Teacher training report reflects a superficial understanding of education

Jul 11, 2023
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A well-publicised report on teacher training from Ross Fox, the Director of Catholic Education of Canberra, runs the risk of inferring that a ‘science of learning’ that works for a private school system that has no students with severe behaviours, will work for schools that have a high proportion of these student.

Recently Jason Clare announced a review into the shortage of teachers in our schools. He referred to the statistics that 50 per cent who start teacher training do not complete that course and 20 per cent leave in the first three years. His comments were the result of a meeting of all State and Federal Education Ministers who identified teacher training as the area on which to focus to address this problem. This reasoning was a response to the statistics he quoted.

The four areas that are at the heart of this review are the brain and learning, effective pedagogical practices, classroom management and responsive teaching. Presenting these as discrete areas for investigation underlines the Ministers’ superficial understanding of education.

In education as in life, the brain is everything and the brain does not work in discrete areas. Knowledge of cognitive processes lead to an understanding of all behaviour including learning! For all practical purposes this learning begins at birth. Most children develop behaviours from their parents and guardians and predominantly these behaviours allow their children to negotiate the world including school! For some students, those whose early childhood ‘learning’ takes place in a physically and psychologically abusive environment, their behaviours clash with that expected by classmates and their teachers. I would be confident in declaring this to be the reason 20 per cent of teachers leave in the first three years.

There is a danger that by ignoring this small but significant population will lead to a one-dimensional approach to the reviews. They may be heavily influenced by a well-publicised report from Ross Fox, the Director of Catholic Education of Canberra and Goulburn who has decided the problems facing schools is the way his staff were taught at university. He has introduced the “science of learning”. Mr Fox runs the risk of inferring what works for a system that has no students with severe behaviours will work for schools that have a high proportion of these student!

The selection of Mark Scott to lead this review is unfortunately predictable. I would hope that the review will identify dysfunctional behaviours as an issue that teacher pre-training should address but his record of previous work in education hardly inspires confidence.

Concurrent is another ‘review’ headed by Lisa Paul to investigate how schools can ‘drive real change and measurable improvements’ for those students falling behind. Paul is a career administrator and currently Chair of the Australian Education Research Organisation and was formally in charge of the Smith Family.

I suspect both reviews will provide a ‘PWC style’ report that is an amalgamation of expert opinion and targeted interviews.

The regularity of reviews into the failure of schools is metronomic and evoke memories of Sir Humphrey Appleby’s book on advice to the Minister when faced with a difficult decision – call for a review! In the last couple of years the previous Coalition Governments produced two major reviews, ‘NEXT STEPS: Report of the Quality Initial Teacher Education Review’ for the Feds and ‘Student Behaviour Strategy – Public Consultation Outcomes’ for the States.

It is most likely these latest reviews, like the fore-mentioned ones will not identify disruptive behaviour as a significant factor driving the exodus of teachers. To do so would be to recognise the existence of social disregard for low socioeconomic sections of our communities, the areas where child abuse and neglect are most concentrated.

Effective behaviour management of students is an area that is almost non-existent in teacher training. It is a field of studies that is difficult to do any research that leads to publication, the nutrient of academic employment! Those few courses that do claim to focus on classroom management see behaviour as a continuum with those cheeky kids that spark up a room at one end and those who physically and psychologically abuse their class mates and teachers at the other. Failure to recognise this is a major reason the parade of reviews fail.

This is the issue, the motivations that drives the vast majority of students to misbehave are not the same as those that drive the kids who make-up the severe end of behaviours. Children, especially those in secondary schools are in the process of finding the boundaries that define their sense of self. As a result they will act in ways that are inappropriate to see how far they can go and when they receive unpleasant consequences they will shelve that behaviour.

These kids are relatively easy to manage and commercial organisations are quick to cash-in on providing common sense solutions. Programs like Positive Behaviour Interventions and Supports, Restorative Practices, Choice Theory are a few of the most popular and in the past the NSW Department have subscribed to these. These programs do not address the severe end of behaviour.

It is that small percentage of students, those who have mental illness or have behaviours created in a childhood that was abusive and neglectful who present the disruptive conduct that most teachers are not equipped to manage. These are the students who are invisible to universities, the Department and society. In most cases their behaviours are so repulsive teachers are reluctant to engage with them.

The neglect of these children is a social problem. There are constant news reports about out of control children roaming the streets causing damage to others and themselves. The juvenile detention centres are full and courts processing more and more young criminals.

This increase in dysfunctional behaviour is paralleled with an increase in reports of child abuse; the connection is obvious.

The importance of providing the resources to deal with these children cannot be understated. Schools are the most logical place for these resources to be focussed. But you cannot expect teachers, with no robust training to deal with this problem. Surely the purpose of education is to equip children to take a responsible place in society not to pass NAPLAN! I fear the current review will not have the courage to face-up to this enormous issue.

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