On the generic vs. the specific

There has been some lovely discussion over the past few days on the limitations of generic teaching practices in developing the subject-specific aspects of teaching. Personally, I am thrilled to see the return of some excellent professional arguing to Twitter.

However much of the discussion I have seen seems to be getting caught on confusion around what the proponents of subject-specific approaches (and I include myself in this group) are talking about. I suspect this stems in part from the lack of codification of some of these subject-specific aspects of practice within some subject communities. It’s no surprise to see history teachers dominating the discourse given they have a long-standing subject community driven by an academic journal that interrogates these things. As a result, there isn’t a particularly strong sense of what ‘subject-specific approaches’ means beyond a sense that ‘generic things don’t work everywhere’.

The difficulty in neatly categorising different aspects of practice – what is ‘teaching’ vs. ‘behaviour management’ vs. ‘managing the room’, further complicates this – these things are not discrete, and so it is (rightly) hard to try and pull them apart.

In my view, the thing that is missing from many generic approaches to teacher development (and specifically the generic approaches that have become dominant in the recent trend of instructional coaching), is the quest to solve persistent problems within a given subject. These problems are often so tied to the nature of the subject that they are unresolvable by generic approaches, and may have solutions that are so specific as to be non-transferable. Here are a few potential examples of what I mean (apologies in advance if I have oversimplified or misunderstood any of the below).

In History, how do you teach students to think about historical sources? What do historians do with sources? How do they investigate the past? How do we get students to see that historians are deliberately constructing the past using these sources? How do we move towards such a fluid understanding of sources when we might need to provide scaffolds for how students use them in the first instance?

In English, how to we teach students to construct an argument about the meaning of a poem? A common problem is a lack of a sense of what evidence is, and how it different from information (i.e. it is used in support of a claim). Why does this problem occur? What might we do over the long-term to fix it?

In RE, how do we get students to see the distinction between a religious text as a religious artefact and the text as an historical artefact? Do we teach a text historically and try to remain ‘objective’? Or do we present a text as an article of faith and then move on to how different denominations have interpreted it to create a sense that it is subject to explicit and conscious interpretation?

In Geography, how do we balance processes and regional studies? Prioritising regional studies may catch us out because students might not have studied all the relevant processes yet, but to study the processes first means we have to start with the abstract rather than the concrete. What possibles ways are there of finding a balance here?

In essence, I think these subject-specific persistent problems often come down to the following questions:

  1. What are the things that make your subject what it is?
  2. What is difficult about teaching these things?
  3. What have other practitioners tried (whether successfully or not) to resolve these issues?

The place of generic techniques within this (and there is a place) is in their ability to provide a baseline (think whole-school routines and some quick fixes such as ‘question, pause, name’ when cold calling) that enable teachers to get a class participating in a lesson. The problem with instructional coaching and other approaches that are (currently) highly generic is that such techniques have a ceiling if they are not working in tandem with both extensive subject knowledge and extensive knowledge of how to teach the subject.

Where generic techniques are used well, it is usually because teachers understand the deep structures of their subject and can manipulate these not only in their planning, but also in real time in their lessons. They know the proximal and ultimate roles of a specific bit of knowledge, and so know they need to check that 100% of students have ‘got it’. They also know what question will give them a good sense of whether they have, and know how that knowledge is likely to manifest in student work.

Generic education research can fit alongside this by supporting subject-specific practice, rather than driving it. Rather than saying ‘research shows retrieval practice works so we need it at the start of every lesson, we should be saying ‘research suggests that this approach has this impact – does this help you solve any of the problems within your subject?’

There is a place for generic teaching approaches, but we need to recognise a) their limitations and b) the fact that they play a largely supporting role (and this is fine).

To put in my two pence on how we might improve some of these things:

  • We should reorient ITT to focus on the subject rather than the generic. I think our bet on how we develop these is the wrong way round. If we crudely break down practice into ‘generic techniques’ and ‘subject-specific practice’, we should entrust the former to schools (who are more likely to prioritise and be good at these things) and the latter to ITT providers who – broadly speaking – are more likely to have the capacity and time to develop these things.
  • We should entrust HoDs to lead more professional development within their teams.
  • We should sign departments up to their subject associations.
  • We should make any generic teaching routines/techniques that are imposed in our schools as simple as possible so that the complexity can lie with the subject-specific (where it is likely to be more complicated anyway).
  • We should reframe discussion of generic techniques to focus on ‘how might this help you solve problems within your subject?’ rather than ‘how can you apply this in your subject?’ (or at the very least, more readily accept ‘you can’t’ as a response to the latter).
  • We should explore whether models of instructional coaching are capable of incorporating the subject-specific approaches that are essential to effective teaching of a subject, and be prepared to accept that – however tempting they may be – these models may have limitations.