The knowledge question

The recent post by teachingbattleground, centred on the arguments around a knowledge-based curriculum reminded me that, while nobody – surely – is arguing that we should not teach children knowledge, it might be timely to explore what we mean by teacher knowledge.

There has always been a narrative around the skills (knowledge? art? craft?) of teaching and, since I frequently get invited to provide CPD in this sphere, I find it helpful to link thinking to the Teachers’ Standards. As a teacher trainer, I often refer trainees to the old QCDA fourfold explanation of teacher knowledge because it sits quite well with aspects of the 2012 standards.

Teachers’ Standard 3 has three key elements: secure subject knowledge, critical understanding of developments in the subject and the personally correct use of English. The two other aspects relate to knowledge of phonics and early maths teaching. Add to this the expectation, in Standard 2, that teachers should know how children learn and we can now see that the QCDA fourfold explanation is a helpful model. This states explains teacher knowledge as:

  • Subject knowledge per se;
  • Pedagogical theory and practice;
  • Understanding how children learn; and
  • The teacher’s own attitudes to learning.

So, this means that teachers and trainee teachers, must pay particular attention to:

  • Their own subject knowledge and its application so that they teach accurately and in sufficient depth.
  • The way that children learn in order to present material that can be quickly assimilated.
  • The effectiveness of the pedagogies they employ so that material can be effectively deconstructed and presented conceptually.
  • Their own openness to key ideas about teaching and learning so that they do not limit their teaching by what is familiar to them.

If the re-think of the national curriculum and its assessment did anything, it moved the focus away from what the outgoing HMCI once called, ‘a stultifying methodology’ towards a more simple view of ‘what works’ and, as Sir Michael pointed out, ‘what’s good is what works’.  We are still waiting for many headteachers to catch up with this and move away from the straitjacket of WALT, WILF, or whatever set methodology they expect. Improve teachers’ fourfold subject knowledge and we should not need the straitjacket.







Some thoughts about Pedagogy

The teaching profession is, quite rightly, re-engaging with the art of teaching (or, perhaps its a craft… or then again, a science). The philosophy behind the new national curriculum for England (for which we need to put aside the political ideology that lurks there too) is that it is not for external agencies such as Ofsted to tell us how to teach, but that schools and teachers should be able to make their own decisions about this.  It’s taking some inspectors, advisers and school leaders a while to catch up to this thinking but there is sense underlying all this. It has long been a concern that, while a one-year teacher training programme enables trainee teachers to serve what is effectively an apprenticeship, such programmes tend to be light on theory.  Compare this with, for example, the Finnish system where teaching requires a 5-year master’s level preparation. That gives plenty of time for deep study of theory and praxis.

I have so far avoided using the term ‘pedagogy’, not because I do not value it but because a paper that I read recently has made me think about what we really mean. In this piece, by Mark K Smith, the writer explores the origins of pedagogy and, in doing so, asks some interesting questions. Smith points out that the paidagogos of ancient Greece had a much wider role than simply teaching. Rather than simply transmitting knowledge, the paidogogos was responsible for the student’s behaviour and moral development. I remember, years ago, reading this in The Teacher by E B Castle and I’d lost that sense of wrap-around development of the child in my own narrowing sense of pedagogy.

Smith makes the very good point that, when we speak of pedagogy today, we really mean ‘teaching’. Strictly speaking, ‘teaching’ is didactics. The didaskoulos of Ancient Greece was a mere employee; the trusted Paidogogos – albeit usually a slave – a member of the household.

So maybe it helps us to separate out pedagogy from didactics. When we are looking at ways to teach, that’s didactics, but when we’re looking at the whole child, that’s pedagogy.  I realise that’s not going to change much, but it helps me to be clear in my mind. As part of work that I do with trainee teachers I ask, ‘tell us about a great teacher that you remember’ and, interestingly, they will almost invariably talk about a teacher whose personal characteristics, whose infectious enthusiasm for their subject, whose care of their students and their learning lit some kind of fire for them. W B Yeats said that ‘education is the lighting of a fire’ and that seems to be a product of pedagogy, rather than dry didactics. In the NFER ‘Mapping of Seminal Reports on Good Teaching’ (Rowe et al 2012), the three key areas were teaching environment, teaching approaches and teacher characteristics. Maybe the first two are didactics but the third is definitely pedagogy.

Find Mark K Smith’s paper on InfoEd at