Educating Australia (part 2)

Sometimes when I haven’t blogged for a while, I write a piece just to keep things going. I’m quite good at writing what is basically the same opinion piece, either with slightly different words or slanted at a slightly different angle. Regarding this particular piece, I barely know where to start. I made my first foray into Australian edu-debate on Twitter last week, and it didn’t go very well.

Twitter is potentially a great platform for debate – it brings you into contact with a wide range of people with a wide range of views. It’s good to have your views challenged, to listen to the opinions of others and to be open to persuasive argument. However, it tends to break down in two ways: firstly when people have no real interest in exploring ideas, but instead use it to shout their views, fog-horn like, into the Twitter abyss. Secondly, when people see the principle purpose of argument as the need to ‘win’, and will do whatever it takes to force a win. It tends to mean that disagreement is seen as undesirable and this can quickly descend into personal attacks that do no one any favours.

Back to last week. One question being discussed was about how to raise the status of the teaching profession. ‘Status’ in this sense can mean several things: public perception of the profession, how attractive the teaching ‘package’ seems to an outsider etc and at least one aspect of status in a profession is the respect people have for those who do the job. Part of the general problem is that everyone has been to School and therefore everyone has an opinion and probably thinks they can do a better job than would be the case. I think teaching seems quite a low status profession in Australia, and at least part of this comes from the talent pool that enters the profession each year. This may well be a ‘chicken and egg’ discussion – is the status low because the talent is low or does low talent equal low status? In any case, every profession should be committed to getting in the brightest and best to swell its ranks.

In Australia, one needs to have a qualification in education/teaching qualification to be able to teach in a School. This is the same in UK state Schools, but not in the independent sector, where Schools can appoint unqualified teachers. I have experience over the last 7 years interviewing (around 60) and appointing (around 15) teachers each year. There is nothing more important, in my opinion, than the quality of teachers you appoint in your School. To this end, I have always looked to be creative in my approach to get the very best talent through the door. When posts were advertised, we used to contact the dozen or so top university departments for that particular subject to see if any of their soon-to-be graduates would be interested in a one year teaching contract, with the possibility of renewal. We appointed some teachers via this route, generally with great success. We knew there was an inherent risk in appointing individuals who were young and ‘green’ but our general philosophy was to appoint talent and back ourselves to be able to develop that talent. It meant we were able to appoint genuine subject experts, fresh from the sharp end of academic study. We had a few months to get them up to speed before they started with us and we had a thorough induction programme that would ‘train’ them on the job. Mentoring programmes (social as well as academic), strong academic and pastoral management and a clear School ethos were also necessary to ensure these teachers made a strong start.

Twitter only has 140 characters, so it’s hard to get all this across. My comment was this:
Benjamin Evans on Twitter: “Remove the need for teachers to be trained to get top graduates straight into the profession and trained on the job #acelchat”

In retrospect I probably could have phrased it better, but the point I was making is a condensed version of the one above.

My comments were challenged rightly and fairly:
Dr Deborah Netolicky on Twitter: “@thingsbehindsun does a top subject graduate make a top teacher? What about knowledge of pedagogy, assessment, behaviour mgmt? #acelchat”
Aaron Davis on Twitter: “@gripgirl @thingsbehindsun wonder if the same toolset, skillset & mindset that combine to make a top grad also combine to make a top tchr?”

My response would be that excellent academic qualifications do not necessarily equal a good teacher, but deep subject knowledge is one essential requirement. One needs to be able to communicate that knowledge, to deliver and embed the subject matter, to be intuitive to a degree that one can vary the medium of communication as necessary and to possess genuine charisma so that children are inspired by what is taught and the person teaching it.

I think it is probably easier to develop the ‘craft of the classroom’ on the job than it is to correct a knowledge deficit, but I accept this is a generalisation. If you can’t communicate to children, you’ll be a pretty lousy teacher, but the best communicator in the world will be of limited effectiveness if he/she doesn’t know what (s)he’s talking about.

Teachers are generally quite a sensitive bunch, and some were more vocal in their disdain, as evidenced by the following:

Joel Speranza on Twitter: “@pro_learn @Capitan_Typo @thingsbehindsun @debsnet @corisel This is just awful and completely devalues the profession. #acelchat”

We had the familiar argument that pilots and brain surgeons should not be untrained:

Glenn Langford on Twitter: “@Steve_Pinel @corisel @pro_learn @Capitan_Typo @thingsbehindsun @debsnet yeah, let’s train brain surgeons on the job too. Waste of a degree”
Shane B Duggan on Twitter: “@thingsbehindsun @pro_learn @debsnet similarly: pesky qualifications keeping excellent folk out of the cockpit of commercial jets..oh wait”

This sounds like a sensible argument, but I think it’s worth pointing out that a higher education degree in a subject matching the one you will be teaching can be considered to be relevant ‘training’ for one’s teaching career. We all teach subjects (as well as children), after all. There are plenty of successful self-taught chefs (Heston Blumenthal for example), and few of us will be interested in the specifics of their catering course, so long as the food tastes good. This is similar to the experience of going to a concert and listening to a virtuoso violinist. In any case, I wasn’t advocating no training at all, simply that we could in some cases provide this ‘on the job’. Every brain surgeon has to perform brain surgery for the first time, and every pilot must have to land a plane containing passengers for the first time, so all professions must have at least some aspect of in-service training.

I think the reason I touched such a raw nerve is due to people linking status with being official trained, hence removing that need for training takes away some sense of status ie exactly the thing I was suggesting we needed to improve. I take this point, but in a profession that does struggle in both recruitment and retention, I think we need to explore options such as the one mentioned above.

The other thing which caused indignation was the suggestion that excellent subject knowledge is a cornerstone of effective teaching. It’s not the only thing that matters, but it’s pretty fundamental. I am a pretty effective chemistry teacher, but I’d be hopeless teaching French, mainly because I don’t speak French. I can have all the classroom management sorted out, but there’s an insurmountable barrier which is my lack of expertise.

When considering academic qualifications, I tend to look at undergraduate degree first. Degree name ie relevance, class of degree, institution from where it was gained are all important considerations. The institution is generally dependent on performance at School, and therefore it’s difficult to be accepted to a top ranking university with a low ATAR (Australia) or low A level grades (UK etc). Academic success tends to follow on from previous academic and whereas your ATAR is by no means a be all and end all, it will shape your academic pathway and future to a degree.

I made the point that accepting people onto education degrees with an ATAR of 60 is likely to lead to subject in expertise in the profession, but instead of agreeing with or challenging that point, the anecdotes came out. If my grandfather lived to 100 and smoked 60 a day, that doesn’t prove smoking is good for your health.
Linda J. Graham on Twitter: “@thingsbehindsun @Capitan_Typo My husband had ATAR of 53. He went into PR & earned 3 x Ts salary. Now doing an MBA but wld have been gr8 T”
Linda J. Graham on Twitter: “@greg_ashman @thingsbehindsun His sister had an ATAR of 58. She became a T for an elite independent boys schl & wrote a maths textbook”
I’m sure there are exceptions, and the two above may be valid examples, but I don’t think it gets us anywhere to focus too much on the exceptions to the rule. I was surprised at the level of suspicion around those with outstanding School academic records and excellent subject qualifications. It is an unfortunate (and untrue, in my experience) that people who are highly knowledgable about their subject are generally unable to communicate their expertise, as though they operate on a higher academic plane to us mere mortals and can’t manage to talk down to us. Richard Feynman is a pretty notable exception, but I’m keen to steer clear of anecdote territory. Excellent subject knowledge comes about when one has a high level of raw cognitive power, has displayed genuine interest in their subject and has been dedicated to hard work. It is therefore odd that some people would prefer (all things being equal) to be taught be someone operating at a lower level in all three categories.

I still like Twitter, I still like debating on Twitter and I like to feel that I remain open and willing to change my views. It’s also important not to take yourself too seriously. I am clarifying my ideas on how I think Australia could improve its education system, but maybe that’s a post for another day.