People & Ideas

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.

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

  1. klewso

    “It’s all teachers fault”?

  2. Matt Hardin

    As a newly graduated teacher in science. Would add that the year 8-10 science curriculum is high on definitions and facts and low on engaging themes. It seems to suffer from the fact that the writers of the curriculum want to train professionals in their area and not equip students to understand the world.

  3. pinkocommierat

    The problem is the terms of employment. Many talented teachers are so demoralised they leave the profession… you would, too, when it’s usually politicians, bureaucrats, entrepreneurs and opinion columnists telling you they have all the answers (no offence intended).

  4. Robert Jameson

    I do not know if I should say I am a former teacher – I did teach for one year and gave it up as a bad joke. There is no discipline and the teacher is treated like $hit by the kids and like $hit by the education system. That is why the profession does not attract quality applicants.
    The education system has been deliberately dumbed down. Control deliberately taken away from the teachers. I guess there were too many kids in the 1970s from working class suburbs taking up prestige places at Univ’s.
    Making learning ‘fun’ and ‘joyful’ is not the answer. Streaming is! The current system works on the basis of one size fits all. That can never work. Business wants workers who can ‘take instructions’ – not kids who know nothing and want to keep asking WHY.

  5. Delerious

    Kind of a romantic view. Those kids who want to learn don’t ever lose their desire to but sadly puberty is a time of “NO”. Basically you could say what a beautiful day it was and their automatic response is “NO” or “whatever”. I appreciate that some teachers are better then others etc but I didn’t mind tests when I was at school and I didn’t mind learning and I didn’t mind being there, actually loved it but I was odd. Up until year 10 I was surrounded by NO but once they had left and I was in Yr 11 that all stopped. Sadly, thanks to John Howard, kids, who want to learn don’t have that freedom when they hit yr 11. No matter who, or what, teacher they have.

  6. Richard Smith

    So teaching is beyond the reach of rational processes and entirely in the hands of ‘creative’ individuals? How then do you account for the now voluminous research evidence that tells us that teachers ‘matter’ and that meany of them don’t know how to do it?

  7. laughlovenjoy

    I have much respect for teachers with passion and interest and a keenness to share their knowledge with hormone-addled teenagers. Being at the coal face, Chris of course knows of what he speaks – but I do wonder if it was ever thus?

  8. John Attwood

    After 30+ years in the classroom, I agree with Chris to the extent that there is an overemphasis on testing, with NAPLAN at Years 3, 5, 7 and 9, entrance tests for Year 6 into selective schools, Year 10 SC exams, and the big cahuna – the HSC. That a student’s entire future could depend on that single event is undeniably false, but the perception is that it does!
    Why do people continue to believe that the HSC is a “single chance” for students? There are endless possibilities after HSC.
    Why do people (parents in particular) seem to believe that a University education is more important than a trade? I know sparkies who I treasure far more than my GP.

  9. Gavin Moodie

    Pupils’ appetite for knowledge was suppressed long before the ‘relentless regime of testing’ was mandated in Australian secondary education. It is also observed in many other countries; Foucault would argue that it is part of the nature and purpose of schooling.

  10. old greybeard

    I will tell you that governments definitely do not understand the problems. They would rather we walk in Grey Moderand. I have taught for over 20 years and came to the game in my late 30s. I have two kids who were great at science. One works in Earth Sciences, but the other gave it up because of a teacher clash, However, my favourite school subject, Chemistry has become a boring nonsense becasue we refuse to exclude unsafe students from the lab. Instead, we dumb down and make a wonderful subject boring due to rubbish pracs. God forbid, we may make a few slightly risky materials. We may not use in a lab what the kids paint themselves with out of class. Remove the wonder, lose the plot. I often discussed this dumbing down with my far distant uncle who proclaimed curses upon such things. He was a pretty good chemist, the only Australian Nobel Laureate in the field. MAybe he had something?

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