Monday, July 18, 2016

Specialist Teacher shortage vs Expert Teachers


In senior secondary school there is a perceived understanding that to teach the subject properly you need a subject specialist teacher - in simple terms a generalist teacher is not sufficient.

The claim that many teaching positions are held by teachers ,who are not trained in their subject, implicitly point to the notion that non specialist teachers deliver a lesser service.

There is little doubt that many schools employ teachers to teach subjects who are not trained in the subject, but I do not believe that they automatically offer a lesser service

BUT there is no easy way to measure this assertion.
  • How do we measure the learning impact of “Out-of-field” teaching?
  • Do we solely evaluate on the basis that:  students learned the content, they passed their exams, and they achieved good grades? 


 from www.shutterstock.com.au

However - is there a bigger problem?
  • Is the real problem about developing expert teachers, who love teaching students?

Love of Teaching

I find it difficult to ascertain a measurable impact that can differentiate between an “Out-of-field” teacher who teaches with a love of teaching and a subject specialist teacher who is a dispassionate teacher (who's passion is in the textbook rather than the student as a learner)?

Presently, the major cause of the subject specialist grief centres around  STEM subjects -  science, technology, engineering and mathematics.  This correlates with a concerted political effort to raise the numbers of STEM subjects there seems not to be enough specialist teachers to teach them. It is a national urgency.

A similar situation  was raised a few years back.  The number of students completing an Asian language in Australia has declined as has the number of Asian language teachers. This decline of student enrolments and fewer Asian language specialist teachers is a big issue in what is termed the Asian Era. This problem has not been resolved.

The present specialist STEM teacher argument seems to be connected to a general back-to-basics agenda. The benefits on improvement through structural basics is also unsubstantiated. Specialist teachers, small classes, students in uniform and streaming those who can from those who cannot will not gain the save the nation benefits perceived.

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Logistics

There is a significant logistical lag between training the sufficient number of subject specialist teachers and meeting the immediate need. As an infrastructure and like the Asian language problem, the need may not be met.  Even training the specialist teachers doesn't automatically solve the problem as the de-employment of non subject specialist teachers already employed within the school systems will take time. Is this ambition a 10 to 15 year endeavour?

Whilst there is a call to employ subject trained teachers, the relationship between student achievement and teacher qualifications is not tightly bound. The investment and years to get the subject specialist teacher into schools doesn't guarantee improved student achievement.

What interests me is the relationship between teachers having a deep understanding of the subject, the passion to teach and commitment to provide a learning environment where students engage learning.

The issue to me is based on whether "in" or "out-of-field" teachers can demonstrate that learning is relevant to the students everyday life. Detached academic teaching doesn't cut the needs of present day students.

If the basis of learning is attained from the traditional didactic emphasis of textbook instruction, student engagement will wither.

Generalist and Subject Specialist

My argument is that the underlying problem is not about whether there is a shortage of subject specialist or non-subjects specialist teachers. It is about the teaching practice itself.  The problem concerns the development of human capital. That is - the development of teachers as expert teachers who have a love for young adults and a love teaching young adults. Passionate and engaged teachers.

Within this digital era content is far cheaper that the costs of hiring a teacher. The biggest investment is in the teacher. It is important that the teacher is willing to improve quality of practice and advance their application of professional practice that will  motivate and engage student learning practices. Off the shelf subject specialist teachers will not advance learning if they are not motivated to engage a love of learning.



Expert Teachers

Expert teachers are those who can engage students to manage their learning progress and understand achievement processes. It is not that quality of content doesn't count. It is just that content is no-longer king. Content is the platform to a higher purpose and that higher purpose is empowering students learning capability. Content is not the higher purpose.

Expert teachers focus on the development of students  to become successful learners. In short, a successful student is one who can manage their own learning outside of the teacher's control. Student's need to have this capacity to be part of this contemporary world.

This is important, as society progress towards artificial intelligence, augmented data infused virtual environments and automated knowledge banks,  the need for people to managing their learning progress will heighten.

I believe that senior secondary schools should focus on hiring teachers who can improve their teaching practice over teachers who limit their improvement on their quality of subject knowledge / content. Schools need teachers who can think about learning and who can ask the right questions rather than one who thinks about content and tells the students the right answers.

Expert Teachers and Subject Specialist Teachers - Collaboration

To achieve this schools will need to network and enable teachers to work across sites within professional learning groups. The time has come, where subject specialist teachers are not site bound by any one school. It is imperative that their knowledge is shared within learning groups comprised of expert teachers and subject specialist teachers. School leadership must sponsor teachers to work alongside each other, sharing their practice and subject knowledge, to observe each other teaching and sharing professional feedback.

School leadership needs to end the competitive silo mentality