Professor Emeritus of Education at the University of South Australia
One of the chilling features of the Federal Government’s education policy is its obvious intention to tell teachers how they should teach.
Until now governments have stopped short of dictating how teachers should teach, on the assumption that these are professional decisions that are best made by educators armed with the technical expertise, and knowledge of their students and their learning context.
No longer. It is clear that this government wants to follow teachers into the classroom and direct their practice. How so?
Let’s start with one of what Minister Pyne calls his ‘four policy pillars’ – quality teachers. On the surface this would appear to be a reasonable policy goal. Who could disagree that all our students deserve quality teachers? But scratch beneath the surface and you will find some worrying policy intentions.
The first is the rationale behind the call for ‘quality teachers’. One of the features of the education debate over the past few years has been commentators and politicians confidently pronouncing on educational matters about which they have little knowledge or understanding. This is usually preceded by a recitation of the bleeding obvious, the most well-known being the platitude that ‘research demonstrates that the quality of the teacher is the most important in-school factor which promotes student learning’. If you say that seriously enough, it can sound quite profound.
Of course, once you have established this earth shattering revelation it is but a small step to making a number of other claims. The most prominent of these is to take the quality of the teacher as an independent variable, and then dismiss as irrelevant such matters as class size, teaching resources and factors of educational disadvantage.
Once this is done it is possible to claim that all the money spent on these peripheral matters has resulted in reduced learning outcomes, and hey-presto, you have an educational justification for reducing expenditure. It is not surprising that Minister Pyne finds this an attractive thesis.
The problem is that it is nonsense. It is the interrelationship of the variables in the context of the learning which is important. They cannot sensibly be separated out in this way.
But having isolated teacher quality, the government is able to focus on those strategies which it claims will enhance it. This demands a view of what good teaching looks like – something Minister Pyne has not been shy to articulate.
In an interview with the Minister on November 28 last year, Alan Jones asked:
… Now you’ve got kids and you know that the way they’re being taught in the classroom is not the way you were taught and it’s not better than the way you were taught,
to which Minister Pyne replied: Well we’ve said all along Alan that we want to return to more orthodox teaching methods….
Then, after being sworn in as Minister he reflected that:
My instincts tell me that a back-to-basics approach to education is what the country is looking for, what parents feel comfortable about.
In these examples we have a lawyer, turned politician, suggesting that education policy should take us back to an earlier era on the basis of his intuition, the comfort level of parents, and how he was taught many years ago.
Since then, the Minister has fleshed out his vision. It involves going back to teacher-centred methods of teaching with an emphasis on ‘direct’ or ‘explicit’ instruction – both models based on the theory that learning is telling children things, getting them to remember things, and then having them reproduce what they have been told. This fits with his narrow view of curriculum as being largely about facts.
Now if this was just a personal view I guess there would be no harm done. But unfortunately there are signs that Minister Pyne wants to ensure that such approaches to teaching become the norm in Australian education.
A favourite target has been teacher education, and it is clear that the current review into teacher education is one of the vehicles selected to carry his version of how teachers should teach.
My view is that directive approaches to teaching have a place in any classroom, but they should not be dominant. If the curriculum aims to develop young people to be critical, creative, empathetic and inquiring, then there is an important, indeed central, place for process models of teaching which foster the capacity of students to learn how to learn.
With any single cohort of students, teachers will use a number of teaching models ranging from teacher-centred to student centred as they are needed. Teachers must have the capacity to adjust programs to suit the needs and interests of their students, to assess student learning outcomes, and work with their peers to investigate issues, problems and dilemmas in their teaching.
And yet the Minister’s excursions into teaching practice never mention this. He and his acolytes focus solely on direct and explicit teaching methods, and ignore the fact that it is the professional responsibility of the teacher to select the balance of teaching approaches needed for the students in her/his care.
If we want to prepare students for the challenges of this century, education policy should focus on providing the conditions within which quality teaching can flourish, not seek to tell teachers how to teach.
An approach which values teachers and enables them to professionally develop throughout their careers is far more likely to result in quality teaching than one which demeans their professionalism.
Educators don’t need their Minister to be making decisions for them about how they should teach, any more than surgeons need the Health Minister to be telling them how they should operate.
Professor Alan Reid AM is Professor Emeritus of Education at the University of South Australia. His research interests include education policy, curriculum change, social justice and education, and the history and politics of public education. He has published widely in these areas and gives many talks and papers to professional groups, nationally and internationally. Alan presented the Radford Lecture at the AARE annual conference in December 2012.