Knowing me, Knowing You

The very recent, very late-night debate between Messrs David Didau @LearningSpy and David Wray @DavidWray focussed on the centrality or otherwise of  Pedagogical Content Knowledge (or subject knowledge).  The debate is summarised in David Didau’s post ‘Can a good teacher teach anything well?’ a comment issued so contemporaneously that it almost took the form of a bootleg, uploaded even before the band had even got back to the dressing room.

My own three-minute punk contribution was

To this, David Wray responded:

Now, I’m sorry, David Wray, but your late-night braggadocio still hasn’t convinced me in the time I’ve had to reflect upon it.  I retain my conviction that pedagogic skills, a variety of teaching method, a variety of learning method and everything and anything else that constitute part of my professional make-up derive ultimately and irrefutably from my specialist subject knowledge.  I’d like to explore briefly four acrostic strands in the debate, acrostic, because it’s December and I’m being frivolous (see my last post) and I’ll do it until someone tells me to stop/grow up/start listening to Tales from Topographic Oceans…


Anecdotal evidence:  quite a few of the tweets and replies to David Didau’s blog addressed, quite reasonably, the experience of trying to teach a skill or a subject without having sufficient, necessary expert knowledge.  I agree entirely.  I love drama and have put on school plays, but my attempts to teach it  as an activity with Yr 7 were cringeworthy.  I had passion and behaviour management skills but the expertise of a novice, and it hurt.  Conversely, I have a PhD in medieval history, so you may think that I can handle an A2 course on The Crusades with aplomb, and in many ways I can. But what’s made me passably competent in doing so is not the direct application of my postgraduate skills but the acquisition of parallel, A-Level-specific skills supported by a lot of reading, hard work, tweaking, refining, mistake-making and re-thinking, not to mention sharing ideas and resources with first-rate colleagues.  To caricature, had I taken the view that as a university-educated medievalist I could teach anything pre-1500 with a casual glance through my pince-nez at a syllabus, leaving the students to trail in my academic-manque wake, I’d have done myself, the subject itself and most importantly the students themselves a huge disservice.  My expert, subject-based knowledge is my bedrock.  This isn’t just the nuts-and-bolts of dates, events, bulls and encyclicals, it’s the second-order concepts such as change and continuity, diversity, and significance; I was using these in my PhD before they’d been invented, or popularised, but now I have to really use them, explain them, model them, critique them, and sometimes that’s hard.  History is a hard subject, as multi-layered and polished as an Abba single:  beyond the apparent simplicity and catchiness there’s a craft and  complexity as rich as a Dundee cake. Discuss.

But what about the learners, I hear you ask? This was the missing element of the Didau-Wray tweetfest, to some degree, and one I wanted to raise with a Gifted and Talented focus.  Quite simply, it stems from the second part of my tweet above.  If I don’t know my subject from a learner’s perspective, in so far as I ever can, identifying the best parts (Richard I v Saladin!) and the harder material, the common pitfalls (surely we’re not confusing our analysis of significance across time and over time again?) and the techniques necessary to likely success, then how can my students?  Given that we all teach able students, how can we maintain an integrity in doing so if we are not much more than a Johnny-Come-Lately armed with a textbook hoping to stay a chapter ahead?  Do we imagine that our talented, or able, or high-attaining students, whatever we choose to call them, won’t see through our bravado?  Schools and colleges are imperfect places and subject experts can’t always be found to teach the subject, let alone a specific course for a specific exam board, but there are compensations that can be put in place for this and other strategies adopted.  Able students, no more but no less than all other students, deserve the very best that we can give them. if we don’t know our subjects, we don’t know what our students know and we don’t know what they don’t know.  Without subject knowledge, we’ll all be facing our Waterloo.

But what about the research?  David Wray referred to Shulman and his research, which I must confess to knowing nothing about.  I’m not going to dwell on John Hattie here because his findings are well-known.  Whether on YouTube  or in Visible Learning for Teachers (2012) Hattie puts teachers centre-stage, and it would be a misrepresentation on my part to suggest that his findings champion knowledge over skills. It does seem to me, however, that his argument that learning is effective when teachers know when students are not progressing, or when we provide effective feedback, or act as evaluators, or adopt a range of learning strategies, to take a few of his examples,  are predicated upon Pedagogical Content Knowledge of a high order.

Expert teachers have high levels of knowledge and understanding of the subjects that they teach, can guide learning to desirable surface and deep outcomes, can successfully monitor learning and provide feedback that assists students to progress, can attend to the more attitudinal aspects of learning …and can provide defensible evidence of positive impacts of the teaching on student learning.’ (Hattie, Visible Learning p24).

On the next page Hattie talks about the way in which expert teachers can make lessons uniquely their own by adapting their lessons according to their students’ needs, as opposed to ‘experienced’ teachers who may just know a lot.  This brings us back to my PhD point above.  David Wray is right to point out that pedagogic skills matter, and none of what I’m suggesting here denies a role for the expert practitioner in his or her own right, but I can’t read Hattie’s high effect size for Instructional Quality or Teacher Credibility as being divorced from PCK.  We should be doing better than saying to students, Take A Chance on Me.

Aha!  A good teacher can teach anything?  There may be a few who can.  But it’s undesirable, in my opinion, that many of us should try, certainly not with exam classes.  It takes years of small venues, cramped dressing rooms and dodgy sets before you hone your sound, grab your audience and find your own voice.  Only then can you say Thank You for the Music.


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