Subject Specialism in Primary

I used to think that teaching 4 to 9 year olds was a relatively easy job. Sure, classroom management must be like herding cats at times but lesson planning wouldn’t take long and marking must be a doddle.  


My view was further reinforced when kids coming into our secondary school talked about spending weeks tracing leaves or participating in long strings of unconnected activities from the “1001 Awesome Science Activities” book as their science “curriculum”. Not to mention that it is possible to get into a primary teaching degree with an academic record that puts you in the lower 40% of students in the country.

Primary teaching must be simple. 

Then I actually went into primary classrooms and sat down with teachers as they planned their lessons. It was a shock for me. The complexities that primary teachers have to manage in their classroom are astounding. Take a Prep (5yo) classroom. To plan a literacy lesson you need to consider all kinds of things, like which GPC is going to be introduced next, which words you are going to use to demonstrate and practise the correspondences, which letters your handwriting practice will focus on and how complex the sentence students will write should be. Not to mention that Bruce needs a reminder about posture when writing at his desk and that we need to mark the places where Anna and Elsa will require cued articulation. Then on to planning maths instruction, then to history and maybe then science. I could understand why, after you have carefully sequenced all of this learning that, if you are planning in an area you find much more challenging, you would start to reach for activities from a book.

It seems to me that asking teachers to become masters of domain knowledge and research-informed pedagogical principles in such a wide range of subjects is a tough ask. To do it most effectively requires extensive planning, thoughtful activity preparation and a keen sense of when to make adjustments to the plan while in the “wild”. What makes it even more challenging is the movement between year levels from one year to the next – just as you become used to teaching Year 1, predicting the problems students would likely encounter and possible strategies you could try to help them, you are then asked to teach Year 5. Teachers able to manage this change and teach effectively across all domains consistently are a special breed.

One way of overcoming these challenges is to encourage subject specialisation. The school at which I work rearranged the timetable in order to allow teams of subject teachers to teach across year levels. It began with a team for mathematics – a group of half a dozen teachers, some of whom already had a strong subject area knowledge, teach all of the math classes throughout the school. They work together as a team to develop likely progressions of learning and agree on the strategies they will use as a team to teach particular concepts. They spend time during their meetings problem-solving difficulties their students are facing and, in the process, learn from one another. They have a shared responsibility for the students across the school as they teach multiple year levels and multiple classes. Students move from one class to another over the course of the year so they are involved (and invested) in the learning of every student.  

The model has then been replicated in the Literacy and Science teams. Having teachers specialising allows them to focus on being good practitioners in one particular area, learning from and with their colleagues.  

This specialisation has reinforced the importance of domain knowledge. In order to understand what students are grappling with, teachers need to have a strong understanding of not only the material they are teaching but the more advanced principles that underpin them. This understanding allows teachers to identify the cause of the student challenge and develop or identify possible instruction that can help overcome the difficulty.

So far it seems it is not necessary to have a university mathematics or science degree in order to teach these subjects well but you do need significant expertise in the group. The groups in our school work best when they have a specialist who can help teach the others in the team what they need to know from a domain point of view. In other words, they help the members of their group understand the principle or concept that they are then going to teach to the students.  

Unsurprisingly it has been the science team that has required this advanced knowledge and support more than the other specialist areas. Perhaps it is because the general populace has a poorer grasp on science than in mathematics or English. In any case, having science specialists who were secondary trained was an important step in getting the science team off the ground. Understanding the scientific principles you are trying to teach in some detail is crucial to both develop a scheme for learning that is challenging and theoretically correct, and recognising and challenging misconceptions when they arise.  

The results of the primary specialisation, both anecdotal and quantitative, seem very encouraging. We were initially concerned that students and parents might be worried about having three or four teachers during the course of a couple of days. Although there was some anxiety early, parents have been impressed by what their daughters and sons have achieved in a short amount of time and by the positive relationships they have built up with each of their specialist teachers.  

While students feel as though they are learning more than they had previously (which the results would bear out) teachers feel more in control of both their own learning and that of their students. They have demonstrated mastery in the domain they are working in, can teach confidently and successfully and feel less overwhelmed. A side benefit of the model is that, to some degree, it is self-sustaining. When staff need to leave the school their replacements have ample support in their colleagues who can quickly bring them up to speed on what is required and the materials available to them.

In short, specialisation is way that teachers can benefit from being able to focus on particular areas, students can have access to more consistently effective instruction and doesn’t require a trade-off in student-teacher relationships.  Specialisation is not a cure-all as it is still a structure and requires other cultural elements – the conversations around the instructional core and commitment to work as a team for the students needs to be carefully cultivated in order for the new specialist structure to work.

However, in this school’s case, it seems to work.


One thought on “Subject Specialism in Primary”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s