Why is the teaching profession not better respected? A new book published by Springer and authored by Associate Professor John Buchanan at the University of Technology Sydney confronts this issue. Challenging the Deprofessionalization of Teaching and Teachers cites two intertwined reasons: a preoccupation with teaching basic skills, and an obsession with international school rankings.
Associate Professor Buchanan argues that the standardisation of teaching practices and content has forced teachers to teach unengaging, “basic skills” material, which in turn lowers student motivation and achievement. Furthermore, teachers have less time to focus on creativity and innovation. Not only because they are preparing for NAPLAN, for example, but because these attributes—while priorities in the Australian curriculum—are not assessed.
“One of the significant catalysts is obsession with international competition. I concede that in some of these basic skills tests, Australia is falling behind. This has led to stricter credentialing of teachers and stricter outcomes, but it makes them lack courage to be more innovative with education delivery, which means school becomes more boring for kids.”
The result is that student performance in basic skills drops while teachers bear the criticism. Buchanan raises the point that despite apparent worsening performances, and despite being prime stakeholders, teachers’ views are not taken into account when designing curricula.
“Increasingly the expertise of teachers has been disregarded. More and more teachers have been given prescriptive directives in terms of what they need to do, facing very stringent control measures. Teachers are best equipped to decide the futures for their students.”
Buchanan highlights that curricula and teaching policy are often designed by bureaucrats and education academics, who may have little or no practical school teaching experience. It is assumed that teachers don’t know best. Buchanan compares this perspective to the medical profession: who would think to say they have a better grasp of medicine than its practitioners?
“When teacher education staff, who are the only ones grounded in education, when we point out problems with education delivery here at university and more widely, we tend not to be listened to. That’s an expression of that disregard for the professional knowledge we carry as teachers and teacher educators.”
Change may come from unlikely places, though. In isolation during COVID-19, parents across the country got a taste of what teachers go through every day.
“Parents have come to recognise how complex teaching is. Parents doing distance learning have, say, two children and they realise the teacher has 20 or 30. The community has come to realise this: teachers are frontline workers. Without teachers, the economy implodes.”
The Australian Curriculum lists several cross-curriculum priorities, including critical and creative thinking, ethical understanding, and personal and social capabilities. Since these aren’t assessed, though, teachers tend not to focus on them. Buchanan believes that by making critical thought central to education, we may be able to begin to restore the professionalism of teaching, and more engagement to students’ learning experiences.
“What counts is hard to count. It’s hard to quantify those abilities. The approach has been, we drill the basics and we apply them. Maybe what we have to learn is not so much about teaching but about the culture and approach to education. I don’t think it’s simply doing more and more of the basics. It seems to be turning kids off and it doesn’t seem to be improving the basic skills.”
References: John Buchanan. (2020). Challenging the Deprofessionalization of Teaching and Teachers: Claiming and acclaiming the profession, Springer.