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Elizabeth Holmes

Why subject-specific CPD has to be a priority

How do we bring our subject to life for pupils? By regularly topping up our own interest, knowledge and skills. Elizabeth Holmes outlines the characteristics of effective subject-specific professional development.

‘Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.’ Mahatma Gandhi

Whenever I speak to teachers about the professional learning they access during the course of their careers, it seems that subject-specific CPD often takes a lower priority than other more generic training and development. This is concerning, not least because without regular top-ups of the very latest in pedagogy and content for a subject there’s a risk that teaching can become dull, inaccurate and a turn-off for any students studying it.

If we are to bring alive the topics and subjects we teach then they must feel alive to us as we teach them. That is unlikely if we don’t top up our own interest, knowledge and skills on a regular basis. Yet there is an inevitable tension between individual and institutional professional learning, and this is perhaps most typically evident when it comes to subject-specific CPD.

Needs will naturally vary between teachers, but unless schools keep a careful watch on the balance between the specific and generic professional learning that teachers need to undertake, gaps in knowledge and skills may develop, and the task of enthusing learners and developing best practice will quickly become onerous.

New learning

We can’t hope to be able even to map out the territory of the subject for others without staying on top of it ourselves. And when we are generally ignorant of what we don’t know, it really is essential to take every opportunity to expose ourselves to new learning.

Teachers who manage this task well seem to focus on the following strategies:

  • Joining a subject association – typically these will stay on top of what’s new in terms of research and development and report on it regularly through journals and ezines. These updates can be invaluable, usually offering guidance on how to pursue learning further.
  • Linking up with teachers covering the same subjects/topics in neighbouring schools or nationally/internationally via social networking sites such as Twitter (most professional associations offer guidance on using social networking sites safely).
  • Deciding to make subject knowledge a top priority for a period of time (for example, a term) – the habits developed seem to stick far beyond the original target but the initial commitment is limited and achievable.
  • Engaging in action research specifically targeted at developing subject knowledge.
  • Committing to helping to develop subject knowledge in others.
  • Gaining an additional qualification such as a postgraduate diploma in the subject you teach, purely for the love of the subject.
  • Contributing to the wider body of knowledge through research and communication (perhaps by writing articles for journals or the education press).
  • Engaging in mentoring or coaching.

Short bites

It can also be fruitful to explore the ways in which your subject area interacts with others. How can links be made between what students learn in your classroom and what they encounter elsewhere? Do thinking skills overlap between different subject areas? In what way can you guard against your subject being taught in a silo, unhelpfully compartmentalised?

There will be ways in which subject-specific knowledge can be developed on a daily basis in short bites of time, for example

by gathering some articles, research papers, relevant chapters and so on, so that when you have five minutes you can read (or at least scan) one with ease rather than having to source reading material. Taking time to focus on subject-specific CPD not only impacts teaching, it can also contribute to the enjoyment we get out of the job and our commitment to developing in others certain knowledge, skills and understanding about the world. For those benefits alone, let’s indulge ourselves! 

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