Subject to late changes

14th April 2000 at 01:00
Specialisms are on the way out because of new technology, say some, while others argue that there has never been a greater need for them, says Henry Maitles

THERE HAVE been strident calls recently for a breakdown of subject barriers and for teachers to see themselves as educators in general rather than as teachers of particular subjects.

The most pressing of these have invoked new technology as the reason why this should be undertaken. The worldwide web, it is argued, so revolutionises teaching and learning that the specialisms of the subject teacher need to be fundamentally reassessed. Yet other pronouncements have suggested an enhanced role for the subject teacher, particularly in terms of enthusiasm and capturing pupil interest. It seems that as well as the overload model of educational innovation, there is now the surreal model, where one hand of government advisers does not even know what the other is suggesting.

It reached its apogee (or nadir depending on how you look at it) so far last month. Mike Baughan, chief executive of the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum, called for teachers to become helpers of pupils to "sift and discriminate and structure information" (TESS, March 17).

Ian McDonald, depute director of education for Glasgow, claims that online learning is going to "fundamentally change the teacher's job" (March 17). And Keir Bloomer, chief executive of Clackmannanshire, believes that schools themselves will become much smaller, with pupils learning from home through the web (Herald, March 14).

The overall message is that teachers' roles now are becoming so different that the subject enthusiast must become a jack of all trades (subjects). This takes on a clearer political role when allied to the pronouncements of First Minister Donald Dewar calling also for the breakdown of subject barriers (TESS, March 17). The TESS editorial on the same day talks about "the breakdown of subject barriers being on the agenda".

Yet the most recet HMI Standards and Quality reports on teaching and learning (maths and English already out, and social subjects ones on the way very soon) give a fundamentally different picture of the role of teachers. From these reports, gleaned from about 50-70 inspections of subject departments, far from the subject teacher's role diminishing, top class lessons are characterised by teacher enthusiasm and by interaction not only between pupils and a monitor but between pupil and teacher and pupil and pupil, with a varied range of ap-proaches, using a variety of learning resources and a purposeful and enthusiastic pace, involving ICT but not just such technology. How Keir Bloomer believes this can be done from home is not explained by him.

Indeed, examples of poor lessons are characterised by the HMI as showing a lack of discussion, dialogue, debate and interaction - exactly the kind of lesson one can expect without subject enthusiasts. From these reports, rumours of the imminent death of subject specialists are much exaggerated.

On the one hand we are told that interaction, debate and enthusiasm are yesterday's methods and must be altered, and on the other that they are the keys to effective learning. What are the classroom teacher and the school to make of such pronouncements from various bodies? How to decide what course to take when the messages coming from the people advising the policymakers is so divergent?

This is not to say that there is no room for debate. Far from it. There should be the widest possible debate but not pronouncements without supporting evidence about the end of the subject specialist, and debate that is devoid of any mention of the quality of delivery and instead concentrates on the mode of delivery.

This Government was elected with "education, education, education" as the main priority. We have the right to expect that means "quality, quality, quality".

Henry Maitles is head of modern studies, faculty of education, Strathclyde University.

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