AARE blog

When school’s in a caravan on the road to an astonishing world

One of the more reported side-effects of the COVID disruption has been the increase in families choosing to educate their children outside of mainstream schools (see the latest Queensland homeschooling statistics as an example of the growth in families choosing to exit the school system).

While home education, frequently called homeschooling, has seen incredible growth recently (Moir & English, 2022; English & Gribble, 2021), and received a lot of attention (Life Matters: RN; ABC: Radio National), one model stands out as a major disruption to our understanding of education. 

Worldschooling, or World Schooling, has been in the news recently because of its increased interest and popularity (see Mannino, 2022; Greenfield, 2022; Scott, 2022). It is sometimes described as homeschooling without the home. People leave the home and travel because they are pushed by internal forces which originate from intrinsic motivations, such as the desire for rest and relaxation, escape, socialisation and prestige. In the case of educational travel, such as in school excursions and worldschooling, it can be curriculum based motives which may relate to extending or even replacing the formal lessons in the classroom to outside the classroom to encourage experiential or more active learning (Dale & Ritchie, 2020).

While there is little academic work on the concept, it is generally defined as a form of home education where the world becomes the classroom, and travel takes the place of the home and the school. The underpinning conviction of worldschoolers is that “travel itself is inherently educational”. It was founded as a business venture by Laine Liberti who wanted to offer a travel opportunity that combined education with experience.

However, it has since expanded to describe any type of travel experience that combines education with experience. So, it has expanded beyond its original definition.

Who would be attracted to worldschooling?

Like homeschooling, worldschooling attracts a diverse range of families, for equally diverse reasons. For some, it’s an intentional and deliberate choice to eschew “life as usual” and the expectation that families must be “geographically anchored” ; an embracing of opportunity and adventure. For others, it’s dissatisfaction with mainstream education and life that leads to the search for alternatives. The significant growth of worldschool bloggers (see here, here, here and here as just a few examples) highlights the range of families now drawn to worldschooling and approaches they adopt, from those who combine travel with school attendance in various locations, to those who combine homeschooling or unschooling with travel for short stints, or extended periods of time. 

Why might they do it?

This lifestyle may also be more available to families than ever before. Covid-19 lockdowns accelerated the move towards flexible or remote work, and the recognition that many have regarding the opportunity to continue remote work has further opened the opportunity to embrace the life of the digital nomad, and with this, the possibility of worldschooling for those with children

In a recent study, parents who were homeschooling were interviewed. One mother, whose pseudonym was ‘Joy’ talked about how she was unschooling her sons using travel and how her caravan had become her classroom. Unschooling is defined as any education where “there is no fixed, explicit curriculum”.

She stated:

We just travelled and saw things and we would do things and every other week, we were always going away somewhere, yeah …we just took any opportunity. “Oh, we need to go in to Broken Hill to get whatever we need to get -” [and] off we go…I could take them to really cool places and teach them stuff that they didn’t realise that they’re learning. So, like we went to Victoria, we did a whole lot of work about Victoria, and [how it was colonised and mapped by Europeans] and the various expeditions. We looked at [Charles] Sturt’s exploration expedition and why it failed, and what they could have done better and all of this.

Even though not explicitly identifying as a worldschooler, Joy’s experience reflects the heart of worldschooling, and the sense of trust these families have in the educational potential of authentic exploration to engage children in meaningful learning.

What are the potential challenges and benefits?

One of the major challenges has to be financial. Not only is it expensive to travel, particularly as COVID disruptions continue to affect the travel industry, it also requires you to travel with your family, to take breaks in your work while you get to your destination or to take a permanent break.

Clearly, this type of education is not open to everyone. Or, frankly, very many people.

However, it doesn’t require a huge commitment, you don’t need to purchase a Project Worldschool trip to Mexico for $2,200USD. The Project’s founder has noted that cost is a major barrier to entry for this particular experience.

But, as Joy’s story has shown, you can do it in a caravan, you can do it on weekends, you can do it short term while getting on with the rest of your life.

Rebecca English is a senior lecturer in the School of Teacher Education & Leadership in the Faculty of CI, Education & Social Justice at Queensland University of Technology. She teaches into the BCT Curriculum area as well as the sociocultural studies units and was a teacher in both the Catholic Education and Education Queensland sectors for seven years.

Katie Burke is a Senior Lecturer in Arts Curriculum and Pedagogy in Initial Teacher Education at the University of Southern Queensland. Katie is known for her research and practice into enhancing online learning for creative and authentic engagement, including her innovative online pedagogy of care, developed to meet the challenges of facilitating online learning, particularly in the creative arts.

Naomi is an Associate Professor of Management and Program Director for the Bachelor of Business and the Bachelor of Event and Tourism Management at the University of Canberra. Naomi has been teaching and researching in the Tourism Discipline at UC since 2006. She was the recipient of an Australian Post Graduate Award scholarship and her Ph.D. investigated destination choice by school excursion groups in Australia.

International Day of Education: why Jason Clare and Sussan Ley must get to class immediately

Today at school I will learn to read at once; then tomorrow I will begin to write, and the day after tomorrow to figure. Then, with my acquirements, I will earn a great deal of money, and with the first money I have in my pocket I will immediately buy for my papa a beautiful new cloth coat.” said Pinocchio. The goals of Carol Collodi’s famous puppet character expressed in 1883 are no different from the goals set for today’s students across the globe. Become educated so that you can make decisions about your future. But education is more than a pursuit to fulfill personal goals. It is also about responsibility to others and to the community. Pinocchio begins to understand this concept as he contemplates buying Geppetto a new coat.

UNESCO conceptualizes education as a human right, a public good and a public responsibility, key to developing opportunities, creating pathways out of poverty and foundational to global sustainability. Today, January 24 is the UNESCO declared International Day of Education, where all countries are called upon to invest in people by prioritizing education. UNESCO calls for a reduction in global poverty and the removal of the political barricades which prevent inclusive and equitable education. Each country, but especially the richer countries like Australia need to step up to address global educational responsibilities and this can begin by ensuring equity is a priority in our own educational system.

Australians hold interest in education. This can be seen in the political and media attention raised from the latest report on education released by the Productivity Commission. Equity or rather inequity is embedded in the report’s results. These results are presented as something new. However, the report reinforces what has been known for a long time – educational attainment, as measured by standardized testing is linked to parental educational background and certain groups in Australian society, such as rural students or students from Indigenous backgrounds are less likely to meet the set minimum standards. Australian education is not equitable.

Education minister Jason Clare said on breakfast television that he did not wish Australia to be a country where your chances in life depend on who your parents are or where you live or the colour of your skin. If this is the case, then the questions must be asked, are these students who are failing, the same students who do not have access to community facilities, such as libraries, sporting grounds and swimming pools? Are these the same students who live in areas with unreliable public transport? Are these the same students whose families are struggling with mortgage stress or who are unable to get a stable rental property? Are these the same students who are locked out of extra curricula activities? Are these the students who do not have a computer at home? Are these the students who in their first few years of life did not have access to child and maternal health and later to high quality child-care? Are these the same students who come from families who have had no support to maintain their first language or whose cultural practices are not valued? If yes is the answer to any of these questions, then perhaps the focus for educational reform should begin by looking outside of the school gates.

The inevitable catch cry ‘back to basics’ has begun. In the same interview as Jason Clare, Deputy leader of the Liberal party, Sussan Ley called for a ‘back to basics’ solution. This is the backhanded rhetoric that slams teachers. It implies that teachers have veered away from good, relevant teaching and are wasting time in frivolous pursuits. Similarly, Jason Clare’s solution is insulting. He suggests teachers need to spend less time lesson planning and more time in the classroom. Before reducing a vital component of the teaching role, let’s consider less time on bus duty, bin duty, lunch time supervision, endless meetings and paperwork to negotiate the red tape around NDIS requirements. Teachers planning lessons to meet the diverse needs of their students is the real back to basics. In most schools, planning is a collaborative process, which also addresses teachers’ ongoing professional learning. Planning sessions allow teachers to share what is working well for their students and seek advice from their expert colleagues about students who are facing challenges. 

Schools and teachers constantly address professional improvement. Teachers want what is best for the students they teach, not only in literacy and numeracy but across all aspects of academia and wellbeing. That’s why they became teachers! The lens has to shift away from schools and educational reform for a while, to spotlight issues of societal inequity. 

On this International Day of Education, let’s consider human rights, public good and global responsibilities. Let’s also consider out national situation and not be puppets pulled by the strings of rhetoric that call for reform in a so called failing educational system. Rather, let’s look at what is working well in schools, listen to the voices of teachers who respond daily to student diversity and work towards a bipartisan movement that addresses the issues of inequity which create the disparity evident in the Productivity Commission’s report. It’s our global responsibility to do so. Surely, this is not just a fairy tale dream.

Dr Helen Cozmescu is a member of the Teacher Education Group, at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, University of Melbourne. She lecturers in pre-service and post-graduate language and literacy subjects and delivers professional learning for in-service teachers. Helen’s research has intersected critical literacy, the early years of schooling and First Nations texts. Her current research involves understanding the role of literacy professional learning for in-service teachers and the nexus created by theoretical perspectives, research and practice. Helen has had significant experience working in schools, as a primary school teacher and leader, and as a literacy consultant.  

Header images from the Facebook pages of Jason Clare and Sussan Ley.

Education: the five concerns we should debate right now

Meghan Stacey on the trouble with teaching

Deb Hayes on making school systems more equitable.

Phillip Dawson on how we should treat ChatGPT.

Sarah O’Shea on widening participation at university.

Scott Eacott on the Productivity Commission’s review of the National School Reform Agreement.

The trouble with teaching by Meghan Stacey

Last year was a big one for teachers. In NSW, where I live and work, years of escalating workload, the relentless intensity of the job and salaries that are declining in real terms were compounded by reports of debilitating staff shortages leading to considerable strike action. The latter half of 2022 then saw a NSW inquiry and a federal action plan aiming to address such shortages. Nevertheless, government responses to these issues have been critiqued as focusing too much on supply and not enough on retention. Concerns about teachers’ working conditions do not seem to have really been heard, and there’s not much point talking about supply, or any other challenge for education in 2023, until we truly have that conversation. 

Australian teachers work long hours, and complete considerable administrative labour when compared internationally. It is true that some steps are being taken to reduce teachers’ administrative load, but not always in a way that recognises the intellectual and creative complexity of their work. And according to the Teachers Federation, when NSW schools go back in just a few days, they will be starting their year with a whopping 3,300 vacant positions. So there is much still to be done, and I wonder: in 2023, will action be taken that adequately addresses the depth of disquiet rumbling amongst the profession?

Making our schooling systems more equitable by Deb Hayes

This draws on parts of my book with Craig Campbell.

In terms of funding, how much is enough to provide a good education to an Australian child? This question has occupied policymakers for decades. 

In 1973, a Whitlam-appointed committee proposed eight school categories A-H, A being the highest. It argued that support for schools in Category A with resource levels already above agreed targets be phased out because government aid could not be justified for maintaining or raising standards beyond those that publicly funded schools could hope to achieve by the end of the decade.

Today, Commonwealth funding for schools is needs-based and calculated according to the Schooling Resource Standard, which estimates how much public funding a school needs to meet its students’ educational needs. 

Sounds good? Well, not really, because schools that already have enough to provide a good education receive federal government funding due to an amendment by Fraser to Whitlam’s proposal. Under current funding arrangements, public schools in all states except the ACT will be funded at 91% of their SRS index or less by 2029.

It’s time to pause government funding to non-government schools that already have enough to provide a good education until all public schools are funded at 100% of their SRS.

Challenges for Widening Participation by Sarah O’Shea

2023 will usher in both challenges and opportunities for widening participation in Australian higher education, not least of which is the predicted growth in school leavers. Those born under the Costello ‘baby boom’ of 2005-2008 will be leaving school from 2023, with an almost 20% increase in this age cohort by 2030 (Productivity Commission, 2022). While this is good news for a post pandemic higher education sector, ensuring equity in the face of greater competition for places will be an important challenge moving forward for the sector. 

Given the greater number and diversity of participants, how we conceive and categorise what ‘equity’ is, will be key. The current six equity categories were defined in the eighties and research has indicated the limitations of these outdated classifications (Tomaszewski et al, 2018). The diversity of current and future student populations requires expanded definitions of ‘who’ our equity students are, definitions are that are both more granular in nature and also, responsive to emerging trends in higher education participation. Any changes in definitions need to be accompanied by a better measurement of cumulative disadvantage, recognising that students often belong to multiple equity groups and that this membership has distinct impacts at different stages of the student life cycle (Tomaszewski et al., 2020). 

For 2023 and beyond, contextualised and targeted approaches to supporting growing diverse populations will be required. Approaches that cater to both the uniqueness of our students and also, specific learning environments. Of course, such bespoke approaches to widening participation are resource intensive. In an environment of reduced funding and pressure to meet equity performance benchmarks, this too will be a challenge for institutions, particularly regional universities who are often serving the most disadvantaged communities. 

ChatGPT is the least capable it will ever be. What can we do about it. By Phillip Dawson

I asked ChatGPT to “Write 200 words about the challenge that ChatGPT poses to education
in 2023”. It gave me a 283 word response, starting with:
“ChatGPT poses several challenges to education in 2023. One of the most significant
challenges is that it has the ability to generate human-like text, which makes it difficult to
distinguish between machine-generated content and that written by a human. This can lead
to concerns about plagiarism and the authenticity of information, making it more difficult
for educators to ensure that students are producing original work.”
Like much of the media commentary, ChatGPT has jumped straight to academic integrity
concerns. Yes, this is a challenge. Assessment has become harder thanks to the emergenceide
of generative artificial intelligence.
But that’s not the whole picture. These tools are getting more and more sophisticated, and
are already used in society to be creative, have fun, and get stuff done. Rather than focusing
so much on the threats posed by ChatGPT traditional assessment practices, we might need
to question how fit for purpose our assessments are for the world our students will inhabit
when they graduate. Because these tools are currently the least capable they’ll ever be.
I hope 2023 is the year where we double down on what we could call “future-authentic
assessment”: assessment that considers what’s likely to happen to the world.

Where’s the discussion of funding? Scott Eacott on the Productivity Commission’s review of the National School Reform Agreement.

Setting national education policy is a complex task. This is made even more difficult in Australia given the constitutional responsibility for education lies with the states and territories but the
commonwealth government controls the finances. Therefore, while legislation and national
declarations establish the social contract between government and its citizens (equity and
excellence in school provision), jurisdictional sovereignty can get in the way of reform.

Friday’s release of the Productivity Commission’s review of the National School Reform Agreement
(NSRA) highlights the complexity. The NSRA is a joint agreement between the Commonwealth,
states, and territories with the objective of delivering high quality and equitable education for all
Australian students (the social contract). There is a lot to unpack in the review with considerable
media attention on the failure of the NSRA to improve student outcomes. I want to raise three key
systemic points:

1) Common critiques of federalism focus on overlap in responsibilities (e.g., funding of schools) and
duplication as state and territory groups replicate national policies and initiatives (e.g.,
professional standards, curriculum). This imposes artificial divisions in a complex policy domain
whose actions impact well beyond state or territory borders. There are reduced opportunities
for engagement, surrendering some of the strengths of a federal system of government and the
removal of important failsafe mechanisms, as each jurisdiction seeks to assert its independence
and sovereignty. Achieving uniformity across eight jurisdictions is difficult, time consuming, and
often reduces initiatives to the lowest common denominator.
2) Despite some concerns about new data points (e.g., additional testing, administrative
paperwork), the review calls for greater reporting and transparency from states and territories.
In most – if not all – cases, the data points already exist. What the review argues is for a common
basis for new targets but greater flexibility in how jurisdictions pursing delivering on them. This
flexibility comes with greater accountability for performance of reforms against benchmarks.
That is, each jurisdiction will be held to accountable for how their reforms deliver on targets.
Such reporting would make it clear when reforms are, and are not, working for students.

3) Funding was excluded as a topic for discussion in the review. Since at least the first Gonski
Report, the funding of Australian schools has been a central issue. As the NSRA was established
on the back of a $319B funding deal for schools, the achievement of its objective cannot be
achieved unless funding mechanisms ensure equitable distribution of funds to schools and
specifically the targeting of funding to those schools and students most disadvantaged.

As noted, there is plenty to unpack, and the above just point to some key systemic issues in design in a
process focused on improving outcomes for students and holding jurisdictions to account for their
reforms in meeting agreed targets.

Meghan Stacey is a senior lecturer in the UNSW School of Education, researching in the fields of the sociology of education and education policy and is the director of the Bachelor of Education (Secondary). Taking a particular interest in teachers, her research considers how teachers’ work is framed by policy, as well as the effects of such policy for those who work with, within and against it. She is an associate editor, The Australian Educational Researcher Links: Twitter & University Profile

Debra Hayes is professor of education and equity, and head of the University of Sydney School of Education and Social Work.  Her most recent book (with Ruth Lupton) is Great Mistakes in Education Policy: How to avoid them in the Future (Policy Press, 2021). She tweets at @DrDebHayes.

Professor Phillip (Phill) Dawson is the Associate Director of the Centre for Research inAssessment and Digital Learning (CRADLE) at Deakin University. His two latest books are Defending Assessment Security in a Digital World: Preventing E-Cheating and Supporting Academic Integrity in Higher Education (Routledge, 2021) and the co-edited volume Re-imagining University Assessment in a Digital World (Springer, 2020). Phill’s work on cheating is part of his broader research into assessment, which includes work on assessment design and feedback. In his spare time Phill performs improv comedy and produces the academia-themed comedy show The Peer Revue.

Sarah O’Shea is a Professor and Director of the National Centre of Student Equity in Higher Education at Curtin University. Sarah has over 25 years experience teaching in universities as well as the VET and Adult Education sector, she has also published widely on issues related to educational access and equity.

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.

To save democracy, we need to flip the system

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How teachers can change our world for the better

Hello and happy new year. We start 2023 with a first for the blog: Nina Burridge and John Buchanan in conversation on Teachers as Changemakers in an Age of Uncertainty from the book Empowering Teachers and Democratising Schooling.

Nina: What is a good education in the current context? What are your thoughts on this? 

John: I’d say, a good education is defined by what it produces. The Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Australia Declaration refers to confident and creative individuals. Members of the community of a community. That’s a slightly watered down version of the earlier Melbourne Declaration, referring to citizens rather than members of community. And the previous declaration referred to ‘equity and excellence’, whereas this one discusses ‘excellence and equity’. So I think that’s an interesting reordering of priorities, but Even so, these are noble aims, and then we subject kids to repetitive basic skills testing, which doesn’t seem to me to be a route towards confident, creative individuals, creative thinkers, etc. 

Nina: Yes that is one of the key problems of international testing mechanisms like PISA. And of course we have moved towards this marketization of education. As governments are more interested in statistics rather than creativity. This is where our problem lies and why we need teachers, as change makers. 

John: I think that is part of the problem of reducing education to a commodity. And putting it on the marketplace shelf in trying to compete with other jurisdictions. And the thing is, I’m not convinced at all of that: that high rankings and those things constitute a good education. In any case, it’s failing in its own terms, I think, because we’re slipping down the ranks. So I think what’s needed is a fairly fundamental reordering of the education system – matching our practices to those lofty goals; just as we ask teachers to do – devising learning activities that are consistent with educational outcomes. 

Nina: Yes, so from my perspective, I think education within Australia and NSW has some particular specific problems at the moment and it is incredibly critical that we focus on the nature of these problems. Some of it is related to the marketization of education, which has indeed created a system which perhaps lacks equity, and it also, as you say it lacks excellence as well. And on this issue of equity I wanted to note that I’ve been doing some supervision of student teachers  in schools and I’ve been travelling from the eastern suburbs of Sydney visiting some wealthy private schools to the Central Coast.  To be honest I am staggered by the resources disparity between these schools that I saw in one week – it just brought home to me the problems of Equity within the  Australian schooling system.  According to various indexes, Australia is one of the richest countries in the world. We are supposed to have an excellent education system. And yet, there’s such a level of inequality between the resourcing of government and non government particularly in the less affluent areas – that is shocking. And that brings home to me the clear problem that we have in our education system in this country. Therefore the federal government has to really engage in looking at the role of teachers within our system, but it must also address the funding issues  in relation to school resources but also of teachers salaries. Therefore there are some clear big issues for teachers in the 21st century and for the education system. 

John: It seems to me the government has decided they will put all of their eggs into the upper echelons basket of the students. That, by whatever means they’ve decided, seems to be the best investment and that sort of commodification concerns me. On a related matter, one of the criticisms of Australian education outcomes is that we seem to have a ‘long tail’ – a long lag in terms of lower quality outcomes among students, so I’m thinking even if it’s not as a means to an end to me trying to fix that inequality. If you’re going to say you want that equity, then surely it’s reasonable to say we’re going to put most of our resources into the communities and the schools that have the least at the moment, to try and even things up. While that’s perhaps a discussion for another time, it certainly doesn’t seem to me that investing most of the money in the already well-to-do communities is going to fix equity – and probably not excellence either, because you want people to aspire. If you can get people from lower income lower socioeconomic communities to aspire. To you know, higher education achievements, I think that’s a good thing. That said, I sometimes wonder if we think university is the cure for everything. I want good car mechanics just as much as I want good teachers, doctors, engineers, etc. I sometimes think the most important professional in my life is my car mechanic, because if he – it’s a he – Is either corrupt or slack or cuts corners, that can have immediate effects for me and for my loved ones.  What I want, though, is options and opportunities for all young people.

Nina: Yes, education is not just about university training. It’s much broader than that, education is  also related to the idea of the sort of citizens we want to create. I guess what I’m saying is, the role of teachers is to really focus on the sort of society we want to create. Developing good citizens as such that have a compassionate mind that looks at issues that are not necessarily related to financial gain but the well-being of the Community. So developing a teaching philosophy for the 21st century might be interesting to discuss and it would be interesting to have your thoughts on that? Because teaching has become incredibly complex and there’s such demands on teachers and we know that they’re leaving the profession within five years. We’re losing between 30 and almost 50% of the profession that we’ve spent years training. They say, “no, this is too hard. I’m getting out of here and doing something else”. How do we change that and what is a good philosophy on which to base our teaching for the 21st century? 

John: This is maybe a strategy rather than philosophy, but I’m thinking further about what you were saying before about producing empathic students who can understand what it’s like to be somebody other than themselves. I guess, too, I want students to be big thinkers. I think most fundamentally, I want them to be big thinkers and problem solvers, and that’s where I think that compassion and empathy comes in. Because I think otherwise, you run the risk of educating a generation of just more literate, numerate ICT-savvy monsters – and that’s a really frightening scenario, I think. Surely we need the best teachers to do that. And so you need to make the teaching profession attractive and it seems to be anything but attractive at the moment. As you say, so many teachers are leaving within five years, presumably feeling disillusioned, and maybe it’s partly too because there’s no longer this idea that our grandparents had a career for life, a job for life. But if that’s the case, if that’s the norm, and teaching has to be even more competitive, I think because it needs to attract people from other professions. And that’s probably not a bad thing itself. I think attracting people with work experience and life experience, I think is a good thing. Good new blood – even though it does worry me a bit that you spend perhaps four years producing a teacher who will only be in the job for four or five years, that seems fairly expensive to me.  So for me, one of the questions is how do we make teaching more attractive to attract the best teachers? And also I guess. If you do have the best teachers, that will raise the esteem of teaching. I think in the same way that we think of doctors at the moment. Generally, as soon as you know that somebody is a medical practitioner, you presume well they must be reasonably bright. 

Nina: I think one of the problems is that we don’t value teaching as much as we might value some other professions. And yet, as I say, to teacher education students our profession is one of the most important professions around because you are face to face with the kids of the future with the people of the future. These young people, whether they are primary school or secondary school teachers, are actually going to be an influence on young people and perhaps reshape society in the future. So for me, I think this idea of teachers as changemakers and as activist professionals is valid and necessary and as Paulo Friere (1968, 1994) notes Education can be emancipatory. It can change lives.  Teaching is not just a job – perhaps it is a moral practice as has been written up in academic research (Pring 2001) so teachers as changemakers will focus on promoting social justice issues, human rights,  enabling the skills of critical thinking and initiating the idea of global citizenship. Students should think about how to make a better future a better world for their generation. 

John: I think at the moment we’re paying a lot of lip service to teachers. I think governments have come to realise this because of the current teacher shortage. Also, what’s almost universally seen, I think, is the great job teachers did during COVID to keep the system running. But words are cheap, and so we’re not doing anything much to support them. A bit like nursing, you know, another really important job. Other than saying nice things to them, we’re not doing anything practical, or listening to them either in terms of what they want. Also, for a lot of politicians, the system has worked well for them. I don’t want to be too stereotypical here, but I think a lot of them are perhaps from the majority, even though that’s changing ever so slightly. And the system works for them, so why would they want it to change? You know, it’s easy for them to pay lip service. Yes, we must support our teachers better and not just go on as business as usual. The trouble is it’s reached the point where it’s not even doing that anymore. We’re not able to staff our schools, and I think if that’s the case, that’s a fundamental dereliction of duty. 

So, we really have to re-evaluate our work with teachers and teachers’ roles and providing them with resources, obviously, but also perhaps a better balance between the pressure that we put on them in terms of compliance and supporting them in their teaching and giving them confidence to actually really be more innovative in what they do in the classroom. 

The administration work related to compliance is necessary but more support is needed to allow teachers to maintain their focus on the classroom. Administrative work wears them down. It puts more burden on them, so it just makes them tired so that perhaps makes them more likely to become minimalist. It demoralises them and it just stops them from having the bandwidth, the mental cognitive bandwidth to be big, creative thinkers. So, while we have these lofty aims in some of our vision statements, our curricula are sometimes fairly bound up in, you know, lower-level outcomes in lots of testing, including basic skills testing in competitive exams and in league tables, both within systems and across nations, so everything seems almost destined to take the higher order thinking, and the joy out of teaching. It seems to me that if you want confident creative learners, you start by engendering confident, creative teachers. 

Nina: That’s  interesting because it brings us to this idea of Martha Nussbaum’s philosophy of Education For Human Development. It focuses on some of these critical issues noted above and understanding the complexity of the world, the differences that exist in societies and having the narrative imagination as Nussbaum says, to apply real world problem solving techniques  to seek solutions. So if you look at the challenges of the 21st century today, such as the military conflict in the Ukraine; what’s happening in terms of our own democratic systems, we are seeing a move in the world turning towards more conservative ideas. We also have a climate crisis and we have growing inequality in the world. So these are key issues that teachers need to address with their students. So I think there’s a lot for teachers to do, but at the same time we have to resource them properly to be able to do it. 

John: These young people, our current students, are going to have to fix a lot of the problems that are of our making, and that’s going to involve a lot of complex thinking; a lot of selfless thinking. And yet we don’t want them to be too revolutionary in doing that. We still like the good things that our privileges brought us, and in a sense it’s like telling these young people to fix the house. Well, we know that the foundations are dodgy. Unless there’s a bit of an overturning of the status quo, the changes are just going to be cosmetic, and I don’t think they’re going to be enough to fix some of those problems. 

Nina: I was also thinking that  technology and social media are making the teaching profession so much more complex. Social media has such an impact on students emotional well being and in their cognition. We see again the increasing complexity this is causing teachers. I was recently in a class watching a student teacher teach some year 10 students.  I was stunned to see how many of them were playing games on their computers.  I would have much preferred if the teacher had told those students to put away their laptops and just engaged in the classroom discussion. 

John: I know I’m a bit reactionary in this way, but I think social media, and even the digital world in general has done as much harm as it’s done good to education. It’s got potential to be wonderful to find out things. But I’m not sure if the explosion in knowledge has resulted in an explosion of wisdom. And if anything, I think in some ways I think it’s led to an explosion in contempt for knowledge, because, well, ‘I can find it on YouTube. I Don’t need you as a teacher’. 

And I’m not looking for ways to bag social media here, but it seems pretty well-founded that levels of depression and anxiety and powerlessness that social media have increased amongst young people. That seems the exact opposite of what you would hope it would do. You would hope it would empower them to say ‘I can have a voice here’, but it seems to be having totally the opposite effect. 

John: I might just mention one more thing in terms of my recent work at various universities in teaching. I think there is increasing pressure to pass students. And I think that’s in part because of reputation protection from the university concerned, and also because of the desperate shortage of teachers. I don’t see how how you can have this idea of raising standards among teaching while you’re just desperate to find anyone who will teach.  

In terms of improving teachers’ working conditions, I would recommend less workload through perhaps smaller classes or perhaps less face-to-face teaching – but in the current situation this would not be possible. Improvement in pay and conditions would help but of course governments are reluctant to enable this because of the costs involved.  It seems we are in a no win situation here.

A couple of other things in terms of teacher preparation, the move at the moment towards a more apprenticeship model I don’t think positions us well to improve the quality of teaching. Because I don’t think that watching and copying equates to teaching, and I think that’s the default. Even on professional experience, our students tend to watch and copy rather than try and work out, well, why did she or he do it this way. And how and why might I do it similarly or differently? And I think the move to online learning, particularly in universities, is unhelpful. I think the horses bolted. I don’t know if we can go back to being more in the room, but I really like the idea of people being in a room together to kick around a big idea and you know, discuss with each other because, similarly, if you’re online, I think the temptations to be off task are even greater. If you’re in a learning situation, encountering something new and challenging, you need to be devoting everything you can to that. The more distractions there are, the more difficult it is for you to get the most out of this really expensive, really valuable ‘commodity’ is a word that comes to mind, this phenomenon called teaching and learning. I think we need to try and free ourselves from distractions. 

Nina: So now just to finish up in terms of examples that you’ve come across where teachers can represent or be seen as agents of change.  What examples would you put forward?

I think that there are some important issues that we must address as a society in relation to the role of teachers. I still absolutely value the work that we do as teachers, despite the fact that there’s such as you say, a teacher shortage. We must not undervalue the work of teachers as changemakers in dealing with some of the challenges of the 21st century, such as the climate crisis.  So to me this is one example where teachers can be changemakers. I was in New York in November 2019 when the students were engaged in the climate strike. I’ve seen it in Australia as well and I think that as teachers, we should embrace and support and encourage young people to take action. These young people are being absolutely active in their own future and really playing a part in the democratic process. Another example is my work that I do with refugees in Indonesia. It shows me again how vital the work of teachers is.  These poor refugees who have fled their homeland, reached Indonesia and their resettlement process is taking years and years particularly to Australia, because it has closed its borders. Hence their children are not being educated  – and now the families are having to set up volunteer schools to educate their own children because education is so vital for them. These students in these small underresourced schools are so enthusiastic for learning – quite different to what I’ve seen in some of the classrooms in Australia. This is because they understand the necessity of the process of learning and for them it’s vital. I also see these young teachers who we are helping by providing some basic elements of teacher training trying their best to engage these students in learning.  They may not end up being teachers in the long run, but they’ve taken up the challenge, to teach in English because education is so vital in these circumstances.  In working in refugee communities you also realise the importance of a focus on human rights and justice in the world. 

John: We must not forget that we often talk about rights and freedoms. For me, I think it’s what I call responsible autonomy. Our freedom always exists in context; it’s always limited. Even though I love the idea of freedom, and I love the freedoms I have and would hate to give them up, I still have responsibility. And returning to my comment before about the measure of education is the kind (pun intended) of person it produces, I suppose my question to kids would be, ‘what kind of grown up do you want to be?’ And my question to teachers, parents, governments, and the rest of us would be what kind of grown-ups do you want to produce? 

Nina: Totally agree that with rights come responsibilities and that is of course again the role of teachers as changemakers.  They must instill in students the importance of speaking up to challenge injustices in the world but with this also comes the responsibilities of being a good active citizen. 

This post comes from a discussion between Nina Burridge and John Buchanan based on their chapter Teachers as Changemakers in an Age of Uncertainty in Empowering Teachers and Democratising Schooling edited by Keith Heggart and Steven Kolber. Nina and John are honorary fellows at the University of Technology Sydney.

Happy new year reading: our most popular posts of all time

EduResearch Matters began back in 2014 under the stewardship of the amazing Maralyn Parker. At the end of 2020, Maralyn retired and I tried to fill very big shoes. The unusual thing about EduResearch Matters is that even posts published in the first couple of years of the blog’s existence continue to get readers – good research continues to inform and inspire. Some posts are shared many times on social media, some get barely a handful of shares yet continue to be widely read. Here are our top 15 posts of all time. We all need something to read over the break and I thought it might be lovely to see what our best read posts are. To all the authors, from PhD students to professors, thank you for your contribution. To prospective authors, please email ideas to jenna@aare.edu.au. Enjoy. Happy new year!

Jenna Price, editor, EduResearch Matters

  1. If we truly care about all Australian children and young people becoming literate I believe it is vital we understand and define the complexity of literacy, writes Robyn Ewing (2016).

2. What does effective teaching of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students look like? Thousands of research studies have been dedicated to finding answers to this question. But much of what we think we know, or hear, about Indigenous education remains mired in myths and legends, writes Cathie Burgess (2019).

3. As I see it, music education has now been in the ‘too hard basket’ for at least a generation of Australian students. We continue to suffer a malaise in long-term governmental policy direction, writes Leon R de Bruin (2019).music

4. I did not become a teacher the day I walked out of university. I was trained as a teacher but it took many years for me to feel like a teacher. I’m still not sure I’m there yet, writes Naomi Barnes (2016).


5. Christopher Pyne [former Coalition minister for education] is embarking on his own education revolution. He wants our nation’s teachers to use a teaching method called Direct Instruction.  For forty years, the specific US-developed approach has been the object of education debates, controversies and substantial research. It has not been adopted for system-wide implementation in any US state or Canadian province, writes Alan Luke (2014)

6. Positive personal attributes such as fairness, humour and kindness, I believe, should be considered necessary attributes for a teacher, writes Nan Bahr (2016).

7. There is a lot of misinformation out there, as well as ill informed commentary, about how we prepare teachers to teach reading and writing in Australian schools today, writes Eileen Honan (2015).

8. Online learning has become a well-recognised part of the broader landscape of higher education. It is also proving to have a critical place in widening access and equity within this landscape. Increasing numbers of students from backgrounds historically under-represented at university are taking the opportunity to study online, particularly through open-entry and alternative pathways, with many of these learners being the first in their family or community to undertake university studies, writes Cathy Stone (2017).

9. For decades there has been an overrepresentation of Indigenous students across Australia in disciplinary school records. Suspensions, exclusions and a range of other negative reports fill the school records. As a result low attendance, low retention and under achievement have been the more commonly reported trajectories for Indigenous Australians, writes Helen Boon (2016).

10. When a text uses two or more modes we call it a multimodal text. I have been researching how teachers use and teach multimodal texts and I believe Australia needs to update the way we understand multimodality in our schools and how we assess our students across the curriculum, writes Georgina Barton (2018).

11. Money spent on reducing class sizes has not been wasted as Education Minister Christopher Pyne believes. The advice he has been given is wrong. Reducing class size does make a difference, and the biggest difference it makes is to the schooling outcomes of our most vulnerable children, writes David Zyngier (2014).

. 12. Schools all around Australia are currently hosting research projects involving classroom teachers. But it can be difficult for teachers to engage in research because it takes a lot of time and energy, not just in the classroom but also due to the paperwork and meetings involved. However, I believe if we don’t work with each other, teachers risk reinventing wheels or becoming trapped within an echo chamber, and researchers risk irrelevance, writes Charlotte Pezaro (2015).

13. What is the obsession with Band 6s? Band 6s sound elite, the very best. But the facts are that a Band 4 or 5 in a difficult subject such as Physics or Chemistry may make as big – or even bigger – contribution to ATAR (Australian Tertiary Admission Rank) (more on that later)  than a Band 6 in say, Music. Also, Band 6s are the only metric made publicly available and shared with the media, writes Simon Crook (2021).

14. You know there is something going wrong with Australia’s national testing program when the education minister of the largest state calls for it to be axed. The testing program, which started today across the nation, should be urgently dumped according to NSW Education Minister, Rob Stokes, because it is being “used dishonestly as a school rating system” and that it has “sprouted an industry that extorts money from desperate families”. I think it should be dumped too, in its current form, but for an even more compelling reason than Stokes has aired. I believe we are not being honest with parents about how misleading the results can be, writes Nicole Mockler (2018).

15. Australian teachers are doing well. They are not under-qualified and they are certainly not under-educated, as some media stories would have you believe. They are doing an admirable job managing exhausting workloads and constantly changing government policies and processes. They are more able than past generations to identify and help students with wide ranging needs. They are, indeed, far better qualified and prepared than those in our nation’s glorious past that so many commentators reminisce wistfully about, write Nan Bahr, Donna Pendergast and Jo-Anne Ferreira.

Top of the pops: AARE’s Hottest Ten 2022

Thank you to all our contributors in 2022. We published over 100 blog posts this year from academics all over Australia, from research students to DECRA fellows, to deans and professors. Thank you all for being part of our community and many thanks to the AARE executive, especially newly-minted Professor Nicole Mockler.

Didn’t get to write this year? Want to contribute? Here are notes for contributors. Pitch to me at jenna@aare.edu.au.

The 2022 AARE EduResearch Matters blog of the year, announced at the AARE conference in Adelaide: “Why restoring trust in teaching now could fix the teacher shortage”. La Trobe’s Babak Dadvand wrote a compelling account of one way to address the teacher shortage.

It is genuinely hard to choose the best because every single blog reveals new ideas and new thinking about education but I’ll just list our ten most read for 2022 (and of course, some of our older posts have racked up thousands and thousands of views). So many others were excellent and please look at our comprehensive archive.

Here we go! 2022 top ten.

Babak Dadvand on the teacher shortage.

Inger Mewburn: Is this now the Federal government’s most bone-headed idea ever?

Debra Hayes: Here’s what a brave new minister for education could do right away to fix the horrific teacher shortage

Kate de Bruin, Pamela Snow, Linda Graham, Tanya Serry and Jacinta Conway: There are definitely better ways to teach reading

Marg Rogers: Time, money, exhaustion: why early childhood educators will join the Great Resignation

Rachel Wilson: What do you think we’ve got now? Dud teachers or a dud minister? Here are the facts

Simon Crook: More Amazing Secrets of Band Six (part two ongoing until they fix the wretched thing)

(And part one is now one of our most read posts of all-time)

Alison Bedford and Naomi Barnes: The education minister’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad idea*

Martina Tassone, Helen Cozmescu, Bree Hurn and Linda Gawne: No. There isn’t one perfect way to teach reading

Thank you to all of you for making this such a lovely community, looking forward to hearing from you and a special thank you to Maralyn Parker who has now been retired from the blog for two years but is still a fantastically supportive human when I need urgent help.

Jenna Price

Indigenous voices: why we urgently need windows and mirrors

Could you see yourself reflected in your English classroom?

I would like you to take yourself back in time for a moment.

Take yourself back to your high school English classroom.

I want you to imagine the books you studied.

Think of their titles and who they were by.

Think about what you learnt and how these texts impacted you.

Think about the characters and how they are represented…

I wonder, can you see yourself or your family reflected back to you on the pages of any of these books? Through the characters? Through the authors’ voice?

A worrying absence – Where are the Indigenous voices?

My name is Amy Thomson and I am a Mandandanji woman. As an Aboriginal young person, I struggled to locate authentic representations of my identity in my English classroom. As an English teacher, I endeavoured to ensure my own teaching programs reflected the complexity of Indigeneity and Indigenous perspectives. Now, as an Indigenous Education researcher, I am determined to ensure my research privileges Indigenous voices and experiences and disrupts coloniality.

One of the questions my PhD study asks is how does English teacher text selection impact Indigenous and non-Indigenous students? I ask this as I’m interested in whether or not Indigenous texts are included in the schools in my study. In my experience, there is a phenomenon occurring in teacher text selection, despite curriculum changes, and this is causing the subordination of Indigenous voices.

Colonial texts on Aboriginal land: The dominance of the ‘canon’ in Australian English classrooms

In English classrooms in Australia, there is a prevalence of the privileged in the books chosen for study – the dominance of the “Canon” of literary classics that are reused over and over due to their “cultural” and “literary” value has meant that the same few authors from England, such as Shakespeare and Chaucer, are as ever present in Australian classrooms today as they were during World War 2.

This made me wonder – what does this suggest to the Indigenous young people in the classroom who don’t have the same cultural background or values as those in the studied texts? Are their culture or values not worthy? But also, what covert messages is this sending non-Indigenous students about the value of Indigenous voices?

We need windows and mirrors in our classrooms when teaching for reconciliation

My study is informed by the “windows and mirrors” concept by Indigenous Education researcher Kaye Price – including Indigenous perspectives in the classroom provides “windows” for non-Indigenous students into a culture different from their own and “mirrors” for Indigenous students to see themselves reflected in their classrooms. In an increasingly racist climate, it is essential to do this while teaching for reconciliation.

For non-Indigenous students, reading Indigenous texts allows them to develop an appreciation and respect for Indigenous peoples, cultures, histories. For Indigenous students, like in the image I’ve included in this blog, in these texts, they can see themselves and their families reflected back in a powerful way. Reading strength-based Indigenous literature can uplift a student’s image of themselves as the Indigenous characters are empowered – like the characters, they too can become a tool of cultural resistance in the face of colonialism.

The need for disruption – are you providing your students with windows and mirrors?

As teachers, we need to understand our role as knowledge producers and cultural actors because we must make sure that we are not continuing to disadvantage those who don’t feel a sense of belonging in the dominant normative culture. Teachers need to engage in self-reflexive critique as we move away from deficit paradigms and rise to the challenge in understanding and combating how Whiteness has shaped knowledge production

Indigenous content must not be treated as an “add-on.” Nor should teachers let the word “tokenistic” scare them away – references to tokenism dismisses an attempt at privileging Indigenous voices before it has been attempted. If Indigenous literature is included and taught in English classrooms with a willingness to unsettle inherited knowledges about knowledge and place, students can engage with texts aware of their standpoint, and move away from more colonised versions of subject English.

Visions for the future of English teaching – from both teachers and students

But how do we get to this? My PhD will speak to English teachers and students about their experience of subject English and their school’s current inclusion of Indigenous texts. Through focus groups, I will bring both students and teachers together to create a vision for the future of their school’s English teaching, particularly regarding the embedding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, histories, and perspectives. Through these plans for the future of English teaching and the inclusion of Indigenous literature, it is my hope that all of these students and teachers, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike, can come to see Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples for the sovereign Kings and Queens we truly are. 

Amy Thomson is a Mandandanji woman and a Phd candidate in the School of Education at the University of Queensland. She was awarded the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Post Graduate Student Researcher Award at the 2022 AARE conference for her paper, Colonial texts on Aboriginal land: The dominance of the Canon in Australian English classrooms, on which this blog post is based.

Now grammar is back again. And again. And again.

It was with some surprise that we recently read newspaper reports that ‘Grammar is back’ in NSW schools. Were they not aware that grammar has been mandated in the Australian Curriculum for the past decade or so? And was greeted with similar headlines at the time: 

This announcement was somewhat premature as the English Syllabus (3-10 years) hadn’t yet been released – but any excuse to grab a headline and appeal to readers with promises that bringing back grammar will fix the latest ‘literacy crisis’. And the readers’ comments echoed these sentiments:

Absolutely agree . . . Wonderful news!  Should have been done years ago!! The three R’s. – about time. It’s taken a while, but the penny has finally dropped. 

… along with sharing their pet peeves: 

GREAT! Can we eliminate the word ‘like’ out of every conjunction to?

I’ve been advocating for many years that a gap/space should be made between the last word of a sentence and the symbols ? and !. Obvious examples include …hill! V hill ! and …zoo? V zoo ?. 

Hopefully people will stop using “him” and “her” as subjects of a verb and will go back to using “he” and “she”.

I will die happy if this new syllabus means children will be taught to say they are bored “by” or “with” something instead of the cringe-inducing ‘bored of’.

And banning the use of “gotten”.

Such comments reveal a pedantic understanding of grammar as the mark of an educated person. And of course such a view should not to be underestimated given that correct usage is a powerful gate-keeping device.  (Oops! Just began a sentence with ‘and’.)

Several of the comments equated grammar with punctuation, spelling and vocabulary – another common misunderstanding. 

Another reader lamented the disappearance of Latin on the grounds that this would help with English grammar – a misconception that underpinned much of the traditional approach to the teaching of grammar that resulted in its rejection from the curriculum some fifty years ago.  

So if ‘elegant speech’ and the parsing of sentences is no longer seen as the end goal of teaching grammar, then what are they to be replaced by?

Here we might consider a distinction between the constrained and the unconstrained skills (Paris 2005). The constrained skills focus on grammar (along with phonics, spelling and punctuation) as a limited set of rules that can be assessed as correct or incorrect. We would want students to be able, for example, to compose well-structured sentences with clarity and precision. 

While important, this isn’t sufficient in developing students’ ability to use language effectively. The unconstrained skills are concerned with meaning-making – how language functions in our lives to help achieve our purposes. Australia has been at the forefront internationally in developing a functional approach to the teaching of grammar. It has underpinned the Language Strand of the Australian Curriculum: English since 2010. A functional model:

  • sees language as a flexible resource for making meaning. It provides tools to investigate and critique how language is involved in the construction of meaning.
  • focuses on knowing how to make effective choices from the language system depending on the context in which language is being used (the topic, the audience, the purpose, the mode – written, spoken, multimodal).
  • is taught in the context of authentic curriculum tasks, not as an end in itself.
  • works at the level of the whole text right down to relevant grammatical choices.
  • incorporates terminology to refer to the function of a grammatical feature as well as its form (using traditional terminology such as clause, prepositional phrase, conjunction).

However, as several of the readers commented:  

The only problem is that there are currently generations of teachers, including coming graduates who have no understanding of grammar themselves and will therefore struggle to teach it!

This is not entirely the case. Grammar is a key component of initial teacher education programs. And many in-service teachers, anxious over their knowledge about language, have completed professional learning courses (often in their own time) in universities, have undertaken upskilling programs offered by experts in the field (Dare & Polias, 2022, Rose & Martin 2012) and professional associations, and have participated in many classroom-based research projects (Derewianka, 2020; Humphrey, 2017). These programs are usually intensive and engage teachers in iterative cycles of learning, classroom trialling and reflecting, so that teachers’ knowledge about language and appropriate pedagogy is developed over time. We know that teachers with strong knowledge about language are well placed to support their students’ literacy development (Myhill et al., 2012).  

Nevertheless, there are still many teachers who require intensive support. If this current focus on grammar is not a mere election stunt (as several of the reader comments suggest), then systems must make significant investment in teachers, their professional learning and curriculum resources. Companion documents that include explanations of concepts, analysed model texts, exemplars of practice, and authentic assessment tasks – all coherent and linked to syllabus content – must be forthcoming.  Such resources should be based on sound theory, accessible to teachers and appliable to their subject areas and to the diverse needs of the students in their classrooms. Further, resources require ‘wrap around’, quality professional learning, so that teachers can deepen their language and pedagogic know-how in dialogue with colleagues and experts in the field.

Pauline Jones is Associate Professor, Language in Education at the University of Wollongong. Her research interests are educational semiotics, literacy development, and pedagogic dialogue.  Recent publications include Transition and Continuity in School Literacy Development (Bloomsbury, 2021) co-edited with Erika Matruglio & Christine Edwards-Groves, and Teaching Language in Context 3rd ed. (OUP, 2022) with Beverly Derewianka. She is also currently President of the Primary English Teaching Association Australia (PETAA).

Beverly Derewianka is Professor Emerita at the University of Wollongong. An educational linguist, she has researched students’ literacy development, particularly writing in the context of school curriculum. Her current research focusses on writing development from junior to senior secondary years in English, History and Science. She has written numerous scholarly publications, textbooks and professional resources for teachers. The third edition of her best-selling Grammar Companion for Primary Teachers (PETAA) has just been published.

AARE 2022: That’s a wrap for a spectacular conference

It goes without saying that it’s been a difficult few years for in-person conferences. I’m sure many of us had high hopes for AARE 2022 and it certainly delivered spectacularly! From the excellent opening session on Monday morning, through all the presentations I was lucky enough to catch, to the opportunities to connect with colleagues old and new, I couldn’t fault anything (ok maybe too much cake at morning tea but a small price to pay for a lovely few days). As an early career researcher it was encouraging to see many just-graduated PhDs present their research, to audiences containing not only their supervisors, but also the many others who attended their presentations. The sense of community was certainly apparent.

It is challenging for ECRs to step into the realm of national research conferences. It takes a while to figure out whether you’re conferencing in the right way or not. AARE 2022 was the first in-person conference I’ve attended, having completed my entire PhD during COVID-19 lockdowns and travel restrictions. I’d heard about the generative nature of these events but I had to experience it first-hand to see how productive they can be. Everyone I met and talked with over the few days – no matter their role, position or length of time in the industry – was welcoming, encouraging and interested in the future of education research in Australia. If AARE 2022 is anything to go by, the future of our field is looking very strong.

My personal highlights included:

  • The welcome to country by Uncle Mickey: Thank you. We were so welcomed to Kaurna country and the theme of knowledge sharing permeated the days of the conference.
  • Professor Allyson Holbrook’s outgoing presidential address which prompted me to reflect on the uniqueness of a PhD undertaken in the field of education. We are rare indeed. Supporting the progress and career development of our current PhD students, and attracting more people with educational qualifications to pursue research will be an ongoing – but necessary – challenge.
  • The City West Campus of UniSA was a really spectacular location: I didn’t get lost even once! The weather was perfect and the outdoor spaces allowed many serendipitous meetings not possible in online conference format. Huge congratulations and thanks should go to all those who helped organise such an excellent event. 

Finally, the many individual talks interposed by themed symposiums are always the ultimate highlight of an in-person conference. In the following section I’ve drawn together some threads emerging from several different presentations that I observed during the 2022 AARE conference.

The missing link: Considering the agency of parents in the Australian educational landscape

I think it was Emma Rowe who had a beautiful metaphor about pulling the threads of seemingly different phenomena and watching how they unravelled (Day 2, Politics and Policy in Education symposium). In a similar vein I’d like to pull out some threads from multiple presentations in disparate streams and try to capture something missing. 

First the presentations: In the Day 3 Sociology of Education stream, Jung-sook Lee and Meghan Stacey from UNSW spoke about their work looking at perceptions of fairness in relation to educational inequities. The researchers presented a fictional scenario to a sample of almost 2000 Australian adults in which ‘students from high-income and low-income families have achievement gaps due to different quality of education provided to them’ (from the abstract). The scenario identified a situation where better-quality teachers for children from high-income families led to better educational outcomes for these children.

Interestingly people with children either currently in school or soon to attend school were less likely to perceive this scenario as unfair.

Prompted by the concluding questions proposed by the authors, audience discussion turned to the issue of why people – and parents in particular – might hold this oddly contradictory opinion. We pride ourselves in Australia (apparently) on being proudly egalitarian. The Gonski reviews (both the first and the second) were largely positively received in the Australian community. Yes! Of course children should have equitable access to educational resources. #IgiveaGonski. 

So why might the idea of educational equity not apply when considering the educational experiences of our own children? Why would it be ok, in the perceptions of the survey respondents, that some children get a better deal because their families have the capacity to pay for it?

The second presentation in the Schools and Education Systems stream (also Day 3) was that by Melissa Tham, Shuyan Huo and Andrew Wade from Victoria University. The study used data from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Youth (LSAY) and demonstrated that attendance at academically selective schools has apparently no long-term benefits for students attending these schools. The authors looked at a range of outcomes including university participation and completion, whether participants were employed, and life satisfaction at age 19 and again at age 25. None of these differed for students who had attended selective schools versus those who had not. 

The discussion again turned to the question of why parents are invested in sending their kids to academically selective schools if there’s no observable long-term benefit of doing so. [Of course, academically selective schools always top the rankings for the ATAR each year, but this is likely because the kids in these schools are already high-achievers, not because the selective schooling system adds value to their educational experience]. Indeed, there may be considerable medium-term disadvantages for some students in contexts where kids are grouped together in hothouses of ultra-competitiveness. 

A third paper that I wasn’t able to attend on Day 4 in the Social Justice stream touched again on the question of whether a private school education adds any value to educational outcomes (broadly defined). The authors Beatriz Gallo Cordoba, Venesser Fernandes, Simone McDonald and Maria Gindidis, looked at the way differences in Year 9 NAPLAN numeracy scores between public and private schools were related to funding inequities between these contexts, rather than school quality differences. While the abstract argued that ‘the increasing number of parents sending their children to private schools has been a growing trend causing controversy’, I am inclined to think that if equity is not the foremost consideration for parents in their school decision-making, then it’s not a controversy for them. Like all of us, parents want the best for children. It just so happens that they may make different decisions when it’s their own children (real and concrete as they are), rather than other people’s children (in the abstract).

Anecdotally, people are aware that there’s no academic benefit to these kinds of schools – neither the academically selective type nor the financially selective type. Earlier this year in The Conversation we summarized research showing no advantages to sending children to private schools when NAPLAN results are considered as an ‘outcome’. Apart from being roundly criticized once or twice for the apparently obvious findings, the thousands of comments we received on social media channels and on the website largely indicated that parents weren’t thinking of academics when they paid for a private education for their kids. But if not academics then what? And if we ostensibly believe in equity until it’s our kids in the mix then do we really believe it at all?  What is going on with parents’ decision-making that means these kinds of contradictory decisions are being made about their children’s schooling? 

This brings me (finally!) to my point: it felt like the missing thread drawing these disparate research papers together is the influence of parents. After all, which is the largest group of stakeholders in this game after teachers and children themselves? I think we downplay the influence of parents in the education of children at our peril. We can train teachers to be absolute superstars, we can lobby governments for more equitable funding allocations and better conditions for teachers, we can study cognitive development and how children learn in schooling contexts, we can work on inclusion, fairness and tolerance among students in school communities. But I wonder: if the influence of parents is not directly and explicitly confronted in research that examines educational inequities, policy or social justice (whether the influences are positive or negative), do we have a confounding variable problem? And if so, how can this be resolved?

No offence intended to the (possibly multiple) papers at AARE 2022 that did consider the role of parents in the education of their children. In particular among the presentations that I wasn’t able to catch on the final day was an intriguing one in a Politics and Policy symposium entitled ‘The construction of (good) parents (as professionals) in/through learning platforms’ presented by Sigrid Hartong and Jamie Manolev. Secondly, Anna Hogan presented her work in the Philanthropy in Education symposium, examining the changing role of Parents and Citizens (P&C) organisations in public schools. The findings of this work show how ‘parents are now operating as new philanthropists, solving the problem of inadequate state funding through private capital raising’ in public schools (from the abstract). I’m looking forward to papers for both of these studies in the near future! 

Postscript

These last few years have been challenging times for researchers in many fields, but maybe particularly so for education. Oftentimes it seems as though we move in totally different realms to the governments that make educational policy and the school sites which contain the teachers and students we are interested in supporting. The rise of research agencies external to universities (e.g. the Grattan Institute, the Centre for Independent Studies and AERO) or those subsumed within government departments (e.g. the Centre for Educational Statistics and Evaluation) may mean that our research work is sidelined or ignored, particularly when the findings are not immediately applicable or contradictory to national narratives of educational decline. 

AARE 2022 has reinforced to me the quality and depth of the research that is happening in universities across Australia in many diverse subfields of educational scholarship. I found out so much that I did not know before: and perhaps this in itself is a challenge for us. We know that our work is important and to whom it should apply. We can see the value in each other’s work when we attend conferences and allow the space to connect, discuss and imagine. How then do we ensure this value is recognised not only by the wider community, but also by all the teachers, early childhood educators, policymakers, parents and young people who are both the subjects and potential beneficiaries of our research?

Sally Larsen is a Lecturer in Learning, Teaching and Inclusive Education at the University of New England. Her research is in the area of reading and maths development across the primary and early secondary school years in Australia, including investigating patterns of growth in NAPLAN assessment data. She is interested in educational measurement and quantitative methods in social and educational research. You can find her on Twitter @SallyLars_27