Training days: developing subject knowledge

Recently, CVC staff took part in a Training Day focused on developing teachers’ subject knowledge. Why? The recent Sutton Trust/Durham University report into ‘What Makes Great Teaching’ (Oct. 2014) highlighted the importance of teachers’ subject knowledge (content & pedagogy) in raising the quality of teaching and pupil achievement. The study found that, “The most effective teachers have deep knowledge of the subjects they teach, and when teachers’ knowledge falls below a certain level it is a significant impediment to students’ learning. As well as a strong understanding of the material being taught, teachers must also understand the ways students think about the content, be able to evaluate the thinking behind students’ own methods, and identify students’ common misconceptions.” With that in mind, staff took the opportunity to reconnect with what they love about their subject and foster enthusiasm for it, as well as develop a relevant aspect of their subject knowledge, and collaborate with colleagues. Below is an overview of what many of the staff did on the training day. (The Sutton Trust report has caused much debate about ‘great’ teaching. You can access the report online here.)

The SCIENCE Faculty went to London to visit the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum. Half-way through the day the team met and discussed the exhibits they had seen that had inspired them and in the afternoon there was the opportunity to go and see any of these. The team thoroughly enjoyed updating their subject knowledge, especially with the approaching KS4 curriculum changes. Each person had to take 5 photos whilst they were going round – either of a science concept or an interesting scientific object. These were then shared and the team had to guess what they were to test their subject knowledge.

The COMPUTING Faculty wanted to explore exciting areas of the new computing curriculum. Museums can provide both a way to learn subject knowledge as well as ideas for possible field trips. They chose to go to the Science Museum in London and find out about Babbage’s Difference Engine, Baudot’s telegraph message system and the impact of Google’s Street View tricycle, for example. The Science Museum’s resources for computing have improved dramatically in recent years and the exhibition on the Information Age, which tells the story of 200 years of networks of communication, gave the team ideas for new units of work. There were also galleries, such as one on Electronica Music, which might fit nicely into existing schemes such as one on ‘Sonic Pi’. The trip highlighted opportunities where they could collaborate with other subjects, such as Science, History and Music. Next they plan to follow the visit up by going to the Centre of Computer History here in Cambridge.

PE split into two teams. Some went to Sawston VC to meet the Head of PE to discuss approaches to their GCSE courses as well as other aspects of the PE curriculum. They considered how the courses are delivered, how they are assessed, how to use homework effectively, how best to prepare pupils for exams, activity options, mixed v. gender groupings and much, much more. The day was invaluable and had an immediate impact on ideas for teaching Y10, for example. Other members of the faculty went to Forefront Fitness in Willingham to meet with former pupil, and fitness trainer and the club’s owner to consider how to encourage greater participation amongst students in fitness activity. PE staff face a constant challenge with pupils’ effort, where self-esteem and confidence are a barrier to participation, especially amongst the girls. They looked at key female role models in the world of sport, how to create the right kind of atmosphere and environment. The staff were then put through their paces in circuit training (one aimed specifically at women), focused on strengthening core muscles. The session was hard, as some staff in particular found out! The team are keen to explore the further use of small-group circuit training and may try and get some new equipment, such as the medicine balls.

The HISTORY team took a trip to London to the British Library and the V&A. The focus of the V&A was chosen to build that richness and depth of subject-knowledge that adds colour and flavour to teaching. They went to the “Staying Power: Photographs of the Black British Experience” to see whether this could help with their subject knowledge relating to the GCSE British Depth Study. Far and away the most useful aspect of this trip was the chance to talk with colleagues about history and its communication. The discussion staff had about the most interesting things on display in the British Library helped them reflect on the power of rich detail and specific objects to reveal things about their creators and the fact of their inclusion in the exhibition to reveal things about their curators. As it turned out, the ‘Staying Power’ exhibition was fascinating but left the team slightly frustrated by its size and the slightly unfocused nature of the selection but again the discussion was interesting. The Head of History set up an activity that asked staff to reflect on other V&A exhibitions and how objects could be used in the classroom, which helped staff to think about what they were looking at in more depth. Overall, it was a very positive day, especially for reminding the team about what they currently do and to reflect on the presentation of their subject to the public and to pupils.

MFL spent the day talking about the new curriculum, new GCSE and the use of ‘authentic resources’ in the classroom. The team started the day getting together and discussing the specific changes to the new languages GCSE and considering the additional elements for which they currently do not have to prepare students, e.g. culture in the target language country, tourist transactions in speaking, information about charities and organisations & ‘bringing the world together’, questions in the target language to be answered in the TL, literary texts and translations. They then divided into language groups to do more focused work on finding authentic texts and creating questions and resources for them. Finding the texts, assessing their appropriateness and usage, writing accompanying tasks and sharing these within the department is all hugely time-consuming, so having the time to be able to go off and look it this and do it justice was invaluable. The MFL faculty also did some ‘research’ into continental foods and enjoyed a great continental buffet – they’re thinking of it becoming a daily occurrence!

The ENGLISH Faculty decided to go to the Fitzwilliam Museum with a view to perusing some art and considering ways to enthuse pupils about creative writing based on paintings. The original plan to visit the Fitzwilliam was not possible on a Monday, so instead they planned a visit to the cinema. The film was ‘Cinderella’ (the new Kenneth Branagh production), which was perfect for a new unit they have placed into the Y7 curriculum on ‘fairy tales’. As it was technically still the Easter holidays, they shared the arena with quite a large number of small girls, who adored the short ‘Frozen’ film (obviously) but weren’t as thrilled by Far from the Madding Crowd trailer (not surprisingly). Eventually, the film began and they let themselves fall into Disney’s comfortable arms. All was going well until the really important section where the Prince was running after Cinderella, clutching the glass slipper in his hand, and there was a power cut.  They spent 10 minutes sitting in the dark; then the power came back and so did the money they’d spent on the tickets. Before the end of that day, back at school, one teacher had written the first lesson of a new Year 7 Unit on Fairy Tales and another followed with lots more. The department will head back to the museums, not but not on a Monday!

The ART team got to enjoy a day to practice and enjoy their craft. It was also productive for them to talk about schemes of work at the same time.  They created paintings on MDF boards to illustrate the projects that they currently do in the Art department. This will be used as exemplar material for future classes as well as be a permanent display piece in our Foyer.

DISCUSSION POINT: What did the Sutton Trust report say about ‘great teaching’?

Key findings:

The two factors with the strongest evidence of improving pupil attainment are:

  • teachers’ content knowledge, including their ability to understand how students think about a subject and identify common misconceptions
  • quality of instruction, which includes using strategies like effective questioning and the use of assessment

Specific practices which have good evidence of improving attainment include:

  • challenging students to identify the reason why an activity is taking place in the lesson
  • asking a large number of questions and checking the responses of all students
  • spacing-out study or practice on a given topic, with gaps in between for forgetting
  • making students take tests or generate answers, even before they have been taught the material

Common practices which are not supported by good evidence of their effectiveness include:

  • using praise lavishly
  • allowing learners to discover key ideas by themselves
  • grouping students by ability (though it depends upon the subject)
  • presenting information to students based on their “preferred learning style”
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