Want to improve teaching? Ask a teacher
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”.
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