It’s easier to tell than to teach

The release of a discussion paper on teaching last week by NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli was not before time.

For too long, education policy has been surrounded by myths. For instance:
•    lift the ATAR for teacher training courses at university and we will naturally graduate better or brighter teachers;
•    pay teachers more and we will automatically improve teaching practice;
•    give principals greater autonomy and we will certainly improve school performance;
•    make class sizes smaller and we will logically ensure better student learning outcomes.

While some myths are falling out of favour – e.g. the lack of supporting evidence is making it increasingly difficult to hold up the small class policy as a key improvement strategy – many are still being propagated as a cure-all to what ails our schooling system with little or no evidence to suggest they will have the intended effect. Unfortunately many of these myths are focused at the wrong end of the problem. If we want to improve learning and teaching it will be in the doing or as Elmore says, we ‘learn the work by doing the work’. Silver bullet approaches or appeals to jingoism e.g. ‘Teach for Australia’ don’t do justice to the important issue that every child in every school deserves a good teacher.

Over the past few months, The Australian newspaper has been running a series called ‘Inside our Classrooms‘ and I have been reading with interest the views of teachers and education commentators on what they see as the key issues facing educators today. Some teachers believe it is becoming increasingly harder to ‘control’ students and are finding they are competing with Google for credibility in the classroom. Others are yearning for the ‘good ole days’ when scholarly excellence was the primary pursuit of the teacher. For myself, the issue goes far deeper than keeping students engaged in class or teachers having exceptional knowledge of their subject matter.

It’s in the relational aspect of teaching that the magic happens.

In the 21st century, teachers don’t just need good subject discipline knowledge; they need to have a deep understanding of pedagogical theory and be able to apply it in the classroom – it’s the profession of the teacher to know the difference and bring the two together. It’s in the relational aspect of teaching – the application of both content knowledge and pedagogical knowledge – that the magic happens; in how well teachers know each learner and personalise learning to accommodate diversity and individual needs.

We need to move beyond the myths to the practice – from the telling to the teaching. This relies on a very different framework; one that highlights the absolute complexity of teaching. And we need to take an honest look at our teacher training programs to see if we are adequately preparing teachers to meet the demands of 21st century schooling because the game has changed.

In the 21st century, we live in a connected world where students have unprecedented access to information and knowledge at their fingertips. It is no longer desirable or sustainable for teachers to be the sole keepers of information. The NMC Horizon Report: 2012 K-12 edition released in June predicts that tablets and mobile phone apps will be widely adopted by schools within the next 12 months with the potential to be prevalent across all academic disciplines because of their pervasive impact on practically every aspect of ‘informal life’. The report highlights the importance, both for teachers and students, of acquiring new skillsets such as ability to assess the credibility of resources, comprehend information, develop capacity for leadership and creativity which come about through ‘challenge-based, active learning’.

We know from Bransford et al (2000) that students are capable of discovering their own knowledge, incorporating that alongside previously learned knowledge and using that knowledge to solve real-world problems. The 2012 Horizon Report signals that those teachers who see themselves primarily as content experts will find it increasingly harder to survive, let alone thrive, in the modern classroom. Subject matter, while important, only goes so far.

On the other hand, a greater focus on accommodating new ways of learning and teaching to suit the changing context in which our students live does not necessarily equate to improved learning. Good teaching candidates require a deep subject knowledge – not necessarily the highest ATAR – and the passion to continue to learn about their subject area; they need to be able to relate well to young people and meet the learner where they are at; to understand and implement learning theory; and employ the right pedagogies to make a difference.

This requires a rigorous model of teacher training that incorporates both theory and practice; that provides quality feedback for teachers on their teaching; and one that links teachers with mentors and coaches while in training. Melbourne University has taken a step in this direction by offering a Master of Teaching where as part of the course, graduate teachers are placed in a school for a full semester and actively teach classes. Throughout the placement they receive quality feedback from experienced teachers and mentors and have the opportunity to build professional networks while learning their craft in situ in a real learning environment.

This model has application for all teachers throughout their careers. In our own system, we focus strongly on teacher collaboration and the use of professional learning communities with a specific inquiry focus because the research shows that teachers learn best when they learn together (Timperley et al, 2007). We need to find examples of teaching innovation and excellence and take them to scale through collegial collaboration and ongoing teacher learning. And to do any of this we need to trust the profession.

My point is that extrinsic factors don’t make good teachers. We have to work on improving teacher quality from the inside out. And while we certainly have to train and prepare new teachers coming through, we also have to work with the teachers already teaching in our schools.

It’s time to move beyond the myths and shift the focus from the telling to the teaching. As I commented in Saturday’s Sydney Morning Herald we need to build teacher capacity, involve teachers in continual professional learning and encourage them to share their practice with each other. Teachers are the ones who have to improve and get better at their craft.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.