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August 20th 2015 print

Geoffrey Partington

Our Fundamental Educational Weakness

Many schools fail because they are short on authority. Almost every new social crisis — be it obesity, road safety, child abuse, whatever -- prompts calls for more education, but few schools cope adequately with their prime and existing responsibility to promote order in the classroom

dunce cornerMuch, perhaps most, said or written about education in Australia almost completely ignores the central problem—that many classrooms are noisy and poorly-controlled. Although few schools are “blackboard jungles”, so much teacher time and energy has to be directed to maintaining or restoring orderly conduct that little is left available for actual teaching. What can be done?

Experience is not a critical factor. Although drop-out rates in the first year of teaching are much higher than in subsequent years, early retirement and stress-related teacher absenteeism have increased markedly over the last thirty years throughout the teaching force, including senior teachers and principals—despite smaller classes, reduced contact time, higher salaries, and greater support for teachers through school counsellors, teacher aides and the like.

Level of academic achievement among teachers is not significant either. All other things being equal, the more capable intellectually prove better teachers than lower academic achievers, but that does not affect drop-out rates, which are often higher for the better qualified. This is because few primary school generalists, or secondary school teachers of humanities and social sciences, can earn as much outside teaching as within it, whereas graduates in physical sciences and mathematics have a much better chance of escaping from the shadow side of teaching.

There is only weak correlation between teaching methods and success in teaching. Both highly child-centred and highly directive teachers are among the least and most successful. Research has not identified any particular approach as notably more effective than its alternatives. Most approaches have their own potential pitfalls and potential advantages. Well-ordered schools help teachers avoid the pitfalls and fulfil the positives. A uniform pedagogy or mandatory curriculum would not improve our schools.

Many schools fail because they are short on authority and power. Almost every new social crisis—about obesity, road safety, standards of behaviour and child abuse, let alone dissatisfaction with students’ level of knowledge and skills—meets with calls for more education, but few schools cope adequately with their existing responsibilities.

Improvement is hard to achieve, partly because denial is widespread but open and honest discussion rare. Failure in class control severely undermines a teacher’s personal standing and self-image. Teacher unions are usually equivocal and of little help. They often reject as “teacher-bashing” charges of disorder in classrooms, but then back up their claims for higher salaries, smaller classes and improved conditions by publicising problems of stress, strain, absenteeism and resignation previously denied.

Denial runs across the political and ideological spectrum. Dr Kevin Donnelly and Dr Ben Jensen, appointed by the Education Minister Christopher Pyne to co-chair the Australian National Curriculum Review, and Mr Pyne himself, seem satisfied with current levels of teacher control in our schools. Dr Donnelly concentrates on exposing ideological bias in school textbooks, notably in their “negative portrayal of Christianity”. His contention is probably right, but at present ideological bias has little influence because only a few students are paying attention. Dr Jensen asks us to sympathise with “a fresh young teacher facing a group of 25 or so expectant Year 5 students … a large group compared with most parents [who] struggle with two or three”. Yet past generations of teachers taught much larger classes with success. Dr Jensen calls for universities to provide more “skills for clinical teaching practice” and “in-depth knowledge” of subjects taught, but these become effective only in tranquil classrooms.

During recent years I have condemned two fashionable approaches to teaching as unbalanced: versions of “constructivism” that place too much reliance on “discovery”; and reactions against “constructivism”, particularly in Aboriginal education, in the form of Direct Instruction programmed learning that stifles initiative in teachers and students. Those arguments remain valid, but more important still is the need for calm and orderly classrooms in which the average teacher can teach successfully and the average student learn satisfactorily, irrespective of the pedagogy.

We still need extensive public debate on issues such as the balance between Commonwealth and states in education, the relative financing of government and non-government schools, and recruitment for teaching. Even more vital, however, is frank and open discussion on the rights, powers and authority of governments, schools, parents and children in education.

Geoffrey Partington worked for many years as a teacher-educator in South Australia.

Comments [4]

  1. Patrick McCauley says:

    Could not agree more Geoffrey. The reasons, however, for this loss of control may be more complicated than only teacher centred. Many contemporary students (including primary school students) seem to be suffering from drug and alcohol issues (mental health issues requiring strong medication)
    and may be hungover during school hours. Male teachers are constantly running a legal gauntlet of the ‘rights’ agenda and various ‘offence’ procedures used as a form of teacher assault. Modern students may have had years of eight or ten hour days confined to schools in Before school programs and After school programs. Modern technology seems to have reduced the attention span of students in a face to face classroom. Male students have often been bullied by nasty feminist propaganda where they have been denied the right to be angry and could have spent years sitting in the corners of classrooms facing the wall, or outside it in time out rooms. Many students do not come across a male teacher until well into their secondary education and may also not have a father living in their homes. There is a desperate need for the state and universities to positively discriminate in favour of male primary school teachers (in particular) to restore the gender balance in teacher numbers.

  2. Bill Martin says:

    “Spare the rod and spoil the child” has been an enduring bit of folk philosophy until relatively recently. Corporal punishment and other forms of disciplinary acts taught children that they had to face the consequences of their actions. When our daughter was a few months old (almost 50 years ago) she took to slapping her mothers face with the exuberance of a baby. After her mother slapped her back a couple of times, she stopped. Similarly, our son started biting his mother’s face and nose when he was teething. After he was bitten back, he stopped. The concept works brilliantly even at such tender age. Both of them had a few smacks on the bottom, were stood in the corner and received other unpleasant reminders during childhood that there were some rules that had to be obeyed. Both of them grew up to be well-adjusted, happy people, respectful and affectionate toward us, neither harbour any grudge for having been kept on the straight and narrow. I, myself received some corporal punishment in my youth, but it never occurred to me that my parents’ motivation was anything other than concern for my welfare. Both of them are long gone and my memory of them is of tender love. During my childhood all adults were seen as figures of authority by children. If I happens to be disciplined by any adult other than my parents, even if it included a “clip behind the ear”, I would not dare complain to my parents for fear of copping some more of the same. My extremely high regard for my father is illustrated by the fact that during my pre-teen years, my ultimate proof in any argument was “my dad said so”. When the teacher walked into the class room, everyone fell silent and sat bolt upright, with hands behind their back. This was in an East European country, but when I compare notes with locally born friends, I find it was much the same here.

    What a different world we live in now! We have the progressives, the feminists, the “rights of the child” purveyors and the like. Now children
    have to be reasoned with, their feelings guarded from bullying, they can only be praised, never sanctioned, “Every child Winn’s a prize.” Almost any sort of disciplin is considered child abuse but nothing the little darlings do can ever be faulted. Then those advocating all this madness wring their hands and shed crocodile tears over the declining mental health of children, devastating drug abuse, the soaring rate of youth suicide, domestic violence and a host of other ills of society.

    I rest my case.

  3. Patrick McCauley says:

    yes.. its infuriating in its simplicity, love … these children have been denied the pleasures of obedience and trust – they have been taught to trust nobody and fear everybody

    • Bill Martin says:

      Indeed. Being lovingly disciplined made children feel safe and secure, enabling them to deal with a challenging world without getting emotionally scarred by the miriad of things that go wrong from time to time. Now they seek the false version of that security by amassing a meaningless horde of “friends” and “likes” on social media and become suicidal when they fail in that endeavour. There were always bullies in the school yard and on the street but most children coped with them without too many problems. Now there are various “task forces” attempting to deal with the problem without much success.