Ofsted 2012: Teacher subject knowledge

by FGTO on March 7, 2013

Observing learning

“114. When inspectors observe teaching, they observe pupils’ learning. Good teaching, which includes high levels of expertise and subject knowledge, with the expectation that pupils will achieve well, enables pupils to acquire knowledge, deepen their understanding, and develop and consolidate skills.”

Published: January 2013


‘To teach all students according to today’s standards, teachers need to understand subject matter deeply and flexibly so they can help students create useful cognitive maps, relate one idea to another, and address misconceptions. Teachers need to see how ideas connect across fields and to everyday life. This kind of understanding provides a foundation for pedagogical content knowledge that enables teachers to make ideas accessible to others.’

(Shulman, 1987 in Teacher Knowledge & Behavior).

Most of the research I have read to date regarding subject knowledge of teachers was in relation to primary teachers. This is not surprising, in that they are in the position of having to teach an ever-expanding range of subject areas. However, it would be naive to assume that secondary teachers have it easier in terms of subject knowledge because they “have to only know one or two subjects”. This post isn’t aimed at evaluating the worth or relative depths of teacher subject knowledge, rather, it is a brief reference to some of the research relating to it and a consideration of how schools and teachers can evidence and strengthen it.

I originally trained to teach in secondary education with a specialism in science. My first post was in a middle school and my second post was as science co-ordinator in a junior school. I spent most of my teaching career in primary & middle schools. What I enjoyed most about this was that I had the opportunity to teach across the curriculum. This eventually led me into teaching ICT. My first faltering steps into teaching ICT were supported by a senior colleague who would teach one lesson, followed by me teaching the next one the week after, with her support. I’ve learnt a lot from having to teach outside my specialism and over all it’s been invaluable for enabling me to link learning in other subjects easily. However what it did also teach me was that a sound subject knowledge was vital to my confidence and effectiveness as a teacher.

The 2009 Ofsted report, ‘Improving primary teachers’ subject knowledge across the curriculum.: A summary of evidence from subject surveys (excluding English and mathematics)’ stated that:

’The role of the subject leader was vital in developing and maintaining high quality teaching in individual subjects but too many subject leaders had too limited a role and too little support to carry it out effectively.’

It was acknowledged that in lessons in which inspectors judged the teaching to be good, this was sometimes so because primary teachers’ strong general teaching skills compensated for any weaknesses in their knowledge of the subject they were teaching.

However, they were less secure about aspects of a lesson which required subject-specific knowledge and they cited examples of teachers:

▪ focusing appropriately on objectives related to literacy in planning and assessment, but giving insufficient weight to the specific objectives of the subject being taught

▪ failing to tackle specific errors and misconceptions as they related to the subject

▪ being unable to field pupils’ more probing questions

▪ Not providing sufficient challenge for higher attaining pupils through the tasks set.


Shulman (1986) in his theoretical framework, suggests that we might think about teacher content knowledge in three categories:

  • Subject matter content knowledge – the knowledge and organisation of the subject domain and how its “truths” are established
  • Pedagogical content knowledge – the ways in which the subject mater can be made comprehensible by learners
  • Curricular content knowledge – the range of programmes designed for teaching the subject or topic, and also for other subjects so that links can easily be made.

He created a Model of Pedagogical Reasoning, which comprises a cycle of several activities that a teacher should complete for good teaching:

Teachers need to understand what they are teaching and why they are teaching it.

Transforming content knowledge into a form in which it is easier for learners to understand. This involves preparation of materials, design of activities, presentation of ideas e.g using analogies and metaphors, selection of teaching approaches, differentiation etc.

The actual teaching activity.

Checking for understanding and misunderstanding – Assessment for Learning

Reviewing one’s performance as a teacher, analysing and adjusting practice for the future.

New comprehension
The teacher develops new understanding of the subject and pedagogy involved.



When evaluating teacher subject knowledge, I thought it might be useful to use the framework as a guide.

This is my attempt at a few questions that could be used to evaluate the impact of teacher subject knowledge on teaching and learning.

Are misconceptions identified and addressed in work and in lessons.
Is there any wrong information taught?
Are there any misconceptions taught? E.g. Gravity is a “downward” force.

Are explanations, analogies etc. effective for clarifying understanding?
Are resources and activities appropriate or might they lead to confusion?
Is information presented in a logical and clear way?
Do the activities and differentiation indicate that the teacher has anticipated potential misunderstandings?

Does the teaching flow so as not to create confusion?
Is the teacher able to ready make links to other areas of learning or the learners’ experience?

Does the teacher ask probing questions to test understanding?
Does the teacher prompt learners to analyse their knowledge and to question explanations?

Is the teacher able to reflect on learners’ understanding and to analyse where there may be misunderstanding due to the teaching, activities or materials?

New comprehension
Is the teacher able to identify new learning of their own gained from their teaching? E.g. A learner asks the teacher a question which challenges the teacher; does the teacher then extend his/her subject knowledge as a result?

What does Ofsted suggest that schools do?

The 2008 Ofsted report acknowledges the very different backgrounds and qualifications of primary school teachers, and suggest ways in which primary schools could mitigate for this by:

  • ensuring that they do as much as possible to provide access to an expert subject leader or the resources to nurture one for each subject
  • review their policies on the role of a subject leader so that these are comprehensive and include the role of training other staff
  • within the context of the school development plan, develop teachers’ subject knowledge, taking account of the demands of different subjects identified in this and Ofsted’s subject reports
  • seek links with neighbouring schools to share good practice and capitalise on local expertise
  • take advantage of subject-specific opportunities for continuing professional development, such as those available in science.’

So how might teachers demonstrate good subject knowledge?

Ten ideas to get started…

  1. Anticipate, look for, identify misconceptions – AND ADDRESS THEM!
  2. Ask questions you don’t know the answer to and encourage pupils to teach you – model that learning about a subject never stops.
  3. Use strong analogies and practical examples in your explanations. (Be careful with these; all analogies and metaphors are flawed to some degree and it’s useful to explore with learners where they might end. E.g. It’s often useful to compare saving something to a disk drive is like storing it in your memory, but unlike human memory, a computer doesn’t make links or store the information in different places and in different ways. etc. You could ask learners to compare the strengths of analogies around a particular topic.
  4. Refer pupils to extra sources of information to extend their learning, the more current, the better
  5. Keep up to date – refer to new developments in lessons.
  6. Research how technology is supporting work or leading to changes in your subject area.
  7. Make learning topical, linked to real-world event
  8. Point out where learning is relevant for the learners.
  9. Make links with other subject areas.
  10. Encourage collaborative sharing of new knowledge perhaps through forums, wikis texts or even….(Dare I say it?) a noticeboard.


And finally….

There is no shame in a teacher not being sure of an aspect of a subject, when we stop learning, we stop teaching.


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