified between early printing and reading acquisition (James and Atwood, 2009).

James and Engelhardt (2012) used MRI technology to observe the effects on brain activation of 4 and 5 year old children engaging in a variety of writing-like activities, such as writing letters by hand, tracing letters and typing letters. They found that areas of children’s brains previously associated with reading (the so-called ‘reading circuit’ (Wolf, 2007) were activated when the children wrote letters to a much greater degree to when they engaged in other forms of sensorimotor activity – including typing of letters.  They suggest that that writing letters by hand was somehow implicated in the development of reading in young children.

Writing skills developed before children enter formal schooling can predict young children’s academic achievement years later. Dinehart and Manfra (2013) examined the links between the fine motor skills of 3000 preschool children on tasks (such as building blocks, weaving string, lacing beads, cutting with scissors, copying letters, numbers and shapes, and drawing simple objects) and their academic achievement two years after starting school. All fine motor skills examined had some link with these achievements, but writing skills were consistently the strongest predictors of reading and mathematics achievement.

In other words- learning to write by hand helps children to learn to read, to remember sound- symbol correspondences and may well help them to think about literacy.

Handwriting is still important for older learners

The most important issue in handwriting as children develop is not how it looks (though legibility is useful) but how automatically they can produce it (Medwell and Wray, 2007). Automaticity in writing (the ability to produce letters without allocating cognitive attention to it) frees up that attention to allow writers to tackle the difficult parts of writing- collecting ideas, sorting out the order, choosing words and grammatical combinations. In short, automatic handwriting frees writers to focus on composing. Our own research with children aged 7 and 11 revealed that for a seven-year-old child achieving a score of less than 12 alphabet letters per minute on an automaticity test correlated highly with not achieving the expected national writing score (Medwell, Strand and Wray, 2007). For the eleven-year-olds the relevant score was 22 alphabet letters per minute (Medwell, Strand and Wray, 2009). Simply put- children who don’t have to give cognitive attention to handwriting can compose better. Sadly, many writers are not automatic even at the end of primary school, and it holds them back right across the curriculum.

Speed also matters. Graham and Santangelo’s meta-analysis of writing proficiency (2012), noted that the students using pen/cil and paper wrote more words, wrote words faster, and expressed more ideas than those who used keyboards. Connolly et al.’s (2007) comparative study of students in Years 5 and 6 found that apart from a few cases, students’ handwriting speed was consistently faster than their word processing speed. The compositional quality of students’ hand written text was also superior to that produced through word processing.

So should we teach handwriting?

Some children do figure out how to form some letters on their own, but for the vast majority of children and letters, handwriting needs to be taught! For some children, a moderate amount of teaching and practice does the trick, and they seem to “catch” it. But Graham (1999) has made the point that if teachers only give specific emphasis to handwriting when children have failed to ‘catch’ it, then poor habits become progressively harder for teachers to remedy and the children who have not developed automaticity become progressively more disadvantaged!

Our project

We are focusing on mark making and letter formation in the foundation stage. We all know early reading has a very high profile in both schools and homes. We’d like to find ways to make writing as high-profile.

We are working a group of Early Years Teachers, supported by the University of Nottingham’s What Matters programme and Newall Brands (the home of Berol, Papermate and Sharpie). We aim to research ways to promote mark making and letter formation for Foundation stage children.

Teachers from schools in Nottingham, Nottinghamshire and Leicester aim to answer these questions:

  • What do settings and homes do already to promote mark making and letter formation?
  • What more can we do to promote mark making and letter formation?

Questions you might want to share your views about:

When do you use handwriting?

Do you think joined handwriting is important? Why?

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


Connelly, V., Gee, D. & Walsh, E. (2007) “A comparison of keyboarded and handwritten compositions and the relationship with transcription speed”, British Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol. 77 No. 2, pp. 479-92.

Dinehart, L. (2015). Handwriting in early childhood education: current research and future implications. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 15(1), 1-22

Dinehart, L. and Manfra, L. (2013) Association between early fine motor development and later math and reading achievement in early elementary school. Early Education and Development 24(2): 138–161

Graham, S. & Santangelo, T. (2012) “A meta-analysis of the effectiveness of teaching handwriting”, Education Psychology Review, Vol. 28, No. 2, pp. 225-265.

James, K. and Engelhardt, L. (2012) The effects of handwriting on functional brain development in pre-literate children. Trends in Neuroscience and Education 1(1): 32–42

Jones, D. and Christensen, C. (1999). The relationship between automaticity in handwriting and students’ ability to generate written text. Journal of Educational Psychology, 91, 44-49

Medwell, J. & Wray, D. (2007) “Handwriting: What do we know and what do we need to know?” Literacy, Vol. 41, No. 1, pp. 10-15.

Medwell, J., Strand, S. & Wray, D. (2007) ‘The role of handwriting in composing for Y2 children’, in Journal of Reading, Writing and Literacy, Vol. 2 (1), pp. 18-36

Medwell, J., Strand, S. & Wray, D. (2009) ‘The links between handwriting and composing for Y6 children’, in Cambridge Journal of Education, Vol. 39 (3), pp. 329-344

Wolf, M. (2007) Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. New York: Harper

Closing or narrowing the gap? Taking a pupil centred perspective

by Carmen Mohamed.

The issue of Grammar schools has reared its head again as politicians argue about the most effective way of ‘narrowing the gap’ between the children of middle income families and those living in low income families or in poverty. Grammar schools have led the rise and fall of political parties since the 1960’s and the privilege ‘gap’ has been a bone of contention since the 1970’s in the UK with government reports as far back as Rampton in 1977. Since then, there have been regular reinventions of policies, ostensibly to promote social mobility, by all political parties. Policies were originally based on ethnicity and race such as ‘Contextual Value Added’ and ‘Every Child Matters’, and later on poverty such as ‘Pupil Premium’ and most recently ‘Ever 6’. Over the time of these circulating debates there has been no evidence that there has been any increase in the percentage of children from low income families attending grammar schools in regions where they have continued to exist and certainly no evidence that grammar-school-educated pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds did better in exams than those in local comprehensive schools. This continued pretence by elitist Government’s to offer a helping hand to those less fortunate than themselves is both patronising and unscrupulous.

As the generation from the tripartite system of education, many colleagues of working class heritage tell their own life stories of the impact of a Grammar school education. These stories offer rich diversity of experience and could provide evidence of any potential narrowing of a gap between them and the secondary modern pals they left behind. My own story is completely contrary, a close primary school friend opted for a grammar school education whilst I refused to follow, preferring, at that age, to stay with those I knew and understood. She is now an unemployed single parent living on a council estate and claims that was her biggest regret in life. I wonder how many of these stories remain untold, how does identification as an outsider (the Other) limit your potential once you are allowed entry to a different social strata through merit. Much is written about the way we respond to accents, vocabulary, social and cultural capital, these notions name us and sort us into groups ‘just like us’ and ‘not like us’. My own PhD drew on the work of sociologist’s discussions around how the ‘Pygmalion’ effect (Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1968) is perpetuated through pedagogies employed in classrooms and investigated what we in ITE could do to mitigate this during the training year.

John Dewey argued that the ‘problem with so many discussions is that they articulate different positions within the same set of assumptions’ (Biesta, 2014). If we are serious about ‘closing the attainment gap’ between those with social and cultural capital and those without, we might require a new perspective. Bernstein (1977) argued that the way we educate pupils in schools dictates how we are able, as a society, to reproduce the status quo or to transform our social structures and practices. This may well provide an answer, rather than changing the school structure and ‘allowing’ a few poor but clever kids into elite schools maybe we should be giving serious consideration to the way we teach, to our pedagogic practices. State education suggests that every child is capable of profiting from education. However, we all realise that not all children learn in the same way nor on the same schedule. The routinisation and standardisation of education has meant that every child has to be equipped to learn something presented in just one of many possible ways. This one size fits all method of teaching and evaluating teaching inevitably leads to a belief that it is the best way to guarantee universal results. Rather than asking why particular methods haven’t worked teachers are expected to attribute the difficulty to the learner and provide more focused interventions within a limited curriculum of maths and English, reducing the pupils’ education as well as their self-belief. This reduced educational practice is most regularly employed in schools with a high ratio of pupil premium funding so in reality the most disadvantage pupils receive the most limited education.

NCTL recently funded a series of ‘test and learn’ research projects to identify effective ways of ‘Closing the gap’. In the final summary they conclude that ‘there is potential for a micro-enquiry approach in ITT, supported by good research design and analysis skills’ (NCTL; 72). They suggest that teachers engaging with research should be focused on developing a curriculum which allows all pupils to make the effort in their learning with positive encouragement, this will be a cheaper, more effective way of closing the gap than any grammar school system.

Recently there has been a groundswell shift to talking about the pedagogies involved in ‘Mastery’ approaches to teaching and learning. Mastery is attributed to Bloom (1968) whose work signified the importance of children developing a deep understanding of a concept before moving on, to the next part of the sequence or the next concept. He also gave consideration to pupils being afforded the individualised time needed for mastery of the concept to be achieved. One significant contribution to the eradication of the ‘gap’, I would argue, is a move away from labelling pupils as ‘high ability’ or ‘low ability’ in teaching for ‘Mastery’. Isn’t it about time we listened to the research rather than the politicians and gave pupils the opportunity to make the effort needed to ‘master’ a concept or skill with positive teacher affirmation so we can build self-belief and self-efficacy in all pupils? You never know, they may just close the gap themselves.

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

What matters for women and gender in school leadership?

by Kay Fuller.

A resurgence of interest in women and gender in education and wider society shows up a range of issues that should matter to everyone involved in the education of children and young people, the employment and development of teachers and non-teaching staff, and the work and development of school leaders at every level.

On my way to the #WomenEd Unconference II  in Reading last month, I counted several stories on Radio 4’s Today programme (8/10/16):

  • Donald Trump’s confession of sexual assault on women “you can do anything” to women “when you’re a star” (subsequently downplayed as men’s locker room banter)
  • A ‘fight’ between two members of UKIP described repeatedly as ‘handbags at dawn’ thus using women as a frame of reference to belittle the incident and them
  • Menopausal women being prescribed testosterone to improve their libidos
  • Sexism in British Cycling (in passing)
  • Emily Thornberry’s defence of Jeremy Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet with herself as Shadow Foreign Secretary and Diane Abbott at the first Black Shadow Home Secretary
  • The Guardian’s report of sexual harassment and gender violence experienced by women academics – unreported because women feared for their careers
  • Responses to the armed robbery of Kim Kardashian ranging from scepticism of it as a publicity stunt to sympathy for personal violation and concern about society’s failure to take gender violence seriously.

These stories framed my session on Feminist Leadership II.

Opening with introductions to establish who we were and why we were there, women talked about their commitment to being feminists and teaching about feminism. Some were marginalised by colleagues as ‘the feminist’ teacher in the department or school.

At Unconference II, I was heartened by the contribution of the one man present in my session who talked about why he was a feminist. I had just heard the male panel talking about why #heforshe matters to them. They acknowledged feeling vulnerable in this women’s space of #WomenEd. They were worried about causing offence by sounding patronising, by ‘mansplaining’ things, in other words by using the wrong language. The women agreed this conversation in person was important. That something positive can come out of making mistakes and disagreeing. White men were in the minority in the room and they felt what it was like to be marginalised, possibly for the first time.

So the feminist man’s contributions were welcome in my session. They contrasted starkly with the everyday sexism of the one man who attended my session at Unconference I in 2015.

The focus for our discussion was Grogan and Shakeshaft’s (2011) five ways women lead . It is a framework I have used in Gender, Identity and Educational leadership.

  • Relational leadership – emphasises relationships in horizontal arrangements rather than hierarchical structures that demarcate power relations over one another.
  • Leadership for social justice – refers to a desire to change the status quo. Motivation might be about serving the interests of those who have been and continue to be least well served by current social and education policies and practices.
  • Spiritual leadership – whether or not we are of faith or no faith this is about a sense of who we are in the world and of getting to know the worlds of others. It is also about using the language of passion and hope.
  • Leadership for learning – learning and teaching is central whether it be related to the education of children, young people and adult learners or the development of staff as teachers, non-teaching staff and leaders.
  • Balanced leadership – achieving a balance between home lives and work lives implies these are separate. They need not be – in that families and friendships inform leadership.

Women disagreed about some aspects of these ideas.

They expressed different views about spiritual leadership, the role of faith, religion and/or spirituality in educational leadership and the potential abuse of teachers’ ‘passion’ to manipulate their goodwill; and about whether leadership for learning was necessarily a good example of a women’s way of leading in the UK.

What mattered in the room that day was that we thought women and men could do more to:

  • create and sustain an inclusive environment that nurtures equality between the sexes and a whole range of potentially marginalised children, young people and colleagues
  • promote feminism amongst students by showing, not telling them how to behave respectfully with a focus on equality and diversity
  • use the word ‘feminist’
  • hold up a feminist lens to our own leadership behaviours to think about modelling different ways of leading in our interactions with colleagues
  • think about how language is used to gender leadership qualities as male or female and as positive or negative
  • challenge patriarchy by calling out the gendered use of language to describe attributes of leadership
  • empower other leaders to challenge stereotypes in the use of language, in school culture, in educational resources, in organisational structures and in promotion processes
  • embrace and value authentic voices, perceptions and ways of being women.

These things mattered to the women (and the one man) in the room.

What matters to you about women and gender in schools? 

Kay Fuller is Associate Professor of Educational Leadership at Nottingham University 

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