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Teacher quality debate ‘like walking on a bed of nails’: Pike

Despite widespread agreement among experts of the need to improve teacher quality, it remains very difficult for anyone outside the profession, including education ministers, to tackle publicly, thinks former Victorian education minister Bronwyn Pike.

Bronwyn Pike
Bronwyn Pike

“Talking about teacher quality,” Pike told an event at the University of Melbourne Graduate School of Education last week, “from a political perspective, is like walking on a bed of nails.”

While the former teacher argued that ensuring medical practitioners are up-to-date with training, discussing improving teacher quality “is a minefield for people outside the profession because it just sounds like you’re teacher bashing.”

Pike said she thought leadership on the issue had to come from within the profession itself “to begin to codify what professional practice looks like and what the fundamental building blocks of that are and what ongoing professional development should be necessary and required to maintain your ticket.”

Professor Bob Lingard of the University of Queensland’s School of Education argued this leadership could come from the creation of a professional body for teachers.

Political debate about education tends to focus on issues that are known to be less impactful on outcomes such as class size, school autonomy or arguments about the content of the curriculum, said Pike, distracting from the important project of improving teacher quality.

“[There’s the] issue of how you deal with very complex issues in a media cycle and a social media environment where people often want very simplistic answers.

“It’s like, ‘can you fix the education system, yes or no? How long will it take you? One year, two years, three years?’ And if you haven’t done it in three years, you’re a failure … so what happens is that a lot of politicians are forced into saying stupid things.

” … We need to move our national preoccupation with class size and replace that with a national obsession on teacher quality, teaching standards, learning methods and curriculum.

“I’ve been to many schools where there might be funding for an electronic whiteboard, but honestly, some of the teachers didn’t even know how to use them and there was no genuine attempt to lift the skills of people who’d been trained in another era to be able to speak the same language as the students,” she stated.

Pike praised Business Council of Australia president Catherine Livingstone’s speech to the National Press Club last week as “very inspirational and interesting”, arguing that the changes resulting from a confluence of digital disruption, demographic shift and globalisation were “one of those printing press moments”.

She added that arguments about the dangers of children being overexposed to technology are “just rubbish”:

“It’s like saying to a child when Henry Ford invented the car: don’t walk on a road because you might get run over … it’s the new reality.”

Discussing the Federalism white paper process, which is expected to report next year, Pike argued that “the scramble to announce … that superficial focus on [governments] trying to get the jump on each other … has really not served our nation well”:

“Cooperative federalism works best when there’s a deep understanding of what the real challenges are and an absolute consensus that if we don’t change, if we don’t seek to drive improvement, then we are going to be left behind.

” … The role of the federal government is removing the barriers for the processes that are needed and required to drive that change. The role of the federal government is around fostering innovation and obviously lifting the bar, or focusing on equity… striving for excellence at every corner of the nation.

“I must say I’m not confident that those fundamental elements are embedded in there” in the white paper process, she said.

If the Federalism white paper “is about some sort of mediocre carving up of territory, then I think we will all be very poorly served,” Pike added.

“If it is genuinely about providing the context and environment to think about what are the ways in which we as Australian educators can be equipped and encouraged and enabled to create the education environment that will help our young people deal with this absolutely tumultuous change that is on our doorsteps, then it will be a good process.”

Read more at The Mandarin: Education through evidence

Author Bio

David Donaldson

David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne.