The Subject Series, Part 2 – Pedants for Precision

It’s easy to over-complicate school improvement, when in essence it means students performing better in the subjects that they study. For this, we don’t need generalist school improvement consultants, we need subject specialists with the knowledge, skills and experience to provide specific, tangible support to the departments that they work with.

test tubes

In my role at United Learning I have the privilege of working with 6 subject specialists who lead on school improvement by raising standards in their subject across the 19 southern academies in our group.  They make a difference in a way that a generalist school improvement consultant could only imagine.

Ben is our Science Advisor. On an early-morning train journey to Northampton he gave me an insight into the things he looks for when he goes into schools:

It’s my job to ensure that none of our science teachers are working in isolation.  I spend a lot of time talking about writing.  Good science teaching involves getting students to write about scientific ideas, so when I go into lessons I look at the quality and quantity of students’ writing. I want to see writing that is a product of a student’s thought process. They should be able to write a full paragraph about a given scientific concept. We’ve all heard students say “I understand it but I can’t put into words”. This is precisely why they need to write it down, because it crystallises what’s in their head and identifies any gaps in understanding, however small. I’m reminded of the line, “I write in order to understand”. I want teachers to see that the process of writing is how students develop clarity of thinking.

I also encourage teachers to focus on knowledge.  The best science departments insist that students secure a basic factual understanding, often through regular quizzing of factual knowledge.  I can’t apply my knowledge of convection currents to explain a sea breeze if I don’t know that gasses expand because particles move further apart when they’re heated.  So, I encourage Science teachers to give students the chance to practice thinking logically, to see a logical sequence – “if this is true then that’s true, and if this is true then that must also be true…” so students need plenty of opportunities to apply facts across different contexts. 

Imaginative questioning stems from this. For example, in order to explain why solids cannot be compressed a teacher might follow logical sequence of questions such as:

  • Can particles be compressed? No
  • Are there any spaces between the particles in a solid? No
  • Can the particles be pushed closer together? No
  • Therefore, what would happen if I try to compress a solid?

What is interesting here is that the first three questions are closed and concrete, yet the final question (and the teaching objective) is open and abstract. The final conclusion is a logical extension of those concrete facts. 

Attention to detail is important too.  For example, you might see a teacher giving out 1cm square paper to practice graph drawing when students need to be accurate to 1mm when plotting graphs in controlled assessments or exams.  Students need to be shown this attention to detail too. For example if you draw a diagram of a covalent bond you have overlapping circles for each element, like a Venn diagram, but if students don’t draw the dot and cross (representing the shared electrons) within the overlap of the Venn then they may lose the mark if it is drawn shoddily. It’s important that teachers ensure that students are precise about what they’re doing so that there’s no ambiguity. The best science teachers are relentless pedants for this sort of precision.

This precision relates to language too, if there’s a turn of phrase used by a student that is ‘sort of right’ but not precise enough I’m interested in how teachers pick up on this.  I love it when teachers have very high expectations for students’ verbal responses and reject answers that are nearly there but not quite right.  Take a question on pressure: In terms of pressure, why do polar bears lie flat on the ice?  A student might say ‘because this spreads out the mass’ which is a broadly accurate description of what the polar bear has done, but doesn’t answer the question or pick up the marks.  A better answer is that the bear spreads the force (or weight) acting on the ice over a wider area which lowers the pressure. Here, the answer is improved by relating the variables which contribute to the quantity of pressure. It is not that “spreading out the mass” is wholly wrong, it’s just that it’s not nearly right enough. As teachers it is tempting to forgive these ‘nearly answers’ which do hint that students have a fledgling understanding of a given concept, but also show that they are falling short of being able to articulate it using the best scientific language.

I love the precision in Ben’s analysis.  There’s no way a non-scientist would be able to provide such granular guidance.

With the growth of multi-academy trusts we’re going to see more people working across schools in improvement roles.  There’s a danger that we end up with an army of generalist consultants who know their way around a RAISEonline and an inspection dashboard but have no clue about the specific language required by students to gain full marks in a Physics question on pressure.

The flipside of this danger is the opportunity to allow people to develop their careers while retaining their subject specialism.  Our subject advisors have been successful Heads of Department who want to retain their specialism while having an impact across a range of schools in a range of contexts.  Crucially, they are responsible for outcomes in their subject across our schools, meaning that when they go into our academies they roll their sleeves up, work with students and build capacity of subject teams. They’re also well placed to establish links with exam boards and provide precise guidance on moderation, standards, exam preparation, curriculum design and the writing of assessments.

School improvement means students performing better in their subjects.  The majority of support that schools receive should therefore be provided by subject specialists.

UPDATE: Following some feedback on Twitter (“are these not the same as local authority subject leads?”) I should probably stress that (a) Our subject advisors are responsible for outcomes in their subject across our schools and (b) because we as a MAT can ensure consistency in the basics of school improvement (leadership, curriculum, behaviour, teaching, assessment – see previous blogs) we can enable our subject advisors to have impact. Point (a) means that our subject specialists work directly with students, they do masterclasses with A/A* candidates, they provide guidance on controlled assessments and mock exam grade boundaries.  In short, they are subject specialists with teeth.  Point (b) means that they can be sure of a common curriculum across our schools enabling them to invest in assessments and student resources which support this curriculum.

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