My New Year’s wish for teaching: focus on and time for subject knowledge

Subject knowledge… Surely not a problem for teachers? After all, they have degrees and postgraduate training, the details of KS3, GCSE and A-level should be no trouble.

Well I am going to put my head above the parapet and say subject knowledge is one of the biggest elephants in the room we have in teaching. None of us want to admit that we don’t know everything about our subject, perhaps we are scared we’ll be judged as inadequate, or worse, a bit stupid!?

More than ten years ago now, during my PhD, I did 2 weeks full time experience in a Manchester secondary school prior to applying for teacher training. There were several other students on the same scheme, called the Student Associates Scheme which paid modest expenses to encourage students in shortage subjects to take a look at teaching. One of my fellow students a final year chemistry undergraduate from one of the local universities, on track for a 2:2 degree. During the 2 weeks she had an interview for a PGCE and when she came back asked me the difference better a compound and a mixture. She had been asked this in her interview and hadn’t known the answer. As astounding as this is to the casual observer (that particular concept is covered in Year 7 or Year 8 chemistry) it is more common than you would think. I’m fairly sure she did know the difference but clearly her subject knowledge was shaky and that caused her to be unable to articulate it. At least this was picked up at interview, if she had never been asked that then she could have begun teacher training on a less than decent foundation (as it was she was recommended to take a subject knowledge enhancement course).

Subject knowledge isn’t just important for new teachers.

Teachers, even good ones, don’t know it all….

There I said it. We all put on that act in front of the students and we mostly get away with it. But most teachers have a nemesis topic, one that they don’t really like teaching because their foundations are a little shaky. I taught with a Head of Biology who hated teaching the kidney because she felt she could never keep all the detail in her head from one year to the next. I still maintain a fear of electrochemistry having been on the biology field trip when it was taught in the Upper 6th. I have taught it many times but there are still aspects of it that I feel are going to come and bite me on the backside!

Whether you got your degree from Oxbridge or the local Poly it’s still likely that you don’t know everything about everything you’re going to have to teach…

Some subjects are more diverse than others…

Take biology teachers.  Now to become a biology teacher you will almost certainly have an A level (or equivalent post-16 qualification) in biology (some don’t but most do). You will then have progressed to a “biological” type degree. Biology, human biology, physiology, biochemistry, environmental science, zoology, microbiology, nursing even… Psychology is considered by some institutions to meet the 50% rule for biology subject knowledge. Biology in school is very general, whereas many biological degrees are highly specialised. I suspect the same is true of many subjects, historians may have studied a very specific period of history or even a very specific aspect of history eg, conflict. English teachers may have specialised in their final years in obscure literature that they would never have to teach to teenagers.

Teachers will often end up teaching topics that they haven’t really spent much time on since they themselves were at school. This might be OK but we shouldn’t pretend that it’s totally fine and doesn’t need looking at.

Time is the problem….

All teachers have some aspect of their subject knowledge they want to improve. The real problem is that there isn’t the time to do this. All teachers are expected to engage with CPD but except in the very early years of teaching it is unlikely any of that will be subject related. Most CPD is linked to whole school focuses like assessment, tracking, behaviour management, learning pedagogy. Rarely are the needs of individual teachers focuses on. It isn’t just in the early years of teaching that subject knowledge needs supporting, a new exam syllabus can bring in a new topic or taking on post-16 teaching for the first time may mean more depth of knowledge is required. If a teacher is motivated to put in the extra study then when can they do this? In reality it is currently going to have to happen at best in a free period and at worst at home on an evening or weekend which would otherwise be spent achieving a work-life balance.

As teachers we need to know our stuff, and have time to consolidate it and practice it. Dare I say it it may even be more important for those of us teaching chemistry, since experiments come with their own risks!

The college of teaching and teaching standards

Last year there was a call for input into a new teaching standard surrounding engagement with CPD. I responded to it (yes some people actually do, very few though!) and my emphasis was on subject specific CPD. I really do hope that if this can be formalised in the teaching standards then teachers will stand a chance of getting some of their CPD time for things they want to focus on and that schools and management will see the value in having staff continually updating their subject knowledge.


2 thoughts on “My New Year’s wish for teaching: focus on and time for subject knowledge

  1. So much to agree with here. One nice thing about maturing as a teacher is that you overcome your hang ups about admitting what you don’t know to your students. Mine probably think I’m kidding when I tell them I can’t answer their questions, I do it so often. I’ve been part time for two years to research a book about chemistry and it’s been wonderful to spend so much time learning. But for all the reading up I’ve done on thermodynamics, I still make mistakes or get stumped over how to, say, relate entropy to the value of the equilibrium constant in a way that A2 students can access. It’s good for teachers to be corrected by others, so that we remember what it’s like to have your best efforts dissected. But like you I’ll struggle to find time for enhancing subject knowledge once I go full time again.


    1. I am exactly the same. I’m not teaching full time so don’t have the relentlessness associated with that and as part of my uni job I have been forced to confront a number of concepts I had completely forgotten (or blocked out…) For those teaching full time with the associated planning and marking it is so hard to get the time to concentrate on subject knowledge.


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