What’s important about subject knowledge?

I had the great pleasure to spend the day finding out about University Learning in Schools (ULiS); a two-year project investigating whether partnering up teachers and PhD research students could enhance KS3 teacher’s subject knowledge and raise pupil achievement in core subjects. I joined the science modules for the day, so everything I write here has a specific focus in that subject area. Michael Slavinsky (Director of the Brilliant club, one of the ULiS partners) charged us with the ‘homework’ of reflecting and helping to evaluate the project, so I look forward to perhaps other bloggers relating their experience of the English and Geography strands.

Sam Freedman started the event with an excellent keynote speech linking together the efforts to bring teaching into the era of evidence-based practice and the importance of subject knowledge. There’s a surprising amount of resistance to some of these ideas. Perhaps it’s become an almost reflex response for teachers to be suspicious of initiatives within education – let’s be frank, the track record hasn’t been great – but Freedman underlined some of the key ambitions behind the drive for evidence-based practice with a quote from Ben Goldacre:

“evidence based practice isn’t about telling teachers what to do: in fact, quite the opposite. This is about empowering teachers, and setting a profession free from governments, ministers and civil servants who are often overly keen on sending out edicts, insisting that their new idea is the best in town. Nobody in government would tell a doctor what to prescribe, but we all expect doctors to be able to make informed decisions about which treatment is best, using the best currently available evidence. I think teachers could one day be in the same position.”

One of the important areas for research has to be improving the quality and range of CPD and a serious review of workload so that teachers can effectively access such opportunities. Freedman referred to the recent TALIS survey as evidence of the extent of the problem in England.

“The average number of days that teachers in England report spending on professional development activities in the last 12 months is around half the number of days reported on average across TALIS countries.”

Teachers in England work more hours per week than the average in other TALIS countries, though this additional time appears to be spent mostly completing administration tasks. Whilst there are high participation rates for CPD in England, teachers have fewer days spent on professional development activities than the average and comparatively few opportunities for in-depth activities, such as those involving research or formal qualifications.

When teachers do undertake CPD, there is almost an exclusive focus on pedagogy and almost no development of subject knowledge. Most of the recent initiatives in education have been these ‘content free’ aspects of teaching. Part of the reason for this has been perhaps the ‘progressive’ drive away from subjects and towards the idea that pupils need generic skills and dispositions to succeed in education. I’ve written before about why some of this focus may be misguided; for instance that some of the skills we use lesson time to cultivate are primary abilities that children develop naturally anyway and that many of these soft-skills barely benefit from teaching focus.

Without getting back into that debate, it’s reasonable to say that subject knowledge has been taken for granted. To a great extent, once you qualify as a teacher, subject knowledge is rarely mentioned let alone the focus of any sustained professional development.

So, if we want to bring subject knowledge back into teacher development, what are the important aspects that will genuinely help our students? It appears that simply achieving a better classification to one’s degree or having a Masters is not a strong predictor of teacher effectiveness.

Subject knowledge appears necessary but not sufficient for quality teaching

Freedman referred to an interesting piece of recent research that might shed light on what it is about subject knowledge that helps teachers develop their practice.

Sadler et al (2013) The Influence of Teachers’ Knowledge on Student Learning in Middle School Physical Science Classrooms

(There’s a nice summary of some of the major implications of the research here for those who cannot access the article.)

This study examined the relationship between teacher knowledge and student learning across 181 middle schools in the US. The principle aim of the research was to explore the following question:

“Should a teacher have a deep knowledge of the subject matter, gleaned from college study, additional graduate courses, or even research experience? Or is it better if the teacher has an understanding of what students think? Is there some optimal combination of different types of knowledge?”

Whilst teachers are selected for training on the basis of qualifications within a specific subject, less emphasis is typically given to the particular science concepts, facts, and skills that teachers are charged with communicating to students. A key aspect of subject knowledge in science teaching is misconceptions. I’ve written before about the importance of identifying and correcting misconceptions within science; for example, here and here.

Sadler’s research is important because it explicitly focuses on the teachers’ knowledge of particular student misconceptions and the impact this has on student learning. They developed a set of assessment instruments to diagnose misconceptions before refining a list 20 items which demonstrated strong misconceptions amongst pupils. These related to key areas in the development of scientific understanding within physics and chemistry: Properties and changes in properties of matter, motions and forces and the transfer of energy.

Here’s an example of a strong misconception item used in the study:

Eric is watching a burning candle very carefully. After all of the candle has burned, he wonders what happened to the wax. He has a number of ideas; which one do you agree with most?

Only a minority of students (17%) agreed with the correct answer (The candle wax has turned into invisible gases) whilst the majority of pupils (59%) selected the response based on a misconception (All of the wax has melted and dripped to the bottom of the candle holder). Teachers were assessed for their subject matter knowledge (SMK) and their knowledge of student misconceptions (KoSM). Student performance was measured using pre-test and post-test scores conducted over the course of the school year.

The results are really interesting:

Students who had high maths and reading scores made consistently better gains than pupils with low scores, regardless of the qualities of the teacher. The researchers discuss this as an example of the ‘Matthew effect’.

For pupils with high maths and reading, the SMK of the teacher was an important influence in learning gains in areas of science where there were no major common misconceptions. But where misconceptions were present, it appears SMK wasn’t sufficient to raise pupil performance. Only when teachers had high SMK and KoSM were the test scores improved by any great margin.

For the students with low maths and reading scores, the results are a bit depressing. Teacher SMK appeared to help pupils make moderate gains in areas of science with no misconceptions, but in areas where there are common misconceptions, teacher SMK or SMK and KoSM appeared to have almost no benefit. The authors discuss a range of reasons why this might be. I wonder whether it may simply be that the reading comprehension required to access these ‘tricky’ areas of science needs to be developed prior to the teaching of these areas. Could we teach these aspects of science later in the KS3 sequence to allow children more time to develop their reading skill?

One aspect of the discussion stood out in light of the issue of subject CPD. It seems that we can’t tackle the issue of misconception in science in any kind of generic way – that understanding how to identify and correct misconceptions appears highly domain specific.

“There appears to be little ‘‘transfer’’ of teacher SMK or KOSM between concepts, for example, a teacher’s firm grasp of electrical circuits and relevant misconceptions appears to have little to do with the effective teaching of chemical reactions. Teachers who are generally well versed in physical science still may have holes that affect student learning of a particular concept.”

For me, this perhaps underlines the difficulty of being a science teacher – rather than a physics, chemistry or biology teacher. Whilst our subject background tends to be highly developed in the area we studied in depth at university, we’re regularly expected to teach outside of it. This might be remedied through returning to single science specialism within teaching (though with the shortage of physics specialists, that’s unlikely to happen for KS3 any time soon), or perhaps form an important basis for subject CPD for ‘general’ science teachers.

Cutting-edge lasers and weapons of microbe destruction

The day then split into subject specialisms. Subject knowledge presentations were led by two PhD researchers; the first relating some of the theoretical background required for the physics project, the second on the role of antibodies in recent medical applications.

Before switching to psychology, I completed the first year of a physics degree, so quantum theory, the photoelectric effect and the principles of stimulated emission were like revisiting old friends. It genuinely reminded me why I love physics so much. I learnt things though – that it’s better to think of light as neither a wave nor a particle (just that we use these models to understand how light behaves under different circumstances), rather than being both a wave and a particle. It’s a subtle point, but refined the way I thought about it. I was also impressed to learn that ‘Blue Ray’ is literally named; that the improved storage comes from the shorter wavelength blue lasers used in the technology.

The research into antibodies had the benefit of novelty for me. Whilst the ‘lock and key’ analogy is one that I frequently use in relation to neurotransmitter binding to receptors; the sheer potential to exploit antibodies in drug delivery and anti-cancer treatment was genuinely exciting. It was great to discover something of the background behind the production of such varied antibodies within the body and how monoclonal antibodies are produced in the laboratory. I was intrigued to discover the source of the staggering variety of antibodies. The immune system is a little like evolution through natural selection in miniature – with genuinely random variation – something I’d never really considered, despite many years of teaching pupils about antibodies.

The afternoon involved a privileged insight into the programmes of study which had been co-planned by the teachers and PhD students. I was genuinely impressed with the challenge these sequences of study afforded higher ability students in both subject areas. It’s an area many schools find difficult; we’ve got gradually better at supporting students who struggle, but there’s a need to poke some holes in the ceiling of key stages to genuinely give our more able something to struggle with! With so much development going on at KS3 currently, the ideas and resources will be passed on to relevant subjects; so they can cannibalise and adapt anything they can take advantage of.


Perhaps the best evidence that ULiS was excellent CPD is that it I spent hours, and likely will spend many more, intensely thinking about it. However, whilst this is no criticism of the student-teacher teams – whose hard work and passion was truthfully inspiring – I left feeling that the ULiS project still needed to refine its focus to become really effective. It almost works – which is tantalising and slightly frustrating.

What are the potential benefits of partnering PhD students and teachers?

Well, one possible benefit for science teachers is that they get a chance to become vicariously involved in the cutting-edge of their discipline. For those of us who have been teaching for years, it’s sometimes easy to forget just how magnificent and powerful science really is. Great teaching needs inspiration – and opportunities to find out what’s going on at the edge of human understanding could be a great source. I also think it’s good for PhD students to have to explain something of the background to their PhD to an educated but non-specialist audience. We need our scientists to be able to communicate their ideas effectively to the public; and a PhD researcher could learn a lot about this skill from teachers.

Whilst the biology module was well-integrated with KS3, the physics module lay significantly outside the conceptual sequence which pupils follow in their development of understanding. To be fair, perhaps it’s slightly easier for biology – the wave-front of physics research has travelled further from the classroom. The physics resources could certainly form the backbone of a STEM club or G&T enrichment project, but to make a major impact, the projects need rooting in mainstream KS3 teaching I think.

Thus I wonder whether there’s an opportunity here. Referring back to the Sadler paper, the author’s comment:

“The increasing involvement of scientists (i.e., professors of science and research scientists) in teacher PD programs could have the impact of focusing those programs too narrowly on the scientists’ special areas of expertise, which might boost participants’ SMK only in a narrow set of topics. What might be more advantageous for PD is to conduct a diagnostic identification and remediation of teachers’ knowledge ‘‘holes.’’”

Perhaps this is something for the ULiS project to consider. We could feasibly identify teachers with either low subject knowledge and/or little understanding of children’s misconceptions within a science topic they have to teach and partner them up with a researcher. The teacher’s diagnostic test might first form the basis of some feedback from the student – to fill in any gaps in subject knowledge and give insight into why certain misconceptions are wrong. The partnership could then work together to construct of a sequence of lessons in that topic area, tackling those misconceptions. By keeping the sequence of learning based broadly on the new KS3 curriculum, the general transferability of the resources between schools might be improved. Additionally, the PhD student might be able to explain where these concepts ‘go’ after GCSE and A’ level; linking in a ‘next step’ for higher ability students who need the challenge.

My final criticism was the use of self-report measures of self-efficacy as an evaluation of the CPD. Even if you found a small increase in self-efficacy ratings at the end of the event, I doubt the increase would tell you anything especially valid. If Sadler’s research is anything to go by, a better evaluation measure might be some of those science misconception questions – would teachers attending the event have a better insight into the common misconceptions that children hold? I understand there are plans for a chemistry module – plenty of misconceptions there that could potentially be tested …

Let me end by thanking all concerned for such an excellent day. I learnt a lot and it’s left me really thinking – which, I’ll be honest, is more than I’ve got from 95% of the CPD I’ve attended over the course of my career!

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1 Response to What’s important about subject knowledge?

  1. Pingback: Is teaching a ‘natural ability’? | Evidence into Practice

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