Lacking in subject knowledge

6th March 2009 at 00:00
Research shows teachers over-estimate their own and their pupils' abilities. Elizabeth Buie reports

There is convincing research to show that Scottish teachers, especially in the primary sector, do not have the disciplinary knowledge required for the new curriculum, Lindsay Paterson, professor of educational policy at Edinburgh University, has claimed. The result is "a crisis in understanding".

He cited recent surveys to back up his message to the annual conference of the Association of Educational Development and Improvement Professionals in Scotland (AEDIPS), that A Curriculum for Excellence was too child-centred and lacked understanding of what leads to real learning.

The 2007 Scottish Survey of Achievement had shown that teachers were systematically over-estimating the level at which children were operating, he said.

At S2, teachers judged that about 60 per cent of students were operating at levels E or F, whereas the tests showed that only about 19 per cent were.

The same survey had asked primary teachers how confident they were in teaching scientific topics.

"Presumably, the people we would want to lead the important developments in primary science that A Curriculum for Excellence requires would have to be 'very confident' in this field," said Professor Paterson. "If so, there are not many potential such leaders: the proportion of primary teachers who said they were 'very confident' in teaching a science lesson to P7 was 28 per cent for biology, 11 per cent for chemistry and 10 per cent for physics."

The 2007 Timss (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) survey, comparing attainment levels in maths and science, placed Scotland well down the international league table compared to other developed countries.

At P5, Scotland was 12th equal out of 16 in maths, and yet 91 per cent of P5 pupils had teachers who thought themselves "very well prepared" to teach maths at that level, he added.

David Cameron, president of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, told the conference the recent HMIE report, Improving Scottish Education, was effectively saying that schools were denying children the "penny-dropping" moment. "We don't challenge them, we don't take them forward, either within the disciplines or outwith the disciplines," he said.

Mr Cameron agreed with Professor Paterson that there was a need to move away from the emphasis on immediate gratification and recognise that learning involved drudgery and practice. "Kids enjoy that," Mr Cameron declared. "Far more often, it is others that disparage it. What we can't do is patronise children.

"The inspectorate's report said that for children who really need intervention, we are doing 'hee-haw' and for those at the top end we are doing precious little. That is not good enough."


Lindsay Paterson has challenged six elements of what he calls the child-centred "orthodoxy" underpinning A Curriculum for Excellence:

- Effective learning does require that students believe they are capable of achieving. But, that comes from authentic challenges delivered by teachers who know what they are talking about.

- Students are moved to take part in a course of study if they see it leading somewhere else - and that destination might even be vocational. But such extrinsic motivation does not sustain students through proper learning.

- Sustaining interest in that way does depend partly on students finding the learning itself to be satisfying. But that satisfaction does not arise from extraneous 'fun' - rather from the fascination of solving problems.

- It is true that obsession with mere performance - doing well in examinations - does not lead to sound learning. But comparing one's performance to that of other people engaged in the same task is a source of deep motivation, and a source of sound ways of monitoring one's own learning.

- Learning how to learn is a crucial source of effective learning. But it works only if the learning is embedded in a discipline, with all its norms and values giving a framework of understanding.

- And, hence, although inter-disciplinarity is important, it makes no sense at all unless the disciplines have been grasped first.

Professor Paterson observed: "A discipline is not a mere arbitrary collection of facts. It is also an understanding of these in the context of a conceptual framework, which is what facilitates retrieval of the facts and hence facilitates the application of knowledge."

Failure to acknowledge that had led primary and secondary students' grasp of fundamental scientific principles to fall "dismayingly" compared to children born in the 1960s. He continued: "I suspect that the same is true of a falling-off in fundamental understanding of the patterns of historical development, or of the workings of language, or of the inter-connectedness of culture.

"Learning how to learn is part of this getting to grips with a discipline, but not in the disembodied way implied by current fashions."

Read Lindsay Paterson's critique in full:

Leader, 22.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today