Professionalising teaching through knowledge-based pedagogy

Ian Bauckham from Bennett Memorial School in Tunbridge Wells has written this blog on knowledge-based pedagogy…

The recent Modern Foreign Languages Pedagogy review ( which I chaired in 2016 has as a fundamental aim the reclaiming of the knowledge content of language learning, as well as the statement of the core pedagogical principles which underpin the teaching of that content in the classroom. We state unequivocally that vocabulary, grammar and phonics constitute the substantive, first-order knowledge base we need to master if our pupils are to say they ‘know’ the language. Other aspects of what has been thought of often as the ‘content’ of language learning are, in our view, second-order. That is to say, they are derived from the knowledge base and cannot exist without that knowledge base. These include a range of communicative ‘competencies’ and use of the four ‘skills’ of listening, speaking, reading and writing.

The more I reflect on this, and look across other subjects in the (especially secondary) curriculum, the more certain I become that the distinction between substantive knowledge content on the one hand, and second order ‘competencies’ on the other, is a critical one in the development of pedagogy, and one about which there is much confusion or partial understanding among teachers.

Let us take an example from history. I recently had my attention drawn to an article in Teaching History magazine (December 2014) by Kate Hammond. In it, she explores some pupil work where “achievement was superficially high, but somehow fragile.” Hammond’s research led her to a quest to classify the “types of historical knowledge that seemed to help certain students not only to gain high marks but to do so with a fluency and security that marked them out from the rest.” The conclusion she reaches is that a strong grasp of the full historical narrative is the first order knowledge that is needed to reach that point of fluency and security, and that students whose learning experiences under-prioritise this and instead over-focus on practising for (for example exam board determined) competencies end up demonstrating only that more ‘fragile’ competence.

We can easily understand the temptation which teachers and schools face, and often succumb to, to focus on close and lengthy preparation for examinations. I was in an English lesson only recently in another (quite vulnerable) school and witnessed a (probably well qualified and diligent) teacher working with year ten group on highly atomised and artificial writing practice, producing sentences containing a specified range of features linked to particular values in mark schemes. Not per se the wrong thing to do in all circumstances, unless, as I suspect, the diet of those students is unrelentingly thus, and thin on access to extensive, stretching literature and models of high order analysis of such literature, then their performance too is going to be fragile.

We could go on to give examples of what this looks like across the curriculum. Back in languages, it includes producing ‘role play’ dialogues which are grammatically and lexically beyond the pupils’ mastered language such that they have to use a glossary of fixed phrases to support them; in science, it can include taking pupils through practical experiments on the pretext that it hones their ‘practical skills’ when the theoretical understanding of the processes at play is too weak for them to be able to draw the conclusions intended.

Apart from leading to poor learning, are there other effects this widespread phenomenon has on pupils? I would argue that it has a tendency to reduce pupils’ sense of self efficacy. Self efficacious students work harder, give up less easily, persist more readily through difficulties or setbacks. And they become more self efficacious, more able to regulate their learning, by developing a sense of control over the body of knowledge, the building blocks, which underpin the subject and enable that ‘fluency’ which Hammond describes. Self efficacy is sapped by superficial performance requirements, if not underpinned by those strong knowledge foundations. And too often, we interpret levels of self efficacy as ‘intelligence’. Self efficacy can be grown, or it can be diminished, by how pupils are taught, the pedagogy and curriculum they receive. The same, of course, applies to teachers whose self efficacy is shaped by culture they inhabit.

Of course, one of the drivers of the culture of exam-driven courses and teaching has often been felt to be Ofsted. This is an easy excuse, perhaps, but how heartening it is, nonetheless, to see that Ofsted’s focus is now shifting. The challenge will be, of course, to change the mindsets not only of inspectors but of a generation of teachers and headteachers who are dependent on exam criteria and competencies. When, in the many talks I have given about the MFL review, I have said that language courses should not be retrofitted to terminal assessments, but built bottom-up with reference to the foundational knowledge needed, I have been greeted with more than one expression of surprise.

Much is made of the ‘school led system’, and, in principle, it is a notion I fully support, albeit with some caveats. Excellence cannot be mandated from above or outside. However, not everything which calls itself ‘school led’ is of its nature good. The ‘system’ has produced a range of responses in the form of groupings and movements which while looking school led on the surface really are a product of a profoundly dependent professional mindset. I suggest that the most productive way to think about a school led system is to think of it as a system comprising networks of pedagogy-led schools, and focus our energies not on performance criteria and interpretation of assessment criteria, but on building subject-specific pedagogical expertise, bottom up, starting with identifying the foundational, first order content. This will enable students to be more self-efficacious and enable the large proportion of young people who, according to Professor Deborah Eyre (and many others) can access high performance to do so. It will also enable teachers and headteachers to become more truly the guardians of professional expertise, and help make teaching more genuinely a profession, and enable schools to become more truly transformational of lives.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of PTE or its employees.