Pedagogy Postcard #5: Expert Knowledge: Yours and theirs

A series of short posts about specific elements of teaching practice that I think are effective and make life interesting. Some are based on my own lessons and others are borrowed from lessons I’ve observed


There are several kinds of expert knowledge that we have as teachers, including:

  1. Specialist knowledge of the subjects we teach.
  2. Understanding how to transmit our subject knowledge to others.
  3. Knowledge of how to assess learning in our subjects
  4. Generic pedagogical strategies and assessment methods.

In seeking to improve our knowledge through CPD activities, I’d suggest that we spend proportionally too much time on No4; not nearly enough on No 2 and hardly any time on No 1. There’s an odd assumption in teaching that once you’ve done a degree and been given a job in a school, your specialist subject knowledge is sufficient. But, at the same time, there’s no doubt in my mind that the very best teachers are those who have excellent expert subject knowledge; they know their stuff and they seek to develop their knowledge all the time.

Recently I’ve been involved with several lesson observations and it struck me just how critical it was for the teachers to have real expertise in their subjects:

  • A history teacher, teasing out the significance of events in the Russian Civil War – was it the Reds’ strengths of the Whites’ weaknesses that mattered most?
  • An MFL teacher speaking in German throughout his Y8 lesson, in a fabulous natural accent, knowing the idioms and anticipating the common exceptions to the rule.
  • A DT teacher giving instruction on a complicated bit of lathe machining and giving students the confidence to weld, mould and programme as required to make their designs come off the page.
  • A science teacher conducting a demo of sound interference at A level using a speaker and baffle board and discussing answers to A level questions about phase and path length.
  • Another science teacher fielding questions about DNA and the link between base sequences and genetic alleles, keeping the discussion together so students could access the ideas; stretched but not overwhelmed.
  • In each case, their expertise was essential to the learning process. But why? At the most basic level, they knew the answers to questions but also the degree of leeway students had when there was no one correct response. They also knew which questions to ask. They could fill in the gaps in students’ prior knowledge, not just deliver a pre-set package of information. They gave the learning depth, demanded rigour in students’ responses, modelled the whole notion of knowledge being worth having; engendered a confidence – a can-do spirit about tackling new ideas and difficult questions. When you know you are in the hands of an expert, respect is due! It makes everyone feel that they are in the right place. And the opposite is also true….

    Now, obviously, subject knowledge alone isn’t enough…..It’s a necessary component of great teaching but not a sufficient one. I’ve known ‘biologists’ who could teach physics better than their specialist colleagues because of their superior general pedagogical expertise and a fair few PhD level academics who could not engage their students at all. In our house ‘doing a ‘Tony’ is a phrase we use, referring to an ex-colleague, for droning in a dull but knowledgable manner to three attentive bright sparks in the front row, with bedlam all around. “Strictly speaking, the capacitance fluctuates with the ambient temperature due to the dielectric properties of,..zzzzz” (Y8)

    But, if you’ve ever had to teach a topic that wasn’t included in your degree course, a text you’ve only just read or even a whole subject as a non-specialist know how disarming it is not to be totally secure in your own knowledge. Currently I’m filling in on RE in Y10 …it’s a challenge. There’s only so far you can take the ‘we’re all learning this together’ approach. (Not very far). But also, in physics and KS3 science, my specialist area, I am learning about the subject all the time in terms of the way I can demonstrate phenomena with the equipment that we have. Recently I taught the thermit reaction for the first time; I needed a special lesson from the chief technician to get the science right.

    There is a growing and very welcome focus on the need for teachers to develop their practice and for CPD in general to improve. I’d suggest that subject knowledge needs to have a higher profile in this discussion. What do you need the most? Some evidence-informed ideas about generic pedagogical strategies OR, more simply, would your time be better spent deepening your subject knowledge? That’s the main message in this post. Value your own knowledge, test it and feed it:

    How confident are you that you could get an A* at A Level in your subject if you sat the exams tomorrow? Are there gaps in your background knowledge that leave you feeling exposed during some class discussions…where you know you are bluffing ever-so-slightly? Do you know how to derive the equations, reference the quotations or draw the appropriate graphs? Can you do those hard Olympiad questions…to really sharpen up? Can you explain German adjectival agreement or linear sequences in an even simpler manner for your least confident students? If you feel you have gaps to fill, this may well be the best use of your next INSET day or departmental meeting.

    After the subject content, knowing the details of the assessment regime for your subject is also vital. Do you think you could write a model mark scheme for the GCSE papers you prepare students for? Could you write a model 6 mark answer (RE, Science), 10 mark answer (history source paper), 18 mark answer (A level Economics)? Do you know exactly what an A* exemplar looks like for a piece of DT coursework or an English essay? I’d suggest that at KEGS, our greatest gains in exam outcomes have come from improving our assessment knowledge in specific areas, rather than anything more generic. And that’s where teachers focus their energies most of the time.

    Perhaps, the real value in having ever greater knowledge is the confidence it can give you. If you can command both the physical and intellectual space in your lessons with real authority, the whole business of teaching and learning is that much more rewarding for all concerned.

    Finally, don’t assume students don’t have anything to contribute. It’s an integral part of the process that teaching begins with your knowledge of what your students know already. Just as with weary teachers at a CPD session, it’s the kiss of death to be ‘taught’ stuff you already know. It’s amazing what students pick up and what they can learn by themselves. There have been countless occasions in my lessons when a student has been bursting to share some of their knowledge, leading to real shifts in pace or emphasis. Of course they are not experts ….their knowledge needs to be filtered, challenged and verified…but some times they know things you don’t. It’s always good to be open to that possibility.


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