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Debate: Do we teach children or subjects?

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By John CoeGeneral Secretary of the National Association for Primary Education

Do we teach children or subjects? Of course, all teachers, on both sides of the 11+ divide, should teach both

John Coe

I expect that many of us have been asked the question, ‘What do you do?’, by a new acquaintance, and replied with a slightly sinking heart – ‘I’m a teacher.’ ‘How interesting,’ runs the conversation; then inevitably, ‘What subject?’, follows. The only possible reply to this by a primary specialist is ‘children’. This is usually sufficient, but I remember a devastating follow up by a well-meaning aunt who on hearing that the children were in primary school said comfortingly: ‘Oh you’ll no doubt go on to teach older ones when you’ve had more experience.’

The almost instinctive reply of ‘children’ comes from our involvement with a class for almost our entire working day. And considering how demanding children can be, it is no wonder that they dominate our thoughts. But of course, as we teach children, we are teaching subjects. Indeed, children are learning subjects, of one sort or another, every moment since they are born. Subjects are a convenient way of organising knowledge and skill. It is as if life is a richly-woven cloth and when we talk about, plan or teach a subject, we are pulling a single thread out of that cloth and holding it separately in the mind.

It would help if there was an agreement that we all teach subjects and we all teach children

A dangerous division

Our colleagues in secondary schools find it easier to answer the enquiry. Their specialist subject comes easily to their lips – ‘I am an English/maths/science teacher’. Here, we are approaching the heart of the difference between the primary and secondary sectors. All too often we see our work from different points of view. Yet this should not be so, as the outcome is a serious divide in education which confronts children as they move from primary to secondary schools. The divide, more a chasm, has adverse and well-documented effects on their progress.

It would help if there was an agreement that we all teach subjects and we all teach children, even if before long we begin to call them students. As Jerome Bruner wrote in his seminal work, The Process of Education (Harvard University Press, £11.95 PB) ’... any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development.’ We should also agree across the divide that subjects and their disciplines should always be matched to our children as we find them, wrapped as they are by the rich cloth of their experience. Subjects have no meaning or use unless they are made real in the lives of children.

A word of warning

Here is a cautionary last word about subjects taken from a paper I found pinned to the noticeboard in a New England staffroom. So to paraphrase the unknown author:

‘The Vaccination Theory of Education English is not history and history is not science and science is not art and art is not music. Art and music are minor subjects and English, maths and science are major subjects. A subject is something you take and when you have taken it you have done it and if you have done it you are immune and need not take it again.’

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