Alison Rout June 29, 2012
Shaping the foundations of a solid future ... David Gonski's recommendations suggest that finding ways to improve teacher quality can bridge socio-economic boundaries.
Thanks to the Gonski Report, improving the quality of our teachers is the focus of some attention. This is a good thing, because the research shows teacher quality is the single most important factor in influencing the level at which students achieve, apart from the socio-economic status of their parents.
In education policy circles, finding ways to improve teacher quality to such an extent that it compensates for a student's low socio-economic background is the Holy Grail.
Clearly, the search should involve listening to a broad cross-section of views, but problems arise when commentators assume the role of experts simply because they've attended school themselves.
This is where universities should come in, as the engines of research. But the research, so far, has given few clear guidelines for how to produce high-quality teachers.
Parachuting high-achieving graduates into the teaching profession is a new strategy being tested mainly in the private sector. But while it might sound like a (cheap and) tempting solution, I'd need to be convinced that a support system including effective mentoring is in place, to ensure unsuspecting students aren't disadvantaged.
Safer, perhaps, to research past HSC high achievers who trained as teachers and ended up teaching in classrooms (I am one of these). Why haven't they been tracked to assess their potential impact on student levels of achievement?
Increasing the time spent by trainee teachers in classrooms is another strategy being proposed to produce high-quality teachers. But gut feeling should never be used as a basis for policy - so this, too, needs to be tested by research.
As someone who has had the unusual opportunity to see what goes on in primary, secondary and tertiary education, I believe the broader issue that really needs to be addressed is the quality of the practical experience of teacher trainees.
Given that the My School website now contains publicly available data which purports to identify the schools achieving excellent outcomes (as measured by the controversial NAPLAN tests), why aren't the next generation of teachers being sent to those high-performing schools to learn the tools and tricks of the trade?
Gathering data from students to raise public awareness of educational issues is a necessary first step, but the next obvious step is for the federal and state governments to use the data to solve educational problems. A further step could involve identifying high-quality teachers and targeting them as trainee teacher supervisors. How about tasking the Institute of Teachers with identifying good teachers who are also good mentors? What a transformative resource those teachers could be.
Using the knowledge we already have in smarter, more connected ways is necessary if we want to grab the Holy Grail. Creating links between the NSW Department of Education (which needs quality teachers in its most disadvantaged schools) and the Deans of Education faculties (who want quality experiences for their undergraduates) is an obvious one. Their needs are symbiotic, so they should be listening to each other and working together on research, trialling and implementing what they find out. A model for this can be found in the medical sector at the Chris O'Brien Lifehouse at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney, where research and practice are intertwined.
This approach should also solve a problem at the university end of the equation, which is the quality of feedback given to students by academics who are supposedly supervising them during their pracs. I have known students who have never seen their supervisor during their pracs, let alone shared time in a classroom with them. The Grail we are seeking is teachers with the ability to link theory with practice through self-critical reflection. Some do it instinctively - and many of us have been lucky to have been taught by one or two of them - but the rest need to be nurtured into understanding why thinking critically is so valuable to professional teachers.
Those university lectures about theories of how most of us learn, why some of us can't learn like the others, why most of us behave a certain way, while others do not, might seem a waste of valuable time to young teachers, who are in a rush to get out there and ''do it'', on their own, in a class of 30 students.
But for someone like me, who has spent decades in classrooms from kindergarten to university level, those theories are what I fall back on when I try to work out why I couldn't give the lesson I'd planned because a student in my class couldn't actually read the question, or was unable to follow more than one instruction at a time or chose to disrupt others in the class for reasons that weren't immediately obvious to me.
Reflecting critically on those failed lessons, which are a part of every teacher's classroom experience, is what's needed - working out what went wrong, when and why. Why some students didn't learn and why others weren't interested. The ability to get better learning outcomes from students next time, through this kind of reflection, is where high-quality teachers get their edge.
It's this kind of thinking that needs to be at the core of our university teacher training courses and the supervised pracs of trainee teachers in our schools.
Alison Rout taught in NSW public primary schools for 30 years and is now senior teacher librarian at the Illawarra Grammar School and a research librarian at the University of Wollongong Library.
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