#SciTeachJC: Subject Knowledge


The paper for Week 9 of SciTeachJC was Johannes Met­zler and Ludger Woess­mann “The Impact of Teacher Sub­ject Knowl­edge on Stu­dent Achievement: Evi­dence from Within-Teacher Within-Student Vari­a­tion” IZA Dis­cus­sion Paper Num­ber 4999 (2010) (.PDF link)

The main conclusions of the paper were that higher teacher expertise in their subject resulted in a higher level of achievement for their students at primary level. There was an effort to account for confounding factors, partly because the same teacher taught both maths and reading to the student tested. This provides an immediate limitation as far as secondary teaching is concerned, as it might be reasonably suggested that there is a bigger overlap in knowledge between any two science specialists than between, for example, science and language specialists.

Perhaps predictably, the discussion had two main themes; the need for an ‘appropriate’ level of subject knowledge, and how pedagogy also has a huge impact on a  teacher’s effectiveness. To place this in context, @declanf and others suggested that 0.1 standard deviation is a small improvement compared to other factors.

@uncletungsten: I say that 0.1 sd advtg. is next to nothing. Even when 1 sd of subject knowledge could mean 3-5 years of subject specialization.

It was suggested that there is a balance between specialist knowledge – giving a teacher confidence to teach effectively – and having recently struggled, thereby having empathy for a students’ likely problems. @morphosaurus was one of several participants who felt that as a non-specialist, she taught some areas of the specification better than those who had studied it in more detail. How much of this is due to enthusiasm, and how much to better pedagogy, is of course hard to measure. I wonder if colleagues are more likely to use innovative methods with content they are experienced with, or with more recently studied material? @Bio_Joe pointed out that being able to tell a student that yes, we struggled too is very powerful.

@Arakwai: I agree! Gives the teacher a better appreciation & understanding of misconceptions & difficulties students may have.

We agreed that expertise and enthusiasm would often be strongly correlated, and that as long as correct information is taught, that personal interest is often what enthuses students. @Lethandrel and others agreed that a basic level of subject knowledge is necessary before someone can be considered a ‘specialist’. The issue here, as uual, is KS3. Should we be teaching within specialism there to improve confidence and avoid misconceptions?

@mariamush It’s my experience and knowledge beyond spec that enables me to teach Chem successfully, couldn’t offer the same in phys and bio

Most of us pointed out that with a limited amount of time and money, continuing subject knowledge development is possibly challenging. It is, hoever, necessary, when both scientific understanding (Higgs boson anyone?) and the greater emphasis on scientific method have changed since our original qualifications. We talked about how swapping ideas with colleagues, in and out of specialism, can be a big help. Book and documentary recommendations can keep the costs down.

@cardiffscience: Quite RT @teachitsobeing “one page ahead of the class”? Curriculum changes rapidly- anyone’s degree really embed HSW?

@teachingofsci: possibly – you don’t get much better than Jones, ridley, dawkins, @edyong209 and attenborough for evolution!

@RobertDavies2 so revision on top of planning, evaluation, reports, book marking… to name a few? #toomuch

This comes back to an important question; in most cases is there enough variation in teacher subject expertise for it to be worth worrying about? Yes, there will be variation – but cost (both financial and time) is high if effect is small. (@teachitso pointed out that Hattie puts subject matter knowledge 125th in his rank of effect sizes)  Who should pay these costs? Will Heads of Department consider it worthwhile (for general CPD rather than troubleshooting identified individuals) when there are courses on exam specifications?

@AnthHard: If the Sci Learning Centres put on some subject knowledge CPD, would there be much response?

@SciCommStudios:  one of my hats is Uni of Surrey Outreach – we are looking at putting on some Chem CPD…and have been wondering about interest

@Bio_Joe: If SK needs a top up I recommend the 7day free courses run by Goldsmiths (I did genetics one it’s amazing)

Worthwhile as these aims are – and I would comment now that we are considering the opinions of a self-selected group of teachers, not the profession as a whole – are we making the same mistake as Gove, Jamie Oliver and many others by focussing on subject knowledge when we should recognise that we are teachers first, and scientists second?

@danidelle23: i think we agree with each other to a point. knowing how to use your knowledge is probably the hardest part

@DrDav: Think knowing how to teach a topic can be more important that knowing the topic. How to identify and deal with misconcepts.

@morphosaurus defined pedagogy as “Ability to break down concepts for students to understand, and have resources that explained things well helped.” Having these resources to hand, and having needed to break a topic down, might explain why some of us felt that being a non-specialist was not necessarily a big disadvantage when working with younger or weaker students. Avoiding misconceptions is of course a major concern – you might reasonably equate this to the medical precept, “First, do no harm”

Our priority should perhaps be how to teach specialist knowledge, rather than having the knowledge ourselves. In the same way that teachers need to be able to model and teach thinking skills, we need to express ideas so that students can understand them. #asechat, subject specific teachmeets and similar ideas are perhaps a good way to share good ideas about what matters most.

In conclusion: we should neither over, nor underestimate the importance of a good level of subject knowledge. We’d like to see more research on the relative importance of truly specialist subject knowledge (degree level or higher, with continuing ‘refreshers’) in secondary education, compared to other factors.

Further reading

@alomshaha shared a link to a post TwentyFirstFloor blog on ‘what makes an expert teacher.

@Bio_Joe linked to an abstract of a 1998 paper that concluded subject knowledge is one of several factors.

@AnthHard recommended @teachitso’s summary on ‘who should teach’ considering Hattie & the Finland enigma.


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