Should we have more specialist teachers in primary schools? 

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Australian researcher Ben Jensen heads an organisation called, ‘Learning First’. Jacqueline Magee of Learning First recently published a blog post drawing attention to a Learning First report and its call for greater subject specialisation by Australian primary school teachers.

This is clearly a sound idea.

To some people, the case for non-specialist primary teaching may be strong. There are two main reasons for sticking with a generalist approach, the most compelling of which is the idea that young children need a key point of contact at school who comes to know each child very well. I agree that this is important. However, a child can still have most of his or her lessons with a particular teacher in a primary school that adopts some specialisation. My own experience suggests that children are more adaptable than we might presume, although I can imagine that it will be a challenge for some students.

The other argument against specialisation is that we no longer need to focus on academic knowledge. By targeting an expanded range of ‘literacies’ and generic skills such as problem solving, critical thinking, collaboration and creativity, there is no need for specialist knowledge. Indeed, through project work, students may engage with a wide range of knowledge that is not predictable in advance by the teacher.

I am of the view that it is flawed to imagine that such general skills exist and can be taught in this way. In order to think critically, we need something to think critically about. Dan Willingham makes the point that small children can think critically about areas of knowledge that they know about and trained scientists can fail to think critically about areas of knowledge they know little about. Knowledge is what you think with. And there is little that transfers from solving the problem of how to finish a story to solving a mathematics problem.

Teachers all over the world are now part of a growing movement that recognises that traditional subject disciplines are not arbitrary. These subjects exist because they define powerful domains of knowledge and important ways of knowing. If we want children to be able to demonstrate the qualities that we value such as critical thinking or creativity in a sophisticated way then they need to have gained this important knowledge and grappled with these big ideas.

In some cases, primary school teachers may be able to adopt a specific interest in order to develop a specialism. For instance, a teacher may become the lead on history and read around the history units in detail so that his or her knowledge is greater than that which is intended to be taught to the students.

However, in some specialisms we might encounter a problem.

Science and mathematics are highly prized specialisms and we hardly have enough graduates to specialise in these subjects in secondary school. Some primary teachers are definitely capable of being experts in these areas but they will represent more of a challenge for others. Ultimately, we need to find ways to encourage more people with these backgrounds into teaching.

That’s going to be tough.

Update: a number of people on Twitter and in the comments have drawn attention to this RCT from Texas that seems to show a negative impact of specialisation. 

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3 Comments on “Should we have more specialist teachers in primary schools? ”

  1. Your post reminds me of a conversation on twitter between Dylan Wiliam and Dan Willingham:

    They were discussing this report: How teacher specialization affects student achievement

  2. Ann in L.A. says:

    I would consider a different diagnosis: teacher training programs do not generally actually teach how to teach phonics, spelling, reading, and grammar, nor math. Specialists might not be needed, but teachers who are competent at teaching the three R’s are needed, and that takes better training programs than most places currently have.


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