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Jul 14, 2014

Want to improve teaching? Ask a teacher

The media has been full of complaints about poor-quality teachers. But does the answer really lie in choosing teachers with better academic marks? Teacher Chris Fotinopoulos is not convinced.

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Whenever I watch my six-year-old nephew write, read, make things or play games, I ask myself how long before his enthusiasm for learning is drummed out of him.

And whenever he asks peculiar questions or presents hilarious takes on the world, I again ask how long before he clams up, as many students seem to do in their early teens — usually out of fear of saying or doing the wrong thing.

In contrast to what it’s like teaching teenagers, I’m astonished at young children’s insouciance to mistake-making. They don’t care if they have misspelt a word. They’re unperturbed by the lack of perspective in their drawings, or the incoherence of their reasoning, or the waywardness of their thinking. And rather than becoming bogged down in “getting things rights”, they bound down the path to discovery that undisciplined thinking often leads to.

And if you observe a child scurrying down the path of wonder long enough, you’ll notice an improvement in their literacy, numeracy and creative skills. This is not to say that they do not require guidance; they do. But they accept it with pleasure and gratitude, as opposed to the reluctance that secondary teachers contend with on a depressingly regular basis.

What I have come to appreciate in my 25 years of teaching is that a child’s insatiable appetite for knowledge cannot be sustained under a relentless regime of testing and mandated assessment, as is the current trend in Australian secondary education. Rather, it is driven by a child’s innate need to get better at what they love doing. The challenge for the Australian education system is to sustain this boundless enthusiasm for learning.

Education experts and governments understand this challenge. And teachers appreciate the magnitude of the challenge. A federal review of teacher education is in full swing, with media coverage and expert opinion abounding. It’s worth asking how education experts and practitioners propose to meet this challenge.

“I am not, however, convinced that a high ATAR score necessarily leads to high-quality teaching.”

It’s no surprise that classroom organisation, behavioural management and inspiring teaching have been identified by school principals as problems, in relation to graduate teachers. This, according to some in the teaching profession, can be attributed to the poor calibre of candidates in university teacher-training programs. As identified by a teacher at an independent school in The Australian:

“… out of 48 institutions that conferred teaching degrees in 2012, 30 enrolled upward of 700 students with an ATAR between 30 and 50 and more 1300 students with ATAR below 60. To achieve an ATAR of 60 or below represents the bottom 35% of year 12 applicants. Below 50 is the bottom 25%.”

The author suggests that “these are not the range of ATAR scores that will deliver scholarship and academic excellence in the classroom”.

No doubt, the teaching profession needs to attract highly intelligent candidates. As highlighted in an issues paper from the Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group:

“There is strong national and international evidence that a teacher’s effectiveness has a powerful impact on students. In the Australian context, it is conservatively estimated that a student with an effective teacher can achieve in three quarters of a year what would take a full year with a less-effective teacher.”

I am not, however, convinced that a high ATAR score necessarily leads to high-quality teaching. Without passion, creativity and the ability to stimulate curiosity and ignite passion for learning that all children posses, a teacher is nothing more than a trainer. Unlike accountants, engineers or lawyers, teachers are more like creative artists. To do this job well requires qualities that cannot be solely identified through the tests and measurements that are used to select candidates for other professions. Excellent teachers inspire joy in learning. And they need to be, as Kurt Vonnegut once put it, “crazy in love with what [they] teach”.

I often hear secondary school students complain about school no longer being fun. Tempting as it is to respond with “not everything in life is meant to be fun,” or “we’re here to learn, not to play games,” it’s worth asking why “fun” has become a dirty word in education.

I guess when a student asks for a lesson to be fun, they are yearning for a time when learning was joyful and full of wonder — when their intellectual development was not stymied by stringent curriculum requirement and a tedious testing regime.

A colleague recently put it me that the increasing emphasis on testing and re-testing may be causing students to switch off and lose interest in education. And given the lacklustre attitude to study that many students present, I’m inclined to agree.

With increasing emphasis on formal assessment, learning has been compared to, as one student put it, “studying for your learner’s permit over and over again.” The student added: “Why would anyone look forward to such tedium?”

The focus on low-level rote learning and relentless testing has sucked the life out of learning. We need to ask, as Noam Chomsky does in his attempt to pinpoint the purpose of education, “do you train for passing tests, or do you train for creative inquiry? If you are to follow the current trend in schools, it is sadly the former.” The great thinker Bertrand Russell raises the same concern when stating that “passing tests doesn’t begin to compare with searching and inquiring and pursuing topics that engage us and excite us.”

Teachers need to rediscover their passion for teaching if we are to have any chance of reigniting student passion and excitement for learning.

* Chris tweets at @CFotinopoulos

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16 thoughts on “Want to improve teaching? Ask a teacher

  1. William Byron

    You have hit the nail on the head. The upshot here (yet again!) is that teachers are to blame. The solution apparently is to be more passionate…. Could you imagine talking in this way about any other industry?

    This kind of thinking and talking REINFORCES the status quo: If the teachers are to blame (not “smart enough” or skilled enough” “lazy”) then we legitimize the idea that there is no need to use research to improve the way in which classrooms and schools are structured. No need to put more money in to improve outcomes because its the teachers not doing their job.

    I believe that the only way to make any inroads in improving education (by this I mean using the research to base policy decision-making and spending) is through non-partisan educational policy. This was the reason for such huge and almost instant improvement in Hong Kong and many of the other countries that are now lauded as models.

    All we have in the way of policy debate is about education is “vague content wars” (Donnelly) and “we have proven that class size reduction has no effect on learning outcomes because class size has reduced in Australia from 24 to 21…” (Pyne). This kind of talk is not based on research, but, is pure ideology.

    Only when education is de-politicized can improvement be made it would seem. Sadly, as everything is now politicized and/or left to the domain of personal belief little will change.

    We live in a world now where disagreeing with research/evidence because the research does not support my world-view is socially acceptable.

    The weakness of the educational is the fault of government and policy makers NOT teachers.

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