What does it mean to teach a subject? Not what the ITT Market Review suggests
By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 9 September 2021
Why do we learn all those different subjects at school? Perhaps it is because I’m a teacher educator and I have school-aged children myself, that I get asked this at parties more than most. Thankfully, I am able to maintain polite conversation on this topic because I have spent time in scholarly discussions with colleagues, both as part of the Subject Specialism Research Group at the IOE, as well as within a network with colleagues in Finland and Sweden concerned with subject-specific teacher education.
One of the most compelling arguments for learning about subjects in schools is that it enables people to understand different ways of thinking – how science, history, geography, religious education or any other subject gives a knowledge base from which to learn and understand the world. For example, I would say that my own specialism, physics, is about developing models which help explain and predict phenomena in the world. It has less to say about human relations or ethics, which draw on other forms of knowledge that might be found in other school subjects.
To enable different forms of knowledge to have power in the lives of those we educate, teachers need to be able to convey the ways of thinking, the knowledge and also a passion for the subjects they teach. In turn, this means teacher education needs to support an understanding of all these things, drawing on the best evidence we have around subject-specific pedagogies.
On the one hand the Department for Education (DfE) seems to get this. Its recently published Market Review of Initial Teacher Training laments that some of the 75 ITT providers visited by Ofsted between January and March 2021 did not have “sufficiently ambitious” curricula in relation to subject-specific content. On the other hand, though, the review proposals are likely to make this situation considerably worse. Teacher education providers will have to be accredited by a panel convened by the DfE itself, and would have to meet Quality Requirements that cover:
“The design of the training curriculum, fully incorporating all aspects of the CCF [ITT Core Content Framework], closely and explicitly based on evidence and the latest pertinent research, carefully sequenced, with detailed content specific to subject and phase” (ITT review, p4)
Previous posts to this blog have considered the very real risks to university participation in teacher education and the fallacy of a curriculum specifying what every teacher should know. Here I need to add to this list of concerns a lack of any recognition of university providers’ role in ensuring the quality of subject-specific teacher education. The Market Review’s notion that quality can be measured by adherence to the CCF misses the fact that the framework does not refer to subjects in any meaningful way. It refers to the sequencing of learning, key concepts, misconceptions, examples. It is true that these are best understood by subject experts, but the essential point is that this is not what it means to teach a subject.
At the risk of sounding grandiose, to teach a subject is to convey the role of that subject in the world. That role, and the way a subject fulfils that role, is developed within the “evidence and the latest pertinent research” that the ITT review sees as central. Yet there is no acknowledgement of the essential role of university providers in both developing this and in engaging new teachers in it. Put simply, both the infrastructure and expectation of universities mean that ITE tutors are engaged with research in their subjects and communities which support understanding of those subjects and how they are best taught.
As a physics specialist for example, I am part of a dedicated special interest group (SIG) for science education at the IOE, bringing together teacher educators, researchers, PhD students and colleagues from across and outside of UCL. Recent discussions have included how to best teach controversial issues and how to engage students from disadvantaged backgrounds in science. I also work with other departments at UCL, with organisations such as the Institute of Physics and Association for Science Education, and research organisations nationally and internationally dedicated to science education (such as the European Science Education Research Association). This isn’t just about working out the most efficient way for students to recall the points mentioned in an exam specification. It is a body of work around what each subject brings to the lives of those we educate and how we maximise this gift.
The DfE are proposing that all the complexities of teachers’ academic engagement with a subject, from the local to the international, can be judged at the point of accreditation, based on a course meeting a list of generic Quality Requirements. Whilst the broader proposals risk undermining university provision, the reliance on quality requirements which don’t recognise the importance of that provision would considerably weaken subject-specific teacher education. This is because the DfE have misunderstood what subjects are for, and how university providers are at the heart of ensuring that teachers do know this.