This much I know about…subject specific pedagogy

I have been a teacher for 29 years, a Headteacher for 14 years and, at the age of 53, this much I know about subject specific pedagogy.

Recently, I have been posing a question to anyone who teaches which goes something like this: “What are the specific hallmarks of pedagogy in your subject?” It is a question which initially stumps most people. General responses, such as “modelling”, are not really specific – most subject teachers use modelling techniques as part of their pedagogic armoury. If someone offers “modelling” in answer to my question, I then ask, “But what modelling technique is specific to the subject content you are teaching and how does that modelling technique you use in your subject differ from how another colleague teaching a different subject might use modelling as a pedagogic tool?” That usually results in the person I am interrogating saying that they need to think about it and that they’ll get back to me, which many have done and the debate has continued.

The thing is, “What are the specific hallmarks of pedagogy in your subject?” is a really hard question to answer, but it seems to me crucial that colleagues in each department have a shared understanding of subject specific pedagogy so that when they plan lessons – particularly for our vulnerable students – they do so in a way that addresses the more complex barriers to learning which the subject content inherently contains.

Whilst it is somewhat dated and, perhaps, flawed, Shulman identifies what he calls “pedagogical content knowledge” which he defines thus: “Within the category of pedagogical content knowledge I include, for the most regularly taught topics in one’s subject area, the most useful forms of representation of those ideas, the most powerful analogies, illustrations, examples, explanations, and demonstrations – in a word, the ways of representing and formulating the subject that make it comprehensible to others . . . [It] also includes an understanding of what makes the learning of specific concepts easy or difficult: the conceptions and preconceptions that students of different ages and backgrounds bring with them to the learning” (Shulman, 1986, p. 9).

To help further, you can find a discussion of pedagogical content knowledge in Science here (https://www.narst.org/publications/research/pck.cfm) and Christine Counsell recommended, as a good exploration of the generic pedagogy vs subject specific pedagogy debate, this blog post by Michael Fordham.

Our Subject Leaders have been thinking about the specific hallmarks of pedagogy in their individual subjects and what their conclusions mean for planning in their subjects, especially planning for the learning of our vulnerable students. They will be having a similar across their individual departments, so that they can formulate an expert understanding of their subject specific pedagogy which is shared by each teacher they lead. That should enable them to establish a process which has unique aide-mémoire for planning learning in their subject.

We might begin to move from the generic to the specific pedagogy of our subject by starting with a list of generic techniques but thinking about how they are specific for our subject considering our subject’s specific content: modelling in [subject X] looks like…; writing in [subject X] looks like…; questioning in [subject X] looks like…; exam craft in [subject X] looks like…; metacognition in [subject X] looks like…; and so on.

To kick us off, our Deputy, Matt Smith, ex-Subject Leader of mathematics, explored the subject specific pedagogies of his subject:

I am a pseudo mathematics teacher. I have one way of teaching simultaneous equations and I find it hard to comprehend why students cannot understand how to solve simultaneous equations after I have explained a worked example. When they ask me to go over it again, I repeat the same explanation, but talk more slowly and loudly, as though I am explaining in English, for the second time, to a garage mechanic in rural France that my car is overheating.

An early conclusion to our debate has been the importance of teachers’ subject knowledge. As my son would say, Obvs…

Shulman, L., (1986). “Those who understand: Knowledge growth in teaching”, in the Educational Researcher, Volume 15, issue 2, pp. 4-14

Shulman, L., (1987), “Knowledge and teaching: Foundations of the new reform” in the Harvard Educational Review, Volume 57, issue 1, pp. 1-22

About johntomsett

Headteacher in York. All views are my own.
This entry was posted in Research, School Leadership, Teaching and Learning. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to This much I know about…subject specific pedagogy

  1. ijstock says:

    In some ways it is easier to say what it is not – and that is the assumption that all subjects are fundamentally the same because it’s all just teaching really. I always opposed the concept of linear progression because I just could not see how it could work in a multivariate thinking environment such ss the humanities. It was only when I first observed and then taught a little maths that it suddenly became obvious how it was supposed to work. I came to the conclusion that NC levels must have been devised by or for specific core skills like numeracy and perhaps literacy – but that humanities and arts were closed books to those who had done so. Conversations with several senior maths teachers about this left me with the impression they had not the first idea how much difficulty what was second nature to them was causing in some other subject areas. And then I realised equally that my objections were also subject(s) specific. At that point I concluded that subject specificity is a far deeper and more ingrained part of teaching than I had realised, or than others appeared still to realise, and that we meddle in each other’s fields at our peril. It also highlights the grave risks of using non-specialist teachers.

  2. ijstock says:

    I offer a more complete response to this at: https://ijstock.wordpress.com/2018/05/08/reinventing-the-wheel/

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s