- An excessive focus on exam results and teaching to the test as part of accountability cultures.
- A set of assessment criteria at Key Stage 3 which neglect to cover development in thinking about knowledge at all (Michael Fordham talks at great length about this issue at www.clioetcetera.com)
- Management cultures which focus on uniformity of training and generic teaching competences as a means of improving schools (particularly driven by the NCTL).
- A lack of time and money for good quality subject knowledge development.
There was a time, not even beyond the realms of distant memory when I could sit down in the staff room (for younger teachers, this is where staff used to go when not teaching or marking), in a free (another alien concept - this used to be the bits of the day when you weren't teaching - they are now the bits where you do interventions, data entry, report writing, responding to emails and a whole host of other stuff that saps your soul) and read a history book. Now this wasn't because I couldn't be bothered to do all the other things that I needed to do, but because I both wanted, and needed to deepen my subject knowledge. These reading sessions became a time for me to explore aspects of a current course that interested me, or to broaden my period understanding to better explain the period to students during lessons. I read some brilliant works in these times. Importantly I developed an interest in and enthusiasm for topics which I previously only knew in outline: the American West, or the Italian Renaissance for example. Reading made me a better teacher: more confident, more interested, more aware of what students were not understanding and more willing to experiment with new ways of helping them grapple with complex issues. In the last five years of teaching, I have not had the chance to do this even once! Anything I do read is now done entirely in my own time, usually early in the morning or very late at night. My subject knowledge, and my subject interest suffer as a result.
A number of years ago, a colleague of mine was given a thank you card by a departing Year 13 student. In it she expressed her thanks to him, not for her exam results, but for his being her ONLY teacher who seemed to be genuinely enthused and interested by what he taught. She went on to note how she had struggled with the subject to begin with, but that his love of the content had kept her interested and helped her want to find out more. Ultimately she explained how she had been inspired to pursue a career in history teaching in the hope that she might inspire others in the same manner. In some ways this is a heartwarming story, but in others it is a terrible indictment of the fact that so many teachers are clearly not communicating their love of subject, or possibly have no love of subject to communicate. This story came back to me as I was reading Tom Bennett's blog. It got me to thinking about why he was so effective in communicating his enthusiasm. The short answer? He was always reading about the topic, always expanding his understanding, always finding a new and interesting routes into a complex topics. I genuinely think it was that simple. If we don't keep our finger on the pulse of our subject, by which I mean its core content, then our passion for history will simply be deadened under the crippling weight of targets, teaching to the test and pedagogical-genericism.
Of course, the rosy past did not actually glow so brightly either. My CPD when I began teaching generally consisted of sitting through hours and hours of whole school sessions focused on Bloom's taxonomy, Assessment for Learning, Brain Gym, or some other buzz phrase. None of them addressed the core issue of improving my knowledge of the English Reformation, the French Revolution, the social conditions leading to the collapse of Tsarism, or any of the myriad other topics I was attempting to master... As a result, I was forced to seek my own subject CPD outside of school hours. As an historian I have always felt incredibly fortunate that organisations such as the Historical Association, Schools History Project, Prince's Teaching Institute and a host of others provide such opportunities for teachers to develop and deepen their subject knowledge. However it has always been something which I have had to do in my own time, and quite often at my own expense. I remember being told by the same Deputy Head as above, that my school were no longer willing for me to work with the Prince's Teaching Institute as they promoted ideas about CPD which were "dangerous", too focused on knowledge, and contrary to the school's message about skills based learning. The perennial question when requesting permission to attend the HA or SHP Conferences was "how will that help 9B4 on Friday period 5?" If that question could not be answered using the words "transferable skills" or "progress" then the approval was not given.
Subject knowledge has clearly been displaced from the centre of teachers' professional learning. This has to change if we want to see a real improvement in the quality of teaching, and of course in teachers' interest and engagement in the subjects they teach. Subject knowledge needs to come right back to the centre of how schools approach professional development for their staff. It should not be an optional extra that some people enjoy - it should be both a requirement and a right for teachers to improve their understanding. As an illustration of this, I have recently been involved in choosing a new route for A Levels from 2015. During this meeting it was decided to bring in a new unit focusing on Britain 1900-1951. This is a topic we have only covered partially in the past and therefore requires some significant training before teaching can commence. I was delighted however that the first thing one of my department members did after that meeting was to grab a book and go home to start reading up. He came in the next day genuinely excited about planning and teaching the course. This is what good teachers are prepared to do. This is the lifeblood of history teaching. If we want really good teachers in schools we need to make the development of subject knowledge something which schools support with time and money. Reading around cannot be a luxury for those with the time, or the apparent ability to never sleep; it must be an essential component of a teacher's professional duties. Moreover it must be time they feel entitled to, time to sit and absorb and know that this will improve their understanding, and dare I say pupil outcomes as well? More importantly, schools need to recognise that if they give a little in this area, then they will reap huge rewards from staff who are more knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the topics they are teaching.
There are some interesting bits and bobs to be found on CPD in the following:
- Bezzina, C., 2006. "The Road Less Travelled": Professional Communities in Secondary Schools. Theory into Practice, 45(2), pp. 159-167.
- Brighouse, T., 2008. Putting Professional Development Centre Stage. Oxford Review of Education, 34(3), pp. 313-323.
- Fullan, M., 1995. The Limits and the Potential of Porfessional Development. In: T. Guskey & M. Huberman, eds. Professional Development in Education: New Paradigms and Practices. New York: Teachers College Press, pp. 253-267.
- Hargreaves, A. & Fullan, M., 1992. Understanding Teacher Development. New York: Teachers College Press.
- Lave, J. & Wenger, E., 1991. Situated Learning. Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Muijs, D., Day, C., Harris, A. & Lindsay, g., 2004. Evaluating CPD: An Overview. In: C. Day & J. Sachs, eds. International Handbook on the Continuing Professional Development of Teachers. Maidenhead: Open Univeristy Press, pp. 291-310.
- Wenger, E., 1999. Communities of Practice. Learning, Meaning and Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.