Ask the Experts

We asked our Subject Specialist Associate Consultants one question. “How do you encourage Trainees to develop their subject knowledge?” Here is what they told us;

Dr Kelly Richens – Secondary Biology

Running through the heart of great teachers are two main themes: the desire to want to make a difference, and a passion for a subject. Whilst this may be more defined in our secondary trainees who specialise in a particular subject, it is also true of primary trainees. But even the most passionate historian or scientist will have areas they are confident in and those they will be terrified to stand up and deliver as they have not covered since they themselves were in school. In addition, every subject has not only depth, but huge breadth and scope: it is impossible for trainees to learn, alongside everything else that goes with being a teacher, their whole subject. So, a forensic approach to subject knowledge is needed: this will begin with audits at interview where trainees can reflect on their weaker areas and discuss what they can do pre-commencement of training. This can take many forms:

  1. Subject knowledge enhancement courses when possible
  2. Provision of materials and resources (e.g. signposting Seneca/BBC Bitesize/National Curriculum/Exam specifications/Oak Academy)

The next phase is to work hard with our partnership schools to obtain their subject curriculum maps for years 7-11. These subject curriculum maps are hyperlinked into our trainees’ Professional Development Records (essentially a spreadsheet). With access to the curriculum maps, and guidance from our Subject specialists, trainees can zoom in on what they are likely to be teaching as it arises and so can focus their subject knowledge acquisition on these areas. For example, our science trainees will be told to look at year 7 cells/atoms as these two topics are covered in all our schools in the first term. There is no point this trainee working on organic chemistry as this would not be covered until year 11, whom they will not be teaching in the immediacy. Trainees thus set themselves weekly subject knowledge targets which are tracked in their spreadsheet. These targets are purposeful because they will be teaching these topics in the next weeks, and also allow the principles of Rosenshine to be applied to the trainee themselves: introducing new material in small steps to prevent cognitive overload. Trainees are encouraged to think deeply around this new subject knowledge and to be aware of misconceptions and how to address them, something weak subject knowledge does not permit.

So, whilst there are different areas of subject knowledge the trainees are taking responsibility for depending on their schools, they also meet weekly with our subject specialists to cover broader themes, for example how to teach poetry, or how to do excellent formative assessment in P.E., or how to conduct practical work safely in science.

Furthermore, trainees have learning from their expert colleagues within their schools to learn from and acquire subject knowledge, whether that be through observations, working with technicians, or being signposted to in-school resources.

Having excellent subject knowledge across all disciplines of a subject can take years, in fact I don’t think you ever stop learning and this is another attraction of the job. To reflect this, and in summary, we take a focussed approach to subject knowledge acquisition addressing those topics that are coming up first.

Vicky Gould – Primary English

There are no short cuts for acquiring pedagogical content knowledge. Initially, trainees will learn from mentors and tutors and by observing experienced practitioners. Later, they will develop greater awareness through discussion, reading widely and reflecting on their own and others’ practice. It is imperative that trainees recognise that secure subject knowledge and understanding is the foundation of confident, creative and effective teaching. As teachers of subjects, trainees need to develop an understanding of vital subject content, how to sequence it over time, and what misconceptions pupils are likely to develop and how to overcome them. The starting point is a self-audit of subject knowledge which enables the trainee to see what they can do and identifies gaps. This in turn will create an overt awareness. From this, they should be able to identify their individual needs as part of their training programme and this process should be frequent and on-going.

I would argue strongly that what we teach (the subject content) is too often overshadowed by how we teach (pedagogy). Good pedagogy isn’t necessarily generic, as the nature of the content of a subject has much bearing on how that content is taught.  It has to be said that research into the application of cognitive science in the teaching of primary English as a subject discipline is limited. But, we need to arm our trainees with a thorough understanding of the principles and give them concrete examples for them to evaluate techniques and revisit so that they truly believe in it. A useful book for trainee teachers is written by Kelly Woodford-Richens; ‘Using Cognitive Science in the Classroom’. 

 Social media has certainly made developing subject knowledge easier than ever, with communities of teachers willing to share resources, discuss teaching difficult concepts and help those new to the profession. There are subject specialist groups on Facebook but it is Twitter where you tend to find the most immediate support. Most subjects have their own hashtags, such as #TeamEnglish, and many have their own dedicated group chat sessions where questions are posed by a moderator and conversations are followed with a shared and searchable hashtag.

3 top tips I would share with trainees:

  • Plan in time to develop your subject knowledge in the same way you would set aside time for marking or developing resources. Don’t feel guilty about this time – the research shows that little else will improve your teaching as much.
  • Join a subject association and make the most of their resources and training opportunities. Many departments have a group membership but they are often underused. Nate is an excellent platform for up-to-date information, research and training opportunities.
  • Look for a wider community of teachers on social media, at conferences and at TeachMeets and join in. Ask lots of questions and share your own ideas.

Kit Rackley – Secondary Geography

While subject knowledge audits are very helpful and give trainees an indication of their level of confidence in various subject matter, I always caution that knowledge doesn’t necessarily equal the ability to apply or pass on that knowledge in the maximum accessible manner. For example, while I specialised in meteorology and climate as an undergraduate, I found teaching weather and climate very challenging! So not only would I say, yes, of course read books and articles, subscribe to blogs written by geography teachers, but also I would engage in networks whether that be with fellow ECTs or a regional network of geography teachers, and discuss and explore the different ways subject knowledge can be taught. Learning with your students is also a fantastic way to do this – try things out with them, and don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure” and design the lesson in a way that allows you to explore with the students.

Sarah Vaughan – Primary Computing

It is important for trainees to be aware of the wealth of free support and resources available to help improve their subject knowledge. Barefoot computing offer free workshops to support computational thinking, programming and early years. Computing at Schools offer a range of free webinars hosted by experienced teachers. Social media resources such as Twitter and #caschat are a great place to start alongside the primary Facebook group ‘Primary Computing Coordinators UK’. Using resources that already exist can also help develop subject knowledge such as the Teach Computing units from the National Centre for Computing Education which have detailed sections in their lessons to discuss the subject knowledge needed and references for further support if needed.  Further support can also be found by subscribing to the free Hello World subscription or downloading the free Quick Start Computing guide.

Kirsty Wilcockson – Secondary Music

I encourage trainees to develop their subject knowledge of Music by:

  • Linking up with other music professionals. Although it is often the case that music trainees work in small departments, can they create a network with other music trainees, other local music teachers in different schools, instrumental teachers or other forums online? Can they make a link with their local music hub to access further support? If this isn’t possible, can they still make or listen to live music during their training year?
  • Engaging with relevant online articles. For example, on Music Teacher magazine.
  • Exploring an aspect of music that they don’t feel comfortable with. For example, can they start to learn an instrument that is unfamiliar to them, can they explore online resources to become more proficient at composing or improvising; to appreciate how it feels to be a ‘novice’ learner.
  • Engaging with music pedagogy that they might have not been familiar with? Can they look at reading around Kodaly, Dalcroze, Orff or ‘Simultaneous Learning’ by Paul Harris. Exploring these ideas will allow trainees to develop a greater understanding of how young people develop the most basic understanding of music skills and how this can be effectively built on.

Helen Ostell – Primary and Secondary Physical Education

Beyond core training I would encourage trainees to  observe experts in their placement schools, share practice with peers, follow identified practitioners on twitter, attend NNL sessions, read, and if possible join the professional association for their subject.   I would expect them to use their subject knowledge audits as working documents to continually review and develop their subject knowledge.

Susan Ogier – Primary Art and Design

It is so important for trainees and teachers to continually develop their personal subject knowledge in art and design whether they are passionate about the subject and are aiming to become a subject leader of the future, or whether they are at the other end of the spectrum and are nervous or worried about teaching art. I encourage trainees to relax and find their inner creative self by trying a range of processes for themselves, and working in an open-ended way – without imposing a set of prescribed outcomes for themselves – or for the children. I encourage them to engage with the world of arts and culture, by visiting museums and galleries,  and to be open to new ideas for trying in the classroom. I would also advocate that Trainees become familiar with terms and language that are unique to learning and participating in Art and Design, which will really help with building confidence in talking to the children about art, and about their artworks.

Tim Bold – Secondary Physics

This has several aspects:

  • there is the development of their own knowledge of the subject, particularly if they are teaching off-specialism (e.g. biologists teaching physics, which is expected at least KS3 and often at KS4).
    I have a complete list of what they are expected to know up to GCSE and references for them to follow to find information. I have attempted to find the most user friendly, readable texts for this and we have regular checks for them to show what they have done to update knowledge based on a simple RAG system.
  • For their own subject knowledge, I set regular presentations of some aspect of the subject to the other trainees on our subject day get-togethers. Here they are to think about possible misconceptions and how they can be overcome. This encourages them to look at how the subject is received in the classroom.
  • I also encourage the collection of subject based anecdotes and wider reading – again, I tend to use anecdotes in my discussions with them and one of their observation tasks is to look at how experienced teachers use stories and historical facts in the lessons.

Lynn Welsh – Secondary Art and Design

A really useful way of encouraging trainees to improve their subject knowledge is to get them to teach a ‘skill’ to the rest of the cohort. At the beginning of the year our trainees complete a subject audit and skills gaps are identified. Each trainee then signs up to a skills based session of 1 hour long where they create resources, exemplars and teach the lesson to their fellow colleagues. This is a brilliant way of expanding subject knowledge as no artist is master at everything. If you are interested in finding out more I will be uploading some of the recordings of their training sessions to the TESN Secondary Art page over the next half term.

Harmeet Sahota – Secondary Computing

  1. Attend as many CPD sessions as you can, the NCCE regularly puts on fantastic free CPD for Computing teachers covering a wide range of areas.
  2. Look at historical controlled assessments and KS4 and KS5 past papers. By undertaking these assessments, you will understand the style that students are expected to write in and can often be different to what you may have done in University or the workplace.

Catherine Bickersteth – Primary History

Be curious about the past. Find a subject or individual in history that interests you, investigate the local history of the town, city or region in which you are teaching. When you can, visit historical sites, museums and exhibitions.

Use the Historical Association to access the huge range of resources, examples of schemes of work and CPD that they offer. You can join as an individual or your school might already have a membership that you can access. Follow organisations which can provide resources and also links to engage with research in history. For example, Schools History Project,  Black Cultural Archives and the Centre for Holocaust Education. Make sure that you carry out some reading and research to develop your knowledge of what it means to have an inclusive and broad history curriculum. Find out what decolonisation of curricula means in practice. Take a look at Diverse Educators website as a start

Have a look at the interactive timeline Our Migration Story: The Making of Britain.

Often there are inspiring individuals presenting television documentaries , podcasts or radio programmes which can really help you in understanding  concept or an aspect of a history topic.

Keep up to date with subject reports from the Dfe.

In school, look at how history is being taught in different age groups and at the range of techniques used.

Julia Mackintosh – Primary Geography

I encourage trainees to consider the development of their curriculum knowledge, knowledge of pedagogical approaches and how pupils learn, as well as the development of their subject knowledge per se. I advise them to engage fully with the geography subject associations: the Geographical Association (GA) and the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) in order to access the wide range of free resources and webinars designed to support teachers’ subject knowledge. I also encourage them to engage with expert colleagues in school.

To develop knowledge of the geography curriculum, I signpost the geography subject lead at their training school as an invaluable source of support. I suggest that trainees engage in a professional conversation, focusing on how the curriculum has been tailored to meet the needs of their school and to support progression. I also suggest looking at the unit plans produced by the RGS for KS1 and KS2 to provide a useful model for how to include the four threads of the geography National Curriculum when designing their own plans and units of work.

When developing trainees’ pedagogical knowledge, I tend to focus on subject-specific approaches such as fieldwork, the development of map skills and understanding of geographical enquiry. I have found that asking trainees to create resources to develop pupils’ locational knowledge, to design their own fieldwork activities or to create enquiry questions to structure learning, provides a reason and motivation for personal subject knowledge development. To refresh and extend trainees’ subject knowledge per se, I recommend purchasing topic-specific fact sheets from the GA’s ‘In the Know’ series and also accessing online resources from the Ordnance Survey as well as the RGS.

Matteo Sciberras – Primary Mathematics

In my experience, primary trainees often identify mathematics as the subject in which they have the least amount of confidence. We know that some primary trainees, much like the rest of the adult population, have had issues with maths anxiety, stemming from poor experiences studying the subject at school (Nuffield Foundation, 2019; Wicks, 2021). Moreover, with mathematics being a core subject which is typically taught daily in primary schools, developing trainees’ subject knowledge is, therefore, of fundamental importance. However, this is far from easy.

Although there are many free resources to improve teacher subject and curriculum knowledge in maths (e.g., past KS2 SATs papers, BBC Bitesize and CGP revision guides), these resources may simply replicate what trainees learnt when they were at school. This is potentially problematic: trainees whose maths subject knowledge lacks confidence may end up returning to a strictly procedural approach which helped them pass exams at school. By this I mean revisiting short cuts such as “divide by the denominator, multiply by the numerator” when finding fractions of amounts, or “keep, change, flip” when dividing fractions. According to Skemp (1976), adopting an ‘instrumental’ approach to mathematics, where the focus is on rules, procedures and correct answers, may limit depth of understanding; instead, a ‘relational’ approach is needed so that learners can make connections and apply concepts to other problems. As such, an over-reliance on repeating KS2 SATs papers or revision guides may lead trainees down the same rabbit hole where they become fixated on rules, procedures and correct answers, possibly even returning to those feelings of panic or anxiety that they experienced as students. Importantly, these trainees may fail to understand that, as a discipline, mathematics isn’t always about the correct answer; it’s a process, a way of thinking and reasoning.

So what are the best options available for primary trainees to improve their maths subject knowledge? First, a full audit of their subject knowledge would help. It might be that there are significant gaps in a trainee’s subject knowledge in fractions or division or converting between units of measure. To make their development as focused as possible, trainees need to know what they don’t know.

Second, take advantage of some excellent (and free!) resources that the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics (NCETM) has to offer. For example, their series of Checkpoints resources, although designed for teachers of Y7 students, are a useful starting point to improving both subject and curriculum knowledge, with a focus on some of the more challenging aspects from the KS2 maths curriculum. The NCETM also offers a superb Primary Calculation Guidance document. Although individual primary schools may have their own calculation policy, this document is akin to a condensed, narrated calculation policy with an expert guiding you through its rationale. These documents, as well as many more from other maths subject associations, can really support primary trainees to improve their depth of understanding.

Third, primary trainees need to have the opportunity to see how experienced teachers plan lessons, particularly if this is a collaborative process with partner teachers. How do they pre-empt misconceptions? How do they draw out the small teaching points within a lesson? How do plan for children use target language? ITE providers should work with partner schools to ensure all trainees have the opportunity to learn how very best teachers approach lesson planning.

Finally, primary trainees need to ignite the mathematician within! One possible starting point could be the BBC’s superb documentary ‘The Story of Maths. The Language of the Universe’, which is available to watch on YouTube. Improving maths subject knowledge should be a career-long pursuit for all primary teachers and your ITT year is the ideal time to start this journey.

Helen Snelson – Secondary History

The way I do this is to weave it across the ITE year and to give the clear message that it is a career long process. You might have a master’s level knowledge of Stalin’s USSR, but that is only marginally helpful for teaching Year 12 about the reign of Elizabeth Tudor. Every history teacher falls short when it comes to subject topic knowledge.

But, I make this a joy. I assume people who want to spend many of their waking hours encouraging the sometimes unwilling to learn about the past must love learning and thinking about it themselves. Being a history nerd is fun, as well as being a professional responsibility. I need to model that to new teachers. I need to help them to develop an ‘any time, any place, anywhere’ approach. Topping up our history knowledge happens when we relax on the beach with a book, or when we listen to a podcasted discussion among historians while out for a run.

Their efforts also need a focus. Most beginning history teachers have an elephant sized knowledge gap. We need to eat the elephant one mouthful at a time and decide where to start. In both placements they RAG rate their subject knowledge in relation to the topics that are being taught in history for the duration of their placement. Then they make plans to tackle the reds and strengthen the ambers. I provide a ‘learning more history’ document to help them with ideas and remind them of the very many resources the HA provide to help them with this. I then comment on their audits, adding in ideas.

Of course, busy beginning teachers do not have time to read hefty academic books. However, it is not good enough to just read the textbook. Very few textbooks provide the sort of knowledge that a history teacher needs to teach a topic well. It is not their purpose. The list I provide is full of podcasts featuring historians, quality history documentaries and popular quality history books.

Mentors and other department teachers also help. We all try to create a climate of continued learning. It might be talking about a visit to a historic site over coffee, or all reading the History Teacher Book Group choice and taking part together.

And the peer group is really important. We all exchange info early on in the year about who can be tapped up for subject knowledge expertise for various topics. I organise a peer teaching session where everyone critiques approaches to a curriculum topic using their up to date knowledge from their degrees. We share this with partnership departments too.

Historians are also super keen to help and every year we take some time in the archives with ‘real’ historians to not only learn about their work, but to connect with the community of enquiry.

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