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  • Writer's pictureLaura

Teaching the Unknown: Strategies for Teachers Facing Unfamiliar Topics

Updated: Oct 23, 2023

One of my closest friends from university who, like me, studied law for his degree, became a secondary history teacher after graduating.

I remember thinking, "How on earth is he going to teach A-level history when the only history he's studied since leaving school was an 8-week unit on Roman law?"

His response: "I'll just make sure to read the textbook faster than the kids." And you know what? Fifteen years later, he'd probably say the same thing.

Teacher with pupil

Obviously, speed reading a textbook isn't the secret to being a great teacher, but there's a nugget of truth in there.

As teachers, our superpower is breaking down complex stuff so our pupils can understand. So, as long as we have a decent grasp of a topic, we don't need a PhD to teach it well. I mean, isn't that what primary teachers do every single day with subjects like maths and creative writing, without being mathematicians or authors?

As a specialist engineering teacher now, I often deep dive into a concept to ensure I understand it from every angle. That way I can not only explain it clearly, but also plan hands-on activities to help make it engaging and tangible too.

Of course I'm lucky to specialise in STEM teaching, but most teachers have to tackle subjects they're not experts in on a regular basis. So we chatted to a few brilliant teachers to find out how they've approached teaching a subject they initially knew nothing about.

1. Make the Unknown Known

If you're concerned about teaching something unfamiliar, one obvious approach is to invest time in familiarising yourself with it.

I don't know about you, but I love learning new things when I have the time. Starting from scratch brings the added benefit of helping us anticipate the questions and misconceptions that might crop up from pupils too.

stressed man at laptop

One teacher told us how during her PGCE she read the Religion for Dummies book to make sure she had the foundations right. Then as she encountered different religious topics to teach, she built on that knowledge using online articles and YouTube explainers.

This is of course the most logical solution, but it might not always be the most practical one. It works fine when you've got plenty of time and you're going to be teaching the subject over a longer period.

But what can you do if don't have time to become an expert before your new topic is due to begin?

2. Swap Classes

children with boomwhackers

One teacher told us how he was known as the "boomwhacker expert" in his school (what a title!). So when those crazy, "for the-hundredth-time-they're-not-swords!" tubes made their annual appearance from the music cupboard, he embarked on a school tour to lead lessons with them.

For each teacher he'd strike a deal, sharing his own expertise in exchange for theirs in a subject they particularly enjoyed teaching. For instance, the Year 3 teacher would take over his RE lessons for a few weeks, while the Year 2 teacher would step in to lead some Guided Reading.

Of course, not all schools would readily embrace this idea, so what other suggestions did teachers have?

3. Plan a Discovery Lesson

I'm not suggesting wheeling out the laptops and setting everyone off researching black mambas, but rather, a discovery lesson is all about demonstrating to your class that you're not all-knowing yourself. You're on a learning journey alongside them.

One teacher we spoke to shared a hands-on Design & Technology project he embarked upon with his class. He intentionally started the project without knowing how to build a working carousel either (yes, it was that project). Each group received kits, but he gave no instructions, encouraging them to explore and figure it out themselves.

Carousel building kit

He had his own kit and worked on building his carousel at the same time. His pupils loved seeing him tackle the challenge with them, and it sparked some healthy competition to solve problems before he did. As each group found a solution, they shared their newfound understanding with the whole class, including their teacher, and collectively they all moved a step closer to success.

With this discovery lesson the teacher was able to model to them his enjoyment of figuring things out (sometimes hiding his own frustration!) to motivate them. He told us the buzz in the classroom was incredible and they all showed amazing problem solving and collaboration skills as well as resilience.

We know sometimes it's tricky to go into a lesson completely blind. What if you don't have the confidence that you'll actually be able to figure it out as you go along?

4. Get AI to Help

You don't need to be an expert on AI to have it help you teach a brand new topic. If you've not used AI before you'll be blown away by how simple it is.

Free AI platforms, like Chat GPT, are user-friendly and easily accessible and you can use them to research a topic and plan your lesson too.

woman on computer

One teacher looked back through her Chat GPT history to explain how she'd used it to plan a lesson on power and voltage in KS2.

She started by finding out what she needed to know as the teacher. Her advice was to write to AI like you would to an all-knowing human. She asked, "Explain the difference between voltage and power in a circuit in a way that a 10 year old would understand."

After reading through the response she could clarify anything she didn't understand or wanted to dig a little deeper into. She also used this as a chance to anticipate her pupils' questions. Her follow up questions included "What numbers would be considered high voltage and low voltage?" and "Give me some example of high power and low power electrical items."

Then she asked the AI to create a first draft lesson plan for her. "Write a lesson plan with an introduction, teaching input, activity and plenary to teach the difference between voltage and power to a class of 10 year olds."

Although she was mostly happy with the lesson plan that came out, she asked for tweaks on certain parts so that the activity used the equipment they actually had in school and the introduction involved a more interactive activity. The result: an effective and engaging lesson that she could never have planned in half an hour on her own. The strength of AI lies in its ability to streamline your research, enhance your understanding of complex topics, and inspire creative teaching ideas. But it's the combination of your teaching experience and knowledge of your pupils, and AI's time-saving capabilities that leads to fantastic outcomes in terms of lesson planning and teaching execution.

You might not always want to do the teaching yourself though, so instead you might turn to other real human beings to help you.

5. Get In An Expert

Chances are your school has some computing equipment tucked away somewhere, gathering dust because teachers aren't entirely sure how to make the most of it. Schools have recently had the chance to sign up for free micro:bits and local Computer Hubs may even offer the chance to borrow gadgets like Crumbles for free.

But here's the thing – are you actually putting these resources to good use? If not, then it might be time to bring in an expert.

One teacher told us how his local Computer Hub offered free training on using Crumbles which he decided to make the most of. The training removed the fear factor by helping him understand how to use them himself and giving him ready-made lesson plans to take back to school. He ended up becoming the school's go-to Crumble guru from just one training session.

leading workshop
Inventors & Makers Cypher & Code Workshop

Teacher training is probably the most sustainable and budget-friendly way to ensure equipment gets regular use in your school. But alternatively, you might opt to have someone come in to deliver a workshop on a particular topic or with equipment you're not entirely comfortable with.

Many companies exist across the country that can come in and deliver workshops direct to your pupils, bringing the equipment and resources and doing everything for you.

If you can participate in the workshop too, you'll not only benefit from learning alongside your pupils, but also help them continue their learning journey after the workshop is over.

While this approach can be fantastic for complex topics and memorable experiences, it's not always the most budget-friendly option. So, what do you do when you need to tighten the purse strings?

6. Self-Led Workshops

A solution that's become more well-known since Covid is the idea of self-led or virtual workshops. These workshops offer an excellent way to have everything done for you, from researching and planning activities to delivering content, all without the added expense of having an external visitor come into school.

Not long ago, we had a chat with an early years teacher who shared her experience leading our Coding Unplugged virtual Little STEAMers workshop with her own Reception class. She mentioned that she'd always felt unsure about coding and had never taught any to her class. However, after participating in the virtual Little STEAMers session, she gained a much clearer understanding of how to teach coding skills in the early years. We were thrilled to hear that she now felt confident to incorporate more of this kind of teaching in the future.

At Inventors & Makers, our mission is to simplify STEM activities and make them accessible for teachers to use in their own classrooms with their own pupils. All of our workshops are designed and created by qualified and experienced primary teachers and cover concepts from engineering, technology and design, from N up to Y6.

Our self-led virtual workshops give you an all-done-for-you package for your more complex concepts and are designed to boost your confidence in incorporating these kinds of enjoyable and hands-on activities more regularly.


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