Activity

4.2: Understanding the evidence

Time allocation

45 minutes

Instructions

  • Read the information and look at the examples provided.
  • As you do this, make notes in response to the key questions below.
  • You will need to take the notes with you to your mentor session for discussion with your mentor.

The intended outcomes of this activity are for you to:

Learn that
3.1 A school’s curriculum enables it to set out its vision for the knowledge, skills and values that its pupils will learn, encompassing the national curriculum within a coherent wider vision for successful learning.
3.2 Secure subject knowledge helps teachers to motivate pupils and teach effectively.
3.3 Ensuring pupils master foundational concepts and knowledge before moving on is likely to build pupils’ confidence and help them succeed.
3.4 Anticipating common misconceptions within particular subjects is also an important aspect of curricular knowledge; working closely with colleagues to develop an understanding of likely misconceptions is valuable.
3.5 Explicitly teaching pupils the knowledge and skills they need to succeed within particular subject areas is beneficial.
3.6 In order for pupils to think critically, they must have a secure understanding of knowledge within the subject area they are being asked to think critically about.
3.7 In all subject areas, pupils learn new ideas by linking those ideas to existing knowledge, organising this knowledge into increasingly complex mental models (or “schemata”); carefully sequencing teaching to facilitate this process is important.
3.8 Pupils are likely to struggle to transfer what has been learnt in one discipline to a new or unfamiliar context.

In your notepad

Keep a note of your responses to the following questions and bring them with you to your first mentor session for this Block to inform your discussions.

  • Why is having secure subject and curriculum knowledge so important?
  • What is explicit teaching and when should you use it? Why is it particularly important when addressing misconceptions?
  • How does a well-sequenced curriculum benefit pupils’ learning?
  • What do you need to consider before you ask pupils to think critically about a subject?

What do we mean by “curriculum”?

You probably have a good idea of what we mean by curriculum already, but it is worth noting that there are different definitions. The Early Career Framework states:

A school’s curriculum enables it to set out its vision for the knowledge, skills and values that its pupils will learn, encompassing the national curriculum within a coherent wider vision for successful learning.

A similar definition that a lot of schools will look to is that of Ofsted:

A curriculum is a framework for setting out the aims of a programme of education, including the knowledge and understanding to be gained at each stage; for translating that framework over time into a structure and narrative within an institutional context; and for evaluating what knowledge and understanding pupils have gained against expectations.

Ofsted working definition of curriculum, 2018

One of the real strengths of education in England is that schools have a great deal of freedom to set their own curricula. As a result, there are very different visions for education within schools, although all are based around the same national framework for a broad and balanced curriculum.

Before we consider the evidence in this area, take a minute to write down some ideas about what this looks like in your school. You will have a chance to discuss this with your mentor in your first meeting for this Block.

In your notepad

  • What is your school’s broad vision for education?
  • What are the outcomes of this vision and how are the outcomes described? In terms of pupils’ lives? Their results?
  • How does this vision translate into your school’s curriculum choices? For example, what subjects does your school offer, or is the learning organised into general themes? What does this look like in your department? And in your classroom?

While schools interpret the national curriculum, further interpretation happens at department, phase and classroom levels. It is usually teachers who are responsible for the selection, sequencing and pacing of subject knowledge, skills and concepts into forms suitable for teaching, such as schemes of work, topic plans and individual lesson plans. As an Early Career Teacher, you may not yet have much control over the “big picture” curriculum in your school but translating that into your lesson planning over time is well within your scope. The more secure your subject knowledge, the more effective you will be at doing this.

Secure subject knowledge helps teachers to motivate pupils and teach effectively

At its simplest, the skill of teaching is about making sure pupils understand new things: when teaching new content in a subject area, your goal is to make it “comprehensible to others” (Ball et al., 2008). Having a deep knowledge of the subject you are teaching is essential to be able to do this well. Indeed, when teachers’ knowledge falls below a certain level it can limit students’ learning (Coe et al., 2014).

Hattie (2012) explains that expert teachers are able to use their subject knowledge to organise and use content more effectively for pupils to understand. Teachers with secure subject knowledge are more confident to respond to individual student needs, recognise those who need support and change the way information is presented to support learning. This leads to pupils experiencing success, which in turn is motivating and will encourage them to continue trying hard even when content becomes more complex.

So, what does secure subject knowledge look like? Secure subject knowledge is more than just knowing facts and concepts. Shulman (1986) argued that teachers must also understand the structure and rules of a subject. In other words, teachers need to know both the what and the why.

  • Understanding why something is true and how central it is to the subject you are teaching allows you to emphasise the key concepts, prioritise foundational knowledge and sequence learning so that pupils can develop a deep understanding of the subject and how new content builds on and connects to previous learning.
  • Understanding why will also help you to anticipate and plan for common misconceptions which pupils may already have or are likely to develop. You explored misconceptions in Block 2 in relation to how pupils learn. Secure subject knowledge will both help you to anticipate misconceptions and to explain them in greater depth to pupils.

We will look at both these points in more detail in the next section. For now, let’s just take a look at how this type of knowledge helps us in our teaching. For example, having a deep understanding of the subject you are teaching supports you to give thorough and detailed explanations to your pupils which avoids them developing false assumptions. False assumptions over time might embed in their memory as misconceptions.

In the example below, the teacher responds to a correct answer by expanding beyond superficial understanding of a concept. Why do you think the teacher did this?

Teacher: “What is 45 x 10?”

Student: “It’s 450! When you times by ten you always get a zero on the end.

Teacher: “You’re correct that 45 x 10 is 450. And you’re right that multiplying by 10 often means that the answer has a zero on the end. But that’s not always true. When you multiply by 10, all of the numbers move up a place value and so the 5 units becomes 50. The zero indicates no units. If you multiply 0.3 by 10, the answer would be 3 units. There won’t be a zero on the end.”

The teacher uses their secure subject knowledge to pick up a potential pitfall that might lead to mistakes. This aspect of subject knowledge develops over time and comes with experience. Spending time talking to more experienced colleagues specifically about the misconceptions which pupils will experience in a given area is almost always time well spent. The teacher leaves nothing to chance – they are completely explicit in the way they teach the concept.

Where there is a fundamental idea or concept which you have identified for pupils to master, the most beneficial approach for pupils is to teach them it explicitly. As you can see from this example, when a teacher is explicit and clearly directs pupils to the knowledge and skills needed in a particular subject area, they help to structure the acquisition of new learning, including how to use the language of the subject (Muijs & Reynolds, 2017). This is where secure subject knowledge will support you in motivating and teaching effectively; you will be able to break concepts down and model these in a way that will support all pupils.

What do we mean by explicit teaching?

Explicit teaching involves the teacher introducing new material in a careful sequence, taking care to explain new concepts in a structured way. It involves explanation, modelling and practice.

Explicit teaching might include:

  • Explicitly teaching key vocabulary pupils will need to access the topic
  • Drawing explicit links between new content and the core concepts and principles in the subject
  • Modelling answers or processes on the board
  • Carefully pacing explanations with appropriate use of questioning and practice time
  • Using a variety of examples and non-examples
  • Guiding pupil practice and providing sufficient time for practice and review
  • Helping pupils when they make errors

Presenting new material in small steps with opportunities to practise after each step is effective, especially if the teacher assists the pupils as they practise to scaffold their learning, such as through questioning or further explanations (Rosenshine, 2012).

Ensuring pupils master foundational concepts and knowledge before moving on is likely to build pupils’ confidence and help them succeed

In the example above, the teacher draws the pupil’s attention to a fundamental concept in mathematics – place value – reinforcing how this core idea is applied within the subject. An important part of your role is to ensure pupils encounter and master the foundational concepts and knowledge in the subjects you teach. Pupils having a firm grasp of these fundamentals will allow them to succeed as they encounter new topics in the subject and consequently build their confidence (Deans for Impact, 2015). By providing deliberate instructional support to make sure that these foundational concepts are well understood, you are giving your pupils the best chance of success. Again, the types of explicit teaching strategies outlined above will help.

While schools might approach curriculum design in different ways, or have different visions for the education of pupils, carefully sequencing and staging what pupils need to know – and making clear links between new knowledge and prior learning – should be universal. You learned in Block 2 that pupils construct new knowledge and understanding based on what they already know (Roediger & Butler, 2011), and this is the case in all subjects. You will also remember that the way we mentally organise knowledge, joining new concepts to existing knowledge in increasingly complex mental models, is called schemata. If we are unable to connect new knowledge to existing information within our long-term memory, it is likely to be forgotten.

Foundational concepts are particularly important in this regard as they make connections with lots of other concepts within the subject. For example, if a pupil already knows and understands that light can be turned into energy, grasping the process of photosynthesis can happen more quickly. When we introduce a new concept, we can help pupils to strengthen their existing schema in a subject by making explicit links to what they already know. Often this will be a core concept.

Of course, you will already have seen that however carefully you think about how to present new concepts, pupils will end up with differing levels of understanding. This can be because they have different levels of prior knowledge of the subject and because pupils can and will connect new knowledge to previously learned misconceptions which can impede their learning (Guzzetti, 2011).

Whatever the reason, every subject has its common misconceptions which some or all pupils will encounter. The good news is that as you gain experience as a teacher, you will become more and more adept at anticipating these misconceptions and addressing them in your teaching. This is an important element of curricular knowledge: the evidence shows that teachers with comparable levels of subject knowledge but with a better understanding of misconceptions in their subject have more impact on student outcomes (Coe et al., 2014).

Until you have developed this expertise – and even when you have – the key to dealing with misconceptions is to be proactive and address them in your planning. As a new teacher, this can be challenging. To a certain extent, the best way to understand what the misconceptions are in each topic or subject is to witness how pupils succeed or struggle. Therefore, this is an area where you should draw on the know-how of your more experienced colleagues. Before teaching a new area, you could ask:

  • What misconceptions might pupils already hold?
  • What do pupils typically misunderstand about this concept?
  • What common mistakes or errors do they make when applying the concept in practice?
  • Is there an alternative way of communicating this concept that will reduce the likelihood of misconceptions taking hold?
  • Who from my team or wider networks might have experience of teaching this content before and know common misconceptions?

There is a suggested activity in section 4.4 of these self-study materials to help you draw this type of information out from your colleagues. You will also do an activity with your mentor on how to identify the essential concepts, knowledge, skills and principles in your subject.

Secure subject knowledge allows pupils to think critically within the subject area

We want pupils to think hard about topics and to engage deeply with new knowledge. The research evidence shows that secure background knowledge is an important prerequisite for critical thinking to take place (Bailin et al., 1999).

For pupils to think critically, they must have a secure understanding of knowledge within the subject area they are being asked to think critically about. Learning to think critically involves thinking about something. For example, you cannot think critically about the causes of the Second World War without first having a good knowledge of the events leading up to the war.

Because background knowledge is so important, it is also likely that pupils will struggle to transfer what they learn in one subject or discipline to another. For example, if a pupil practises evaluation of similar texts in English – with lots of initial guidance before the support is tapered and the underlying structure of what good evaluation looks like is pointed out – the pupil will get better at evaluating other similar texts. The specific nature of the critical thinking task here is unlikely to transfer easily to many other subjects or even other types of text.

There are many types of critical thinking tasks (such as comparing, classifying, judging) which are cognitively demanding but don’t aid schema building. Unless the background knowledge is secure, more complex critical thinking tasks may actually detract from learning. In the examples below, Teacher A assumes that their pupils will be able to engage critically with a text in the same way as an expert (such as the teacher). Teacher B takes a different approach. Why is this more likely to be effective?

Example A

  • A teacher wants pupils to read a historical source and to examine its validity. 
  • The teacher hands out the source at the start of the lesson and asks pupils to complete the task.
  • Pupils read the source in small groups and prepare their ideas to share with the group.
  • Each group shares with the class but their responses are not well developed, focusing on things like how difficult it was to read the handwriting and understand the language of Elizabethan writers.

Example B

  • Before the lesson, the teacher identifies that for pupils to be successful analysing the usefulness of a text they need to know certain information about the period.
  • The teacher starts the lesson with a quick recall quiz on prior knowledge linked to the period, including the names of people and important dates. The teacher follows up with some targeted questions to check understanding.
  • The teacher explicitly models the skills needed when examining a source for reliability, and together the class creates a checklist of questions to ask such as: Who wrote the source? Can they be trusted? Why? 
  • The teacher hands out the historical source and pupils work in small groups to answer the pre-agreed questions.
  • Pupils share back to the rest of the class, comparing and building on each other’s answers to each of the pre-agreed questions.

In your notepad

  • Which task supports critical thinking?
  • How? What steps does the teacher take?
  • How could you adapt this for your class?

References

Bailin, S., Case, R., Coombs, J. R., & Daniels, L. B. (1999) Common misconceptions of critical thinking. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 31(3), 269‒283.

Ball, D. L., Thames, M. H., & Phelps, G. (2008) Content knowledge for teachers: What makes it special? Journal of Teacher Education, 2008 59: 389 DOI: 10.1177/0022487108324554 [Online] Accessible from: https://www.math.ksu.edu/~bennett/onlinehw/qcenter/ballmkt.pdf.

Coe, R., Aloisi, C., Higgins, S., & Major, L. E. (2014) What makes great teaching. Review of the underpinning research. Durham University: UK. Available at: http://bit.ly/2OvmvKO

Deans for Impact (2015) The Science of Learning [Online] Accessible from: https://deansforimpact.org/resources/the-science-of-learning/.

Education Endowment Foundation (2017) Metacognition and Self-regulated learning Guidance Report. [Online] Accessible from: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/tools/guidance-reports/.

Education Endowment Foundation (2018) Preparing for Literacy: Improving Communication, Language and Literacy in the Early Years’, London: Education Endowment Foundation.

Guzzetti, Barbara J. (2000) Learning counterintuitive science concepts: what have we learned from over a decade of research? Reading & Writing Quarterly, 16:2, 89‒98, DOI: 10.1080/105735600277971.

Hattie, J. (2012) Visible Learning for Teachers. Oxford: Routledge.

Jerrim, J., & Vignoles, A. (2016) The link between East Asian “mastery” teaching methods and English children’s mathematics skills. Economics of Education Review, 50, 29‒44. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.econedurev.2015.11.003.

Muijs, D., & Reynolds, D. (2017) Effective teaching: Evidence and practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Roediger, H. L., & Butler, A. C. (2011) The critical role of retrieval practice in long-term retention. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 15(1), 20–27. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2010.09.003.

Rosenshine, B. (2012) Principles of Instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know. American Educator, 12–20. https://www.aft.org//sites/default/files/periodicals/Rosenshine.pdf .

Shulman, L. S. (1986). Those who understand: Knowledge growth in teaching. Educational Researcher, 15(2), 4‒14.