Distorted reports keep coming. This one will make you livid

By Keith Heggart, Steven Kolber and Tom Mahoney

What should we be talking about when we talk about teachers? Teachers’ pay, working conditions and the looming teacher shortage. 

What are media talking about instead? A commonly suggested ‘solution’ to address concerns about standards in teaching: pre-prepared lessons, or, as the Grattan Institute describes them in a recent report, ‘high quality teaching materials’. 

The Grattan Institute, a thinktank, notes in its summary of the report that: “of 2,243 teachers and school leaders across Australia, … only 15 per cent of teachers have access to a common bank of high-quality curriculum materials for all their classes.”

In a departure from any claims to objectivity, the report paints a picture of teachers “being left to fend for themselves, creating lessons from scratch and scouring the internet and social media for teaching materials”.

This is yet another example of a large scale survey conducted by those with only a tangential relationship to the profession. It ignores the views of many teachers and offers a ready-made solution – one likely to become another costly and wasted expense for taxpayers. It also fails to note such approaches have been tried in some jurisdictions in Australia – with limited success, for example, the Curriculum-to-Classroom program in Queensland was found to be deficient. The surest outcome of such an approach would be a new revenue stream for specifically chosen edu-businesses as they rush to be selected as the provider of choice.   

There are already a range of paid options for teachers to access similar resources through sites like Twinkl, Teachers Pay Teachers, TES and others. Admittedly, these are paid resources; we argue it is unreasonable for teachers to pay for any curriculum resources out-of-pocket. However, even a ‘free’ version seems misguided because it does not pay attention to the work – and the expertise – that is central to teachers’ practice. And this practice includes the careful design and development of learning materials. This is not something that can be outsourced. 

As we say, the assumption and positioning of highly trained and university-qualified teachers, many of whom have trained for 4 or more years, as vulnerable and ‘fending for themselves’ is odd.

Planning lessons, finding, curating and developing resources is central to the work of teachers. Many teachers take great delight in carefully crafting lessons that leverage students’ interests; education is not, and never has been a one-size-fits-all model and any claim otherwise is undermining teachers, leaders and education support staff around Australia.

Teachers delivering content via a pre-prepared script or lesson might seem easier and simpler, but it remains difficult to see who benefits from a lifeless and unthinking teacher delivering someone else’s content. The key to teaching – and learning – lies in the human relationships between teachers and students. Those human relationships allow for careful contextualisation and design. It is that which drives teachers to search for just the right YouTube clip – the one that will appeal to that particular Year 9 Science class – not a sense of ‘fending for themselves’. Whereas teachers are responsible for their school students, families and communities, creators of ‘teacher-proof’ lesson banks are accountable to their corporate employers. As Lucinda McKnight reflects, ‘who would we rather have designing learning experiences for our own children?’. 

Our new book, Empowering Teachers and Democratising Schooling: Perspectives from Australia has taken the focus of empowering teachers and outlines alternative, human-centric ways that teachers can be trusted and empowered to make decisions about their work, with the shared goal of democratising approaches to education. By combining theory, academic thinking and teachers’ best practice examples, the book provides a range of suggestions on many of the key challenges facing Australian education. For example, George Lilley outlines the way that teachers have been sidelined in favour of a rigorous adherence to educational research.Alex Wharton’s chapter   imagines what an education system might look and function like if teachers were respected across all facets of their domain. 

Polly Dunning’s chapter articulates the range of pressures placed upon teachers – and the effects this has on children. Not surprisingly, the nature of lesson planning is not mentioned, but rather the rise of administrivia and additional expectations placed upon teachers without additional time or funding provided. 

As with many things in education, the best solutions require humans to be empowered to find their own solutions.   Education is filled with complex, ‘wicked’ problems, where solutions can take time, and require contextual nuance. ‘Solutions’ such as those suggested by The Grattan Institute ultimately misunderstand the work of the teacher as technocratic and therefore something that can be standardised. Until we appreciate the complexity of what it means for teachers to teach, we will continue to be presented with claims of ‘teacher-proof’ policies and materials that ignore the diversity of the students, whilst disenfranchising the teaching profession. 

If we are aiming to recruit and retain teachers, poorly thought out solutions such as providing teachers with pre-prepared teaching materials, as suggested by the Grattan Institute, is not the answer. This will do little to reduce workload, and it will also further damage the reputation of the teaching profession by limiting the expertise of teachers. These outcomes will do little to encourage people to become or remain teachers.  

Instead, we must look towards long term solutions that recognise the expertise of the profession. Trust, empowerment and listening to the voices of the profession is key. 

Keith Heggart is an early career researcher with a focus on learning and instructional design, educational technology and civics and citizenship education. He is a former high school teacher, having worked as a school leader in Australia and overseas, in government and non-government sectors.

Steven Kolber is a teacher at a Victorian public school, the founder of #edureading founder, secretary of Teachers Across Borders Australia and a proud member of @AEUvictoria. #aussieED Global Teacher Prize top 50 Finalist

Tom Mahoney is a teacher and educator of secondary VCE Mathematics and Psychology students, currently completing a PhD in Educational Philosophy part time through Deakin University. His research explores the influence of dominant educational ideologies on teacher subjectivity. You can keep up to date with Tom’s work via his fortnightly newsletter, The Interruption, via Substack. Tom is on Twitter @tommahoneyedu  

Republish this article for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence.

9 thoughts on “Distorted reports keep coming. This one will make you livid

  1. Simon Crook says:

    Great article Keith, Steven and Tom. Can I ask a question and make a few points:

    1 – how much of the basis and also the backlash to the Grattan article is coming from Primary c.f. Secondary voices? At first glance it seems most of the backlash from secondary educators, which makes sense. However, most educators are primary expert generalists. As such, many primary schools are enculturating the flawed solution of pre-prepared resources – it is the MO in so many schools I’ve seen. I’m not wanting to stand up for Grattan, but I can imagine a lot of primary teachers extolling the perceived time-saving virtues of such resources. I completely disagree with this approach and have been battling against such silver bullets e.g. non-adapted Primary Connections for years, while recognising the massive workload teachers are under.

    2 – we really need to sounding the alarm bells about the inaccuracies in many of these resource banks e.g. there have been mistakes on sundials in each of Twinkl, Teachers-Pay-Teachers, Teach Starter and even Primary Connections (until they fixed it after my complaint). There is no QA. Beyond the flawed pedagogy and teacher preparation in the proposed solution, the resources themselves can be ropey.

    Cheers, Simon

  2. I have read with interest your “rebuttal” of the Grattan Institute “Lottery” report and the report itself on their website.

    The comments by Simon Crook (above) about accuracy of already prepared material is vitally important: Grattan accepts that the material is accurate, etc.

    A fundamental of learning is actual involvement in discovery of knowledge through one’s own research and/or discussion. When teachers extract pre=prepared curriculum materials aren’t they likely to be less informed and have less comprehension of the various interpretations and contexts of the subject than if they did their own preparation as you suggest?

    This comments seems valid “Great teaching requires classroom instruction based on well-designed, knowledge-rich, and carefully sequenced lessons that build student knowledge and skills over time.” Is that all?

    This assertion is dodgy: “Great teaching requires classroom instruction based on well-designed, knowledge-rich, and carefully sequenced lessons that build student knowledge and skills over time.” What about carefully researched and comprehensive,allowing the teacher to demonstrate understanding of the material?

    The assumption implicit in this assertion is not linked to any demonstrated evidence; “A Grattan Institute survey … finds that only 15 per cent of teachers have access to a common bank of high-quality curriculum materials for all their classes. Even more troubling, teachers in disadvantaged schools are only half as likely to have access to a common bank as teachers in advantaged schools.” Why is it troubling? I think you address this issue.

    I find the three recommendations for government action to be naive at best. I consider the focus on curriculum, common in politicians’ assertions, to be seriously misplaced, just like the nonsense about qualifications. Pasi Sahlberg is known for saying of teachers in Finland that they recruit the best they can, they support and trust them and they give them autonomy. That is an extraordinarily important statement. The continued intervention by politicians is a main reason for the failings that have been identified.
    Centralised control is a failure! The people who continually seek to influence education policy know a great deal less than the teachers and students whom they are seeking to influence.

    This Institute report is troubling and I think not up to the standard of previous reports by former staff.

    The Institute heavily promoted their survey findings/interpretations. I wondered if they had the report reviewed by people familiar with the issues.

    Centralised control doesn’t work. Pasi Sahlberg is known for saying in Finland they recruit the best they can, they support and trust them and they give them autonomy.

    Thank you.

  3. Keith Heggart says:

    Hi Des,
    Thank you for taking the time to engage and write such a detailed reply. I reckon we’re on the same page here – we think teachers need to be supported, trusted and empowered – i.e give them their autonomy. I agree entirely that I don’t think we need politicians or think tanks telling teachers what to do – rather, teachers are central to the discussion. I also note your point about Finland – Australia’s different to Finland, and teachers are treated very differently, too, so I don’t think wholesale application of Finland’s principles are necessarily for Australia- but I do agree with the principles that Pasi espouses.

  4. Keith Heggart says:

    Hi Simon, great questions and comments. I take your point, although I’ve seen very few teachers – primary or otherwise – who’ve been supportive. I think, as you point out, it’s the wrong solution to the problem. Let’s celebrate primary pedagogical expertise by giving it a chance to develop and flourish – and that is done by taking away administration work.

    And your second point is a very good one too – we didn’t discuss that but I note that even we’ll supported and assured programs – such as C2C have been found to have errors!

  5. Simon Crook says:

    Hi Keith, totally agree with celebrating and providing time for primary pedagogical expertise. Where teachers are not given the necessary support or time, there is often a clamour for ‘easy fixes’. In many cases, there are directives from on high to use off-the-shelf resources (that may have been invested in by the school or system), so teachers are just doing what they’re told. Time and PD are the key, but not aligned to commercial products (with the obvious disclaimer that I’m a PD provider).

    Another thought also – what lessons can be learned from the lack of uptake of Scootle?

  6. Dr. Rose-Marie Thrupp says:

    Curriculum to the classroom had a place in modelling for teachers how the new (at the time) Australian curriculum could be situated in the classroom. However, accompanying necessary PD for teachers in schools on the new Australian curriculum, its structure and design was not provided. Many Queensland teachers at the time had little idea as to the purpose of C2C except that the principals told them them must use it, they must print out the lessons and teach to the lessons. In essence, this was not the original intent. There were three levels, overview, unit and lessons to cater for the range of teacher abilities and familiarity with content descriptors.

    In the main, I think you would find primary teachers do not welcome lesson planning had appropriate and effective PD around The Australian curriculum been provided.

    Curriculum design is the creative part of teaching, matching curriculum and learners within an exciting and supportive classroom. This has been overwhelmed by the requirements of systems and principals focusing on evidence based assessment rather than learning and creative, motivational classrooms.

    The nature of C2C dictated that much wordiness, lengthy assessments and excessive worksheets. Sadly, such was dictated from the higher echelons of the system where many, who are not teachers, are employed and in charge of directing operations.

    Very sad.

  7. Keith Heggart says:

    Hi Rose-Marie,
    Your description of C2C sounds like so many programs I’ve either been involved in or seen implemented. There’s no point doing something unless you do it with teachers (and parents and students and professional staff…) Unfortunately that appears to be overlooked.

  8. Dr. Rose-Marie Thrupp says:

    I have just reread the article and the phrase “Teachers delivering content”. This is a myth about the meaning of teaching and the fact that the goal of teaching must be aligned with the outcome of learning. Teaching is not about delivery. It is about the engaged of learning through relationships with children (I do not like the word students). A script as in a prepared lesson by another person does not support learning. At best, a teacher must adapt a script or a resource to match children’s backgrounds, previous learning experiences, preferred learning experiences and so much more. A teacher is professional, proud of knowledge of curriculum, pedagogy, children and ways by which children learn.

    As a C2C writer at the end of my career, I struggled with the idea of a script and when I was told it was not about pedagogy. A lesson or a unit of work cannot be prepared without pedagogy but I was told clearly by those above me that it was not about pedagogy. When you have such people supervising these programs, they cannot model effective teaching that results in learning.

    My work of 38 years was not about delivery of content. My years at school in the sixties was about delivery of content. I had hoped we had changed out concepts of teaching such that it is always teaching and learning.

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