Is teaching a 3-year-old as important, as demanding or as complex as teaching a child aged 9 or 17? Colin Tarr, the national president of the primary teachers' union, NZEI Te Rui Roa, was right to remind us of this important question in his Dialogue article.

He was also right in identifying the importance of early-childhood education as the foundation of every child's ability, an importance demonstrated by the Government's commitment to pay parity for registered and qualified teachers from early childhood to secondary by 2008. This policy suggests that the parity debate is over, that advocates of a seamless pay scale across the sectors have proved their cause.

I disagree. An important issue of the debate, buried in the early days of the discussion, deserves a fresh look. Notwithstanding the early-childhood and primary claims for recognition of their vital importance to the future of every child and the nation, the distinctive role of the secondary school is also critical in the development of a knowledge society. This distinctiveness is in danger of being overlooked with the focus on similarities rather than differences between the schooling sectors.

The secondary sector is distinctly different. That difference is based on the role of subject knowledge. In the 1970s education turned away from the so-called transmission of knowledge approach, taking a variety of turns to reach the inquiry approach that is promoted with great enthusiasm today.

And in those shifts, content was replaced by process as the focus of teaching and learning. Knowing how to gain access to knowledge is now more highly valued than content-knowledge itself.

In the shift to process over content, to student inquiry over teacher transmission, and to the undervaluing of content-knowledge, secondary teachers jettisoned a powerful argument in support of their point of difference from early-childhood and primary teaching. They no longer taught subjects such as English, physics, classical studies, mathematics, Maori and history to students. They now taught students.

The subject and its content were sidelined, peripheral to the all-important teacher-student relationship. The belief that the English teacher, the history teacher and the maths teacher should have a university major in their subject to teach it effectively was replaced by an emphasis on this direct teacher-student relationship.

It was no longer a relationship mediated through subject knowledge. The teacher's ability to relate to students was more highly valued than the teacher's subject knowledge.

This shift has huge consequences. It has weakened the secondary sector. It affects New Zealand's capacity to become a first-class knowledge society. The sidelining of content-knowledge reduced the status of knowledge and of those who teach knowledge. The secondary system has suffered as a result.

Yet the separation of content and process is flawed. What we learn and how we learn are two sides of the one coin. Content and process are, or should be, inseparable. We forget this at our peril.

Content is the raw material of thinking. To teach children to think without an extensive treasure trove of raw material is to ask them to work with and recycle the poor-quality, inadequate resources of limited knowledge that in time becomes well-honed ignorance and reinforced prejudice.

The effective secondary teacher is not one who teaches students but is a subject expert who teaches knowledge to students. Knowledge mediates the relationship. Learning is enjoyable for young people when they are taught by someone who loves the subject. This is a person who has committed years to studying the subject as a degree major, and who wants to share that deep interest and knowledge with young people.

Teaching is about explanation. Students begin by respecting, by admiring, sometimes even by loving teachers who are passionately committed to the subject they teach. It is a relationship that is different from one based purely upon emotion because it has knowledge as its centre.

Feelings are directed, first, to the knowledge as in "I love maths", and, secondly, to the teacher, expressed as admiration: "S/he really knows what this subject is all about." Young people will tell us that the best teachers are those who explain "so that I can understand".

Teachers can only do that if they know what there is to explain, if they know the depth and breadth of their subject. It is because they know a hundred times more than they need to that they can select from a pool of understanding and select what the students require, what level the knowledge should be at, how the knowledge should be organised, how it should be explained and how to assess the student's understanding.

Without this extensive knowledge a teacher is unable to select, organise and explain with the finesse that good teaching demands.

The development of knowledge quality begins in early childhood - that is true. But it is at secondary school that knowledge-content is the focus of teaching. Here students apply the inquiry skills and dispositions acquired in earlier schooling to their knowledge of different subjects.

It is reasonable to assume that if year 9 to 13 students are taught by teachers who have majored in the subjects they teach, the quality of content-knowledge will be high. It is also reasonable to assume that those teachers who majored in maths, for example, did so because they enjoyed it and will be motivated to teach and motivate those who learn.

As a nation we are a long way from this optimal situation but that does not mean we should strive for anything less. A knowledge society requires respect for knowledge at all levels. This is especially so at the level where young people are introduced to the knowledge of a particular discipline - the secondary school.

Let's unite thought and content. Secondary teachers are those who provide knowledge at an advanced level to our young people. To do so, these teachers spend three to four years majoring in a specialist subject. They are specialists and their knowledge deserves recognition and respect.

Let's reward them with money and status. In doing so, in no way should we devalue the essential work of early-childhood and primary teachers and the importance of good teaching for younger children. But secondary schoolteaching is different. That difference deserves acknowledgement.

* Dr Elizabeth Rata teaches in Auckland University's faculty of education. She is a former secondary teacher.

Herald Feature: Education

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