Angela Shanahan The Australian August 13, 2022
There was a meeting on Friday of all the education ministers, to try to work out some way of overcoming the appalling problems that beset our education system. Good luck with that. It has taken more than a generation to come to where Australian children are struggling with the most basic levels of academic achievement in one of the world’s richest countries. Many parents ask in dismay: “How did this happen?” But I am an ex-teacher. I know. Also, as a parent, I know. I had to teach a couple of my own children to read myself.
We should all know how it happened. For starters, ideology did not just mysteriously seep into the curriculum after a decline in standards. The changes in teaching practice, which abandoned explicit teaching and teacher-led classrooms, were the foundation for the ideological onslaught. The classroom environment, the role of the teacher and the methods of practice were all hijacked by ideology, which made it much easier for the curriculum to be modified as the vehicle for ideology.
Paulo Freire, a neo-Marxist philosopher from Brazil, came to Australia in the early ’70s and his views had a big effect on the education gurus of this country. Freire was a disciple of the new sociology of education viewing traditional teaching as oppressive. He was a leading advocate of critical pedagogy as tool for radically overthrowing the status quo. His notable works include Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Critical Pedagogy.
Explicit teaching, particularly in primary schools, has largely disappeared because this type of pedagogy favours education as “collaborative goal setting”. Consequently, the classroom is no longer teacher-centred, especially in primary schools. The teacher sits on the floor with the children, not at a desk, and the traditional classroom is replaced by the “open plan classroom”, which the teachers I have met call collaborative chaos.
Freire’s views allied closely with postmodernist deconstructionism, deconstructing texts to disallow “truth” and deconstructing ideological bias for gender, race politics and traditional assumptions about truth “that infect all histories and philosophies”. Consequently, there was a precipitous decline in the humanities in high schools. History, my first subject, was one of the casualties. In NSW, history ceased to be a compulsory subject. But even in the infants classroom ideology holds sway. Sleeping Beauty cannot be read because the prince’s kiss is not consensual, never mind Snow White and the dwarfs.
All this seems like sheer idiocy to most people. But most people – especially parents – don’t have control over educational and pedagogical theory that is pumped into new education graduates. Consequently, the quality and suitability of teachers and their education have finally come under the microscope.
Teacher education is a major problem. A lot of it is infected with ideology and wasteful theory, which is not applicable to teaching practice. According to a CIS report for the NSW government, there is evidence that teacher education programs are not consistently preparing trainee teachers effectively. A CIS audit of programs at 31 universities found at least 27 clearly emphasised practices that are not evidence-based and did not provide trainee teachers with sufficient exposure to explicit teaching approaches.
The report recommends improving initial teacher education by improving school-based practicums: “Among all factors contributing to teacher preparation, the quality and quantity of school-based practicum is the most significant … examples of high-quality practicum experiences can be highlighted in order to share and replicate successful practice.” I can attest to the truth of this. One learns to teach by teaching. I had a superior academic degree, but learning to handle a classroom full of unruly teenagers and getting them to shut up long enough to get some work done was another matter.
An associated recommendation of that report is to phase out the two-year masters degree because “there is little reason to believe the current expectation for postgraduate study – a two-year masters is contributing to improved preparedness or effectiveness of trainee teachers. However, it adds considerable imposts to new entrants”. The NSW Productivity Commission’s 2021 white paper recommended that “the costs and benefits of a two-year masters program be reviewed and compared with the potential benefits associated with an equivalent one-year qualification, such as the former graduate diploma”. My own experience informs me most of that should be practical apprentice-style training overseen by experienced senior teachers.
We are also told we do not have enough teachers; too few coming in, too many going out. Whether this is a fact has also been challenged by the CIS. Over the past 20 years, full-time-equivalent school students have increased by around 23 per cent, while the full-time-equivalent teachers increased by around 37 per cent. The data suggests the attrition rate of early career teachers is about 10-14 per cent less than has been reported. Teacher shortages are geographical and concentrated in STEM subjects, especially maths, and many teachers complain rightly of too much useless bureaucracy and “personal development”, which is compulsory.
Increasing and diversifying the supply of teachers that are most needed requires a combination of targeted strategies – including trying to lure people from other professions into teaching, especially in maths and science. This would result in more practical teaching, and less ideology. But one other thing that is difficult to “fix” is behaviour of children, especially in adolescents. More structure and more discipline in primary schools might help. The OECD has a scale of classroom behaviour. Of 77 countries, Australia rates near the bottom at 70.
1/ Education Minister Jason Clare, second from left, with state and territory education ministers at a press conference in Parliament House in Canberra on Friday. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Gary Ramage