Much, 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.