January.19.2023

To save democracy, we need to flip the system

By Cameron Paterson

In her book Teacher, Gabbie Stroud beautifully encapsulates what is happening by stealth to the teaching profession:

“Good teaching …comes from teachers who know their students, who build relationships, who meet learners at their point of need and who recognize that there’s nothing standard about the journey of learning. We cannot forget the art of teaching – without it, schools become factories, students become products and teachers: nothing more than machinery.”

Yet schools are becoming factories, students are becoming products, and teachers are becoming machinery right in front of our eyes.

A flourishing democracy requires educated people, able to think critically. Schooling has transformed the course of Australian history. A democracy cannot thrive without empowering schools to keep democratic values at the centre.

Teachers’ professional freedom and creativity are essential to democracy’s survival. This includes teachers’ abilities to make informed, independent decisions based on their observations and understanding of their students. While other institutions leach trust, schools remain trusted pillars of the community, yet schools are increasingly threatened by controlling bureaucracies and driven by performative measures.

Social media and digital communication have made us poor listeners and learners. Certainty is favoured over nuanced debate. Education is a space to hold complex and different points of view. Unfortunately, fixed positions and strict boundaries are increasingly the dominant forces in schools, where teachers often feel unable to set the agenda. The humanity and complexity of teaching is being threatened by political and commercial influences. Teachers are hampered by reckless education policies, rising workloads and robotic accountabilities.

School education is becoming a much more bureaucratised system, asking more of teachers and getting less in return. It has become harder to exercise pedagogical freedom, which has been consumed by standardisation. Overwhelming bureaucracies impose stifling regulations. Teachers are losing control of professional decisions as their tacit knowledge and experience is diminished. Tacit knowledge is the subtle nuance that is invisible to the untrained eye; even the best teachers find it hard to explain.

The media often provides polarising perspectives of the teaching profession. It is quite typical to turn the TV on in the evening and see commentators dissecting teaching as a profession. Many adults feel empowered to weigh in with opinions about schooling based on having once attended school themselves. Teacher voices are rarely sought.

As the popular global Flip the System movement has shown, our educational tensions are well known: punitive accountability, a climate of competition, over-reliance on numeric data, the negative effects of over-testing, and an epidemic of anxiety. The student rite of passage of shovelling a mass of content, cramming syllabus dot points, and being drilled to answer exam-style questions seems rather pointless in today’s fluid, connected world. Schools are largely driven by performative measures. The inspiring Melbourne Declaration and the more recent Alice Spring (Mparntwe) Declaration have been totally overshadowed by the dominance of NAPLAN.

Booming commercial investment surrounds education. Mass assessment, obsession with quantitative data, and technological innovations are ubiquitous. Teacher colleague Deb Netolicky often writes, “Teaching should not be a profession without accountabilities, but education is not an algorithm”. Quality assessment is more a conversation, than a number.

Teachers need the autonomy and agency to make informed judgments based on their classroom observations and their knowledge of their students. However, in today’s accountability regimes, teacher learning is too often compelled towards compliance, rather than development. Fostering a community in which deep discussions about teaching and learning are an essential part of teacher practice provides the basis for cultivating students’ thinking and learning. Collaborative structures help to decrease teacher isolation, codify and share successful teaching practices, increase staff morale, and open the door to experimentation and increased collective efficacy. High levels of collaboration are likely to exist when the leadership marks it as a priority, when common time and physical space are set aside for collaboration, and when teaching and learning are seen as a team responsibility, rather than an individual responsibility.

If teachers are supported to grow, question, and reflect, they will generate the same environments for their students. Thinking is a social endeavour. Learning happens when students engage with ideas and when they ask questions. Students learn from the people around them and their engagement with them. It is deeply important that they are able to converse with others, play with ideas, and collectively create knowledge.

Teaching is an extraordinarily rewarding career. It is an art, not a delivery system. Every day is exciting. One of the allures is that there are no absolutes, no clear-cut answers. It is not our job to prevent risks, it is our job to make it safe to take them. The goal is always to make kids independent learners for life.lip

At the Woodford Folk Festival a few weeks ago, Anthony Albanese warned that democracies are under threat from “corrosive, insidious forces”. Schools play a central role in any robust democracy. This needs to be relentlessly reiterated amidst the noise of high-velocity capitalism. Democracy only works when citizens are aware of their own role in protecting democratic principles. For democracy to thrive, a well-informed and thinking citizenry must thrive as well. Teaching is a creative, political, human act. Democracy can’t be automated.

This post was written by Cameron Paterson based on the chapter he co-authored with Meredith Gavrin for Empowering Teachers and Democratising Learning: Perspectives from Australia, edited by Keith Heggart and Steve Kolber. Cameron is the Director of Learning at Wesley College, Melbourne. He also works with Harvard’s Project Zero. Themes from Flip the System Australia: What matters in education, which Cameron edited with Deb Netolicky and Jon Andrews, influence this post. Find him on Twitter @cpaterso and LinkedIn.

Header image of the Prime Minister’s appearance at Woodford Folk Festival from Anthony Albanese’s Instagram account.

Republish this article for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence.

2 thoughts on “To save democracy, we need to flip the system

  1. Democracy is not handed down from on high, in response to a polite request, you have to fight for it. Teachers have to assert their professionalism, and force the changes they see as necessary. That can start with training which equips teachers to make the changes, in the face of opposition. Teachers need to start teaching the way they think it should be done, not wait for someone to give them permission to do so.

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