STEM specialists in the primary classroom: no thanks

General primary education is a great strength—we shouldn't push specialist teachers into classrooms.
STEM specialists in the primary classroom: no thanks

I am experiencing a strong sense of déjà vu. According to a recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald, New South Wales Education (NSW) Minister Adrian Piccoli has decided to “push” specialist maths and science teachers into NSW primary classrooms because the state’s results in NAPLAN have “plummeted”.

He suggests that declining enrolment in higher level maths (senior secondary and tertiary maths subjects) are the result of primary teachers failing to instil a love of those subjects in the primary years. Once again, we have a politician with a deficit view of primary school teachers, and using that view to justify policy, because the two premises just don’t follow.

The major benefit of a primary education is that it is general

One of the great strengths of a primary education, available to all primary teachers, is the opportunity to integrate content across subjects, and be flexible with when, where, and how to teach all the subject content, capabilities, and key ideas across the school week, and term.

This is particularly valuable because learning different content across various lessons actually 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’s lost when specialists take students away from their generalist teacher for a particular area (yes, even music and physical education).

Primary teachers are everyday people. Actually, in my experience, primary teachers are special people, who are very thoughtful, careful and deliberate about their practice and the children that they work with, and damn they 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 or not 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).

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

Shortcomings in the teaching of science

Historically, there have been shortcomings in the teaching of science in primary and secondary schools. The subject of science has only recently been included as a part of initial teacher education, so many experienced primary teachers have had to learn science along the way. In some primary classrooms, a lack of confidence in one’s own understanding of and about science, or competence to teach it, has resulted in avoidance of teaching the subject altogether (Goodrum, Hacking, & Rennie, 2000; as Nick has pointed out previously, there hasn’t been much research on the status of primary teachers of science since the Goodrum report in 2000. There has been research on the outcomes for teachers using Primary Connections, though). Even where content knowledge was known and understood by teachers, the use of authoritarian transmission styles reinforced rigid structures of scientific knowledge as indisputable fact that led to misconceptions about science (both primary and secondary teachers may be guilty of this). Some secondary teachers of science have been teaching out of field. We have been stuck in a cycle where students who have not had a coherent science education themselves go on to become primary teachers of science.

But specialist teachers, moving from class to class to teach science, are not the answer.

We already work with pre-service teachers to develop their scientific literacy, and understandings of and about science, as well as science education. How can we help them when they graduate, and support in-service teachers, too?

Here’s one proposed solution

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 all around the country 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, perhaps less important, activities, 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 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. Perhaps eventually, we would have an almost entirely scientifically literate primary teacher cohort.

Is the problem with NAPLAN?

If, as research has identified, teachers have been spending what used to be time for teaching science, humanities, technologies, and mathematical inquiry and problem-solving directing students in activities that will improve achievement on NAPLAN, perhaps we need to lower the stakes and return the classroom focus to science and other subjects.

If so much time is spent attending prescribed professional development for NAPLAN, and analysing NAPLAN data, and developing new activities to teach NAPLAN, such that teachers don’t have any time left to attend personally relevant and valuable professional development for teaching other subject, perhaps we should make changes to NAPLAN that lower the stakes and also the time spent responding to it.

Indeed, discussions with representatives of teacher associations reveal huge drops in the number of teachers participating in previously busy and highly subscribed conferences and workshops, and many teacher associations are struggling to stay afloat.

Is the problem with the curriculum?

If the knowledge demands of the science and maths curricula are so great that we can’t expect teachers to know and understand it well enough to teach it, perhaps they are also too great for children.

If we expect primary students to learn all of this, as well as the content of other subjects prescribed by their respective curriculums, then it is reasonable to expect primary teachers to know and understand it well enough to teach it, too. If not, perhaps it’s the curriculum that needs to be changed, or the intended goals of science education.

Let’s find solutions that address the real problems, and sustain the advantages of primary education, rather than establishing a policy that entrenches the problems.


This article was originally published on my blog, Hypothetical Thinking.

Image credit: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers / CC BY 2.0

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Go to the profile of Kim Flintoff
over 7 years ago
Except that a properly implemented STEM approach is inherently interdisciplinary and derives its motivation from art, beauty, curiosity, real problems, speculation, love, passion and frustration!