This is the transcript of a speech that I have at Discovery Education today as part of a debate about subject specialism in primary. Enjoy.
This is a bit embarrassing, but I don’t really know anything about subject specialism or primary education, either.
But I do know how to talk to people. So…maybe we could think about it together? Maybe look some stuff up on the internet? I’ve heard there’s some good stuff on there.
That would be a completely unacceptable position, right? Yet it’s exactly this approach that we seem to have satisfied ourselves with in primary education.
I was talking to a friend a couple of years ago who asked me what I do. I said I’m a primary teacher. He replied, what do you teach? Feeling all clever, I replied, in primary we ‘teach children, not subjects’.
He looked at me for a moment, not really amused, and said, well obviously you’re teaching children. But what are you teaching them?
That sentiment, along with my experiences teaching over the last few years have convinced me that we need a radical rethinking of the structural organisation of primary education, which has implications for how we conduct initial training and ongoing professional development.
I’d like to suggest that the model of ‘generalism’ that successive generations for the past 140 years have inherited should be thrown onto the dustbin of history as a quick and dirty stop-gap that outstayed its welcome for no reason other than habit. I’ll finally suggest that subject specialists will be in the best interests of both the children and the teacher.
More specifically, here’s what I’m going to argue today; four things:
1. Firstly, that standards in primary education have dramatically risen in the past 5 years.
2. Secondly, this is a Good Thing.
3. Thirdly, barring polymaths, it’s no longer possible for a single individual to master and therefore adequately deliver the content of the full primary curriculum.
4. And fourthly, this means that we should reorganise primary education, embrace subject specialisation, and high five ourselves on fixing the whole shebang before lunch is finished.
So I think that the first two premisses (that standards have risen; and that this is a good thing) are self evident. I’d like to demonstrate the third by way of an interactive section(!), and make some tentative suggestions for the how we’d go about the new approach necessitated by the fourth premise.
Let’s start with what being a primary school teacher today really means. It’s basically just glorified babysitting isn’t it? Of course, you need to learn how to deliver phonics in both a discrete and contextual manner, but apart from that it’s easy. Oh, and obviously you also need to understand how to help children conceptualise mathematical operations, moving them from concrete manipulatives to pictorial and ultimately formal representations. And then I suppose you need to know how to know how to break down the implicit components of dozens of writing styles and explicate these to young children. But that’s pretty much it.
Oh and French. You also need to know French. And how to read, perform and analyse music… I could go on
Slide 4-8: Quiz the room
All of these are taken from the primary curriculum. And if you can’t do them, then you certainly can’t teach someone else them. Go ahead and try. Try and teach someone else something that you yourself don’t know. It’s not possible.
The expectations recently placed upon primary schools teachers are laughably unrealistic. In September 2014, the think tank Policy Exchange published a report, called primary focus, warning of an impending “perfect storm” of challenges to primary education, including: a fall in funding to local authorities; the introduction of a new national curriculum; the removal of levels with no replacement; and tougher attainment descriptors alongside an overall raising of floor standards.
Although it may seem like a distant memory now, it wasn’t too long ago that an extension task was to ‘read quietly’, and marking meant lining up at your teacher’s desk to receive a single big tick at the bottom of your page. But times have moved on, and this is no longer acceptable.
A renewed emphasis on subject knowledge places those of us who ‘teach children, not subjects’ in a difficult position. It’s simply not possible to master Mesopotamian history, writing computer programs using code, and Geographical Information Systems.
However, I don’t believe that any of these changes are a Bad Thing. Young children have an insatiable thirst for knowledge combined with a superhuman capacity to absorb information. Scientists call it the period of maximum neurological plasticity, I call it witchcraft – whatever it is, it’s there.
In the nineteenth century, Francis Galton wrote to his sister explaining that he could ‘read any English book…say all the Latin Substantives and Adjectives and active verbs, besides 52 lines of Latin poetry, I can cast any sum in addition and multiply by 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11…I read French a little…’
Show slide 9: Anyone care to guess how old he was when he wrote this? Four.
Whilst teaching the stone age recently, I found myself stumped on numerous occasions by elementary questions on the topic. It was embarrassing, and I couldn’t help but feel like I was letting them down by excusing myself with a pathetic ‘Let’s look that up together later.” Rather than expanding horizons, I had actually become the ceiling to the children’s learning.
I think they deserve better. They deserve someone with a knowledge deep enough to smash back volleys of questions from curious minds with balletic grace. I’ve seen this in the schools that I’ve taught at, because we’ve been lucky enough to have subject specialists for computing, PE, French and music. The teaching that the children receive in those subjects is far superior to anything that I could offer, because they are learning from masters of those subjects, with deep technical knowledge from the beginner to expert.
Don’t just take my word for it. The Sutton Trust in one of the largest meta-reviews of educational research identified teachers content knowledge as one of the two key factors in what makes effective teaching (by which we mean raising pupil attainment). The second was quality of instruction and effective questioning, which I’d argue you can’t do without having a deep knowledge of the subject that you’re teaching.
Show Slide 10-11
So why might this be? When we talk about generalism versus specialism, I think that there is a parallel between two types of curiosity: diversive and epistemic. Diversive curiosity are those flash-in-the-pan, quick-fix, sparkly attractions that draw your attention, draw you into wonder…puzzle you. Children are really good at diversive curiosity, they’re fascinated by the world, because so much of the world is novel to them. But they’re fascinated in a largely superficial way. Their attention quickly wanders to the next sparkly, flashy thing.
What we’d like to inculcate in children is epistemic curiosity. Ian Leslie, who wrote the excellent ‘Curious’, describes epistemic curiosity as what happens when ‘diversive curiosity grows up’. It’s hard work. It requires cognitive effort to dig deeper and really stick with problems presented. But the rewards are greater.
As Leslie puts it: “There are two sides of curiosity. One compels us to turn over stones, open cupboards and click on links; the kind that can make a high-minded professor prise open the pages of the glossy magazine in front of her, and the teenager slip a cigarette out of his mother’s pack. The other [epistemic] makes us want to spend time finishing long novels and pursuing interests that have nothing to do with our self interest, like learning dead languages. What distinguishes one from the other [he concludes] is the accumulation of specialized knowledge.”
So if we want to get children to be epistemically curious, we need them to seek out that specialized knowledge and work towards accumulating it. And to do that, we need to have it ourselves. We need to completely own our subject.
Show slide 12
This is a simple model which demonstrates the stages that we go through when we try and master any particular skill, take writing for example. First, we’re terrible at it but we don’t even know that we’re terrible at it. Then, we’re terrible about it, but we recongise that we’re dreadful. Thirdly, we become competent but we have to really concentrate and think about it in order to be successful, it doesn’t come naturally. And finally, we can do it without even thinking.
We find ourselves in this final stage for so many things that we expect children to be able to do, and they find themselves in the second or third stage. One of the most common mistakes of teachers is that they greatly overestimate what their pupils know and can do, and greatly underestimate what they themselves know and can do.
So how do we move people from those early stages to the final stages? There’s been a fifth stage suggested recently in the literature. An enlightened competence or, conscious of unconscious competency. Once we get to this stage we can not only undertake the skill proficiently, we can self analyse to help break down the discrete steps that we undertake with the illusion of effortlessness.
This is what I mean when I talk about subject specialists. People that can do that. PE teachers that know every step in the perfect tennis serve, where every body part should be pointed and when each muscle should flex and spring. It’s not good enough for a teacher to say, “Hey, you’re no good at this thing? Don’t know anything about it? No problem, me neither! Let’s just have a go together!”
The current model of expecting all teachers to be a jack of all trades, master of none is woefully inefficient.
Show slide 15:
Here’s an alternative model. All primary teachers spend a year learning the basics of planning, questioning, assessment and behaviour management. They also are given a solid grounding in literacy, phonics, numeracy and science. That’s it for primary Initial Teach Training, and would lead to QTS. But after qualifying, formally assessed and accredited training should continue for another three years, during which time teachers are expected to specialize, a bit like medicine. This could be in EYFS, a foundation subject, or further training in one of the core subjects. Schools would then be expected to recruit to ensure that all specialisms are covered, and specialist would become subject leaders, responsible for their respective curriculum and all of the teaching at upper key stage two (unless their specialism was in EYFS).
Such a model would not only ensure children receive expert teaching in every area of the curriculum, it would also allow real professional development and identity for teachers in primary.
Show slide 16
So rather than the perfect storm that policy exchange warned about becoming an impending disaster, maybe it can put the wind into our sails and take us to new heights, creating schools where each child is truly taught by a master, and every teacher gets to become one.