Whilst a topic-centred approach to teaching has its advantages, we must not forget the central importance of subject-based concepts, says David Leat

There is plethora of teaching and curriculum experimentation at present. Much gets reported in our pages, under such titles as thinking skills, building learning power, learning to learn. There is much talk of a skills-based curriculum and this is accelerating under the engine of personal, learning and thinking skills (PLTS).

Subjects are not exactly in retreat but the development of diploma courses certainly reduces numbers taking some traditional subjects and many secondary schools are developing KS3 courses which blend subjects, especially for lower attaining pupils. This is one of those ‘baby and the bathwater’ moments.

In 2007 the New Zealand government published a a review of available studies on improving student outcomes and the professional development factors that are associated with those successful projects (for details see box). It is a long report and we will deal with it in more detail in a future edition as it has many interesting things to say, but I will dwell on the section on mathematics, as many of the studies were in the subject and they represent some common findings.

First, many teachers often assume that some groups of students cannot learn as well as others and this led them to offering a very limited curriculum. It is essential to challenge such beliefs, and this was typically achieved by offering alternatives and becoming aware of the learning gains for students when they are offered something better. We can equate this to action research or professional enquiry. Second, subject knowledge was found to be important in professional development.

Developing conceptual understanding
Another aspect of significant professional development for good teaching was that students were encouraged to take responsibility for monitoring and evaluating their work. This was in contrast to the teacher being the arbiter of right and wrong answers, which of course fosters dependency. Teachers learned to push students to consider more than approach and answer, so that process of problem solving was considered important. Students were taught metacognitive skills. If they got a wrong answer they were encouraged to work out where they went wrong.

Many of the key studies reporting on mathematics focused on developing students’ conceptual understanding of mathematics, typically by focusing on one area of mathematics, such as fractions, numeracy, or arithmetic. Most of the interventions in the key studies developed teachers’ understanding of the interrelationships between their knowledge of mathematics, how children learn mathematics, and the teacher’s skills to assess students’ understanding of mathematics. The teachers were provided with learning opportunities that focused on their pedagogical content knowledge of mathematics rather than their ability to implement a particular approach. Pedagogical content knowledge is the detailed knowledge of how to teach a subject, the resources and activities that work, the way to introduce them and give instructions, and how to relate them to key subject outcomes. Thus the teachers learned to make classroom decisions based on deeper knowledge of their learners and of their subject.

Deep subject knowledge matters
Interestingly, there is some bad news for generic approaches to improving teaching. Four of the supplementary studies in mathematics with lower student outcomes addressed mathematics achievement in a more roundabout manner, typically through focusing on general pedagogies that may be applied to any subject domain. Overall we should not interpret the synthesis as saying that a skills focus or integrating subjects is wrong. Indeed, we should note that metacognitive skills and peer- and self-assessment skills get a big ‘thumbs up’.

What is being said, however, is that deep subject knowledge matters as it provides depth and intellectual quality. This is how teachers help students make meaning. As a geographer by birth I will always insist that one of the most important outcomes from the subject is that students really understand causation – or how and why things happen. In many lessons I would come back to that theme and unpack a variety of models, of varying power, for understanding and explaining how and why things happen.

In many ways I support efforts to make teaching more relevant, to connect with everyday experience and to acknowledge and use students’ knowledge as a starting point. In principle I have no problem with studying themes that bridge subjects or start with student interests. This might be called topic work. But we should remember that much topic work in primary and secondary schools, before the advent of the National Curriculum was poor intellectual fare, justified on the grounds of tenuous links. If ‘topics’ are to make a comeback in a skills-based curriculum then subject concepts must be part of the superstructure. It would be fantastic to see related concepts from different subjects interacting, such as audience in English and market in DT.

Without this underpinning how can teachers help students generalise and extract ideas that will inform their future independent learning? As has been emphasised in a number of studies on mathematics and other subjects one of the consequences of good subject knowledge is that teachers can connect and integrate different areas of the subject. Understanding is after all an expression of how well knowledge is connected together, but not just in a topic web.

Teacher Professional Learning and Development: Best Evidence Synthesis Iteration [BES]