What should primary teacher specialisation look like? Another lesson from Japan

Katie Roberts-Hull

Learning First’s new report, Australia’s primary challenge, explores how to develop more subject expertise among primary school teachers. In this fifth blog in our seriesKatie Roberts-Hull examines an initial teacher education program in Japan that is designed to ensure primary teaching graduates are fully prepared for the subjects they will teach.

Primary school teachers have a complex and tough job. They are responsible for establishing the foundational skills that students will use to build knowledge for a lifetime, and they often have to do this across four or five different subject areas. While many may assume that they only need basic knowledge for the role (how hard can it be to teach grade 3 maths?), in fact primary teachers need subject expertise that is quite specialised and takes years to acquire. For example, to teach reading, primary teachers must understand what a phoneme is, and how to teach phonemic awareness. Most adults don’t have this knowledge, and teachers need quality training to be able to teach it effectively. 

Initial teacher education is where most teacher candidates begin to develop knowledge specific to teaching. In Australia, where some teachers’ own primary and secondary school education may be lacking, initial teacher education provides a critical opportunity to improve candidates’ subject expertise before they teach.

Primary teacher education programs in Australia are now being required to design specialist programs. Each primary teacher candidate will have to choose one subject area in which to develop deeper knowledge. It’s a big shift in teacher education curriculum, but ideally teachers will leave programs prepared to teach all subjects, but with expert knowledge in one area.

So what does a strong primary specialist program look like? It should:

  • Focus on the foundational knowledge that teachers need at the primary school level
  • Emphasise pedagogical content knowledge (e.g. skills tied to specific subject areas), not just general pedagogical skills
  • Closely align training to the national school curriculum

One great example of a program that follows all these principles is Naruto University of Education in Tokushima, Japan. In Japan primary teachers teach all subjects, but they select one area of specialisation in initial teacher education.

Naruto University of Education

To prepare teachers to be generalists, all prospective teachers – primary and secondary – are required to take “core” courses in each subject area. These courses are developed in collaboration by a subject expert, a pedagogy expert, and a veteran teacher. The three work together to make sure the courses emphasise pedagogical content knowledge and the combination of theory and practice. Teacher candidates take three core courses in each of ten subjects: Japanese, English, society, mathematics, science, music, arts, physical education, technology, and home economics. These three core courses cover the basics of the subject, and student teachers then choose one subject in which to specialise.

For example, the compulsory core maths courses explain the basics of teaching maths in primary and lower secondary school. They include instruction on:

  • The school curriculum (referencing the Ministry of Education’s Course of Study)
  • How young children learn maths
  • Teaching methods for mathematics
  • Overview of key content taught in early years, upper primary, and lower secondary
  • Practice creating lesson plans and micro teaching

If a teacher candidate decides to specialise in maths, she takes the equivalent of a major. The maths program is designed to have a foundation in arithmetic, but includes courses in more advanced mathematics as well. There are two “fundamental mathematics” courses that are not required, but they are recommended to students who lack a strong maths background from school. In practice, almost all primary mathematics majors take these two courses.

The maths major includes courses focused on both content knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge. Content knowledge courses include: arithmetic; geometry; algebra; fundamental mathematics I (mathematics learnt in high school, such as quadratic functions); fundamental mathematics II (bridging high school to university level maths, such as derivatives and integration); and analysis (advanced calculus subsequent to fundamental mathematics courses). Geometry, algebra, and analysis have subsequent and more advanced elective sections.

Maths majors also take pedagogical content knowledge courses on teaching methods for each key area of primary mathematics. These courses teach the basics of primary mathematics assessment and require sample lesson plan design and a simulated practice lesson.

This example shows that it is possible to create a rigorous primary speciality, while still preparing teachers for generalist roles. Importantly, Naruto’s curriculum focuses on foundational skills for primary teaching, like arithmetic, instead of the common Australian practice of having student teachers take advanced maths courses that are much less relevant for teaching young children. Australian teacher education programs can learn from examples like these as they design new primary teacher preparation courses.   

More details on the Naruto University of Education curriculum can be found here in the appendix of Australia’s Primary Challenge.

Naruto University of Education course requirements for a major in primary mathematics (2016)

Japanese Blog graph.png
Note: The arrows show course prerequisites
*Fundamental mathematics I and II are “electives,” but in practice almost all primary mathematics majors will complete them.