Subject Knowledge and Teacher Education

Author(s) Viv Ellis
Publisher Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd.
Published 2007
Pages 208
Price £70.00
ISBN 0826493440
Reviewed by Mr Colin Wong
Liverpool Hope University
Review published 23 July 2007

In his book, Dr Viv Ellis tracks the development of three trainee teachers’ thinking about their subject knowledge in the context of ‘Standards-based’ initial teacher education and the practice of auditing this subject knowledge. His book is based upon his interest in how student teachers approached the systems that teacher educators manufactured for them and how their thinking about the concept of subject knowledge appeared as an aspect of their work on becoming a teacher. He amusingly describes the initial panic of having to create and implement a subject knowledge auditing system at his university, and the relief of being certified ‘compliant’ by Ofsted.

Before he discusses the students’ individual case studies, Ellis offers a useful and purposeful potted history of initial teacher education towards the end of the twentieth century. His witty observation that “the reforms of ITE…along with government interventions in teaching…were founded upon an objectivist view of knowledge as a static and universal commodity that could be fragmented, accumulated and transferred” will have a resonance for many readers.

The case studies revolve around the student teachers’ thinking about the subject knowledge of English at the time of the 4/98 Standards…don’t we all remember these Standards well?

Two key questions guided Ellis’ research:

  1. What did these beginning teachers think about the subject knowledge of English and did this thinking change or develop over the period?
  2. How might this thinking and the way it developed be conceptualised?

The book hangs onto these two key questions as it explores some foundation epistemological questions at the outset before it places the research in its cultural-historical context through a discussion of the reforms of teacher education. He then explores a theoretical framework of knowledge creation – bringing together the contextualist, sociocultural and ecological perspectives on knowledge and cognition. His diagrammatic representation of knowledge creation as a dynamic system inter-relating culture, activity and agent is a useful tool to aid understanding of how these layers interact. The extended case studies that follow span two years for each beginning teacher (I use this phrase as the book is subtitled ‘the Development of Beginning Teachers’ Thinking’). The penultimate chapter offers an analysis of the underlying processes of development across the three cases that represent a conceptual answer to question two above. In the final chapter, Ellis suggests some of the pedagogical implications of the research in terms of “how teacher education programmes might better reflect an understanding of subject knowledge as being amongst participants in a field as much as it is within them”.

The small-scale, in-depth study of beginning teachers as they learned to teach is plotted over time with data being generated, collected and analysed including: preliminary conversations; biographical information; course documents; long interviews; mapping tasks; lesson observations; written narratives; discussion of narratives; interview transcripts. However, at many different levels, these case studies are a real insight into the thoughts and fears of student teachers. The amount of self-reflection in the exercises undertaken goes beyond the remit of the book and offers an added dimension to what student teachers consider of importance in their initial teacher education. In conclusion, the case studies confirm the importance of subject knowledge in a wider examination of the development of teachers’ thinking but “in contrast to the narrow and fragmented approach to auditable content dominant in the arena of teacher education policy”. Ellis finds that audits are symbolically negative and create “anxiety and fear about knowledge and teaching at the start of pre-service courses…the message is that knowledge is fixed and given and utterly disembedded from any social context whatsoever”. These are interesting findings for teacher educators to consider in their programme design.

Beyond offering a study of teachers’ early-career concept development, Ellis provides a model for how research and study might be conducted. He discusses the step-by-step process of his work situating his research within the existing traditions. He references freely from Adamcyzk through to Yaakobi (not quite A-Z), via Vygotsky, with an eye on Eisner. There are also international perspectives such as those developed by the Carnegie Task Force on Teaching as a Profession.

For this reason, this book is ideally marketed as a central text for teacher educators and researchers looking for a solid research methodology. Additionally, the context makes it an ideal supplementary reader for other student teachers, particularly PGCE trainees who will be able to empathise with the challenges and issues that the three study participants met.

A very useful addition to the book is a glossary of England-specific terminology and jargon related to education. In itself, the glossary highlights how education has become acronymic and entrenched in bureaucracy and government-led initiatives and directives.

Dr Viv Ellis is Lecturer in Educational Studies at Oxford University and a Fellow of St Cross College. He has written widely on teacher education and has served as Vice-Chair of NATE (National Association for the Teaching of English).

Other books that may be of interest to the reader:

Improving Subject Knowledge: Issues and Strategies for Initial Teacher Training and Continuing Professional Development by Sue Sanders, 2001.