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How teachers can make a real difference to the lives of their students

Teaching in a way that addresses common issues and pays attention to wellbeing, equality and diversity is just starting to be understood
© UCL Institute of Education

A key purpose of the early career framework is to develop the expertise of teachers early in their careers. In this article, Mark Hardman discusses some perspectives in the literature on teacher expertise.

It may not come as a surprise that there is no definitive account of what teachers need to know in order to be able to teach well (Kennedy, 2015). This is because teaching is a complex undertaking that depends on:

  • The context in which teaching takes place
  • The students to be taught
  • The goals of the teaching.

As Verloop et al. (2001) describe, there have been various trends in how teacher knowledge and expertise have been considered over recent decades. I will touch on some of these briefly and try and bring this up to date with current thinking.

Teacher effectiveness

Starting in the 1980s, there has been a great deal of attention paid to the behaviours which successful teachers have that lead to higher pupil achievement in outcomes such as standardised tests.

Whilst a huge amount of research was dedicated to this (Creemers & Kyriakides, 2008), very few generalisable findings were arrived at, indicating that this is highly context-specific and that teacher behaviour is more complex than this view assumes.

Teachers themselves were also critical of this focus on outcomes, recognising that teaching is not simply about examination results, despite those being important.

Reflective practice

Through analysis of groups of teachers, it was also recognised that teacher behaviours develop through processes such as reflection-in-practice (Schön, 1983) rather than being governed by fixed rules. Teacher behaviours are also influenced by their beliefs about how people learn and their prior experiences in the fullest sense.

Pedagogical Content Knowledge

It is also established that teaching is directly related to the content that is being taught. Much research and teacher development around the teaching of specific school subjects draws on Schulman’s (1986) notion of Pedagogic Content Knowledge (PCK). This offers a perspective on teacher knowledge which relates the knowledge of the teacher about a subject with the specific pedagogies that they apply in teaching it.

The didactic triangle

Whilst PCK is commonly discussed in English-speaking contexts, parallel traditions in other parts of the world also focus upon the relation between subject content, teacher and the everyday understandings of pupils.

For example, Gericke et al. (2018) draw on the European tradition of didactics to further develop the didactic triangle, which relates content, teacher and students. The image below illustrates this didactic triangle.

Powerful Professional Knowledge

As well as recognising that teacher behaviours and understandings are contextual, there has been growing attention in recent years to the role of teachers in transforming the understandings of pupils.

Young (2009, 2011) provides an account of how pupils should be given knowledge which is powerful in that it changes the way they view the world and opens up new ways of thinking. Work is going on currently to consider how this relates to the knowledge that teachers hold and the way they teach.

I am part of the Centre for Teachers and Teaching Research at UCL Institute of Education, where our research aims to support teachers to make a real difference to the lives of their students and address the complex challenges faced today.

This involves teachers being aware of today’s issues so that they can teach in ways which address issues such as climate change, racism, sexism, colonialism and pay attention to wellbeing, equality and diversity. The powerful professional knowledge that teachers need to do this is just starting to be understood.


Creemers, M., B. ,. P., & Kyriakides. (2008). The Dynamics of Educational Effectiveness: A Contribution to Policy, Practice and Theory in Contemporary Schools. Routledge.

Gericke, N., Hudson, B., Olin-Scheller, C., & Stolare, M. (2018). Powerful knowledge, transformations and the need for empirical studies across school subjects. London Review of Education, 16(3), 428–444.

Kennedy, M. (2015). Parsing the Practice of Teaching. Journal of Teacher Education, 67(1), 6–17.

Schön, D. A. (1983). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. Basic Books.

Shulman, L. S. (1986). Those Who Understand: Knowledge Growth in Teaching. Educational Researcher, 15(2), 4–14.

Verloop, N., Van Driel, J., & Meijer, P. (2001). Teacher knowledge and the knowledge base of teaching. International Journal of Educational Research, 35(5), 441–461.

Young, M. (2009). What are schools for? In H. Daniels, H. Lauder, & J. Porter (Eds.), Knowledge, values, and educational policy: A critical perspective (pp. 10–18). Routledge.

Young, M. (2011). The return to subjects: A sociological perspective on the UK Coalition government’s approach to the 14–19 curriculum. The Curriculum Journal, 22(2), 265–278.

© UCL Institute of Education
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