Knowledge

Tradition, or at least the Education and Training Foundation, argues that in FE there are two types of knowledge: subject knowledge and pedagogical knowledge. This is based on the idea that teachers in FE are “dual professionals” – professional in their vocation and professional teachers. For a large number, perhaps a majority of teachers in FE, this has the ring of truth to it. You know your subject and you know how to teach. Teacher training in FE assumes, by and large, that teaching is a distinct body of knowledge and skill from the skills and knowledge of the subject being taught. I don’t blame anyone for this assumption, mind you – from a teacher development and training perspective it’s necessary to draw this distinction otherwise you’d be running 25 PGCEs each year for each different subject.

I’m not sure, however, it’s as neat as that. For one, literacy, numeracy and ESOL teachers, for example, are only professionals in their subject as teachers. Then only time I apply my knowledge of English professionally is as a teacher, after all. But even leaving that aside, I think that for a teacher, there is a third set of knowledge and skills: the applicaton of the theory and general practice of pedagogy to the subject being taught: we can be posh and call it applied pedagogy if you really want to.

What I mean by this is that when you teach you select and adapt appriaches suggested in generic pedagogical training according to the subject and the learners, and that the subject dictates the methods used. To take a nice, easy example, consider Socratic questioning or SMART learning objectives and targets. These both require a good degree of language processing on the part of the learner, and therefore are largely wasted in, for example, low level ESOL classes, and indeed only of limited value in any situation where learner meta-awareness is relatively low. So you take some of the principles and the reasoning behind them and you apply and adapt these ideas and the thinking behind them.

This is not, however, one of those “ESOL is different” things: it is different because every subject is different: the application of pedagogical principles is altered by the subject being taught. A straight lecture may be entirely appropriate in some settings, but unlikely for a practical joinery course. Practical learning is different from theoretical learning, and the application of theory to practice is another thing altogether: the varying mix of these from subject to subject in FE means that the broad brush strokes pedagogy of the PGCE / Cert Ed. has to change and focus in context. I was once lucky enough to observe a class where every student had specific learning difficulties, some quite profound: the teacher had plenty of support workers, of course, but had planned a range of extremely differentiated tasks for her class, some of whom were unable to communicate, and knew what was going on and where and why. Again, then kind of lesson which would regularly be inappropriate and impossible for an ESOL class where collaboration and communication are essential. Someone learning to construct a door frame or to cut hair requires differences in the method applied for teaching.  Even where subjects are superficially similar, like ESOL and literacy, require different skills and knowledge not just of the learners but also the different types of English knowledge needed to apply. Tenses, for example, are often unnecessary for a Functional Skills English teacher to teach, but integral to ESOL, where it can be a real challenge persuading both learners and teachers that grammar is anything else.

This “applied pedagogy” is, perhaps, not something you can teach, at least not practically. Otherwise you’d have a PGCE for every subject in the world. It comes through practice and reflection, and develops over time. It’s something I can see in myself with 16 years ELT experience meaning I can walk in, tell you the level of the students and teach a lesson with a reasonable degree of success without really worrying too much. My ICT teaching experience is much smaller, and so my applied pedagogy for that subject is only consolidating, and for maths, it has barely begun: “emerging” as a descriptor would be rather optimistic. Yet I would probably describe my non-teaching knowledge of computers and IT as only slightly higher than my mathematics knowledge, if that. It means that in maths I am very much learning not only what to teach, but also what not to teach, and have only a limited concept of the stages needed to progress through maths. The same with ICT: in the last couple of years I have cobbled together a sort of mental checklist of the different skills, and only really this year do I feel confident enough to start to really think about the course content beyond the exam requirements.

“Applied pedagogy” is, of course, a well poncy phrase, as I might have said in my early teens. Perhaps craft is a better word for it – taking the “scientific” knowledge of subject and of teaching and making them into something else distinct from both. Not everyone can do this, and even those who can, learn it over time. Of course, with quality control being what it is under the usual ofsted driven regime, I do wonder whether novice teachers have this time: instead resorting to a handful of standard methods and stock ideas. But if we can dodge the quality assurance bullet, then perhaps there is as much freedom for teachers to learn along with their students. It’s a nice thought to be setting off to work with.

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