Helen Boon

Do we need to raise scores for entry into teacher education courses in Australia?

A fierce debate is raging at the moment in political and education circles about the quality of recruits into teaching courses. Universities claim that university courses can mould pre-service (student) teachers into classroom ready, quality teachers therefore students with lower entry scores should not be excluded.

On the other hand there is a popular political argument that universities need to raise entry levels to teacher education courses in order to lift the quality of teaching in Australia. The idea is if Australia had better teachers we would get better results, especially in international rankings of literacy and numeracy.

Labour’s education spokesperson, Tanya Plibersek, joined the debate recently when she said entry standards for prospective teachers in Australia must be higher than they are currently because we need the cleverest candidates to instruct our children. She proposed incentives to get smarter students into teaching.

Several states, including NSW, are already imposing increased standards for entry to teaching courses, although there remains a lot of resistance from some universities.

I believe to meet the challenges of the future and to attract and retain high quality teachers, it is important for universities to understand pre-service teacher motivation and their development of those important teacher characteristics. So I decided to have a closer look at what is happening with our student teachers: whether higher entry levels make a difference and what effect teacher education courses have on the qualities that would make them ‘classroom ready’, such as self efficacy (that is belief in one’s own ability to succeed in specific situations or accomplish a task), resilience and persistence.

My research shows that entry levels do indeed make a difference. It also shows, perhaps surprisingly, that current teacher education programs do not seem to be influencing the major characteristics important to teachers that recruits bring into the course at entry point.

How attributes and dispositions are currently included in selection criteria

As Plibersek pointed out, entry-level grades into teacher training courses have been on a downward trend since 2006. Data show that high school marks for prospective teaching students have declined over the past 10 years. However during this time there has been an increased interest in the characteristics and attributes, other than entry score to university courses, of successful teachers.

These characteristics are recognised in the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers that drive initial teaching education course curriculum planning and policy, and determine whether pre-service (student) teachers and graduates are classroom ready. As well as literacy and numeracy benchmarks pre-service teachers must show they meet seven standards and sub-standards. These standards are underpinned by an emphasis on empathy and ethical dispositions and a set of skills that result from resourcefulness and adroit capacity to motivate students.

Selection criteria into initial teacher education courses now aim to draw upon the most suitable candidates by ascertaining these dispositional attributes. Universities contend that these attributes and dispositions go beyond academic grades and are more important because teaching, like medicine, is considered to be a vocation not merely a profession.

My study

I wanted to look more closely at what was happening with student teachers: whether university study made a difference to their personal attributes and whether their entry scores made a difference to whether they would complete their course or not. We know that a large proportion of pre-service teachers drop out of their courses before completing their qualification for a range of reasons.

My study tracked a cohort of 190 pre-service teachers enrolled in a B.Ed. degree or a Graduate Diploma of Education from their first semester at university through to their final year or when they left or completed the course. I surveyed the undergraduates several times, beginning with a survey at the end of their first semester at university and then every semester till the end of their 3rd year, a year prior to graduating. The post-graduate pre-service teachers were surveyed at the end of the first semester at university.

The surveys assessed a number of goals and character traits, such as the students’ resilience and persistence, as well as their self-efficacy for various aspects of teaching. This was based on the hypothesis that these attributes would change and develop as a result of their university training. Survey results were Rasch analysed and then imputed into structural equation models to examine the links between the survey factors and timely course completion.

As I had records of all students, including those who dropped out or did not complete the course, the characteristics of those who changed courses or dropped out were also analysed and compared to those who completed their degree.

My results show what makes a difference

My results showed no significant differences between undergraduate and post-graduate students’ self-efficacy, resilience and persistence and no significant differences in these characteristics between those who completed their degrees and those who did not.

So teacher education and a student’s experience at university did not influence those important aspects of character that are considered to be highly desirable of quality teachers. Therefore it is important that we do indeed select those who are already focused on achieving their goals and are already persistent.

However those character traits had no effect upon timely degree completion. What mattered as far as timely completion were the student’s grades. Higher grades and goal directedness were the strongest predictors of a timely completion. Post-graduate pre-service teachers were more likely than undergraduates to complete their course and within the undergraduate cohort those specialising in Early Childhood Education were least likely to complete their degree.

So indeed entry scores make a difference in whether a student is likely to successfully complete their teaching degree. Those students with higher scores and those who already have a degree are more likely to complete. Those with lower scores are more likely to drop out.

These findings pose a number of questions in relation to pre-service teacher recruitment and training. For instance: How do we best support and motivate aspiring preservice teachers throughout their degree courses to keep them engaged? What critical personal attributes of preservice teachers ensure that they have the capacity and resilience to complete their degree? Are there contextual factors that impact upon preservice teacher completion rates and how do they vary by specialisation?

More significantly my findings indicate that perhaps prospective teacher recruits need to have higher entry scores than are currently required by some universities, irrespective of other dispositional attributes, if they are to graduate and enter the profession.

 

Helen Boon is Associate Professor in the College of Arts, Society & Education at James Cook University. She is Head of Curriculum and Pedagogy in Education. She teaches in the areas of educational psychology, special needs and behaviour management.  Helen has a strong research interest in climate change and the intersection of ethics, climate change and adaptation to climate change. Helen initially trained in Chemistry and Physiology and then taught Chemistry and Mathematics for a number of years.  Her preferred research methods are quantitative, including statistical modelling and Rasch modelling. Helen has led a number of projects:  a WIL project with partners from the School of  Medicine, a Collaboration Across Boundaries Project with the School of Public Health, Tropical Medicine and Rehabilitation Sciences,  and an NCCARF funded project with the  School of  Earth and Environmental Sciences and Charles Sturt University.  Helen is currently working on an ARC funded project examining the most effective pedagogies for Indigenous students. Recent publications include a longitudinal study about climate change education and pre-service teacher attitudes and a paper about the dearth of ethics training in preservice teacher programs across Australia.

Helen is reporting on her research at the 2017 AARE conference today.

 2017 AARE  Conference

The theme of the 2017 AARE conference is ‘Education: What’s politics got to do with it?’ There will be over 600 presentations of current educational research and panel sessions at the conference which runs all this week in Canberra. Journalists who want to attend or arrange interviews please contact Anna Sullivan, Communications Manager of AARE, Anna.Sullivan@unisa.edu.au or our editor Maralyn Parker, maralyn@aare.edu.au

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Why and how to use different teaching methods with Indigenous students

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.

The explanation often given for these unfavourable results for Indigenous students is that there is a cultural mismatch, that is a child’s home culture and the school culture hold conflicting expectations. This mismatch gives rise to poor understanding of Indigenous student behaviour and aspirations. Indigenous students differ from non-Indigenous students not only in the background knowledge that is assumed by their schools, but also in the strategies they use to approach and solve problems.

Teachers who are not fully aware of these differences in approaches or who “play down” cultural differences, preferring instead to argue about ability and equity are ill-equipped to build on their students’ knowledge and experiences. Indeed, research shows that teachers, schools and the public in general, hold a ‘deficit view’ towards to Indigenous students and their families, that is a view that individuals from some cultural groups lack the ability to achieve just because of their cultural background.

How we reviewed the research literature

In an effort to understand what works in the classroom to better engage Indigenous students and minimize behavioural responses my colleagues, Linda Llewellyn, Brian Lewthwaite, and I conducted a review of the research literature. This included all peer-reviewed literature published in English, both Australian and international with the aim of identifying strategies that support the behaviour of Indigenous students.

We used methods designed to examine all literature that:

  1. mentioned an Indigenous or marginalised primary or secondary school context;
  2. claimed to improve behaviour support or management of Indigenous students;
  3. included an Indigenous voice in the suggested actions.

Much of the published literature was advice literature rather than empirically based studies that showed what actually improved behavioural outcomes for Indigenous students. The Australian literature in particular was replete with strategies to support Indigenous student behaviour, but lacked empirical evidence. Only five studies were specifically based on the topic directly, and of these three suggested strategies, but little evidence was offered for the specific strategies.

What previous research says.

Overall, the review revealed a number of themes

Teachers need an understanding of power relations and the deficit paradigm.

A deficit paradigm is a view that has long been deeply embedded in the culture of Western schools and still held by some teachers, administrators and others in positions of power. It assumes that poor student performance or behaviour stems from problems with the students or their families that must be “fixed”.

Teachers also need to know that the power relations that were experienced by Indigenous families historically in Australia have left a mostly negative influence which has filtered into the realm of education, one that continues to have an influence today. Failure to understand this historical element may result in unnecessary conflict as cultural differences can lead to misunderstandings.

In addition, research has shown a fundamental difference between Western (Balanda) and Yolgnu (Indigenous Australian people inhabiting north-eastern Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory of Australia ) cultures in the context of education and world views. The difference between ‘purposeful’ for Balanda and ‘meaningful’ for Yolgnu may help teachers understand student behaviour. For example, Yongnu students might not be able to transfer classroom learning to other contexts outside of the classroom, as they might connect meaning only to the school context. Therefore it is important for teachers to emphasise process and principles with clearly applicable examples for Yongnu students. Also Yongnu students might not be willing to learn from those with whom they do not have a trusting, close relationship because learning is centred on personal relationship rather than on an information orientation. All in all, teachers must reflect on their own cultural orientations and identify their ideology and beliefs honestly.

The teacher must be a warm demander

Warm demanders are teachers who develop relationships with their students and do things to let their students know they care for them. Successful teachers of Indigenous children have an interest in the lives of their students. They employ humour by directing deprecating humour at themselves and not at children. They also explain jokes and avoid sarcasm, and direct humour to the whole class, not at individual students.

Relationships are a priority in schools successful with Indigenous students. In order for classroom behaviour support to be successful teachers should also know or be willing to learn: the culture and characteristics of students, their learning strengths, successful teaching methods for Indigenous students and proactive behaviour support strategies.

The review showed that specific strategies need to be used with Indigenous students.

Methods used by successful teachers of Indigenous students

  • increase wait time after asking questions or making requests
  • provide opportunities for group work
  • scaffold learning to encourage student participation, even in direct questioning
  • provide opportunities for movement
  • provide flexibility
  • use storytelling and implement activity based learning.
  • as indigenous students may not have value in work for work’s sake tasks need to be enjoyable and be seen to be applicable in the context of their lives.
  • allow autonomy and leadership skills. One of the few Australian empirical studies found two teachers achieved “classrooms where Adult/ pupil teacher interactions are characterized by sensitivity, respect and allegiance to common goals … [by] catering for Aboriginal student differences and needs, while focusing student creativity and energy towards self-enhancing goals”.
  • staff working in Indigenous ways; which in one study they refined into six quality teaching pedagogies in common with Aboriginal epistemologies: self-direction; self-regulation; social support; connectedness to the world; narrative and cultural knowledge.
  • use culturally based behaviour support and management strategies. Time spent on proactive behaviour support strategies decreases disruption. Proactive strategies documented in international research literature included making behaviour expectations clear and teaching students how to meet expectations. Australian research emphasized that teachers should avoid spotlighting students and must provide social support as the key pedagogy to develop self-direction.
  • frame requests in a way that will engage students and do not rely on worksheets.
  • use reactive strategies that are culturally appropriate. For example reward acceptable behaviour with consistent and short-lived rewards to shape behaviour rather than punishing hard. Individual praise can cause the opposite effect so shared group rewards or individual praise in private are preferable. And the time to teach ‘Balanda’ values is not in the middle of a conflict. Following conflict, punitive measures may not be productive. Students should be asked to consider the importance of their responsibility to community. Teachers may lose credibility if they use excessive authority, shouting, sarcasm or being bossy and threats, punishments and use of authority won’t work. Moreover, proactive approaches must be adopted at a whole-school level.
  • create links with community by involving community members and forming friendships with parents and carers. Better outcomes are likely as the trust between family and teacher develops.

In conclusion, while the advice literature offers numerous suggestions, as I see it, Australian research evidence is still lacking. If we are serious about improving the outcomes of our Indigenous students we need to fund and carry out much more research in this field.

 

BOONDr Helen Boon is a Senior Lecturer in the areas of educational psychology, special needs and behaviour management at James Cook University. Helen has a strong research interest the education of at risk students, and the factors that help them to become resilient including their parenting.  Helen initially trained in the sciences  and taught Chemistry and Mathematics for a number of years.  Preferred research methods are mixed methods,  including SEM and Rasch modelling. She is currently working on an ARC funded project examining the most effective pedagogies for Indigenous students.