How do expert primary classteachers really work?

Our current Book of the Week is How do Expert Primary Classteachers really Work? A Critical Guide for Teachers, Headteachers and Teacher Educators by Tony Eaude.  Based on Tony’s own research, this book presents a different view of the distinctive learning needs of 5-11 year-olds and examines the knowledge, skills and attributes required to meet these, especially as a classteacher. Informed by research, but linking this with practical examples, it examines how teachers with a high level of expertise with young children actually think, act and interact.

In this blog post Tony explains the thinking behind the book.

Teaching a class of young children is complex and unpredictable. Yet primary teachers are constantly encouraged to concentrate on results in literacy and numeracy and on didactic teaching methods. As a result, breadth and balance has been lost, the humanities and the arts marginalised and many children’s engagement with, and passion for, learning threatened.

The Cambridge Primary Review introduced me to the literature on expertise and teacher expertise, mostly from the United States. Despite some unease with the term ‘expert’, this seemed to offer important clues to understanding how really good teachers actually work, recognising that there are many different ways of doing so. However, it still said almost nothing about what was distinctive about teaching a class of young children.

‘How do expert primary classteachers really work?’ tries to explore this question in a simple and accessible format. It draws on the features of how experts operate, such as forming hypotheses, using specialist knowledge and improvising when faced with unexpected events; and how expert teachers work and think, in aspects such as using subject knowledge, providing feedback and planning. The book relates these to the reality of the primary classroom, with its many, cross-curricular aims and the needs of the ‘whole child’, social, emotional and creative as well as cognitive.

While writing, I found the classic distinction between ‘domain’ and ‘craft’ knowledge of limited help, especially if domain was interpreted to mean ‘subject’. In particular, the lack of emphasis in the literature on personal and interpersonal knowledge and on relationships became very puzzling, when teaching seems to imply a knowledge of how teacher and pupils interact (and when the emotional impact on oneself of teaching young children is so powerful).

Shulman’s work on pedagogical content knowledge helps to show why subject knowledge as such matters less than the ability to match the subject matter to a particular group of children. His writing reminds us that teaching a class of young children is not just about producing a model lesson, with clearly stated objectives, meticulous planning and neatly summarised learning outcomes; but that it involves trying to meet multiple (and often-conflicting) aims over a whole year, increasingly in the face of external expectations which encourage simplistic and mechanistic teaching. Teaching a class is much more complex and fulfilling, requiring thought and judgement about how to create a curriculum which enables children to gain, and apply, the skills, attitudes, values and dispositions required for life in a world of constant change.

The book is designed to set readers thinking about teaching a class and about primary education in new ways, rather than provide the definitive version of how teachers should work (as if such a task were even remotely possible). It encourages primary teachers – and those who  educate and manage them – to remember that the role is not just about ‘delivery’ of a pre-ordained curriculum so that children achieve high scores in literacy and numeracy. I hope it will help you recognise how expert primary teachers actually work- and reflect on ways of developing your own expertise.

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