• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author

Gonski billions fool’s gold unless student teachers master subject discipline

There is lots of talk of education reform in the air. It is likely the Gillard government will use its response to the Gonski report to promote itself as the party of education reform in the next election.

Critics of the Gonski report focus on the large financial costs required to pay for implementing its proposals. However, if the increased spending required for its implementation actually led to a significant improvement of Australia’s education it would be a price well worth paying. But money cannot be directly converted into educational attainment and the implementation of Gonski will do little to enhance the quality of schooling here.

Experience of government-led educational reforms in the Anglo-American world indicate that they are singularly ineffective in tackling the problem. Since the 1970s, debates on education have focused on the need to raise standards, yet one government after another has failed to make serious headway on this front.

The Thatcher and Blair regimes in Britain and the Reagan and Clinton governments in the US were all committed to raising standards of education: despite their different policies and emphasis they all proved ineffective in tackling the problem.

Policies that rely on large-scale financial investment in education invariably produce meagre results. The ineffectiveness of such policies is not surprising, since education is not simply a stand-alone institution that can be improved or reformed through the injection of cash or the introduction of new techniques.

Resources can provide books, computers, classroom equipment and even new teachers. But what happens in the classroom is influenced by many other variables. It is shaped by cultural attitudes towards knowledge and ideas. Education is linked to and influenced by the quality of inter-generational relationships.

And of course it depends on the status, authority and quality of teachers. Current policies rarely address the fundamental problems, and resources are often wasted on limiting the damage caused by evading them.

Educational reforms invariably evade the principal problems facing schooling, the authority and status of the teacher. In current pedagogy, teachers are often portrayed as mentors, facilitators and even as learners. The current ethos of teacher training is estranged from the idea that it is their job to cultivate figures who can stand in front of a classroom and exude authority. In fact, standing in front of the classroom is often decried as too didactic. Training manuals inform would-be teachers learning should be fun or that a “quiet classroom is bad”.

Teacher trainers sometimes perpetuate the myth that a “really good teacher doesn’t really teach”. Apparently, children who have a kinaesthetic learning style “cannot just sit still and wait for information to be given”. According to one website directed at Australian parents, such children “surpass in finding out things for themselves without any need for guidance”.

One consequence of such “fun” style of classroom management is the erosion of discipline. As recent reports indicate, teachers often struggle to retain a measure of control. About a third of teachers who took part in a recent Staff in Australia’s Schools survey indicated they were unhappy with their students’ behaviour. Numerous commentators blamed the erosion of classroom discipline on the relative lack of training of student teachers in behaviour management techniques.

However, the solution to maintaining order in the classroom is not the provision of behaviour management skills. A challenging, orderly and stimulating learning environment depends on the teacher’s authority. What gives a teacher authority is not a certificate in classroom management, but a thorough knowledge of an intellectual discipline.

Teachers who have really mastered their brief have a habit of gaining their pupils’ respect and don’t require psychological techniques to manage their classroom. Experience indicates that a high-quality system of education depends on a cohort of teachers who have mastered their subject so they can use their scholarship to guide their pupils through difficult intellectual terrain.

There are signs that the need to cultivate the intellectual authority of teachers is finally being recognised. A recent meeting of education ministers in Sydney agreed to commission a study of the possibility of raising the university entrance score required to pursue a course in teaching.

Queensland Education Minister John-Paul Langbroek, who proposed this initiative, indicated that previous research exposed serious problems with the literacy and numeracy skills of teaching graduates.

Raising entry requirements for students who wish to embark on a teaching career does send out a positive signal about what society expects of them. Such a move would indicate to society that teaching is not an easy option, but an intellectually demanding and important vocation.

However, raising the entry requirements represents only the first step towards the enhancement of the status of teachers. The real problem lies not with unqualified teachers, but with an ethos that discourages them from aspiring to the status of scholars.

It is important to recognise the present model of teacher training is not working. Although there are some honourable exceptions, the orientation of most courses is towards the training, and not educating, of would-be teachers. Training is principally devoted to the provision of skills while education offers rigorous academic education to undergraduates.

The recent call by Field Rickards, the University of Melbourne’s dean of education, to overhaul teacher training is to be welcomed. He is right to argue that the quality of teaching is an important ingredient for raising standards. However, what student teachers really need is more academic education and less of an emphasis on training.

The university must encourage student teachers to gain a mastery of their subject discipline so they in turn can go on to inspire their students with the quality of their ideas. At its best, teaching is a vocation, but the realisation of this vocation requires serious academic learning.

The authority of the teacher is the foundation of a sound system of education. That authority is built on the cultural and intellectual capital that society invests in the future of education.

But money cannot buy the cultural and intellectual accomplishments that are required for cultivating the authority of the teaching profession. The Gonski billions, like fool’s gold, merely helps evade reality.

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