Why are so many teachers worried about teaching A Level?
It is known that many teachers are afraid to teach A-level students. Well, not the students themselves, but the subject. It is true that a level requires a much greater understanding on the part of the teacher, but most of us have a degree in their subject or could teach (to a large extent) the information that we lack. So what is it about teaching a level that causes so much fear?
In the conversations I have had both online and in person, it seems to be a combination of lesson planning and increasing depth of expertise that is the biggest obstacle for most. What do you think is easier: teach Y7 about the main features of a synagogue or Y12 about the cosmological arguments for God’s existence? For most people, the Y7 lesson would take significantly less time and use less cognitive power to plan, resources, teach, and evaluate. Now multiply that extra effort by the number of A-level lessons you would teach in a year, and you have a very important reason why someone chooses to teach only up to KS4.
I would like to examine a possible solution to this problem here. It is not “easy”, but it is simple.
What should we prioritize to improve A-level teaching?
One of the main problems for teachers is the lack of in-depth knowledge required to teach at A level (and to some extent at GCSE). Most teachers have not yet graduated from university and have therefore not yet officially studied the subject. In addition, recruitment and retention problems have resulted in non-professionals replacing specialists and you have a perfect storm. However, the same teachers are very effective in teaching KS3 and KS4 classes. You have spent a lot of CPD time on general pedagogy (Metacognition, questioning, behavior management, etc.) and apply them in their practice. What you really need now is a subject-specific CPD.
The subject-specific CPD has been crucial, but has been suspended for a number of years, partly due to the amount of funds schools have been able to spend on it. Individual teachers across the UK find it difficult to state that they can take subject-specific CPD courses if the school can only hold everyone together in the main hall for a fraction of the cost. Headmasters have not chosen this situation, it is the dark financial reality they are facing. But the effects of this are felt year after year more than ever. Teachers who felt that their expertise was strong before the GCSE and A Level reforms now doubt that they can teach students to get the best grades. It’s fine to be a master of retrieval strategies, but if you don’t know the course content, it doesn’t matter. The curriculum needs to be prioritized.
“But I don’t have time to study A-level topics in addition to all my other teaching commitments!I hear you cry.
I understand the feeling here, but I think this is the wrong view.
Studying A-level topics or topics that you need to teach but are not familiar with should be the first thing you do, not the last. If you “know your onions” everything else will be easier. This is the lead domino. The flywheel. The one thing that, when you nail it, makes everything else simple or out of date. Do you have problems creating a work schedule? Do you find it difficult to design or mark a review? Are you concerned about what type of activity to use in your classroom? Are you trying to advise students on more extensive reading? All of this can be greatly facilitated if your expertise is better. If you invest your time in acquiring knowledge, you will save a lot more time in the long run.
What can schools do to support the development of expertise?
Therefore, the CPD in schools should (sometimes) prioritize the development of expertise over pedagogy. Obviously, some senior executives may need to be convinced of this view. But it shouldn’t take long. Just look at how difficult it is for most schools to find new teachers who are able and willing to teach Key Stage 5. As curriculum plans are becoming more central in Ofsted-Land, schools with a workforce that can be flexible in terms of key stages can be a natural benefit. This can also take some time. For others, they already understand their CPD offer and adapt it to the employees accordingly.
Another point that Mary Myatt highlights in her book: The curriculum: Gallimaufry to Coherence (with more eloquence than me) is that for many teachers there seems to be an excessive trust in the completion of tasks and not in the understanding of the subject matter. The excessive trust in book looks, job exams, or whatever your school may call them, has created the unfortunate situation in which completed tasks serve as a proxy for understanding knowledge. Time fillers are used instead of thought fillers with predictable results.
“Do they do something with what they have been taught, or do they consume worksheets?“
In addition to a deep verbal questioning session, a half-finished task is far more valuable than an understanding task that, as we all know, can be “played” by the student or even plagiarized. At A level, this can have devastating consequences. Students may not really understand how superficial their understanding of a subject is until they are faced with a challenging question in an exam. Until then, the ship has sailed.
A more in-depth analysis within the classroom could prevent this problem from occurring, but only if the development of expertise takes priority. Schools should stand behind teachers with encouragement and meaningful support, and this can be done in a number of ways. Schools could invite experts to offer specialist master classes to employees. You could offer employees a protected time to read their topic or even give them the opportunity to complete a qualification. All of these approaches would make teaching the A level easier and are all easy to implement. Schools only need to prioritize funding accordingly (which is another problem!).
With regard to rating systems, the goals could be based on employees developing their expertise rather than basing them on more immediate achievement figures. This is of course difficult to “measure” at least in the short term. But sometimes we have to stop measuring things so often, and instead doing what we know will make a difference when it matters most.
Teaching a level can be a complex business, but we can simplify it. However, we only have a limited time. Let’s use it wisely.
If you have any top tips for teaching A Level, please leave a comment.
You can also find me on Twitter @ Guruteaching. Say hello!
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