The Power of Pedagogy: Why We Shouldn’t Teach Like Champions

This is excellent…

Cities, Suburbs and School Choice

According to Milton Friedman, one of the foundational advocates of a school choice system, one goal of school choice is to reinvigorate the teaching profession, replacing ineffective teachers with the “many talented people who are currently deterred from entering the teaching profession by the dreadful state of so many of our schools” (Friedman 1997, 344). Indeed, prominent charter networks frequently boast that their teachers are uniquely qualified, passionate, and eager for their students to succeed (see the below images from Uncommon Schools and Achievement First). The notion that teachers in charter schools are more talented, more determined, or more loving than those in public schools is one theme charter schools use to attract families. After all, what parent would not jump at the chance to ensure excellent teachers for their child?

Screenshot (16) “We Are Uncommon | Uncommon Schools,” [http://www.uncommonschools.org/our-approach/who-we-are]

Screenshot (15) “Our Mission and Vision,” [http://www.achievementfirst.org/our-approach/mission/]

       To make this claim a reality…

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Distractions

“What doesn’t work in education? The politics of distraction” by John Hattie was published by Pearson last year. It’s an interesting read.

Michael Barber writes in the forward,

In this new paper, the first of two, he [Hattie] addresses the question of what this search for more impact means, and he does two things powerfully. The first is to make the case that the minimum goal of education, when rightly expressed, should be for all students to make at least one year’s progress for one year’s input, no matter where they start. The second is to argue that at the level of public policy there are many ideas, many of them popular and plausible, which do not pass the 0.4 test.  These comprise what he calls the politics of distraction.

Hattie argues that many popular education reforms, such as lowering class sizes, are distracting us from what will really make a difference, and that we should put our efforts into those areas evidence tells us will maximise our impact on student learning.

It’s a seductive argument. It seems so… sensible.

But, dismissing the importance of investing in school buildings and infrastructure, or of lowering the teacher-student ratio fills me with unease. Effect size on learning or not, the environments in which we learn and the relationships between teachers and students should not be undervalued.

Hattie’s reform agenda, based on impact and effect size is, I believe, a distraction in itself. The minimum goal of education should never be reduced to “one year’s progress for one year’s input”. Education has always, and must always serve a broader purpose.

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Here in Australia, the gap between the richest and poorest Australians increased by 13% between 2005 and 2015, with a further widening of 10.4% expected in the next decade.

(Source: Living Standards Trends in Australia, 2015)

We have utterly failed to improve reading and numeracy outcomes, employment outcomes and life expectancy for Indigenous Australians.

(Source: Closing the Gap 2015 Progress against Targets)

Students with disability continue to face barriers to education including:

  • Difficulties in enrolling
  • Failure of schools to provide reasonable adjustments
  • Exclusion from school activities
  • Low expectations
  • Shortage of services in rural and remote settings

(Source: Education and Employment References Committee: Access to real learning: the impact of policy, funding and culture on students with disability 2016)

Almost one in seven (13.9%) 4-17 year-olds were assessed as having mental disorders in the previous 12 months. This is equivalent to 560,000 Australian children and adolescents.

(Source: http://youngmindsmatter.org.au/survey-results/prevalence-of-mental-disorders/)

There are increasing incidents of racism and violence occurring across our society and growing numbers of young people at risk of radicalisation.

A year’s growth for a year of schooling presents an impoverished view of education. For schooling is about more than academic growth. Our education system is how we  maintain a cohesive, civil society. We can’t afford to be distracted from that.

Holding out for a Hattie

The hero teacher is a trope that has been around for many years. I first remember coming across it with To Sir With Love which seemed to frequently be the midday movie when I was growing up. That inspiring individual, usually fresh out of university, who by sheer strength of will is able to break through whatever social and systemic barriers exist and turn disengaged, marginalised and failing students into successes.

The hero teacher will be appointed to work in a disadvantaged school, staffed by that other teacher trope, the tired teacher: old,  experienced, jaded and uninspired.
Tired teacher knows that students in this school can’t be trusted, won’t learn and aren’t worth caring about. He shakes his head at Hero Teacher’s efforts, knowing they won’t work. But eventually, Hero Teacher overcomes all odds with nothing but passion and innovative teaching methods that no one has ever tried before.
Teach for Australia, a fast-track training program for teachers seems built on this fictional trope. It replaces a 4-year university degree with a short-term apprenticeship style model. The program recruits top graduates from other fields and parachutes them into needy schools to break the cycle of disadvantage.
And then there’s the discourse on Edu-Twitter. The heroic, innovative teachers, making a difference, but having to continually overcome the obstacles put in their paths by those old-school teachers, the laggards. Old teachers. The ones who are slow to adopt the new ideas, or worse, push back against them. Who sit their students in rows, use worksheets, kill creativity and prefer an industrial model fo schooling.
Everyone wants a hero.
In fact,  if one was to judge by the tweets that came from the Visible Learning conference in united states, John Hattie may very well be the hero that education has been holding out for. He channels Martin Luther King and inspires us to dream:

I mean education needs a hero, right?

These tropes may inspire us, but ultimately they divide. They encourage us to think of ourselves, of each other in binaries.  Good teacher/bad teacher, inspiring teacher/lazy teacher, quality teacher……
We’re more complex than that, education is more complex than that.
We each might harbour a private fantasy to be that hero teacher, or to find a hero to follow, but it’s a dream. Heroic individuals won’t overcome the systemic issues that create such inequity in education outcomes, and nor will quality teachers. We need to work together.