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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Does Subject-Matter Knowledge Count as Much as We Think?

By Peter DeWitt — September 28, 2015 5 min read
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There has long been a debate going on within and across schools. On one side are teachers and leaders who believe that subject-matter knowledge is the most important element to the academic achievement of students. This belief is usually held by secondary educators because that is where we find people with more of a content specialty.

On the other side of the debate are teachers and leaders who do not believe that the academic achievement of students is solely based on subject-matter knowledge. This belief is usually held in high percentage by elementary teachers and leaders because in most cases, elementary teachers have to teach every subject. This is something that subject-matter knowledge believers feel is a crux of the academic achievement issue, because teachers are teaching content that they are not necessarily experts in.

There is an old quotation about teachers at different levels. The quotation is that, “Elementary teachers love their students, high school teachers love their subject, and college professors love themselves.” Although I do not think that is 100% true across the board, I wonder if there are elements of truth within that popular quotation.

No offense to college professors.

The Issue with the Issue

The issue...with the issue of subject-matter knowledge is that it creates a barrier between teachers, students and leaders. When we believe that subject-matter knowledge is the most important element to student achievement, it makes the process of teacher observations almost impossible for leaders who have little experience with the subject they may be observing. It also means that peers from other departments can offer nothing of value to teachers in other content areas.

This is where the research of John Hattie, someone I work with an a Visible Learning trainer, comes into the equation. Hattie’s research involves more than 1,100 meta-analysis which includes over 250 million students. It’s hard to argue against 250 million students but people do try.

In Hattie’s research he found the subject-matter knowledge had an effect size of .19. This .19 effect size is well below the hinge point which is .40. The reason for calling it a hinge point is that out of the 150 influences that Hattie found to have a positive or negative effect on learning, .40 was where he found that students made a year’s worth of growth for a year’s input.

This does not mean that subject-matter knowledge doesn’t matter, because it does to a certain extent. What it does mean is that just because a teacher has a high level of subject-matter knowledge doesn’t mean they can convey the lesson or the information across to students...especially the ones who struggle.

In order to really meet the needs of students we need to have a balance between subject matter knowledge and a deep understanding of students. We know that relationships matter, but they matter more than some people may think. Think about books like Blink by Malcolm Gladwell where students size us up within 10 seconds.

In actuality, teacher-student relationships is one of the most important elements of academic achievement and growth for students. Teacher-student relationships has an effect size of .72 which is well over the .40 hinge point. Other areas that are of greater importance than just subject-matter knowledge are classroom management (.52); providing effective feedback (.75); teacher clarity (.75) and engaging students through classroom discussion (.82).

Before we can impart our content-knowledge wisdom with our students, we need to make sure that we have built relationships with them first.

Implications for Leadership

For as long as teachers have been teaching, and school leaders have been leading, there has been a debate among both parties when it comes to observation. How can a leader without the subject-matter knowledge of the content area they may be observing possibly provide feedback to the teachers?

There are many ways that leaders can provide feedback if they look in the right places.

Co-constructing goals around the observation (and evaluation) process is a great place to begin. When teachers and leaders have the necessary dialogue around the lesson to be observed it will help both parties start on the same page. However, because of time constraints this does not always happen. It should happen...but it doesn’t.

Instructional Coaching expert Jim Knight, someone I also work with as a coaching/leadership trainer, has downloadable forms which leaders and teachers can find here that will help leaders have a focus that may provide insight into a teacher’s blind spot. Those forms include looking for growth areas such as:

  • Positive vs. negative interactions between teachers and students
  • Growth mindset vs. fixed mindset questions between students and teachers
  • Instructional vs. non-instructional interactions
  • Surface level vs. deep level questions
  • Teachers talk vs. dialogue with students and between them

There are countless areas that leaders and teachers can work on, and it doesn’t have to mean the leader has subject-matter knowledge. What it does mean is that the leader has to have a deep understanding for what student engagement looks like, and that is an area that teachers and leaders can talk about in larger venues like faculty meetings.

In the End

Hattie says,

If you teach 90% surface, ask 200+ questions a day of which 90% you (and the kids know) already know the answer, if your written and oral feedback written is mainly about the facts, if you talk 70%+ of get time ...then you need only be a page ahead of the kids."

Hattie goes on to say,

However, if you talk less and kids talk more, if you decrease the surface questions and increase the students questions about their work, if you have a more balanced surface and deep learning then subject matter can count a lot."

As you can read, Hattie’s work does not mean that subject-matter knowledge does not matter. What it means is that subject-matter knowledge is not the only thing that matters when it comes to student achievement and growth.

We have to stop getting so hung up on the idea that someone who doesn’t understand (or lacks a deep understanding) of the content has nothing to offer to the teacher who has the deep understanding of the content.

Instead of looking for the issues that divide us in our individual schools, we should open the dialogue up and talk about those things that we can work on together. We are all deeply involved in a profession that should be focusing on growth and not on gotchas. And our relationships with one another is a great place to begin.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.