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Developing subject expertise in secondary science

Written By: Adam Boxer
3 min read

This case study is written by Adam Boxer, Head of Science at a secondary school.

As you read this case study, reflect on the approaches suggested for developing subject expertise and consider how the approaches might be relevant to your own development as an early career teacher.

The dynamic between generic teaching and learning and subject specific strategies has never been more important. In recent years, spearheaded by Christine Counsell (2016) and others, the importance of viewing teaching and learning not as a generic set of skills transferable from classroom to classroom, but as a way of delivering very specific pieces of information has emerged. For example, when considering assessment for learning, until you know what learning in science (or any other subject) looks like, you cannot talk about its assessment.

This isn’t to say that general principles are not worthy. Lemov’s Cold Call (2014) for example is an incredibly powerful technique for building engagement and participation in any classroom. Another example could be starting each lesson with a review of prior learning (2012) through retrieval practice. But these techniques are thought of as a framework, with the subject-specific content sitting inside them. The content of the questions you ask by Cold Call, or the selection and progression of questions in a retrieval practice sequence must be determined by the subject expert. When choosing retrieval questions for example a science subject expert will look at how they relate to today’s learning, what order to put them in and how best to relate past content – is the time appropriate to clarify learning through comparison or synthesis, or is it important to demarcate the boundaries of topics and their distinctiveness from each other? 

For example:

  • In a lesson once students have just learnt about covalent bonding, is doing a retrieval question on ionic bonding likely to confuse students? If so, should it be left till later?
  • When teaching students on a topic to topic cycle – so biology then chemistry then physics – when is the right time to revise material that is completely unrelated? In a lesson about forces, should students be retrieving information about elements and compounds as their starter? 
  • When teaching about fractional distillation, how should retrieval questions about crude oil be structured? Is it best to ask questions starting with the formation of crude oil or start with questions about the properties of different alkanes? 

Only the subject expert can make these decisions.

Therefore, when presented with a generic tool via formal or informal CPD, it may be a good approach to say “if that is the framework, what is the content that sits within it?” Take a particular series of lessons and classify the knowledge to be taught in it and try to figure out if the framework you have been provided with suits any of that knowledge. If you have been given a framework that helps with retention of basic facts, identify those basic facts and apply the framework. If you have been given a framework that helps with communicating abstract ideas, identify your abstract ideas and fill the framework.

As a straightforward example, let’s imagine a school delivered CPD about Cold Call: the art of posing a question to the whole class and then picking a student to respond. This is an incredibly powerful way to keep students alert and engaged as well as to gather information from all students, not just ones who are keen to put their hands up. 

Within a science department, the conversation becomes about which kinds of questions Cold Call is best applied to. For straight retrieval questions from prior learning, Cold Call is highly appropriate and you should expect all students to know the answer. But more speculative questions are clearly not appropriate for this technique. For example, if you have taught students how to calculate the number of neutrons in an atom, and then use a chlorine calculation to springboard into isotopes, it may not be fair to expect students to just “know” the answer to “what’s the problem with saying chlorine has 17.5 neutrons?”

Within school, these discussions should be executed by regular meetings of subject experts, where the principle discussion centres around one question:

For a given sequence of learning, is there anything that would be better taught if we used this framework?

If the answer to that is no, then the framework must be dismissed. Generic tools are means to ends, and the “ends” is the content, to which everything is subservient. 

Across subjects, there is a move towards subject specific expertise, with books and blogs being published looking at how general techniques apply in specific subjects. Within science, the best place to start would be the CogSciSci website – a site formed by a grassroots collective of science teachers looking to embed robust findings from the learning sciences into their day to day practice.

  • Counsell C (2016) Genericism’s Children.
  • Lemov D (2014) Teach Like a Champion 2.0. John Wiley and Sons.
  • Rosenshine B (2012) Principles of Instruction Research-Based Strategies That All Teachers Should Know. American Educator 36(1): 12–39.
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