Some Principals and Headteachers think that a good way around the problem of teaching computing is to not worry about whether teachers have subject knowledge at all. “All we need are facilitators”, they say, “while the kids can teach themselves and each other.” This is, as any teacher knows (or should know), easy to say, less easy to do, and not altogether the most desirable thing to do even if you can do it. However, just in case your school happens to be “led” by one of the aforementioned Headteachers, here are some arguments you may want to use. I think that any one of them should suffice, and all of them together make for a cast-iron case.
How will parents react?
I once made the mistake of telling a class of 17 year olds that I hadn’t qualified in that specific subject. The very next day I was hauled in front of the Headteacher for saying that, because a parent had phoned up demanding to know what was going on: why was their daughter being taught by an unqualified teacher? It wasn’t true, of course: first, I was qualified as a teacher, and second, once I’d been told I would be teaching that subject, I did as much reading and preparation as I possibly could. But the point is this: if parents take an interest in their child’s education – and most of them do – then having a non-expert taking the class is a non-starter as far as they are concerned.
If you’re not entirely convinced by this, consider whether you think parents would flock to the school if the school prospectus made a feature out of having non-expert teachers.
Or think about it in the context of a subject like French or any other language. Could a non-speaker effectively take the class?
If you’re still not convinced, then think about whether you would make any money if you advertised your services as a private tutor, your unique selling proposition being that you are unencumbered by any subject knowledge. Under your facilitative gaze, the hapless pupil will teach herself or, if she would like to bring a friend or two along, learn from her peers. Go on, try it. But I wouldn’t put a deposit down on that luxury cruise just yet.
Is it morally right?
It’s obvious from that last example that by not providing a subject expert to teach pupils – whatever the subject – you are not providing value for money. As this amounts to taking money under false pretences, while not admitting the fact, that is pretty immoral in my book.
Perhaps it’s a matter of degree. I imagine that every teacher, at some point, has had to take a class in which they do not have expert knowledge; I know I have. But that was done as a necessity in a particular set of circumstances, not as a school policy. And I have led teams of teachers who were not ICT experts. But I expected them to become as expert as they could, and provided plenty of opportunities for them to do so.
What about teacher welfare?
One of the things I disliked about taking a class in a subject I hadn’t studied in great depth was the fear of being asked a question I couldn’t answer. Also, the feeling that, although I did as much preparation as I could, I didn’t have the in-depth knowledge that a real expert would have. As I suggested in The beauty of expertise, true experts can bring a richness to a subject that non-experts simply cannot. They can relate anecdotes, and give undocumented hints and tips. They can give guidance on further reading and next steps.
Feelings of fear and of not being as useful to the pupils as one would like are not conducive to a sense of job satisfaction and general happiness.
How can a non-expert be truly effective?
A teacher who is an expert in a given subject area can ask the right diagnostic questions to find out what a pupil knows or doesn’t know. If the pupil doesn’t know, their answers will indicate where his or her misconceptions lie – in a way that would not be apparent to a non-expert.
Even if you are one of those teachers who think you should be a “facilitator”, and that pupils should teach themselves and learn from each other, you will still be using your expert knowledge of the subject to determine whether what pupils think they know is actually correct. That will also enable you to set up effective groupings within the class, ie ones in which those who know cement their understanding by helping those who do not know, and those who don’t know will learn from those who do. The alternative, in a worst case scenario, is to have kids reinforcing their misconceptions.
If you don’t know your subject, how do you ensure that the pupils make progress? How do you even recognise progress when it is being made?
And what do the experts say?
If subject expertise is not necessary, then why does CAS recommend a very stringent set of subject knowledge requirements for would-be computer science teachers? And see what the DfE has to say on the matter: Become a computing teacher.
Admittedly, groups like CAS have a particular axe to grind, but they make an important point. I remember once a teacher expressed a desire to help me teach ICT, on the grounds that he knew how to use a word processor. I told him that we didn’t have a module called “Word processing”, but that I’d give him the list of skills the pupils would need to be taught. When he saw the list, which included things like version control, automatic cross-referencing and using fields and macros, he turned white. “I didn’t realise I’d have to teach all this stuff”, he said.
And that pretty much sums up the danger of listening to non-experts: they can’t give you good advice because they don’t know what they don’t know.