Why are so many teachers anxious about teaching A Level?
It’s well-known that many teachers are frightened of teaching A Level students. Well, not the students themselves, but the subject. It’s true that A Level requires a much greater depth of understanding on the part of the teacher, but most of us have a degree in our subject, or could (to a large extent) teach ourselves the information we’re missing. So what is it about teaching A Level that causes so much anxiety?
In the conversations I’ve had, both online and in-person, it seems like a combination of the amount of effort required to plan lessons and an increasing depth of subject knowledge that is the major barrier for most. After all, which do you think is easier: teaching Y7 about the key features of a synagogue, or teaching Y12 about the cosmological arguments for God’s existence? For most people, the Y7 lesson would take significantly less time and use less cognitive power to plan, resource, teach and assess. Now multiply this additional effort by the number of A Level lessons you would teach in a year and you have a very powerful reason why someone would choose to teach only up to KS4.
Many teachers also fear the standard of argument and evaluation that is required for A Level teaching, especially if they have focused more on KS3 and KS4 for a number of years. Learning how to write better conclusions is one way to develop teachers’ confidence in this area.
However, I want to focus on exploring a potential solution to the most significant problem here. It isn’t “easy”, but it is simple.
What should we prioritise to improve A Level teaching?
One of the major issues facing teachers is a lack of the deep subject-knowledge required to teach at A Level (and to some degree at GCSE too). Most teachers aren’t fresh out of university and therefore haven’t recently studied the subject formally. Add into that the fact that recruitment and retention issues have led to non-specialists replacing subject-specialists and you have a perfect storm. These same teachers, however, are highly effective at teaching KS3 and KS4 classes. They have spent a lot of CPD time on generic pedagogy (metacognition, questioning, behaviour management, etc) and apply it in their practice. What they really need now is subject-specific CPD.
Subject-specific CPD is vital but has been sidelined for a number of years, partly due to the levels of funding schools have been able to spend on it. Individual teachers across the UK find it difficult to make the case that they should be allowed to go on subject-specific CPD courses, when the school could just stick everyone together in the main hall for a fraction of the cost. Headteachers have not chosen this situation, it’s the grim financial reality they’re faced with. But the impact of this, year after year, is now being felt more than ever. Teachers who, before the GCSE and A Level reforms, felt their subject knowledge was strong, now doubt that they can teach students to attain the top grades. It’s all well and good being a master of retrieval strategies, but if you just don’t know the course content, it won’t make a difference. The curriculum has to be prioritised.
“But I don’t have time to study A Level topics on top of all my other teaching commitments!” I hear you cry.
I understand the sentiment here, but I think that this is the wrong way to look at it.
Studying A Level topics, or any topic you have to teach, but are unfamiliar with, should be the first thing you do, not the last. If you “know your onions”, everything else becomes easier. This is the lead-domino. The flywheel. The one thing that, if you nail it, renders everything else easy or obsolete. Struggling to create a scheme of work? Finding it difficult to design or mark an assessment? Racking your brain over what kind of activity to use in your classroom? Trying to advise students on wider reading? These can all be made significantly easier if your subject-knowledge is stronger. Investing your time in gaining knowledge will save you so much more time in the long term.
What can schools do to support subject-knowledge development?
So, CPD in schools should (at times) prioritise subject knowledge development over pedagogy. Obviously, some Senior Leaders might need to be persuaded of this view. But it shouldn’t take long. Just look at how hard it is for most schools to recruit new teachers who are capable of and prepared to teach Key Stage 5. As curriculum plans become ever more central in Ofsted-land, schools with a workforce who can be flexible about Key Stages they teach will be at a natural advantage. Again, this might take time to sink in for some. For others, they already understand and are adapting their CPD offering to staff accordingly.
Another point though, that Mary Myatt makes in her book, The Curriculum: Gallimaufry to Coherence (with more eloquence than I do) is that for many teachers, there seems to be an over-reliance on completion of tasks, rather than on the understanding of the subject content. Over-reliance on book-looks, work scrutinies, or whatever your school might call them, has created the unfortunate situation where completed tasks are taken as a proxy for an understanding of knowledge. Time-fillers are used, rather than mind-fillers, with predictable results.
“Are they creating something with what they have been taught or are they consumers of worksheets?“Mary Myatt, The Curriculum: Gallimaufry to Coherence
A half-completed task, alongside a deep verbal questioning session, is far more valuable than a comprehension task that, as we all know, can be ‘gamed’ or even just plagiarised by the student. At A Level, this can have devastating consequences. Students might not truly understand how superficial their understanding of a topic is until they’re faced with a challenging question in an exam. But by then, the ship has sailed.
Deeper analysis within lessons could prevent this issue from occurring, but only if subject-knowledge development is prioritised. Schools should be standing behind teachers with encouragement and meaningful support and this could come in a number of ways. Schools could invite experts in to offer subject-specific masterclasses to staff. They could provide protected time for staff to read around their subject, or even give them the opportunity to complete a qualification, if appropriate. All of these approaches would make teaching A Level easier and they are all easy to implement. Schools just need to prioritise funding accordingly (which is another issue!).
With regards to Appraisal systems, targets could be based on staff developing their subject-knowledge, rather than basing them on more immediate attainment figures. This is difficult to “measure”, of course, at least in the short-term. But sometimes we need to stop measuring things so much and instead do what we know will make a difference when it matters most.
Teaching A Level can be a complex business, but we can simplify it. We only have a finite amount of time though. Let’s use it wisely.
If you have any top tips for teaching A Level then please leave a comment.
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