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Lee Donaghy
Development Lead, Teach First
Ambassador cohort

Subject knowledge – ‘10 things every teacher educator should know’

What we teach (the subject content) is as important as how we teach (pedagogy). That might seem like an obvious statement, but it’s often underestimated. We explore this in the first of our '10 things every teacher educator should know' series.

The importance and the underestimation of subject knowledge apply as much in the primary phase as they do in the secondary phase, where primary teachers need to know the foundational knowledge and what progression looks like over time in 13 subjects, of course albeit in less depth.

It is also true that teachers – and therefore also their teacher educators – need good knowledge of child development. Although this is neither subject knowledge nor pedagogical knowledge it does support teachers to make better choices about what they teach, when, and in what order, and what strategies and techniques they use to do so.

I would argue strongly that what we teach (the subject content) is too often overshadowed by how we teach (pedagogy). Good pedagogy isn’t necessarily generic, as the nature of the content of a subject has much bearing on how that content is taught.  
Take the Teachers’ Standards, for example: only one out of the eight standards refer explicitly to subject knowledge. Teachers’ Standard 3 (‘demonstrate good subject and curriculum knowledge’) is the Cinderella Standard, working hard in the background, underappreciated, to support trainees’ practice in other standards:

  • TS2 (promote good progress and outcomes by pupils)
  • TS4 (plan and teach well-structured lessons)
  • TS5 (adapt teaching to respond to the strengths and needs of all pupils)
  • TS6 (make accurate and productive use of assessment)

Put simply, without good knowledge of what you are teaching, it is impossible to meet these standards in a meaningful way. For example, one has to know what good progress looks like in a subject area and what is being assessed to promote good outcomes and make productive use of assessment.

As teachers of subjects (and I’m including primary teachers in this), trainees need to develop an understanding of vital subject content, how to sequence it over time, and what misconceptions pupils are likely to develop and how to overcome them. It makes sense that those who educate specifically in the teaching of a subject must also have well developed subject knowledge. This must be paired with pedagogical content knowledge – that is an understanding of what to teach in what order, how to communicate it, and what common misconceptions might arise. Only if this is the case can the teacher educator effectively model, guide and prompt what good practice in those standards above consists of.

To support this, I will use a case study from my recent work to show how I have drawn upon my own subject and curriculum knowledge to support trainees to develop effective practice in each of the four Teachers’ Standards.
Case Study

In term two of his training year, a history trainee had made good progress in establishing high expectations and clear routines (secure in TS1). He had built excellent relationships with pupils in his key stage 4 class and behaviour was good (secure in TS7). He was regularly planning lessons, the activities of which appeared to clearly relate to the learning objectives he was setting (making progress in TS4).

However, he had a tendency to deliver activities one after another during lessons without effectively checking for understanding. What checking did take place after completion of activities mostly consisted of the trainee asking a small number of individual pupils to share their answers to set questions, or the information they had collated into a table or mind map diagram. As a result, it was difficult for him to show he was accurately assessing pupils’ learning (TS6) and supporting them to achieve good progress (TS2). 

Also, although some aspects of his lessons were well planned with clear links between activities and objectives, his planning was not building pupil understanding as it was not focused on the detail of the knowledge they needed to grasp (TS4). As a result, he was not able to effectively adapt his teaching to varying needs within the class as he was unclear about which pupils had secure knowledge and which needed further support (TS5).


Observations of lessons and conversations with the trainee revealed the cause of this difficulty was a lack of understanding of the precise knowledge pupils needed to gain within a particular topic. Lacking this granular detail, the trainee was delivering lessons with generalised learning objectives, such as (in a unit on the development of the West in 19th century USA) ‘[e]xplain why the cattle industry changed after the Civil War’. 

When attempting to assess whether pupils had achieved this objective, he relied on asking pupils to feedback ‘whole’ answers to such questions. Without being clear about the building blocks of knowledge needed to answer such questions effectively, he rarely used this information to diagnose misconceptions, recap key points missed or challenge pupils to develop their understanding further. In addition, this checking was not comprehensive as he was sampling individual pupils, rather than assessing the understanding of the entire class before moving on.

Subject knowledge development:

Initially, my work was for him to focus on these building blocks of knowledge that would enable pupils to fully understand such key questions, as in the example above of the development of the cattle industry in 19th century USA:

1. Knowledge needed by pupils:

A sense of the geography of the industry. For example, they need to know where Texas (the starting point of the cattle trails) is and the places the cattle were driven to.

Methods used to develop this knowledge:
  • We began to use a range of maps to explicitly teach pupils the position of Texas, Chicago and mid-western ‘cow towns’, the states and territories such towns were in, and the location of the cattle trails in the wider North American continent.
  • We explored the relative locations of important places in the cattle industry by using compass directions (Cattle were driven NORTH from Texas; the railroads were expanding WESTWARDS).
2. Knowledge needed by pupils:

The chronology of the industry, including when the Civil War took place, secure in long-term memory.

Methods used to develop this knowledge:

This sense of chronology was developed through the construction of a comprehensive timeline, which was added to as the unit developed.

3. Knowledge needed by pupils:

The factors that influenced the growth of the industry, such as the location of newly built railroads, or the emergence of new markets for beef as populations spread west during the 1870s.

Methods used to develop this knowledge:

This knowledge was developed through focused whole-class reading tasks with:

  • Regular emphasis and summaries of key points by the trainee;
  • Carefully designed questioning to check understanding of key terminology during the reading;
  • The setting of questions to be answered by pupils following the reading, which focused on the key information needed to explain the industry’s growth.

How this supported the trainees’ progress in TS 2, 4, 5 and 6:

TS4 requires trainees to plan and teach well-structured lessons. Our work together dug deeper into the specific items of knowledge that pupils needed to answer a broad causation question about the development of the cattle industry. This enabled the trainee to build on an already effective aspect of his practice in which he thought carefully about matching lesson activities he designed to the learning objectives he set. Working at a more granular level of detail enabled him to sequence the content pupils were exposed to within these activities and ensure his planning considered what pupils would be thinking about at every stage of the lesson. Through this he built pupils’ knowledge cumulatively, ensuring efficient and effective use of lesson time.

A clearer idea of the detailed content to be taught also meant he was a lot clearer about what he was assessing when checking for understanding, supporting his development in TS6. He could design questions to check specific items of knowledge as well as introducing regular low-stakes quizzes, for example on events included in the timeline. Allied to this, we designed, practised and delivered assessment routines based around the Teach Like a Champion technique ‘Show Me’.  This involves posing questions to all pupils at the same time and receiving their answers simultaneously (in this case using a programme on the pupils’ school-provided tablet computers). Thus, the responses of all pupils could be checked and the data received can be considered reliable because all pupils answered independently at the same time. As a result of this precision of assessment, the trainee was better able to diagnose misconceptions pupils had or knowledge they had not retained.

This in turn meant the trainee was better able to adapt his teaching to the strengths and needs of all pupils, improving his practice in TS5. The low stakes quizzes demonstrated, for example, that specific pupils were taking longer to understand the geography of the cattle trade. This allowed the trainee to provide these pupils with maps during whole class reading exercises so that they could locate the place names mentioned in the text. This reduced the cognitive load of the reading exercise for these pupils, enabling them to better follow the text and integrate the information in it with the information in the maps. This assessment information also enabled the trainee to target his questioning during the reading exercises towards these pupils, asking for example: ‘[i]nto which state to the west Kansas did the railroads extend during the 1870s?

Finally, this all had the effect of improving pupils’ progress in history. He began to specify the precise knowledge he wanted pupils to gain and designed activities to focus on this. He was able to more precisely assess the extent to which this was successful and take action to address misconceptions or difficulties for specific pupils or groups of pupils. Overall, he moved away from an approach akin to throwing as much paint at a wall as possible and seeing what sticks. Such an approach is satisfactory for higher prior attaining pupils with larger vocabularies and more knowledge in their long-term memories. However, it somewhat leaves to chance the progress of pupils with lower prior attainment, smaller vocabularies and less knowledge in their long-term memories.  Instead he moved towards an approach more akin to that of an Old Master, clear about what the end product looked like and carefully and systematically, but with much skill, painting with subtle brushstrokes. Guided always by the history content pupils needed to learn, he sequenced it carefully and assessed it systematically, meeting pupils’ needs along the way, to ensure his class were better able to give a credible account of the reasons for the growth of the cattle industry in the USA in the 1870s.

About the author

Lee is a teacher educator working for Teach First in the East Midlands. He's also a Teach First Ambassador, who joined our programme to train as a teacher in 2004. Find him on Twitter @LeeDonaghy

About this series

We train thousands of new teachers each year, but this is only around 5% of all new teachers. So we wanted to share some of the thinking behind our teacher education in this series of blogs. We hope these blogs will be helpful for the thousands of schools that support new trainee teachers each year, and act as a starting point for conversations with other teacher educators – so we can all keep learning and improving. 

This is our current thinking but we’re always reviewing and learning from research, other organisations and practice. We want your views and feedback: What do you agree with? Is there anything you disagree with? What have we missed? Let us know on twitter – you can chat to our teacher education leads @FayeCraster and @Reuben_Moore (and we’re on @TeachFirst

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