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Subject scholarship as a mechanism for developing trainees’ reflective practice and teachers’ curricular thinking

Written by: Grace Healy
6 min read

In considering the importance of knowledge and subject-specialist teaching, Lambert (2018) highlights that ‘the curriculum: the quality of its contents, its sequencing and its enactment are all curriculum enactment responsibilities that fall to teachers’ (p. 363). Therefore, any concern for developing high-quality curriculum cannot be separated from how teachers’ curriculum understanding is developed and subject expertise is sustained. In this article, I will highlight the importance of subject scholarship in the mentoring of trainee teachers, drawing on my experience as a mentor and reflecting on the model developed within the University of Cambridge history PGCE (Counsell, 2012). This article seeks to illuminate the significance of subject-specific scholarship in the context of  ‘taking curriculum seriously’ (Counsell, 2018a).

Subject scholarship within the mentoring of trainee teachers

Reading about the principles for the usefulness of educational research for trainee teachers’ learning (Counsell et al., 2000), I was particularly interested in Principle 6, which suggests that ‘research-based ideas should be recognised as useful by the “community of practice” to which the trainee teachers will belong’ (p. 471). Counsell et al. (2000) propose that trainees want to be accepted into the profession and so conform to the established professional culture. Therefore, the value of scholarship is elevated when mentors and other teachers engage with this scholarship in relation to their own practice. Brooks (2011) highlights that it is by focusing on the professional decision-making of teachers during initial teacher education (ITE) that we can effectively bring together theory and practice. Brooks (2017) has also illuminated the need for mentoring practices to be developed in relation to the subject being taught. Influenced by Counsell et al. (2000), I felt that as a mentor I needed to read the same geography education scholarship as my trainees, and that in so doing, this scholarship could be deployed to shape trainees’ targets and training activities, in both shared discussions and dialogue around lesson observations. This is in line with educative mentoring, whereby teachers are positioned as learners (Langdon and Ward, 2015) and both mentors and trainees are able to benefit through professional learning.

Upon reading Counsell (2012), I was intrigued by how a community of mentors placed their subject at the heart of their mentoring practices. This began simply with several readings being shared, and over time developed into fortnightly reading themes which sustained trainees’ engagement in scholarship during their school placement. The fortnightly themes required mentors and trainees to read and discuss literature from both history education and history, and enabled them to situate practical discussions within this discourse (Counsell, 2012). Counsell (2012) conducted analysis of eight history trainees’ weekly mentoring meetings. This illuminated the importance of how mentors invoked this literature to support their trainees in immediate, practical decision-making in the form of both planning and evaluation. Scholarship provides a strong basis for ‘shared discourse for mentoring’ (Hobson et al., 2009, p. 212) within this community. This is exemplified in the scholarship of an experienced history teacher, a head of department and trainee teacher who collectively read history and history education scholarship to address a practical issue of how to enable students to draw together their historical knowledge in relation to an enquiry examining the continuity in the treatment of mental health through time (Murray et al., 2013). In pursuing this through the use of scholarship, it shifted the history teachers’ curricular thinking, such that they began to question how to ‘represent or theorise continuity in attitude rather than change in method’ (Murray et al., 2013, p. 53).

In my own mentoring practice, I began to more routinely draw on geography education scholarship as a way of guiding the reflective practice of trainees (Brooks, 2017). For example, as a trainee grappled with how place could be conceptualised for students in the geography classroom, I was able to support her to think more deeply about her own practice and to situate this within the scholarship and practice of other geography teachers. Bustin’s (2011) scholarship was integral here, because it provided insight into the process by which as a geography teacher he was able to draw on the concept of Thirdspace (Soja, 1996) from academic geography, to enable students to learn about urban social issues with respect for the lived experience of disadvantaged communities.

Geography education scholarship contributing to curricular thinking

Rawding’s (2017) chapter in Debates in Geography Education draws on two key ideas of the Anthropocene and the global, in proposing a unifying approach towards school geography that emphasises the interconnectedness of human and physical geography. Reading such scholarship within a community of geography teachers was exciting – it allowed us firstly to think deeply about geography. Secondly, it had the capacity to change the nature of our curriculum thinking. It helped us to look at the geography curriculum more holistically, moving beyond a topic-by-topic approach around curriculum planning to open up a deeper conversation about the manifestation of knowledge over time. Here we were motivated to think more carefully about how and why a certain section of the curriculum serves to prepare students for future content, such that it has a proximal function to make the next stage possible and an ultimate function to do an enduring job (Counsell, 2018b). This allowed us to think about how the interplay between different types of geographical content serve as part of students’ wider geography curriculum journey. The notion of the Anthropocene is not something that students would come to grasp in its full complexity within a short sequence of lessons, and so it was fruitful to think about how it would be encountered across different aspects of the geography curriculum. This also gave us a springboard to think about substantive geographical concepts that students would encounter repeatedly, and in doing so how we could use this as an opportunity to ensure that students developed more nuanced meanings of these concepts over time. If scholarship has the power to nurture teachers’ curriculum thinking and stimulate curriculum-making in this way, it also has the capacity to enrich the experience of students in the geography classroom.

In the context of changes to the professional landscape, whereby Ofsted (2019) intends to scrutinise curriculum intent, implementation and impact with the introduction of the ‘education inspection framework’, engaging with geography and geography education scholarship illustrates a mechanism by which subject leaders and teachers are able to engage in meaningful reflection that can develop their curricular thinking.


Ultimately, I hope that this illustrates how the value of geography education scholarship is not necessarily discernible from the scholarship in and of itself, but rather how the merits become apparent when you recognise how it can shape geography teachers’ and teacher educators’ curricular thinking, serve as a knowledge base for inducting teachers into the geography education community, and provide a foundation for others to continue to strive for a ‘deeper understanding of the professional work of geography teachers: to support teachers in “being” geography education professionals’ (Brooks, 2012, p. 307).


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Brooks C (2017) Pedagogy and identity in initial teacher education: Developing a professional compass. Geography 102(1): 44–50.

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Murray H, Burney R and Stacey-Chapman A (2013) Where’s the other ‘c’? Year 9 examine continuity in the treatment of mental health through time. Teaching History 151: 45–54.

Ofsted (2019) Education inspection framework: Draft for consultation. London: Ofsted. Available at: (accessed 29 March 2019).

Priestley M (2015) Teacher agency: What is it and why does it matter? In: The BERA Blog: Research Matters. Available at: (accessed 1 March 2019).

Rawding C (2017) The Anthropocene and the global. In: Jones M and Lambert D (eds) Debates in Geography Education, 2nd ed. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 239–249.

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Taylor L (2014) Diversity between and within: Approaches to teaching about distant place in the secondary school curriculum. Journal of Curriculum Studies 46(2): 276–299.

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      Author(s): Bill Lucas