Going back to the future: A case for rethinking primary school teacher training

Oct 14, 2023
School certainly is about literacy and numeracy, but it is also about exercising and nurturing diverse talents. Source: Getty Images.

What teachers do and whether they are doing it well is a topic that concerns everyone, including our education ministers who have recently backed a radical overhaul of teaching degrees that will force universities to teach core content. The term ‘core content’ refers to evidence-based maths and reading instruction and classroom management skills. I have no argument with any of that, nor with the often repeated complaints that graduate teachers feel their courses have left them unprepared for the job of classroom teaching. However, the vision expressed for training our primary school teachers (as distinct from their high school counterparts) still falls well short of the mark.

While proven English and Mathematics pedagogy and classroom control are critical to effective teaching, primary school teachers are generalists. The New South Wales Education Standards Authority requires them not only to teach English and Mathematics but also to teach Science and Technology, Human Society and its Environments (HSIE), Creative Arts (Art, Craft, Music, Dance and Drama), and Personal Development, Health and Physical Education (PDHPE). Compared with how I was prepared to teach across the curriculum when I was a teacher education student in the late 1970s, it seems to me that these other curriculum areas play an insignificant role in generalist teacher training today.

The difference between then and now is stark. As undergraduates, we did our fair share of essay writing and formal study with courses on theories of education, teaching and learning, child development, reading pedagogies, mathematics strategies, and the like. However, generalist teacher training in the 1970s included full semesters (often several) of teaching Science, Craft, Art, Music, Drama, Physical Education, and Health. While teacher education courses today are overwhelmingly text- heavy, ours was balanced with lots of hands-on learning.

During Craft, for example, students had to learn about paper craft (curling and crumpling – and there is a correct way to crumple paper). They were taught how to use several types of paper, cardboard, dry pasta and so on to make simple projects. I can remember making a large felt board with a wooden easel and sets of felt pieces, such as story characters, farm animals, types of food and clothing or, weather icons, to use with it. That assignment for Craft not only required me to learn new skills but also, gave me a useful teaching resource to take home at the end of it. My cohort also made finger puppets and marionettes for which we had to write and perform puppet plays.

Generalist teacher education students did study art appreciation, but the Art courses I completed as part of my training also included lots of making and doing. I learnt how to make and use paper mâché to create masks and models. I tried marbling and had the opportunity to experiment with all types of printing – from linocuts to potato prints. I made soapstone sculptures, and structures with cane and cellophane, and tried making pottery, both free-hand and with a potter’s wheel.

Needless to say, I was able to bring the sum total of all my newly acquired skills and experiences with me into the classroom and they were well used. Craft activities, in particular, help young students to develop fine motor control. During the early years of schooling, arts and crafts activities can occupy a significant part of the school day. Cutting, gluing, sewing, and threading, for example, improve hand-eye co- ordination and prepare young students for letter formation and writing.

Mind you, arts and crafts activities are also important creative outlets, giving students of all ages opportunities to express themselves through various media, which has both practical and therapeutic value (even with adults).

Music also played a key role in my training. Apart from being introduced to children’s songs and music games from around the world, I had to stand up and sing (and be graded on my performance), learn a musical instrument (I chose a recorder, the simplest one to learn) and pass a test playing it. Singing has a place in every primary classroom because it relieves stress, refocuses attention, and is enjoyed by all while giving all students a chance to shine.

In preparation for teaching physical education, my cohort of undergraduates was given instruction on the proper use of all equipment used in gymnastics (including the trampoline) and athletics (ask me about the Frosbury Flop). We learned about how to plan school camps by participating in one off-campus trip each year – and attendance was mandatory. We were taught about water safety and had to demonstrate that we could swim one hundred metres in freestyle. During the course of my training, I studied drama and performance, which proved to be excellent preparation for planning, rehearsing, and staging annual Christmas concert/play nights. Last but not least, I recall that I had to create a board game to use as a teaching aid and that I also needed to pass a blackboard writing test before I was allowed to graduate.

Apart from all that (and there’s much more), I had to complete and pass the requirements of two teaching practicums (pracs) each year. For my last prac, I had to plan and teach fulltime on the same class for a month. Perhaps, you can guess where I am going with this. I completed my generalist teacher training forty five years ago. The pathway to becoming a primary school teacher today is via universities that no longer offer or provide hands-on experiences or modules in each curriculum area as once was the case. Today’s graduates are well versed in composing essays, evaluating theories of education, and the like, but they lack the full breadth of experience/training upon which primary school teachers rely from their first day on the job. So, even if we better prepare them for teaching reading and mathematics, and equip them with effective behaviour management skills, it must be asked – what about the rest?

Sure, the world of teaching has changed – and so has higher education. Universities favour text-heavy courses because courses with practical components are costly to run. In schools, corporate programming and shared resources mean that teachers do not have to re-invent the wheel each time they plan their lessons. What children need, however, has not changed. They still need to work and actively play together to stay healthy, and acquire social skills, co-operative skills and teamwork. Time spent in front of a screen time is no substitute for doing and making.

School certainly is about literacy and numeracy, but it is also about exercising and nurturing diverse talents, making friends and benefitting from rich experiences that students can carry with them for the rest of their lives, allowing them to become the best that they can be. My hope is that those who seek to reform teacher education courses, will not in their never-ending quest for literacy and numeracy outcomes, turn our primary schools into basic skills sausage factories. Primary school teachers are generalists. They must be equipped not just to teach English and Mathematics but the full range of key learning areas, as well.

In the case of training primary school teachers, then, it may well be that the best way forward may involve “going back to the future”. What do you think?

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