I used to work for a headteacher who was fond of saying “We’re teachers of children, not teachers of subjects.” This was justification for having non-specialist teachers in certain shortage subjects. Like any axiom, there’s some truth in this statement: teaching children is an art unto itself. There’s definitely a case to be made for the fact that I might do a better job of teaching a maths lesson than a random maths graduate. My years of teaching experience mean that I’m well-versed in the essentials of persuading teenagers to sit down and do some work instead of snap-chatting each other. And being a reasonably intelligent chap, I can puzzle out the basics from a text book. The maths graduate may well be full to bursting with juicy mathematical goodness but not know one end of a whiteboard pen from the other. Putting someone who merely knows their subject in front of a roomful of surly teenagers is no one’s idea of a good thing.
But then no one in their right mind would want me to teach their child maths either. Although I have the skills to make them behave and look busy, I just don’t know very much about maths beyond the basics. I would have very little idea of where they were likely to make mistakes or what to do about it even if I did. But, give me a Shakespeare play or some Romantic poetry and I’m in my pomp. I have a vast reserve of knowledge which means that not only do I know my subject, I know how best to explain tricky concepts, anticipate the mistakes pupils are likely to make and know how and when to intervene to prevent them making them. I have what is sometimes referred to as pedagogical content knowledge: understanding how students (mis)understand. Clearly it is desirable that students are taught English by someone like me.
Having said that, when I taught AS level English Language I struggled. My knowledge of the subject was way too shallow and I lacked the understanding to explain anything beyond the confines of the course I had laboriously planned. I learned an awful lot along the way and, had I continued, I would have become better. But this was not an ideal situation. Teaching is no more a transferable skill than critical thinking.
I’m hoping that nothing I’ve said as yet is too controversial, but just in case let me reiterate: it is preferable that students are taught by subject specialists.
All of this is apropos of a tweet that appeared in my timeline earlier today:
I am in no way impugning [name removed on request]‘s ability to teach. I have every reason to believe he is an excellent teacher. But he’s a law graduate and a trained citizenship teacher. So why is he teaching English? Because his head teacher asked him to take over an SEN class. I realise that schools are often forced to make tough decisions and the fact that this is happening mid way through a year speaks of some sort of unforeseen mishap and that this is an eventuality which, in an ideal world, would have been avoided. But I think this is symptomatic of a belief that good teachers can teach anything.
Why is this problematic? Well, leaving aside the fact that it tends to be lower ability groups which end up with non-specialists for a moment, it reveals the lack of regard in which subject knowledge is held. Although there are very few people willing to argue that subject knowledge is irrelevant, there are some content to offer such foolishness as this:
Hands up, who wants belly dancing lessons?
Aren’t we teachers because we have something to teach?
There are very many who are happy to point out that subject knowledge is relatively less important than the skill of building relationships or managing behaviour. Who knows, maybe they’re right? It’s a fool’s game to attempt weighing and measuring such imponderables. Certainly, if you’re expected to teach teenagers in a school with low expectations of students’ behaviour then you’ll need to acquire a whole raft of techniques and gimmicks in order to survive.
My point is this: the same people who claim that you can teach successfully without subject knowledge will also tell you that the debate about the relative importance of knowledge and skills is a false dichotomy and should therefore be dismissed as tedious and trivial.
For me, this debate has been crucial to my developing understanding of teaching and learning. Through discussion I have arrived at a carefully considered view of what is most likely to help students learn. The fact that some folk disagree with me is entirely right and proper; the world is big enough to contain more than just my opinion. I don’t really care what anyone else believes: as long as your position is sufficiently considered I’m prepared to trust that you’re doing your best. The point of debate is to exchange ideas, sharpen our wits and open ourselves to the possibility that there might be something that we don’t already know. Who among us is so full of hubris that they want to stake out this territory?
The belief that a good teacher can teach anything reveals that the trivialisation of subject knowledge is alive and well and doing business in a school near you. Is this belief wrong? Well, yes, that’s certainly my opinion. I’m more than happy for you to call me a fool and a charlatan, but for that to happen we’d have to allow that the skills/knowledge debate is still worth having, if only for you demonstrate how and why I’m wrong.
So, can a good teacher teach anything well? The consensus seems to be: up to a point. A good teacher should have the nous to make a decent fist of teaching any subject up Year 6. Maybe they can also do a good job up to Key Stage 3. But to teach subjects up to and beyond GCSE we need to know an awful lot beyond the curriculum we’re covering to truly do our students a good service.
Shaun Allison sums it up for me: