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How we're supporting teachers' own subject knowledge

Published: Jan 11, 2022 3 min read


Science CPD Lead

National STEM Learning Centre

Teachers are at the heart of effective teaching, however we know that science poses challenges that are not always found in other subject areas. To support effective teaching, the subject specific CPD by STEM Learning and its partners, backed up by quality-assured resources, is key to address many of these challenges.

Many teachers are teaching outside their own specialism, either having trained in a subject other than a science, or having to teach more than one science. This means that teachers' own subject knowledge is key - and often needs to go beyond what students need to learn (subject knowledge for teaching). This then helps build towards effective pedagogical content knowledge (PCK), which is known as being key for effective teaching and learning. Knowing your subject inside out, understanding what students need to learn, where they will progress next and the most appropriate ways of structuring teaching episodes is important. This often needs subject-specific CPD in order to achieve this, which cannot be addressed simply through whole-school training.

Building confidence in purposeful practical work is something that sets science apart from most other subjects. Doing practical work for the right reasons, with the right learning outcomes, rather than just “doing a practical” for its own sake is vital. Teachers who are outside of their specialism, or who are fairly new to teaching science, need high quality support in order to maximise the benefits (and avoid the pitfalls) of high-quality practical activities. Intensive periods of hands-on training, such as summer schools for early career teachers, are one way to give a flying start to those joining the profession.

For teachers, we all have parts of the curriculum that either challenge us, or we're just not that interested in. Increasing our depth of subject knowledge and developing ways of improving PCK can also make it more interesting for us. It can challenge us to see the most appropriate sequencing of learning, rethink the order we teach things, and how, particularly in science, they link across the difference sciences and beyond into other subjects.

For example, in secondary schools, we often teach “acids and bases” quite quickly as it can be engaging practically for students. But if students do not have a solid foundation in the particle model, basic equations and reactions, then it is cognitively difficult for them to make the most learning from this topic.

In primary, we may ask pupils to explore magnets and observe/experience the effects of a magnetic force. However, without the correct teacher subject knowledge, children will not develop the use of scientific vocabulary, such as north pole, south pole, repulsion and attraction. This is all key terminology which is required for their next steps.

High quality resources can save teachers time, and maximise student learning, by building on core subject knowledge. The highly rated Best Evidence Science Teaching (BEST) resources, with their subject maps, really make it easy for teachers and science leaders to plan the most appropriate learning routes, as well as activities to diagnose preconceptions- and how to deal with them.