Late last year I spoke with about a dozen small groups of Year 9 students from a local high school. It was part of a program called Future Me; a program designed to help Year 9 students develop a range of ‘enterprise skills’, one of which is communication. In groups of 4 or 5, students spoke with a range of university staff, asking the staff questions about their schooling, their jobs, their career pathways.
A few of the groups asked me what had been my favourite subject at school. That really made me stop and think.
I ended up being honest with them and told them that I hadn’t liked high school much and I didn’t have a favourite subject. They were surprised that someone teaching at university didn’t like high school; hopefully it helped them realise that high school experiences don’t necessarily define your whole life – although in Year 9 it sure feels like they do.
If I’d thought about it some more, I may have said that English was one of my favourite subjects. The problem with it wasn’t the subject, but the teacher. I didn’t like my English teacher. He was punitive and I didn’t like his attitude. For the record, he didn’t like mine either.
Art was good because we sometimes got the opportunity to travel to Sydney to the Art Gallery of NSW – as well as other places – and I enjoyed that. But I didn’t like my Art teacher. She was punitive and I didn’t like her attitude. She really really didn’t like mine!
One of the times I was thrown out of Art class, I saw a boy being caned by a punitive woodwork teacher.
We had weekly assemblies and one of the teachers would patrol around the assembled students checking to see if the boys were wearing the right sort of socks. There were consequences for those who weren’t. Punitive ones.
It was the 1970s and I guess punitive was an educational fad back then. I like to think it isn’t one anymore …
It’s easy to be punitive though, and some still think it’s better for children and young people if their teachers are punitive, if they rule through fear. I read a comment on a ‘tell us about your favourite teacher’ blog from a man who said that getting the cane ‘certainly kept us focussed on doing the right thing’. I wonder if it helped with his learning?
Even back then schools weren’t only about learning – well, not in the academic sense. We sure learnt stuff, but lots of it wasn’t part of the official curriculum. Boys learnt to wear the ‘right’ socks, girls learnt that to get ahead they had to be ‘nice’, ‘polite’, ‘compliant’. Boys learnt not to cry; in fact, many boys learnt not to have emotions at all, or that some emotions were bad and therefore shouldn’t be part of their repertoire. Happy was a legitimate emotion as long we you didn’t have too much of it, and if you were tall and good looking and a favourite with the teachers, you could have pride and conceit in your bag of emotions as well, but others, like sadness or disappointment, were to be internalised or just avoided altogether.
Boys learnt that if you did the wrong thing, you were hit by an adult weilding a stick – and your parents generally thought that was an okay thing to do too. Girls learnt that if you spoke up about things that didn’t feel right – like boys being hit by stick-weilding adults – they were sent out of the room, or to that space behind the classroom door where your only companions were spiderwebs and dust.
I would have thought that these days punitive was gone from schools – but it seems to be alive and well. My 13-year old grandson said ‘hello mate’ to the school principal through the year and was then forced to sit outside said principal’s office for almost 2 hours. I’m not suggesting that saying ‘hello mate’ to the school principal is the correct way to address the principal, but sitting outside his office for almost 2 hours didn’t teach Ronan a more appropriate greeting. What a great lesson he could have had in levels of formality and when it’s appropriate to refer to someone as ‘mate’ and when it isn’t. Instead, Ronan felt aggrieved and angry and now feels more negative towards the principal than he otherwise might.
We know that learning in schools is, in large part, about relationships. Being punitive doesn’t help build good ones.
What other lessons might we teach if we stop being punitive?
That might not come as much of a surprise to those who know me well, but it comes as a surprise to me.
It remains a surprise, given that the realisation hits me every ten years or so. In the intervening times I simply forget.
Do you do that? Flashes of realisation about yourself, then forget, only to be reminded a year, or ten, later that, oh yes, that’s right. I forgot. I’m an idealist.
My latest revelation came after dinner at my sister’s place a year or so ago*. We got to talking about schooling and after chewing over certain parts of the conversation over the next few days, I had my flash of self-awareness.
I can’t think of any other way to say this than: for me, education (formal education) is about learning.
There. I’ve said it. That’s what it means to me.
And I’ve realised that that’s an idealistic way of thinking about formal education.
To me formal education is not primarily about:
a score on a NAPLAN test
a grade on the end of year exam
marks, and whether you get enough of them to get into university
whether you pass or fail an assignment, or a unit, or a course
To my way of thinking, formal education – whether you’re in Prep, or Grade 3, or Grade 11, or first year university – is primarily about learning.
Not grades, not marks, not passing tests, not learning enough to do well in spelling bees or at trivia nights at the local club.
Learning is challenging and requires thinking and changes of perspective and knowledge and understanding and questions: posing them as well as answering them. It requires reflection and resilience and determination and discipline.
And the bonus? Learning leads to test passing and success in spelling bees and impressing your mates at the local pub trivia. And a host of other, much more important things besides.
But it seems that schools and universities are not in the business of learning.
They are simply in business.
That’s how the education system seems to see it – and the politicians who enact educational policy. The education system is about students getting a good score in NAPLAN so that we (the rest of us outside of the education system) can hold teachers to account, so that we can hold schools to account; so that students – education’s ‘customers’ can move from high school to university, and from university into the workforce for the purpose of ensuring Australia is “internationally competitive”, economically strong, part of a culture built on consumption. That’s where growth comes from – from more of us consuming more.
There are implications of this thought process for what is taught, how it’s taught, who is taught and who does the teaching. It has implications for the kinds of expectations educators have of students and the level of responsibility given to students for their own learning.
And in this blighted landscape of education as business, education is something that is consumed. It’s a product we purchase. Universities don’t have students anymore; they have customers. And customers demand satisfaction for the goods they purchase. And customers’ purchasing should require as little effort as possible.
Customers don’t want to work for the goods they purchase. I mean, when was the last time you paid for a lipstick you had to then build from ingredients you had to source yourself, or even ones that were given to you? When was the last time you had to fry the chips you’d just paid for at the fish ‘n chippy, before taking them home to lavish with tomato sauce and consume?
Many customers of universities don’t want to have new ideas or perspectives to consider or to experience the discomfort of cognitive dissonance. They don’t want the pain of not doing well, of being uncertain, of not knowing. Some of them don’t even want the fuss of having to craft their own assignments.
Education is a business with customers to satisfy and a national economy to help grow.
It’s idealistic to cling to the idea that it’s about learning, and all learning’s attendent benefits.
And yet, I find the older I get and the more experience I have in formal education, the more I cling.
Perhaps I’ve turned into an anachronism … if I have, at least I’m an idealistic one!
* I came to my blog to write about something else entirely, and found much of this in the ‘drafts’ folder. I had the ‘I’m an idealist’ revelation again, finished the post and thought I may as well publish it.
We are asked to introduce ourselves. Most people give their name, title and something about the work they do. It’s my turn and I say ‘Hi, I’m Sharon. I do stuff.’
People laugh and then the next person introduces himself, gives his title, says something about what he does, and that continues around the table.
But … what?
Why did I respond in that way? Why didn’t I give my title and say something about what I do? Particularly as the people around the table are my colleagues. Most of them – if not all of them – know my title and what I do.
Even weirder, now that I think about it some more in the cold hard light of day. And when I say ‘cold’ I mean freezing. It’s so cold today I’m sitting inside with a woollen hat on, a buff (a scarf without ends) around my neck, a warm cardigan, while the heater dribbles out heat in the background.
I went to see Cornelia (not her real name) yesterday afternoon. Cornelia is my onc-psych (yes, apparently there is such a thing) and I told her about this because I thought it was interesting and it fitted in with other things we were talking about.
Cornelia challenged me to describe what I do and the value of what I do to an imaginary audience of Grade 5 kids. Or Prep kids. Or people who aren’t in the same industry as me.
So here I am. I’m sure she didn’t mean for me to do this on my blog, but as you’re my audience and might be good enough to give me your time and possibly some feedback, I thought I may as well describe what I do and the value of what I do to you – a real, rather than an imagined audience.
Or perhaps you are an imagined audience. I’ll imagine you’re out there, sitting in the warmth, scrolling through your emails, finding one from Musings on the Cold, and saying to yourself ‘what the heck. I may as well see what Sharon has to say today.’ And here you are.
Grab a cuppa, this is a seriously long read.
What do I do in my professional life and what is its value?
I’m a Senior Lecturer (Student Engagement) in the Faculty of Business and Law at Deakin University.
I work with academic staff (those who teach undergraduate and postgraduate students) to help further develop their teaching practice. I also work with those who work with academic staff to help them further develop the work they do in working with academic staff in further developing their teaching practice.
That sounds a little convoluted, even to me. Hopefully, it will become a bit more clear as (if) you read on.
Academics have three main parts to their role:
Research (that includes writing grant applications, conducting research – writing ethics applications, designing surveys/questionnaires/interview schedules, gathering and analysing data, writing peer reviewed journal articles …)
Service (engage in committees that make decisions about important initiatives, take on leaderships roles …)
Teach (prepare unit guides, design the structure of an 11 week unit/subject so that it has a coherent thread, design assessment tasks, record lectures and podcasts and be animated and lively as you do it, align assessment with learning outcomes, develop learning resources to scaffold student learning, determine ways of engaging students and tapping into their personal motivations and interest for studying this subject, liaise with library staff about library resources, liaise with language and literacy advisers on the best way to support students’ academic development, liaise with the work integrated learning team to determine how to incorporate some employability education into the unit, ensure compliance with the Higher Education Standards Framework in terms of discipline knowledge and also how to teach and assess, present information, meet with those teaching into their units to ensure there’s consistency in the information provided to students and in the ways students are being taught, respond to student requests for extensions, comply with standards for online learning (accessibility, etc), respond to student requests for information that was in the Week 3 notes but that the student hadn’t accessed, respond to student queries about whether this particular nugget of information will be in the exam, wonder why many students don’t turn up to class, mark student assignments, give feedback to students saying the same thing over and over ‘your work could be strengthened if you accessed the materials and attended more regularly’, conduct moderation meetings to ensure all markers are marking consistently and are providing positive and constructive feedback, write a unit review at the end of the semester to justify the high fail rates, ensure there’s a spread of grades consistent with a bell curve even though we do criterion-referenced assessment to which bell curves don’t apply, read student evaluations that often say hurtful things of a personal nature (Sharon is fat, Sharon has no sense of humour, Sharon’s hair is ridiculous), respond to student enquiries within 48 hours, ensure the unit is inclusive of those from rural and regional areas, those from a low socio-economic demographic, those who have a disability, those who work, those who have children and elderly parents, those who don’t really want to be in this subject, this course, this university, this country but they have to because their parents’ expectations are high, engage students in active learning, teach them about teamwork and self management and critical thinking and problem solving and global citizenship as well as disciplinary-specific content knowledge, be familiar with a range of technologies, pretend you can do all this … and more …).
A ‘balanced’ workload is 40/40/20. That is, an academic will have 40% of their workload allocation devoted to research, 40% to teaching and 20% to service.
Many academics come to universities as experts in their field. They are expert accountants, or financial planners, or foreign exchange traders. They are keen to undertake research. Research builds your profile nationally and internationally. Research builds a university’s profile nationally and internationally. There are university rankings and all universities want to be at or close to the top. You get close to the top primarily through research, although teaching evaluations from students plus success and retention rates are also part of the equation. But research is important.
Most academics have a PhD and so come to the academy knowing how to do research. Once at the university, they often get onto research teams and are mentored and supported by more experienced others in how to write grant applications, how to write ethics applications, how to write journal articles, how to get published (or they mentor and support those who are newer to academia). They publish in teams and so an academic might have their name on a dozen papers, along with a dozen other academics, all of whom contributed in some way to the research, although not necessarily to the writing of the paper. It’s very important to have your name on the paper. It’s how you and the university builds a national and international profile.
Not many academics come to universities knowing how to teach. They’ve been in school, they’ve spent time in universities as students, but just as going to the dentist regularly doesn’t mean you know how to dentist, being a student doesn’t mean you know how to teach. Teaching is often something that is done individually. A unit chair will do much of the work I mentioned in point 3 above. On their own. Often with limited time, particularly in the initial stages of unit design and development.
Many academics come to teaching with the idea that teaching is about telling students what they need to know and then testing them on that at the end of the trimester to see how much they’ve ‘learnt’. Not many academics build their national or international profile through teaching. Not many universities get to the top of the league tables through teaching.
Teaching is often evaluated on the basis of what students have to say and when what they have to say is unhelpful (Sharon is fat. Sharon has no sense of humour. Sharon’s hair is ridiculous) then it’s difficult to know how to improve. Teaching tends not to be a team activity. There’s little mentoring and support from more experienced others. Research into your own teaching is called ‘scholarship of teaching and learning’ rather than research and isn’t valued as highly as ‘real’ research, even though there are grant applications to write, ethics applications to develop, data to be gathered and analysed, writing of a journal article that will be peer reviewed … it’s just like research but it’s called scholarship and so doesn’t count as much.
So for the academic who comes to university primarily to engage in research, teaching can be an uncomfortable space. An often unsupported space.
Universities provide support for the technological aspects of teaching: how to record a lecture (as in, which buttons to push) but not so many resources on how to record a lecture (as in, how to engage students in the ways you present information, the structure of the lecture, ways to be your authentic self in front of the camera); how to develop a rubric (as in, which buttons to click to ensure it’s in the right place within the learning management system and that the numbers add up accurately) but there are fewer people employed to support academics in how to develop a rubric (as in, how do you develop criteria that align with the learning outcomes, what language do you use to differentiate between someone’s capacity to communicate at a Distinction level rather than a High Distinction level; how to assess quality rather than quantity – how well the references were used to suppport the writer’s argument or analysis rather than how many were used).
I am a teacher. I’ve been a qualified teacher since 1997. I’ve spent over 22 years in classrooms of one sort or another and/or supporting those who teach. I started out teaching English and Drama to senior secondary students. English teaching (and preparing to be an English teacher) meant that I learnt about language and purpose and audience and structure and communicating in writing as well as verbally. It taught me about nuances in language and about the formalities of language – about register and tone and semiotics and syntax. And about deliberate communicative structures and when it’s okay to break rules and why apostrophes are important.
Drama teaching (and preparing to be a Drama teacher) taught me about embodied learning, about authentic learning, about experiential learning, about giving feedback, about being in the moment, about jumping in and doing rather than sitting back and thinking, about experiences and ways of communicating them through real and imagined events, about emotionality and how to make a scream with your body rather than your voice, and about experimentation and trying things out, about flexible and creative thinking, about the importance of reflection to the learning process, and the importance of breath and movement and of voice – of using it and supporting it.
And for many years I worked in radio. Working in radio taught me about time – time management, time use, how to fill it, how to structure it. It taught me about audience – communicating with the audience, listening to the audience, speaking to one person rather than to many, imagining your listener and speaking directly to that person. It taught me about structure, how to use music to carry the program through an hour of ups and downs, of melodies and rhythms; how to use pace, when to speed up and when to slow down; how to edit an interview and to structure it to make it flow; how to present information, how to ask open questions, how to encourage people to tell their story, how to build relationships quickly, how to use humour to add light and shade to an interview (Sharon has no sense of humour), how a smile warms up your voice. It also taught me the importance of preparation, whether that’s preparing for a music program, a talk program, a panel interview, an interview with a member of parliament, for talkback with Peter Cundall, for dealing with technical issues in a dignified way on air and ensuring your microphone is off before you fall to pieces.
For many years I was a teacher educator, teaching those preparing to become primary and secondary school teachers. Teaching and learning, assessment and planning, curriculum and pedagogy were what I taught – they were my disciplines. I was teaching people about teaching – asking them endless questions about the role of schools in society, the role of teachers, the reason we teach what we teach in schools. I encouraged students to think about who they were as teachers, why they were teaching, why they were teaching in the way they were teaching, encouraging them to think about how they use their time, how they structure it in the classroom, how they plan for learning, how they know that learning has happened. I was also teaching about self-management – about planning, monitoring and evaluating your own learning, critical thinking, communicating to diverse audiences, working as a member of a team, ethical practice. In addition, I taught Drama and Literacy and encouraged students to keep their teaching real and authentic and embodied and experiential. I developed as a teacher-educator over time, just as, years before, I had developed as a teacher over time.
And so now I know something about teaching and learning and engagement and assessment. About how to structure the presentation of information, how to communicate with an audience you’re not in front of, how to ask questions that elicit responses that go beyond yes/no answers. I know about unit design for oncampus and online teaching and learning; I know what strategies will encourage active learning; I can use language effectively in the development of rubrics; I know how to design a unit to encourage intellectual engagement as well as professional and academic engagement. I have written articles and conference papers about teaching and learning, I have developed my knowledge and understanding and practice from a myriad of authors who engage in the scholarship of teaching and learning. I attend conferences and listen to how others enact their teaching and how they encourage students to engage in learning. My ideas about teaching are built on experience and reflection and scholarship and research and reading and interacting with others. And, if I’m honest, my ideas about teaching are also built on my experience as an educational leader.
And so, I do more than ‘stuff’. I work with academic staff (those involved in teaching) to further develop their teaching practice. I encourage them to reconsider the ‘teaching as telling’ approach; to think about teaching as an embodied, experiential, authentic endeavour that leads to students being more effective communicators and critical thinkers and team members and problem solvers.
And I work with those others in the team (colleagues employed as learning designers or educational technologists or educational developers or project managers) who also work with academic staff, to further my colleagues’ understanding of teaching and learning and how best to work with academics in helping them further develop their practice.
As well as the many failures I’ve had, I’ve also had some successes. My office is littered with Teaching Merit Certificates from my years at the University of Tasmania. Last year I was awarded Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. HEA Fellowship ‘demonstrates a personal and institutional commitment to professionalism in learning and teaching in higher education’. Senior Fellows need to provide evidence of a sustained record of effectiveness in relation to teaching and learning, and so it was an honour to be successful in my application.
Most recently, I was part of a team awarded an Australian Award for University Teaching (AAUT) ‘Citation for Outstanding Contribution to Student Learning’. Only 30 were awarded across Australia and again, I felt very honoured to have been part of a successful team.
So perhaps I need to acknowledge that I do know stuff, and that it’s quite valuable stuff to know, and that I can add value to others’ practice and ultimately to the student experience.
I tend to think I lost the Prep audience some time ago, and possibly the Grade 5 audience too.
But what about you? Did you make it this far?
If so, do you consider what I do to have value?
Any comments are most welcome, apart from the ‘Sharon’s hair is ridiculous’ type 🙂
I was already a grandmother by the time I started teaching at university in 2000. Phil, who turned 20 earlier this week, and his brother Scott were my only grandchildren till Ronan arrived in the world eight years after Phil. Then Jordan and Hunter and Sakye – and then more and more and more!
As my list of grandchildren grew I started to think more and more about the student teachers I was teaching and I’d often say to them ‘You never know, one day you might be teaching one of my grandchildren – they’re scattered all over Australia – and that might mean me popping into your classroom to have a chat and see what the grandkids are up to’.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s come to pass. Some of my grandchildren have had the pleasure of being taught by some of the very special people I taught at university and it’s always lovely to wander into their classrooms and see them as teachers now, after seeing them as students. I don’t pretend to have any influence on who they are as teachers, but it’s lovely to see them nonetheless.
I’ve been teaching for over 20 years now. Being a teacher was something I never imagined I’d do. Debbie, my sister, had always wanted to be a teacher, but it hadn’t been on my list of career choices.
I no longer teach those preparing to be teachers in primary and high schools; rather I find myself running workshops for academic staff who are teaching university students studying for degrees in commerce and accounting and information systems and business analytics. While I know nothing about accounting and commerce and business analytics I do know something about teaching.
And, what’s more, after running six workshops in the last week I’ve been reminded that I love it. I love teaching. I love asking questions that generate thinking, I love putting ideas out there and seeing how others develop them, or consider them, or debate them, or draw insight from them.
Those who know me in person, know that I’m not a dynamic person in ordinary life, but I seem to get another sort of energy when I’m teaching and as I get older and therefore more comfortable and confident with my teaching persona I find I turn into a warm and funny and energised person who is enthusiastic and passionate and insightful.
Well, at least that’s what I’ve been told.
I’ve had a few positives in terms of my teaching and supporting teachers over the last twelve months. I (successfully) supported a team of academics in their application for a VC’s award for outstanding contributions to student learning, and on the back of that award the team was encouraged to apply for a national award.
We found out earlier in the week that we’d been successful at the national level and so, as part of a team, I now have an AAUT (Australian Award for University Teaching) citation for outstanding contributions to student learning under my belt. They only awarded 60 across the country this year, so I’m pretty chuffed with that.
Last year I was successful in applying to become a Senior Fellow of the (UK) Higher Education Academy. Being a Senior Fellow means I ‘demonstrate a thorough understanding of effective approaches to teaching and learning support as a key contribution to high quality student learning [and] impact and influence on other colleagues through, for example, responsibility for leading, managing or organising programmes, subjects and/or disciplinary areas’ (www.heaacademy.ac.uk).
It was a 6,000 word application supported by two referee statements (thanks Robyn and Sharon B) and required a lot of evidence to support my claims.
The awards are great – even though they require a lot of work and the collection of a lot of evidence from over my 20 years of teaching and are a great recognition of the work I’ve done.
But much (much) more meaningful than the awards and fellowship came in the form of a text message from one of my daughters-in-law last week.
It turns out that Jada, one of my granddaughters, is being taught this year by someone I taught at university. Here are the messages I received:
Met with Scott [teacher] for a parent-teacher meeting this evening. He may have lit up like a Christmas tree when Jada mentioned your name (we had to go through the “Do you know Grandma Sharon” *blank look* “my grandma Sharon Pittaway” dance before he twigged).
He said you were his all time favourite lecturer and that you allowed students to give their own perspective on things and that you never just read or regurgitated information from a textbook. He said this made you inspiring. He also asked for me to pass on his regards.
He ALSO said that Jada no longer needs to come to school as she is now an A+ student because she knows ‘Grandma Sharon’.
I’m glad he took the no school rule back-Jada would have run with that! I made Scott out as being kind of excited, he was more yelling “oh my god” and “really??” He was flailing his arms around a little and slapping his thighs haha. Congratulations to you on making such an impact on people and allowing them to filter their enthusiasm for learning and growing through to the next generation. I’m especially grateful they are our kids!
He said the way I taught made me inspiring.
That’s worth more (much much more) than a VC’s award or a national citation or a senior fellowship.
I haven’t taught pre-service teachers for what seems like a long time … and out of the blue, a former colleague rings and asks if I want to teach a unit on engagement! Yay. The next week I start teaching. One student writes in his introduction: ‘Sharon, you were the most respected and most feared lecturer we had. It is poetically fitting that you are teaching me in my final year, as you also taught me in my first year.’
I had recognised this student’s name as soon as I saw it. As all teachers know, some students make an immediate impression on you. When the students are young, it’s often the students who challenge you the most that make the most impression – those students who don’t sit still, who don’t comply quickly, who ask lots of (what appear to be irrelevant) questions … the students school isn’t designed for. They remain with you for many years, and even ten years later you talk about them fondly (or with residual despair).
When the students are older the ones who make an impression are those who ask lots of questions, who bring a different perspective to class discussions, who don’t sit still in their thinking; the ones who develop tremendous resilience and now call themselves ‘teacher’ effortlessly, when initially that word reached their lips with great reluctance and unease.
A little over ten years ago I walked into the Week 1 tutorial and asked the students why they chose to study teaching. One student, a slightly chubby redhead, said that she’d wanted to be a paramedic. ‘Why didn’t you do that then?’ I asked, somewhat bluntly. Some weeks later I noticed she wasn’t in the lecture. The next week I ‘marched’ (according to her) her to my office to talk to her about the importance of regular attendance. (When you have potential, it’s a shame to waste it.) I taught her again in 3rd year, and then again in 4th year where her response to a literacy paper I had asked students to write was outstanding.
But even though students make an impression on you, at the time you’re teaching them, you don’t expect to end up lying on the grass under an umbrella listening to Ben Abraham and Archie Roach (as warm-up acts for Missy Higgins) on a hot summer’s afternoon in late January with them. Unless they’re Alison, the former slightly chubby redhead, who had come to stay for the weekend.
And then the next day, Alison asks me if I can take her photo.
Wouldn’t that be a great project … to return to all the memorable students I’ve taught and do a photography shoot with them! Who’s up for it?
Metaphorically speaking, that is; there was no harm to a literal horse in my ‘getting back on’.
Okay, I’ll be clear. I know some of you don’t work well with metaphors, so I’ll be like, ‘literally’ all over this blog.
I haven’t taught on-campus (as in students in the same room as me) since semester 1, 2014.
Yes, that was two years ago. And yesterday I did it again.
And you know what? It felt good.
I was prepared, planned, organised, ready … I had even practiced smiling (although when I practiced in front of the mirror I scared myself, so I determined to only smile when absolutely necessary).
The students were lovely; responsive and mature in their attitude, willing to share their ideas and discuss meaty concepts.
After 18 months in the professional wilderness, of trying to determine who I am professionally, it felt good to be able to think of myself as a teacher again. To act as a teacher again; to be a teacher.
And the best thing? I get to do it all again next week.
Oh, and one other thing … by the end of class my face hurt.
A week or so ago I decided to sign up to do a course called ‘What future for education’.
It was the title of the course that caught my eye as I am working through a period of deep ambivalence about education and thought this might provide me with some answers, or at the very least give me something else to think about. You know how I like to think!
It is an online course like many others: there are lectures (and in this instance, they are brave enough to call them lectures – I like that), there are readings, there are discussions to be had, activities to complete (an entry on a Padlet wall – some of you may remember adding to a Wall Wisher Wall in your own studies … it’s now called Padlet), and a tweet or two.
And a blog post. Hence my presence here today.
I could have started another blog and used that just for the course, but decided against that. Mostly for pragmatic reasons; I have a collection of applications that I’ve signed up for because of various studies I’ve undertaken and many of them I don’t use once the study is finished. Or once I decide to stop studying. And so I thought I’d write my blog posts here and you can be be amazed that I still haven’t learnt to read the unit outline and take any notice of deadlines. This blog post was supposed to be in yesterday, for instance.
But I’m supposed to write a 200-word blog post on: Based on your experience as a learner, what do you think you will be able to get out of this course? And what ideas do you already have about the future of education? So here goes.
What I will get out of this course … that’s an interesting way to phrase this question. Does that mean the same thing as ‘what will I learn from this course’? I’m going to say yes, and so will reword the question and write about what I expect to learn by completing this course.
I expect to learn about a range of perspectives on education – what education might look like in the future; how we might shape education; what education is for; why we educate. I want to learn what others have to say about education, others who aren’t politicians, others who know something about education and have ideas about it. I expect to learn how education can move away from the abyss of commodification and towards a focus on learning.
What ideas do I already have about education? I’m going to imagine that the term ‘education’ here is used to mean ‘formal education’ whether that’s in a school or university.
I see a distinct shift towards education being a commodity that is bought and sold, with as little effort made by the ‘consumer’ as that required to buy a lipstick.
Education has less to do with learning and more to do with a qualification or a result that allows the student access into other areas of education (from Year 6 to secondary school; from Year 12 to university), and then into the ‘real’ world.
Education has become enfeebled by a narrow focus on literacy and numeracy to the detriment of developing learners (people) who can engage in creative, critical, and ethical thought (and action).
Teachers (including university academics who teach) are increasingly stymied in their efforts to encourage learning, instead being forced to focus on assessing (there’s much more weighing than there is nourishing).
School teachers are little more than automatons – delivering a curriculum that is divorced from their students and developed by outsiders who have political points to make; being handed scripted lessons to deliver; having very little say in what is taught and how it’s taught.
The future of education is bleak.
So, for what it’s worth, that’s my less than cheery summation of the future of education.
I string words together on the clothesline of this blog. Some mean something to some readers; some mean something different. Words are slippery with meaning and imagery and contexts and memory and ideas and moments shared and rediscovered.
I’m forever exhorting my students to choose their words carefully. To use the words “I dug around in there until I found it” brings to mind a particular image when the context is of searching for a piece of clothing at the back of the cupboard. Those are not the words I’d use when the context is searching for a mole you half remembered was nestled amongst your pubic hair (overheard train conversation). For that particular context I would use different words – I would choose different words.
‘Choose’ implies a deliberateness that ‘use’ doesn’t. That’s one of the things with words. We can use them (choose them) to convey particular meanings/messages and the reader happily remains unaware of our choices. The writing seems natural, as if there’s no other way to say it, to write it … to think it. No other way to think. We can manipulate the reader, cause him or her to imagine things he or she hadn’t thought to imagine before, to connect two distinct ideas that they hadn’t connected before, to even come up with the notion that two plus two equals five if we use/choose just the right words.
Precision in language is not to be underestimated. It’s a hallmark of critical thinking – of knowing what you mean and writing/speaking what you mean so that your reader/listener/audience doesn’t have to guess at your meaning. There is no ambiguity in your meaning, unless you choose it to be so. Disturbingly, for people like me, precision is often underestimated. In fact, some people don’t think about it at all. They use words as though one is as good as another and we all know, when we stop to think about it, that one is not the same as another.
But strings of words can also cause us to think in particular ways. My attention was caught by a newspaper headline yesterday about student teachers getting an ‘F’. It turns out that in a study conducted by an Australian university, many (in some cases most) pre-service teachers – that is, university students studying to be teachers – are very poor spellers. My own experience teaching pre-service teachers means that this finding was not news to me.
It may be shocking to you, or you may be quite unsurprised by this news … that those preparing to be your children’s and grandchildren’s teachers have poor spelling skills. The report then did something interesting. It connected two unrelated ideas: 1. poor spelling and 2. becoming a teacher.
It suggested that stricter spelling tests are needed prior to admission to university to ensure that those who cannot spell cannot become teachers. In our society, spelling and intelligence are linked. If you can spell well, then you are obviously intelligent. If you can’t, then you obviously lack intelligence. This is a truth for many people. Clearly, if teachers cannot spell well, they are not intelligent and therefore should not be teaching our children.
The connection between the two unrelated ideas was made ‘naturally’, despite the lack of any evidence indicating a link between ability to spell and ability to teach. The article, and perhaps the press release the story came from, took an uncritical look at the issue; it failed to raise serious questions, and left little room for thinking differently about the issue. It did this through strings of words that presented taken-for-granted assumptions about the audience – that they would immediately agree with the outcome suggested (more testing) and then turn the page to read about what the Kardashians are up to now.
Well, why don’t we (yes, dear reader, that means you and I) ask some critical questions before we turn the page and get up-to-date on the latest Kardashian capers? Why don’t we engage in some critical thinking? What questions do you have?
Here are just some of mine … please feel free to add your own in the comments section.
Questions about the nature of intelligence and the link (if there is one) between intelligence and spelling ability.
Questions about what we value in teachers. I note that the article didn’t call for an empathy test, or a test of a person’s capacity to form positive and supportive relationships with students and parents. Nobody seems to be calling for a test of a teacher’s capacity to deal with the often unrelenting demands of parents (leading, in one case I heard of recently, to a principal’s suicide), or of violent children.
Is spelling the thin edge of the wedge? If a teacher can’t spell, then maybe they can’t teach either; maybe they can’t see a hurting child and speak a kind word; maybe they can’t motivate and engage children or foster a child’s creativity and resilience, or nurture a child’s spirit …
The taken-for-granted assumption that a capacity to spell is what determines a person’s capacity to teach effectively speaks to a lack of critical thought … and in my view, for what it’s worth, that speaks to lazy thinking, which in my book is worse than poor spelling.
Words and ideas matter. Being able to communicate those ideas clearly and effectively, with the best/most appropriate words, matters. Yes, spelling matters, particularly for teachers, but to not allow someone in to teaching on the basis of poor spelling means we may miss out on developing some wonderful teachers. Teachers with heart and soul and passion.
Those things matter too.
I’d really like to hear from you. Please feel free to post a polite and respectful comment below in response to the news story, or to my post in general. What qualities are important in the teachers of your children/grandchildren/great grandchildren? Should spelling ability be the sole determinant of admission into a teaching degree?
One of my colleagues highlighted this difference when she said, “Tim’s nice. And Sharon, you have good ideas. Together you make one decent person.”
It’s become something of a refrain for us and we joke about it at odd times in that way couples do when the truth of what’s been said hits us between the eyes.
It serves to bring our difference into sharp relief.
Tim is nice.
And I do have good ideas.
In our work as teacher educators, we assess a lot of student work. Tim writes nice comments on the work he marks; his language is positive and his niceness exudes through his words. When students receive their assignments, they feel reassured.
He loads his presentation, gathers his papers and asks me if I’m ready.
I love listening to Tim’s presentations because his thinking is so clear, he uses language beautifully, and the connections he makes are interesting ones. His voice is soothing and controlled and warm.
My mind flashes back to November 23, 1999: the first time I heard Tim speak. It was his Honours presentation and I was impressed by the clarity of his thinking and the way he communicated ideas. Even though I didn’t know him then, I was determined to introduce myself to him afterwards. Three months later we meet again, both new PhD candidates, in adjoining offices. I listen to him speak on numerous occasions over the next few years and he impresses me each time.
This presentation is different though. It’s not Tim at his best. He finishes and looks expectantly at me.
I am not nice.
I load my presentation, gather my papers and ask him if he’s ready.
I start and a few slides in, I stop. I had had an idea. I tell Tim I’ll be back in a moment.
A few minutes later I am back, and I start again.
Tim listens respectfully. I finish and look expectantly at him.
Tim is nice.
I give Tim some feedback on his presentation: “I was confused by this slide because it didn’t reflect what you were saying”, “the information you spoke about [at this point] was very complex”, “on the fourth slide the information you present is in the opposite order to what you say and that distracts me”
Tim is upset.
“Do you have anything nice to say?”
Tim gives me feedback on my presentation: “It’s great. Well done. You’ll be fabulous. I really like how you have organised your ideas”
I am upset.
“Don’t give me nice. Tell me how to make it better.”
And there’s the difference.
Tim wanted me to be nice. He needed to be reassured.
I wanted Tim to be critical. I needed to be better.
Tim’s feedback to students reassures them. They feel that they can do ‘this’, that they can succeed, that they can achieve their goal of getting through university and being a teacher.
My feedback is anything but reassuring. It points out how they can improve their work, how they can communicate in writing more clearly, how they might connect their ideas in more logical ways … it doesn’t reassure.
I challenge and question.
I struggle to write nice things. I object to the ‘bollocks sandwich’ approach (as one student described it): the say something nice, then say something constructive about how the work could be improved, then finish with something else nice.
To me it feels like I’m writing platitudes and empty words: “Thank you for your submission. You have used a clear font and met the word count.”
It feels wrong to me, and not at all reassuring.
And it’s because I wouldn’t want to hear it. Don’t tell me stupid stuff, tell me what I can do to improve my work – don’t waste my time with things that don’t matter.
We are taught from a young age that we should do unto others as we would have others do unto us.
But that’s quite patently wrong.
What’s really at work here is this: do unto others as they would be done unto.
When I ‘do unto others as I would have them do unto me’, I give the kind of feedback that I want to hear.
But there are plenty of students who want something different: they want to be reassured.
Earlier this month (October) World Teachers’ Day was celebrated around … well … around the world. Did you hear about any celebrations? Did you take part in any? If you have school age children did you do something nice for their teacher/s? If you’re a teacher, did you celebrate in some way, or were you celebrated/acknowledged by others?
When thinking about success yesterday, I began to think about what it meant to be successful as a teacher. How is success measured? What does a successful teacher look like? What do they know, what skills and understandings have they developed, in what ways can they communicate their ideas, knowledge, understandings, thoughts, feelings, views? What are their values and what do they value? Can you ‘see’ teacher success by looking at their students? Is there a link between a successful teacher and successful students? Is teacher success a sum of individual students’ successes? Is it simply a matter of addition … successful student A + successful student B (and so on) = successful teacher?
We sometimes talk about students as if they are pieces of machinery that can be weighed and tested to see if they fit a certain list of pre-ordained specifications. Even if they are, would the teacher be the only one responsible for ensuring they meet those specifications, or are others involved too?
The structure of the school, for instance, has a part to play in student success – the kinds of programs the school offers, the number of lessons scheduled each day (and therefore the amount of time students have to work on things that matter), the relative worth of particular subjects (what’s more important and therefore how much time is spent learning Physics, English, Drama, Maths, the capital cities of the countries of the world, the canon of English literature, History, driver ed, pet care, sustainability …?). And when there is only so much time in the day, what’s given priority? What’s missed out? And ability to ‘do’ which of those subjects would constitute success? If you can do quadratic equations but not name the poet who wrote The rime of the Ancient Mariner and discuss what it’s about in a coherent way, should you be considered successful? If you cannot name the rivers down the eastern seaboard of Australia, but be able to parse a sentence correctly, are you a success? And for how long do you need to know this information? If you could parse a sentence when you were at school, but couldn’t now to save your life … were you really successful/was the teacher?
Different people will have different views on these questions and I doubt there will ever be any agreement. You might think that there is no question, that surely everyone would agree with your perspective, but ask around. What do others think? Do they agree with you? On what points do your views diverge?
So the ways schools work has some impact on student success and our understanding of success has some influence on whether we deem students successful or not. The culture of the school – which is often established by the principal and leadership team – also has an impact. If the principal says, at the end of lunch, ‘Okay troops, back to the trenches’ then she is putting a particular way of being into place. The teachers are soldiers and the students are … the enemy? Language is important, and it is to our detriment that we ignore the power of the metaphors we use and the influence they have on our own and others’ actions.
Of course, parents also have an influence on how successful their children are at school. Parents’ attitude to education and to teachers will be communicated to their children even if they don’t say anything to them directly. Some parents will be in a position to take their children overseas and provide cultural experiences that other parents will not have an opportunity to provide; some parents will nag their children to do their homework, while other parents will have the view that schoolwork should happen between 9 and 3 and there should be no requirement for children to do school work out of school hours. Some parents will hold that view and still nag their children to do it! Some parents will talk to their children and in that way support the child’s capacity to communicate with adults; some parents will buy books for their children and establish a routine of reading to them at bedtime each night; some parents will limit time on the Nintendo DS and the iPod and how many hours of cartoons/video games/internet porn their children watch and will encourage them to become involved in sporting, cultural, community, and/or social activities. Some parents will speak to their child’s teacher and show an interest in the child’s education and progress.
But not all parents will do those things. Does that mean that some students get a head start? Or are better placed to be successful in schools?
We can’t discount the influence of teachers, of course, but we should remember that not all teachers are the same. They will have different motivations, different ideas about their role in the classroom, different ideas about the purpose of education, different ideas about how best to manage the classroom and its resources, how best to motivate and engage students, how to interact with children to allow them to flourish. Some teachers won’t even think about student flourishing. Some teachers claim that they teach subjects (disciplines) while other teachers claim they teach children. Some teachers are critically reflexive and question everything they do and question why they do it in the way they do it; some teachers don’t. Some teachers go to PD on a regular basis and continually learn; some teachers don’t. Some teachers leave as soon as the bell goes at the end of the day; others stay at school for hours, planning and marking and finding resources. Some teachers take their students on camps or walk the Kokoda Track with them, spending hours preparing themselves and their students for the trek.
Education is not a level playing field – not in terms of the children, their families, the schools they attend, or the teachers who teach them. But neither is it a factory, where a raw product is off-loaded in the loading bay, put on an assembly line, moved through a series of processes that are done to it over a number of years, evaluated at the end of the process to see if it measures up, and sent on its way – that ‘way’ being determined by how it measures up.
I have a hard time thinking of children as products, as things that need to have processes “done to them”.
And so I have a hard time determining what constitutes success when it comes to teaching. What does a successful teacher look like? What is the outcome of their success? Is it a group of children who all know the same things because they’ve been through a standardised/standardising ‘process’? Or is it more than that – how much more? What does that ‘more’ include?
And how do we know when a teacher has been successful? A teacher’s success may take years to be realised – there are countless instances of students who get in touch with their teachers many years after leaving school and recount a story of the impact the teacher had on that child as an adult. Success may not be immediate. Does that mean the teacher is any less successful?
I’m really interested in your thoughts on this. What does it mean for a teacher to be successful? Can success be measured and if so how? Against which criteria and whose judgements? Do we all have the same understanding of success and are we confident that we’re measuring apples against apples – if we agree that there is some way to measure teacher success?
Let me know what you think. I’m sure there’s a body of literature out there – people who have conducted studies on this very issue, but I’m interested in what you think.
And if you do think, then perhaps you should thank your teachers!