February.13.2017

Specialist science and maths teachers in primary schools are not the solution

By Charlotte Pezaro

The idea to put specialist science and maths teachers into Australian primary schools gained a lot of support after the latest results of international tests were announced. It even became official policy in NSW last year when then Education Minister, Adrian Piccoli, announced a plan to deliver hundreds of specialist STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) teachers into NSW classrooms. Well-known mathematicians such as Adam Spencer have also backed the idea. It is indeed a popular idea.

However, I suggest that this strategy is not the solution. I have several reasons for suggesting this. First, the strategy neglects bigger picture issues in the system. Second, this solution has the potential to undermine the strengths of primary education, as well as the relevance and accessibility to science for primary students. And finally, this solution assumes a deficit on the part of primary teachers. If the curriculum is too challenging for teachers to grasp, perhaps it is also too difficult for students. A better response would be to provide primary teachers who need it with the time, funding, and high quality professional development in science.

Our test results are a consequence of systemic failures, including high stakes testing

The results that have been used to justify this strategy include NAPLAN results, and the latest TIMMS results. In the TIMMS results, we can see that scores in science have plateaued. But these results must be very carefully interpreted. As the Director of the Australian Council for Educational Research, Sue Thompson, points out our results demonstrate a long trail of underachieving students, largely representing students from areas of lower socioeconomic status.

This suggests the issue is not so much with the teachers, but with the funding of schools (which may be spent on resources, professional development, release time for planning and so on). We already know that Australia has a very inequitable funding arrangement between schools, with schools in wealthier areas and cohorts generally receiving substantially more funding than those in poorer areas, or with poorer cohorts.

Originally a low-stakes diagnostic test, the publication of school results, and the use of scores to evaluate teachers (informally if not yet formally), has turned NAPLAN into a very high-stakes test, both for students and for teachers. There is building evidence that primary schools and hence teachers have been devoting class time that used to be for teaching science, humanities, technologies, the arts, and scientific and mathematical inquiry and problem solving, to directing students in tasks that will improve their performance on NAPLAN. Further, a lot of teachers’ time out of class is now spent analysing and responding to NAPLAN data, in professional development for NAPLAN, and developing new activities to teach students. It’s time to lower the stakes and return time to classes to focus on science and other subjects.

Further, we must ask questions about what and how both tests measure, and whether this is what we desire from our education system. If our goal is for all students to become expert scientists, the situation is indeed dire. But if our goal is for all students to become confident and skilled consumers of science (scientifically literate) as a part of their active citizenship, then the situation we have now, where primary teachers are generalists, with a broad knowledge in all areas, has greater potential to achieve this.

The strength of primary education lies in its generalist teachers

We often talk about primary teachers as holding general knowledge about all subjects, with expertise in pedagogy. One of the great strengths of a primary education is the opportunity to integrate content across subjects, and be flexible with when, where, and how to teach subjects, capabilities, and key ideas across the school week, term, and year.

This is particularly valuable because learning different content across various lessons builds students’ literacy and numeracy, the very skills that NAPLAN claims to assess. When students read about insects in their reading rotations, increase technical knowledge in their vocabulary and phonics activities, use the data from their latest science investigation in their graphing lessons, or learn to make accurate measurements using different units, they are learning how to work with information and give it meaning. Literacy and numeracy aren’t developed out of context. Science, maths, English texts, history, geography, health, and technologies all provide contexts for students to build these capabilities meaningfully, and demonstrate the value of each area of inquiry for everyday life. This is where a love of the subject, be it science, maths, history, or English literature, can arise.

That opportunity is lost when specialists take students away from their generalist teacher for any subject (yes, even music and physical education).

Further, primary teachers are diverse role models of “everyday people”. In my experience, primary teachers are thoughtful, careful and deliberate about their practice and the children that they work with, and work hard for their students. But to their students, their teacher is an everyday person, someone who can learn and understand all the things they are going to have to learn and understand at school. If their primary school teacher can do it, then so can they!

Whether they intend to, specialist teachers perpetuate beliefs that their subjects are not for everyday people. Students may come to believe that those specialist subjects are for special people, with special interests or aptitudes, or who already love the subject. We already have a pervasive belief throughout the community that science is only for those with a high intellectual quality (and sadly, we have an anti-intellectual backlash, too). This message would be perpetuated by the mere existence of specialist science teachers in schools.

If we want the general community to value science, a generalist teacher best models and teaches that valuing.

Is the Foundation to Year 10 Curriculum too challenging?

The strategy for specialist teachers in primary schools reveals a deficit view of primary teachers. The assumption is that primary teachers are incapable of understanding, or perhaps learning, the basic science included in the Australian Curriculum: Science (Foundation to Year 10). However, this is unreasonable. If what is included in the curriculum is too challenging for grown adults with four-year qualifications in Education (or equivalent) to understand, perhaps we should be questioning the curriculum rather than the teachers.

If it is not too challenging, then the appropriate response would be to provide the time and funding necessary to plan, develop, and deliver high quality science lessons, as well as sustained, high quality professional development for those teachers who are struggling to understand the science necessary to teach it.

Sustained professional development, through universities or by programs like Primary Connections are avenues for improvement. Primary Connections is an excellent program that teachers who are lacking confidence to teach science can use to plan and support their teaching. There are Science Teacher Associations in each state who are willing and ready to deliver high-quality PD to teachers, but are starved for funding and support themselves.

What if science specialists worked alongside teachers? Queensland attempted this model a few years ago, with the Science Spark strategy, but it was ad hoc, and variably effective. There were some schools for which it worked quite well, but in many schools, the Science Spark operated as a specialist teacher, freeing up generalist teachers’ time to concentrate on other lessons, but also giving them permission to forget about science education for a little while. When the Science Spark program ended, most teachers were no better able to teach science than previously. The question remains as to whether there were any positive long-term impacts of this poorly orchestrated scheme. We can do better.

Let’s do this

Let’s identify a fleet of experienced primary teachers; teachers who understand the complexity of a generalist classroom and primary-aged children, and work with them build their ideas of and about science. Let’s also prepare them with coaching skills. Then, as specialists, those teachers can work alongside their colleagues, coaching them as needed to improve their understandings for teaching science.

Let’s also give teachers sufficient time to engage with this strategy, by removing some of the other less necessary demands on their time. Eventually, all of our primary teachers would be scientifically literate, and skilled at teaching science.

 

Charlotte Pezaro is a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland (UQ). Her research looks at the role that science classroom argumentation plays in the development of particular cognitive processes, understandings, and values for making decisions. Before beginning her research, Charlotte was a primary school teacher with Education Queensland, teaching in remote, regional and city schools. She shares her experiences and expertise in primary science education in a number of primary education courses at UQ. Charlotte has a Bachelor of Science (Psychology) and a Graduate Bachelor of Education (Primary).

24 thoughts on “Specialist science and maths teachers in primary schools are not the solution

  1. Irene Buckler says:

    Your point of view is both logical and persuasive. I cannot imagine anyone disagreeing with you – but then I am not a politician or policy-maker, who consistently make dogmatic educational decisions that defy my understanding.

  2. jane hunter says:

    Thank you for your post Charlotte.
    I absolutely agree that specialist primary science and mathematics teachers are not the answer – more funds, sustained professional development and working alongside science/maths/engineering specialists with professional associations will build primary school teachers’ capacity and capabilities in these areas.
    Interestingly, Primary Connections was heavily criticised in recent research I conducted with 16 teachers (teaching years 5 & 6 students) in five NSW primary schools – “it was too formulaic” and “students end up watching while the teacher does the experimentation” were typical responses. It would appear that the texts are a starting point, but using science/mathematics/engineering misconceptions and hands on, inquiry approaches, collaboration, group work and a diversity of assessment practices better support engaged learning in these subjects. If primary school teachers are ‘taken off’ teaching these subjects they are effectively “de-skilled’ – pedagogy is key and all primary school teachers must be actively supported to teach all of the key learning areas really well.

  3. Charlotte Pezaro says:

    Hi Jane,
    I’m sorry to hear those criticisms of PrimaryConnections. My experience with teaching and using PC is much different. The criticisms you’re discussing in the post do seem to be as a result of a rigid application of the units, though. My thoughts are that teachers who have participated in the workshops to learn about the pedagogical and epistemological foundations for the program would not see the units as formulaic, or didactic, in the way described. I’m also surprised at the statement that “the texts are a starting point, but using science/mathematics/engineering misconceptions and hands on, inquiry approaches, collaboration, group work and a diversity of assessment practices better support engaged learning in these subjects” because those are exactly the approaches that PC uses. This almost makes me wonder if you are talking about a different program.
    I do, however, completely agree that the PC units are a foundation for teachers to build upon.

  4. Chris says:

    When the new NSW Syllabus came out our school completed the department. PD course and we were specifically told that Primary Connections units shouldn’t be used as they were to rigid and we should be using authentic problems/ projects to teach science. Theoretically I agree but my experience is that unless schools are using PC, they aren’t doing any science at all. I am science trained and can embed science through the curriculum but this is not the case for my colleagues without a science background. Also it’s nice to think that all subjects are link by a theme and learning is fluid but this is not the case at all either. Subjects are timetabled separately and each KLA has specific content and skills to cover. The curriculum is jam packed and the whole system is a mess. I start the year already behind.

  5. Peter Lee says:

    Thanks for your engagement Jane

  6. jane hunter says:

    In NSW many public schools use PC and have used PC for some time. I wonder if this is more about not feeling confident and if ‘I don’t feel confident I follow the text suggestions as written’. Most primary school teachers have not had nearly enough PD or extended opportunities for professional learning in STEM – which is my area of interest. Attending regular workshops and then working a team or being coached at school would be ideal.

  7. Charlotte Pezaro says:

    Hear hear!

  8. jane hunter says:

    Hi Charlotte,
    Yes it was a common lament across this group of 16 primary school teachers. NSW public schools have used PC for some time – some teachers were keen to point out errors in the science in some of the units. How often are PC workshops held – and if you did a PC workshop some time ago do primary school teachers have opportunities to renew their PC learning annually? PC is certainly a springboard to other websites/resources/experts for STEM learning.

  9. Louise Rostron says:

    I enjoyed reading your article, Charlotte. You have nailed some very important points about science teaching and learning in primary schools. I have also read, with interest, the comments so far. In my view, all primary teachers are very capable of effectively teaching science given appropriate professional learning and quality resources. Science specialists are huge assets in working alongside teachers to assist them to build knowledge and skill in this area. I share your concern about perceiving primary teachers from a “deficit” perspective when it comes to science and technology and do not support the “take the students away” approach. I would add that if this key learning area is removed from the generalist teacher’s responsibility, both teachers and students miss out on a marvellous vehicle for building even more robust “learning relationships” with students. In my experience both teachers and students find great joy in the learning journeys they undertake in science.

    My experience with developing and delivering professional learning for the Primary Connections: linking science with literacy program enables me to say that Primary Connections is far from formulaic. It uses a very effective model, the PrimaryConnections 5Es teaching and learning model that leads students from points of misconception to accurate conceptual understanding through the use of inquiry skills and representations.
    The journey described in the curriculum units is a researched, trailed and effective pathway for students to achieve this goal but is not limited. Students’ questions and interests on any given science concept can drive their learning in numerous directions towards an even deeper understanding of the concept being studied. The mathematical skills and technological links are very evident and appropriately included for given science concepts. The only limitation is the often inadequate time given to science in the curriculum.

    In Primary Connections, we would never give advice to teachers to demonstrate the experimentation or the investigations. All phases of the 5Es contain many and varied activities for students to complete, all designed to move them along the learning pathway towards an accurate understanding of the concept being studied. The representations that they are required to complete along the way provide enormous opportunity for developing general literacy skills as well as specific “literacies of science”, the particular ways that scientists represent and communicate their ideas.

    Your comments about the NAPLAN agenda operating in schools are spot on, Charlotte. The tests were meant be diagnostic and “low stakes”. It concerns me greatly that the statistical analysis from the tests is being so badly mis-used to judge both teacher/student and school performance.

    I agree, Jane, that pedagogy is the key and that teachers need support to fully understand the power of the pedagogical approach underpinning Primary Connections. My strong advice is that the NSW teachers you mentioned receive some professional learning about the program in order to reap its benefits. Then they will understand fully the reasons the curriculum resources are written the way they are and the true intent of the Primary Connections program.

  10. Peter Lee says:

    Thank you for your interest in education in NSW

  11. jane hunter says:

    Thank you for this comprehensive response Louise – I have read it with great interest. Much appreciated.

  12. Shirley Casper says:

    One of the exciting things about teaching is the ability to respond to those serendipitous situations when something scientific (or STEM related) comes up in something quite unrelated. A generalist teacher, who has confidence in Science/STEM is able to take advantage of these moments and guide their students to a deeper understanding by using this new, practical context.
    If specialist teachers are used, these contexts often go unrecognised or unfulfilled, reinforcing the idea that Science/STEM is not a part of everyday life.

  13. Brian Cambourne says:

    Thanks for providing us with some strong arguments and evidence for supporting the
    need for K-6 teachers to be “generalists” rather than “specialists”. Perhaps the politicians and/or policy makers who want to tell teachers what to do, should first spend sustained periods of time in classrooms finding out what they actually DO do? Or at least make themselves familiar with what those naturalistic inquiries which have been done on such matters?

  14. Pete Goss says:

    This is an important topic, and good to read your thoughts. But it strikes me that there are a number of different models of science specialists that could be considered, and the arguments you make may apply somewhat differently to each. And I’m not sure what role for a science specialist you had in mind during the article.

    For example, science (or maths, or english) specialists in primary school could:
    – teach all science lessons to all year levels
    – teach all science lessons to upper primary students
    – teach some fraction of science lessons to some or all students
    – co-teach science lessons with generalist teachers
    – teach as a generalist classroom teacher part of the time, and act as a coach/instructional leader in science the remainder of the time
    – teach as a generalist classroom teacher and also act as a coach/instructional leader (not far off the suggestion in your last section)

    In the first three models the main benefit would come from the (hypothesised) better teaching of science by a specialist science teacher. In the last three models the main benefit would come from the (hypothesised) ability of the specialist to improve the effectiveness of other teachers’ science teaching.

    As you point out, this is a popular idea. Given that, we need to be careful about distinguishing between different models with very different potential impacts.

  15. Hi Peter, coerced by Maralyn, I’m copying post, but you may have seen it.
    Charlotte you have raised some very valid points.
    Peter Lee, Inspector, Primary Education, at the NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA). has posted his own blog response to your post. http://www.aare.edu.au/blog/?p=2019#comments
    This is my reply to him –
    “The current focus on STEM in primary schools concerns me. To educate balanced children in primary school we need balanced teachers. Balanced teachers need to teach a broad range of subjects. The humanities and the arts need as much formal recognition and emphasis as STEM.
    As an ex co-primary principal, I would hire teachers in lower primary who were not consumed by academic concepts, but who could creatively enthuse children into engaging in purposeful activity in a broad range of subjects. The more academic-focused teachers would often leave the children cold. This STEM focus leaves me cold. The agenda is clear, but I doubt if it will enhance holistic organic teaching which is desperately needed, particularly in lower primary.
    We actually need to stem the decline in artistic creative teaching if we want better results in STEM subjects, not drive a top down agenda, where children in primary are being trained for a perceived job market in the future. We need to kindle fires in all spheres of learning, not concentrate in filling the buckets of a few.”

  16. Charlotte Pezaro says:

    Hi Pete,

    Thanks, and you are right; there are lots of models by which this could work, and the last three are indeed supportive strategies. The last one will, admittedly, cost some money in staffing support, as coaching is time consuming (but also very effective at improving teaching in the long term).

    I think though that many decisions are made to solve problems in the short term, because this is cheaper, and puts off the (financial) cost until someone else can solve the problem! I’m being a touch cynical, perhaps. But there’s also an aspect of performativity; that is, as I suggest in my first point, while the emphasis is on test results (and/or STEM outcomes), that is where the time, effort, and money will go, and in that scenario, the solution with the easiest short-term gain will be one of the top three solutions.

    I would love to see more clarification about what NSW is expecting to happen in schools, and how they are supporting in service teachers to develop their competencies and knowledge for teaching science.

  17. Lyn Goodwin says:

    I have had to teach Science as an RFF subject for primary classes at 3 different schools over my career. I thoroughly enjoyed it, as did the students.( We used Primary Connections at 2 of the schools.)
    I believe the reason Science is possibly not done as well as it should be is much simpler than anyone is stating. Primary teachers have to scrounge for resources, and spaces to even teach in. It is exhausting trying to find the materials required on shoestring budgets, and if you don’t have a “spare” room, you are often left lugging things around akin to a pack mule, room-to-room!Wouldn’t it be nice if we were equipped with specialist rooms/labs, smaller classes, personnel & resourced as high schools are for the subject? Success would follow.

  18. Charlotte Pezaro says:

    Hi Lyn,

    Thank you for sharing your experience! You have raised some good points.

    I agree that science in primary is a lot simpler than people expect. We want students to understand some very simple ideas about what science is, how it works, and why we use it. Some simple ideas about the world around us are also important: the world is made of tiny particles we call molecules, life survives under particular circumstances where its needs are met, energy makes things happen and is transferred and transformed, and the earth is constantly changing.

    Resourcing and room space (a wet space is almost essential for most science lessons) are necessary to support good science teaching at every level. However, I disagree that a lab is necessary. Science happens everywhere. I think one of the problems we have is with children transitioning to high school science. The new HS students enter a lab, and they look around at the apparatuses and the benches and the lab coats and goggles, and their new teacher says “so, tell me what science you did in primary school!” The children see so much difference between their lab and the classroom that they think they haven’t done science at all, and that is what they report to their teacher. Probably, they’ve done quite a lot. This sounds like I am arguing for labs in primary schools, but rather, I think it’s more important that as primary teachers, we are explicit that we are teaching science, and that science happens in labs sometimes, but at other times it happens in classrooms, in the field, in space, on the oceans, on an ice floe in Antarctica… That science is something every day people can engage with too, even when they don’t have access to a lab!

    When we teach the preservice teachers here at my university about science education, we use a classroom and everyday materials as much as possible, so that they can see how they can easily and cheaply resource simple investigations. We also talk about asking parents for things like ice cream containers, glad wrap, plastic glasses, and straws. The trickier subject areas are electricity and chemistry; for the most part, we use what we can supply from shops like Jaycar and the supermarket. We show students receipts and talk about how much they cost.

    Science does not need to be complex, at the primary level; it does not require special rooms, or special equipment. If what we are asking primary teachers to teach does require those things, I return to my final argument: is it really appropriate for primary school children?

  19. Charlotte you have raised some very valid points.
    Peter Lee, Inspector, Primary Education, at the NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA). has posted his own blog response to your post. http://www.aare.edu.au/blog/?p=2019#comments
    This is my reply to him –
    “The current focus on STEM in primary schools concerns me. To educate balanced children in primary school we need balanced teachers. Balanced teachers need to teach a broad range of subjects. The humanities and the arts need as much formal recognition and emphasis as STEM.
    As an ex co-primary principal, I would hire teachers in lower primary who were not consumed by academic concepts, but who could creatively enthuse children into engaging in purposeful activity in a broad range of subjects. The more academic-focused teachers would often leave the children cold. This STEM focus leaves me cold. The agenda is clear, but I doubt if it will enhance holistic organic teaching which is desperately needed, particularly in lower primary.
    We actually need to stem the decline in artistic creative teaching if we want better results in STEM subjects, not drive a top down agenda, where children in primary are being trained for a perceived job market in the future. We need to kindle fires in all spheres of learning, not concentrate in filling the buckets of a few.”

  20. Peter Lee says:

    Thanks for your interest in and engagement with education in NSW

  21. Hi Peter, you are welcome, but to clarify, my interest in and engagement with education is international and what is best for children. I agree with Pasi Sahlberg and his summation of the The Global Education Reform Movement which we appear intent on pursuing. I’m extremely concerned about the impact of the GERM in Australia, compared to Finland’s approach. Nothing personal, but it is a pattern here. Were you aware that Pasi Sahlberg sacked himself as the last school inspector in Finland? I believe we can learn a lot outside the GERM infected countries like England and USA.

  22. Maralyn Parker says:

    Johnathon, you should also put this in a reply to Peter. (Just copy and paste. You have to do it, I can’t post it for you.)

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