Conceptions of subject knowledge in the initial education of primary teachers

Subject knowledge has been a consistent feature of the policy context of initial teacher education (ITE) over decades, although disparities are apparent between the rhetoric of policy directives, the theoretical knowledge base and how primary teachers’ subject knowledge is represented, and enacted, in communities of practice in primary ITE. This study examined the ways in which the term subject knowledge is conceptualised and interpreted by student teachers, university tutors and school mentors in the context of undergraduate primary ITE in two post-1992 university providers. Its aims were to map the details of their conceptualisations of subject knowledge, to identify commonalities, and disparities, with the theoretical knowledge base, and to examine cross-contextual and personal influences on conceptions of subject knowledge.

The conceptual framework for the research is underpinned by Shulman’s (1987) theoretical knowledge bases for teaching, and draws significantly on the conceptual tools of culture, practice and agents in educational settings, provided by Ellis’s (2007) situated model of subject knowledge. The perspective of the individual is developed further by utilising Kelchtermans’s (2009) personal interpretative framework. An additional lens is provided by the external political context, within which primary ITE is located. The research adopted an inductive, interpretative approach that incorporated multiple methods to construct a bricolage. Data collection included semi-structured questionnaires, semi-structured interviews that incorporated the production of visual data, and content analysis of documents.

Findings indicated that subject knowledge for primary teaching was understood by participants as an umbrella term representing general teacher knowledge, rather than as a critically distinct concept. Overall, there was a general lack of emphasis on subject-specific pedagogical knowledge evident in the discourse around subject knowledge for primary teaching. Conceptualisations of subject knowledge were highly individualistic. The findings indicated that the culture and practice in different contexts is interpreted and experienced in very different ways by individuals to influence their interpretations of subject knowledge and its place in primary pedagogy. Practices associated with the performative, outcomes-driven culture of education were found to be particularly influential in validating reductionist pedagogical approaches. Without the presence of experienced university tutors in the sample of participants, attention to subject-specific pedagogical knowledge would have been negligible. The research raises questions about the lack of clarity in policy about subject knowledge for primary teaching and the implications of this in relation to rapidly expanding school-based routes for initial teacher education.