Recently there has been much discussion about developing subject knowledge. This series of posts explores why it matters, and my thinking about how to develop subject knowledge in my department. The first post outlines why it is important for developing curriculum, the second is the principles that are guiding my thinking. This post uses these reflections to evaluate different approaches that I have seen advocated recently.

Subject knowledge has not always been a priority for schools in teacher development. This problem stems from changes to the ITT model as John Howsam has shown in his analysis of the Clark review in the 1990s Kenneth Clarke cut time in teacher training to allow more time in schools. Inevitably with less time universities had to reduce the time spent developing subject knowledge. However, this only explains why subject knowledge was neglected in the training phase, a more relevant question is why the development of knowledge has not been a focus for schools. Mark Enser has written about why subject knowledge has been neglected by school as part of their CPD provision. One of the most convincing reasons he gives for the lack of attention to it is that the focus on discovery learning and a movement away from teacher expertise towards card sorts and other gimmicks meant that subject knowledge fell by the wayside. As Enser states: ‘the idea of teachers being experts in their subject has been unfashionable. When I started teaching I was often told that I wasn’t a geography teacher, just a teacher. I was also told that my job wasn’t to impart knowledge but to guide pupils towards discovering and constructing knowledge themselves. If you accept this then you don’t need to develop a teacher’s knowledge.’ While there has still yet to be a complete paradigm shift across all of education on the value of using time to develop subject knowledge there has been a lot more discussion on the need for systematic or a curriculum for teacher development. This post is a contribution to this reflection and discussion and will look at some of the current methods encouraged to develop subject knowledge.

This focuses on strategies to develop the knowledge of history. As Kate Jones has shown with her TPACCK model of teacher knowledge and that  teacher development requires knowledge of different domains including pedagogical knowledge, technological knowledge, and cognitive knowledge.

These are important in history we are fortunate to have the incredible Historical Association and Teaching History that has a wealth of discussion on history education to draw upon, similarly the cognitive science turn is another area that we need both knowledge and understanding in. Particularly if we want to avoid tokenistic application of these principles as part of a non-negotiable tick box culture. As Zoe Enser has said ‘for some it risks becoming either a stick to beat them with, a performance to put on or a checklist of a rigid idea of teaching.’ If we want to avoid a reductive application of the current pedagogical developments we need a deep understanding of why and how to apply these principles and this needs to be developed equally in a systematic way.

Approach 1: Read more history books

This is a commonly advocated strategy to developing subject knowledge. The argument goes like this to develop subject knowledge teachers just need to read more about their subject. Certainly, a culture of literacy is one to be encouraged and reading has benefits that go beyond developing subject knowledge with a greater appreciation of literacy will permeate through the school. Surely this means all I need to do is to encourage the department to read more, use the CPD budget to establish a departmental library, assign staff books to read and then discuss them in meetings and the staff room. Micheal Fordham has described such an idyllic culture of reading in his formative first years teaching. As he describes it:

“Giles had us reading books on a frequent basis and then using these to design our schemes of work. I remember us spending a happy summer reading up on the Spanish Civil War before introducing it as a new A-Level option. The department read about the Zulu Wars, Bismarck’s Germany and Cromwell’s Protectorate. Subject knowledge oozed through everything we did… It was considered normal and desirable to walk into the department and find someone sat down reading a book, usually with a pot of very strong coffee nearby.”

The focus on reading is also part of the exceptional ITT programme at Cambridge. The Cambridge PGCE has a very extensive reading list that trainees have to read before they start the course. This includes 10 novels, 13 teaching history articles, and several other books.

However alluring reading more as a strategy is to the bibliophile in me I have some concerns about it as a strategy. The reading of the Cambridge PGCE while it is possible for someone training or at the beginning of a career it is limited in its accessibility for those who do not have time outside of school to read as extensively as they might like to. Can every teacher read that many books? This makes it difficult to use as a departmental strategy to develop subject knowledge as it depends upon teachers using a significant amount of time to read. As Fordham has noted in his description of his department: ‘We were a very young team, with most of us in our early to mid 20s, and we did not have our own children to rush home for.’ It simply is not an accessible strategy for everyone in the great diverse community of history teachers.

Furthermore, while I want to cultivate a culture of reading to dictate that teachers read certain books, or even that they should read any history book does not seem to be the way to encourage this to grow. Even if Matt Stanford has made a convincing argument that having a teacher read history books is a reasonable performance management target. Call me an idealist but I want my team to be reading history out of a love of the subject and a desire to learn more rather than because they have been told to.

Issue 1: Time

The biggest concern I have with using ‘read more’ as a strategy to develop subject knowledge is that it is a time-intensive process. Let’s say that I decide to develop my subject knowledge on American history if I read 6 books about it. That is 60 hours of reading (This is taking the average reading speed of 250 words per minute, and average book length of 100,000 words) and will result in understanding only 0.0001% of the literature on that topic (The American civil war alone has 60,000 books written on it). This is focusing just on the secondary literature let alone the vast amount of primary sources that could be read as well. Using the principles it fails to meet the principle of sustainability and effectiveness. To read this level is not manageable over a career and more importantly is only going to provide a tiny fragment of knowledge.

Recently the scholarship turn has resulted in schemes of work that use academic books as the foundation for the enquiries. This is certainly a good move and one that should be encouraged but it raises the question of how sustainable reading to gain the subject knowledge to support it is. Jacob Olivey has shown an ambitious curriculum that is based on historical scholarship. His idea is that each enquiry is based on a history book.

Just to read the 30 books he has listed as part of his curriculum would take 200 hours if they were read from cover to cover (this is not the best way to read and maybe at some point I will put together a guide to more efficient ways to read). Where is this time to come from? We certainly don’t have the luxury of time to do it within school directed time so this time must be done in our own time. This is just to gain the knowledge for the curriculum. That level of reading across a whole curriculum would be excessive and not feasible for a teacher to achieve. Let alone if we want to develop knowledge to expand the curriculum to make it more diverse and global. It would not be sustainable or accessible. Not every teacher has those books and it’s a significant investment for a CPD library.

Issue 2: Choice of books to read

There are more books published then any one individual can ever read in their lifetime. This means that we have to make decisions about what we are going to read. To demonstrate: The American Civil War has 60,000 books written on the subject. The Norman Conquest 90,000. The British Library has 1.9 million history books. With so many books to read it is difficult to decide what to read. While the Historical Association has created a reading list to help in this choice it is still important to remember that in choosing one book we are prioritising that book over others as Pierre Bayard has observed: “The act of picking up and opening a book masks the countergesture that occurs at the same time: the involuntary act of not picking up and not opening all the other books in the universe.” (Pierre Bayard, How to Talk about Books you Haven’t Read, p. 6) In reading we are also at the same time not reading.

This difficulty in choosing what to read is more pronounced with subjects and topics that we already have limited knowledge of. As the Duning-kruger effect  explains “if one lacks such knowledge and intelligence, one remains ignorant that one is not good at that task.” If we have no knowledge already of that period how can we make informed decisions on what to read. If I know nothing on early modern South American history how can I make a decision about what to read about this? How can I determine which books of all that have been written are the ones that would be most beneficial to read? This means that we could be choosing books that have little use or beyond our ability.

To demonstrate this difficulty in choosing books allow me to take a small diversion to engage in some literary theory. The literary theorist Franco Moretti in his article ‘The Slaughterhouse of literature’ expressed his frustration with the canon of literary texts and the devotion given to them. His argument is that to understand a literary genre the answer cannot be to just read more books:

“Knowing two hundred novels is already difficult. Twenty thousand? How can we do it, what does “knowledge” mean, in this new scenario? One thing for sure: it cannot mean the very close reading of very few texts.”

As with literature so with history. With such a vast body of books, media, and representations of the past. Knowledge for a history teacher cannot simply be reading a handful of history books and gaining subject knowledge cannot just be reading more.

As Julia Kristeva and Roland Barthes reminded us texts are a tissue of quotations that draw upon the entirety of literature to give them meaning and connection. To consider only a parochial fraction of this literature is to miss out on the vast range of connections and relationships between texts. A big part of history is understanding the historical debates between historians in reading just one book it is difficult to see and understand this debate.

Issue 3: Quality of knowledge

It is possible that the benefits of this investment makes it worthwhile as a strategy. However, as Matt Stanford has pointed out its not always clear exactly how a book will help with teaching as he says: ‘if you are reading a history book, you probably don’t know what it says. So how do you know it is going to help you?’ If we don’t know much about the topic and pick books there is a risk that we will read books that don’t have the quality of knowledge we need, or if they do we don’t have the background knowledge required to be able to understand it. For instance Ian Hackings Historical Ontology while fascinating to look at how historical concepts are constructed depends on an understanding of social construction and a familiarity with the work of Foucault to get the most from it. It is also not obvious that reading a book will mean that we actually gain knowledge from it. The difference between reading a book and understanding it still applies to teachers as well as students. We can all think of times when a student has read something but not actually understood the words they read. Perhaps, this is less a concern about the quality of knowledge but more about the level of understanding from reading more.

Issue 4: Retention

The reality is that most of what we read we forget. Think of the last book you read how much of it to you actually remember? The chances are the broad narrative and major points you might remember but what it said on pages 112-115 you won’t remember. The key characters and places you may remember but what they said will most likely escape your memory. Add more books to this and the problem only becomes exponential. As an example the other day I picked up a book to read convinced that I had never read it, inside I found a wealth of annotations and highlighted passages that I had made at some point. I had obviously read the book at some point but didn’t remember it. I could talk about the book as I knew generally what it was about but the details that obviously had made an impression on me when I first read it had gone. No reader is impervious to the process of forgetting a book, not even the most vociferous and sharp minded people can retain all that they have read. The philosopher Montaigne spoke of this when he said that

“It is no great wonder if my book follows the fate of other books, and if my memory lets go of what I give as of what I receive.”(Montaigne, Essays, p. 494)

Montaigne was aware that most of what he read, and even what he wrote he would eventually forget. Because we forget most of what we read, when we talk about books we have to create an imagined book to talk about. We have to build up what we think it was about and all of these imaginary books we reconstruct in our minds are different each time – as they are built out of a few fragments that we have found from the ocean of memories oblivion. This is comforting for those of us, who have not read everything in the English literary canon as it means that even the most confident and erudite individuals that we know are really only talking about the few fragments that they can remember of a book, which is often very little. This means that reading a whole book from cover to cover is a very inefficient way of gaining knowledge as we will simply forget most of it.

So while I think a culture of literacy and reading should be promoted as a strategy to develop subject knowledge for CPD I don’t think that ‘reading more’ is the most effective, accessible, or sustainable way to achieve it. Certainly we should be reading more but as a way to develop subject knowledge perhaps it’s not the most effective way to do so.

Approach 2: Use textbooks to develop our knowledge

If reading more history books is not the best way to develop knowledge it is possible that we could just have teachers read textbooks to gain knowledge. Alex Ford in his reflection on his training  was told “Don’t worry too much about your subject knowledge,” I was advised by one senior member of staff during my training year “just make sure you are two pages ahead in the textbook.” 

There are three main concerns that I have with this as a strategy:

Issue 1: Entrenches tradition

Textbooks are written to sell copies and they sell best when they contain information that teachers are familiar with and already know. I have hundreds of textbooks on my shelfs at home from the past 30 years. Looking through them they often follow traditional topics. A notable exception is the Understanding History textbook that includes a wide variety of topics not usually contained in textbooks. The thematic study of the history of water for example is a really interesting topic. That is not to say all textbooks follow the well worn path of Normans-Henry-Hitler but that if we are trying to broaden our knowledge they are not going to be the best source of information.

Issue 2: Depth of knowledge

Textbooks are written to help students learn not to help teachers learn. This means that they are unable to give teachers the depth of knowledge that they need to support the teaching of it. If all I know of a topic is what is in the textbook it puts severe limitations on my ability to explain or address misconceptions. Of course we could read textbooks for a level higher than we are teaching GCSE textbooks for KS3, A-level textbooks for GCSE. This seems like a straightforward strategy for quickly understanding what we are teaching but if we want to broaden our knowledge textbooks might not be the best way to do so. A more broader concern is that we do not know what is the basis for the interpretation that the textbook is given them. They understandably do not come with a set of footnotes in which we can trace the reading and research that they did to support the view they present.

Issue 3: Lag between textbooks and academic developments

Like any change or development it takes time for it to be adopted. Academic research and developments do not immediately flow from its ivory towers into a lesson on Friday afternoon with 9B. A notable exception to this is Geoffrey Parker’s Global Crisis. This book linked global changes in the early modern period to a little ice age and looked at how the weather impacted life. This was published in 2013 in the most recent Making Sense of History this work had already been integrated into the textbook with an excellent section that looked at the little ice age as part of an enquiry into what can statistics tell us about a period. Another example is Kauffman’s work on Black Tudors while this has quickly been incorporated into schemes of work, it will take time for this to be integrated into textbooks. Using textbooks to develop knowledge risks embedding outdated ideas and interpretations of the past. History is constantly being rewritten to take into account new developments using textbooks to develop our knowledge would miss out on this dynamic of history. As a strategy it does not provide us with powerful knowledge to really deepen our knowledge, or broaden our horizons so is not effective. This is not to say it should be rejected but the limitations of how they can be used and when they should be used should be explicit. Textbooks are useful for a non-specialist but we also need to think carefully about what textbooks we are using. Are they relevant and contemporary.

Approach 3: Structure Departments around subject specialisms

This approach is that to make it manageable teachers within a department develop expertise in certain periods or topics. They in turn will teach the rest of the department and keep us fresh in our knowledge.

Issue 1: Coherence

The biggest concern I have with a division of labour is the coherence that we would get from it. It would be possible to have a fragmented knowledge made of flotsam and jetsom. if I don’t already have a solid background knowledge being taught something unfamiliar would be difficult as I would struggle to integrate it. For this to be effective teachers would need to have a solid foundation on which this expertise they are taught from other teachers could be hung onto. There is also a risk of consistency Teacher A may spend time pouring through academic journals and monographs to become an expert while Teacher B picks up a copy of Simon Schama to read and Teacher C reads through a few Wikipedia entries. This would compromise how effective it is.

Issue 2: Scale

As a strategy this works in a large department in which the work can be shared out across a variety of staff. In smaller departments it is still going to result in a significant amount of time needed as more topics would need to be learned and become experts on.

Issue 3: Feasability

Ideally this would work best when spread across a network of schools. Across such a large body there would be staff who had existing expertise in a wide range of areas that could be tapped into to enhance everyone else. This is one area in which I think MAT’s have an advantage as it would be possible for each school to be responsible for developing expertise in a certain area. This presents logistical challenges for those not in a MAT and within a MAT it requires leadership that can coordinate this but also time for departments to meet to learn from each other. With departmental time a precious commodity that is constantly being encroached upon the potential for this to work is limited as I am not sure how willing Middle leaders would be to sacrifice it to attend a MAT CPD meeting.

However, as a strategy I think that developing a systematic network of specialists that can teach each other within a department and across schools is an idea that has a lot of traction. It would be sustainable as the work is shared and has the potential to be effective and all could access it. For it to be effective would require clear parameters on what constituted expertise (no teaching Henry VIII for 20 years does not automatically an expert make) and also a system for how to keep track of experts and additionally teachers would need to have the time to teach each other. In my planning for developing subject knowledge this is an approach that I will use in some form.

Approach 4: Listen to Podcasts and watch documentaries.

If books are limited because they take up a significant amount of time. Maybe we could use podcasts or watch documentaries. For instance Jacob Olivey has created In Our Time database that collates various episodes and groups them into themes. There is a wide range of excellent podcasts and documentaries. Some of the concerns about these are similar to those listed above about reading more. Namely: do teachers have sufficient knowledge to get the most from listening to them? How can they be used systematically? Podcasts sometimes also do not give a full coverage of a topic or are pitched at a high level. Recently I listened to the one on the American West and while it was interesting it only covered it broadly and in some cases the Academics assumed a greater knowledge of their listeners.

As a strategy this seems to be one that would be best to enhance a systematic way to enhance subject knowledge. I love podcasts and often listen to them when running or walking but I can’t think of way in which a plan could be made to fully use them.

Approach 6: Subject Association and Polychronica

In History we are very fortunate to have the Historical Association. They have a wealth of resources and Teaching History is one of the most useful magazines to develop an understanding of history education. The Polychronica feature is particularly useful as it provides a short synopsis on an event or part of history and the debate or developments that have happened recently. However, I have found that Polychronica varies between issues in its style and relevance. Like podcasts and documentaries I feel this is something that can enhance a plan to develop subject knowledge but on its own would not be sufficient.

From thinking about these different ways to develop subject knowledge here are my main points that I have come to realise about developing subject knowledge:

  1. It can not be just reading more
  2. Textbooks are useful for immediate basic knowledge but not for deepening and broadening our subject knowledge.
  3. Needs to be able to give background knowledge that will make further learning and reading stick
  4. If developing knowledge is divided amongst staff there needs to be both a clear parameter of what is expected and a way (and time) in which to share this knowledge
  5. Podcasts and documentaries are difficult to use systematically but would work well to enhance knowledge.
  6. Needs to utilise the Historical Association and the wealth of resources that they have created.

The next post will outline my plan and how I plan to use departmental time to develop subject knowledge.

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