No easy fixes – just good teaching

pirlsIn monitoring the commentary yesterday on the release of Australia’s latest rankings in PIRL and TIMSS exams, there was general agreement that our performance was well below par. A country like Australia cannot tolerate poor performance. We must lift our standard of learning and teaching and do so as a matter of urgency.

In noting the response, there was the usual long line of experts, policy makers, academics, teacher union and parent representatives across the various media channels all pointing the finger at the other saying teachers need to do better, spend more, get paid more, be smarter, get better training, work better with parents, and so on.

Glaringly absent in the commentary was the voice of the professional teacher.

If everyone agrees that good teaching makes the biggest difference to student learning why aren’t we looking to the profession to help drive the changes needed to ensure continuous school improvement?

We spend so much time and energy in the education sector adopting, adapting and applying – or arguing against and avoiding – yet another shortsighted, secondhand or unproven reform or initiative. As a veteran in the educational game I have lived through many of these reforms before and know they don’t work, so yesterday’s commentary about why Australia’s performance is below par and how we can ‘fix it’ made me throw my hands up in the air. When will we ever learn?

There are no easy fixes here. We have to be brutally honest if we are to substantially change our existing practices. We know they are not delivering the best for every student, so we need to stop tinkering at the edges and start transforming schooling. Old mantras need to be tested; everything must be scrutinised.

And the only way to do the work is for teachers to do the work. And if they don’ t know how – to learn the work. The simple fact is we need to get the distractors out of the way so good teachers and school leaders can get on with the job.

It would be nice if we all got paid what we thought we were worth. Additional pay might get a teacher up in the morning but it certainly won’t be the reason why they persist with a student who just doesn’t seem to be making progress. All the good teachers I know do the job because they love the job; even when it’s difficult and demanding. They persevere; they try everything in their toolbox and then some, to ensure that the kids in their class are getting it. And more than that – that they are thriving.

Think about the teachers you know that inspire you or challenge you. They aren’t doing the same thing they did last year or even last month, they change and flex to suit the needs of their students. They spend much of their time finding new and better ways to engage students; to make learning interesting, relevant and meaningful for their students. The learning experiences they create range from using pen, paper and string to fully charged, connected, digital experiences. Like the teacher from Northern Beaches Secondary College featured in last week’s Sun Herald who dug up half the school yard to create an archaeological site for her students. What motivates this breed of teacher? What makes them tick?

Often in the teaching profession we mistake complacency with collegiality. We convince ourselves it is better not to celebrate excellence or elevate a few shining examples for fear of denigrating the whole profession. This is wrong thinking.

Imagine the outcome if the medical profession didn’t push the boundaries, risk failure, dust themselves off and try again? Forget organ transplants, brain surgery or even penicillin. None of these life saving techniques or treatments would be around today if the few hadn’t persevered and looked for new and better ways of doing the work, and they wouldn’t have perfected and improved these techniques and treatments if they hadn’t shared their learning with their colleagues.

The same needs to happen in teaching. The best thing the profession can do for itself is identify innovative practice – excellent practice – and showcase it, celebrate it and share it. In essence good teachers need to teach other teachers how to do it too.

As I mentioned in a recent post, thought leader Don Tapscott says we need to share our intellectual property in order to ‘lift everyone’s boats’. This is true of the teaching profession in driving school improvement. Not one individual has all the answers. Good ideas require more than one head, great ideas even more heads. One teacher won’t improve the learning in their school in isolation… nor will two teachers. They might make a difference to the kids in their class but without the collective responsibility of all teachers in the school working together to lead the improvement agenda their influence will be limited.

I know I run the risk of alienating some of my colleagues, but that’s not my intention. After yesterday the last thing I want to do is point the finger.

What I do want to do is challenge the profession to take back the agenda; to work together with their colleagues and school leaders to drive change and improvement; to challenge the status quo; to find new ways, better ways; and to make that difference to the lives of their students. There is no other way to improve learning except through good teaching.

If we can reflect honestly on Australia’s performance, we can identify new possibilities rather than rehash old programs or experiment with new ones. We just have to focus with determination and precision and address the central issues related to the practice of good teaching.

7 thoughts on “No easy fixes – just good teaching

  1. Hi Greg, Your points in this post Resonate with me big time! Reflection required to see how this can apply in my situation.

    While I don’t always agree with you, you always offer something to consider and for that, I thank you 🙂

    Warm regards,

    Kerry Gestier Education Officer – Resources and Media

    Catholic Schools Office Diocese of Wagga

  2. According to my experience and close observation about teaching and learning in a few countries, in developing countries due to less resources and heavy competition for jobs and better lifestyles, students strive sternly with sole focus to achieve their ambitions and they are closely monitored and supported by parents. Often the parents contact their kids’ teachers constantly to know the progress of their kids so the teachers are in great responsibility of committed teaching. Moreover, each teaching staff is inspected regularly every year by the Department of Education and they are offered suggestions. In Australia, these things are mostly missing. Teaching has to be a triangular (teacher-student-parent) involvement and responsibility. The Bible says, “A cord of three strands is not quickly broken” (Ecclesiastes 4:12).

  3. Thanks for this passionate post Greg, much appreciated. I like the comparison with the medical profession. I have used this analogy when discussing how we respond to resistant students, eg won’t do homework. Does a doctor refuse to treat a patient who does not comply? Our professional responsibility is to persist with students to find the strategies that engage them in their learning.

  4. Wow Greg, what a complex issue (as usual)! In the IT industry, when a gap opens up between two competitors in the same field, the first thing done is a GAP analysis, to see what are the differences and what are the similarities between the two products or processes or technologies. Then the identified differences are evaluated for their impact on the outcome, and those with the greatest impact are applied to try to bridge the gap, together with something new to help gain an edge.
    Do you think the collective minds of teachers can achieve this on their own, especially given they may have little knowledge of the “other side”, e.g. What are the teaching practices in Hong Kong or Canada and how similar or different to Australia and it’s many variants are those practices. This surely must be a national, state and local teacher collaboration with the input of someone who can see the other countries policy and practices. This would be what educationalists such as yourself would facilitate and fund to make the gap understood and the changes practically implemented. Of course teachers need to be involved, but we cannot ask them to do the job blind and expect an outcome of higher rankings and better educated children when they cannot surely know what is the best practices of our “opposition” (if you want to continue with the competitive theme, which I am not sure is all that helpful)!
    Neil Joseph

    1. That’s where good theory and practice come in Neil. The work can never be done in isolation but the profession needs to be key in the improvement agenda because in the end delivery relies on the teachers doing the teaching. Noel Pearson had an interesting perspective on the roles of policy makers, educationalists and teachers in today’s Australian

      Often the voice of the professional teacher is minimized or forgotten in the commentary on this issue.

  5. Agree, Greg.. teachers do need to teach and develop each other’s practice. All the research on school-based professional development and processes that encourage dialogue and observation at local level, such as Instructional Rounds, highlight the importance of developing our own teaching practice. Opportunities for being ‘connected’ and sharing our practice have multiplied beyond our own classrooms and schools, however. Through Twitter and blogs and sharing of resources and links and ideas, by meeting and conversing at a TeachMeet – teachers can share and be proud of their practice and learn and reflect and grow.

    But it is not just about teachers taking back the agenda. Leadership in schools also must continue to evolve in order to provide access to and dialogue around current educational research, to support changes in practice, to support the growth of social capital in schools. There is only so much that can be done to grow professional capacity by sharing ideas over lunch or by talking to a colleague who sits near you. Schools – leadership teams, in particular – must continue to look for and celebrate great practice and value all teachers as instructional leaders so that individual capacity can be developed, but also so that the combined educational capacity of the school can grow through student voice, teacher voice, shared experience. And it needs to be allowed to grow – within a strategic overview, but in an organic manner (if that’s not too contradictory a statement…) Thanks for your post!

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