The day-to-day importance of having a degree.

There have been many excellent responses critiquing the new proposal to open up teaching to non-graduates (for anyone who didn’t see eduTwitter blow up – see which both focused on the details of the policy as described and which made powerful cases for the importance of the subject knowledge having a degree gives you. While I have no original arguments to add, I do have the experience of teaching two subjects up to A Level, one in which I have an undergraduate and postgraduate degree, History, and one in which I have a long-held interest but no formal qualifications, Politics. (Yeah my Masters degree did include a study of political thought, but let’s just say, I’m no expert in electoral systems) In an average day, having a degree in one and not the other does make a huge difference to my teaching, in order to illustrate how, I’ll take you through last Tuesday, when, as usual, I taught both subjects in the course of the day.

7.45 am – A pile of Personal Statements.

The deadline for Oxbridge applications is closing in and as I am the go-to person in the department for this, I often come in the office in the morning to find a queue of slightly sheepish sixth-formers by my desk, bearing their personal statements. On Tuesday morning it’s Anna’s turn; she’s applying for HSPS at Cambridge and she wants me to check over the paragraphs I told her to revise at our last meeting. Anna has a keen interest in the politics of international aid and I check the paragraph that she has devoted to it to see whether she has followed my advice and foregrounded the reading she has done. She has, mentioning books that I have never read, but whose arguments she is able to summarise clearly and with enough confidence to take her own view on their validity. Having satisfied myself that she can explain her reading to this layman, we chat for a while longer, discussing how she can re-structure some other paragraphs so that they look less like a list of accomplishments and more like a sustained explanation of why she wants to study the subject. The crucial thing is, that while I can advise her on structuring her case, and while I have the general knowledge to be able to pick up any obvious missteps, the expertise in this case is hers. Rewind to this time last year, when I was advising a student who was applying for History and who had an interest in Golden Age Spain and its empire in the Americas. Even though it wasn’t an area I had specialised in, I had encountered aspects of the field while studying units on religious persecution and witch-hunting during my degree, as well as researching theories of empire for my dissertation. This meant that I was able not only to lend her my copy of Toby Green’s Inquisition and Pagden’s Lords of All the World, but I could also then discuss them with her in depth while helping her to craft her statement. This continued when it came to practice interviews, as I was sensible that the questions I directed at her were much more rigorous than those I will spring on the students applying for HSPS and PPE this year. My subject specialism grants me the knowledge of key debates within the discipline of History, which helps me to more effectively predict the kinds of questions that experts in the field might ask.

Periods 1 to 5 – Teaching Politics and History.

The differing levels of skill with which I approach personal statements might only seem relevant to a small group of students, however, as I carried on into the part of the day where I have the majority of my teaching load, the distinctions between how I operate as a History teacher and how I approach Politics continue. My first double lesson of the day is with my Upper Sixth Politics group and I had planned to focus on partisanship in the USA. To help me teach, I had the notes that I had made while teaching through the course last year, the research I had done while planning the lesson and the knowledge I have picked up from regular reading of the Washington Post and a serious addiction to the podcast ‘Pod Save America’. However, halfway through the lesson, a student asked me to explain the peculiarities of the party balance in New Hampshire and the success that libertarian politics has there, and, having no answer to hand, nor having the broad knowledge of political science to make an educated guess, I had to ask him to get back to me on it.

Obviously this wasn’t the end of the world, but it did mean that I missed the opportunity to turn his question to my advantage in building their knowledge. It was a different story with my sixth-form History class later that day, when a stray question from a student about why people felt the need to burn heretics led us off on an important diversion about the importance of the community over the individual in the Early Modern world, and the concomitant belief that the entire community could be judged by God for the actions of an errant member. This is not just a feature of sixth form lessons, in History I can fill in the places where the textbook is silent with my Year 8’s, by explaining that the protests against Charles I’s new Prayer Book in Edinburgh were not spontaneous, but were in fact carefully planned. I can also supplement the planned card-sort on the Battle of Hastings with my Year 7’s by having a discussion about why cavalry might be such a devastating military technology to deploy against an army relying on its shield-wall. The crucial point is, because I have undertaken a wide-ranging, rigorous course of study at university (as well as a PGCE that placed consistent emphasis on the importance of subject knowledge), I not only have detailed topic knowledge about certain key areas I also have secure period knowledge in general. This means that I can not only answer questions, but I know how to best utilise the answers to drive my students’ understanding further. My Politics students will find that I am able to answer most questions they put to me that are relevant to the topic of study, as well as some additional ones if I’ve encountered the subject in my wider reading. But I will not be able to open all of the doors to further knowledge for them as I could do in History, because I do not have the secure background in the subject that allows me to find the handles.

Tuesday PM – Planning.

Ok, so what if the teacher misses a few opportunities to drive the students’ knowledge on, they can still plan a lesson that ensures they essentially get the knowledge they need right? Well, yes, but not quite to the same standard, as can be seen by the planning I did during a free lesson in the afternoon. I scheduled this time to tackle a Year II lesson and a Politics lesson for Year 12. In both cases, I’m struggling a bit with the new courses so I was approaching this task with no great enthusiasm. In the case of the History lesson for Year 11, the new AQA ‘Power and the People’ course requires me to cover a lot of content in a short amount of time, leaving me with the conundrum of how to communicate pretty complex historical processes in a short amount of time. Luckily, I have that fund of period knowledge to back me up, so when faced with the task of planning a lesson that introduces the Chartist movement I can quickly think of a starter activity using an extract from Shelley’s Masque of Anarchy and a section from the 1715 Riot Act. I can also easily work out how to best construct the subsequent activities by hooking them in with the Peterloo Massacre, then exploring the conditions that produced it and its impact on the rise of the Chartist movement. While planning this lesson I use the textbook as a general guide and resource for the students, but I feel perfectly confident in moving elements of the story round and adding elements so that it suits my purposes.

Contrast this with my Politics planning, where I am dutifully following the order of topics outlined by the textbooks, supplemented with relevant newspaper articles and some resources I adapted from last year. The lesson plan I produce is perfectly functional, but it is qualitatively different to my planning for History, which is not always inspired (particularly if I’ve left it to Friday evening) but which normally comes from a place of secure substantive and disciplinary knowledge and which is therefore more effective at developing these things in the students. Again, my degree in History comes into its own, the topic, period and historical knowledge I gained during it gives me the secure foundation that is necessary for any creativity in lesson planning as well as making the whole process a lot faster as a lot of the knowledge I willed is at my fingertips, rather than buried in the textbook or at the other end of an internet search. This is important beyond the planning of next week’s lessons because it is the same process that I will be going through when I revise schemes of work during the summer term. The knowledge I gained during my degree frees me from being tied to textbooks and specifications, and allows me to work out what combination of the materials I am given to work with will make a coherent historical story.

Tuesday Evening – Marking

Fast forward to the evening, when I am trying to plough through marking some assorted essays before I go home. Now surely I will mainly be using a mark-scheme and, at a pinch, I can easily look things up, how exactly does my degree help me here? Well, not only is it a lot faster to be able to instantly recognise when a student has mixed up the Lincolnshire Rising and Kett’s Rebellion again, rather than laboriously looking it up, it also means that I can recognise what makes a good historical essay in ways the mark-scheme doesn’t always cover. That’s not because I’ve read some history teacher handbook which contains the golden rules, nor because I’ve spent some frustrating hours trying to work out what exactly the examiners are asking for. It’s because I’ve written an awful lot of historical essays myself; some bad, some indifferent, some good, at least one a week during term time for the three years of my degree. I know what it looks like when you’ve carefully planned and marshalled your evidence or hurriedly skimmed a couple of books for some seemingly relevant facts at the last minute, I can recognise the tell-tale signs of an analysis based on a misconception, or one based on good understanding because I have done all of these things myself. In the process I developed the disciplinary knowledge that allows me to assess a piece of historical writing for its strengths and flaws, and to do so rapidly. In Politics however, I must rely totally on the mark-scheme, not having had the experience of ever writing a paper that was purely about either political science or theory. A mark scheme can help me assess how well a student might do in an exam, and I have become reasonably adept at judging which of my Politics students will do so, but it can’t give me the full picture that I have of my History students, which allows me to judge whether they are becoming good historians.

After this I went home and spent part of the evening reading, you guessed it, a history book, party because I wanted to and partly because I took a degree some years ago that got me into the habit. The case I have made here is one that applies specifically to History, but I make no special claims for my subject. From Physics to Theology, degree courses inculcate in those that take them, whether they like it or not, a fund of substantive and disciplinary knowledge. When some of those who graduate stumble into teaching, this gives them the intellectual confidence to not just deal with, but exploit the students’ curiosity to take their knowledge further, to recognise what excellence in their subject looks like and to take the curriculum and shape it into something that makes sense for their subject, and even to criticise it when it merits one.

And if that does not persuade you of the importance of having a degree in the subject, I invite you to come and observe me covering a Geography lesson – who knew that plate tectonics could be quite so complicated?


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