Should it come as a surprise that teachers love to learn?
“Every teacher needs to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better.” - Dylan William
It's clear by the way teachers sign themselves up for evening TeachMeets, weekend debates, Pedagoo events, ResearchEd, T&L Takeovers and Education Festivals that many of us care deeply about our jobs and are always keen to improve. I ran a Twitter poll that 120 teachers responded to: 43% had given up 1-3 Saturdays for CPD, 13% had given up 4-6 and 5% over 7. It does weigh heavily upon me that I have organised, and presented at events on so many Saturdays this year - should teachers really be doing this after a long working week? Shouldn't they be with their family and friends?
Many of the above events focus on pedagogy or general teaching related ideas. When we began planning our first RE Hub conference in 2014, we wanted to do something different. We wanted to focus on subject knowledge and how to get it into the classroom. Saturday 16th April saw the second annual London RE Hub conference, an event that I am still recovering from and trying to contextualise.
RE teachers can be a strange breed, particularly as there are some real fundamental things we don't all agree on (approaches, the name of the subject, the place of spirituality, the definition of theology...). Our subject covers a board range of topics, and has been colonised by British Values, the Community Cohesion agenda, PHSE and SMSC. There is also the divide between schools with a religious character and community schools, now made more diverse by the academisation process.
I think that I first fully realised how much we as a community loved learning when I attended the 2nd Teach First conference and managed to sneak into John Moffat SJ's session on Grace. Here was a Catholic priest, giving an in-depth lecture on a difficult Christian theological concept. The room was in awe. How much of what John said could I take back to the classroom? I'm not sure; I even work in a Catholic school!
Reading the feedback from the London RE Hub conference, people loved the day as they got to learn. They heard experts explain their beliefs, answer questions on the core concepts of their faith, and ask some difficult questions. We went beyond GCSE level, sometimes beyond A-Level - while primary and secondary colleagues share the room. We tried to build in parts of the sessions where teachers tried to explain how to take these ideas back to the classroom, but in many cases the teachers simply wanted more input, more knowledge, more insight.
Hattie (2012) suggested that teacher knowledge did need to be secure, but that it shouldn't create an empathy gap between student and teacher. Yet we know it is something that students value... many students have said they believe I must be a good teacher as I have a Religious Studies degree from Cambridge; it makes them feel secure. Students want to know if their teacher is, quite simply, good enough.
The Sutton Trust (2014) made clear (and is highlighted in an excellent RISE blog <here>):
“The most effective teachers have deep knowledge of the subjects they teach, and when teachers’ knowledge falls below a certain level it is a significant impediment to student;’ learning. As well as a strong understanding of the material being taught, teacher must also understand the ways students think about the content, be able to evaluate the thinking behind students’ own methods, and identify common misconception.”
RE teachers often recognise that they have these gaps, and want to fill them. In a subject where we are often struggling for subject specialists, and often see the subject being taught by non-specialists, even at examination level, this is a great concern for the RE community.
Fighting for subject knowledge CPD is tough, and it will continue to get tougher. Schools are struggling with budgets, and as someone told me on Twitter, such study days are "self indulgent". I politely, and respectfully disagree. The fruits of the conference continue to grow, those who studied together on that today build networks of support and exchange. Despite my worries about 'stealing teachers Saturdays', I know I am willing to do it myself (and make up the time to my wife and young son!), and will continue to do so. The most humbling thing for me, was that teachers travelled from all over the UK to attend our day; thank you from the bottom of my heart.
Some further questions:
How can we create opportunities for staff to develope their subject knowledge? (I love the idea of one INSET day being given over to subject study - for RE teachers, visiting places of worship etc)
How can we encourage a community of learning in schools alongside the current demands and stresses?
How can staff best share their learning with students if it doesn't quite fit the curriculum?
I am proud to be part of something that values subject knowledge, and is trying to improve it. The London RE Hub team 2016:
The London RE Hub website will soon be updated with all resources from the 2016 Conference. Please get in touch via TheLondonREHub@gmail.com if you would be interested in helping run the 2017 Conference.
- Hattie and Yates (2012) Visible Learning and The Science of How we Learn
- Sutton Trust report into Great Teaching (2014)