Alex Quigley is a Subject Leader of English at Huntington Secondary School in York. He has taught for ten years and blogs on most topics in education at http://huntingenglish.wordpress.com/. This article is a counter-argument to Tessa Matthews’ blog on why we should have less subject-specific CPD. It is one of the articles in our National Teacher Enquiry Network Easter 2013 newsletter (sign up here).
Over the weekend I read an interesting blog post about CPD by the excellent new blogger, Tessa Matthews. Her argument posed the idea that all CPD should be subject specific. Whilst I agreed with much of her criticism about bad CPD focusing upon broad strokes of pedagogy without due attention to subject specific needs, I thought her response to the current extreme in her school perhaps denied her the chance to see the potential richness of cross-curricular training that can work alongside subject specific expertise. CPD shouldn’t be driven by ideology, but by what works best in the specific contexts of each individual school. Many of these context-bound needs mean that any didactic ‘one size fits all’ approach to CPD will simply not do.
I agree with a central tenet of Tessa’s post. All CPD should at least have some subject specific time allocation where a department can focus in upon the unique context of their subject. Yet, if you deny the possibility of a pedagogy expert disseminating good practice you then potentially create ‘echo chamber departments’ that fail to develop their pedagogy for a host of reasons: deficient leadership, weak understanding of good pedagogy etc. I want to be challenged to teach better by a brilliant Science teacher, for example, who makes me think anew about my pedagogy just as much as a fellow English teacher. I do, of course, want to collaborate with my department to hone our subject specific expertise. The method of communicating domains of knowledge successfully can be as crucial as the knowledge itself if that communication is weak. If I worked in a department with weak existing pedagogy and weak leadership I do not want all my training limited to that sphere. Again, context here is key.
The example Tessa gives, of ‘hot seating’, is so obviously flawed in a cross curricular sense as to be a ‘straw man’. If I was encouraged to teach such activities to engage students without a clear purpose of what I want them to learn in that lesson then it would be grossly negligent. I do think there are many other examples of excellent pedagogy that are worthy of teacher discussion/training etc. We need not be bound within our existing department at all times – we should seek the enriching cross-fertilisation of ideas to be found in different subject domains. Indeed, creativity and originality is often generated by two different concepts, ideas or domains, or by knowledge clashing and coalescing into a new idea or new knowledge. To limited our CPD training to our subjects, even in the best of departments, could ossify our knowledge and understanding by limiting our connectedness with colleagues in different subject areas. So much better to find a balanced approach.
Of course, pedagogy that promotes engagement for the sake of engagement would be a nonsense that would make teachers little better than children’s entertainers! In a good school, with strong leadership, the best staff could and should coach to enhance pedagogy beyond their subject domain. I believe strongly that questioning and feedback are at the core of excellence teaching. I also know there are many useful models of questioning pedagogy (I have written at length about questioning and borrowed from different spheres), for example, that could be easily adapted to be useful in any subject. Of course, some pedagogy strategies transfer across subject domains better than others. CPD should encourage expert discussion of which strategies work best and where they work best.
I admit bias as I have led such school based training: huntingenglish.wordpress.com/?s=Bread+and+butter. The approach I took to pedagogy is generic, for the entire staff, and varied so to allow choice appropriate to subject, but the discussion is department specific – see end of session feedback. I think this method sums up my viewpoint. Interestingly, some feedback from staff specifically asked to work with colleagues from different subject areas. Perhaps some staff find it more creative or informative to source ideas from different colleagues, outside their typical working partnerships within departments, before then adapting and transferring that knowledge to their subject domain. The extreme of all subject-specific CPD is potentially limiting. As limiting as having no subject specific training to improve teaching. Pedagogy can transfer brilliantly across domains of knowledge; however, having a subject focus to hone that pedagogy is very important too. Finding a balance is the thing.
My personal view is that we can find a balance between what I see as the false dichotomy between the so called ‘traditional’ and so called ‘progressive’ methods and ideologies (I am no fan of either term, nor ideological absolutism!). I appreciate Tessa’s focus on Willingham and E. D. Hirsch, but I am wary that we should not limit ourselves by sticking rigidly to Hirsch’s doctrine about subject based domains of knowledge – teachers are expert enough to transfer such knowledge. We should not accept the wooly, vague CPD as described by Tessa in her experience, nor should we dogmatically assume that each school should close the rich seam of pedagogy that that can be mined across a school community because of the predominance of subject specific knowledge.