Decisions about teaching methods should be made by educators not politicians

By Alan Reid

Professor Emeritus of Education at the University of South Australia

One of the chilling features of the Federal Government’s education policy is its obvious intention to tell teachers how they should teach.

Until now governments have stopped short of dictating how teachers should teach, on the assumption that these are professional decisions that are best made by educators armed with the technical expertise, and knowledge of their students and their learning context.

No longer. It is clear that this government wants to follow teachers into the classroom and direct their practice. How so?

Let’s start with one of what Minister Pyne calls his ‘four policy pillars’ – quality teachers. On the surface this would appear to be a reasonable policy goal. Who could disagree that all our students deserve quality teachers?  But scratch beneath the surface and you will find some worrying policy intentions.

The first is the rationale behind the call for ‘quality teachers’. One of the features of the education debate over the past few years has been commentators and politicians confidently pronouncing on educational matters about which they have little knowledge or understanding. This is usually preceded by a recitation of the bleeding obvious, the most well-known being the platitude that ‘research demonstrates that the quality of the teacher is the most important in-school factor which promotes student learning’. If you say that seriously enough, it can sound quite profound.

Of course, once you have established this earth shattering revelation it is but a small step to making a number of other claims. The most prominent of these is to take the quality of the teacher as an independent variable, and then dismiss as irrelevant such matters as class size, teaching resources and factors of educational disadvantage.

Once this is done it is possible to claim that all the money spent on these peripheral matters has resulted in reduced learning outcomes, and hey-presto, you have an educational justification for reducing expenditure.  It is not surprising that Minister Pyne finds this an attractive thesis.

The problem is that it is nonsense. It is the interrelationship of the variables in the context of the learning which is important. They cannot sensibly be separated out in this way.

But having isolated teacher quality, the government is able to focus on those strategies which it claims will enhance it. This demands a view of what good teaching looks like – something Minister Pyne has not been shy to articulate.

In an interview with the Minister on November 28 last year, Alan Jones asked:

… Now you’ve got kids and you know that the way they’re being taught in the classroom is not the way you were taught and it’s not better than the way you were taught,

to which Minister Pyne replied: Well we’ve said all along Alan that we want to return to more orthodox teaching methods….

Then, after being sworn in as Minister he reflected that:

My instincts tell me that a back-to-basics approach to education is what the country is looking for, what parents feel comfortable about.

In these examples we have a lawyer, turned politician, suggesting that education policy should take us back to an earlier era on the basis of his intuition, the comfort level of parents, and how he was taught many years ago.

Since then, the Minister has fleshed out his vision. It involves going back to teacher-centred methods of teaching with an emphasis on ‘direct’ or ‘explicit’ instruction – both models based on the theory that learning is telling children things, getting them to remember things, and then having them reproduce what they have been told. This fits with his narrow view of curriculum as being largely about facts.

Now if this was just a personal view I guess there would be no harm done. But unfortunately there are signs that Minister Pyne wants to ensure that such approaches to teaching become the norm in Australian education.

A favourite target has been teacher education, and it is clear that the current review into teacher education is one of the vehicles selected to carry his version of how teachers should teach.

My view is that directive approaches to teaching have a place in any classroom, but they should not be dominant. If the curriculum aims to develop young people to be critical, creative, empathetic and inquiring, then there is an important, indeed central, place for process models of teaching which foster the capacity of students to learn how to learn.

With any single cohort of students, teachers will use a number of teaching models ranging from teacher-centred to student centred  as they are needed. Teachers must have the capacity to adjust programs to suit the needs and interests of their students, to assess student learning outcomes, and work with their peers to investigate issues, problems and dilemmas in their teaching.

And yet the Minister’s excursions into teaching practice never mention this. He and his acolytes focus solely on direct and explicit teaching methods, and ignore the fact that it is the professional responsibility of the teacher to select the balance of teaching approaches needed for the students in her/his care.

If we want to prepare students for the challenges of this century, education policy should focus on providing the conditions within which quality teaching can flourish, not seek to tell teachers how to teach.

An approach which values teachers and enables them to professionally develop throughout their careers is far more likely to result in quality teaching than one which demeans their professionalism.

Educators don’t need their Minister to be making decisions for them about how they should teach, any more than surgeons need the Health Minister to be telling them how they should operate.


alanreid-1 copyProfessor Alan Reid AM is Professor Emeritus of Education at the University of South Australia. His research interests include education policy, curriculum change, social justice and education, and the history and politics of public education. He has published widely in these areas and gives many talks and papers to professional groups, nationally and internationally. Alan presented the Radford Lecture at the AARE annual conference in December 2012.

7 thoughts on “Decisions about teaching methods should be made by educators not politicians

  1. The biggest predictor of educational success/failure is socio-economic status of family/community – regardless of teacher quality. Teacher quality remains a factor over which school can have some control – which makes it significant, but not a magic bullet. Pyne, who knows nothing about teachers or teachers, has always wanted control of what and how teachers teach. We may be able to vote, but Chris Pyne bears witness to the fact that we certainly are not getting quality politicians!

  2. Alan Reid says:

    Thanks Irene – you make an important point. Who would say that the quality of teaching is not an important factor in student learning outcomes? We have known this for decades. But to assert, as many commentators do, that it is the only factor that contributes to educational outcomes is very dangerous and flies in the face of all the evidence about the impact of socio-economic status, as well as a range of in-school variables.
    Recognising this fact is not the same as saying that all students should have the same learning outcomes, or that socioeconomic factors are the sole determinant of educational outcomes, as some commentators suggest is argued by the ‘cultural left’. Rather it is understanding that all students do not start with the same life chances or have access to the same resources. If we are serious about education being a public good, then we must seek to ensure that educational disadvantage is recognised and addressed in an effort to give ALL young people the opportunity to fulfil their individual potential.

  3. I agree with what you say, Alan – and reiterate that teacher quality is significant because it is a factor over which schools and educators (including teacher educators) can exercise some control or influence. However, Chris Pyne et al never acknowledge that given the same (high) quality teachers, disadvantaged students do not achieve the same educational outcomes as their advantaged peers. Instead, commentators and politicians speak of teacher quality as if it IS a magic bullet – the inference always being that students in disadvantaged schools do not achieve as highly as their advantaged peers because they do not have access to quality teachers. In Pyne’s hands, teacher quality becomes another weapon with which to bash public school teachers, especially those working in school serving disadvantaged communities. That’s my gripe!

  4. Maralyn says:

    Maybe we need some national standards for pollies too, Irene.

  5. Thoughts…

    Last year I was asked to conduct a small pilot study of local innovation in a Sydney public primary school: Merrylands East Public School. MEPS wanted to change their school hours from 9-3pm to 8-1.15pm. NSW DEC agreed to the time changes as per their new “Local schools, local decisions” policy and my role was to look at/evaluate the effects.

    The principal of MEPS, John Goh – like many of the principals there when I presented the research findings – is also very interested in student engagement (pedagogy, technology, learning spaces, and just about anything else that might benefit learning), so the study was about much more than just the change in school hours.

    One of the measures that we used to look at student engagement was the School Liking and Avoidance Questionnaire using a pre-post design, together with structured student interviews, teacher interviews, parent focus groups, and classroom observations. The students (and staff and parents) all talked about the positive school culture, so not surprisingly the results of the pre-test SLAQ were high on school liking and low on school avoidance. So much so that we didn’t expect much movement come Time 2. Six months later, however, we found a significant difference due to an upswing in school liking (no change in school avoidance).

    A closer look at the data told us that this was not simply due to the changes in school hours because (i) students were both positive and negative about the time change, and (ii) the upswing was due to a significant increase in the attitudes of boys in upper primary (mainly those who had been in year 5 in 2012 and who were now in year 6).

    So what ELSE happened to switch these boys onto school and, even more importantly, onto learning?

    Well, in 2013, John began knocking down walls and combining classes. Year 6 became one giant class with 3 exceptional tech-savvy teachers who communicated through Twitter, Edmodo and more. They send about 80 text messages between them a day! They are clearly engaged themselves and super enthusiastic about their students’ learning. Student-teacher relationships are very positive at MEPS.

    Year 6’s learning space was transformed in the process (as were many of the other classes in the school) and student-driven or “passion-based learning” is a guiding philosophy in the school. We observed students designing on Minecraft, using green screen technology, and creating their own “digital books”. Opportunities for student autonomy and leadership abound at MEPS.

    In our student interviews, we asked “What is it that you like about school?” and 60% of students said “learning” or “work”. In my ARC research, the typical answer to that question has been “friends”.

    We also asked “What do you find most fun about going to school here?” Again, the majority of MEPS students responded “learning” or “work”. I began to wonder what was in the water at MEPS because I’m not used to hearing kids say this!!

    It was only a pilot study and we’re going to scale up to more schools soon but the point is: this school is doing something right and the pedagogies that are working (especially for boys in senior primary) are the antithesis of direct instruction.

    We don’t need to go back to teacher-centred, authoritarian approaches to teaching.

    They are the default in the schools in which I do the majority of my research and they are the methods that have not only failed to reach the disengaged kids with whom I usually work with but have alienated them to the point where they now associate ‘learning’ with boredom.

    I wish my behaviour kids knew that learning CAN be fun but for that to happen, Mr Pyne, we need more innovation and much less nostalgia.

  6. Alan Reid says:

    Thanks for this comment Linda. That sounds like a really interesting study. It demonstrates that as practitioners and policy makers we should not act on the basis of our hunches, but should investigate them more deeply before acting. In this case it seems that the student centred pedagogies used at MEPS have really engaged students – and engagement is surely one of the prerequisites for deep learning. It will be interesting to hear about the outcomes of your further research into the learning outcomes for students as it comes to hand.

  7. Maralyn says:


    What a great story about the changes made by MEPS and John Goh !

    Yes the impact on students of teaching methods that are the “antithesis” of direct instruction can be life changing.

    A powerful message to Minister Pyne in there I believe.

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