Lyndsay Connors is Chairperson, Schools Council, National Board of Employment Education and Training.
I want to begin by thanking the Queensland Institute for inviting me to give the J.A. Robinson Memorial Lecture this year. I have taken the invitation as a mark of your interest in and commitment to the work of the Schools Council as a national-level policy advisory body to the Commonwealth Government.
On that basis, it seems appropriate to take the opportunity to speak tonight about aspects of the work that the Council is undertaking currently; then, from the perspective of one member of a national policy advisory body, to raise some questions about education research in Australia - where we are and where we are going? I should say now that these questions are based at this stage on what are really no more than personal observations, reflections of my own experience on both the Commonwealth Schools Commission and, now, the Schools Council.
In this way, I will at least have given this important group a briefing on what the Schools Council and the National Board have been doing; and a preview of the significant report we are currently preparing on one of the major educational issues of the decade: teachers and teaching and the quality of both.
The fact that the quality of teachers and teaching generally has become a major issue on the national political agenda at this time is in itself an illustration of the perversity of the policy context.
The fact is that the quality of teachers and teaching in Australian school systems is high by world standards, and higher than ever by Australian standards. Australian teachers are better qualified and longer trained than at any time in our history. In these circumstances, what factors have caused teacher quality to become such a big public issue? The range of social, political, economic and educational factors that has led to this circumstance is worth exploring briefly.
Those with conservative ideologies and a highly selective view of history have preferred to attribute the current gap between educational aspirations and actual achievements less to rising expectations than to declining standards.
It has been fashionable, for over a decade now, to advance simplistic and largely unsubstantiated claims that primary and secondary schools, and in particular public schools, have undergone a terrible decline in quality from their former heights.
Teachers and teaching are centrally implicated in these allegations of decline.
The current situation of teaching is damaged further by the myth that the status, as distinct from the condition, of teaching has declined. On the contrary, if we can believe the evidence, including from literature, there was never a time when teachers were regarded as other than a lowly profession, albeit one in which individuals often enjoyed the esteem and respect of their own students.
Teachers are also affected by the fact that ours is a society where having, rearing and educating children is unprofitable in the short term for almost all concerned. With the attempt to target and contain public spending, support for these activities tends to become more tightly targeted (in the form of handouts for stigmatised individuals and groups) rather than to be provided in the form of benefits that affirm the collective value of these activities. When great emphasis is being placed on things that are profitable in the short term, those groups whose work is to serve the relatively powerless and to provide them with costly services - the sick, the young - may themselves become vulnerable to attack.
Deteriorating economic conditions have created a context in which the public is unwilling to invest its funds in teacher salaries, which consume a considerable share of the public payroll, without higher returns in the form of more effective teaching and improved levels of student achievement.
The public appears unwilling to guarantee teachers recognition and authority, and elevate their salaries, without a concomitant guarantee of more effective teaching. Able individuals appear less willing to enter teaching without the prospect of advancement and professional compensation. Schools of education have no incentive to alter curriculum and entry standards and risk declining admissions. The delicate ecology of the teaching profession has been damaged. The balance between individual commitment, work and rewards has been disturbed.
The convergence between economic imperatives and the traditional roles of schooling is accelerating because of the growing recognition of the importance of the 'human factors' - human skills and ingenuity, human relationships and general competence - in raising productivity. Australians no longer view their continent as a site to be exploited for short-term gains. Literacy will now be demanded in its fullest sense to develop innovative capabilities and to tackle cultural impediments. These factors, along with changing technologies, are beginning to transform the relationship between schooling and the wider society.
While the significance of teachers' work has been growing, the work itself has been getting harder. Over the past two decades, successive policy shifts have affected the circumstances in which teachers work, as well as the actual tasks they perform.
The findings of the Karmel report, Schools in Australia, nearly twenty years ago, heralded a period of educational experimentation and innovation, hard on the heels of the need to accommodate a burgeoning school population in the post-war years which had left serious deficiencies in the recurrent and capital resources available generally to schools; and gross inequities in the distribution of school resources and educational opportunities.
This economically buoyant period of the early 1970s was also a time when many of the conventional structures and values of society were questioned.
By the mid 1970s, Australia was moving into a period dominated by social concerns. Schools were asked to take on increased responsibility, for example, for:
Of course, the policy shifts are by no means as discrete as such listing and labelling may suggest. In terms of policy articulation and translation into practice, these shifts overlap, so that they are felt cumulatively and unevenly by teachers in classrooms around the country, and are experienced in new forms by the successive cohorts of students and their parents entering and moving through schools each year.
In the harsher economic climate of the l990s, the Australian community is seeking a greater sense of security in, and more knowledge about, what is being taught and learned in schools. This has led to an emphasis on institutionalising, generalising and consolidating the educational gains made through successive waves of reform that began in the 1970s.
Evidence of the cumulative force of these policy trends in changing teachers' work can be found in the range of actual programs introduced by Commonwealth governments to give expression to imperatives that have emerged since the 1970s. These include the Disadvantaged Schools Program; the Special Projects (Innovations) Program; the Special Education Program; the Migrant Education (later English as a Second Language) and the Multicultural Education Programs; the Country Areas Program; various Aboriginal education programs; the Choice and Diversity Program; the School to Work Transition Program; and the Participation and Equity Program; the Computer Education Program; the Basic Learning in Primary Schools Program.
Demands for innovation and experimentation; for school-based decision making, curriculum development, research and evaluation; for more sophisticated forms of assessment; for more effective harnessing of technologies - these are all factors that have added cumulatively to teachers' work and to the pressures that work entails.
In sum, teachers' work has become more demanding and complex because of the changes in:
When a job becomes harder, one response is to improve the education and training for it. Thus it was that, in November last year, the Schools Council, following extensive national consultation and a major seminar, produced its report Teacher Quality.
It draws on the substantial consensus that emerges from the considerable number of reports that reflect the Australian and overseas experience and point to a need to examine and improve:
The Council put forward a series of recommendations including:
'That, as the Schools Council believes that sooner or later four year training must be a necessary minimum for the majority of teachers, more data be gathered on its costs and on a scaled implementation related to the supply and demand situation.'At the same time, the Higher Education Council was convinced that any automatic lengthening of teacher education courses at the discretion of higher education institutions needed to be examined in the context of:
The first is to take steps to simplify it. While teaching will always be a complex activity, it may be possible to examine issues like role overload and ambiguity, and the array of competing and conflicting demands, with a view to reducing the sense of ineffectuality and diffusion of effort. Clearer definitions of what can reasonably be expected through the assignment of clear priorities and discarding of lower priority items must be attempted.
The second is to find ways of teaching more productively, in terms of learning outcomes - that is, ways of teachers performing their work which lead to better outcomes for the effort they invest. This is an area of much debate, but again there appear to be constructive possibilities.
The third is to increase the rewards available and to improve the conditions of teachers' work.
Attempting to improve the quality of teaching requires dealing not just with the quality of performance by teachers, but with the structure, terms and conditions of their employment in a broad sense, and with the development of public confidence and support. Failing to relate these three factors - commitment, reward and support - will lead to frustration.
At this stage, my paper really becomes something of a work-in-progress report. I must stress that I am speaking now of operations rather than achievements; and taking this opportunity to share the ideas on which we are still working - ideas and proposals that do not yet have the formal endorsement of the Schools Council. The Schools Council is now in the process of developing a report on the quality of teaching which draws together, analyses and synthesises what we know about teachers and teaching. This is a tall order. The Council is being assisted in the preparation of its report by an experienced consultant Mr David McRae and Mr Robert Bluer, Counsellor to the National Board. The Council's Working Party is headed by Mr George Berkeley. We will need to consider the characteristics of the Australian teaching force; the perspectives from which teaching can be viewed (as labour, craft, profession, art, vocation); and what teachers value about their work (the social, economic and psychological factors that make teaching a rewarding, or a thankless task).
Our report, which we hope to complete this year, will need to examine the extent to which teachers' work can be defined; and the extent to which the work varies according to context. It must re-establish the primacy of what happens in the classroom, while giving consideration to the role of the teacher in the school and, thus to school leadership, and in the wider community. It will need to address the way in which teachers' work is structured and how this might be improved to enable new educational possibilities and to allow teachers to concentrate time and energy more directly on what is happening in their classrooms.
The Schools Council will also be considering teaching as a career, with a vie w to examining how this can be structured in ways which enable personal and professional growth, development and renewal. Finally, the Council's report will consider ways of establishing educationally useful forms of teacher appraisal which contribute both to career satisfaction for teachers and to legitimate public demand for information about the performance of teachers and students.
The Schools Council intends its report on Australia's teachers as a significant contribution to defining what might be called the educational and the professional agenda for the next decade. Consistent with what I see as the important role of the Council in acting as a conduit between government, the education community and the teaching profession, I believe our forthcoming report will complement the political and industrial agenda that are already shaping.
The Council is of the view that much could be gained by making teaching a more conscious and explicit process, an organised effort with a clear notion of intended outcomes. Many teachers already engage in such a process. It is hard to argue that teaching has occurred where learning has not been the outcome. Teaching is an act of communication. Teachers must view themselves as teachers of all, rather than as instructors of the able.
Achieving 'quality teaching' depends on knowing what teaching is. We believe that the way to improve the quality of teaching and learning in their most exact sense is through focussing on the working relationship of teachers and students in classrooms.
Mindful of its own requests for explicitness, the Council is considering proposing a list of qualities that, possibly in a more considered and refined form, could become a charter which guides teacher preparation, appraisal and professional development, and some forms of promotion.
Such a charter could not be exhaustive but could help to establish boundaries for the territory and identify what we believe to be the most important landmarks.
A Charter for Teaching could include the following:
In terms of structuring the task of teaching more effectively I believe that there is a need to recognise the inextricable link between teaching and learning. If we focus on the centrality of learning, it can be argued that schools are still very much organised around a kind of basic transmission model of teaching and learning - with the teacher as instructor and the students regularly assembled in standard-size groups - a model now reinforced by rigid industrial agreements and practices. The Schools Council's debates to date suggest that its members see teaching as a complex and largely holistic activity. Attempting to tease apart the various elements of teachers' work, in isolation from the implications for learning, is unlikely in my view to produce educational improvements. There are clear limits to the gains that can be made by transferring many of the functions performed by teachers to aides or para-professionals.
What we now know about the range of ways in which students learn seems to offer far more productive avenues for exploring ways in which to organise student groupings; to make more effective use of student and teacher time in and out of the school; to design and provide facilities and equipment, including the use of technologies; and to improve staff relations, student-teacher relationships and the relationships between schools and their communities, including parents.
The Schools Council is continuing to refine and develop the strategies put forward in our earlier report, Teacher Quality, with an emphasis on professional development as a means to enable the teacher to work more effectively, more quickly, do more difficult things and assume greater responsibility for a greater range of tasks and thus to contribute to the 'productivity of the enterprise' - in this case - schooling.
Teachers' work, and the path they follow over their careers cannot be separated from the idea of professional development as growth in maturity, experience and capacity of a teacher. In this sense professional development is equivalent to career development. What happens to a teacher's career in terms of pay, conditions, promotion possibilities, working environment, opportunities to work in various settings, initial and continuing education will all play an important role in the development of a teacher's professional posture.
For these reasons the report will stress the need to focus on the careers of teachers and how such careers can be structured to allow for the greatest possibilities for growth in maturity and capacity. Further it will suggest a number of environmental issues which may make this process of the development of new and better careers for teachers a real possibility. It will also consider how the idea of careers, which is clearly related to teachers' work, is itself related to work organisation, job design and job redesign.
The Commonwealth Minister for Employment, Education and Training (John Dawkins) has proposed a National Negotiation of teachers, employers and the Commonwealth, designed to maximise the possibilities and potentialities of award restructuring as it applies to the enterprise of schooling. In an initial statement (Quality of Teaching - An Issue for All) the Commonwealth pointed to examples of structural inefficiencies and rigidities in teaching.
The statement reinforces the need for on the job training as follows:
"For many teachers, on the job training and skill development is a one-off affair. It is often unsystematic, uncoordinated and unaccredited. Following award restructuring, teachers - like other workers - will be required to continue their training throughout their working lives. Continued training and development is essential to the maintenance of a higher skilled teaching force and employers need to recognise and reward teachers by providing opportunities for upgrading their skills."As well as proposing principles and practices that should underpin initial preparation for and induction into teaching as a career, the Schools Council suggests that there should be four basic types of INSET:
A career path emphasising the professional development of the teacher should be built around the following three elements:
Within this sort of approach it may be possible to see three phases of a teacher's career/professional life as follows:
Appraisals should be governed by a set of principles along the following lines. They should be:
The Council will be examining comprehensive forms of appraisal to sustain these various stages and elements of professional growth, drawing on the kinds of criteria proposed, for example, by Scriven (1989: 121-131) whi ch include such areas as:
The proposals I have foreshadowed above reflect a number of assumptions. The first is that the most significant and general reward which teachers get from their work is the work itself. The second is that teachers' careers conform to a number of broad patterns consisting of phases in which their needs differ. The third is that teaching is work that requires regular refreshment of one sort or another. The fourth is that teachers will benefit by having a more varied but better defined career structure, with varied goals to aim for and options to take up or ignore. The fifth is that such a career structure can be provided in cost-effective terms, and be provided in cost neutral terms. The introduction of the Advanced Skills Classification makes that impossible. However a strong consideration in framing the proposal was recognising that a large amount of funding newly dedicated to education is unlikely to appear and that it will be necessary to reorient and systematise activities already in place in some form in most systems.
I have given you an outline of the Schools Council's recent and ongoing work on the quality of teaching.
I want to continue by offering you some brief reflections and observations on school-related education research in Australia. These reflections have arisen in the course of the most recent policy project.
The report that the Schools Council is producing will draw heavily on education research. As it happens, it will draw more on overseas research than Australian. This may reflect the fact that the particular combination of circumstances that has led to a demand for greater teacher effectiveness and accountability, in a context of public spending restraint, occurred or was recognised earlier in some overseas countries than in Australia, stimulating relevant research. The research on which the report will draw most heavily will be what I would label 'explanatory' research: research that attempts to explain differences in educational outcomes among individual and groups of students and schools, focusing on those things that are amenable to influence by public policy. This is the large body of research on school and teacher effectiveness, school improvement, and school-community relationships.
For its material on the characteristics of the Australian teaching force, the report will rely primarily on the Profile of Teachers in Australian Schools, undertaken jointly by the Australian College of Education, the University of Queensland and what was then the Brisbane College of Advanced Education, with funding support from the National Board.
The fact that the Council has drawn heavily on overseas research for this major policy work may point to questions that should be asked about education research in Australia.
Both as a member of the Commonwealth Schools Commission and of the Schools Council, I have formed the impression not that there is a dearth of research to guide education policy, but that the existing research is rather fragmented and 'stand-alone' and has not been subjected to scholarly debate to establish its real meaning and significance in the Australian context. That is what we seem to be missing: scholarly consensus, or possibly a demonstrated lack of consensus, about research findings as a basis for policy development and for informed community debate.
In a recent paper on research in higher education, Professor Don Aitkin, head of the Australian Research Council, commented:
It is hard to escape the conclusion that our problem is not in producing research - we are conspicuous over-achievers in that; but in organising that production. To adapt a familiar metaphor, we have let a million flowers bloom, but we have forgotten to develop a cut-flower market. (How Research Came to Dominate Higher Education and What Ought to be Done About It, Don Aitkin, 1990).I would not say that we have let so many flowers bloom in the area of research on schooling. But his remarks do have some relevance. In producing its report on teachers and teaching in Australia, the Schools Council will have to take a significant responsibility for organising and distilling existing knowledge. I believe we would be able to feel more confident if our own debates had been strengthened by more vigorous debate among scholars. Of course, it is one of our own roles to promote that debate.
It could be argued that we have produced a system of research funding, in the higher education sector particularly, that places more of a premium on attracting funds and grants for research than on engaging in scholarly debates about the findings; or on contributing to a coherent body of research.
We may be better served, certainly from the perspective of bodies such as the Schools Council, by a more cooperative and systematic approach to research, from within the education profession itself, to establish coherent and consolidated themes and structures. The Australian Council for Education Research has attempted to grapple with this issue of establishing priorities and themes within its own areas of work. The Australian Research Council is also encouraging such an approach through providing infrastructure support for the development of research capacity in institutions from the former advanced education sector. These grants are aimed at allocating limiting resources in the most effective manner to strengthen or develop research potential. The funding is not provided as untargeted institutional funding, nor as support for individual research projects.
This program provides an opportunity to establish for example what could virtually be a Centre for Research for the Advancement of Teaching, bringing together a network of researchers based around the country, supported co-operatively by the major partners in schooling. Ventures of this kind would require co-operation among researchers (including those who tend to be funded from consultancy rather than research grants) authorities, and policy bodies to identify themes and develop networks.
Pooling our wisdom and resources to build up more systematic and coherent bodies of knowledge would assist in meeting the criteria identified by my colleague, George Berkeley, in his address to this Institute two years ago. He pointed then to the need for research that is timely and in useable form, if it is to influence real policy.
It is interest ing to speculate what difference, if any, the existence of such a centre for research on teaching in Australia would make to the work of the Schools Council and its forthcoming report. It would certainly tend to provide a focus for and, in that sense, encourage scholarly debate. Such debate would have allowed us to advance our own ideas more confidently and to present them to a better informed audience.
Even if such a body of well-debated Australian research had existed, I doubt that it would have been the primary source of influence upon the Schools Council. It would also be hard to argue that what we now see in Australian classrooms is primarily the result of disciplined inquiry. What a body such as the Schools Council or the National Board will have to say will be largely a reflection of its collective experience; its shared values; its collective assessment how things could be improved in the context of political, social, cultural and economic realities - or its collective interpretation of them. Then it will tend to draw on the body of available research - to test, justify and strengthen its judgments.
The strength of a body such as the Schools Council lies in the obligation to report publicly, and to justify publicly its proposals and the basis on which they are put forward, including making explicit the values on which they are based.
Education policy is necessarily based on values. It may be that we would be well advised to go to far more trouble than we have in recent years to clarify what our values and goals and, through making them explicit, to attempt to communicate and build consensus around them. Perhaps education research and researchers suffer as much as teaching and teachers from the lack of a clearly-articulated policy framework.
In the absence of the capacity to make explicit the values that underpin policy there is the danger of creating cynicism about education and education research generally. Reports like the US report What Works: Research about Teaching and Learning have the potential to create that cynicism by drawing selectively on research findings to justify a particular educational ideology. It would be far more appropriate to state Government policies and to ask what research has revealed about teaching and learning in the context of those policy goals. After all, a government that wants to promote an individualistic and competitive society and to cut public spending is not going to be dissuaded from that course by independent research showing that co-operative learning in small groups is superior to competitive learning in larger groups, and will interpret research on class sizes in the context of its own policy imperatives.
Arguing that research will necessarily be interpreted in a political and social context is not to support policy being made 'on the run' on the basis of the prejudices of prominent politicians or advisers, or in complete defiance of established facts. On the contrary, one of the most urgent reasons to become more sophisticated about building up a body of well-argued, timely and useable knowledge to inform policy is to reverse a trend towards increasing reliance on public opinion polls as a definitive guide to education policy - a reliance which inevitably gives undue weight to the opinions of those whose interest in schooling is uninformed, out-of-date, incidental and indirect.
To conclude, I believe that it is worth asking ourselves in the education community some key questions along these lines:
|Please cite as: Connors, L. (1990). The quality of education and the improvement of the teaching-learning processes: Impact of research on educational policy and practice. Queensland Researcher, 6(2), 4-31. http://www.iier.org.au/qjer/qr6/connors.html|