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Evolutionary tinkering in revolutionary times

15 February 2013

The current system of teacher education isn’t working for many students. Dean Ashenden looks at the alternatives, and their adversaries


Photo: Temari 09/ Flickr

“AMERICA’s university-based teacher preparation programs,” declared US secretary of education Arne Duncan in a much-quoted remark, “need revolutionary change — not evolutionary tinkering.” We could use a revolution here too. In fact, we know what it could look like as well as knowing that it’s needed. But it seems almost certain that we’re not going to get it.

The need is almost scandalously obvious. When new teachers are asked to rate their pre-service course, about a fifth say that it was not much help in learning how to “develop a unit of work,” a third report that it didn’t help them “work effectively with other teachers,” around four-in-ten don’t feel helped in “knowing how to engage students in learning” or in “handling a range of classroom management situations,” and two-thirds or more say the same about “teaching literacy,” “understanding and catering to student differences” and “working with students from different cultural backgrounds.” Another, less comprehensive survey found that three-quarters of new teachers declined to say that they felt “very well” or even “well” prepared for “the reality of teaching,” and a third survey found that between 20 and 40 per cent felt unprepared in a number of areas of practice. Yet more surveys find, over and again, that new teachers complain about the weak links between theory and practice in their pre-service courses, the lack of relevance of much of the “theory,” and poor or no liaison between school and campus.

Principals agree with them. Asked much the same questions, they give new teachers even lower ratings than the new teachers give themselves. In one survey, nearly half of principals scored new teachers as “well prepared” in just eight or fewer of fifty-nine areas. International comparisons are no more encouraging. The OECD’s Teaching and Learning International Survey found that more than a third of new teachers in Australia are regarded by their principals as lacking “pedagogical preparation,” putting Australia seventeenth in a field of twenty-two. Only Mexico, Turkey, Italy, Spain and Lithuania did worse. At the other end of the scale, only one in ten Danish or Norwegian principals expressed such concerns.

How bad is that? Pretty bad. Unlike graduates in fields such as pharmacy, architecture, law, accountancy and medicine, who must complete one, two or several years working under supervision and/or in further training, with salaries to suit, teacher education graduates are passed off, employed, and paid as self-sufficient professionals. Many are not.

Everyone in and around teacher education knows that there is a problem, and many are trying to do something about it. In 2008 COAG, the Council of Australian Governments, signed off on a “National Partnership Agreement on Improving Teacher Quality,” which commissioned the development of national standards for teachers and for teacher education programs, and proposed national harmonisation of teacher registration requirements, “engagement” with teacher education providers to improve pre-service teacher education, and new “alternative pathways” into the teaching profession.

Serious money provided under the agreement provoked a hive of activity down on the ground, often guided by developments in Britain and the United States, and often complemented by state-level reviews and strategic plans. Most take aim at the weakest link in a tenuous chain, the “practical component” of teacher education. Two Victorian programs, with the University of Melbourne playing a key role in both, are generally regarded as setting the pace: the masters in teaching, or MTeach, and Teach for Australia, or TFA.

The former revolves around extended “practicums” in “school centres for excellence” supervised by “teaching fellows,” all operating under “school–university partnerships.” TFA, much more strongly based in practice, offers an “alternative pathway” into teaching via a six-week residential course followed by two years as an “associate” in a school catering to disadvantaged communities. There, they have four-fifths of a full teaching load and support from “clinical specialists” (from the university), “teaching and leadership advisers” (from TFA headquarters), “mentors” (from the schools), and perhaps most important of all, each other. Efforts along similar lines can now be found in most states and territories and in a number of universities, often drawing on the “clinical practice” of the medical profession and the idea that selected schools should serve the same function as teaching hospitals.

These are, in sum, exciting times in teacher ed. But they are depressing times too, and not just because this kind of high-energy educational innovation so often gets thinner as it spreads wider. The really disheartening thing is that the main effort is not going into doing things differently but into more of the same, and it’s the innovators themselves who are driving it that way.

THE big resources are going towards increasing the length of all pre-service programs, and doubling the length of postgrad teacher training from one year to two. In April 2011 state and federal ministers of education endorsed a recommendation from the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership that the last of the old one-year programs must be gone by 2017.

This is a spectacularly bad decision. We could ask some awkward questions of the institute, about why programs supposedly designed to deliver its new professional standards for teachers need to be of fixed duration, for example. Shouldn’t students move though their programs in as little or as much time as they need to reach those standards? And if we need two years to get graduates up to scratch, how is it that an “alternative pathways” program gets people into schools — with classroom responsibilities — in six weeks? But the real problems with the two-year rule are that it costs a lot, and it won’t work.

We know that it won’t work because we’ve been there before. In the 1960s primary teachers did two-year courses. The drive to improve teacher preparation and to make teaching a profession pushed courses out to three years by the 1970s and four by the turn of the century, with consequences noted above. In fact four-year-trained primary teachers generally give their courses even lower ratings than do the degree-plus-one-year secondaries. And if it is hard to detect gains in teacher effectiveness (or gains for the end-users, the school students), gains to the profession are even more elusive. Its status, salaries, and standards of entry remain as low as ever. This near-invisible progress was purchased at very considerable cost, which doubled and then some because the longer programs are taught in universities rather than in the old colleges of advanced education or teachers colleges, and the universities set aside two-fifths of each teacher educator’s time for research.

The case for doing the same all over again rests on the same old arguments: the work is more complex, and teaching must become a true profession. As the influential 2010 Queensland review of teacher education put it, pre-service programs must be longer and at a higher (graduate) level because “the status of the profession itself must be raised” and because “meeting expectations for school education in the twenty-first century demands unprecedented levels of knowledge and skill.”

We can accept the premises about the status of the profession and the nature of teachers’ work without accepting the conclusion that yet more time in university-based courses will or can provide what is needed. To the contrary: those and other demands on teachers and teaching can only be met by doing a lot less of the same and a lot more of the new. What Arne Duncan’s revolutionary talk implies is this: university-based teacher education programs are taught by the wrong kind of people in the wrong place at the wrong time.

THE crucial thing in teaching is knowing how to survive and thrive in the classroom. Most of what teachers do is still done in the classroom, and most of what they do there still depends on reflexes and intuition. It is a craft. Learning it is like learning to bat or ski or swim, only more so. Because teaching is so person- and context-dependent you don’t so much learn to teach as become a teacher, in the way that an actor becomes an actor (the two occupations have much in common), per medium of a self-customised, erratic, idiosyncratic process. It takes time, practice and help.

Much of the help required to get people through the process as well and as quickly as possible is feedback rather than “input,” and iterative contributions to long cycles of try–review–think–try again. Some get it very quickly, some slowly, some never get it at all. The only way to find out whether they have got it is by seeing how they go in the actual doing, over extended periods.

Craft knowledge is crucial, but not the whole deal by any means. Teachers need expertise in “subject matter,” and ease with abstract modes of thought, and they need what might be thought of as technical knowledge — knowing how best to move a student through the early stages of reading, for example, or recognising learning disorders and difficulties, or being able to use standards-referenced assessment. As teaching becomes less a solo performance in the theatre of the classroom, as it becomes more technology-rich, and as the relationship between teaching and learning becomes more explicit and accounted for, teachers will need more and more technical expertise.

But that doesn’t mean that expertise is best acquired either before or away from work and the workplace. Here the analogy is learning to become a musician. Musicians need both theory and practice, but they don’t learn one before the other. They don’t even learn them in parallel. They learn them in interaction, and so should teachers.

The difference is that would-be musicians can be provided with everything they need, up to and including real-life performance, at a conservatorium. There is no equivalent for teachers. Only the school can provide beginners with what they need to become pros. More exactly, only the school in the right kind of cooperation with a university. Teachers are used to going to uni. What the new practice-strengthened and practice-based “alternative” programs suggest is that it’s better for the university to go to the teachers.

An early evaluation of the MTeach is promising. It reports around 90 per cent of graduates feeling well-prepared for teaching, more than double the score of mainstream programs. The TFA program seems to be doing even better. There have been teething problems, of course, getting logistics and coordination sorted particularly, but every school involved rates the “associates” more highly than the mainstream newbies, and every school wants more of them. The schools worry about the whole thing being too demanding; the associates say bring it on. Retention rates, for very small numbers (forty or so per cohort) at this early stage, seem to be no worse than for the mainstream, although it must be allowed that those are not very high.

Taken together with experience of overseas programs these early results suggest that the whole of graduate and much of undergraduate pre-service teacher education programs can and should be based in schools.

MANY of those involved would agree but struggle to see how that can be done or afforded. Cost certainly seems to be an issue. Like other two-year programs, the MTeach gets double the subsidy from government and students (via their HECS payments) — around $32,000 rather than $16,000 for the old one-year courses — and gets a special supplement of $5500 per student per year on top of that to pay for the teaching fellows and other work in the schools. TFA is even more expensive. Early estimates suggest a per-graduate cost of around $216,000 against $140,000 for the mainstream (a calculation which, it should be noted, may have been done in a way that minimises the gap between the two).

At first glance those figures do seem to suggest that the “alternative pathways” will have to remain alternative, and that the mainstream will be battling to replicate the MTeach. But the question is worth a much closer look.

For one thing, both the MTeach and TFA are small, high-focus pilot programs with correspondingly high unit costs. More important, there has been no attempt to find offsets. If we consider using the same money in different ways it may even be that the sums already spent on teacher education are just about enough to do the job.

Consider the following “model,” just one of many ways of mixing and matching tools and techniques drawn from the new practice-based programs and beyond, from Australia’s apprenticeship programs, and from “distance ed” and the growing “massive open online courses” movement — to provide a quite different pre-service education of teachers.

First, free up a large quantum of resources and at the same time improve the quality of “theory,” by consolidating existing graduate-entry teacher education courses — 145 of them (there are another 272 first-degree programs), offered by thirty-seven universities and eleven other providers — into a small number of online programs, say three versions of each of the main specialisations so as to provide choice (for users) and the spur of competition (for providers).

Then convert some of the 40 per cent of academic time set aside for conventional “research” to “clinical practice” and school-based R&D, not for all teacher education academics, but for many. Some in universities would see that as an unacceptable loss. It would be better seen as a transformation, not as “losing research” but as shifting effort and attention from one form of knowledge production and distribution to a better one. At least some teacher educators would be excited by the prospect of joining a new corps of clinicians, providing that it was properly rewarded and recognised.

Third, replace two-year campus-based programs with three-year internships (or nominally three-year, as detailed below), with a one-to-two theory/practice split. Spread two years of teacher salary ($110,000) over the three-year internship at, say, $30,000 for the first year, $35,000 for the second and $40,000 in the third, and have $5000 left over to use elsewhere. Schools would need to get two years’ worth of work from each three-year intern, but they already do that in TFA. Small groups of interns would be based in schools geared up for the purpose (as they are in the MTeach and TFA) so that they could learn from each other, and so that the work of clinical staff could be efficiently done. Clinical staff responsibilities would include providing tutorial support to the internet-delivered programs.

Fourth and last, new and emerging techniques of assessment and appraisal could use standards developed by the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership to determine both point of entry to the program (what is often referred to as RPL, or recognition of prior learning) and rate of progress through its stages. These could be three in number, with the typical expectation of achieving full graduation and teacher registration at the end of three years, but perhaps a year or so less or more, depending.

Of course a reorganisation of activity, resources and responsibilities on that scale could not be done overnight, or without opposition. There would be conversion costs, including redundancies, retraining (of clinical supervisors and school staff), development of online courses, and new facilities in schools. There would be problems of coordination, cooperation, and territorial possession. Universities’ research output would be reduced.

Against this can be set many possible and probable gains. Internships offering a liveable wage from day one would be attractive to many graduates, and might well lift the quality of entrants to the profession. The long, slow mutation of the school into a place of learning for teachers as well as for students would be encouraged, as would the development of long-foreshadowed career–study pathways. Online courses with in-school support would boost instructional quality and help schools learn how to use the internet for their own purposes. Teachers would have a new career option. A reduction in universities’ education research output would be offset by the development, testing and application of new and more valuable forms of knowledge and expertise. Above all, evidence from the new practice-based programs suggests, it would work. New teachers would actually be able to teach.

There is a necessary element of hypothesising and conjecture about all this, including likely costs and effectiveness, although every element of the “model” sketched above already exists in pilot form or better. Back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that there would be significant transition costs, but that ongoing unit costs, while greater than for one-year programs, would be lower than for two.

No doubt others could find better ways of assembling the same jigsaw, but the real question is this: why has no one tried? Why, in fact, when teacher educators were offered the opportunity — indeed, when they were prodded towards the task — did they indignantly reject it?

IN 2010 the Productivity Commission commenced a review of “the schools workforce,” including teacher preparation. It soon discovered what everyone in the industry already knew: teacher education doesn’t work very well. It also discovered that several very promising reforms, including those described above, were both dwarfed and negated by the two-year proposal.

By the time the commission had published its interim report in November 2011, the horse had bolted. Acting on the recommendation of the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, the ministers assembled had made two-year programs mandatory.

That decision looked bad enough for the commission to suggest in decorous but unmistakably firm tones that it be rescinded. The commission could find almost nothing in the decision to recommend it. It worried that prospective teachers would be deterred, and that problems of supply (particularly of hard-to-get maths and science graduates) would be exacerbated. But what it really worried about were high costs and low effectiveness. While supporting longer and better practicums, the commission could not see why making not-very-effective programs twice as long would work, and suggested that evidence offered by the institute and others in support of the move was “mixed.”

But the costs! The commission pointed out that every student doing an extra year adds $10,000 to the government bill, and is even more expensive for students, doubling their HECS liability from $6000 to $12,000 and increasing by around $50,000 income foregone. Surely, the commission pleaded, there must be a better way to improve teacher preparation? Better induction, mentoring and ongoing professional development, for example?

The Productivity Commission’s interim findings and suggestions provoked a small torrent of dissenting submissions. One faculty of education declared that a minimum of two years was “vitally important.” The Queensland College of Teachers quoted that state’s review of education in support of the two-year move, without considering that the review itself might be vulnerable to the commission’s line of reasoning. The national union of non-government school teachers declared that it “rejects outright” the commission’s views, citing societal change, demands on teachers, and an expanded professional knowledge base. The Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership thought the question important enough to commission a special review of the international evidence, conducted by an expert who happened to be the lead author of the Queensland review.

None of these submissions discussed previous experience with doubling the length of pre-service programs. None mentioned costs. All missed or ignored the Productivity Commission’s central point, arguing at length that two years are better than one, which proposition the commission at no stage questioned. None attempted to answer the commission’s pivotal question: since two-year programs cost twice as much, couldn’t we find a better way to get the same result at lower cost? Or extract better value for the same outlay?

Unsurprisingly the commission found nothing in these protesting submissions to cause it to change its mind. In its final report, released in April 2012, it restated its arguments and concerns, and repeated its suggestion that the decision be rescinded. The ministers subsequently fretted about problems arising from transition to the two-year regime, including teacher supply; but, advised by the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership rather than the Productivity Commission, the decision stood.

IN THEIR own defence the teacher educators could say that shifting teacher education from campus to school, from theory-based to practice-based, is just too hard. There are too many institutions, interests and agencies to be lined up: nine governments, two main teacher unions, three school sectors, countless “professional bodies,” and no fewer than thirty-seven universities. Worse, the “system” has no coordinating agency or supervening authority; efforts ranging from Whitlam’s Schools Commission to Gillard’s COAG partnerships have failed to herd the nation’s education cats.

In which case, why not have a go in one of the big states? Why, for example, did the Queensland review of teacher education not even consider whether the “alternative” might not become the mainstream? Perhaps more striking, why has there been no such move in Victoria, where most of the creative rethinking and experimenting has been done?

One explanation is that it would not be in the interests of the universities to do so. Doubling the length of postgraduate courses represents a substantial increase in demand for the services of teacher education faculties and in resources available to them. It is good for business.

Teacher educators are hardly the first interest group to find a happy coincidence between their own interests and those of their clients and the wider community, of course. But teacher educators are unusual in their capacity to shape these wider views. Many “outside” organisations have inquired into, reviewed and reported on teacher education, but all of them, up to and including the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (and even the Business Council of Australia), have relied on the advice, research and argumentation of teacher educators. The exception is the Productivity Commission, and it proves the rule. It brought its own brains to the task and reached its own radically different conclusions.

There is an unsavoury aspect to this otherwise commonplace interaction between interests and ideology. Academic research is usually disinterested; the researcher is independent of the researched. In this case, however, the researchers are the beneficiaries of their own work. They come close to a conflict of interest. Even stronger language might be used to refer to the fact that those asking for more bear none of the costs, and that most of those new costs are borne by the student who wants to be a teacher, the poorest and least powerful player in the whole game.

Universities are not the only group for which the term “stakeholder” is all too apt. Teachers, too, have a very large stake in the game. The idea of a “graduate profession” is just another step in a long campaign to improve the status, salaries and standards of entry to teaching by pushing up the length and “level” of its credentials.

Professionalisation is not the wrong idea (although teaching would do well to stop hankering after some of the paraphernalia and pretensions of the “true” professions), but it has been pursued by the wrong means. Teaching’s knowledge base and practice are comparable in complexity to those of other professions, but very different in form. Teaching does need and deserve a high-end credential backed by government. But trying to get it by serving ever-longer periods before getting anywhere near the job does not suit the kind of work teachers do or the knowledge they have, and it doesn’t deliver the industrial goods either.

For one thing, teaching’s pay and conditions make it a weak competitor in the market of credential-seekers, particularly as opportunities for women have broadened. That has the counterproductive effect of pushing entry standards down and forcing providers to develop “alternative pathways” and “flexible entry.” These in turn give the lie to the claim that a longer and “higher” education is necessary.

Worse, extended university-based programs split “theory” from “practice,” expand the proportion of time, attention and esteem given to the former, and denigrate and subordinate the latter. That is why teacher education doesn’t work.

The way to make teaching’s credentials work for both the performance of and rewards to the profession is to base them in practice and in genuinely usable knowledge, and to guarantee them per medium of new and emerging forms of assessment and appraisal.

Costs are not an insuperable problem. The claim for yet more resources is based less on reality than on a way of thinking about reality. Teacher educators are not used to shifting effort around in pursuit of better results, and they do not use the underlying idea of “cost-effectiveness,” a reflection of the intractable institutions which form their main subject matter. Research into productivity and cost-effectiveness in education comes from those few education researchers with training in economics. It is rare, rarely used, and even more rarely understood.

Between 1979 and 2005 there were no fewer than thirty-nine reviews of the national system of teacher education or aspects of it, and forty-one more at the state level. One review of these reviews was aptly titled Two Decades of “Sound and Fury” but What’s Changed?. The really troubling thing is not the time taken to tackle a manifest problem, but the belief in policy-making as “evolutionary tinkering,” a cumulative incrementalism viewed by most of those involved as muddling through, getting us there, bit by bit, eventually. Recent efforts at reform in teacher education and elsewhere suggest the contrary. New problems and new tasks and new costs are piling up faster than improvements. The case for the “revolution” whose broad shape is now clear is not just that it would produce better results at lower cost but also that it is necessary.

The place to start is with ways of thinking, and the place to start on that is with the application to education of economics and its paradigm-busting idea of productivity. There is much that economics does not and cannot know about education in general and teacher education in particular, but what it does know is crucial, and revelatory. We can only hope that the unprecedented appearance of the Jolly Roger of the Productivity Commission in one of the outposts of the empire of education is a sign of things to come. •

Show Comments


Stephen Dinham

18 February 2013

To clarify, the Master of Teaching at Melbourne is not a 'small' program. We have just admitted over 700 new candidates to this year's MTeach (Early Childhood, Primary, Secondary).

I will be adressing some of the - well made - points in this article shortly - see also

John Brenan

18 February 2013

Another excellent and provocative article. Thank you Dean.

As a former Principal of K-12 schools and former teacher-trainer in "alternative" courses at two universities, I have to say that my experience entirely supports Dean's propositions.

As the article suggests, what reasonably capable and ambitious person in their early 20s is going to contemplate with enthusiasm an additional year of study (much of it tedious and presented by someone who hasn't been an outstanding teacher in school for decades if ever), additional HECS, an additional year of foregone income? Plentiful horror stories of first-year-out hardly inspire either.

More largely, the prospect of a poorly paid and poorly esteemed profession whose career structures have not been seriously overhauled in decades is something that twenty-somethings are acutely aware of, in a way that my generation was not. Until that is addressed, as well as teacher training, we shall continue on a downward spiral.

Interestingly, the handful of private schools which are offering training in a partnership of school and univesity, plus a more decent career setting, find that they attract outstanding young men and women.

Ultimately, just as the laws of physics have waited for no climate-change deniers, so our increasingly elderly teacher cohort, the poor academic quality of many trainees, the shortage in key disciplines will all eventually force reform. It is just a pity that so many children and teenagers will miss out meanwhile.

Lawry Mahon

18 February 2013

Dean Ashenden spends a considerable amount of ink suggesting the current group of teachers in Australia aren't up to scratch, then his "fix-it" plan revolves around placing prospective teachers in those failing situations to learn from those teachers? Bizarre!

Diana O'Neil

21 February 2013

This argument/discussion reminds me of the same and never-ending argument in my profession, nursing.

Practice versus theory, how to achieve the balance for students so they are satisfied and productive in their first years on the job.

No-one has solved the dilemma yet, though it been a documented debate since Florence Nightingale fell out with colleagues about it.

My personal opinion is that the opportunity for more contextual practical learning for students is always better than more theoretical learning in nursing. Of course the theory is essential, but can be built on around practice. From a distance I think teachers would benefit from more emphasis on practice in the student years.

Dean Ashenden

21 February 2013

For Margery Evans and AITSL: It is easier to say what should be done than to do it. AITSL’s work to develop standards for teachers and teacher education programs is important and valuable, particularly to the extent that they govern rather than adorn teaching and teacher preparation, and that they allow quite new models of teacher education to emerge. AITSL’s support for two-year graduate programs, however, pushes hard in the other direction. This is a much larger matter than is suggested by Margery’s phrase ‘a single issue of the length of a program’. AITSL’s decision entrenches expensive and inherently ineffective campus-based programs. The point of my ‘model’ was to uncover the opportunity costs of this decision; to suggest the utility of ‘opportunity costs’ and related concepts drawn from economics; to argue that most educationists are oblivious to these concepts for reasons related to their circumstances and interests; and to suggest that this is a crucial obstacle to having (as Margery puts it) ‘a whole range of institutions .. change their practices’ - exactly what has been made possible by recent innovations in teacher education, has been called for by Arne Duncan and others, and is required. None of these points is taken in Margery’s response.

Some specifics:

• On the MTeach, my endorsement is of its practicum, not its length

• To suggest that the TFA is just another two-year program is very misleading, since almost all of the two years are spent in schools

• My ‘model’ proposed a 1:2 theory:practice split. More important than its nominal length (three years), to which Margery draws attention, is its location in schools, its focus on an enlarged practice, and its financial impact on students/interns, and the taxpayer, which Margery does not mention.

• The theory/practice issue is not one of balance or even mix, but interaction.

I should add a correction. Melbourne’s University’s Graduate School of Education advises that supplementary support from the federal government for the MTeach program ended in 2011; additional costs are now met from student fees.

Paul Dufficy

21 February 2013

Teacher educators should return and teach in the classroom regularly and should also be held accountable for their on-campus teaching.

If they cannot explain their actual teaching in theoretical terms - and the reverse - then we have a problem.

Stephen Harrison

18 February 2013

Great article, Mr Ashenden, and some pertinent comments.

As a recent graduate, one of the most frustrating things I found about my Graduate Diploma in Teaching and Learning was the difference in the theory being taught, and the teaching methods being used in schools. At times it felt like I was doing two different courses. Very little preparation was provided to mentor teachers, other than some basic academic supervision guidelines and administrative procedures. As a result, there was virtually no alignment between theory and practice in my course and in fact it seemed like school and university were working at cross-purposes. For example, the theory of my course heavily emphasised integrated units of work as a way of designing authentic learning experiences and thus establishing relevance for the students, but this wasn't practised in any of the schools where I did my professional experience. Much was made of the social activist nature of teaching in improving the lot of disadvantaged students, and yet in the schools the focus was much more on discipline and command and control of the student body, with a heavy use of detentions and suspensions, rather than more enlightened strategies such as Responsible Thinking programs.

The final insult was that my successful completion of each of my pre-service professional experience placements in schools was worth 1% of my grade for the relevant semester. If this isn't an example of a serious distortion of priorities, I don't know what is.

In summary, my suggestions would include, as suggested in the original article, that practical experience be given a much greater emphasis in teacher training. But, perhaps just as importantly, mentor teachers and schools need to be much more conversant with what teacher training courses are actually teaching and try to coordinate their efforts more effectively.

roger scott

18 February 2013

As a former Queensland Director-General of Education, I welcome the breath of fresh air provided by Dean Ashenden. In the unlikely company of the Productivity Commission's economists, he has put his finger on the fundamental problems facing teacher education - scarcity of resources and scarcity of good teachers to deploy those scarce resources.

As a former Vice-Chancellor of one university and a current "research-active" emeritus of another, I also welcome the strictures about the self-serving tendency of university academics and administrators. There are people in both Canberra and UQ with a deep and abiding interest in teacher education but they have functioned in a hostile context in the past.

So I agree that we are living in revolutionary times where the vocational values of the old CAE's and TAFE need to be injected into the university mix, where apprenticeships and interns play a larger role and extended isolation in research-rewarded environments play a smaller role.

scott foyster

18 February 2013

Interesting article. As someone who has just graduated with a diploma of education in Western Australia I can attest for the need for a change in the way teaching courses are run. The University I was at had a heavy theory approach over practical experience (even breaking up the final placement to have two weeks theory in the middle of it).

I think post-graduates in teaching should be run more in line as an apprenticeship. Linking student teachers with mentor teachers across a year so they get a proper understanding and experience of how to set up the classroom, how to assess and write reports, how to plan across the whole year rather then just in six or at most term long blocks. Teaching would be graduated so that in each term the student teacher teachers more. In this regard the TFA sounds like a good approach and in retrospect I wish I had of undertaken that then my Grad Dip.

It would also be beneficial if they were more guaranteed graduate placements when the course is finished. As it stands at the moment my final placement was in term 3 last year. I was unable to be registered with the teaching board until after I graduated in December and now I am waiting for relief work. If I am to get a full time position in term 2 I will have been out of the classroom for half a year. If it's not until later then even longer.

Dr David Zyngier

22 February 2013

Dean raises some very provocative issues. It would be useful to read this article in conjunction with the challenges raised by Pam Grossman here:

Dean Ashenden

22 February 2013

For David: Thank you for the link. Grossman’s article is well worth reading, although perhaps not for the reasons you had in mind, David. Grossman does provide a useful summary of ways of improving teacher preparation. Her article also provides an excellent case in several of the points I was struggling to make.

Each of the techniques described by Grossman is evaluated for its ‘effectiveness’; there is no mention of costs, much less cost-effectiveness. Each of her four recommendations for improving teacher preparation begins with the word “invest”, but there is no mention of return on investment, or how that return will be measured. There is no mention of where the investment will come from; it seems to be assumed that it will come from the taxpayer. There is certainly no hint of shifting resources from places where they’re not earning their keep to places where they could. And each of these four requests for ‘investment’ turns out to be consistent with or to the advantage of the interests of the teacher education industry, particularly the fourth (‘invest in large-scale comparative research…’).

One further point, while I’m hyperventilating: Grossman’s article demonstrates that the research model brought to the problem of teacher preparation is utterly unsuited to the task. It takes forever; it fiddles while Rome burns. It is very expensive. It attends to the development of an academic conversation rather than the development of the practice being researched. And, to repeat, it pays no attention to money – how much, where from, with what result, at cost of which opportunities.

In short, it strengthens the case for moving teacher education into schools working within school-university partnerships that convert resources from ‘research’ to R&D and to clinical supervision and liaison, and in which schools/school systems are the lead partner.

Richard Pickup

19 February 2013

Perhaps we can look at learning in many things as learning to ride a bicycle. A child does not need the theory: physics, biomechanics or physiological knowledge to learn (training wheels sometimes help)but once you can ride a deep understanding of cycling helps you to become a competitive one. Perhaps teacher education is arse about

As and aside I find it curious that students think you can teach literacy. It is like thinking you can be taught fitness. You may taught exercises but to get fit you have do do it all yourself.

Dean Ashenden

18 February 2013

For Lawry: whether most teachers teach well or badly, there's no doubt that student teachers find it very helpful to learn from them - certainly much more helpful than NOT learning from them. There is of course a fair bit of evidence to suggest that most teachers are less than 'highly effective'. This is usually seen as a problem of 'teacher quality'. Perhaps. But if only a few maestros can make the classroom really hum there's something the matter with the design of the job and of the workplace. School-university partnerships might turn out to provide the R&D needed to re-design teachers' - and particularly students' - work and workplace, a point I should have made in the piece itself.

Margery Evans

20 February 2013

Teacher quality is far and away the most significant in-school determinant of student success, so it’s crucial that we prepare Australia’s teachers as well as we can within the resources available. Dean Ashenden, in his critique, Evolutionary tinkering in revolutionary times, identifies many of the complexities involved in balancing theory and practice, and equipping future teachers for a rapidly changing world.

It is to meet this challenge that the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) has developed a new, nationally agreed, approach to approving teacher education programs. This approach balances the need to allow flexibility and innovation with some clear standards that protect teacher quality. One of these ‘bottom lines’ is that programs must be at least two academic years in length.

Ashenden focuses on this requirement to portray the national approach as inflexible. But then neither of the two “clinical” programs he applauds is a one year program. The Master of Teaching is a two year qualification, and Teach for Australia participants study the theory underpinning teaching during their two years and are awarded a one-and-a-half year Postgraduate Diploma in Teaching. Ashenden’s proposed solution would span three years, and could easily contain two years’ worth of academic study.

AITSL would agree with Ashenden that in most initial teacher preparation in Australia we have not yet reached the ideal mix of theory and practice that could be accurately described as a “clinical” model. However what we have achieved is a regulatory framework that allows it to happen. All aspects of Ashenden’s preferred model are possible under the regulatory framework developed over the past three years in cooperation with education systems, principals, teachers, teacher educators and researchers.

Implementing the model Ashenden proposes would not be easy, and would require a whole range of institutions to change their practices. However, these are exactly the debates we should be having. It would be more productive to negotiate, modify and test these sorts of new models, than to reduce the debate to a single issue of the length of a program.

We are all searching for the best ways to prepare new teachers, and should be prepared to debate all options. After all, nothing less than the future of our children is at stake.

Margery Evans

Chief Executive Officer

Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL)

Steve Ellis

26 February 2013

As a 40 year veteran teacher, still in the classroom, I welcome Dean Ashenden's thoughtful and perceptive ideas. He is right on the money when he describes teaching as a "craft" that depends on "reflexes and intuition". We learn on the job, like an apprentice in the trades, and continue to learn throughout our teaching careers. I would go so far as to say that being a successful teacher is mostly instinctive; the new Teacher Institute checklists that attempt to define what it means to be a "good teacher" are absurd and restrictive rather than helpful.

In regard to the time spent by "student teachers" in real schools, Ashenden and some of the commentators here are correct. It is disjointed and too often of limited value. Back in the Stone Age when I did my practice teaching in the US, I spent a full, uninterrupted 10 week term "being" a real teacher in the classroom. (My university advisor visited several times to observe and give me summative and formative feedback.)

My associate gave me space to succeed and fail, and offered encouragement, practical advice and constructive criticism as needed. I wrote and delivered "real world" programs, I devised and delivered assessment instruments, I learned how to manage a classroom and my workload - I was allowed to practice the craft and I knew at the end of my time that I could do the job and that I wanted to do it.

I feel sorry for some of the practice teachers I have supervised over the years. Often, just when they are starting to develop a "feel" for what works to help students learn, their time comes to an end and they return to university to have more largely useless theory inflicted upon them.

The revolution will happen without me as I contemplate retirement, but if we can truly empower teachers (not just say we are doing so while putting them in strait-jackets) the future of teaching will be positive.

Steve Ellis Canberra

Michael Phillips

20 February 2013

The whole approach to teacher preparation requires a major overhaul. Two years makes sense when it is grounded in teacher practice. The development of partnerships between universities and designated training schools will help considerably in ensuring greater consistency of training and practice. After all it works well in developing a highly able workforce of teachers in countries such as Finland. A consistent and well funded National model is needed.

Michael Phillips


Ringwood Secondary College


24 December 2013

In 1970 Sydney University trialled a new kind of Dip. Ed. The Teacher Development Project. I was one of the 18 participants. All of us immediately began the program with two weeks in the local Public School. I was at Paddington Primary. We observed - we visited throughout the school - to the Infants section. We taught with our co-operating teacher - we took some classes on our own. Then began the TDP. We were divided by our two teaching disciplines into three groups and appointed to one of three Sydney secondary schools - at which we were to teach for most of the following year on two or three mornings a week - a paid co-operating teacher as our supervisor (mentor we would say to-day). I was at JJ Cahill Memorial HS. Afternoons were back at the university Faculty of Education - the philosophy of education/curriculum design - and more specifically - with practising teachers of some repute - guidance into subject syllabus writing and programming and so forth - all our university classes informed by our then immediate and cumulative classroom experiences. Micro-teaching exercises (use of mini-classes filmed and later dissected by us with input from our university teaches) was implemented - a feature ran in The Bulletin - so innovative! We took a year end trip to Melbourne and via the Riverina to the ACT - comparative and contrastive educational systems - state/private/experimental - having visited similar schools in Sydney - to help us think further about how best to serve the students and communities wherever we may have finished up. And then we began our probationary year of teaching - I was at Hay War Memorial HS - and came upon the reality - and really practised - or put into practice those things we had studied - strong in a lot of ways against the "culture" of the 'old-hands' and their sureties - in ensuring that our students were treated with respect and dignity - with expectations of success which eschewed prevailing beliefs in such strange things as IQ or of class assumptions - understanding that professional commitment with passion would surely bring accomplishment to our students. I was further at Deniliquin and then at Macintyre HS in Inverell in my first five years - by which time I knew that there was no other profession that was as important in society as teaching. Thanks Dean for this important essay.

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Photo: i"SNY!/ Flickr