Tips for Teachers Who Can Count to 10

You can forget the Australian Education Union’s claim that the best way to raise standards and improve results is to invest more in education.  They would say that, wouldn’t they — despite the just-released  OECD Education at a Glance 2019 report which ranks Australian primary and secondary school teachers among the best paid across the OECD countries.  School principals’ salaries are also among the highest.

Add the fact that literacy and numeracy results as measured by NAPLAN and international tests have flat-lined or gone backwards notwithstanding primary schools receiving $30.4 billion and secondary schools $30.8 billion, with investment increasing 15 per cent from 2006 to 2016, and it’s obvious the solution is not more money.

Those in charge must be held accountable.  Given their dismal performance, if those responsible for Australia’s school education system managed a business or corporation it would be bankrupt and they likely to be hauled before the ACCC for misleading advertising and causing substantial detriment. So dismal has been the performance there would be grounds for a royal commission.

The following outlines a 10-point plan about what must be done.

(1) It’s no longer acceptable to have education policy directed by self-proclaimed experts and carpetbaggers.  Too many supposed ‘experts’ commenting on education and advising education departments have never taught in schools, have no educational qualifications and have never published in peer-reviewed journals.

(2) Instead of being insular and myopic it’s time to look overseas at those stronger performing education systems in Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Finland, Ireland and Kazakhstan that consistently achieve stronger results compared to Australia.

Research undertaken by Ludger Woessmann and Eric Hanushek show that countries ranked highest in international tests have a rigorous, academically based curriculum, regular testing with consequences for failure, disciplined and orderly classrooms, teaching practice based on what is most effective and a school environment that sets high expectations.

(3) Not all that occurs overseas can easily be transposed to Australian schools, so it is vital to also look at top-performing local schools.  Catholic and independent schools, for example, consistently outperform government schools even after adjusting for the influence of home background.

Central to the success of non-government schools is that they have a greater degree of freedom over staffing, budget and curriculum focus compared to government schools.  Non-government schools are also pressured to respond to the market to ensure they meet parent and community demands.  One way to strengthen market forces is to introduce school vouchers, as has happened overseas.

(4) Freeing schools from “provider capture”, where unions such as the NSW Teachers Federation, education bureaucrats and like-minded subject associations act as a cartel to the detriment of schools and classroom teachers.

Proven by the growth of charter schools in America and India, free schools and academies in England and Partnership Schools in New Zealand it’s clear that flexibility and autonomy at the local level is increasingly seen as a way to empower local communities and ensure a commitment to strengthen and improve outcomes.

(5) That Australian schools must be freed from providers capture is clear, given the report Principal Autonomy Research Project carried out by Melbourne-based academic Brain Caldwell.  The report concludes Australia’s school education system is overly centralised and bureaucratic, with schools have to answer to two levels of government.

While a certain amount of accountability is required, schools currently have to comply with a plethora of regulations and restrictions that have turned teachers into bean counters by promoting a check list mentality that drains energy and time from actually teaching.

(6) Proven by submissions to the 2014 review of the national curriculum I co-chaired, it’s obvious that the curriculum is overloaded, superficial and lacking in academic rigour.  Especially in primary school the curriculum is a ‘mile wide and an inch deep’ and there is little time to focus on the ‘basics’ and essential knowledge, understanding a skills.

The curriculum is also designed through a politically correct prism where an excessive amount of time and resources are spent on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander studies, sustainability and the environment and Asia to the detriment of Western culture and civilisation.

As a result generations of students have left school without any familiarity with what Matthew Arnold terms “the best that has been thought and said” and what the Victorian Blackburn report describes as “our best validated knowledge and artistic achievements”.

(7) Closely linked to Australia’s dumbed down and superficial curriculum is an approach to teaching practice based on conjecture and New Age fads like “lifelong learning“, progression points (watch the video below) and personalised learning involving negotiated, collaborative goal-setting.

Such an approach, in addition to lacking any proven research base and having failed elsewhere, overwhelms teachers by drowning them in busy work and an overly complicated and time-consuming inflexible regime.  As a result it should not surprise up to 30 per cent of beginning teachers are uncertain about committing to the profession.

(8) Based on recent research related to cognitive psychology and how children best learn it’s clear, especially during the early primary years and when students encounter new activities and challenges, that memorisation and rote learning are critical.

Without what is termed ‘automaticity’ learning becomes onerous and cumbersome. It’s clear one of the central reasons explaining Australia’s dismal performance internationally is that teachers have long since been told to jettison such tried and true methods.

(9) Since teacher colleges were abolished as a result of the  Dawkins’ reforms during the Hawke government, teacher training is now the responsibility of university education faculties.  As a result it’s not unusual for academics never to have taught in schools and for teacher training courses to be overly theoretical and abstract.

Trainee teachers should be like apprentices where they spend more time in schools, are mentored by practising teachers and where educational theory is based on the actualities and challenges of the classroom and the school environment.

(10) Central to strengthening educational outcomes and ensuring that students receive a balanced, enriching and fulfilling education is the realisation there are no magic bullets and that policy based on fads and political expediency is a proven failure.   What is needed is a  root and branch renewal based on sound evidence, proven practice and an ability to take a medium- to long-term view.

Kevin Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and he co-chaired the 2014 national curriculum review

8 thoughts on “Tips for Teachers Who Can Count to 10

  • Andrew Campbell says:

    15 of my 26 grandchildren have been or are being home-schooled. Professional teachers froth at the mouth at such educational heresy but the parents have voted with their feet, as have many others. Sure, the parents have to work harder to ‘socialise’ their children; but most seem to me (warning: proud grandparent) that they’re doing okay. They actually study Shakespeare and the great literature and history of the West; and they can pursue individual and family interests; even their Christian faith. The older ones consider both sides of the climate change debate and gender theories.

  • Avalon says:

    My wife has taught for more than 30 years. She said:
    “An interesting article and I agree with many points in it. Another point he didn’t make was the inordinate amount of time that teachers spend on creating special programmes for students on ILPs. One such student in your class can take as much of the prep time as all of the other students put together. They also take an excessive proportion of the class time as well.”

  • pgang says:

    Our son is at a Catholic school. He was recently taught that during England’s industrial revolution the working class was enslaved to the wealthy elite. He was also eliminated from a spelling bee for spelling ‘doctor’ correctly.

  • Greg Williams says:


    I heartily endorse your point 8 about the critical importance of rote learning and memorisation. I am about to enter my 50th year of teaching, and it seems to me, over the period of time I have been in the game, the time devoted to screens, and reading about such banalities as what cause specific celebrities have embraced to save the planet and/or civilisation, take up valuable learning time. I am finding very able maths students attempting maths courses without the benefit of knowing by rote something as simple as their multiplication tables. This year, in Semester 1, my middle ability Year 10 class handled the algebra section of their Sem 1 exam fairly poorly. I decided after that, we would start every lesson with a Daily Algebra Dose, which become known affectionately as their DAD. Even in the brief time between Sem 1 and Sem 2 exams, the class average went up 10%. My Head of Department has looked at the results and has suggested that we bring in something like this across the board for our middle and senior school classes. The problem, as I see is, is that rote learning and memorisation skills are not valued in today’s schools. Everything is there, on their screens, so why bother.

  • Bwana Neusi says:

    I totally concur with the article above and the demise of teaching and course standards. The three ‘R’s was the fundamental building block from which we progressed. Mathematics (one of the ‘Rs’) involved tables and mental arithmetic, but sadly today kids will ask “Siri” on their phone “What is two times seven?”
    A young check out girl where we bought a car battery was unable to convert three years to months as the warranty paperwork required.
    During my Engineering apprenticeship, my mother who had left school some thirty years earlier was still able to help me with my calculus assignments and showed me how to derive a square root by long division.
    Years ago, my own daughter came home with an algebra problem and I showed her the logical process and workings that I had been taught to derive the solution. Her teacher chastised her for using that well established methodology because it didn’t fit with her new way of doing it.
    We cynically refer to those “Wiley Orientals” but take a look at the personal pride they have with their education standards as opposed to our preoccupation with confected social issues.

  • ianl says:

    The unsaid but clear purpose of reducing the curricula to nonsense is to ensure the populace becomes controllable through its’ ignorance.

    To my utter despair, I observed a local high school that my children attended deliberately “move on” a science teacher who had a PhD in Physics, and in whom my son had finally placed great faith as he “knew what he was talking about”. This teacher was moved on because the rest of the science staff felt uncomnfortable with his depth of knowledge. Complaining to the Regional Inspector (as I did) simply produced the response: “No correspondence will be entered into”.

    Deliberate sabotage of hard knowledge to fit the comfortable dumbing down pattern.

  • Lawrie Ayres says:

    It is so much easier to brainwash the illiterate and the ignorant. Properly educated kids would understand that Greta is on the wrong bus but they have been taught what to think not how to think, what to know rather than how to research. The proof if any is needed is the slavish study of a culture that achieved nothing in it’s 60000 year existence while elsewhere great civilizations grew, collapsed and grew again.

  • Lawrie Ayres says:

    You all seem to forget that throughout history the ignorant have been the easiest to indoctrinate. Religion was taught by the only person who could read to the multitude who could never study the texts and discern Gods word for themselves. They accepted the priests word as gospel. Fast forward to last week when a multitude of ignorant pupils led by ignorant teachers took part in a climate march. They have been denied the ability to question and to do their own research.

    It is part of the communist manifesto to enlist the children and they have successfully achieved that aim. If Siri told them two times seven was fifteen they would accept that answer. They belive the world will end because of CO2 and that the aborigines are as disfunctional as they are because Captain Cook came here in 1780. How will they ever know the truth when teachers, politicians and the press lie to them every day?

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