SCHOOLS: by Dr Mark LopezNews Weekly
What price should we pay for progressive education?
, October 13, 2007
A combination of powerful teachers' union and progressive educational practices has produced a secondary education system that short-chagnes young Australians, writes Dr Mark Lopez."The teacher just gets us to take turns reading out of the novel until the period is over." This is what one of my Year 12 English students explained to me when I asked him why he had not taken sufficient notes in class as I had instructed him to do. "There is not much to write down," he stressed.
Another student, who had been in the same predicament, using a hushed tone appropriate to revealing inside information to which few are privy, elaborated: "The Asian kids who can't read very well sit there scared of being picked." So much for multicultural cultural sensitivity, I thought.
What's more, several students have pointed out to me that some year 12 English teachers just play the movie version of the novel in class, without offering any analytical comment. This constitutes a lesson - well, actually, several lessons, since a film can run for a couple of hours.
Other students report to me that their classroom lessons are directionless, with a teacher's discussion self-indulgently going off on a tangent, and then off on a tangent of a tangent.Cheated
When one concerned student tried to steer the lesson back on track by asking a topic-related question, the teacher retorted, "You should know that already." The teacher then continued as she pleased, leaving the student sitting there feeling cheated and wondering whether the teacher was evasive because she did not know the material.
As a private tutor, when I initially heard stories from students about these classroom practices, I was sceptical about their validity. I questioned the students: "Are you sure?" By now, I have heard these stories too many times to disbelieve them. These are among the more disappointing examples of professional practice in the age of progressive teaching.
A combination of powerful teachers' unions and progressive educational practices has produced a secondary education system that delivers far less education to young Australians than it could or should.
Meanwhile, the Victorian branch of the Australian Education Union (AEU) is pushing for yet another pay rise for teachers, this time 30 per cent. As in previous industrial campaigns for pay rises, the union claims that higher salaries lead to increases in teacher quality, a claim that, in the light of the problems mentioned above, appears attractive.
As a private tutor, I have the perfect vantage point to discretely observe how effectively the education system functions. Notably, there have been several significant pay rises for teachers in recent years. However, I have not detected any resulting improvements in teacher quality - in fact, no changes at all, either positive or negative. This suggests that it would be irrational to pursue this aim via salary increases, unless future salary increases were organised differently.
I suspect that the underlying reason there were no noticeable resulting changes in teacher quality was that the pay increases were awarded universally. The dedicated competent teachers who deliver are paid at the same rate as those who do not. Money is a powerful incentive. Those disappointing teachers, described above, who do comparatively little for their salaries, have no financial reason to improve. The unions will see that they are handsomely rewarded regardless.Less diligent
Meanwhile, those teachers who put in the necessary effort could observe what their less diligent colleagues are getting away with and ask themselves, "Why bother?" Many of the most disillusioned teachers have probably already left the profession, which is a great loss.
Not all the problems stem from the industrial policies of the teachers' unions. Progressive teaching methods have had their corrosive effects. One popular progressive practice is to assign each member of the class a chapter of the novel being studied to analyse. The teacher then photocopies all the chapter analyses, and distributes them to the class, so the students have a comprehensive set of notes on the text.
What invariably results is an educational disaster. The cleverest students produce something worthwhile; but the others, who are unguided and overwhelmed by this responsibility, produce muddled notes of little value to anyone.
Moreover, the mistakes made by some unfortunate students, which the teacher should have corrected and therefore contained with those students, are then spread to their unfortunate unsuspecting classmates, so there is a contagion of confusion.
Meanwhile, the cleverest students who worked hardest on their analysis often resent their material being distributed to less diligent classmates. As well as this, the less able students fear the embarrassment of their work being judged harshly by their cleverer peers, or they suffer the painful consequences of letting the others down.
Most students end up bewildered and disappointed, wishing their teachers had given them clear guidance and a coherent lesson instead of delegating their teaching responsibilities (but not their salaries) to their classes.
One teacher who practises this progressive teaching method, and who is head of her school's English department, was shocked and annoyed to discover half way through the school year that two thirds of her students had private tutors. (One of them was my student.) But, in the light of what these students faced, can you blame them?
Progressive education is somewhat like abstract art. There are many fancy intellectual justifications for it; but, to put it bluntly, much of its appeal for its practitioners is that it is easier to do than traditional representational art because you are not expected to be able to draw.
Traditional teaching methods that require expertise communicated in informative lectures are more difficult than progressive methods, such as dividing the students into groups and assigning them to work out what the novel being studied means.Confusion
Traditional informative lectures that clearly explain to the students what the novel means serve to remove any impasse of confusion that could hold up their progress through the material.
In addition to helping the students learn how to interpret texts by following their educator's example, the provision of this fundamental information frees the students' intellects for further reasoning, especially involving the scrutinising of supportive evidence from the text and making conceptual connections to wider social and historical issues.
If the students are also given sound instruction on deductive and inductive reasoning, and on effective essay-writing skills, the sophistication that these young minds can rapidly achieve is a delight to watch. Unfortunately, what too many students will receive in Australian classrooms is progressive education.
This means that they may be subjected to other educational concepts intrinsic to progressive teaching, such as so-called student-centred learning, in which lessons are geared towards students' interests, a notion that can be combined with post-modern relativist principles where the possibility of objective truth is questioned, so theoretically there are no right or wrong answers, an approach intended to promote the self-esteem of young learners.
In this context, some teachers are reasonably accommodating to students' interests and their approaches to the subject matter, but this is not always the case. In the teacher-dominated incubator of the classroom, the reality is that it is the autonomous teacher who interprets the course, teaches the course and then assesses the course.
With such a concentration of authority, the theory of student-centred learning is often easily overridden by teacher-centred practice, in which the unaccountable teacher arbitrarily determines what will happen in the classroom and what constitutes the right answer, and then imposes this on the class.
Post-modern relativism about what constitutes the truth or right answer becomes a rationalisation for the teacher to stick doggedly to his or her interpretation of the text being studied, while acknowledging the fact that the teacher in the classroom down the corridor may interpret it differently.
In the worst-case scenario, an ill-informed teacher forms an idiosyncratic concept of the right answer, which may be partially or wholly mistaken, then uses that concept as the yardstick to assess the students' work. It can be demoralising for students who have conducted independent research, and answered the question correctly, to later find themselves penalised in grades. So much for promoting the self-esteem of young learners!
Meanwhile, the industrial campaign of the Victorian branch of the Australian Education Union invites taxpaying parents to reflect upon what some teachers and teaching practices are worth.
There are problems with the education system as it stands. Instead of denial or defending the indefensible, the teachers' unions should think responsibly and creatively about what they can do to ameliorate these problems.
The objective should be to improve the quality of education for the benefit of students and their families. Of course, greater support for the dedicated competent teachers would be part of that process.- Dr Mark Lopez is an educational consultant and the author of The Origins of Multi-culturalism in Australian Politics (Melbourne University Press, 2000).