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.

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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.