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Teacher Expertise is More Than Just Subject Knowledge

Teacher expertise goes beyond mere subject knowledge, says Darren Mead – and it’s time we celebrated it...

  • Teacher Expertise is More Than Just Subject Knowledge

Recently, my son has taken up hockey. He plays with a local club twice a week; they are a great bunch and wonderful advocates for their sport. However, my boy has grown frustrated of late during the end of training games that they play.

The source of frustration is one of the mums who helps out. I am first to admit that I know very little about hockey, but it is clear that she is a very good player. She is fast, strong, and very skilful, making lots of clever runs into space – so much so, she seems to be everywhere.

She also is very vocal, shouting “Me! Me! Me!” with unerring alacrity throughout the game.

“How am I supposed to get better when Mary has the ball 50% of the time?”, asked my son.

And as I watched the game on Friday, I saw what he meant: the teacher in me wanted her to direct the kids where to run, or make the easy pass so that a novice could bring the ball forward.

Her expertise was used to be an expert, not a coach or a teacher.

This is not as easy as it sounds. Teachers have a unique and complex knowledge store, which is not merely limited to knowing about our subjects.

Shulman described our expert understanding as ‘pedagogical content knowledge’, identifying the differences that distinguish us from our equivalent non-teaching specialists whether they be scientists, writers, mathematicians, economists – or even hockey players.

Pedagogical content knowledge is hard-won, complex, and dynamic understanding about how our subject is best taught and learnt; Berliner suggests that it takes between five and seven years to become an “expert pedagogue… if one works hard at it”.

Deep and rich

Perhaps the best place to start is to be aware of what this particular kind of knowledge is, looks like and does.

We all have it, but it can remain hidden. It is often not written down, and can be somewhat tacit in nature. We need to talk about it; invite colleagues into our classrooms to see it; and ultimately celebrate our own expertise.

The more we recognise and celebrate our pedagogical content knowledge, the more we are likely to seek opportunities to develop it.

Our expertise is deep and rich. On a daily basis we reconcile ideas about representing concepts verbally and with visuals, so pupils can understand and learn.

We design teaching sequences and strategies to overcome known student misconceptions and difficulties.

We establish routines and procedures that cajole, organise, motivate and discipline a variety of learners at any given time so that are classrooms are positive, challenging and focused on learning.

We understand our students’ starting points; the prior knowledge needed before learning new content; and the social and academic context in which the learning is taking place.

Insight and understanding

Furthermore, learning is a hidden process and therefore rather difficult to see.

Yet as teachers, we use our insight and understanding of tasks, our subjects and assessment to spot when students are not grasping what we want them to learn – and then change the direction of the lesson so that they do.

Based on this ever-changing information about student understanding we make around 0.7 decisions per minute whilst in the act of teaching to ensure our pupils learn.

In short, we know how and when to pass the ball to learners in an informed, planned and contingency laden way.

Back in 1986, Shulman reflected that teaching is “trivialised, its complexities ignored and its demands diminished”.

I think he was right to assert that part of the difficulty the profession faces is that we, as teachers, find it hard to articulate our professional understanding and how we have come by it.

For this reason, Shulman gave us pedagogical content knowledge – and it is high time for us as a profession to recognise, share and celebrate our expert teacher knowledge.

Darren Mead (@DKMead) is an old science teacher. He has recently published his first book, The Expert Teacher: Using pedagogical content knowledge to plan superb lessons. He blogs at Pedagogicalpurposes.blogspot.com.

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