It doesn’t take best and brightest – or an inquiry – to answer this teaching problem

A federal government inquiry will look at how Australia can get better and brighter people into classrooms.

A federal government inquiry will look at how Australia can get better and brighter people into classrooms. Photo: Getty

Never run after a bus or a lover, the saying goes. There’ll be another one along soon.

To buses and lovers add government inquiries. Governments know that the best way to do nothing – forever – is to hold an inquiry or two.

Launched on April 15 and headed by Alan ‘Robodebt’ Tudge, the newest inquiry – and likely the most effective yet – is into how to attract the best and brightest students into teaching courses.

For the past 30 neoliberal years, reviews of teaching have averaged one per year.

Over the same period, Australian students’ results on worldwide measures have dropped. OK … so the more reviews into teaching, the worse the results. Quite an achievement.

Of course, anyone who knows anything already knows the answer to the inquiry, but they also know it’s as likely to happen as the proverbial flying pig.

Briefly, the answer is to employ more teachers and pay them more. In a recent report, the Grattan Institute says this at length, not to mention a tad more politely.

During lockdowns, most parents found it tough to teach just one kid. Teachers often have to give attention to 25 at a time. Photo: Getty

Compared to other Australian professions, over the past three neoliberal decades, teachers’ salaries have dropped, and top teacher pay is low compared with many OECD countries.

To the first of the bleedin’ obvious points, why would we need more teachers?

Because, no matter how skilled, no person standing in front of 25 students can tell which ones, if any, are actually learning anything. No single teacher can possibly look after the individual needs of 25 students.

As a result of this impossibility, the number of Australian 15-year-olds assessed as less than ‘proficient’ in literacy is, on average, two out of every five.

No, not meaning year nines writing comparative text-response essays. Meaning functional literacy, namely to read and write well enough to function in one’s everyday life and community, to read job notices, for instance.

To the second point, namely teachers’ pay, having been an educator myself, I know that teaching is the hardest job in the world apart from parenting.

Like parenting, it also carries the stigma of having been seen as ‘women’s work’, meaning, anyone can do it; it’s a ‘vocation’ not a profession; women were born to help; so don’t expect remuneration commensurate with your effort.

No Australian government has been willing to pay teachers enough for the tough work they do. It’s not just the penny-pinching conservatives; some of the worst educational decisions have been made by Labor governments.

The result? Anyone looking for decent pay for work done, and cluey enough to have an option, steers away from teaching.

Yet, as the Grattan Institute shows, plenty of high achievers would go into teaching if the pay were better.

Discussing the problem of teacher quality – while being respectful to everyone involved – is no easy task. Not the sharpest knife in the drawer, a few sangers short, and so forth; no one wants to say these things loudly in public.

Ever since being paralysed by the bright lights of early behaviourism, the academy – understandably, though short-sightedly – virtually barred research into whether one’s intellectual capabilities might relate to, for example, one’s religious tolerance, attitudes toward difference, or political stance.

But recent studies into the latter question avoid the fraught notion of IQ and, instead, use terms such as flexibility and complexity of thought. And, yes, you guessed it: Conservatives think in more complex, less dogmatic, less cautious ways than progressives do. Nah, just joking.

Following these studies’ lead, I’ve come up with a label for each of the two sets of intellectual characteristics described: REEACTs (Relatively evidence-resistant, exclusionary, autocratic, categorical thinkers) and PROACTs (Progressive, relatively open, all-around complex thinkers).

The more competitive teachers’ pay becomes, the more PROACTs will enter teaching. Of course, this is what happened under Gough Whitlam, so, of course, who wants to go there again?

I rest my case; writing this piece is pointless.

To bring the issue of teacher quality down to tin tacks, here’s a snippet from an actual classroom interaction I witnessed.

The teacher had just asked his class to explain what ‘normal’ means.

Student: “Well, if there are lots of things all similar, then you can ask the question, ‘Is this one normal?’ But if there’s only one of a kind, you know, it’s kind of unique, then you can’t ask whether it’s normal, can you? I mean there’s only one. Take possums, for example …”

The teacher listened carefully but did not appear to understand his student’s intellectual struggle to come to grips with the concept of normality.

He simply repeated his original question to the rest of the class of grade threes. And the child who had spoken fell silent.

Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t an anti-teacher piece; it’s anti drongo governments. It is governments’ responsibility – not teachers’ – to choose teachers wisely and pay them accordingly.

When some children can think in more complex and flexible ways than their teachers can, what can be done?

It’s too late, and, if they are in primary school, where they usually only have one main teacher to learn most subjects from, they could lose an entire school year of intellectual stimulation.

Recall the twin impossibilities? First, no single teacher can possibly look after the individual needs of 25 students. We need a minimum of one teacher per 12 students.

Second, when teacher education takes in too many REEACTs, too many children’s school lives are riven with boredom, frustration and mediocrity.

That’s why, the further those bright-eyed, bushy-tailed preps make their way through school, the more their joy and interest in learning decline.

Clever country, ha!

A L Jones, PhD, is a psychologist, writer and educator with academic specialties in educational and gender psychology. Jones is a series editor at Lexington Books and spent 15 years as a teacher educator at Deakin University.

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