Academic Teaching

In my last article on “The 4th R in Education – Relationships” I noted that a headmaster I had previously worked with defined teaching as being fundamentally about “communication and relationships.” Whilst I agreed with him I believe it missed a third, vital, component – a teacher’s subject knowledge, writes Simon Smith.

Simon Smith Simon Smith

This may seem a rather outdated notion. Education policy and practice is a battleground between sworn enemies: traditionalists argue for the importance of a privileged type of hard knowledge and deride soft skills; progressives deride learning about great works of the past, preferring so-called 21st century skills like critical thinking, problem solving and team working.

Google “21st Century Learning” and you’ll find a plethora of sites proclaiming to define what it means, offering ways of tackling it and criticising traditional ways of educating pupils as being “Victorian”, “Industrial” and “irrelevant”.

What schools should be doing, apparently, is preparing pupils for “jobs that don’t exist yet” though I still struggle to understand what that means. After all many of my friends and family – educated in the 1980s and 1990s – are very successfully employed in careers and industries that didn’t exist when they were at school; their schooling doesn’t appear to have held them back.

What changed between 1999 and 2000? Smart phones, tablets, Apps, Google etc. didn’t exist when I was at school in the early 1990s, but it hasn’t stopped me (and millions of us) being able to use them now, so let’s stop trying to second guess what lies ahead and focus on getting the fundamentals right.

Yes, teaching and learning must evolve and embrace new, useful technologies, be that hardware, software or Apps.

UniFrog, Show My Homework and SAM Learning are just some of the new tools our pupils at Rydal Penrhos are benefitting from. Similarly, the curriculum must move forward too. Coding, for example, has replaced the old IT courses.

However, the fundamentals of an academic school and effective education, in my opinion, remain as true today as they did a generation ago.

Mathematics, sciences, literature, the humanities, the creative arts and languages are all fundamental to preparing our pupils to be successful contributors to society in the future.

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Similarly, the role of the teacher remains as important today as it ever has and I judge my teachers’ ability not on their IT skills nor their ability to devise fun and engaging activities – I learned years ago that just because pupils are engaged doesn’t mean they are learning anything – but instead on their command of their subject knowledge and their ability to truly inspire their pupils using that knowledge.

All my teachers are subject specialists, some of have PhDs for example, and many are working towards further qualifications. The very best English teachers should be well-read, talk knowledgeably about different literary genres and inspire pupils to read more (does anybody really believe that reading is an out-dated 20th century skill?) and my best Economics teachers, for example, should not only have an expert grasp of Micro and Macro Economic Theory but also its relevance in issues such as Brexit and Trans-Atlantic trade wars.

Professor Coe from the University of Durham argues “learning happens when people have to think hard” and the best teachers make pupils think hard.

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We all remember our favourite teachers and they weren’t necessarily the ones who taught us problem solving, critical thinking or used individual learning programmes. They were the ones who seemed to know everything, they could teach the exam syllabus but so much more too with a rich knowledge of anecdotes – some perhaps more relevant than others!

Think back to your favourite teacher and tell me I’m wrong. Little has changed. When I speak with my pupils about their favourite teachers they don’t mention those who talk about Learning Styles, Growth Mindset, Brain Gym (recent fads somewhat debunked) or who is using flipped learning, teenage neuroscience or a particular cloud-based technology; they talk about the teacher who is “an inspiring genius” (a direct quote!), knows their subject inside out and still has a passion to learn more, read more and is a role model in the classroom.  

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I am not referring to the old-school “sage on the stage” lecturer but those who impart knowledge to facilitate discussion, heated debate and encourage substantiated opinions. One of my favourite educationalists is Martin Robinson whose book Trivium 21C advocates the importance of the classical virtues of ‘Grammar, Dialectic and Rhetoric’, also known as knowledge, thinking and communication. He eloquently argues that such an approach is as relevant today as it ever was, and I struggle to disagree.

I expect all the teachers at Rydal Penrhos to be well-qualified academics but to continue to be learners. Some of their professional development revolves around considering new effective feedback or questioning techniques, reflecting upon how data can inform their teaching, but I am just as reassured when I read one of my teacher’s Professional Development journals to see they are reading relevant academic works, watching documentaries and even completing dissertations.

The new GCSEs with their 1-9 grades and the new linear A Levels with their revised content are all far more rigorous in terms of content (rather than skills) than those courses taught since 2000 and no amount of group work or Wikipedia is going to be able to help our pupils understand this material and get the very best exam grades which I’m afraid remain, whether we like it or not, an important factor in later success.

In a world of 21st Century ‘fake news’, ‘alternative facts’, Wikipedia, social media soundbites and instant polarised views I believe that an education with strong values and in-depth subject knowledge inspired by academic teaching is more important than ever in preparing our young people to be lifelong learners.

Of the many, many tributes to Professor Stephen Hawking it was NASA’s which struck a chord with me: “His theories unlocked a universe of possibilities that we and the world are exploring.”

Professor Hawking was educated at St Alban’s School in the 1950s and clearly wasn’t disadvantaged by a traditional education system.

In 2016 Professor Hawking said of his favourite teacher, “His [Mr Tahta] classes were lively and exciting. Everything could be debated. Together, we built my first computer, it was made with electro-mechanical switches. Thanks to Mr Tahta, I became a Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, a position once held by Isaac Newton …. behind every exceptional person, there is an exceptional teacher.”


Simon Smith Simon Smith

Simon Smith arrived at Rydal Penrhos in January 2017 following six years at Haileybury as deputy head (Academic), where he taught History and was also a senior boarding house tutor, Year 7 tutor and refereed many football and rugby matches. Prior to Haileybury, Simon was at Worth School in Sussex for 11 years where he was head of history and the IB Diploma co-ordinator before joining the senior leadership team as director of academic administration.

Simon gained a BA (Hons) in History and Economics from the University of York and studied for his PGCE at the same university while working at Bootham School. His first teaching post was at Hurstpierpoint College in Sussex. Simon has been a Governor at two prep schools as well as at Haileybury Turnford, an academy school supported by Haileybury. Simon is also a Director of the Welsh independent Schools Council (WISC)

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