Time for teacher educators to step up on primary teacher specialisation

Jacqueline Magee

Learning First’s new report, Australia’s primary challenge: how to lift teacher quality in early school years, argues that Australian primary school teachers should specialise in subject areas such as mathematics, science, and literacy. It sounds like a controversial proposal, a transformation of the ideal of generalist teachers that has sustained Australian primary school teaching for many decades. In fact, the idea of primary teacher specialisation is growing among leading Australian educators and is now part of Commonwealth Government policy.

The research is increasingly clear that strong teacher subject expertise significantly improves student learning. Australia’s primary challenge shows how high-performing systems such as Shanghai, Finland, Japan and Hong Kong develop teacher expertise through specialisation. All four systems – even Finland and Japan, which have generalist primary school teachers, as Australia does -- encourage teachers to develop their practice in just one or two subject areas, both during initial teacher education (ITE) and in their professional learning on the job.

Drawing on this evidence, Australia’s Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group (TEMAG) recommended in its 2015 report, Action Now: Classroom Ready Teachers, that primary school teachers be supported to specialise their teaching practice in science, mathematics and languages. In a move with significant implications for prospective primary teaching candidates and higher education institutions, the Australian Government accepted TEMAG’s recommendation that “higher education providers equip all primary pre-service teachers with at least one subject specialisation.” ITE providers are now on notice that they are required to make this happen.

This new primary specialisation requirement is now part of the Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) National Program Standards and will be assessed by ITE program accreditation panellists convened in each state and territory.

The new primary specialisation standard requires ITE providers to establish clearly defined pathways within programs that lead to specialisations in key areas of demand. Providers are also expected to assess graduates on their expert content knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge, and what highly effective teaching looks like, in their area of specialisation. Finally, provider annual reports must publish the specialisations they make available, and the number of graduates per specialisation.

These requirements sound very general, but for many teacher education providers they represent significant reform. To add clarity, AITSL published more detailed advice on the new specialisation requirements early this year. The AITSL guidance emphasises the importance of content knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge, but it is up to providers to decide the exact curriculum for the specialisations.

It is therefore a critical time for the future of primary teacher education. The plans ITE providers are making for primary specialisation have the potential to significantly improve the subject expertise of teachers in key areas. There is also a big risk that these efforts could fall flat, meeting minimum requirements but not instilling more rigor into primary teacher preparation. ITE providers must carefully construct primary specialist curricula, learning from other systems that have prepared highly-skilled teachers for decades. Australia’s primary challenge provides examples of teacher education curricula in countries such as Japan and Finland, which similarly prepare generalist teachers with one subject speciality. A future blog post will look at one example in more depth.

Time will tell whether these reforms will have the impact TEMAG and the Australian Government intended. If done well, a greater focus on developing teacher subject expertise will increase student learning, provide overdue recognition for the complexity of primary school teaching, and make teacher workload more manageable.

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Why Australian primary school teachers should specialise

Katie Roberts-Hull

We open our new blog with a series of posts accompanying the launch of our report, Australia’s Primary Challenge.


Alarm about the performance of Australian school students in PISA and other international tests is growing. Australians are falling behind students in many other advanced nations. In maths, the proportion of Australian high performers in PISA tests has halved, to 11 per cent, over the past 14 years. Meanwhile the proportion of low performers has shot up – they now outnumber high performers two to one.

This week Learning First publishes a report, Australia’s primary challenge, that shows how Australia can lift its game by learning from four of the world’s high-performing school systems: Hong Kong, Japan, Finland, and Shanghai. These systems all ensure that their students are equipped to read and do foundational maths from the earliest years of school. In these systems, the most effective teachers do not just know their subjects (content knowledge) they also how to teach them (pedagogical content knowledge).

Australian primary school teachers are likely to be generalists, teaching all or many subjects. Because all teachers need deep subject expertise to teach well, primary teachers have a unique problem – how can they develop expert knowledge in each of the many subjects they are teaching?

Specialisation, encouraging teachers to focus on just one or a few subjects, is one way to help teachers develop deep expertise. Specialisation can take many forms. In Shanghai and Hong Kong, primary teachers only teach one or a few subjects. In Japan and Finland, primary school teachers teach all subjects, but require teacher candidates to specialise in their initial teacher education (ITE). Australia is beginning to encourage primary teacher specialisation in ITE, which will be addressed in a future Learning First blog post. This post will focus on the different options for primary specialisation after ITE, with teacher roles in schools. 

Specialisation in schools

In the US and Australia, there is concern that low-quality teacher education and development has led to a vicious cycle – where teachers with less knowledge produce students with less knowledge, who then become teachers with less knowledge. It’s hard to imagine breaking out of this cycle without allowing teachers the opportunity to develop expertise in one subject area at a time.

While there is little rigorous research on teacher role specialisation, it has been shown to offer several potential benefits:

  • Increased subject expertise: With fewer subjects to teach, teachers can go deeper into planning, preparing and undertaking professional learning for their subject(s). They have more time to develop their pedagogical content knowledge and gain more confidence in their teaching abilities.
  • Decreased workload: Teachers who prepare for fewer subjects might work less and worry and burn out less, particularly in the first few years of teaching.
  • Teachers can focus on subjects that most interest them: Depending on school need, teachers with a passion for a subject can ideally focus on it more.

One potential and important downside to in-school specialisation is diminished student-teacher relationships. Teachers who teach only one or two subjects have more students and do not know them as well as generalist (i.e. self-contained) teachers do.

There are ways to combat this risk, including a method popular in Shanghai and Finland: teacher “looping”. Teacher looping is a practice in which teachers follow the same group of students, teaching them from one grade level to the next. Practices like looping can improve relationships because teachers have more time getting to know students.

Three models of specialisation

If primary teachers specialise in a subject during ITE, schools can choose one of these three models to ensure teachers take the most advantage of their speciality.

Fully specialised – only teach one subject

It may seem extreme to think of primary school teachers as only teaching one subject, but most schools to already have specialist teachers in arts, music, and PE. It’s odd that we assume specialist skills are needed for these classes, but not for maths or literacy.

In Shanghai, primary school teachers are very specialised. A primary maths teacher will study maths in ITE, and then essentially just teach maths. This allows teachers to choose their preferred subject area, develop deep knowledge, and improve their skills over time.

Schools that want to go this route should be ensure they consider ways to mitigate any negative impact on student-teacher relationships.

Partially specialised – teach two or three subjects

If primary schools don’t want to go for full specialisation, teachers could specialise in one subject in ITE, and teach that, plus one or two more subjects. In Hong Kong, primary teachers who teach science also teach social studies and technology. They have fewer students than with full specialisation, but they still get many of the benefits of teaching fewer subjects.

Generalist teacher with specialisation

In Japan, primary school teachers teach all subjects, but in ITE they choose one in which to specialise. A primary teacher who is a maths specialist will deeply study primary maths in ITE, and get a short overview of all the other subjects he or she will teach. Many schools then hire teachers purposefully to ensure a good mix of specialities, and the teachers grow to become curriculum or subject leaders in the school in their chosen areas.

Whatever the model, schools need to design an effective professional learning culture that instils subject expertise. Future blog posts will cover the subject-specific professional learning models which are essential for making primary specialists effective.

Katie Roberts-Hull is Manager at Learning First.

How can we create effective professional learning? Lessons from high-performing systems

In any district, state or country, when student learning stagnates or falls, the response is universal: we must improve teaching to improve learning. All of the evidence shows that this is the right response. But it’s incredibly difficult. We spend millions of dollars on teacher professional development, but it’s not having the desired impact on our kids’ learning.

But in some high-performing systems it is working. What makes these systems different? What steps can other systems take to make professional learning effective?

Too often, children from low-income communities do not receive a great education, and in several education systems, the number of high-performing students is shrinking. The response to these problems is almost universal: to focus on improving teaching to increase kids’ learning.  

It is the right objective, but while there are pockets of success, the money invested in teacher professional development has not resulted in improvement in most schools. It is incredibly difficult to improve teaching and learning across tens of thousands of classrooms. Too few school systems succeed in making the transition. But for those that do, the benefits to children are immense, and the working lives of teachers improve dramatically.

Too often, a typical teacher reaches the end of the year exhausted. She is enthusiastic about educating children, but she often feels overwhelmed by the complexity of the job. She sits in her office knowing she has had success with many of her students but she wishes for more success for them and feels a bit disappointed with her opportunities to develop her professional expertise. She has technically clocked on a lot of ‘PD hours’ going to seminars and workshops, but she remembers many of them as being sort of boring and not really relevant to issues she was facing in her classroom. She only received feedback from a classroom observation once, and she never got the chance to view other teachers’ classes, like she was hoping to. It is so hard for her to improve her teaching – to help the kids she is having trouble reaching – when no-one looks at what she does and tells her how to improve. She was assigned a mentor in her school, and although the mentor was helpful for administrative questions, she didn’t receive much advice after someone has actually watched her teach. She knows she is not alone. Many teachers around the world have access to professional development, but most teachers report little impact on their actual teaching.

Learning First’s new report Beyond PD: Teacher professional learning in high-performing systems examines systems that have made the transition, namely, British Columbia, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Singapore. These systems vary in their geography, history and culture but all have a similar strategy to improve teaching and learning.

So, why is professional learning having a real impact in these systems? What are the steps other systems can take to refine their improvement strategies?

First, ensure that teacher professional learning is focused on an improvement cycle that begins and ends with student learning. The topic of teacher professional development should be determined by the learning needs of students in a classroom. Teaching is developed to address these learning needs. Professional development should not be considered effective unless it actually improves student learning.

Second, develop a strategy that changes how teachers and school leaders work in schools. To achieve this, reforms should extend well beyond traditional professional development policies. This requires changes in:

  • How we hold schools accountable – increasing accountability for the quality of teaching and the development of teachers;
  • How we develop our school leaders – high-performing systems have created new leadership positions in schools to develop teachers and improve professional learning. These new leaders, like their school principals, are specifically trained in how to use the improvement cycle to continually improve teachers and their teaching; and
  • How we target school resourcing to make sure teachers have enough time to focus on professional learning. 

Over time, this blend of policies can have a profound impact. Professional learning becomes central to teachers’ jobs. It is not an add-on. It is not something done on Friday afternoons or for a few days at either end of the school year. Teacher professional learning is how educators improve student learning; it is how they improve schools; and it is how they are evaluated in their jobs. 

Professional learning that starts and ends with student learning

Professional learning programs in high-performing systems follow an improvement cycle in schools that is anchored in student learning. It is not the name of the program that is important – whether it is a mentoring program or a professional learning team – but whether it functions on an effective improvement cycle that follows these three steps:

First, teachers assess students to identify their learning needs. So teachers in a primary school may look at the data and realise they have a problem in Grade 3 maths. They then deeply analyse student learning in this area (mainly through assessment) to better diagnose where students are and are not learning.

Second, they develop the teaching practices that meet the student learning needs identified in step 1. So after diagnosing the key areas for improvement, these teachers then draw on experts and look at the evidence on how to improve instruction. They pick the most effective strategies and try them in their school.

Finally, they evaluate the impact of these new practices on student learning, refining practice along the way. As these teachers and school leaders try new methods of teaching, they evaluate whether teaching is improving and how students are affected. Teachers and school leaders observe each other's lessons and provide feedback on how to improve teaching and learning. If the new practices are working, teachers share what they have learned throughout the school. If they are not, then teachers analyse why and further refine instruction.

A new teacher in Shanghai is nervous as she prepares to face her class of 45 students for the first time. Her learning curve over her first weeks, months and years is steep, but she knows that she can expect great support. She has two mentors: one provides subject-specific guidance, the other general teaching advice. Her mentors know that they will not be promoted unless they help her improve. They observe her classroom teaching on a regular basis, and she observes her mentors’ classes to learn and work on those aspects of her teaching that are most critical to her students. In between classes, she regularly attends research groups with other teachers to analyse specific teaching and learning issues in their classrooms. None of this is easy, but it is all focused on what her students most need. This makes her job easier as her development is specifically aimed at the teaching and learning issues she is most struggling with. Expectations for her development are high.

The improvement cycle is not new, and many schools around the world have and are trying various forms of it. It is based on the global evidence of effective professional learning. But the improvement cycle has also failed many times. It fails when it is used in isolation. To make it effective – to truly get the improvements in teaching and learning we have been looking for – requires a strategy that continually develops and reinforces effective professional learning.

A strategy to improve professional learning and teacher development

For this to result in actual improvement, a reform strategy must recognise the difficulties of shifting the way teachers work together and teach their students in thousands of schools. It requires multiple change leaders in schools to lead and role-model effective collaborative professional learning. It requires new evaluation and accountability policies to continually reinforce these new ways of working in a school. And it targets resources to enable it all to happen.

New professional learning leaders to lead the change in schools

To transform the way people work every day, in every classroom, in every school, requires strong leadership with specific skills in how people and organisations can change and move away from their usual practice. All of these high-performing systems recognise how difficult this is, so they have developed new leadership positions in schools and across the system. These new leaders are regularly trained alongside school principals, so each school has multiple leaders acting to change the way people work to ensure that teachers’ individual and collective professional learning is meeting school objectives.

Importantly, the new leaders are teachers; they are peer leaders, chosen from the teaching force to lead professional learning in each school. They often remain in the classroom on a part-time basis. Part of the reason they are effective is that other teachers are more likely to change the way they work when they see colleagues – not just official leaders – role-modelling effective practices.

Evaluation and accountability should be structured to improve professional learning

Too often, policymakers are told they have to choose between strategies emphasising accountability or development. So when a young teacher is not getting the professional development she needs – her mentor is not improving her teaching or her school principal has development days that target the wrong areas – it is often viewed as a problem with teacher professional development policies. In high-performing systems this would also be viewed as a problem of accountability. In these systems, accountability focuses not only on student performance, but also on the quality of instruction and professional learning.

Teachers in Shanghai will not be promoted unless they can demonstrate that they are collaborative. Similarly, mentors will not be promoted unless the teachers they mentor improve. School principals in British Columbia must prove that they are following an improvement cycle, and that it is improving results. If professional learning programs in Shanghai schools are considered to be of low quality, then the central office will take over much of the school’s professional learning.

Teachers need time for professional learning

A common problem preventing the development of effective professional learning in many systems is a lack of time. Teachers simply do not have sufficient time in the day for taking up effective professional learning. Shanghai provides the clearest example of a system that commits a large amount of time to teacher professional learning. They focus on the quality rather than the quantity of teaching. The average teacher in Shanghai teaches for only 10-12 hours per week. Considerable time is allocated to professional learning. But Shanghai is an outlier even amongst high-performing systems. For example, British Columbia made huge gains with only 1-2 periods per week allocated to formal professional learning.

Reform can start with small changes          

Importantly, creating effective professional learning does not require a complete overhaul of education policy. Progress in high-performing systems came through incremental improvements. For example, Singapore did not implement all of its reforms in one go: it changed one aspect at a time over many years, pragmatically trying what worked and discarding what did not work until it achieved a finely balanced approach.

This report offers a roadmap for reform: namely, to emphasise an improvement cycle as the key to school improvement and to build the leadership, capacity, and accountability for the quality of the improvement cycle in schools. Over time, this transforms the improvement cycle into a culture of continuous professional learning that turns schools into true learning organisations. When this occurs we will get the improvements in student learning that we all hope for.

Click here to read the report.

Click here for the Australian edition of the report.