Genericism and Specialism in Teacher Development; ideals and realities.

There has been some good discussion on twitter recently about the nature of teacher development and the importance of subject-specific training and CPD. This post by Matt Burnage is a great contribution with some excellent suggestions at the end. This post by Jonnie Grande is a really good provocation.

(Honest admission: I find any twitter debates hard to sustain – so much to say, all too easily oversimplified, too many parallel threads sprawling out over many hours – I usually mute them after a few exchanges, overwhelmed by the notifications. I’d rather talk it through or write it down properly and leave others to it.. However here I fear I’ve just splurged too many thoughts and not been very coherent… Having nearly abandoned it, I decided to hit publish and see what happens… )

From my point of view, some of the discussion on this conflates the issues around initial teacher training with those related to continuing professional development. I think they need different treatment. I also feel that seeking some ultimate truth such as ‘curriculum trumps pedagogy’ or the reverse position is unhelpfully reductive because there are too many variables and contexts to capture within any such claim. And, as ever, we have to distinguish primary and secondary phases because the very concept of specialism is different between them. I’m no expert on primary ITT so most of my comments are about secondary.

Obviously everyone brings their own perspective to the discussion – if you’re a history specialist observing lots of history lessons and feel that the issues that dominate originate in teachers’ command of the specific demands of history teaching and history as a discipline, you’re going to lobby hard for more and better training in history teaching. If, like me, you observe across every phase and subject and find that the issues that arise – whilst always having a central curriculum component – also have many common features, you’re going to have a more positive view of teacher development that deals with those issues collectively, across subjects. I think both perspectives are valid and can coexist – it’s just a question of finding the right balance of structures for different scenarios.

(Another parallel-but-related discussion surrounds instructional coaching and the extent to which techniques can be codified or action steps defined generically – there are those who project disdain for tools and platforms that support schools to systematise coaching in order to reach a wide cohort of teachers. I don’t have much time for purism in this area because school improvement is hard enough as it is, and so will probably leave the IC dimension to another post. )

Curriculum is always central

I feel it’s worth saying that teachers are always teaching a subject; there is always curriculum content.. Always. You can’t ask a question that isn’t about something. You can’t set a writing task that isn’t rooted in some knowledge, some curriculum context. You can’t set a generic test – there is always content. To that extent, whenever we talk about ‘generic pedagogy’, it’s not ever meaningfully independent of curriculum thinking. All lists of generic ideas are latent possibilities until they manifest themselves in a real curriculum flow. To my mind, this is no ‘chicken or egg’ scenario – you very clearly need to start with understanding a subject and what the learning goals are in the context of that subject discipline. You need to understand how a typical learner might develop an understanding of the material over time; you need a strong sense of how the schema that relate to the subject are formed – informed by a range of types of knowledge and experience and thought processes.

From this perspective, teacher development very much needs to be rooted in subject specific curriculum thinking. In secondary schools and FE this is always evident. In terms of ITT, if I was advising someone (and their personal circumstances allowed), I’d recommend taking a specialist subject PGCE as the ideal route into teaching to give them the deepest grounding. At the same time, to capture people across the spectrum of personal and financial circumstances, it seems obvious that we need multiple routes into teaching including fast-track and paid routes. But – where teachers take alternative entry routes via SCITTs or Teach First, for very good reasons, we need to be mindful of the extent of curriculum-focused professional learning that they need to gain via their placements and their ECT programmes. The teams they join in schools will play a huge role.

In terms of CPD, most secondary teachers’ home is their subject team and I’ve always held the view that curriculum team time should be privileged in any schedule of meetings and training plans so that the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of teaching are discussed in tandem, inter-twined.

For primary teaching, this is more complicated because, as Emma Turner articulates so well – teaching multiple subjects to the same students is a specialism of its own that is more than – certainly different to – the sum of the specialisms of each subject in the national curriculum. And, of course, teachers need specialist knowledge related to teaching maths, writing, reading and each foundation subject. That’s a big challenge and – as I’ll explore below – the realities of the challenge have to be factored in.

So, for sure, I’m a subject specialist at heart, as most secondary teachers are. I think of myself as a physics teacher by origin. I spent three years in my first job teaching A level physics surrounded by other physics specialists. I didn’t write a single scheme of work for the first year or so – I learned from my colleagues; they showed me the ropes. It was a superb induction – even though I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time. I think all teachers deserve that – ideally.

But, there’s more to it…

At the same time as being something of a subject champion, I have come to recognise that a) subject specialism isn’t sufficient in many contexts and b) it is perfectly possible to have conversations about teaching where teachers of different subjects can explore common ideas. We are not so specialist that this can’t happen to good effect. After specialising in physics, I have also taught maths to A level, all three sciences to GCSE, RE to GCSE, Geography at KS3, ICT at KS4. Even in my own practice I’ve found that some common principles about effective teaching have enabled me to teach multiple subjects, supporting me as I’ve developed my subject knowledge.

In the spirit of ‘stating the obvious is helpful’ – every teacher will have an understanding of concepts such as:

  • explaining;
  • modelling;
  • demonstrating;
  • checking for understanding;
  • scaffolding; practice;
  • retrieval practice;
  • breaking down into small steps;
  • feedback;
  • standards

These ideas are near universal but each will manifest themselves in a subject context every time – they don’t exist at all until given form in a subject context. And yet… is this too obvious to say?…. we can most certainly discuss them together whilst simultaneously conceiving of them in our different subject contexts. I know this from my experience supporting teachers in every phase. I might talk about scaffolding for writing in Year 4; modelling worked examples in maths; demonstrating and breaking down into small steps in construction or barbering or retrieval practice in geography. We understand each other. I don’t see this as taking a generic idea and implementing it in a subject – I see it as framing common teacher or learner challenges in a language we can all relate to form our different subject stand-points.

As others have said, this does require a mindset that is always thinking about the subject context for any given teacher; you are never trying to force a general idea into a subject context where it doesn’t belong. But, with that mindset in place, yes, you really can move a teacher forward in their subject teaching by using a generic framework of techniques and action steps – provided that you’re explicitly exploring how the idea takes form in that subject. (Others may not have experienced or witnessed this but as I have I firmly believe it to be true).

Where ideas can become distorted – for example with daily quizzing as retrieval practice – I don’t think the origin of the distortion necessarily arises through imposing generic ideas onto specialist teaching. But of course that can happen if that’s how it’s done; imposing X onto Y. It would be foolish to suggest that these impositions and distortions don’t occur -but equally I don’t accept that the risk is such that every technique needs it’s own subject version in order to be a valid construct to inform discussions about teaching. For sure ‘modelling’ can be explored as a general idea but we are better off talking about modelling writing in Yr 7 French as distinct from modelling algebraic problem solving in Year 12. But I think we’re losing the plot if we feel a need to define ‘science cold calling’ and ‘geography cold calling’ to establish the routine than can be commonly deployed in both subject contexts. The questions you ask and the routine you use to make everyone think can be thought of as interlocking elements – not one thing being imposed on the other.

There are obviously very many aspects of teaching related to running a classroom to secure attention, check for understanding and support all students to think, to talk, to check their own work – that can be explored in detail without reference to a subject. Running a room to maximise ratio (as Doug Lemov would call it as per TLAC), is not some low level grunt work somehow beneath the intellectual ‘big stuff’ of our subjects. And it’s not denigrating to teachers to suggest these things are hard and not always done as well as they could be. Far from it.

My personal experience has been that running the room has been far more challenging for me than knowing my subject and in my consulting work I encounter this every single day I’m in a school: some students are learning but not everyone – and the problems can have very little to do with the specific learning objectives; they are just the inherent challenges of teaching anything to multiple people at the same time. Almost every day I”m in a school I encounter a situation where a teacher’s subject-specific teacher knowledge is more than sufficient but their challenges are about reaching everyone in the room and involving them in all in the learning process.

So, de facto, it really is so often the case that the common challenges of constructing routines such that all students are thinking and the teacher is able to check the understanding of all students can be explored collectively, across subjects. And here’s the key bit- the subject specialist trainers, subject leaders and subject mentors available may not also be the best people to support a teacher with this stuff.

As I’ve explored previously, it might help to think in terms of limiting factors (as we might in plant growth where variables of temperature, CO2 concentration and light intensity determine the rate of photosynthesis in an interdependent manner). Each factor can limit the success rate – so if one is too low or suboptimal, increasing the others doesn’t necessarily compensate. With subject specialism and general ideas about running a room – you need both; both need to be developed. It’s not a choice between them as both can be the limiting factor. You can have plenty of one and not enough of the other.

I also think there’s a distinction to be made between the kind of curriculum thinking you can engage in in the calm of your departmental office (when reading a text, discussing a scheme of work or planning an assessment) and the kind you need to do in the dynamic environment of a classroom. One will inform the other of course but, in terms of teacher efficacy, some teachers can be really good at thinking through the logical plan of a curriculum and give a strong intellectual rationale for it – but then find it hard to enact in the classroom. I’ve seen so so many lessons where, if you isolated the 6-10 students actively making progress and the teacher, you’d think the lesson was absolutely brilliant. It’s only when you add the other 20 back into the picture that you realise that it’s missing by a mile for too many of them. This goes far beyond being a solely a curriculum issue with a curriculum solution.

The Ideal and the Reality Check

So, what do we need?

Ideally, I would say teacher training for secondary teachers should definitely be strongly subject specific. Teachers should have plenty of time to learn about their subjects as disciplines with their specific pedagogical content. Ideally any school placement and early career job will provide strong subject-specific support and mentoring so that the interplay between subject issues and classroom management is explored in tandem from the start. The ideal subject mentors and coaches can provide the full package of support – subject specifics alongside running the room in general.

Ideally, subject teams and team processes will provide the key drivers of ongoing professional learning beyond the ECT years – again so that curriculum thinking is at the core. This makes the curriculum leader a central figure in their team members’ professional development. Given that good coaching and PD entails setting up iterative cycles of planning and evaluation, with some feedback in the mix, it’s vital that a team leader has the time and the skills to support their colleagues in this way.

Ideally, the person doing the coaching in a one-to-one coaching scenario is. bringing subject expertise to the discussion, especially for early career teachers. This is so that the same process can explore curriculum issues, behaviour and general classroom management in an integrated way over time,

Beyond any initial training input where techniques are introduced and modelled, a strong process will support a teacher to adopt, adapt and integrate isolated techniques, weaving them into the fabric of their repertoire that is strongly informed by the subject material in hand. One-off inputs can only ever be part of a wider process. So the ideal is that a subject specialist coach/leader is on hand in an ongoing way to support that teacher to do this well, without mutating ideas to fit the curriculum in a false or damaging way.

For a team of teachers in a team CPD scenario, a curriculum leader is the ideal person to drive the process. Excellent curriculum leaders make a massive impact here – to the extent that they are often the key figures in driving standards in a school, making all the difference. Variable subject leadership can account for variable standards. Ideally up-to-date curriculum leaders have a role that includes engaging in learning walks, observations and feedback conversations as well as running team meetings as CPD sessions, so that curriculum specific ideas are shared and securely enacted across the department.

So, all of this is certainly strengthening the case for specialists and curriculum-led CPD.

But.. comes the reality check!

The expectations we’re setting up here with all the ideals are absolutely massive. At every stage – from ITT placements to ECT mentoring through to in-school coaching and the role of subject leaders… our ideals demand so much from subject specialists and subject leaders in schools. They almost need to be cloned so that one version of themselves can lead the writing of the curriculum and the assessments, teach their own classes and attend to the personnel management element of running a team. Another version of themselves is needed to support every member of their team with subject-specific CPD, coaching, lesson observation and feedback, blending curriculum with behaviour and classroom dynamics to check for understanding, alongside the skills to provide the motivational accountability drive teachers need to shake the inertia and follow through on their commitments.

The reality is that, currently, we simply don’t have sufficient capacity to build a system around this near impossible ideal scenario. I meet a great many middle leaders and they’re all on a learning journey themselves. Some are extraordinary but they are not always the confident, experienced subject specialists needed to drive others’ professional learning. They are not always confident in leading on curriculum and on behaviour and class dynamics. Even when they have a very strong skill set related to teacher development, they nearly always bemoan the time constraints they operate under and often don’t feel they have capacity to provide that cyclical iterative coaching.

So reality bites. In practice, the best subject CPD mix available is often a combination:

  • specialist internal curriculum development: sharing the collective curriculum knowledge of the team. This can be excellent – and it can be limiting, depending on the strength of the team. Even in many strong situations, there’s a need to ensure contact with the wider subject community, so we also need…
  • specialist external curriculum development: occasional CPD from subject specialists is a powerful boost. It’s always great when people can access really strong subject specific CPD – but those deliverers are not usually there to see anything through to the classroom implementation; we need to rely on internal processes to support the implementation, so we also need…
  • general support, professional learning and coaching: senior leaders or specialist coaches supporting teachers to implement their action steps via general coaching approaches that dovetail all-important classroom dynamics with the teacher’s specialist knowledge.. and, for particular issues, it’s helpful to have access to….
  • occasional additional specialist support in relation to specifics like SEND, behaviour management.

With that reality mix in mind, it feels almost pointless arguing about whether or not generic non-specialist coaching and CPD can deliver. They have to! And luckily, if my experience is anything to go by.. they really can. Importantly, to stress this once more, curriculum is still ever present. You cannot go very far discussing teaching without discussing the content of what is being taught. I have illustrated this in this post and linked graphic.

The key to the generalist approach is to ensure it feeds into a curriculum driven process… you take generic ideas to the table so they act in service of the curriculum, offering them up as possible ways of framing solutions to solve common problems. I’ve seen this work beautifully many times over. One example that comes to mind is of a specialist coach – and finance teacher by training – supporting a team of construction tutors in an FE college. Her sharp insights around general classroom practice and her capacity to mobilise a team into action dovetailed with the team’s industry experience and subject expertise. I’ve seen general coaching make a major difference to whole secondary departments or primary phase teams time and time again: the coach brings their skill set and general knowledge base; the team brings the curriculum problems to solve… and together actions are formulated, committed to and seen through. It’s not about imposing anything on anything…it’s about mutual reinforcement; symbiosis. (Or for those on LinkedIn… synergy…. LOL!)

What I have found -and would advocate to any SLT -is that it is important and powerful for any general coach or mentor to work with people within their subject or related subjects as a first option but, beyond that, to focus on specific curriculum areas for some time to allow them to gain an understanding of the curriculum issues. I’ve done this with every subject at secondary to the point that I can now discuss the curriculum meaningfully with pretty much anyone – but it takes time to acquire that knowledge. I didn’t used to know anything about barbering or art or PE or MFL – but now I do. When I’m coaching teachers in these areas, I’m not starting from zero with the curriculum content and that makes my general knowledge of teaching all the sharper.

So,,, before I keel over in the bog of all this…

What to conclude?

I think it’s mainly to avoid boxing approaches into corners but to see ITT and CPD as comprising different strands of professional learning that are mutually reinforcing:

  • specialist internal curriculum development:
  • specialist external curriculum development:
  • general support, professional learning and coaching:
  • occasional additional specialist support

It’s also to highlight just how important subject leaders are in the whole process and therefore to nurture them, give them time and go a long way to create pathways for new subject leaders to grow.

It’s also to consider how and when general frameworks and pedagogical approaches are best deployed to support specialists; work… adapted depending on the specific skillsets of the people on the ground…

It’s also to ensure that, for any teacher, coaching and wider CPD always creates space for the curriculum to sit at the core of the discussion even whilst engaging people in conversations across subjects..

If you’ve read this far without skimming most of it,…. you’re hardcore.

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