Should Australian primary school teachers be subject specialists?


Yesterday, Adelaide Now published this story, reporting that the Federal Government in Australia is considering making primary school teachers subject specialists.

It’s not the first time the idea has been mooted. I noticed a number of reports throughout 2014 suggesting the same.

The reasoning appears to be that this will be a way of reversing the apparent slump that Australia is experiencing in Mathematics and Science.

There are some compelling reasons to consider the idea:

A number of high performing school systems do have specialist teachers. According to the article, both Finland and Singapore require their primary teachers to have specialisations.

Representatives from the Australian Science Teachers Association and the Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers , quoted in the article, claim their research has shown  the majority of Australian primary teachers feel inadequate to address or teach science, and that they don’t have sufficient knowledge to teach maths well.

However, in spite of this, the idea does not sit comfortably with me.

 A few concerns:

Being a generalist teacher allows us great flexibility in how we deliver the curriculum. We are not restricted by the complex timetabling issues which would be created by requiring specific subjects to be taught by specialists.

I can increase or decrease the time my class spends on subjects like maths on a daily or weekly basis according to their learning needs.

My timetabling flexibility means that I am not forced to teach maths at 2:00pm on a hot Friday afternoon to a class full of tired 8 year olds. I timetable my subjects around what will support learning, not around the availability of specialist teachers.

Teaching the same class for all subjects importantly means that I can take an integrated approach to help students see the connections and relevance of subjects like maths to other areas of the curriculum. For example, when studying measurement in mathematics,  we are able to integrate it with our work in art, geography, science and sport. Students are able to make meaningful use of their mathematical skills, which creates a NEED to learn and a subsequent improvement in engagement. The work becomes relevant.

Some good points

I’m reluctant to completely dismiss the idea. My primary school happens to have a specialist science teacher who teaches science during our 2 hours release from face-to-face teaching time each week . The expert knowledge and passion she brings to this subject is inspiring, and the curriculum she  teaches is a step above what I would be able to offer. You can see her work here.

Our science teacher also works as a mentor. We have more classes than she can cover, so we have generalist teachers employed to teach science to the additional classes. She works closely with those teachers, assisting them to develop and deliver their curriculum.

Her work has inspired countless young students to take an interest in science that I hope will carry through to high school and beyond. I can honestly say that since she joined our team, science at my school has become something we are truly proud of.

But much as I value our science program, I would not like to see specialisation to the extent that our curriculum becomes fragmented, where subjects are only able to be  taught in isolation by separate teachers, instead of in a manner that allows a more holistic, integrated approach.

A better answer

I believe a better answer is to be found in improving our preservice teacher education, and in our ongoing professional learning.

Science and mathematics are not optional add ons. They are part of the core curriculum. It’s unacceptable for primary school teachers to be incapable of teaching either area. IT’S OUR JOB!

I’m not without sympathy for those teachers. If so many are feeling incompetent then I’d have to ask if they are being adequately prepared to teach those subjects in their preservice teacher education? Why are so many teachers apparently entering our system without competency in the very subjects they are being trained to teach?

And if they don’t LIKE teaching those subjects, then I’d have to ask why they became primary school teachers. I repeat: ITS OUR JOB.

To assume that a generalist teacher doesn’t have the ability to teach all those subjects well, simply because they teach across subjects, seems a very impoverished view of our capacity as human beings: to learn and excel in multiple domains.

I am proudly an English teacher, a maths teacher, a science teacher, an art teacher, a music teacher, a history teacher, a geography teacher and health and physical education teacher. My pre-service training at Kuringai College and later University of Technology, Sydney provided an excellent grounding in all of those subject areas. I’ve continued to learn and develop my competencies in those areas and after 20 years am neither lacking in confidence or competence.

To suggest that a specialist is required to do parts of my job because I lack the expertise is insulting.


5 thoughts on “Should Australian primary school teachers be subject specialists?

  1. I don’t think you have to be an expert, i think you need to have access to an expert like your science teacher. Or collaborate with high school subject experts. To address issues of transition & disengagement many high schools are moving towards intergrated curriculum to address issues. Interesting that opposites are seen as solutions (although to different problems)

  2. It seems to conflict with the idea of an integrated holistic curriculum. Is this move an attempt to get children more engaged and interested in maths and science? Are we lagging behind the rest of the world in science and maths? Seems ironic when government makes cutbacks to science and research but then wants to specialise in maths and science in schools.
    Considering primary teachers are trained to teach all subjects it seems a bit unnecessary. However if teachers choose to specialise and student outcomes improve in these areas maybe it’s not a bad thing. I was never good at these subjects but maybe if I had received better teaching from a trained specialist it might have made these subjects easier and more interesting in high school. I hated maths in primary school, remember being ridiculed because I didn’t understand fractions!’ To this day maths makes me nervous. I don’t think its a good thing to force subjects onto kids that they don’t like. Of course they still need to learn the basics. I agree with your argument that teaching should be meaningful and relevant and not just about standardised tests and drumming into them facts and figures.

  3. This issue shall continue to raise its head, over and over again.
    For these two subjects especially, I encourage staff to make meaningful connections and to create sets of outcomes (cross KLA or from other models) to deepen learning to the real world; however, where I see many struggle, young and old, is knowing what the teachable moment is, or how to recognise one. I’ve often thought… How many of us have been tricked? Fooled by the hands-on, the painting, gluing, creating and excited faces that we forget to flesh out the links along the way. I think we have all been guilty of this. How many times have I observed ‘cubes’ being made, in rainbow colours, with fresh kinder squares, but not a single teachable moment question was asked?
    I have witnessed examples of a ‘teachers lack of knowledge’, or sometimes lack of content depth, in recognising the teachable moments halt very good lessons.
    I would like to see the quality of professional learning for teachers in KLA specific knowledge, ideas and teachable moments improve and become more accessible. We should increase links within our Learning Communities, our teachers, especially those teaching Stage 3 and 4 who are already becoming closer, being able to learn from each other; we all hold some expert knowledge that we could share.
    Some secondary subject matter experts shared their cube lesson one Stage 3 out there could now create more than just decorative Christmas boxes 🙂
    Then there is more to think about

    • Hi Nigel, Thank you for reading and leaving such a thoughtful comment. I really like and agree with your observation about the need to find those teachable moments and make those deeper connections across the KLAs. More links between Stage 3 and Stage 4 would definitely help.

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