Dear Ted

15th November 2002 at 00:00
I am studying to be a primary teache and am being taught subject knowledge beyond the level I shall have to teach . Is this really necessary

Ted Wragg, professor of education at Exeter University, answers your professional problems, big or small, every week. Ask him for independent advice - or offer some of your own - by writing to: Dear Ted, The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1W 1BX. Or email:

Ted says

Subject and professional knowledge are extremely important for primary teachers. I once observed a lesson on electricity in which the teacher started by saying: "I know nothing about electricity, I can just about change a fuse." She was then unable to help the children whose circuits did not work. "Why didn't you find out more before the lesson?" they must have been wondering.

The "search me" answer to children is amusing once in a while, and it can be profitable if children have to find things out for themselves, but as a standard response it eventually destroys their confidence, for where will it end?

You cannot be a leading authority on every topic in the primary curriculum, as it covers vast fields and nobody on the planet could be an expert in all of them. But what you can do is make sure you have a basic grasp of the key principles of any topic you teach, think up a few interesting examples and anecdotes in advance, collect some engaging resources and remember to capitalise on what children already know by asking them. The internet offers teachers great help with subject knowledge and lesson planning.

Professional knowledge is also important. Parents would be entitled to feel disappointed if they discovered, when talking to you, that you had no clue about how children develop, the importance of family and cultural background, learning difficulties, motivating the reluctant or engaging the able. Knowledge beats ignorance any day, especially when teachers themselves expect children to be curious and ever willing to learn something new.

You say

Bite the bullet and get on with it

You'll be amazed at the talents of primary children; I am astounded at the quality of writing. And if you're not keen on extending your own knowledge, how are you going to fire the children? Bite the bullet and get on with it.

J C McIlroy, email

We must have strong foundations

PGCE is tough. There appears to be no end to the amount of information and skills we are expected to absorb and acquire. After only nine weeks, my colleagues and I are feeling the strain of trying to divide our increasingly precious time between the many facets of our teacher training and the multitude of curriculum subjects. At times it can feel as though we are being overloaded with excess subject knowledge, but I still feel it is important.

In the midst of assessment and planning, classroom management and creating vibrant displays, it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that we are training to pass on information in an accessible way. That means we should have as great an understanding and knowledge of the subjects we teach as we can. At primary level we are giving children the foundations on which they will build their future learning. We can't know everything, but we can at least have strong foundations ourselves, especially in the core subject areas.

Lisa Ratcliffe, Southport

Learning is part of the training

This question worries me if it's typical of the views of students in teacher training. What would your expectations be for teachers of children in the foundation stage or teachers of children with severe learning difficulties? These teachers have to be as well educated as any other. The best schools see themselves as places where everyone operates as a learner as well as a teacher, and where continued professional development is part of the school ethos. If you really don't want to learn, you shouldn't want to be a teacher.

Pam Stanier, Manchester

Low expectations don't bode well for pupils

All knowledge is useful at some time. You may think you are only going to be a primary teacher at level 1, but we all face many changes in our jobs during our working lives. One of the features of a good teacher is flexibility, and you must surely want to be at least one step ahead of your pupils. You certainly demonstrate low expectations of yourself. Will this be reflected in your expectations for your pupils?

Julia Matthews, University of Greenwich

See it as a benefit

Most people on my PGCE course have asked the same question . Although I have yet to see the higher level required being taught directly, I have seen it being used in places other than pub quizzes. For example, I observed a Year 1 class looking at a consonant-vowel-consonant word. The words mum and dad came up together - the teacher mentioned that these were palindromes and explained the meaning. This was mentioned as an aside, and the lesson returned to its main focus. At the end of class, Hannah proudly announced that her name was a palindrome.

Having subject knowledge far beyond the level you are teaching will benefit you as a teacher; knowing where you (and the children) are aiming can help direct your work along the way. I think you would want to do everything in your power to become a great teacher. Having that subject knowledge is one more skill to add to your collection.

G G, Essex

Coming up: Does anyone care about FE?

"I have taught in FE for more than 22 years. We used to have six members of staff, but now we are down to two with the same number of students and I sometimes teach 10 hours in one day. Yet the national FE strike was not even on the front page of 'The TES'. Does society only care about the plight of school teachers?" What do readers think? Let us know at We pay pound;40 for every answer published

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