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.