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Education – What Are The Real Lessons?

Education – What Are The Real Lessons?

I remember reading a passage by T H White many years ago. He talked about somebody “who got upon his favourite hobby horse and rode off in all directions at once”! Well I am about to emulate this feat (or at least I am sure some of you will accuse me of doing so).

There has been a lot of comment about education and Australia’s declining performance in the press in recent months. I just can’t resist adding my own comments to the debate. I apologise in advance to those of you with whom I have had similar discussions in recent years.

The dominant criticism from various experts and “think-tanks” seems to be that while in the last decade or so we have effectively doubled our per capita expenditure on education, our international standing in most aspects of education has been diminishing. And yet governments seem to believe that the only way to improvement is to throw yet more money at the problem. And the prevailing theme, fervently advocated by the teachers unions because it delivers more members, is to concentrate on reducing class sizes despite the fact that research suggests there is little correlation between reducing class sizes and educational outcomes.

I know I am simple-minded with respect to such issues but the key determinants of good educational outcomes would seem to me to be:

  1. Competent teachers,
  2. An environment conducive to learning,
  3. Pupils who have an interest in learning,
  4. A curriculum that has relevance to the learners, and
  5. Well-managed autonomous schools.

I would not want to portray myself as an educational expert – but I have had more than a passing interest in the area. I have engaged with local schools in every area I was a power station manager. I was for a time the chair of the board of a private school. I was a pioneer in the competency based training movement. Through the Beacon Foundation I have had extensive involvement in schools with particular regard to paths to employment for disadvantaged pupils. I have sponsored major interventions in schools seeking to get better outcomes for boys with reduced academic ability. I have spoken at a number of national conferences on education. My interest in education has been maintained because I have a son who is a teacher. (I take some pride in his achievements.) I have also a long association with tertiary education – but this has less relevance in the context of this essay.

With your indulgence, let us examine one by one the factors I have enumerated above.

Competent Teachers

It is quite plain to me that we undervalue the role of teachers. In our earlier years, outside our parents, our teachers are the most influential people in our lives. Indeed, for some children in dysfunctional families, teachers might often be more influential (at least for good) than parents! This presents a frightening responsibility. We need then to ensure that not only should our teachers be competent at imparting their subject matter, they need also to be adult role models for our children.

Maybe things have changed but in my day (this will make my children cringe) quite often you went to Teacher’s Training College if you didn’t have the wherewithal to gain entrance to the university course of your choice. As a result teaching was often a fall-back position for high school graduates. In view of the importance of quality teachers this is an appalling outcome. Not only do we want quality teachers, we want teachers who want to teach!

 

The only way we can resolve this dilemma is to raise the status of teachers. Rather than being seen as a fall-back option we need to elevate teaching as something our best and brightest can aspire to. This also suggests we might have to pay our teachers more. I have no problem with this so long as teachers embrace teaching as a profession and commit to ongoing professional development, as other professions do, in order to keep up with new learning in their discipline. And research shows the most effective professional development is conducted in the workplace, with collaboration and feedback in the teacher’s own classroom helping them become more proficient on the job. (My own work as an executive coach highlights the efficacy of appropriate mentoring.) Along with this we need to install mechanisms to reward our best teachers.

We know the wisdom of promoting our best teachers. Most of us, remembering our childhood education, can point to those significant teachers that really had an impact on us, that stimulated our joy in learning and motivated us to maximise our potential.

We also have memories of teachers that not only had deficiencies in their teaching techniques but also had little comprehension of the subject matter. I have vivid recollections of teachers in my last two years at high school who were barely two or three years older than I who would ask me to come out and explain to the class the physics lessons they were supposed to be teaching!

Many teachers I have spoken to, deride the teacher education with which they were provided, pointing out how poorly it equipped them for teaching. They would have preferred more time in the classroom being mentored by competent professionals.

An Environment Conducive to Teaching

After many years in small regional communities in 1991 we relocated to Rockhampton. As a result I put my son in a private school (where he now teaches), whereas previously he had attended state schools. Wanting to be reassured that we had done the right thing, I asked him how he found the new school.

He paused a moment before responding. And then he ventured, “Well it is certainly different.”

Intrigued by this response I asked him in what way was it different?

“Well”, he offered, “to begin with, the kids actually listen to the teachers.”

That was a telling comment. For many teachers behavioural management (often poorly administered) takes so much time that their teaching effort is severely compromised. Obviously the efficacy of teachers is vastly improved when the pupils listen to them rather than when they are ignored. When pupils don’t listen to the teacher they often do other things to amuse themselves that is very disruptive to the class.

Unfortunately teachers are often the victims of poor parenting of their pupils. Parents that opt out of their responsibilities regarding the behavioural management of their children often expect the teachers to do remedial work on their children which is grossly unfair on the teachers.

On the other hand incompetent teachers will always find it hard to command authority in the classroom.

It is appalling that so many children enter school without the ability (and perhaps the expectation) to sit still and pay attention for reasonable intervals of time. Mind you the problem is exacerbated by teachers who don’t have the skills to engage the children. Symptomatic of the problem is the number of children, particularly boys, being diagnosed with ADHD. One can’t help believe that these behavioural problems are more a function of poor parenting then psychological or neurological malfunction. Of course such a diagnosis often then provides a convenient excuse for the parents not to try to teach the child more appropriate behaviours.

In essence a good learning environment is one where the parents and teachers are working together to ensure the best educational outcomes. Teachers invariably tell me that parent-teacher interviews are often suboptimal because the parents that attend have an interest in their children and consequently their children are generally better behaved and the teachers’ efforts are supported at home. The children most in need of assistance are generally those children who don’t attend such interviews!

Australian educational outcomes are now lagging those of many Asian countries. Whilst I would not want us to adopt all their regimented approaches to education there is no doubt their better results, at least in some part, can be attributed to proper respect for their teachers and well-behaved classrooms.

Pupils Who Have an Interest in Learning

In the early eighties, I developed an interest in competency based training (CBT). At the time we were using CBT to enhance the skills of our workforce. Consequently I also began to take an interest in the field of adult learning (andragogy). As a result I came across the work of Malcolm Knowles. His principles of adult learning were very convincing. (See for example http://www.qotfc.edu.au/resource/?page=65375 ) But over the years I have come to appreciate that most of Knowles principles were just as applicable to the teaching of children (pedagogy).

Knowles explained how we learned things better when we could see there was a “need to know” i.e. a valid purpose for our learning. Consequently any teacher (whether involved in pedagogy or andragogy) needs to have a convincing argument when the student asks, “Why do I need to know this stuff?”

A child brought up in a household that values learning will most likely take on that ethos. The discussions around the dinner table will stimulate the innate curiosity of the child disposing it to seek out interesting answers.

As I found out through my work with the Beacon Foundation, to my dismay many children don’t experience the benefits of discussions at the dinner table because their families don’t gather together for the ritual of an evening meal. Surprisingly we learned many don’t even know how to use cutlery!

Oftimes we might want to engage our children by linking learning with vocational opportunities. But in some school communities this is hard to substantiate. I know (again through my experience with the Beacon Foundation) that there are communities who have students who come from two or three generations who have been unemployed. A child living in such a household, with no appropriate role model won’t see the point of pursuing paid employment. An indigenous child in a remote aboriginal community won’t be convinced by such an argument either because there are no employment opportunities! Consequently educational outcomes seem of little relevance. To motivate such young people to learn we must expose them to role models outside their families and communities who can vouch for the beneficial effects of education.

This factor is related to the previous discussion. If a parent can’t provide a child with a valid reason for pursuing learning it will be difficult for a teacher to fill the gap. It is also related to the discussion to follow.

A Curriculum That Has Relevance to the Learners

I must confess I have strong views on this issue.

To begin with there must be a strong focus on basic literacy and numeracy early in a child’s education. Much of the education effort that is to follow is predicated on these skills. When a child doesn’t have basic competency in literacy and numeracy virtually all their later educational opportunities are compromised. Hence it seems important to me that in the first few years of schooling a huge effort is required to ensure a child has acquired the basic skills which will enable them to negotiate later learning. And let us get back to the basics with phonics and such unfashionable techniques as direct instruction where appropriate to help more children to learn to read proficiently.

Again we know from experience that children that come from homes where they have never been read to, where books are rare and parents have no interest or lack the skills to initiate some basic learning in the home, are hugely disadvantaged.

There is also a trap in our education system for those who are not academically inclined.

I have also been long of the opinion that some of the government targets in education are not helpful For example I believe that the attempt to have as many young people as possible finish high school creates underlying problems.

In my youth (cue for my children to groan again), those who were not academically inclined left school early to become a junior in the local store, start an apprenticeship, repair tyres in the local garage or whatever. In short they became part of the local economy, contributing their skills and learning to play a part in the community. Now we have many young people who are locked into school and simultaneously locked out of society. They attend school with little chance of success with dire consequences to their self-esteem. The consequent behavioural issues make school a much more difficult place for teachers and students alike. It seems ridiculous to rate schools by their retention rates, rewarding them to keep students locked in irrespective of the educational outcomes.

One school I had an involvement with came to me complaining about the disruptive boys in the high school grades. In conjunction with the local Chamber of Commerce we sourced a number of local employers who were prepared to give these boys employment for three or four days a week for some months. The employers reported no problems with the boys. Obviously once they had something meaningful to do and could make a useful contribution they became engaged and felt better about themselves. A number of the boys got job offers as a result of the exercise and teachers reported that on return to school they were less disruptive. There needs to be alternatives for such students. There needs to be better options to learn manual skills and opportunities for those who are experiential learners.

But as well as this the national curriculum is encumbered such that every subject needs to be taught through environmental, indigenous and Asian perspectives. It is time to get political correctness out of the curriculum and focus on basic content.

Well-managed Autonomous Schools

One of the more consistent findings of researchers examining education effectiveness is the importance of school autonomy. Principals need not only to be good educators, they need also to be good managers. In order to do this they need more discretion about how to spend the school’s budget; about hiring and firing; about structuring remuneration packages to give appropriate incentives to teachers; and about having discretion to sculpture an approach to learning suited to their particular school’s circumstances.

Again, it seems desirable that the principal be held accountable to a school board comprising directors with interest in the local community and how good education contributes to that community’s well-being.

Some have also suggested that parents should have options with regard to which school their child attends. There is a discipline imposed on schools that have to compete for students rather than have a guaranteed catchment with little or no alternative options for parents.

Selecting principals with the right managerial skills will pose a dilemma for some schools. But education is not alone in professions experiencing this dilemma. The best teacher may not often be the best manager. So often if we promote our best teacher to be principal we lose a superlative teacher only to gain a mediocre principal. Consequently we need to have good assessment techniques in place to select a principal and we need to have attractive career paths for our best teachers so that they are not tempted to move to management when they don’t have the requisite skills.

So there you have my latest pronouncement on education. There are many issues here, but let me opine in my own, probably ill-informed way that the two initiatives that would stimulate the greatest improvement in our educational outcomes are:

Superior Teachers

Having competent, engaged teachers who see their profession as a calling and who are committed to ongoing professional development of the practical sort I have advocated.

Supportive and Interested Parents

Having parents who understand that education is a cooperative undertaking between parent and teacher and who have been competent enough to instil in their children appropriate behavioural expectations in the classroom. We need parents who support the teacher’s learning initiatives at home, ensuring the child does its homework, take an interest in their child’s educational progress. At the very least, in the more dysfunctional areas, we need parents that ensure their children attend school, are properly fed and rested in order to engage successfully in the learning effort. (You might think this is only a problem for remote indigenous communities – but it isn’t. I know teachers in schools local to me that take food to school to feed their young charges in the morning that never get breakfast at home.)

 

From my old-fashioned perspective these seem to me to be the principal determinants of good educational outcomes. Whist I can see how we might work to achieve the first objective, I am pessimistic about the second!

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  1. 8 Comment(s)

  2.   By Mark Shaw on Oct 26, 2013 | Reply

    Ted

    As you know I come from a HR background rather than your engineering and managerial background and my personal research, findings and conclusion match yours.

    Like you, I admit to being somewhat pessimistic about seeing the much needed improvements occur until a fundamental change occurs.

    And again, like you, I will remain optimistic and try to do my little bit to change the system at every opportunity.

    Mark

  3.   By Graham Proud on Oct 27, 2013 | Reply

    Dear Ted

    I feel like you are only getting warmed up on this topic – surely you have more to say!

    In case you are thinking of leaving this topic and moving on to another in next week’s essay, here are some suggestions for issues that would benefit from further discussion – I would love to hear your thoughts and responses from your other readers!

    – how structure in the early years of education stifles creativity

    – valuing the difference in right-brain/left-brain/male/female responses to learning activities and style

    – education as a life-long goal and activity

    – social skills as an implicit but undervalued part of the curriculum

    – explicit teaching of thinking skills in school, a la Edward de Bono

    Having referred to my own activity in the university education sector as “pedagogically sound” I am a bit embarrassed to find out about andragogy!

    Here are a few links for your interest:

    http://www.ted.com/talks/sugata_mitra_the_child_driven_education.html

    http://schoolofthinking.org/who-dr-michael-hewitt-gleeson/about/training/10-dfq/what-is-your-dangerous-idea/sot-in-schools/

    Kind regards
    Graham

  4.   By Kecheng Shen on Oct 27, 2013 | Reply

    Hi Ted,
    Thanks for an excellent article and I echo, like your riding off in all directions, all the aspects.As an ex-academic, I wish you to cast some light on the ever-debated issue of teaching contra research in our higher educational institutions. Happy to exchange some experience and views.
    Cheers
    Kecheng from Perth

  5.   By tedscott on Oct 27, 2013 | Reply

    Thanks for your kind remarks Mark and Graham.

    And yes Graham, there is a lot more I could say, but short of writing a book on the subject (which I probably am not qualified to do)couldn’t do the topic proper justice!

    Kecheng, I was really pleased to hear from you.As you imply I am sure Universities do not give sufficient regard to the teaching skills of their lecturers. I can remember some abysmal lecturers during my time at university, but their teaching skills were never questioned because of their research contributions. On the other hand (and I am sure he won’t mind my relating this to you) my good friend, Dr Phil Harker, was well-regarded as a lecturer but was pressured to do a PhD in order to assure his academic standing and promotion prospects.In the pressure to succeed as a research institute, many universities pay scant regard to their obligation to teach competently.

    Regards,

    Ted Scott

  6.   By Blake on Oct 29, 2013 | Reply

    Ted,
    Agree with your artcile … good stuff!
    My only addition is that I heard that the child’s peer group is a significant contributer to good educational outcomes (often more influential than good parenting).
    Cheers,
    Blake

  7.   By Greg Brown on Oct 30, 2013 | Reply

    I’ll be a bit controversial. Teachers have almost no ability to discipline. A child is informed of their rights very early on and from that time they know that they can not be touched, or even be held back after school or at lunch. Depriving the child of education becomes the main form of punishment which of course is counter productive. Net result is behaviour gets worse and the worst behaved often develop status amongst their peers. Unfortunately when behaviour gets bad enough the law steps in and serous offenders are dealt with through the courts. This is happening at an increasing and alarming rate. I can’t say that in my schooling I ever heard of an incident where a student physically or even verbally attacked a teacher. They just would not dare for fear of the consequences. We are not doing our students any favours by eliminating punishment. They do not learn self control and that their actions have consequences. It is wrong of us to make their first punishment so serious. Too much too late.

    Who would want to be a teacher in a class room half filled with out of control students. It is not surprising that no one wants to teach. It is a vicious cycle. Out of control students lead to the perception teaching is a terrible career, which results in poor teachers who do the job only as a last resort which leads to badly educated and poorly controlled students. Of course teachers can’t say they want to be allowed genuine disciplinary options that would make them monsters, so their only option is smaller class rooms. Dilute the problem down.

    In my opinion the elimination of disciplinary measures from schools and the decline in education standards go hand in hand in this country. I know it is not this simple and there are plenty of other drivers but discipline I steel feel is a major contributor.

  8.   By Andrew Petty on Nov 1, 2013 | Reply

    Thanks for the article Ted, you’ve laid out your thoughts well. I read your writings often and seldom comment, please keep writing, I enjoy the stimulation.

    As a parent who is about to engage their child in the education system (Kindy already this year, prep is next year), I’m not surprised that the criteria my wife and I put together for finding a school and your writings match up pretty well.

    We decided that we want a well managed school with clear consistent discipline from the start all the way along, coupled with teachers and principal with a great attitude and love of their work. We are responsible for our child’s development – so we want to be closely aligned and involved in the school. We already have shaped an interest in our child in learning, albeit she is an abstract thinker. Kindy teacher says she will be trouble ‘Is the glass half full or half empty? Answer – wrong size glass!’
    As for curriculum, what is in our control is to ‘make up the difference’ between what’s on offer and what we feel is essential to develop a good citizen with a great life.
    We’ve unashamedly interviewed, much to the disdain of some, to find what we think is going to work.
    From what we’ve seen there are pockets of gold in the education system, and we would do well to cherish and support them.

  9.   By tedscott on Nov 2, 2013 | Reply

    Thank you also Blake, Greg and Andrew.

    And of course Blake the child’s peer group will have an effect on their learning. As we have seen boys have struggled to do well academically in recent times largely because doing well at school is not seen as “cool” by their peers.

    The discipline issue is a difficult one Greg. As you remind us children now come with undue expectations with regards to their “rights”. This combined with the laissez faire attitude to parenting by many parents result in school rooms that are very difficult to manage and is detrimental to learning outcomes.

    You seem to be embarking on the education journey with your child Andrew with the right attitude. Being able to place your child in an appropriate school environment and being prepared to work with the teachers would give me optimism for the outcomes!

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