A Letter to Mr Pyne

By Nicole Mockler, University of Newcastle & Greg Thompson, Murdoch University

Last week on Radio National, Shadow Education Minister Christopher Pyne gave us a glimpse of the Coalition’s vision for education should the Coalition win government.

He focused on two specific areas, school funding and “teacher quality”, specifically on teaching methods.

He said, “we would immediately instigate a very short term ministerial advisory group to advise me on the best model for teaching in the world, how to bring out more practical teaching methods based on more didactic teaching methods, more traditional methods rather than the child-centred learning that has dominated the system for the last twenty, thirty or forty years…”

But there’s a fundamental problem with this argument. Australia was ranked 2nd in the world based on the 2000 OECD data supposedly using these student-centred methods, yet now that Australia has been passed by some other countries on these international rankings (that we should, of course, treat with caution as measures of quality), these same methods are construed as being to blame. As well, there is evidence that schools and teachers are increasingly being required to focus on data, rather than students, as a result a raft of Federal education reforms.

This does not make sense. A better argument is that there is most likely a correlation between the decline in funding to public schools compared to the OECD average and the ranking of Australia on these international measures.

Our expenditure on public schools is well below the OECD average, and has been declining in relation to that average since 2000, while our expenditure, both by governments and parents on private schooling, is above the OECD average.

An argument that the Gonski Report makes well, is that fairer funding has a key role to play in “achieving an internationally competitive high standard of schooling, where outcomes are not determined by socioeconomic status or the type of school the child attends”.

The politicking that we are seeing around Gonski may see the end of our best chance in decades to improve education outcomes for all Australians.

Of course this is complex, as many commentators have pointed out, improved funding alone does not guarantee improvement in student achievement. We agree that teaching and teachers are very important, and their expertise should be valued as such, their skills further developed and their work better supported by policy and policy-makers.

It is commendable that Mr Pyne intends to take advice on education, but it is concerning that he has already decided what constitutes the “best model for teaching in the world”: a return to “traditional pedagogy” and “didactic teaching methods”, as opposed to the “child-centred learning”.

In this belief, Pyne stands opposed to research that’s been done, in Australia and elsewhere, on pedagogy and learning. For example, the work in the 1970s and 80s of scholars like Lawrence Stenhouse in the United Kingdom and Seymour Papert in the United States.

In Australia, we can look to work in the late 1990s in the Queensland Schools Reform Longitudinal Study, and the 2000s, leading to the development of the NSW Quality Teaching framework.

We can also look to recent work conducted over many years by Geoff Munns, Wayne Sawyer and the the “Fair Go” Team. These are all examples of robust, empirical evidence that is internationally regarded as making an important contribution to teaching and learning in schools.

This research demonstrates that good teaching and learning is about building strong relationships between students and teachers; providing intellectually challenging and genuinely engaging learning; developing learning environments where students feel safe and supported to take risks in their learning; shaping learning that is relevant and meaningful to students; offering opportunities for students to develop independence and good “habits” of learning; and providing personal support for students, based on teachers’ knowledge of them as learners.

It’s not the case that “student centred learning” assumes that direct instruction is always inappropriate. Rather, when teachers approach learning in a student-centred way, they make decisions based on their students’ learning needs. They can choose the most appropriate pedagogies to employ.

Sometimes direct instruction is an appropriate approach, although not in all cases, and usually in small doses. As Stephen Dinham told the Fairfax press earlier this week, our debates in education remain “bedevilled in education by false dichotomies” that may not be evident in classroom settings.

Perhaps part of this bedevilment lies in the notion that it’s appropriate to return to teaching methods based on personal memory and experience, rather than empirical research, valuing teacher’s professional knowledge and thinking deeply about what Australia values and requires for our students, both now and in the future.

It’s true that didactic teaching methods and “traditional pedagogy” once reigned supreme. At the same time in Australia, only three in every ten of us completed secondary schooling. Participation in higher education was hardly what it is today: in 1970, 3% of Australians held a tertiary qualification, as opposed to 25% of us in 2011.

Industrial-age education methods may have worked to prepare students for lives of manual or technical work but we no longer live in the industrial age.

The question is whether we want, as a society, to shape an education system as one that prepares our young people for the knowledge society in which they live and work. Or whether we’re content to hark back to the “good old days” where learning was about transmission and children were best seen but not heard.

With all the evidence of the last 50 years of educational research at our disposal, surely our policy makers can do better than this.

**This view is supported by the following members of the Australian educational research community:

  • Dr Ruth Arber, Senior Lecturer, Deakin University
  • Dr Nado Aveling, Senior Lecturer, Murdoch University
  • Professor Jill Blackmore, Deakin University
  • Ms Julie Bowe, Lecturer, University of Newcastle
  • Professor Marie Brennan, Victoria University
  • Ms Kim Browne, MEd Candidate, Deakin University
  • Ms Joanna Brown, Lecturer, University of Newcastle
  • Ms Penny Brown, Casual Academic
  • Dr Rachel Buchanan, Lecturer, University of Newcastle
  • Dr Jon Callow, Senior Lecturer, University of Sydney
  • Associate Professor Brian Cambourne, University of Wollongong
  • Mr Matthew Campbell, Lecturer, Griffith Institute of Higher Education, Griffith University
  • Dr Amy Chapman, Lecturer, The Australian Catholic University
  • Dr Matthew Clarke, Senior Lecturer, University of New South Wales
  • Dr Sharon Cooper, Lecturer, University of Newcastle
  • Ms Catherine Donnelly, Teacher
  • Dr Debra Donnelly, Lecturer, University of Newcastle
  • Professor Barry Down, Murdoch University
  • Dr Scott Eacott, Senior Lecturer, University of Newcastle
  • Professor Robyn Ewing, University of Sydney
  • Dr Margot Ford, Lecturer, University of Newcastle
  • Professor Jenny Gore, University of Newcastle
  • Ms Chris Glass, Senior Lecturer, Murdoch University
  • Dr Tom Griffiths, Senior Lecturer, University of Newcastle
  • Dr Steven Hodge, Senior Lecturer, University of Ballarat
  • Professor David Hogan, National Institute of Education, Singapore
  • Dr Kathryn Holmes, Senior Lecturer, University of Newcastle
  • Ms Jane Hunter Lecturer, University of Western Sydney
  • Professor Stephen Kemmis, Charles Sturt University
  • Mr Barry Kissane, Senior Lecturer, Murdoch University
  • Dr Elizabeth Labone, Senior Lecturer, The Australian Catholic University
  • Dr Simon Leonard, Lecturer, University of Canberra
  • Professor Bob Lingard, University of Queensland
  • Dr Julianne Lynch, Senior Lecturer, Deakin University
  • Associate Professor Jacqueline Manuel, University of Sydney
  • Dr Kelli McGraw, Lecturer, Queensland University of Technology
  • Dr Andrew Miller, Lecturer, University of Newcastle
  • Dr Wendy Miller, Senior Lecturer, University of Newcastle
  • Mrs Kate Moncreiff, Associate Lecturer, Deakin University
  • Dr Leila Morsy, Senior Lecturer, University of New South Wales
  • Associate Professor Julianne Moss, Deakin University
  • Dr Virginia Nightingale, Honorary Associate Professor, University of Sydney
  • Ms Jenni Parker, Lecturer, Murdoch University
  • Ms Carmel Patterson, Lecturer, The Australian Catholic University
  • Dr Laura Perry, Senior Lecturer, Murdoch University
  • Dr Eva Bendix Petersen, Senior Lecturer, University of Newcastle
  • Mrs Fiona Phillips, Associate Lecturer, Deakin University
  • Ms Shiralee Poed, Lecturer, University of Melbourne
  • Mr Greg Preston, Lecturer, University of Newcastle
  • Professor Jo-anne Reid, Charles Sturt University
  • Professor Alan Reid AM, University of South Australia
  • Assistant Professor Philip Roberts, University of Canberra
  • Dr Sue Roffey, Adjunct Associate Professor, University of Western Sydney
  • Mr David Roy, Lecturer, University of Newcastle
  • Associate Professor Sue Saltmarsh, The Australian Catholic University
  • Dr Heather Sharp, Lecturer, University of Newcastle
  • Associate Professor, Michele Simons, University of South Australia
  • Mr Michael Stuchbery, Teacher
  • Ms Debra Talbot, PhD Candidate, University of Sydney
  • Mr Matthew Thomas, PhD Candidate, University of Melbourne
  • Dr Katarina Tuinamuana, Senior Lecturer, The Australian Catholic University
  • Dr Jan Turbill, Senior Fellow, University of Wollongong
  • Professor Russell Tytler, Deakin University
  • Professor Margaret Vickers, University of Western Sydney
  • Dr Julie White, Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University
  • Dr  Jane Wilkinson, Senior Lecturer, Charles Sturt University
  • Ms Cheryl Williams, Lecturer, University of Newcastle
  • Ms Sally Windsor, Lecturer, University of Melbourne
  • Dr Amanda Woods-McConney, Senior Lecturer, Murdoch University
  • Dr Lew Zipin, Senior Lecturer, Victoria University


Photo Nicole Mockler 178x178Nicole Mockler is a Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of Newcastle. Her research interests include teacher professional learning and identity and the politics of education, and she teaches in the areas of curriculum, pedagogy and professional practice and research methods. Her published work includes Facilitating Practitioner Research: Developing Transformational Partnerships (Routledge, 2012), Rethinking Educational Practice through Reflexive Inquiry (Springer, 2011), Teacher Professional Learning in an Age of Compliance: Mind the Gap (Springer, 2009) and Learning in the Middle Years: More Than a Transition (Cengage, 2007).

156Greg Thompson is a Senior Lecturer at Murdoch University in the School of Education. His major teaching areas are the philosophy and history of education, education policy and secondary English curriculum. In 2011 he was awarded an ARC Discovery Early Career Researcher Award to look at the ways that NAPLAN has impacted on school communities in WA and SA.

5 thoughts on “A Letter to Mr Pyne

  1. I think some of this misses the point. It is about savings but not the kind you gesture to. With a “more traditional” approach to schooling we will step back to the 1950s and 60s. In those days facts were facts. You had to memorise them. You coloured in countries in Geography. You recalled dates in History. In mathematics, you learned to mindlessly reproduce algorithms by pattern matching the problem in front of you to one from a set of problem types you had memorised. This is what machines, computers are brilliant at. The agenda, it would seem, is that Australian schooling is to have the young learn to do things that machines are good at. Now if that is all you want to do then you don’t need humans, people, aka teachers do that kind of teaching. You can use machines. Think of the savings! Wow. If that does not appeal to the red-neck education vote I don’t know what will.

  2. Lew Zipin says:

    The new EduResearch Matters website is a great contribution from the AARE; and thanks, Nicole, and Greg, for launching discussion (following from Alan’s keynote). You’ve provided a sensible diagnosis of Christopher Pyne’s simplistic binary – ‘didactic’ against ‘child-centred’ – with its associated populist tendency to demonise one side of the polarity against a valorised other side. You aptly point out that ‘child/student centred’ approaches are not necessarily in opposition to, or exclusive of, ‘didactic’ methods.

    Your argument, supported by research you cite –Stenhouse, the QLD Longitudinal study, the ‘Fair Go’ team, and more – underscores the need to appreciate real complexities through artful teaching that makes use of diverse pedagogical approaches in relation to contingent educational settings. Indeed, ‘child/student centred learning’ has taken on many meanings and practices over time, with recent tendencies towards a psychological individualism that needs critique from critical-sociological standpoints. At the same time, it carries resonances of democratic and social justice approaches dating back at least to Dewey. Shadow Minister Pyne’s sloganeering obscures all of this historical complexity of educational thought and practice, which he ought to appreciate when he invokes ‘traditions’.

    A challenge – for those of us committed to nuanced educational responses to complex matters of education for diversity and redress of social injustices – is how to mediate appreciation of complexities to wider publics, in counter to the simplifications that colonise so much ‘public’ debate. Hopefully the availability of EduResearch Matters will further a needed language of elegant (I won’t say ‘simple’) and persuasive argument. At the same time, let’s think about strategies for migrating our efforts across to spaces of journalism, policy-making, schooling and local community. (This is the sort of alternative educational populism that scholars such as Michael Apple have sought in the US, and that Alan Reid called for in his AARE keynote.)

  3. Brian says:

    When I hear arguments for more money, i wonder what will the money bring that does not already exist? If we have dedicated teacher, devoted and committed to the art and craft of teaching – what will more money do?

    I wish to raise a challenge on the participation rates argument. I gwent to school in the 1970s wheer rtoe learnign, and doing as one is told was mandatory, and not asking teachers “stupid bloody questions”. Back then very few of us went on to VCE/HSC. And even fewer went to university. The reason behind was not academic failure or illiteracy. It was that occupations, such as apprenticeships etc were able to gained at 16 with a year 10 (School Certificate). the academisation (if there is such a word) of occupations now means that the receptionist, who would have been trained on the job, now requires a Certificate III or IV in Business Administration before they even are granted an interview.

    I think before we shout for more money, lets ask ourselves, do we need it, and what are we going to do with it? I think we need to also ask do we need so many post-secondary school qualifications? We need to also address what is the purpose of primary and seconday education. i suggest it is for learning and establishing strong educational (not academic) foundations. i once heard a Professor say that preparation for university begins at kindergarten. As Sir Ken Robinson quite righlty states – no it doesn’t. Preparation for university begins at university.

  4. Brad says:

    Pyne didn’t just take a five-minute look at the research. He’s listening to his policy makers and his policy makers are right: DI is the best in the world and any opposition is purely ideological without quantitative evidence to back it up. We need to mature as a field from alchemists into chemists. To do this, we need to listen to the results of well-designed experiments like “Project Follow Through” even if we don’t like the results. The results in Project Follow Through were extraordinary but they are largely ignored because of the embarrasment it caused to so many education theorists and because education is fully of “artsy” people with poor knowledge of the scientific method. What was the most cited argument against the results of PFT? It was Gene V. Glass’s critique published by the Harvard Education Review. Here’s a lovely snippet:

    “The audience for PFT evaluations is an audience of teachers to whom appeals to the need for accountability for public funds or the rationality of science are largely irrelevant.”

    The ignorance is almost vomit worthy.

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