AARE blog

Why teacher unions matter now more than ever

Teachers are striking. Not just in NSW, Australia, where the NSW Teachers’ Federation went on strike when it took to the streets in late 2021. Teachers in the states of Washington, Ohio and Seattle in the United States also took strike action this year in response to similar pressures that Australian teachers are facing. They are demanding smaller class sizes, more specialist support for teachers, higher wages, and better conditions to prevent teacher burnout.

My research has focused on school education mainly in NSW where market-driven agendas have entrenched competitiveness in education systems, contributed to the rise of precarious work in the teaching profession, slowed the growth of teacher salaries, and increased the workload and administrative burden on teachers and school leaders. For the last 40 years, neoliberal policy agendas in education have threatened to undermine the democratic foundations of public schooling and weaken education unions that represent the voice of thousands of teachers.

Research on teacher unions is lacking

Although public education is an issue at the forefront of society, what is lacking in the conversation about neoliberal education reform agendas is how teacher unions attempt to challenge such agendas. Teacher unions are important civic and economic associations that articulate teachers’ collective and professional voice.

As an interdisciplinary researcher spanning the fields of industrial relations and education, my research focuses on the interrelations between employees and employers and their representatives, and the state. For nearly 10 years, I’ve examined the complex contexts in which teacher unions organise and campaign in an effort to understand the strategies they use to resist neoliberal agendas.  

My chapter, recently published in Empowering Teachers and Democratising Schooling: Perspectives from Australia, contributes to understanding how teacher unions build grassroots activism and shape campaign strategies to resist neoliberalism and inspire action towards a more democratic future. The chapter is nested in a broader conversation in the book, alongside contributions from teachers and researchers, which is focused on giving primacy to teachers’ voices in education scholarship and public debates. The chapter draws upon insights from my doctoral thesis which examined how one teacher union in Australia has campaigned over the last 40 years in response to various education reforms and threats to teachers’ working conditions.

Lessons in building union power

There are contemporary reports of a teacher shortage crisis in New South Wales. Compounding this is an ageing teaching workforce. While the education and training industry has the highest proportion of employees who are trade union members, revitalising how unions recruit and engage the next generation of activists is a key concern of unions today, not only for teacher unions. According to the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics union membership data from August 2020, only 5% of employees aged 15-19 years are trade union members; this is only marginally higher at 6% for those aged 20-24.

In addition to the profile of unionism changing, the social, political, economic and cultural environment of organising is also evolving. One Former Assistant General Secretary of the teachers’ union I spoke to in my research reflected on this: “[when] you started teaching, you joined the superannuation scheme, you joined the health fund, and you joined the union, and you were just active in the union”.

Renewing strategies to engage an incoming generation of teachers into the profession has been an important task for teacher unions. Strategies have included organising beginning teacher conferences for teachers new to the profession, establishing networks to connect young activist teachers, and offering training and professional development opportunities for members.

Campaigning to advance alternative ideas in public education

The concepts of governance, accountability, efficiency and competition are also changing the way we think about public institutions and public services. Freedom within education is being constrained and democracy is being threatened by neoliberal logics. Such ideology has challenged the fundamental values on which public education systems have been built.

Research shows that teacher unions have responded to this in various ways, including ‘organising around ideas’, connecting with community and campaigning for social justice. This means presenting alternatives to dominant (neoliberal) ideas and campaigning for a vision of quality public education based on the values and principles of democracy and social justice.

Framing campaign messages in response to different contexts enables unions to set the agenda for public education and articulate the voice of the profession.

For instance, using ‘local stories’ can be a powerful way to appeal to parents and community members during campaigns. In one education funding campaign I researched, a Union Organiser from a teacher union spoke about how their campaign was framed around:

“not talking about the billions of dollars and talking about macro level, but just saying to the community this is what it means to you, this is what it means to Billy in kindy when he arrives at the school and he can’t speak a word of English, he’s able to get access to support . . . Those stories can’t be refuted and they can’t be talked down . . . [i]f you’re actually talking about a real human from a real place in a real situation.”

Empowering teachers has also been important in the face of threats to their core industrial and professional conditions of work, as well as the strong criticism and blame that has been placed on teachers over many recent years.

Teachers and their unions are working in challenging times. Continuing to foster a sense of empowerment in teachers and placing the voice of teachers at the centre of education debates is crucial in order to protect and advance the conditions of one of the largest occupations in the world.

Mihajla Gavin is a lecturer in the Business School at the University of Technology Sydney, and has worked as a senior officer in the public sector in Australia across various workplace relations advisory, policy and project roles. Mihajla’s research is concerned with analysing the response of teacher unions to neoliberal education reform that has affected teachers’ conditions of work. Mihajla is on Twitter @Mihajla_Gavin

Anonymous writes: I became a better teacher during COVID. I didn’t yet know I had cancer

Remember the COVID shutdowns? Remember the months of remote teaching?

As a middle school teacher, I thought I handled the remote phases pretty well. We had two big ones in the ACT – week after week of innovating lessons.

So, when I felt pretty tired at the end of last year, I chalked it up to being middle aged, to having had a few years of classroom challenge, even to the research and writing required to finish my Master of Education.

Heck, I even wondered if I was experiencing long COVID.

But over the summer holidays I didn’t really recharge properly. Not like I had in previous years.

The news was then full of stories about teacher burnout. About teachers getting tired. Yeah – that’s me, I thought.

As the weeks of Term One passed, it was getting clear I was more tired. Not the just-have-a-nap tired. By May, when I came back from a conference, I slept for 14 hours straight.

By June, I went to the doctor. Tests for all sorts of things. Test after test. Samples and vials and specimen jars. Machines I had never seen before, probing parts I had never really thought about.

The tests raised a few red flags. So then there were different tests in July. Then a biopsy. Then a cancer diagnosis in August.

Looking back, my hardcore tiredness was the result of a billion blood cells fighting a battle against tumours each day.

But (and here is the funny thing) I became a better teacher this year. I refined my approach. I focussed on my classroom craft and I was ruthless about my approaches to overcome workload issues.

To deal with the tiredness – remember, I thought this was just a COVID-shaped hangover for most of the year – I went back to my toolbox this year to consider what works. What works for me and what works every time, just so I didn’t have to think so hard to be a good classroom operator. 

I found my auto-pilot with the following approaches.

  1. If it doesn’t work, don’t do it. This one sounds simple, but I wanted to make sure my limited energy was going into what works. I had long been a fan of the Victoria Department of Education’s High Impact Teaching Strategies. These provide a drive-through summary of work from Hattie, Lemov, Marzano, and the Teaching and Learning Toolkit from Evidence For Learning. Yes, they all use different methodologies to measure effect size and identify what works well in a classroom. The HITS set aside the variation in approaches and terms and provide 10 powerful strategies, and meant I needed less brain energy to plan my teaching approaches.
  2. Get the students to do the work. As I started to get more and more tired, I plugged into the energy of my students by flipping the classroom. I had tinkered with this during remote schooling, but I went full flip with a lot of guidance from Catlin Tucker’s work on blended learning. I also tuned into effective classroom preparation and talk using TQE from Marisa Thomson. This meant students came in with the ideas and the questions for the lesson. It wasn’t up to me to light up a lesson. I had started the process with the students doing the work, even before I got to school.
  3. I do, we do, you do. Every lesson finished with a modelled writing from me, then a cooperative writing task, then student writing. This worked in my early-career classrooms with support from First Steps/Stepping Out and it still works today. Every lesson. The routine became my friend. The students knew what was coming.  They got to ask “why did you do that?”, they heard my think-alouds while writing and they tried the ideas themselves. They got better at their writing. They knew they were getting better. You want energy in a classroom? Tap into the confidence of students on the move. Bandura has been saying this stuff for half a century and it is a powerful ride.
  4. But what about the marking? Yep – more writing would normally mean more marking, right? If you don’t mark it, how do the students know where they are going? It’s all about formative assessment, yeah? Well, kinda. I tapped into some marking techniques from Jennifer Gonzalez via Cult of Pedagogy . She writes “It’s important for students to get lots of practice, and to get credit for their effort, but not everything needs careful grading.” These techniques changed my classroom and helped my students progress every week.

Every classroom is different. Every class is different. Every teacher is different. I am not writing this to tell teachers how to do their job – you might be surprised how much your ego gets trimmed when doctors poke and prod at you for a few months.

But, there may be something here to help teachers use their energy budget effectively. There may be a way here that helps a tired teacher achieve more and feel good about themselves and their classes, and not burn out.

(One more thing. I have had a level of support from a partner, a principal and a head of department that is beyond words. The spoken and unspoken support often made the difference between hope and despair. If teaching is about relationships, then it is these relationships that will rescue you on the days when you feel about to drown.)

Teaching is hard. 

Teaching in a pandemic is hard. 

Teaching in a pandemic with cancer is hard.

Let’s be kind. Let’s be smarter. Let’s do the absolute best we can do to support each other and build the skills of our students.

Note from the editor: This piece is written by a former contributor to the AARE blog. That person wanted to remain anonymous. I agreed to the request and published the piece as it is.

We build submarines and the defence force. Now we must support the families who work in them

The Federal Government has plans to expand Australian Defence Forces (ADF) to a 40-year high. They hope to increase the forces by 30% (18,500 extra personnel by 2040), the biggest increase since the Vietnam War. This will inevitably lead to an increase in the number of children and parents impacted by military service. 

It won’t just be enough to recruit new soldiers, sailors and aviators – retention will also be critical and we know that Defence families play a key role here. Defence families are depended on to provide a crucial service to the ADF, often at significant cost to their own wellbeing. Defence families are mostly ‘invisible’ in our communities, and struggle to get access to the support and understanding they need.  

Our PhDs explored the experiences of young children and partners in defence families and sheds light into some of the factors affecting the ADF, military members, and their spouses, children and loved ones.

Dutiful housewife and children model

One of the major challenges is attracting and retaining staff because of the high demands of the job. The military is a ‘greedy institution’, demanding great sacrifice from the defence member and their family

Most Defence families are expected to relocate at least every 2 years. Frequent relocations, and absences from home, make it incredibly challenging for Defence families to have their own careers and supportive relationships within education settings, as the former Minister for Defence, Peter Dutton highlighted in comments earlier this year. The new federal government announced a funding boost to 48 community-based organisations providing value to defence families and building connections in July.

As Defence is recognising, the expectation of partners who need to sacrifice their own career to support the career of the ADF member is out of step with the vast majority of modern families with dual careers. It is also out of step with children who are connected to peers, educators and the wider community.

Over 73% of Australian couple families have two sources of income and women make up 19% of the ADF. The ADF seeks to be an employer of choice. 

Children are often quite connected to their extended family, and their community through extracurricular activities. Additionally, many build a sense of belonging and the sense of place within their education communities.

Perfect female partners and perfect children

There is pressure on partners of Defence members to perform a ‘perfect spouse’ role, which is at odds with modern society.

The model assumes ‘perfect partners’ will sacrifice not only their career, but will also dutifully perform a ‘perfect spouse’ role. They will not complain about the inconvenience of Defence life. For example, participants said they felt pressure to ‘suck it up and deal with it’ when they were having trouble during deployments. 

The model often requires families to give up access to sources of support which provide a protective buffer. These include extended family, friends within their community, educators, health care professionals and community groups. Additionally, access to specialist services may not be available where they are posted, or those services might not understand the experience of being a military family. 

Incorrect or outdated information about the support Defence families receive can have negative impacts, such as the perception that families receive free housing, as well as some more outlandish claims. For example, one participant said some of her friends thought she travelled on Air Force planes every time they went on holiday.

Children can also experience a lack of empathy from peers, and even teasing if they attend early childhood services or schools that have little experience with military families.

When families don’t receive the support and understanding they need from their communities, it can impact their willingness to stay associated with the military. 
Retention of highly trained members is difficult, with many personnel citing ‘family reasons’ when they leave. As one family explained

We had never planned for it to be Caleb’s career forever. In the end we chose to leave much earlier because of the promotion they offered him. This meant he was going to be away more often for training. When Jess turned 3 we realised Caleb had only been there 1 year of her life…(a) big issue for us. Caleb had missed the first soccer games and other big events in the children’s lives.

The military also makes enormous demands from spouses and families. Defence families have the impossible task of keeping each ‘institution’ (military and family) satisfied. 

This is especially the case when military members work away for months on deployment or lengthy training sessions. This leaves the partner to cope with their own careers, the needs of the children and run the household themselves. 

This is especially stressful when the children are younger and are less able to understand the sudden disappearance of a parent. Partners are dealing with their own responses, and the responses of their children which can sometimes feed off each other. Children’s responses vary, and can include a regression in physical, social, emotional and cognitive (learning) skills.

While time apart is challenging, reintegration is often harder, as the defence member tries to fit back into family life. The children and family have adapted and grown while they were away. 

He was really tired and tried sleeping during the day …. The kids … made really loud noises suddenly and he would be angry… it is hard because when you are on base you are with adults for 9 months…adults who are good at following orders. When he came home, he was dealing with a toddler and a pre-schooler.

… the kids were up to different stages so he was often babying them and they didn’t want to be babied. Nine months is a long time in a young child’s life and they changed a lot. He was also really upset by some of the parenting decisions I had made in his absence.

Some children emotionally protect themselves by not getting close to the parent who has been away. 

Sam had a rebellion against me …There was some nervousness about coming home and trying to fit back in with the children, especially after Sam’s episodes of not wanting to have anything to do with me.

Educators reported children were very clingly when their parent deployed, often reluctant to play with peers at first. They were also less able to cope with small moments of tension in play episodes and were likely to react emotionally.

Support for young children

Until recently, there was also a lack of Australian resources to assist young children understand transitions and stresses they faced within defence families. This showed a lack of understanding and acknowledgement of the sacrifices young children make within defence forces.

Just because very young children may not be able to say why they are upset, it matters to them when a parent is no longer available. Fortunately, funding has enabled free research-based resources to be created to help parents, educators and family/social workers better support young children. 

Apart from frequent relocations and parental deployment, some children can also experience a parent having service-related physical injuries, medical and mental health conditions. This has been highlighted in the Royal Commission into Veteran Suicide which has also highlighted these barriers to recruitment.

Where to from here?

Effective recruitment and retention will need policy changes. To address attrition, this Recommendation Report called for policies to guarantee families with children could only be asked to relocate a maximum of 3 times from birth to 18. The report also recommended using a flexible model for deployment where parents deploy for longer but less often. In this model, training episodes can be built into the deployment to reduce transitions at home, reducing stress for children. 

This will also assist children to build strong and supportive relations with their educators, peers and community. This builds stronger, more resilient communities who have a greater capacity to support children from defence communities.

Additionally, greater awareness of modern military experiences in the community will benefit current and future families. This means better understanding for families as they access community services, including GPs and early childhood educators, who might not appreciate the challenges of deployment and frequent relocations.


Marg Rogers is a senior lecturer in the Early Childhood Education and Care program at the University of New England and the lead researcher for the funded Early Childhood Defence Program project (ECDP). This team, along with their Steering Committee of stakeholders has developed research-based, free, online resources for early childhood educators, parents and family/social workers to better support young children from Australian military families. She tweets at @MargRogers11 and you can find her on LinkedIn.

Amy Johnson is a lecturer in journalism and public relations at CQ University. Her current research projects include the Early Childhood Defence Project, which develops research-based, free online resources for educators and parents to better support young children from Australian military families as well as projects which enhance veterans and family’s wellbeing. Amy has lived experience of military service as an officer in the Royal Australian Navy (Reserve) and the partner of an ADF veteran. She tweets at @AmyJohnsonPhD and you can find her on LinkedIn.

What we must do now to rescue Australian schools

We expect education to be a catalyst for more equitable and inclusive societies yet too often governments and systems deploy one-stop solutions without detailed plans for how exactly improvements will be achieved or at what costs.

The Building Education Systems for Equity and Inclusion report comes from an Academy of Social Sciences of Australia workshop I hosted at the Gonski Institute for Education at UNSW. Working with representatives from school systems, academia, professional associations, industry, and teachers, the report offers recommendations aimed at addressing inequities in the school system.

Recommendations centre on five key issues: intergenerational policy failure; the need to look beyond the school gate; raising the voice of the profession; data, evidence and research; and ensuring a focus on teaching and learning.

Intergenerational policy failure

While the Australian Government is spending more on education than at any point in history, disparity gaps endure for various equity groups on a range of outcomes. Needs- based funding tied to the implementation of evidence-based reforms hasve been distorted courtesy of the unique policy architecture of Australian federalism. School systems have limited resources with which to pursue their objectives and the design of school funding policies plays a key role in ensuring that resources are directed to where they can make the most difference. 

Australian federalism means there is neither a national system nor a state/territory system of school-based education. Common critiques focus on overlap in responsibilities and duplication. Achieving uniformity is difficult, time consuming, and frequently limited to the lowest common denominator. However, education is a complex policy domain whose actions impact well beyond state or territory borders. Currently, no jurisdiction wants to be the first to admit there are problems meaning systems can deteriorate substantially before action is taken. Asserting jurisdiction independence and sovereignty surrenders some of the strengths of federalism and removes important failsafe mechanisms targeting overall health of the system.

A significant policy problem for education is the current teacher shortage. Substantial attention has been directed at Initial Teacher Education programs, and the attraction and retention of educators. Less focus has been granted to affordability of housing for teachers. With housing (ownership and rental) costs rising, servicing commitments on a teachers’ salary can be difficult – particularly in major cities. The ability to live near the place where one works, or the drivability or commuting infrastructure means that workforce planning needs to take a multi-dimensional approach built on more than just raising the public profile of the profession.

Beyond the school gate

Australian Early Development Census (AEDC) data indicates that 22 per cent of children in the first year of formal schooling are vulnerable in at least one domain (e.g., physical, social, emotional, language, and communication), and 11 per cent in two. Early data indicates that the AEDC is a predictor of NAPLAN performance nine years later and with 8.1 per cent of early childhood providers operating with a staffing waiver due to a lack of qualified staff, early intervention is a difficult task.

School-based education exhibits many layers of segregation and stratification. The distribution of students from socio-educational disadvantage or requiring adjustment due to disability are not evenly distributed between sectors (government, catholic, and independent). Peer effects can influence outcomes as much as individual socio-economic status. Cultural context has a large effect (between 33 and 50 per cent) on student performance, and the further a school is located from major cities the lower level of student outcomes. Failure to control for segregation and stratification makes it impossible to identify the drivers of school improvement in different locations and better design interventions aimed at equity and inclusion.

Voice of the profession

Education is seen as ‘a’ if not ‘the’ solution to most social issues and the result is that schools are constantly being asked to do more without having anything removed. Many of the decisions to add things to schooling take place without any engagement or consultation with educators – not education bureaucracies but the educators who work in schools. The result is frequent changes in curriculum documents, additional mandatory training programs, shifting accreditation requirements, updated and expansive administrative requirements, all with negligible impact on student outcomes. This not just intensified teachers’ work but de-democratising the profession. TALIS data indicates that only 28.7 per cent of Australian teachers feel that their views are valued by policy makers. With declining educator well-being and in the context of a teacher shortage, it is timely to establish a forum for representatives from the profession to have a voice in decisions regarding the form, objectives, targets, and outcomes of schooling as articulated in the national agenda.

Data, evidence, research

Improving the equity of education is not possible without data and evidence. You cannot improve that which you do not measure and monitor. An effective school education system needs sufficient data points and appropriate data linkage to understand how well it is performing and robust evidence to identify priority areas for planning, intervention, and policy. While the Measurement Framework for Schooling in Australia details nationally agreed performance indicators, inconsistencies across states and territories datasets means that crucial insights for informing policy at a national level are being lost. Data linkage is an urgent task for understanding the relationships between multiple factors and their impact on education and social outcomes to inform effective policy making, program design and research at a national scale.

Systems and schools that embed data-driven evaluation as a core professional responsibility have a greater impact on student outcomes. This has led to schools increasingly being asked to provide evidence of their impact. At the same time, despite an impressive track record, education research is under-funded. Despite the establishment of the Australian Education Research Organisation (AERO) seeking to position Australian educators at the forefront of education research, without increases in total funding available, it is unlikely that research of the scale and scope necessary to effectively inform policy can be conducted. A promising avenue for increasing the quality of evidence and data use in schools and systems is co-design. However, it requires strategic leadership and matching incentives (including funding mechanisms) to better enable a systemic approach to research use, knowledge translation and breaking down boundaries between stakeholders.

Focus on teaching and learning

Pedagogical reform is a low-cost high-return approach to addressing distortions in a school system. Australian research (for example, Quality Teaching Rounds) has demonstrated that targeted and tailored interventions can positively impact student outcomes and teacher well-being. Yet, 76 per cent of teachers describe their workload as unmanageable. Australian schools have more instructional hours (828) than the OECD average (713), with teachers engaged in far more administration and school management than higher performing systems (e.g., Finland, Estonia). Attempts to recognise quality teaching through accreditation have received little uptake with only 0.33 per cent of the workforce certified at Highly Accomplished or Lead. Addressing equity and inclusion requires attention to how systems are designed to focus on the instructional core of schooling and making sure that resources (human, physical, and financial) are targeted towards achieving the highest quality of teaching in every classroom.


As the world re-sets to life under pandemic, the internal tensions for differentiation and external pressures for standardisation on education policy have never been greater. With increasing costs for public services at the same time as government revenue and household incomes falling, issues of educational equity, inclusion and excellence are amplified. The pressure to consolidate resources and pursue cost efficiencies will be felt most significantly by the poorest and most marginalised children and communities throughout the country. The stakes are high. Education is critical to human welfare, especially in times of rapid economic and social change.

Ensuring that resourcing and oversight focuses on the health of the system, with wraparound services supporting the workforce to have a voice and what they need for high quality instruction give Australian school systems the best chance of delivering equitable outcomes for all. 

Participants in the workshop

Professor Scott Eacott, Gonski Institute for Education, UNSW Sydney

Professor Eileen Baldry, UNSW Sydney 

Laureate Professor Jenny Gore, Teachers and Teaching Research Centre, University of Newcastle 

Professor Chris Pettit, City Futures Research Centre, UNSW Sydney

Professor Suzanne Carrington, Centre for Inclusive Education, QUT 

Dr Goran Lazendic, Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER)

Dr Virginia Moller, Steiner Education Australia 

Dr Rachel Perry, NSW AIS Evidence Institute

Dr Bala Soundararaj, City Futures Research Centre, UNSW Sydney 

Rebecca Birch, Teacher, Independent School 

Cecilia Bradley, Australasian Democratic Education Community 

Zeina Chalich, Principal, Catholic Education

Mark Breckenridge, Australian Secondary School Principals’ Association 

Elizabeth Goor, Montessori Australia 

Alice Leung, Head Teacher, Concord High School

Alex Ioannou, Montessori Australia 

Matthew Johnson, Australian Special Education Leaders and Principals’ Association  

Maura Manning, Catholic Education Parramatta 

Andrew Pierpoint, Australian Secondary School Principals’ Association 

Daniel Pinchas, Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL)  

Diane Robertson, Principal, NSW Department of Education 

Michael Sciffer, PhD Candidate, Murdoch University

Scott Eacott PhD, is deputy director of the Gonski Institute for Education, and professor of education in the School of Education at UNSW Sydney and adjunct professor in the Department of Educational Administration at the University of Saskatchewan.

How Australian universities could stop inequality and save the planet in one easy move

To address the global inequalities in access to higher education, I propose an Australian-led network for global online learning. A collaboration of Australian universities would offer online education to low- to middle-income populations, at large scale and low cost, with long-term benefits for future enrolments and global soft power.

As an example of global inequalities, access to higher education in Africa is one quarter of the global average. The importance of improving the education standards of the population to Africa and other regions with poor access does not need to be stated.

Australian universities are over-reliant on overseas student fees. This was demonstrated by the Covid pandemic which led to at least a temporary reduction in student numbers, with possible long-term loss of overseas students. The dependence on China as a source of international students is also a risk, given variations in geopolitical priorities. Given these concerns, the current policy whereby universities cross subsidise other activities such as research from overseas student fees is risky and likely to be unsustainable. Using student fee income from low-income countries to support universities and the broader economy in high-income countries such as Australia is unstainable and of questionable ethics. 

The Australian Strategy for International Education 2021-2030 is completely focused on the economic benefits to Australia from bringing international students to Australia, with no mention of the potential to reduce global inequalities in access to higher education.

Looking to the future, global populations will change. By 2100, Nigeria will have a larger population than China. Half of the current African countries will have doubled in size by 2050

Offering education that is clearly focused on building capacity in low- to middle-income populations rather than on earning income for ourselves own would likely raise the profile of Australian higher education and have future benefits in attracting students. This would also have the potential for more general soft power impacts. The Australian Government does offer scholarships for international students, as do many individual universities, but these are highly competitive and do not include online courses. They constitute only a small proportion of the large number of more than 450,000 overseas students who come to Australia each year.

My recent open access book, The Distributed University for Sustainable Higher Education, makes the case for a pivot from face-to-face to online education. There are many opportunities that this would create, including for education to be offered to a global audience at scale. 

An important consideration about bringing international students to study in a high-income country is the resulting high carbon footprint. This arises from travel and higher consumption patterns. My colleagues and I recently showed that a small cohort of only 128 international students who studied online rather than travelling to the UK for a master’s programme saved nearly a million kg of CO2, even without counting the contribution from their exposure to the physical university with its large carbon footprint.

I propose a programme which would increase global access to education – a network for global online learning. The driver, rather than to generate income from overseas students, would be to increase access to education among those in low- to middle-income countries where access is currently low. Student fees would thus have to be lower than at present. This can be justified by taking a long-term view of potential benefits to universities and the host country as discussed above, the realisation that the costs would be marginal as universities could utilise courses already in existence initially, and the suggestion that each partner need only provide part of the programme. A small increase in the amount of money the Australian Government and individual universities currently spend on scholarships could support such a programme. 

At present, universities compete with each other for international students, due to the competitive business model under which they operate. The creation of a network for global online learning focused on international students would depend on universities having the courage to collaborate rather than complete, to realise the power of collaboration. 

Although research is a more common area for collaboration, there are a number of examples of universities collaborating to offer education,  The Biostatistics Collaboration of Australia is an excellent example – students can enrol in, and graduate from, any of five Universities and access a common online curriculum. This approach differs from Open Universities Australia whose main task appears just to help students find appropriate online courses at Australian universities. Universitas 21, a global partnership which includes four Australian universities, offers a global online (non-degree) programme co-produced by a number of universities with an external partner.

What would the network for online global learning look like?

  • Australian universities would collaborate with each other as the key drivers of the network. 
  • Ideally other universities in the Global North and South and other ‘industry’ partners such as Non Governmental Organisations, and relevant governments and ministries would join the network.
  • Degrees would be offered by each University or created by a combination of courses from different network partners.
  • Students, as individuals or groups from industry partners, would enrol in award streams through a university of their choice even if the programme is made up from courses from a number of providers. 
  • Start with just one or two subject areas of relevance to those in the Global South, as proof of concept, and if successful build to scale. 
  • Develop an infrastructure to include IT support and a light touch quality assurance process.

A great deal more work is required to explore the potential for the idea of a network for online global learning. I call on interested parties to come together to think about this. Maybe Open Universities Australia or Universitas 21 would take on this challenge and lead the kind of collaborative network I have been describing?

Richard Heller is Emeritus Professor at the Universities of Newcastle, Australia and Manchester, UK. He has been involved in educational programmes to build pubic health capacity in low- to middle-income population throughout his career. In Newcastle this was through the International Clinical Epidemiology Network. As Professor of Public Health in Manchester he set up the University’s first online master’s degree. On retirement he founded and coordinated the fully online volunteer led Peoples-uni educational charity, offering master’s and continuing professional development awards. His recent open access book is The Distributed University for Sustainable Higher Education.

We can teach it so much better once we know what it is

‘Critical’ and ‘creative’ are commonly used terms, but shared understandings of these terms are less frequent. Critical and creative thinking (CCT) refers to two broad types of thinking that manifest in different ways and draw upon different combinations of knowledge and skills depending on the context and purpose. This explains the many slightly differing definitions you will find attached to the terms if you go looking.  Boiled down, critical thinking means evaluating ideas (especially claims and arguments), tools, methods, or products in reasoned ways, while creative thinking means making mental connections between and generating new ideas, tools, methods, or products for an intended effect. They’re different types of thinking but go well together. We believe developing young people’s CCT is a key purpose of education – and that teachers should be taught to teach CCT in a ‘deliberately incidental’ way.

CCT is not just important for Australia to stay internationally competitive or because there is increasing demand for employees with CCT skills. Thinking creatively and critically makes our world, and the lives we live, better. CCT gives meaning to much of what students learn at school. The OECD attributes such importance to CCT that it is introducing a standardised assessment of CCT this year. And of course, ACARA sees its importance, too; CCT is one of the seven General Capabilities in the Australian Curriculum.

So, it was with interest that we noted the findings of a recently published study by Carter and Buchanan. The 185 NSW primary teachers they surveyed agreed that the General Capabilities in the Australian Curriculum (Version 8.4) – which include CCT – were important, but the teachers were not confident in their knowledge of these capabilities. Almost half of the teachers reported that they did not understand the General Capabilities. Most reported teaching the General Capabilities only occasionally or not at all; and of the 37 teachers who were interviewed in the study, only 2 said they taught General Capabilities explicitly. 

Of all the reported excerpts about how Carter and Buchanan’s interviewees said they taught the General Capabilities, several of the General Capabilities were referenced but there was not a single mention of teaching CCT. The teachers cited – understandably – that a lack of professional development was the impediment to their understanding of the General Capabilities. It is not surprising that teachers would struggle with CCT particularly, given questions about the adequacy of teacher education in relation to teaching CCT.

A lack of clarity about CCT is pervasive. The more you read in this area, whether it is the scholarly literature or the grey literature, the more you can be forgiven for wondering if there is any kind of thinking that CCT does not include! We see the lack of definitional clarity around CCT as a significant barrier to confident and effective CCT teaching – but not an obstacle that quality teacher education and professional development cannot help teachers to overcome.

We argue that helping teachers to develop a deep understanding of CCT (much deeper than we can cover in this post) is important because of what well-established educational psychology principles – drawing on cognitive, social, and behavioural psychology – tell us. Only when teachers deeply understand the conceptual structures of CCT will they be able to teach CCT effectively.

Higher-order skills such as CCT are not the product of natural maturation and social interactions, and can therefore be thought of as biologically secondary skills. Cognitive psychology tells us that biologically secondary knowledge and skills should be taught explicitly, in order for the learning to be efficient and effective. This means that to most effectively develop students’ CCT, teachers need to teach CCT deliberately. This involves drawing attention to, explaining, and illustrating the concepts and skills involved (e.g., for critical thinking these might include evaluate, reason, argument, analyse, evidence, logic, conclusion, or the term critical itself; for creative thinking these might include imagination, brainstorm, open-minded, flexible, method, adapt, concept map, synthesise, or the term creative itself). The particular concepts, skills, explanations, and demonstrations will, of course, depend on the learners’ development, prior learning, and interests, and the learning area (or domain) knowledge being drawn on.

Cognitive psychology also tells us that CCT skills are not ‘generic strategies’, learnable in a content vacuum; they require content knowledge. To teach CCT in a knowledge-based way, teachers need to have a particularly deep understanding of CCT – so they can recognise and harness as many opportunities as possible to teach CCT skills utilising the domain knowledge they are teaching. Only by doing this as often as possible, in as many different learning areas as possible, can teachers encourage learners to engage in CCT habitually and ‘generally’. CCT skills taught in isolated CCT focused programs – if new skills are learned at all – do not generalise.

Social and behavioural psychology has much to contribute to teachers’ ability to establish CCT as socially normative thinking practices. To encourage children (and the adults they become) to engage in CCT in the various situations where it’s desirable to do so, teachers should frequently and explicitly model CCT skills, drawing attention to and labelling the specific skills they are using; provide plentiful and varied opportunities for learners to engage in the skills themselves, prompting and guiding where necessary; and try to ensure that the learners feel good (natural positive reinforcement) when they engage in those skills.

By taking a developmentally appropriate cognitive, social, and behavioural approach to teaching CCT – a ‘deliberately incidental’ approach – teachers can teach students not only what it means to think creatively and critically, but also that these are expected and valued ways of thinking. However, if teachers don’t have a deep understanding of what CCT is, they can’t fully harness the power of educational psychology principles to maximise the development of their students’ CCT. We believe that improved teacher education and professional development is needed to help many teachers feel confident enough to teach CCT in knowledge-based, explicit, and socially normalising ways.

We hope that any introduction of standardised testing of CCT skills encourages a more widespread focus on knowledge-based, explicit teaching of CCT. The OECD’s assertion that the “PISA assessment will examine students’ capacities to generate diverse and original ideas, and to evaluate and improve ideas, across a range of contexts” gives us some hope. Whether or not standardised testing of CCT is introduced in Australia, we hope all Australian teachers will get the support they need to develop a deep understanding of CCT and ‘deliberately incidental’ CCT pedagogies.

Overall, we hope that, in the future, all teachers will feel well prepared to teach CCT in a way that contributes to a society in which thinking creatively and critically in all domains of life is the wonderful norm.

From left to right: Kylie Murphy is a Senior Lecturer in Educational Psychology and Pedagogy at La Trobe University’s School of Education. Her background includes secondary teaching in science, psychology, and relationships education, and university teaching in research literacy, critical evidence-based practice, and pragmatic research methodology. Kylie is passionate about critically-informed teaching, including finding ways to support more inclusive and effective teaching of CCT. Follow her on Twitter @KylieMurphyEd or on LinkedIn. Steve Murphy is the Director of Professional Practice & School Partnerships at La Trobe University’s School of Education. He has extensive experience as a STEM educator and educational leader in schools. He researches rural education, with a particular focus on STEM education in rural schools and preparing teachers to work in rural communities. Follow Steve on LinkedIn or on Twitter @MurphyRuralEd. Nathaniel Swain is a teacher, instructional coach, and researcher with expertise in language, literacy, instructional practices, and cognitive science. He founded the national community of teachers and registered charity called Think Forward Educators, and produces a regular blog for teachers known as the Cognitorium. Nathaniel currently teaches Foundation at Brandon Park Primary, where he is also a Science of Learning Specialist. He is excited to be joining La Trobe University’s School of Education as a Senior Lecturer in January 2023. Follow him on LinkedIn or on Twitter@NathanielRSwain.

Why restoring trust in teaching now could fix the teacher shortage

Burnout is blamed for an exodus of teachers contributing to ‘a teacher shortage crisis’ in Australian schools. The teacher burnout argument offers a ‘convenient’ explanation of why teachers leave – they burn out as external pressures wear them down. Yet, framing the problem as one of teacher burnout diverts attention from ‘the moral crisis’ with which our teaching workforce has been grappling for years. 

The moral crisis is rooted in despair when teachers face persistent and chronic challenges to the values that animate their work. It emerges when the ‘call to teach’ as a moral practice meets an inequitably resourced education system that prioritises test-based accountability and top-down engineering of teachers’ work. 

The teacher shortage crisis 

The crisis talk has brought attention to some of the most legitimate grievances of teachers in Australia. Inadequate remuneration, unsustainable workloads, administrative burdens, and growing bureaucratic requirements have had irrefutable negative effects on teachers’ morale and their sense of career optimism. 

The teacher shortage crisis has also highlighted the importance of retaining teachers who are already in the job. This has led to a focus on improving teachers’ working conditions. At the same time, front-end-focused measures are introduced to address teacher supply issues. These policy solutions, including the recent Labor’s Plan to Fix Teacher Shortages, are aimed at making teaching a more attractive career option.

While these measures deal with elements of what has contributed a teacher shortage crisis, they remain largely oblivious to a less visible moral crisis that has haunted the teaching profession, a crisis rooted in tensions between the view of teaching as a caring practice driven by a sense of calling and education policies, school practices and working conditions that sit in tension with the call to service. 

A spectre is haunting teaching — the spectre of a moral crisis

A burnout explanation of why teachers leave the profession would lead to solutions that aim, at least in principle, to alleviate what burdens teachers, and burns them out. The New South Wales’ plan to support high-quality lesson planning is an example of such solutions. Universal access to centralised learning materials is offered to “free up lesson planning time each week” (Premier Dominic Perrottet). 

From a teacher burnout perspective, this policy response is adequate as it alleviates ‘the burden’ of lesson planning. This is, however, a problematic proposition. Many teachers view creating engaging lesson plans as part of their core work, something that provides them with the ownership of their practice.

A moral crisis explanation provides an alternative explanation of what wears teachers down and paves the way for their exit decision from teaching. Teachers may leave not because they burn out and have nothing more to offer; they leave because their call to service is consistently challenged by the realities of an inequitably resourced school system that pursues top-down engineering of their work. 

Viewed as such, teachers’ exit decisions can be interpreted as an ultimate act of dissent; it is a refusal to bear witness to and endure dehumanising conditions that undermine their professional autonomy, compromise their wellbeing and overlook what they cherish most in their work: making a positive difference in the lives of children and young people through the actual practices of teaching and learning. 

To exit, therefore, may not be a symptom of burning out. It can be an exercise of agency and a rejection of the top-down recipes that ignore the moral core that orients teachers’ practices.

Addressing the moral crisis

Addressing the moral crisis requires attending to what has eroded the fabric of education as a public good. This includes the school choice model and funding inequities that have created a two-tiered education system in which the least-resourced Australian schools cater for the most under-served students and their communities. Many of these schools have unsustainable working conditions that require teachers to forego their own wellbeing to do their job well. It should, therefore, not come as a surprise that the least advantaged schools in Australia are six times more likely to report teacher shortage problems compared to more affluent schools.

Attending to the moral core in teaching also requires a return to a view of education as a domain of possibility, agency and growth. It needs doing away with policies that prioritise compliance with centralised systems of monitoring tied to narrow test-based accountabilities. These practices have been shown to adversely impact on teacher morale and student wellbeing. We need to put the trust back in our teachers and their professional judgements. To do this, an audacious reform project is needed to rekindle an old flame amidst the ferocious onslaught of forces that codify teaching in purely managerial and technical terms.

Revisiting the teacher shortage crisis through a moral lens is more than reframing an existing problem in new terms. It requires us to attend to the values that sustain teaching as a caring form of practice. The moral argument disrupts the narrative that equates exit to a deficit in resilience and adaptability. Instead, it brings the focus back on teachers duty of care (for self and the other), and their agency to say ‘no’ to the conditions that dampen their morale, compromise their wellbeing and stall their care work. 

Babak Dadvand is a senior lecturer in Pedagogy, Professional Practice and Teacher Education at La Trobe School of Education. Babak’s research is in areas of teaching and teacher education with a focus on issues of equity, diversity and inclusion in relation to teachers’ work and student experiences. Babak’s current research is focused on the challenges that teachers face and the types of support that they need stay in the profession, especially in the more challenging working conditions of schools that serve communities that are socially-historically marginalised. Twitter: @DadvandBabak

The kids aren’t all right. Neither are staff.

Good morning on R U OK? Day 2022. Today’s the perfect day to ask our higher education (HE) students how they are doing. According to the latest national 2021 Student Experience Survey (SES) released late last month, the answer is a depressing ’not so good’. The 2021 data again show that the top ranked reason for the 19% of undergraduate students in Australia who consider early departure from their course is ‘health or stress’. For those students who consider leaving, 50% say this is why. The next highest ranked reasons, also consistently reported over the last several years (2015-2021), are all risk factors that can combine to further exacerbate students’ health or stress: study/life balance; workload difficulties; need to do paid work; financial difficulties; expectations not met; and personal reasons. Students lead complex and complicated lives! 

While some might say that considering leaving is not the same as actual leaving, this somewhat misses the point. It is enough and concerning that so many students feel overwhelmed in this way and that their learning engagement and student experience are so obviously impacted as a consequence. These findings also confirm what we have known for many years. Tertiary students are a ‘very high-risk population for psychological distress and mental disorders’ compared to the general population. Pre-pandemic, the prevalence and severity of mental wellbeing issues were well-known and increasing across student cohorts. In 2017, Orygen found that more than half of HE students aged 16–25 years reported high or very high levels of psychological distress and were more likely to consider an early exit from their course as a result. The National Tertiary Student Wellbeing Survey (2016), conducted by Headspace for the National Union of Students, similarly found that:

  • 67% of young students (16-25 years) and 59% of mature students (26-50+ years) rated their mental health as ‘fair’ or ‘poor’;
  • 65% of young students and 53% of mature students reported high or very high psychological distress; and
  •  Only 1.6% of young students and 3.4% of mature students reported no impact of study on their mental health in the past year.

Certain cohorts have been identified as particularly at-risk, including equity group students who, given their frequent intersectionality, may experience compounded disadvantage. These cohorts include, for example, students who are: young; Indigenous; international; from rural/remote areas; identify as LGBTQIA+; with disability; from low socio-economic backgrounds; HDRs; and/or studying law and medicine.

And then along came COVID. Already high levels of student distress increased as many students felt overwhelmed, isolated and frustrated in the rapid transition to new ways of learning, working and living. For example, one study found that the percentage of HE and vocational education students reporting extremely high levels of distress during the pandemic (at 23%) was higher than before the pandemic (at 19%); considerably higher than for the general population at 3% pre-COVID and 13% during COVID. University counselling services that were already finding it difficult pre-COVID to meet escalating demands for support and struggling with increasing complexity and severity of presentations had to move completely online.

It’s not just situational and personal factors that affect students’ mental health. There is considerable evidence also that ‘how students are taught and assessed, and how they engage with learning, can have an impact on their wellbeing’. That evidence has been available both pre– and over-COVID, and some excellent resources have been developed in response (for example, Nicole Crawford’s NCSEHE Fellowship and the seminal work of Baik and her colleagues). Recently, a large-scale project in the UK has also focused on how curriculum can support wellbeing and learning, and has developed an Education for Mental Health Toolkit.

Not just student mental wellbeing

Academic and professional staff are also at risk, awareness of which has also been raised both pre– and over-COVID. In the UK, Morrish analysed data obtained under Freedom of Information requests of HE providers in a study that could be usefully replicated in Australia. She found:

  • Evidence of an escalation of poor mental health among university staff in the period 2009 to 2016, based on data obtained from 59 HE providers on referrals to counselling and occupational health services; and 
  • That referral increases of 50% were common over that period, with some universities experiencing much higher rises: in counselling, up to 316% and in occupational health up to 424%.

When updating these data in April 2020, Morrish and Priaulx found that ‘analysis of 17 universities reveals a continued rise in staff access to counselling and occupational health referrals’.

It is also reported that ‘responding to student mental health problems now appears to be an inevitable [though ambiguous] part of the role of an academic’, given their frontline, student-facing responsibilities. This has been found to negatively impact on the wellbeing of academics and requires universities to respond with clarity around role and boundary definition in this regard.  

‘Mental health and wellbeing’ in Australian higher education

Orygen defines ‘mental health and wellbeing’ as encompassing ‘the continuum of mental health states… Mental health includes both the presence and absence of mental ill-health, though it is more commonly associated with the presence of mental illness. Mental wellbeing is generally thought of as positive mental health’.

The Higher Education Standards Framework 2021 (HESF), against which all HE providers are regulated, specifically requires that adequate support for student mental health and wellbeing be provided (HESF Wellbeing and Safety: Standard 2.3.3). Also, the provider’s governing body must ‘develop and maintain an institutional environment in which …the wellbeing of students and staff is fostered’ (HESF Corporate Governance: Standard 6.1.4, emphasis added). The extent of regulatory oversight of these specific matters is unclear, though TEQSA has identified ‘wellbeing and safety of students’ (with no specific inclusion of staff) as one of its ‘compliance priorities for 2022’.  

In 2017, the Higher Education Standards Panel (HESP) recommended that ‘every institution should have an institution-wide mental health strategy and implementation plan’ (Recommendation 8). In 2020, the Productivity Commission’s Mental Health Inquiry Report recommended that the ‘accountability of tertiary education providers should be strengthened with expanded mental health support to their students, including international students’ (Recommendation 6). Like the HESP, the Productivity Commission recommended that all education providers should develop a student mental health and wellbeing strategy as a requirement of registration, urging also that data be collected nationally on support services’ use and that both vocational education and HE regulators monitor and collect evidence of interventions for ongoing improvement.

In 2020, with government funding provided in response to the 2017 HESP Report, Orygen produced the Australian University Mental Health Framework. It is unclear how many HE providers have adopted the Orygen framework as many had already developed their own response between 2017-2020, a number of which focus to a greater extent that Orygen’s on staff wellbeing. In 2022, there still appears to be no collection of national data as recommended by the Productivity Commission. 

What would ‘good’ look like for sector-wide HE mental wellbeing?

In the face of COVID-19’s exacerbation of existing mental health concerns, we need to up our game as a sector on how we support our student and staff wellbeing. It is fortunate that we are able to draw on some excellent international research and resources in this regard. In particular, the UK student mental health charity, Student Minds, led an 18 month, sector-wide consultation process with thousands of students and staff to produce The University Mental Health Charter (2019) which covers both students and staff and directs specific attention to learning, teaching and assessment. 

This work is complemented by Universities UK’s development of a strategic framework launched in 2017 and updated over COVID – Stepchange: mentally healthy universities – for a whole-of-institution, whole-of-sector approach that positions mental health as fundamental to HE’s core mission and foundational to university life for its students and staff. UUK has also developed an open-access self-assessment tool that maps onto the Charter. Completing the UK package of initiatives, The Wellbeing Thesis, hosted by Student Minds, provides resources to support and improve the mental health of postgraduate research students, while the Student Space website, again courtesy of Student Minds, offers an amazing array of tailored support for student cohorts who might face additional challenges with mental health at university. Collectively, this impressive cross-sectoral collaboration and alignment sets the international benchmark for sector-wide best practice. Australia seems some way behind in comparison. Churchill Fellowship scholar Dr Ben Veness has asked whether it is perhaps time for Australian universities to introduce an award or credentialing program for their mental health programs, such as that available in the UK and the US

But wait – there’s more! With the abrupt scaling on online delivery, digital well-being has also become a priority for all students and citizens. Jisc now incorporates ‘digital well-being’ as an element in its digital capability framework, defining it as

the impact of technologies and digital services on people’s mental, physical, social and emotional health. It is a complex concept that can be viewed from a variety of perspectives and across different contexts and situations.

Jisc has produced resources to support the digital well-being of staff and students: one for practitioners, with guidance and good practice principles, and another for senior leaders that articulates key issues and responsibilities and eight good practice principles for organisations. 

Foreseeable harm + regulatory requirement = HE duty of care 

The mental health and wellbeing of our sector’s students and staff have been on the radar (out from Under the Radar) for many years now. We know that harm is foreseeable. We should listen closely when another blip sounds a warning, as it did again last month via the SES data, and ask ourselves – what are we really doing about the intractable and ‘wicked problem’ of student (and staff) mental health and wellbeing?

Professor Sally Kift is a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (PFHEA), a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Law (FAAL), and President of the Australian Learning & Teaching Fellows (ALTF). She has held several university leadership positions, including as Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic) at James Cook University. Sally is a national Teaching Award winner, a national Program Award winner and a national Senior Teaching Fellow on the First Year Experience. In 2010, she was appointed an Australian Discipline Scholar in Law. In 2017, Sally received an Australian University Career Achievement Award for her contribution to Australian higher education. Since 2017, she has been working as an independent higher education consultant. @kiftsally 

ECEC: Why joy at work is wonderful (but never enough)

Image courtesy of Joanna Crothers

Educators voted on Wednesday to take strike action on September 7 – Early Childhood Educators Day – to highlight the issues and stress that workers within the sector have been experiencing after “more than a decade of inaction”.The Guardian

The field of early childhood is currently facing a series of crises, including staff shortages, centre closures and unprecedented low levels of morale within and across the profession. None of these concerns is new! Although exacerbated by the global pandemic, the chronic challenges to providing quality early childhood care are complicated by funding, privatisation, ever increasing administrative demands placed on educators, poor working conditions, low salaries, and overall lack of recognition for the importance of the profession. 

Such issues have dominated the discussion of early childhood in the media, portraying an image of a field inundated with problems and at risk of being overwhelmed by them entirely. Together with my colleague at the University of Sydney, Dr. Cathy Little, we undertook a study that sought to hear the perspectives of this situation from the educators themselves, not just of the issues outlined above, but also of the field itself. The representation in the media seemed incomplete, too focused on the problems that beleaguered the sector rather than understanding the deeper issues at stake. We wanted to focus on what was also good, sustaining and valued in and by the profession. One of the emergent key findings, despite all the current challenges, was surprising. It was joy! This article discusses the notion of joy articulated by early childhood educators, its presence in early childhood programs and how it represents a way forward for the recognition and value of the profession in our society.

Defining Joy

C. S. Lewis understood. Joy comes to us, unexpected. A presence that we can neither manufacture nor control. Joy arrives and with it a fulfillment that is beyond the scope of pleasure or happiness and unlike those feelings, beyond our control. We may experience joy or hope that joy is waiting for us, however it cannot be manufactured, nor is its presence assured.

“Joy bursts in our lives when we go about doing the good at hand and not trying to manipulate things and times to achieve joy.”

CS Lewis

We mention C. S Lewis and his idea of joy as it resonates with the views expressed by the early childhood educators in this study.  A consistent definition of joy echoed through our research findings, one that connected with feelings of happiness or pleasure yet moved beyond these to a “Delight in everything I do”, “A feeling of lightness and emotional fullness”, “Serenity and peacefulness” and an “Overwhelming feeling of happiness that comes from within”.  Educators noted that joy “burst” into their lives as they went about their work with children. Joy sustains them, makes the work they do worthwhile and of inestimable professional and personal value. Joy is an occupational hazard.

Finding Joy

In listening to early childhood educators, we learned that the source of their joy was found in relationships, experienced always with children, families, and colleagues. They described this joy in the day-to-day interactions with children, the quieter moments or as one educator wrote, “certain times when I make a strong connection with a child or build on my working relationships with my colleagues”. Others found it by, “Being in the moment with the children” or “Being with children” and “When the children are interacting with me”. They spoke of the joy discovered when observing children, “Deeply engaged in doing something they enjoy” and about “Having fun, singing, dancing, meditating, doing yoga. Engaging in conversations with the children. Playing with the children” and the “Daily joy… from the moment I enter the gate… to children cheering my name blowing kisses”. 

Joy was seen as present in the wider relationships that surrounded the early childhood centre. The relationships with families of “Interacting with the children/educators/families. Sharing the children’s and educators’ achievements and learning” and “Daily conversations with family not just about their personal life but also about mine and my team”. Families contributed to educator’s sense of joy by their feedback about the program, in communicating their children’s happiness to educators and sharing in a sense of belonging. Educators experienced joy through a depth of feeling for their professional role, when they recognised themselves as central players in the bigger picture of supporting children to reach a goal or a milestone, in assisting families and children, or in actions they thought “Truly make a difference”.

Joy was and is everywhere, despite educator burnout, staffing shortages, low salaries, and poor working conditions. It is joy that remained after the educators responded to the needs of the children, at the same time as they prepared lunch, made beds, tended to children’s injuries, both physical and emotional, and tried to find time to plan, program and reflect. Joy could so easily be a casualty to these demands, and to the exigencies of the field of early education overall. All of which are a risk to joy, a risk that as recent events have illustrated, our society should not be so willing to take. The wellbeing of our children, their opportunity to grow and learn with others, to feel valued and appreciated is dependent on a stable and positive professional community. As one director said, “Being happy within really translates to the children”.

Implications of Joy

The reverence that educators expressed for children in our study should be reflected by a reverence in our society for the work they do, reflected in their qualifications, financial compensation and in the day-to-day experiences in each and every program. Day to day experiences that expand on the opportunities for the reciprocal learning that takes place between children and the adults who nurture them. Adults that are well qualified and extremely knowledgeable about the value of quality education in the early years, education that is holistic and which nurtures the whole child. Our early years programs move beyond compliance with standards, rather, they are environments, developed through rich, quality programming that allow educators to observe the children and engage with them in a range of creative learning experiences.  Our work seeks to develop educators’ professional autonomy and provide them with the time to make pedagogical choices that are informed by research, the unique context of their program and not directed by standardized curriculum alone. To restore to them their joy, their joy of being with the children, playing with the children and their joyful pedagogy.

Olivia Karaolis teaches across the School of Education and Social Work at Sydney University. She completed her research at USYD after working in the United States in the field of Early Childhood Education and Special Education. Her focus has been on creating inclusive communities through the framework of the creative arts.

 Cathy Little is the executive director of Initial Teacher Education at the University of Sydney. Her areas of interest are autistic spectrum disorder, high support needs, and positive behaviour support. She lectures at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels, and is supervising a number of research students.

Is the NAPLAN results delay about politics or precision?

The decision announced yesterday by ACARA to delay the release of preliminary NAPLAN data is perplexing. The justification is that the combination of concerns around the impact of COVID-19 on children, and the significant flooding that occurred across parts of Australia in early 2022 contributed to many parents deciding to opt their children out of participating in NAPLAN. The official account explains:

“The NAPLAN 2022 results detailing the long-term national and jurisdictional trends will be released towards the end of the year as usual, but there will be no preliminary results release in August this year as closer analysis is required due to lower than usual student participation rates as a result of the pandemic, flu and floods.”

The media release goes on to say that this decision will not affect the release of results to schools and to parents, which have historically occurred at similar times of the year. The question that this poses, of course, is why the preliminary reporting of results is affected, but student and school reports will not be. The answer is likely to do with the nature of the non-participation. 

The most perplexing part of this decision is that NAPLAN has regularly had participation rates below 90% at various times among various cohorts. That has never prevented preliminary results being released before.

What are the preliminary results?

Since 2008, NAPLAN has been a controversial feature of the Australian school calendar for students in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9. The ‘pencil-and-paper’ version of NAPLAN was criticised for how statistical error impacts its precision at the student and school level (Wu, 2016), the impact that NAPLAN has had on teaching and learning (Hardy, 2014), and the time it takes for the results to come back (Thompson, 2013). Since 2018, NAPLAN has gradually shifted to an online, adaptive design which ACARA claims “are better targeted to students’ achievement levels and response styles meaning that the tests “provide more efficient and precise estimates of students’ achievements than do fixed form paper based tests. 2022 was the first year that the tests were fully online. 

NAPLAN essentially comprises four levels of reporting. These are student reports, school level reports, preliminary national reports and national reports. The preliminary reports are usually released around the same time as the student and school results. They report on broad national and sub-national trends, including average results for each year level in each domain across each state and territory and nationally. Closer to the end of the year, a National Report is released which contains deeper analysis on how characteristics such as gender, Indigenous status, language background other than English status, parental occupation, parental education, and geolocation impact achievement at each year level in each test domain.

Participation rates

The justification given in the media release concerns participation rates. To understand this better, we need to understand how participation impacts the reliability of test data and the validity of inferences that can be made as a result (Thompson, Adie & Klenowski, 2018). NAPLAN is a census test. This means that in a perfect world, all students in Years 3, 5, 7 & 9 would sit their respective tests. Of course, 100% participation is highly unlikely, so ACARA sets a benchmark of 90% for participation. Their argument is that if 90% of any given cohort sits a test we can be confident that the results of those sitting the tests are representative of the patterns of achievement of the entire population, even sub-groups within that population. ACARA calculates the participation rate as “all students assessed, non-attempt and exempt students as a percentage of the total number of students in the year level”. Non-attempt students are those who were present but either refused to sit the test or did not provide sufficient information to estimate an achievement score. Exempt students are those exempt from  one or more of the tests on the grounds of English language proficiency or disability.

The challenge, of course, is that non-participation introduces error into the calculation of student achievement. Error is a feature of standardised testing, it doesn’t mean mistakes in the test itself, it rather is an estimation of the various ways that uncertainty emerges in predicting how proficient a student is in an entire domain based on a relatively small sample of questions that make up a test. The greater the error, the less precise (ie less reliable) the tests are. With regards to participation, the greater the non-participation, the more uncertainty is introduced into that prediction. 

The confusing thing in this decision is that NAPLAN has regularly had participation rates below 90% at various times among various cohorts. This participation data can be accessed here.  For example, in 2021 the average participation rates for Year 9 students were slightly below the 90% threshold in every domain yet this did not impact the release of the Preliminary Report. 

Table 1: Year 9 Participation in NAPLAN 2021 (generated from ACARA data)

These 2021 results are not an anomaly, they are a trend that has emerged over time. For example, in pre-pandemic 2018 the jurisdictions of Queensland, South Australia, ACT and Northern Territory did not reach the 90% threshold in any of the Year 9 domains. 

Table 2: Year 9 Participation in NAPLAN 2018 (generated from ACARA data)

Given these results above, the question remains why has participation affected the reporting of the 2022 results, but Year 9 results in 2018, or 2021, were not similarly affected?

At the outset, I am going to say that there is a degree of speculation in answering this question. Primarily, this is because even if participation declines to 85%, this is still a very large sample with which to predict the achievement of the population in a given domain, so it must be that something has not worked when they have tried to model the data. I am going to suggest three possible reasons:

  1. The first is likely, given that it is hinted at in the ACARA press release. If we return to the relationship between participation, error and the validity of inferences, the most likely way that an 85% participation rate could be a problem is if non-participation is not randomly spread across the population. If non-participation was shown to be systematic, that is it is heavily biassed to particular subgroups, then depending upon the size of that bias, the ability to make valid inferences about achievement in different jurisdictions or amongst different sub-groups could be severely impacted. One effect of this is that it might become difficult to reliably equate 2022 results with previous years. This could explain why lower than 90% Year 9 participation in 2021 was not a problem – the non-participation was relatively randomly spread across the sub-groups.
  2. Second, and related to the above, is that the non-participation has something to do with the material and infrastructural requirements for an online test that is administered to all students across Australia. There have long been concerns about the infrastructure requirements of NAPLAN online such as access to computers, reliable internet connections and so on particularly in regional and remote areas of Australia. If these were to influence results, such as through an increased number of students unable to attempt the test, this could also influence the reliability of inferences amongst particular sub-groups. 
  3. The final possibility is political. It has been obvious for some time that various Education Ministers have become frustrated with aspects of the NAPLAN program. The most prominent example of this was the concern expressed by the Victorian Education Minister in 2018 about the reliability of the equation of the online and paper tests. (Education chiefs have botched Naplan online test, says Victoria minister | Australian education | The Guardian) During 2018, ACARA were criticised for showing a lack of responsible leadership in releasing results that seemed to show a mode effect, that is, a difference between students that sat the online vs the pen and paper test not related to their capacity in literacy and numeracy. It may be that ACARA has grown cautious as a result of the 2018 ministerial backlash and feel that any potential problems with the data need to be thoroughly investigated before jurisdictions are named and shamed based on their average scores. 

Ultimately, this leads us to perhaps one of the more frustrating things, we may never know. Where problems emerge around NAPLAN, the tendency is for ACARA and/or the Federal Education Minister to whom ACARA reports, to try to limit criticism by denying access to the data. In 2018, at the height of the controversy of the differences between the online and pencil and paper modes, I formed a team with two internationally eminent psychometricians to research whether there was a mode effect between the online and pencil and paper versions of NAPLAN. The request to ACARA to access the dataset was denied with the words that ACARA could not release item level data for the 2018 online items, presumably because they were provided by commercial entities. In the end, we just have to trust ACARA that there was not one. If we have learnt anything from recent political scandals, perfect opaqueness remains a problematic governance strategy.

Greg Thompson is a professor in the Faculty of Creative Industries, Education & Social Justice at the Queensland University of Technology. His research focuses on the philosophy of education and educational theory. He is also interested in education policy, and the philosophy/sociology of education assessment and measurement with a focus on large-scale testing and learning analytics/big data.