This much I know about…why ResearchED 2014 made me a little more doubtful than ever

Foreword

Below are the slides and video clips from our ResearchED 2014 talk yesterday. You can watch the video of our talk here.

If you are interested in our EEF project then please contact Alex Quigley at aj.quigley@huntington-ed.org.uk.

Rise

 

 

 

I have been a teacher for 26 years, a Headteacher for 11 years and, at the age of 50, this much I know about why ResearchED 2014 made me a little more doubtful than ever.

Perpetual self-doubt is a relatively healthy condition in which to exist. At an event like yesterday’s I look to take away some learning and what I took away yesterday made me doubt myself and our developmental priorities just a little bit. Here’s why…

I have learnt more about my English subject specialism since I have been a teacher than at any other time in my life. I think I learnt my core texts at A level in some depth. I came across a huge range of literature at a surface level during my degree at York and was inspired by the English Department, 1984-87, which comprised, amongst others: Jacques Berthoud; Derek Pearsall; David Moody; Nicole  Ward-Jouve; Pippa Tristram; Geoff Wall; Hugh Haughton; Sid Bradley; Bob Jones; Michael Cordner; Tony Ward; RC Hood; Stephen Minta; Hermione Lee and Alan Charity – the Golden Generation, a kind of academic Premiership Select XI with a cracking subs bench to boot! But it wasn’t until I began my career at Eastbourne Sixth Form College and taught five A level classes in my first year that I began to comprehend fully the fundamental relationship between form and content which underpins the analysis of literary texts.

What matters most: pedagogy or subject specialism? I’ve always thought the former, largely because when I teach English, even at A level, in terms of subject knowledge I call upon a small corner of what I know about English literature. And when I have taught photography, PE, Travel & Tourism, mathematics, Media Studies, ICT and Economics over the years I have learnt the relevant core knowledge of those subjects and then called upon my experience and pedagogic skills to teach. But Philippa Cordingley surprised me yesterday when she discussed her research paper for Teach First, co-authored with Miranda Bell, entitled Characteristics of High Performing Schools and explained how subject knowledge appeared to be a higher priority within exceptional schools. The research paper claims that in at least four of the exceptional schools, subject knowledge was regarded as very important across the school – and the schools consistently used subject specialists to support subject knowledge development, whereas in strong schools Teachers…put subject knowledge fairly low down their list of Professional Learning priorities…leaders [of strong schools] said they felt that they tended to take subject knowledge for granted. This evidence contradicted my long-held belief, based upon experience, that, whilst both were crucially important to truly great teaching, pedagogy just about trumped subject knowledge.

With apologies to Seamus Heaney, but when it comes to the current educational debates I am neither internee nor informer; /An inner émigré, grown grey-haired /And thoughtful. The more I read and hear and think and talk about education, the more doubtful I become, but I guess that is a natural process. I certainly heard many people express similar views yesterday, including such luminaries as Professors Coe and Wiliam. Despite what Philippa Cordingley’s paper says, I’ll continue to teach Economics; however, I’m not ignoring the evidence and stubbornly sticking with what I know because that would be foolish. I’ll ask Alex, our Director of Research, to look again at our CPD offer and review the development priorities of each subject area to ensure that we have the subject specialism/pedagogy balance spot on and what I’ll do, personally, is work even harder at planning lessons and developing my subject knowledge. As Brecht said, The world of knowledge takes a crazy turn when teachers themselves are taught to learn.

POSTSCRIPT

Every cloud and all that…for the last few weeks of the holiday I was laid low by a lung infection. Not feeling up to much, at a car-boot sale I happened upon an antique fly fishing rod made of split cane. It was in a poorly state so I decided to renovate it. Several Youtube videos and a lot of gentle graft later (for days on end I sneaked out of bed at 6 am and, once, when my wife asked why I was getting up so early, my whispered response was I’m off to varnish my rod…) I took my resurrected piece of craftsmanship to a local fishery and third cast, on a small black gnat, here’s the outcome…

trout on split cane

I’m sure there’s a learning-ethic of excellence-Berger blog post there somewhere, but not everyone wants to know what a typical 50 year old bloke gets up to…luckily there’s not enough space in our back yard to build a shed.

 

 

 

About johntomsett

Headteacher in York. All views are my own.
This entry was posted in General educational issues, Other stuff, School Leadership, Teaching and Learning. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to This much I know about…why ResearchED 2014 made me a little more doubtful than ever

  1. Crosby, Mr. B. says:

    Really loved this post. Loved your honesty. Loved your openness. You keep taking me by suprise. Never stop x

    Regards

    Brian

  2. David Bishop says:

    As with most aspects of life there is a healthy balance to be struck- this applies specifically to the specialism/subject knowledge debate.

  3. Caroline Creaby says:

    A great post as ever, John. Thanks for posting the Cordingley and Bell report, it’s an interesting read. The subject knowledge / pedagogy balance has been on my mind in the last year; I felt that our provision was weighted very heavily towards pedagogy. In the summer, I designed a survey for staff to help me identify everyone’s priorities for their subject knowledge, pedagogy and other areas of development (happy to share). This has proved useful, along with other information, in helping me plan more carefully how CPD time is spent. I hope we have more of an appropriate balance this coming year and I’m interested to see how it goes to help me work out what that balance should be. I am seeking to create CPD provision that enables what my school’s amazing Head of Psychology calls ‘the perfect storm’ for achievement : teachers’ rich subject and curriculum knowledge, an understanding of where students’ find difficulties in what is being taught, and consistent reflection on the impact of teaching approaches on students’ learning. I am sure we are still a long way off CPD that supports such a perfect storm but hopefully we may be a step closer this year.

  4. bt0558 says:

    A lovely post, thank you.

    I am currently downloading each of the videas from researched and hopefully I will soon find your talk which I am very keen to watch.

    I have always seen the both subject knowledge and pedagogical knowledge as essential if learners are to make efficient and effective progress. Paul Kirschner refers to FEEEL. It seems to me that there is perhaps a change in the balance from start of primary until end of secondary.

    For me, emplying subject experts makes eminent sense, and I think this is a big part of the teach first advantage. I see two axes as continuums, content and pedagogy from none to expert. I believe there an individuals current position in the grid is both contextual and temporal.

    I spend approximately 5 hours each week learning about my subject specialism, another 5 on pedagogy and another 5 linking the 2.

    My practice on a particular day with a particular class and a spedific topic will reflect some balance of th e use of the 2.

    I think schools should address the needs of all teachers in both areas. HOD or similar should in my view be responsible for CPD in content (with a budget), school should provide access to appropriate pedagogical training as appropriate rather than school wide. Departments will then bring the 2 together. This all takes time.

    I do feel that content knowledge has traditionally overlooked, and that subject knowledge more recently has been lacking in many degree courses. High quality graduates redress this issue to some extent and I think th epaper you refer to deals with these issues.

    I currently teach in a private school and return to INSET tomorrow. Spurred on by your post I am going to the coast with both fly and spinning rods in hand this evening. If I catch a bass as big as your trout? then I will go to work tomorrow very happy.

  5. srcav says:

    Fantastic post John, another which has made me very jealous to have missed yesterday’s event! Let’s home for another northern one soon.

    I think the subject knowledge/pedagogy debate has raged, and will rage, forever. I have written my thoughts here: http://wp.me/p2z9Lp-9c Subject knowledge is, in my opinion, very important.

    I think, though, that the most important message in your post here is that even someone of your experience is still learning and trying to be better at education. This is an important thing for all of us to remember, and for all of us to strive towards.

  6. John,

    Thanks for this post – like you I was at REd14 and also came away with similar feelings. I did not go the the session by Phillipa (there was just so much choice!) but I think that you need to situate the findings in the CUREE paper in that subject knowledge was one of the factors but cannot be said to be causal and that the sample size of the project was very limited and the results limited to En and Ma. In your slide you quote Lee S Shulman and I think (as you do say) that it is the interplay between pedagogical knowledge and subject knowledge that we find (as Shulman calls it) “the wisdom of practice”

    Paul

  7. Jonathan says:

    I was interested in whether the subject knowledge issue would have the same impact in exceptional primary schools. Certainly a rich area for further research.

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