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  • Writer's pictureThings Education

“I like this topic…

so why can’t I teach it well?”

Hello and welcome to the 58th edition of our fortnightly newsletter, Things in Education.

Having worked closely with teachers over the past few years, we can say that there are two perspectives from which teachers look at the topics or subjects that they teach – one: how well they know the topic, and two: how interested they are in teaching the topic. There can be topics that one can be very well-versed in but not be interested in teaching them. Multiple eminent scientists come to mind as examples. On the other hand, there may be teachers interested in teaching evolution or astrophysics in school, but they may not have enough knowledge or expertise to do so.

So for every teacher, all topics would lie somewhere on the horizontal axis depending on their depth of knowledge in the topic. The topics that they are experts in will be more to the right side of the graph, while topics they have lower knowledge on will be on the left side. Similarly, all topics will also lie somewhere on the vertical axis depending on the teacher’s interest in teaching them. More the interest, the higher the location of the topic. It would follow that topics lying in Area B of the graph would be the best for the students learning from that teacher. The students would be learning from an expert in the topic, and they would be learning from a teacher highly motivated to teach that topic. This is a ‘no-problem area’ of the graph. So let’s explore the other areas of the graph – C, D and A.

Area C is interesting because teachers are well versed with the topic, but they are not interested in teaching it. Their motivation to teach some topics is low – what could be the possible reasons? In our experience, the lack of interest can come from different places. Topics repeating across the years can make teachers lose interest in teaching them. For example, the carbon cycle or air pollution, water pollution, etc. Students go through these in primary school, middle school and high school. There is not a lot of nuance that increases through the grade levels, but only the bulk of information. So on the face of it, teachers may start feeling that there is nothing new that they can engage the students with. And hence, the interest decreases. At the same time, the concept is straightforward and the teacher knows it pretty well. Some other examples of topics in this region are from human physiology – the different systems of the human body. These topics can get theoretical and monotonous very quickly, if not engaged with in an interesting way. So in a cyclical way, teachers can get disinterested in teaching these topics. Similarly, teachers may know the punctuation rules of direct and indirect speech very well, but they may not know how to make them interesting. A third reason for a teacher to be uninterested in teaching a topic could be that it is an awkward topic to speak about. For example, sex education and adolescent health or caste in India. 

For topics in Area C, teachers need to find novel pedagogical strategies to first keep themselves interested in teaching, and second, to engage with students better to hopefully lead to better learning outcomes for the students. Teachers can go to our collection of more than 50,000 pedagogical strategies on TEPS here, sign up and choose the strategy that they would like to try out in class.

Area D is also an interesting area. One may think that there is a straightforward causal link between not having deep knowledge of a topic and disinterest in teaching the topic. While this link may be true, we think it is more nuanced than that. A topic in Area D may actually start off in Area A, but due to the limited knowledge of the topic, teachers tend to start losing interest in teaching it. Let’s take an example to understand this. The topic of light ranges from primary school to high school. However, as students move up grades, they get a deeper understanding of the behaviour of light – from reflective properties of light and refraction of light to the application of these phenomena in our eyes and the use of light and its properties in building microscopes and telescopes. Eventually, the dual nature of light is also studied in high school. So teachers are not happy teaching the same topic over and over again. Due to lack of knowledge, teachers may not be able to bring out the subtle differences in the content across the different grades. They may not be able to make connections across grades. And all of this would lead to them getting disinterested in teaching the ‘same’ topic over and over again. Other examples of such topics are mathematical proofs, electricity and magnetism, or even the modern periodic table.

Topics in Area D, where connections need to be drawn, need teachers to upskill themselves with a deeper understanding of the subject material. Understanding the subject better is the first step, and then there will be a need to try new approaches to make connections across grade levels. A constructivist approach would work well in such cases.

Finally, Area A. This was a controversial area within the office of Things Education. So we expect there to be some response from our readers as well. Teachers are really interested and motivated in teaching these topics to students. However, they do not have the knowledge or understanding to teach them. For example, evolution or astrophysics or coding or computer science. These topics are not just popular among students but are popular in general. Teachers want to teach these topics. They become popular for teaching the ‘cool’ topics. However, we feel that teachers will need a very sophisticated understanding of the topic as these are nuanced, and these topics are generally not very well described in the formal school system. In a different situation, a teacher may have a high interest in teaching a topic in History like British Colonialism in India. This topic requires a nuanced approach and is dependent on deep knowledge of these historical events. 

We hope you liked this model of our understanding of how teachers deal with the topics in their curriculum. Tell us what you think about it. Tell us how we can make this better. Tell us why this model is totally wrong. We would like to hear what you think. Also, if you are a school leader or an academic head, we suggest that you go through this exercise for all your teachers and all the topics each of the teachers teach. And if you are a teacher, do this exercise. It really clarifies what you are great at and what your professional development should focus on.


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Edition: 3.6

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