Nicole Mockler

Donnelly’s review set to limit future for young Australians

The final report of the Australian Curriculum Review conducted by Kevin Donnelly and Ken Wiltshire has recently been handed to Minister Pyne, according to leaks reported in the media.  Apparently “vague” and “broad” “postmodern themes” will be swept aside in favour of a greater focus on basic literacy and numeracy.

Basic literacy and numeracy are important of course.  They underpin the curriculum.  The argument goes that if our young people don’t have basic literacy and numeracy skills, it’s hardly worth trying to teach them more sophisticated skills.  But for a country such as Australia to treat basic literacy and numeracy as an end point rather than as the starting point they should be, is to promote a very impoverished vision of education.

To go further and relegate creativity, ethical understanding and intercultural awareness to the category of “broad postmodern themes” dismisses the foundations we need to succeed as a nation. Let’s break it down.

Creativity is the basis of innovation.  If we’re intent on even half-heartedly delivering on our claim to be the ‘clever country’, we won’t get there on basic literacy and numeracy alone.  Far from being a vague postmodern theme, creative thinking is essential for the creation of knowledge across every field of human endeavour, from science to history to mathematics to the arts.

Ethical understanding is, as a friend and colleague reminded me on social media recently, hardly an invention of the postmodern age.  To suggest that ethics is somehow marginal while at the same time advocating a return to the values of the past is hypocritical.

And then there’s intercultural awareness.  It’s hard to imagine an educated, tuned in Australian who wouldn’t recognise the growing importance of intercultural understanding, defined within the Australian Curriculum as learning to “value their own cultures, languages and beliefs and those of others”, in the 21st century.

One need look no further than a recent front page headline in The Australian declaring that “We’ll fight Islam 100 years” to see how desperately wrong we can get it and why we need more, not less, intercultural awareness if our communities, from local to global, are to flourish in the 21st century.

Of course, until the report is made public, all we have is the mainstream media’s particular take on what it contains. We may find that the report has been grossly misrepresented.  It’s worth noting, however, that Donnelly has in the past decried many things he disagrees with as “postmodern”, and so such a finding within the review would not seem out of place.

Donnelly has tarred formative assessment, outcomes based education, contemporary expressions of civics and citizenship education and of course critical literacy with the ‘postmodern’ brush in his writings over the years.

It seems like common sense to say that our kids need basic literacy and numeracy.  But the fact is, our kids need much more than that if they’re to build successful lives in the messy, complex, sometimes bewildering world of the 21st century.  We should wish for them much, much more than basic literacy and numeracy skills.



Nicole Mockler is a Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of Newcastle. Her research interests include teacher professional learning and identity and the politics of education, and she teaches in the areas of curriculum, pedagogy and professional practice and research methods. Her published work includes Student Voice: Beyond Legitimation and Guardianship (Springer, Forthcoming) and the Australian Curriculum: Classroom Approaches series (Palgrave, 2013).  She is a member of the Executive of the Australian Association for Research in Education, an Associate Editor of Critical Studies in Education, and a General Editor of the book series Local/Global Issues in Education.


Read the mainstream media leaks on the report HERE

Manufactured panic around teacher quality obscures the bigger issue

Politicians of all persuasions use the language of panic and crisis to whip up fear about the ‘quality’ of teachers, and their teaching.

The consequence of this deliberate attempt to shape public opinion, is that ‘quality’ has effectively become a smoke screen, obscuring the real and serious educational equity problems we have in Australia.

Equity is the equal opportunity for all children to get a decent education in schools that are adequately funded and resourced.

Some of my recent research has looked at how the language of panic and crisis are playing a role in public discussions about schooling in Australia.

In 2011, Australian writer David Marr wrote Panic, a collection of essays in which he examined the use of moral panic by Australian politicians in the shaping of public discourse in relation to different areas of social life.  On the dynamic of panic within Australian society, he wrote:

I’ve come to believe the fundamental contest in Australian politics is not so much between Right and Left as panic and calm…This is an issue that goes deeper than division between the parties.  It’s about the odd willingness of Australia’s leaders to beat up on the nation’s fears.  They coarsen politics. They narrow our sympathies. They make careers for themselves in this peaceful and good-hearted country in states of exaggerated alarm…

Education is fertile ground for panic, as it provides a mass point of reference for the electorate: most voters attended school themselves and a large proportion of the population at any given time has children at school.

As Marr suggests, the key consequence of moral panic is fear.  Along with panics regarding ‘law and order’ (pink jumpsuits for bikies, anyone?) or the ‘takeover’ by immigrants and asylum seekers, educational panic seeks to undermine social trust while at the same time offering a simple solution to a complex problem.  In this case the solution is “improving teacher quality.”

I recently analysed 42 Prime Ministerial and Ministerial speeches, media releases and interviews, along with related print media articles, produced over a period of one week in September 2012.  The week in question began with the announcement, in an address given by the then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard at the National Press Club, of the ‘National Plan for School Improvement’ (NPSI).  The NPSI was the long-awaited Government response to the Independent Review of School Funding conducted by a panel chaired by David Gonski AC (otherwise known as the ‘Gonski review’).

The Government’s response at the time was surprising.  While the Gonski review had been set up to make recommendations about achieving greater equity, the response that came out the other end was largely about quality.  Largely absent from the ‘solution’ was any sense that the ‘problem’ was one of fairness and equity.  The NPSI looked more like a response to a review of teacher quality itself.

The claim that “nothing matters more to the quality of a child’s education than the quality of the teacher standing in front of the class room” is dominant in these texts.  This notion is deeply troubling because it discounts students’ background and simplifies the education discussion to the point where success or failure hinges on the quality of the teacher ‘in front of’ the class.

Kevin Donnelly, long-term opponent of “progressive fads” in education, like current Education Minister Christopher Pyne, extended the argument to suggest that the key problem here lies in “teacher training institutes”:

Attempting to lift teacher quality, by mentoring beginning teachers and ensuring trainee teachers have more practical experience, will come to naught unless teacher training institutes are forced to base what they teach on evidence-based research about effective pedagogy and less on postmodern, new-age, politically correct theory.

Accepted is the claim is that teachers are not effective enough, not literate and numerate enough, not skilled enough, seduced by dubious ‘fads’ and entranced by political correctness.

As Linda Darling-Hammond, Professor of Education at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, argued in a recent address on this issue in the US:

We need to stop chasing silver bullets and shibboleths if we are going to create genuine educational opportunities for all.  And finally, if American education is to improve we will need to support rather than blame our teachers.

The issue raised by Darling-Hammond of support rather than blame for teachers, is a salient one here in Australia. No matter how far we see that our educational problems as a society are complex consequences of a lack of equity, teacher quality is repeatedly named as the problem that needs to be fixed.

Australian politics has been particularly volatile in the months since the completion of my study.  First we saw the exit of Gillard and Garrett, the key champions of the NPSI, and subsequently the defeat of the Rudd-Gillard Government by the Abbott Liberal Government.

However the points I make about the role of panic and crisis in manipulation by politicians are perhaps even more salient now.

Current Federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne tells us our education performance is falling according to OECD measures (as did Julia Gillard) but he said,

It is not money or smaller classrooms that make a difference because we have increased spending by 44 per cent in the past decade and reduced classroom numbers by 40 per cent. It is the quality of our teacher education training and the way we teach that has impact on student performance.

He also said at the same time,

Teacher education quality has been put in the too-hard basket for too long. A quality education system must be underpinned by quality teachers. The profession knows it, parents want it, our students deserve it and the nation needs it.

In other words, it’s all about teacher quality.  No equity issues to look at here, folks. (Read the full text of his piece HERE.)

All of this is not to argue against accountability.  Teachers must be accountable for their practice – to their students, their colleagues and their school communities.  But the kind of accountability embedded in critiques and crises of quality not only undermines trust in the profession but is also unlikely to bring about actual improvements in quality, despite ‘ticking all the boxes’.  The sad truth is that the vision of ‘teacher quality’ embedded in this version of accountability is an impoverished one.

Furthermore, it seems unlikely that the goal of attracting the ‘best and brightest’ into the teaching profession will be met under the current conditions and trajectory of accountability. What is required is perhaps a more intelligent form of accountability, described thus by Onora O’Neill, a teacher, philosopher and crossbench member of the House of Lords, in her BBC Reith Lectures in 2002:

Perhaps the present revolution in accountability will make us all trustworthier. Perhaps we shall be trusted once again. But I think that this is a vain hope – not because accountability is undesirable or unnecessary, but because currently fashionable methods of accountability damage rather than repair trust. If we want greater accountability without damaging professional performance we need intelligent accountability…Intelligent accountability, I suspect, requires more attention to good governance and fewer fantasies about total control.

For those of us within the teaching profession, there are specific implications and imperatives from this manufactured ‘crisis’.  We need to understand more deeply the political context of our work and the political processes that capture education.

We need to play a part in public debate and discussions of education, to address misconceptions and misunderstandings, to reject the premise of politically expedient yet educationally empty strategies and to suggest good alternatives.  We all – teachers, teacher educators, educational researchers – have a part to play in this.

Anything less is likely to contribute to, rather than address, a very real crisis of educational quality.


Mockler2Nicole Mockler is a Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of Newcastle. Her research interests include teacher professional learning and identity and the politics of education, and she teaches in the areas of curriculum, pedagogy and professional practice and research methods. Her published work includes Student Voice: Beyond Legitimation and Guardianship (Springer, Forthcoming) and the Australian Curriculum: Classroom Approaches series (Palgrave, 2013).  She is a member of the Executive of the Australian Association for Research in Education, an Associate Editor of Critical Studies in Education, and a General Editor of the book series Local/Global Issues in Education.


A Letter to Mr Pyne

Last week on Radio National, Shadow Education Minister Christopher Pyne gave us a glimpse of the Coalition’s vision for education should the Coalition win government.

He focused on two specific areas, school funding and “teacher quality”, specifically on teaching methods.

He said, “we would immediately instigate a very short term ministerial advisory group to advise me on the best model for teaching in the world, how to bring out more practical teaching methods based on more didactic teaching methods, more traditional methods rather than the child-centred learning that has dominated the system for the last twenty, thirty or forty years…”

But there’s a fundamental problem with this argument. Australia was ranked 2nd in the world based on the 2000 OECD data supposedly using these student-centred methods, yet now that Australia has been passed by some other countries on these international rankings (that we should, of course, treat with caution as measures of quality), these same methods are construed as being to blame. As well, there is evidence that schools and teachers are increasingly being required to focus on data, rather than students, as a result a raft of Federal education reforms.

This does not make sense. A better argument is that there is most likely a correlation between the decline in funding to public schools compared to the OECD average and the ranking of Australia on these international measures.

Our expenditure on public schools is well below the OECD average, and has been declining in relation to that average since 2000, while our expenditure, both by governments and parents on private schooling, is above the OECD average.

An argument that the Gonski Report makes well, is that fairer funding has a key role to play in “achieving an internationally competitive high standard of schooling, where outcomes are not determined by socioeconomic status or the type of school the child attends”.

The politicking that we are seeing around Gonski may see the end of our best chance in decades to improve education outcomes for all Australians.

Of course this is complex, as many commentators have pointed out, improved funding alone does not guarantee improvement in student achievement. We agree that teaching and teachers are very important, and their expertise should be valued as such, their skills further developed and their work better supported by policy and policy-makers.

It is commendable that Mr Pyne intends to take advice on education, but it is concerning that he has already decided what constitutes the “best model for teaching in the world”: a return to “traditional pedagogy” and “didactic teaching methods”, as opposed to the “child-centred learning”.

In this belief, Pyne stands opposed to research that’s been done, in Australia and elsewhere, on pedagogy and learning. For example, the work in the 1970s and 80s of scholars like Lawrence Stenhouse in the United Kingdom and Seymour Papert in the United States.

In Australia, we can look to work in the late 1990s in the Queensland Schools Reform Longitudinal Study, and the 2000s, leading to the development of the NSW Quality Teaching framework.

We can also look to recent work conducted over many years by Geoff Munns, Wayne Sawyer and the the “Fair Go” Team. These are all examples of robust, empirical evidence that is internationally regarded as making an important contribution to teaching and learning in schools.

This research demonstrates that good teaching and learning is about building strong relationships between students and teachers; providing intellectually challenging and genuinely engaging learning; developing learning environments where students feel safe and supported to take risks in their learning; shaping learning that is relevant and meaningful to students; offering opportunities for students to develop independence and good “habits” of learning; and providing personal support for students, based on teachers’ knowledge of them as learners.

It’s not the case that “student centred learning” assumes that direct instruction is always inappropriate. Rather, when teachers approach learning in a student-centred way, they make decisions based on their students’ learning needs. They can choose the most appropriate pedagogies to employ.

Sometimes direct instruction is an appropriate approach, although not in all cases, and usually in small doses. As Stephen Dinham told the Fairfax press earlier this week, our debates in education remain “bedevilled in education by false dichotomies” that may not be evident in classroom settings.

Perhaps part of this bedevilment lies in the notion that it’s appropriate to return to teaching methods based on personal memory and experience, rather than empirical research, valuing teacher’s professional knowledge and thinking deeply about what Australia values and requires for our students, both now and in the future.

It’s true that didactic teaching methods and “traditional pedagogy” once reigned supreme. At the same time in Australia, only three in every ten of us completed secondary schooling. Participation in higher education was hardly what it is today: in 1970, 3% of Australians held a tertiary qualification, as opposed to 25% of us in 2011.

Industrial-age education methods may have worked to prepare students for lives of manual or technical work but we no longer live in the industrial age.

The question is whether we want, as a society, to shape an education system as one that prepares our young people for the knowledge society in which they live and work. Or whether we’re content to hark back to the “good old days” where learning was about transmission and children were best seen but not heard.

With all the evidence of the last 50 years of educational research at our disposal, surely our policy makers can do better than this.

**This view is supported by the following members of the Australian educational research community:

  • Dr Ruth Arber, Senior Lecturer, Deakin University
  • Dr Nado Aveling, Senior Lecturer, Murdoch University
  • Professor Jill Blackmore, Deakin University
  • Ms Julie Bowe, Lecturer, University of Newcastle
  • Professor Marie Brennan, Victoria University
  • Ms Kim Browne, MEd Candidate, Deakin University
  • Ms Joanna Brown, Lecturer, University of Newcastle
  • Ms Penny Brown, Casual Academic
  • Dr Rachel Buchanan, Lecturer, University of Newcastle
  • Dr Jon Callow, Senior Lecturer, University of Sydney
  • Associate Professor Brian Cambourne, University of Wollongong
  • Mr Matthew Campbell, Lecturer, Griffith Institute of Higher Education, Griffith University
  • Dr Amy Chapman, Lecturer, The Australian Catholic University
  • Dr Matthew Clarke, Senior Lecturer, University of New South Wales
  • Dr Sharon Cooper, Lecturer, University of Newcastle
  • Ms Catherine Donnelly, Teacher
  • Dr Debra Donnelly, Lecturer, University of Newcastle
  • Professor Barry Down, Murdoch University
  • Dr Scott Eacott, Senior Lecturer, University of Newcastle
  • Professor Robyn Ewing, University of Sydney
  • Dr Margot Ford, Lecturer, University of Newcastle
  • Professor Jenny Gore, University of Newcastle
  • Ms Chris Glass, Senior Lecturer, Murdoch University
  • Dr Tom Griffiths, Senior Lecturer, University of Newcastle
  • Dr Steven Hodge, Senior Lecturer, University of Ballarat
  • Professor David Hogan, National Institute of Education, Singapore
  • Dr Kathryn Holmes, Senior Lecturer, University of Newcastle
  • Ms Jane Hunter Lecturer, University of Western Sydney
  • Professor Stephen Kemmis, Charles Sturt University
  • Mr Barry Kissane, Senior Lecturer, Murdoch University
  • Dr Elizabeth Labone, Senior Lecturer, The Australian Catholic University
  • Dr Simon Leonard, Lecturer, University of Canberra
  • Professor Bob Lingard, University of Queensland
  • Dr Julianne Lynch, Senior Lecturer, Deakin University
  • Associate Professor Jacqueline Manuel, University of Sydney
  • Dr Kelli McGraw, Lecturer, Queensland University of Technology
  • Dr Andrew Miller, Lecturer, University of Newcastle
  • Dr Wendy Miller, Senior Lecturer, University of Newcastle
  • Mrs Kate Moncreiff, Associate Lecturer, Deakin University
  • Dr Leila Morsy, Senior Lecturer, University of New South Wales
  • Associate Professor Julianne Moss, Deakin University
  • Dr Virginia Nightingale, Honorary Associate Professor, University of Sydney
  • Ms Jenni Parker, Lecturer, Murdoch University
  • Ms Carmel Patterson, Lecturer, The Australian Catholic University
  • Dr Laura Perry, Senior Lecturer, Murdoch University
  • Dr Eva Bendix Petersen, Senior Lecturer, University of Newcastle
  • Mrs Fiona Phillips, Associate Lecturer, Deakin University
  • Ms Shiralee Poed, Lecturer, University of Melbourne
  • Mr Greg Preston, Lecturer, University of Newcastle
  • Professor Jo-anne Reid, Charles Sturt University
  • Professor Alan Reid AM, University of South Australia
  • Assistant Professor Philip Roberts, University of Canberra
  • Dr Sue Roffey, Adjunct Associate Professor, University of Western Sydney
  • Mr David Roy, Lecturer, University of Newcastle
  • Associate Professor Sue Saltmarsh, The Australian Catholic University
  • Dr Heather Sharp, Lecturer, University of Newcastle
  • Associate Professor, Michele Simons, University of South Australia
  • Mr Michael Stuchbery, Teacher
  • Ms Debra Talbot, PhD Candidate, University of Sydney
  • Mr Matthew Thomas, PhD Candidate, University of Melbourne
  • Dr Katarina Tuinamuana, Senior Lecturer, The Australian Catholic University
  • Dr Jan Turbill, Senior Fellow, University of Wollongong
  • Professor Russell Tytler, Deakin University
  • Professor Margaret Vickers, University of Western Sydney
  • Dr Julie White, Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University
  • Dr  Jane Wilkinson, Senior Lecturer, Charles Sturt University
  • Ms Cheryl Williams, Lecturer, University of Newcastle
  • Ms Sally Windsor, Lecturer, University of Melbourne
  • Dr Amanda Woods-McConney, Senior Lecturer, Murdoch University
  • Dr Lew Zipin, Senior Lecturer, Victoria University


Photo Nicole Mockler 178x178Nicole Mockler is a Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of Newcastle. Her research interests include teacher professional learning and identity and the politics of education, and she teaches in the areas of curriculum, pedagogy and professional practice and research methods. Her published work includes Facilitating Practitioner Research: Developing Transformational Partnerships (Routledge, 2012), Rethinking Educational Practice through Reflexive Inquiry (Springer, 2011), Teacher Professional Learning in an Age of Compliance: Mind the Gap (Springer, 2009) and Learning in the Middle Years: More Than a Transition (Cengage, 2007).

156Greg Thompson is a Senior Lecturer at Murdoch University in the School of Education. His major teaching areas are the philosophy and history of education, education policy and secondary English curriculum. In 2011 he was awarded an ARC Discovery Early Career Researcher Award to look at the ways that NAPLAN has impacted on school communities in WA and SA.