March 12th 2005

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: The media elites versus the public

CANBERRA OBSERVED: American-style workplace relations for Australia?

SCHOOLS: Teacher training at the mercy of politics

HUMAN CLONING: UN victory's implications for Australia

WESTERN AUSTRALIA: Gallop Labor Government returned to power

EDITORIAL: Debt tsunami moves closer

AUSTRALIAN ECONOMY: The economy that will confront the next generation

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Reserve Bank governor defends his record

ENERGY: Ethanol - Australia being left behind

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Visas for sale / Kyoto hot air convention / Europe, China and the US-Japan alliance / Edge of the abyss

ASIA: Japan, India and China - new strategic alliance?

VIETNAM: Hanoi's abysmal human rights record

A response to Babette Francis (letter)

Turkish massacre of the Armenians (letter)

Putin - can a leopard change his spots? (letter)

Abortion's hidden wounds (letter)

BOOKS: MICHAEL MOORE is a Big Fat Stupid White Man

BOOKS: SAME-SEX MARRIAGE: Putting Every Household at Risk

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Teacher training at the mercy of politics

by Kevin Donnelly

News Weekly, March 12, 2005
As anyone connected with teacher training in Australia knows, the current situation is substandard and flawed and, as noted in the NSW Vinson Report, many beginner teachers lack the skills and expertise to be effective teachers.

For far too long the work of teacher-training institutions has gone unchecked and, as the Australian Council for Educational Research argued in a submission on teacher quality, there is cause for concern. It said:

"To our knowledge, no teacher education program or institution has ever been disaccredited, yet variation in quality is known to be considerable. Teacher education is arguably one of the least accountable and least examined areas of professional education in Australia."

Political agenda

Part of the problem is the way those responsible for teacher-training and professional development push their own political and new-age curriculum agendas.

Long gone are the days when education was about introducing students to what Matthew Arnold termed the best that has been thought and said. Teachers are not simply there to teach history, literature, biology or mathematics, rather their role is to critique mainstream society and to fight for greater equity and social justice.

As argued by the Australian Education Union (AEU), this is because Australian society is a "class-based society that is diverse and characterised by inequality and social conflict". The AEU's statement that what it taught in schools must take into account:

"The role of the economy, the sexual division of labour, the dominant culture and the education system in reproducing inequality also signals that the school system is complicit in this injustice and that teachers must act to redress the situation."

The Australian Curriculum Studies Association (ACSA), a peak body bringing together academics, teacher educators and teachers, also argues that Australian society is riven by social injustice and that schools must be involved in rectifying the situation:

"They (schools) must work with all students ... to unmask and confront the complex social causes of inequality, including the function of schools themselves in this regard. In other words, schools must work at several levels to redress injustice in society which still fails to recognise it, and often to act upon it effectively even when it does".

Those lucky enough to have completed teacher training during the 1970s and '80s will recognise the approach to education advocated by the AEU and the ACSA. Building on the works of sociologists like M.F.D. Young, Pierre Bourdieu and Bowles and Gintis, the argument is that schools are part of the ideological state apparatus.

As such, the argument goes, competitive assessment and rewarding individual effort simply reinforce disadvantage. Similarly, the way traditional subjects like literature and history were taught "privileges" the more powerful and acts to marginalise already disadvantaged groups.

The result? Not only does ACSA's Policy on Social Justice, Curriculum and Pedagogy argue that schools are one of the important "social institutions in which social inequalities are produced", but the association also argues that traditional approaches to education are largely to blame:

"Traditional assessment practices at both the school and the system level based on competition, norm-referenced ranking and an emphasis upon written text have served as powerful strategies to reinforce social inequality".

While many parents and employers might think that competition and excellence are worthwhile pursuits and that success at school helps to overcome disadvantage and increases social mobility, teacher organisations disagree.

Thus, the emphasis is on non-competitive and non-graded assessment and an increased focus on affirmative action programs for so-called victim groups like women, migrants and the working class.

Those responsible for teacher training, such as the Australian Council of Deans of Education, are also guilty of pushing wacky, new-age curriculum ideas. In New Learning: A Charter for Australian Education, the argument is put that there are no "right" or "wrong" answers and that memorisation, rote learning and testing are things of the past.

The so-called "new basics" is all about "autonomous and self-directed learning" where, in the edubabble much loved by educrats, learners will be "equipped with problem-solving skills, multiple strategies for tackling a task and a flexible solutions-orientation to knowledge".

The ACDE also argues that "mathematics is not a set of correct answers" and that correct spelling is "something for spell-checking programs". So much for 1+1= 2 and the fact that no amount of spell check can distinguish between the correct use of to and too or knight and night.

It is time to ask whether the inmates have taken control of the asylum.

  • Kevin Donnelly, a former chief of staff to federal Employment Minister, Kevin Andrews, is author of Why Our Schools are Failing (2004).

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