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Why specialists teaching within specialism in science should take priority

My Head of Department (HoD) is a physics specialist, whereas I am a biology specialist, and we talk regularly about curriculum. I remember one conversation well in which he was asking me about one of my blog posts. He was interested in my definition of homeostasis and wanted to establish exactly how the mechanism of the system maintained homeostasis.


Specifically, he was concerned about the fact that homeostasis was unlikely to maintain a constant internal environment, but one which showed oscillations. He is correct, and while I also like students to understand the origin of oscillations in systems, I explained that in most circumstances it isn't necessary to delve into the nature of oscillations, but from a biological perspective the significant factor was that conditions remained stable relative to an external environment. In biology, reference to the environment is key.


However, it seemed that my HoD really felt that it was a significant omission to describing homeostasis, and it appeared we didn't entirely understand each other. Had he been subbing my classes, maybe he would have felt it more important to delve into the oscillating nature of homeostasis. In my lessons I want to delve into its evolutionary and ecological consequences.

These conversations with my HoD are, in fact, quite common. In discussing curricula with a fellow biologist we may nod, agree, and interest each other with ideas. With my HoD, I'm taken down avenues that, while very interesting and thought provoking, I feel like they sometimes pull me away from what I hold as important.


My HoD and I hold different habits of mind. Both he and I are avid readers within our respective fields, we both enjoy immersing ourselves within our domain. With time we have both developed a way of seeing, which has created a habit of mind, which in turn affects the questions we ask of our students, the explanations we give, the diagrams we draw, the examples we show.


There is nothing that a curriculum can offer beyond a domain embodied by a passionate teacher. Science teachers are not delivering a curriculum or imparting content alone, we are instilling a way of seeing, we are developing the habits of mind found within our domain. Equally, students come to our classrooms to experience the content through a fellow human who embodies the domain knowledge. Only the specialist who knows their subject deeply can do so.


When science teachers are out of specialism, they may know the content well enough to teach it, they may be able to point out links between domains, but they will struggle in immersing their students into the culture of a specialist, the way of thinking, the way of seeing, the human part of the content. I see clearly that my chemistry lessons and physics classes are given through a biological lens, tinging the classroom in green.


While it might make managerial sense to have teachers learn some of the content out of the specialism to help when teachers are ill, it must be recognised what a specialist provides beyond content knowledge alone. While it may make sense to administrators to have some teachers take subject enhancement courses for their non-specialist subjects, let us remember that the specialist still has much to learn within their own domain.


I am in continual improvement of my own biological knowledge, and every year I see myself improve as a teacher by doing so. Evolution, physiology, ecology, paleobiology, botany, mycology, autecology, entomology, genetics, the history and philosophy of the domain, development, molecular biology, human nutrition, the list goes on. I am the biology teacher I am today, because I have given priority to my own subject, above and beyond exam specifications.


Thus, there is an opportunity cost involved in moving a developing specialist away from their domain. This is not to say I avoid delving into other subjects. When I turn to study chemistry or physics, it is always through biology, a way of seeing the knowledge, and they help me answer questions I have of my own domain. In contrast, if teachers are forced into extensive non-specialism teaching, it might foment mastery of the exam specification and short term goals, which the specialist with deep knowledge can see far beyond.


My line of argument is as follows: where possible (current recruitment crisis acknowledged), keep specialists within their specialism. Year 7 and Year 8, maybe, should have a single teacher for sequencing issues (such as ensuring concepts of physics and chemistry are covered before biology), covering common ground, and to ensure philosophy of science begin across all three.


Otherwise, everyone has their domain range where they are not just more comfortable with, but really identify themselves with (which doesn't have to be demarcated by single subject names), thus, I believe priority must go to specialism, in order for students to experience an immersive science education.


Christian Moore Anderson

@CMooreAnderson (on twitter)


Other posts you may enjoy:

The scales of curriculum planning: why sequence isn't king.

On life as a flow: making meaning in secondary biology education

Why endothermy should be an explicit part of the biology curriculum in lower secondary

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