Books and knowledge.

Kris Boulton recently published a transcript of a speech that he gave at some conference that I didn’t go to. The gist of the speech was that other professions have a minimum body of core knowledge that they have to remember to successfully enter that profession, and teaching doesn’t. It’s a great debate because the premisses are undeniable and the implications almost endless.

The subtext was that the profession of teaching doesn’t take subject knowledge seriously. A sub-debate opened up about subject knowledge in primary, which I’ll write about at some point. In primary education, the old adage “We don’t teach subjects, we teach children,” is beginning to become scrutinised and challenged. Kris, in his usual pithiness, pointed out, “Of course you’re teaching children, but what are you teaching them?

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I later got a bit of stick for publishing one Michael Tidd’s KS2 history cheat sheets, and asking if parents would be happy if this was the extent of their child’s teacher’s knowledge on the subject. I questioned how often the teacher’s knowledge on a subject limits the amount that a student can learn about it; it was as much a personal reflection as an open question. Some were happy with the amount of knowledge in the cheat-sheets, but most weren’t, including Michael.

Of course, the problem with primary education is that you teach ALL of the subjects (unless your school has specialists in).

It is a very tall order to expect you to have advanced knowledge of all of these subjects, especially if the topics keep changing (Sumerian civilisation in Ancient Mesopotamia, anyone?)

So what’s the solution?

I don’t know. This is hard. There are many obstacles and problems with most of the attempts to solve this problem. But I think that the first step is admitting that it is a problem.

At the moment, I’m leaning towards subject specialists in UKS2. If, like me, you are lucky enough to have a specialist music teacher in your school, you know that the provision the children get is FAR higher than anything you could provide. There will be primary schools across the country which have teachers with history degrees not teaching history to 90% of the children. This seems like a huge waste of an expert resource.

So my very fledgling solution is this:

All teachers in primary have to develop a high subject knowledge of certain core areas (e.g. SPAG, early maths, phonics). QTS is subject to passing an exam on this.

Training would continue throughout the first 3 years of a teacher’s career, but it would be expected that teachers ‘specialise’ in one subject during this time. Schools then recruit to ensure they have a broad and balanced teaching force, with multiple specialisms. Subject specialists would have responsibility for coordinating and managing the teaching of their subject, and would teach it to UKS2 pupils.

I’m still thinking about it and my mind is far from made up. Anyway, this is all preamble…

***

Fast forward a couple of days and the discussion was still rumbling on. Sue Cowley suggested that one of the most important elements of a primary school’s subject knowledge is having read a number of children’s books. Kris (and me) agreed with this, and I pointed out that part of my compulsory pre-training work for Teach First was to read a selection of children’s books and annotate the bibliography.

Some on twitter were uneasy about mandating a list, whereas others thought that it was not possible. I flatly disagree with those taking the former stance, and what follows is my attempt to solve the latter problem.

Sue Cowley has already put together a list of 100 great books for early years children, which you can read here.

Mike Watson has also polled teachers for what they think are the best books across the key stages, which you can read here.

My project is slightly different. I want to have a go at putting together a list that all teachers in every primary school should have read. I think that reading these books should be a compulsory part of primary ITT.

I’m going to break it into six categories, with 10 books in each category. The categories are: EYFS, KS1; LKS2; UKS2; non-narrative; and seminal works. This is entirely unscientific; it will be informed by my own prejudices and ignorances, tempered only slightly by furious googling. I may decide to leave a space blank rather than fill it with something that I haven’t read. Please do leave your suggestions in the comments box. Ultimately, the list should be democratic.

I think that it would be very manageable to complete this reading list over the course of ITT.

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I’m not happy with the list, but it’s a start. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts…

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6 comments

  1. Re “Sumerian civilisation in Ancient Mesopotamia, anyone?” … I think I did a module on that at uni in my ancient history & social anthropology degree 🙂
    Check out Amelie Kurt’s book on the Ancient Near East. She was a great teacher and I enjoyed being in her class. Big authority on the subject 🙂

  2. It’s an interesting discussion, your book list looks good although we could argue endlessly about what should be on it. Perhaps instead of mandating a specific set of books, it could be asked that teachers read ’10 books from’ a longer list? This would allow an element of personal choice, and not make teachers feel it was yet another thing being mandated.

    The phonics knowledge you mention is already in the QTS standards (the only teaching method that is). In terms of subject specialists at KS2, the problem you face is that there are many very tiny primaries, especially in rural areas (my own kids’ school has only 3 classes and 3 teachers). In those situations, the specialisms are of necessity limited, although peripatetic specialists can help.

    Interestingly, if Kris had done a teaching degree, like I did, his table would have been piled high with required reading. The fact that teacher education is now often ‘on the job’ means it has become distanced from the very ‘body of knowledge’ that you are both keen to find (I think you both entered the profession via Teach First?)

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