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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.

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