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Should our Primary School teachers be subject specialists?

By 11 July 2014 14

classroom

I heard an interview on 666 during the week about having specialist teachers in Primary Schools, in contrast to the current model where Primary teachers are predominantly generalists.  The idea made a lot of sense.

From my experience, it is difficult to be good at all things – particularly across the broad range of subjects taught to our kids.  And yet, we expect one person to instill the basics of these areas, along with breeding a passion and interest to learn more.  I can’t help but wonder what a difference it would make to early education if our children were introduced to these vital subjects by someone passionate and committed to that one subject.

I’m sure we have all experienced the energy that comes from someone talking about something they truly love.

I have a friend in England who is a history teacher at High School level.  She is intelligent and well versed on many subjects.  It is always great to catch up with her and talk about anything.  But if the discussion brushes on anything to do with history her eyes light up, she shifts with energy and almost buzzes.  It is hard to avoid being caught up in her enthusiasm.  Compare that to a discussion with me about history.  Yeah, we might talk about some interesting stuff (although not likely as I don’t know a great deal about the subject) but you’re not going to get that same energy (and certainly not the same depth of knowledge) from me.

Now put a Primary school student in a classroom with someone who has an energy and passion for English or Mathematics or Science etc.  I can only imagine what a different experience it would potentially make to the way kids learned.

Don’t get me wrong.  My daughter started in the public school system this year and I maintain that we broadly have excellent schools in Canberra.  Her teacher is committed and passionate.  At this level (Pre School) I don’t think being a specialist or generalist makes a big impact as it’s about instilling a love of the school environment and learning which she has done with great success from my experience.

But, when I think about my niece (who is 7) I can’t help but wonder if she would be encouraged to ask different questions, enter varied discussions and learn with greater depth were her classes to be taught by specialists.

I’m sure that in terms of logistics and cost, this is not likely to be something that happens today, but I hope it is considered for the future.

Note: I am of the mind that those who teach our kids should be up there in terms of salary (along with nurses, police officers, ambos and firemen and women).  To me, that would help us attract and retain the best people for some of our most important jobs, but that is another post for another day…

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14 Responses to
Should our Primary School teachers be subject specialists?
Grail 9:36 am
11 Jul 14
#1

We can have the discussion of subject specialists after we’ve decided to treat child care workers and teachers as valuable contributors to the future of the nation, and pay them appropriately.

The “specialty” that I’d pick for teachers early on would be psychology, especially dealing with ways to help parents socialise and civilise their children, recognising that civilisation is that thin veneer that we paste over our inner barbarians, which tells us that throwing a party in a house that we weren’t invited to is bad, as is destroying property or drinking alcohol when underage.

I want early school teachers to achieve the impossible task of simultaneously teaching discipline as well as encouraging curiosity and out-of-the-box thinking.

I don’t care if they’re specialists in maths, english or sticking pieces of coloured paper together.

Yes, having a fan of history as your history teacher is great, but that comes on top of being trained in child & juvenile psychology, being armed with the appropriate tools for maintaining discipline in a modern “hands-off” classroom, and having the support of an education office that cares about the students more than the politics and has the funding to back that care and concern with action and equipment.

housebound 10:09 am
11 Jul 14
#2

The specialisation for that age is in early childhood education. If you’ve encountered an early childhood kindy teacher vs a ‘normal’ primary school teacher, you’ll instantly see the difference (unless of course your normal teacher has developed skills in early childhood from years of teaching …).

astrojax 10:41 am
11 Jul 14
#3

housebound said :

The specialisation for that age is in early childhood education. If you’ve encountered an early childhood kindy teacher vs a ‘normal’ primary school teacher, you’ll instantly see the difference (unless of course your normal teacher has developed skills in early childhood from years of teaching …).

exactly – for children at the age of primary school [and of course far beyond] the primary (pun not intended. really) aim of their teacher/s should be to instill both a desire and love for learning and a pathway for that desire to be attained.

we should be instilling children with fuel to their flame of natural and un-prejudiced curiosity. of course, specific skills in a discipline will be a bonus, but i don’t think it should be the core.

Maya123 1:04 pm
11 Jul 14
#4

astrojax said :

housebound said :

The specialisation for that age is in early childhood education. If you’ve encountered an early childhood kindy teacher vs a ‘normal’ primary school teacher, you’ll instantly see the difference (unless of course your normal teacher has developed skills in early childhood from years of teaching …).

exactly – for children at the age of primary school [and of course far beyond] the primary (pun not intended. really) aim of their teacher/s should be to instill both a desire and love for learning and a pathway for that desire to be attained.

we should be instilling children with fuel to their flame of natural and un-prejudiced curiosity. of course, specific skills in a discipline will be a bonus, but i don’t think it should be the core.

“specific skills in a discipline will be a bonus, but i don’t think it should be the core.”
So as long as the children have “un-prejudiced curiosity” (whatever that is), being able to do maths and write well isn’t that important? I found when I was at school my interest in learning increased when I was actually able to do/understand the maths, etc first. I would have thought it preferable that children learn to do and understand the basics like maths, English, etc. Then when they have success and can understand the basics they are likely to be more enthused and curious as to where that might lead. Otherwise they are likely to switch off.

Ghettosmurf87 2:43 pm
11 Jul 14
#5

Maya123 said :

astrojax said :

housebound said :

The specialisation for that age is in early childhood education. If you’ve encountered an early childhood kindy teacher vs a ‘normal’ primary school teacher, you’ll instantly see the difference (unless of course your normal teacher has developed skills in early childhood from years of teaching …).

exactly – for children at the age of primary school [and of course far beyond] the primary (pun not intended. really) aim of their teacher/s should be to instill both a desire and love for learning and a pathway for that desire to be attained.

we should be instilling children with fuel to their flame of natural and un-prejudiced curiosity. of course, specific skills in a discipline will be a bonus, but i don’t think it should be the core.

“specific skills in a discipline will be a bonus, but i don’t think it should be the core.”
So as long as the children have “un-prejudiced curiosity” (whatever that is), being able to do maths and write well isn’t that important? I found when I was at school my interest in learning increased when I was actually able to do/understand the maths, etc first. I would have thought it preferable that children learn to do and understand the basics like maths, English, etc. Then when they have success and can understand the basics they are likely to be more enthused and curious as to where that might lead. Otherwise they are likely to switch off.

But specialists in disciplines such as maths/english/etc have far more skills in an area than coiuld ever hope to be taught to primary school aged kids. It is why specialist teachers don’t really exist in primary schools, but do come in in high school.

Teachers choose to specialise at university, those specialties being a range of subjects taught at high school, as well as the speciality “early childhood education”. The reason for this is that it is most definitely a specialised skill to be able to engage a cohort of young children min education as a whole. These specialists take on the responsibility of a childs education for an entire year of their school life, forminga realtionship and understanding of how their students learn best.

There should not be anything, subject matter wise, at a primary school level that someone who has done a teaching degree of any format should not be capable of teaching. There is however, a lot more to teaching and engaging little kids than just an indepth knowledge of the subject. As someone mentioned earlier on, it is as much psychological as anything, understanding the dynamics of a cohort of young children, the different methods of instilling the same knowledge in children who learn best in varying ways and an understanding that at that age, there will be a wide variety of aptitudes across most subjects.

grunge_hippy 5:37 pm
11 Jul 14
#6

in a word? no.

The scheduling, movement of these teachers and just plain logistic nightmare that this idea generates instantly rules it out. It’s enough to have specialists that provide release to the classroom teacher and provide their own program (library, PE, Arts, LOTE for example).

Anyone that has spent more than a day in a primary classroom knows that this idea is not feasible.

astrojax 8:32 pm
11 Jul 14
#7

Ghettosmurf87 said :

Maya123 said :

astrojax said :

housebound said :

The specialisation for that age is in early childhood education. If you’ve encountered an early childhood kindy teacher vs a ‘normal’ primary school teacher, you’ll instantly see the difference (unless of course your normal teacher has developed skills in early childhood from years of teaching …).

exactly – for children at the age of primary school [and of course far beyond] the primary (pun not intended. really) aim of their teacher/s should be to instill both a desire and love for learning and a pathway for that desire to be attained.

we should be instilling children with fuel to their flame of natural and un-prejudiced curiosity. of course, specific skills in a discipline will be a bonus, but i don’t think it should be the core.

“specific skills in a discipline will be a bonus, but i don’t think it should be the core.”
So as long as the children have “un-prejudiced curiosity” (whatever that is), being able to do maths and write well isn’t that important? I found when I was at school my interest in learning increased when I was actually able to do/understand the maths, etc first. I would have thought it preferable that children learn to do and understand the basics like maths, English, etc. Then when they have success and can understand the basics they are likely to be more enthused and curious as to where that might lead. Otherwise they are likely to switch off.

But specialists in disciplines such as maths/english/etc have far more skills in an area than coiuld ever hope to be taught to primary school aged kids. It is why specialist teachers don’t really exist in primary schools, but do come in in high school.

Teachers choose to specialise at university, those specialties being a range of subjects taught at high school, as well as the speciality “early childhood education”. The reason for this is that it is most definitely a specialised skill to be able to engage a cohort of young children min education as a whole. These specialists take on the responsibility of a childs education for an entire year of their school life, forminga realtionship and understanding of how their students learn best.

There should not be anything, subject matter wise, at a primary school level that someone who has done a teaching degree of any format should not be capable of teaching. There is however, a lot more to teaching and engaging little kids than just an indepth knowledge of the subject. As someone mentioned earlier on, it is as much psychological as anything, understanding the dynamics of a cohort of young children, the different methods of instilling the same knowledge in children who learn best in varying ways and an understanding that at that age, there will be a wide variety of aptitudes across most subjects.

indeed, and to respond more specifically to maya123, as this response notes, trained teachers should be able teach anything required to this age cohort – so including reading writing and ‘rithmatic. just as adults with a reasonable grasp of adult language skills can learn other skills to then teach english as a second language – primary school teachers teach it as a first (or second, shan’t deny that often happens)

Maya123 10:47 pm
11 Jul 14
#8

“exactly – for children at the age of primary school [and of course far beyond] the primary (pun not intended. really) aim of their teacher/s should be to instill both a desire and love for learning and a pathway for that desire to be attained.
we should be instilling children with fuel to their flame of natural and un-prejudiced curiosity. of course, specific skills in a discipline will be a bonus, but i don’t think it should be the core.”

Okay I misunderstood this. I interpreted that writing to mean, as that the teacher should be instilling in the children “a desire and love for learning and a pathway for that desire to be attained.” And that specific skills in the children are a bonus. In other words it isn’t as important for the children to learn maths, English, etc, as it is for them to have a “flame of natural and un-prejudiced curiosity”. Showing a skill in maths, English and other subjects was a bonus, but not the core.

rommeldog56 8:27 am
13 Jul 14
#9

housebound said :

The specialisation for that age is in early childhood education. If you’ve encountered an early childhood kindy teacher vs a ‘normal’ primary school teacher, you’ll instantly see the difference (unless of course your normal teacher has developed skills in early childhood from years of teaching …).

Having put 3 kids through the ACT public school system, I generally have nothing but praise and respect for the teachers. It is a tough gig. Much is expected of our teachers – and child care workers too.

So, by using more “specialised” subject matter teachers, would that mean that primary school teachers would rotate through classes to teach their specialist subject ? If so, is that compatible with creating a broad, interconnected base of knowledge in young students on which specific interests/abilities are encouraged. Those can then become more specialised at College and then further Uni.

Also, just because a teacher is a “specialist”, I wouldn’t think that necessarily means that they would be a more effective teacher. It’s as much about the individual teacher as it is about their passion for a particular subject I think.

Its an interesting topic – I wonder what the practice is in country’s with high performing education systems (not that Australia’s isn’t but there must always be room for improvement) ?

dungfungus 2:49 pm
13 Jul 14
#10

It would be handy to have a specialist discipline teacher like Coach Buzzcut in every school.
Some teachers wouldn’t like it perhaps.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VZJxRe_BEQ4

Kelly74 6:41 pm
13 Jul 14
#11

The most inspiring teachers I had and for my kids were not specialists but had led rich and interesting lives. They worked in other occupations and had traveled or done things other than stand in front of a class and so unlike the garden variety career teacher they could answer a kid when they asked, “how will I need this in the real world?”

dungfungus 10:32 pm
13 Jul 14
#12

Kelly74 said :

The most inspiring teachers I had and for my kids were not specialists but had led rich and interesting lives. They worked in other occupations and had traveled or done things other than stand in front of a class and so unlike the garden variety career teacher they could answer a kid when they asked, “how will I need this in the real world?”

You have nailed it.
If my French & Latin teacher explained to me when I was in high school the practicalities of learning and using a foreign language I would have embraced it.
Then again, it’s hard to blame the teacher because 50 years ago there were few language teachers who had travelled outside Australia themselves and fewer native foreign language teachers in Australia.
It’s all different now with language teachers accompanying the students on trips overseas and many of those students learn the language/s and enrich their lives and those of others they meet. Also, there are many native language speakers on exchange in Australia.

VYBerlinaV8_is_back 9:16 am
14 Jul 14
#13

Kelly74 said :

The most inspiring teachers I had and for my kids were not specialists but had led rich and interesting lives. They worked in other occupations and had traveled or done things other than stand in front of a class and so unlike the garden variety career teacher they could answer a kid when they asked, “how will I need this in the real world?”

Absolutely. I had precious few such teachers, but the ones I did have were interesting and taught in a practical and compelling manner.

JessicaGlitter 3:02 pm
14 Jul 14
#14

The subjects that are typically taught by specialist teachers are music, art and phys ed. In my experience these “specialists” can be absolutely hopeless. In grade 5 I went from a school where half the kids learned an instrument and everyone learned Kodaly to one where nobody learned any music at all even though it was a bigger school and could afford a dedicated music teacher.

So, yeah it’s not about getting the teacher up to scratch on a particular subject, it’s just about making sure they have high expectations of their kids, come prepared and do their jobs well.

Also have you seen primary school classes? Teachers write themselves a timetable and lesson plan but if the kids are too tired to do maths, for example, they change it up and pull out the story books instead and circle back to maths later on or do extra the next day. It’s only in high school that we expect kids to be, like adults, ready for whatever they are supposed to be doing, fitting the kids in to the system instead of keeping the system flexible to the kids’ needs.

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