In this blog I’d like to bring together three different
lines of educational analysis to show how our contemporary discussions of
policy are really not going to lead to any significant change or educationally
defensible reforms. I realise that is a
very big call, but I’m pretty confident in saying it, and I hope to show why.
Essentially I think we really need to change the way
educational reform debates are framed, because they are based on questions that
will not lead us to systemic improvement that I think most ‘stake-holders’
really seek in common. Before I launch
into this discussion, though, I also need to point out that there are a host of
related issues which really can’t be sufficiently addressed here, and which I
won’t explain at all – but which I will name toward the end of this post.
For now, consider
three main points
1) there is growing recognition that a fundamental linch-pin in quality schooling is always going to be our reliance on the professional judgement of teachers,
2) there is also
growing recognition that our current system architecture works against that in
several ways, and
3) this is the clincher, the systems that we have
implemented are producing exactly that for which they were designed (where
teacher professional judgement plays little or no part).
The practical conclusion of bringing these observations
together is obvious to me. We are never going to
get that “systemic improvement” that we all seem to think will be good for
Australia, because we don’t have the right system architecture to achieve it. I
believe we need to start thinking more carefully and creatively about how our
educational systems are designed.
The hard part begins after sufficient numbers of
stakeholders come to this realisation and want to shift the debates. We aren’t there yet, so for now I just want
to open up this line of thought.
The first starting point won’t be a surprise for readers of
this blog, and followers of public educational policy pitches. On the one hand, anyone with Findlandia envy
and followers of the recent statements from Pasi Sahlberg, now at UNSW’s Gonski
Institute, will know that much of the strength of the ‘Finnish
Education Mystery’ (as it has been named by Hannu Simola) has been built on
a strong commitment to the professional autonomy and expertise of Finnish
teachers. This isn’t simply accidental,
but a consequence
of a long understandable history that included (but isn’t only due to)
careful and intelligent design by the Finnish Government.
On the other hand, here in Australia, Associate Professor at
the University of Sydney, Nicole Mockler, and her colleagues have aptly shown
that teachers are more than interested
in using evidence-based approaches to help guide their local decision, but
their judgements are not really being supported by evidence they see as
relevant and useful.
My own analysis
of this situation has led me to raise significant questions about the way in
which advance technical issues of measurement and its statistical applications
have been reduced to incorrect and really misleading uses, and the way in which
the institutions which are supposed to promote teachers and teaching has
reduced that exercise to classic institutional credentialism based on tick box
exercises that really don’t reflect that which it claims.
No matter how much politicians and other stakeholders might
wish to create systems that guarantee this or that universal practice, student
learning is always individual and in schools always dependent on whomever is
guiding that learning (the same would apply to entirely automated systems, by
the way). So the goal of designing
systems based on the presumption that we can somehow specify practice to a
point where there is no uncertainty in delivery, is folly.
And yet, point two, these are precisely the sorts of education
systems Australia has been building since at least the late 1980s. In broad
terms this corresponds to the significant changes in educational governance
known as ‘the ministerialisation of
education’ documented by educational
researchers Dr Janice Dudley and Professor Lesley Vidovich, long
ago. It was in this time period where
the penultimate attempt to nationalise curriculum developed, with the
corresponding creation of national goals (the Hobart, Adelaide, Melbourne
declarations), former civil servants were replaced by contracted ‘Senior
Executives’ across federal and state bureaucracies, and teacher education was
handed to the federally funded Universities alone (plus a range of massive
shifts in TAFE).
Since then it has been a long slow process of
standardisation within and across state systems, the formation of ‘professional
institutes,’ and the expansion of public funding to private schooling.
The roll out of
The case for why these systems inhibit or actively work
against the exercise of teachers’ professional judgement should be pretty
obvious with the term ‘standardisation’.
These days, national curriculum is designed with the intent of making
sure children of the military can move around that nation and ‘get the same
stuff,’ accountability is centrally developed and deployed via the least
expensive forms, like NAPLAN (and an expanding host of supposedly valid
measures), teaching has become regulated through standardising the people (at
least on paper, via the ‘professional standards’), and securing employment and
advancement has been directly tied to these mechanisms.
Even measurement instruments originally designed only for
research and later to help provide evidence for teachers’ use have become tick
box instruments of surveillance. As a
researcher I am not opposed to good measurement, and in fact I’ve created some
of those being used in this larger schema, but how systems deploy them make
From the reports of the implementation of NAPLAN it is very
clear (as was predicted by then opponents) that many of these have become much
more high stakes than advocates predicted or intended (opponents were right
about this one). Whether it be novice
teachers beholden to developing paper work ‘evidence’ of standards for their
job security through to executives whose jobs depend on meeting Key Performance
Indicators (which are themselves abstracted from actual effect), we have
developed systems of compliance within institutes in which real humans play
roles that are pre-defined and largely circumscribed. And those who readily fit them without too
much critique fill these roles.
After years of this, is it any wonder that teacher education
programs by and large no longer teach the history and practice of curriculum
design, nor the history and philosophy of education (which is now largely
relegated ‘ethics’ in service of codes of conduct) and what once were lively
fields of educational psychology and sociology of education have become
handmaidens of ‘evidence-based’ teaching techniques and bureaucratic
definitions of ‘equity’? (In the University sector these ‘foundational’
disciplines literally do not belong in education anymore for research
One bit of historical memory: in the late 1970s and early
1980s, this process of moving the intellectual (‘mental’) work of teachers into
standardised categories defined by management was shown to have a long term
effect known as ‘de-skilling.’ From our
work in the New Basics Trial in Queensland (which was actually much more
successful than most realise) it has been very clear that what once were wide
spread teacher capacities in local curriculum design and development have been
forfeited to (extremely well paid) bureaucrats.
When I met the teachers who took part in the early 1990s National
Schools Project (in 1993 and 1994), state differences on this were really
obvious and relevant.
When teachers were invited to restructure any aspect of
their work to improve student learning, through an overt agreement between the
Unions and employers, teachers from states where there were strong traditions
of local curriculum development and pedagogical reflection (most obviously
Victoria and South Australia) were squarely focused on trying to find ways of
providing rich educational experiences for their students (curriculum, pedagogy
were their mainstay). Teachers from the
state that has provided the basic structure of our current systems (NSW) were largely
concerned about timetables and budgets.
Of course this is a very big generalisation, but it is also obvious when
you work with teachers in schools developing new curriculum projects.
What is the effect of all this? Precisely as intended, the systems are
standardised, stratified, countable and a ready source of ‘evidence’ used to
meet the needs of the politicians and ‘independent’ stakeholders, and advancing
employees who probably actually believe in the reforms and initiatives they
But let’s be honest, these actors are not around after they
have used the political capital gained from initiating their pet projects.
Let’s go further
Here is where there are hosts of other developments that
buttress this larger system which need further analysis and elaboration than I
can provide here. From the expansion of
testing measures based on statistical assumptions few teachers and principals
and fewer parents really know well (they aren’t taught them), to professional
development schemes based on market determined popularity, to pre-packaged
curriculum and apps literally sold as the next silver-bullet, contemporary
‘texts’ of education carry far more implications than the ones named by those selling
There are the huge range of ideas and presumptions that lie
behind those sales pitches. Of course some teachers sometimes blindly seek
these out in the hope of finding new ideas and effective practices. Teachers’ dispositions and capacities have
not come from nowhere, they are the historical product of this system. But who
is going to blame them (or the bureaucrats, for that matter) when they
rightfully focus on making sure they have a job in that system so they can
support their own children and parents?
Yes, we have systems we created. On the one hand, that’s not
encouraging. On the other hand, that
does mean that we can re-create them into something quite different.
Change the questions
One of the first steps to collectively trying to find new
ways of constructing our school systems, I think, really is about changing the
questions we think we are answering.
Instead of using the type of questions needed to drive research, e.g.
anything of the form ‘what works?’, we need to start asking, ‘how do we build
systems that increase the likelihood that teachers will make intelligent and
wise decision in their work?’
Research and the categories of analysis CAN provide clear
ideas about what has occurred in the past (with all the necessary qualifications
about when, where, measured how) but those answers should never be the basis
for systems to prescribe what teachers are supposed to do in any given
individual event or context. For
example, diagnostic testing can be incredible useful for teachers, but they
can’t tell teachers what to do, with whom, when.
Do we have systems that support teachers in taking the next
step in their decisions about which students need what support at what time,
while knowing what those tests actually measure, with what margin of error, in
what contexts for whom? The question for
systems designs isn’t what’s ‘best practice’, it’s what system increases the
probability of teachers making wise and compassionate decisions for their students
in their context at the appropriate time.
That includes making judgements relative to what’s happening in our
nation, economy and in the larger global transformations.
Our systems, in the pursuit of minimising risk, are very
good as proscribing what teachers’ shouldn’t do; but, they are not designed to
support teachers to wisely exercise the autonomy they need to do their jobs in
a manner that demonstrates the true potential of our nation.
We can see that potential in the all too rare events in
which our students and teachers are given that sort of support – often on the
backs of incredibly dedicated and professional teachers and school leaders.
From local innovative uses of technology, to large scale performances in the
arts, the potential of Australian educators isn’t really hard to find. But we need new systems to support them in
doing more of that type of work, with more students, more of the time.
So when it comes to advocating this or that system reform,
please, change the focus. We don’t need
more ‘best practice’ policies from vested interests, to discipline our
teachers, we need systems designed to promote true, authentic excellence in
James Ladwig is Associate Professor in the
School of Education at the University of Newcastle and co-editor of the
American Educational Research Journal. He is internationally recognised
for his expertise in educational research and school reform. Find James’ latest work in Limits to Evidence-Based Learning of Educational Science,
in Hall, Quinn and Gollnick (Eds) The Wiley Handbook of Teaching and Learning published by Wiley-Blackwell, New York (in
press). James is on Twitter @jgladwig