Put professional judgement of teachers first or we’ll never get the systemic education improvements we all want. Let’s talk about it

By James Ladwig

In this blog I’d like to bring together three different lines of educational analysis to show how our contemporary discussions of policy are really not going to lead to any significant change or educationally defensible reforms.  I realise that is a very big call, but I’m pretty confident in saying it, and I hope to show why.

Essentially I think we really need to change the way educational reform debates are framed, because they are based on questions that will not lead us to systemic improvement that I think most ‘stake-holders’ really seek in common.  Before I launch into this discussion, though, I also need to point out that there are a host of related issues which really can’t be sufficiently addressed here, and which I won’t explain at all – but which I will name toward the end of this post.

For now, consider three main points

1) there is growing recognition that a fundamental linch-pin in quality schooling is always going to be our reliance on the professional judgement of teachers,

 2) there is also growing recognition that our current system architecture works against that in several ways, and

3) this is the clincher, the systems that we have implemented are producing exactly that for which they were designed (where teacher professional judgement plays little or no part).

The practical conclusion of bringing these observations together is obvious to me. We are never going to get that “systemic improvement” that we all seem to think will be good for Australia, because we don’t have the right system architecture to achieve it. I believe we need to start thinking more carefully and creatively about how our educational systems are designed.

The hard part begins after sufficient numbers of stakeholders come to this realisation and want to shift the debates.  We aren’t there yet, so for now I just want to open up this line of thought.

The first starting point won’t be a surprise for readers of this blog, and followers of public educational policy pitches.  On the one hand, anyone with Findlandia envy and followers of the recent statements from Pasi Sahlberg, now at UNSW’s Gonski Institute, will know that much of the strength of the ‘Finnish Education Mystery’ (as it has been named by Hannu Simola) has been built on a strong commitment to the professional autonomy and expertise of Finnish teachers.  This isn’t simply accidental, but a consequence of a long understandable history that included (but isn’t only due to) careful and intelligent design by the Finnish Government.

On the other hand, here in Australia, Associate Professor at the University of Sydney, Nicole Mockler, and her colleagues have aptly shown that teachers are more than interested in using evidence-based approaches to help guide their local decision, but their judgements are not really being supported by evidence they see as relevant and useful.

My own analysis of this situation has led me to raise significant questions about the way in which advance technical issues of measurement and its statistical applications have been reduced to incorrect and really misleading uses, and the way in which the institutions which are supposed to promote teachers and teaching has reduced that exercise to classic institutional credentialism based on tick box exercises that really don’t reflect that which it claims. 

No matter how much politicians and other stakeholders might wish to create systems that guarantee this or that universal practice, student learning is always individual and in schools always dependent on whomever is guiding that learning (the same would apply to entirely automated systems, by the way).  So the goal of designing systems based on the presumption that we can somehow specify practice to a point where there is no uncertainty in delivery, is folly.

And yet, point two, these are precisely the sorts of education systems Australia has been building since at least the late 1980s. In broad terms this corresponds to the significant changes in educational governance known as ‘the ministerialisation of education’ documented by educational researchers Dr Janice Dudley and Professor Lesley Vidovich, long ago.  It was in this time period where the penultimate attempt to nationalise curriculum developed, with the corresponding creation of national goals (the Hobart, Adelaide, Melbourne declarations), former civil servants were replaced by contracted ‘Senior Executives’ across federal and state bureaucracies, and teacher education was handed to the federally funded Universities alone (plus a range of massive shifts in TAFE). 

Since then it has been a long slow process of standardisation within and across state systems, the formation of ‘professional institutes,’ and the expansion of public funding to private schooling. 

The roll out of ‘standardisation’

The case for why these systems inhibit or actively work against the exercise of teachers’ professional judgement should be pretty obvious with the term ‘standardisation’.  These days, national curriculum is designed with the intent of making sure children of the military can move around that nation and ‘get the same stuff,’ accountability is centrally developed and deployed via the least expensive forms, like NAPLAN (and an expanding host of supposedly valid measures), teaching has become regulated through standardising the people (at least on paper, via the ‘professional standards’), and securing employment and advancement has been directly tied to these mechanisms. 

Even measurement instruments originally designed only for research and later to help provide evidence for teachers’ use have become tick box instruments of surveillance.  As a researcher I am not opposed to good measurement, and in fact I’ve created some of those being used in this larger schema, but how systems deploy them make huge differences. 

From the reports of the implementation of NAPLAN it is very clear (as was predicted by then opponents) that many of these have become much more high stakes than advocates predicted or intended (opponents were right about this one).  Whether it be novice teachers beholden to developing paper work ‘evidence’ of standards for their job security through to executives whose jobs depend on meeting Key Performance Indicators (which are themselves abstracted from actual effect), we have developed systems of compliance within institutes in which real humans play roles that are pre-defined and largely circumscribed.  And those who readily fit them without too much critique fill these roles. 

After years of this, is it any wonder that teacher education programs by and large no longer teach the history and practice of curriculum design, nor the history and philosophy of education (which is now largely relegated ‘ethics’ in service of codes of conduct) and what once were lively fields of educational psychology and sociology of education have become handmaidens of ‘evidence-based’ teaching techniques and bureaucratic definitions of ‘equity’? (In the University sector these ‘foundational’ disciplines literally do not belong in education anymore for research accountability purposes.)

One bit of historical memory: in the late 1970s and early 1980s, this process of moving the intellectual (‘mental’) work of teachers into standardised categories defined by management was shown to have a long term effect known as ‘de-skilling.’  From our work in the New Basics Trial in Queensland (which was actually much more successful than most realise) it has been very clear that what once were wide spread teacher capacities in local curriculum design and development have been forfeited to (extremely well paid) bureaucrats.  When I met the teachers who took part in the early 1990s National Schools Project (in 1993 and 1994), state differences on this were really obvious and relevant. 

When teachers were invited to restructure any aspect of their work to improve student learning, through an overt agreement between the Unions and employers, teachers from states where there were strong traditions of local curriculum development and pedagogical reflection (most obviously Victoria and South Australia) were squarely focused on trying to find ways of providing rich educational experiences for their students (curriculum, pedagogy were their mainstay).  Teachers from the state that has provided the basic structure of our current systems (NSW) were largely concerned about timetables and budgets.  Of course this is a very big generalisation, but it is also obvious when you work with teachers in schools developing new curriculum projects.

What is the effect of all this?  Precisely as intended, the systems are standardised, stratified, countable and a ready source of ‘evidence’ used to meet the needs of the politicians and ‘independent’ stakeholders, and advancing employees who probably actually believe in the reforms and initiatives they advocate. 

But let’s be honest, these actors are not around after they have used the political capital gained from initiating their pet projects.

Let’s go further

Here is where there are hosts of other developments that buttress this larger system which need further analysis and elaboration than I can provide here.  From the expansion of testing measures based on statistical assumptions few teachers and principals and fewer parents really know well (they aren’t taught them), to professional development schemes based on market determined popularity, to pre-packaged curriculum and apps literally sold as the next silver-bullet, contemporary ‘texts’ of education carry far more implications than the ones named by those selling them.

There are the huge range of ideas and presumptions that lie behind those sales pitches. Of course some teachers sometimes blindly seek these out in the hope of finding new ideas and effective practices.  Teachers’ dispositions and capacities have not come from nowhere, they are the historical product of this system. But who is going to blame them (or the bureaucrats, for that matter) when they rightfully focus on making sure they have a job in that system so they can support their own children and parents?

Yes, we have systems we created. On the one hand, that’s not encouraging.  On the other hand, that does mean that we can re-create them into something quite different.

Change the questions

One of the first steps to collectively trying to find new ways of constructing our school systems, I think, really is about changing the questions we think we are answering.  Instead of using the type of questions needed to drive research, e.g. anything of the form ‘what works?’, we need to start asking, ‘how do we build systems that increase the likelihood that teachers will make intelligent and wise decision in their work?’ 

Research and the categories of analysis CAN provide clear ideas about what has occurred in the past (with all the necessary qualifications about when, where, measured how) but those answers should never be the basis for systems to prescribe what teachers are supposed to do in any given individual event or context.  For example, diagnostic testing can be incredible useful for teachers, but they can’t tell teachers what to do, with whom, when. 

Do we have systems that support teachers in taking the next step in their decisions about which students need what support at what time, while knowing what those tests actually measure, with what margin of error, in what contexts for whom?  The question for systems designs isn’t what’s ‘best practice’, it’s what system increases the probability of teachers making wise and compassionate decisions for their students in their context at the appropriate time.  That includes making judgements relative to what’s happening in our nation, economy and in the larger global transformations. 

Our systems, in the pursuit of minimising risk, are very good as proscribing what teachers’ shouldn’t do; but, they are not designed to support teachers to wisely exercise the autonomy they need to do their jobs in a manner that demonstrates the true potential of our nation.

We can see that potential in the all too rare events in which our students and teachers are given that sort of support – often on the backs of incredibly dedicated and professional teachers and school leaders. From local innovative uses of technology, to large scale performances in the arts, the potential of Australian educators isn’t really hard to find.  But we need new systems to support them in doing more of that type of work, with more students, more of the time.

So when it comes to advocating this or that system reform, please, change the focus.  We don’t need more ‘best practice’ policies from vested interests, to discipline our teachers, we need systems designed to promote true, authentic excellence in education.

James Ladwig is Associate Professor in the School of Education at the University of Newcastle and co-editor of the American Educational Research Journal.  He is internationally recognised for his expertise in educational research and school reform.  Find James’ latest work in Limits to Evidence-Based Learning of Educational Science, in Hall, Quinn and Gollnick (Eds) The Wiley Handbook of Teaching and Learning published by Wiley-Blackwell, New York (in press). James is on Twitter @jgladwig

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

21 thoughts on “Put professional judgement of teachers first or we’ll never get the systemic education improvements we all want. Let’s talk about it

  1. Brian Cambourne says:

    Thanks for this timely article James. I love the re-framing of the question to “how do we build systems that increase the likelihood that teachers will make intelligent and wise decisions in their work?” I wish you luck in eliminating political interference from classroom practice.

  2. James Ladwig says:

    Hey Brian,

    I don’t really see that happening until there is sufficient ‘proof of concept’ evidence for alternatives. And that is going to be up to us, I think.

  3. James, that sounds a reasonable analysis, so I suggest you get on and do it. As you are at a school of education, I suggest the best way to achieve the changes you suggest is in the training of teachers. You can train teachers to assert their role, as professionals, in deciding “… which students need what support at what time …” and in “… knowing what those tests actually measure, with what margin of error, in what contexts for whom …”.

  4. James Ladwig says:

    Ya’ know that old adage about not removing doubt about your ignorance, until you decide to speak?

  5. James, yes, I don’t know much about school teaching, as I am in the vocational and university sectors. But I did spend some time as a student of education, alongside school teachers. We were able to try out techniques as students, and then with confidence apply them in our own workplace.

  6. James Ladwig says:

    Hey Tom, I’ve used a lot of technology in multiple sectors, I wonder how the audience would react if I hopped onto the website of the IT Consultant research Association, from what was basically an anonymous profile and posted what I think they should all do to make their organisations do what is so obvious to me?

  7. James, my profile is linked to my name on this post.

    I apologize for any offense caused by my comments on school teaching. In future I will try to stick to the field of e-learning, for vocational and higher education, which I know a bit more about.

    I am not familiar with the IT association you mentioned. However, I am a member of the Australian Computer Society, which publishes an online magazine. This has occasional articles on teaching, and welcomes comments.

    The Society also publishes the Australasian Journal of Information Systems, which has occasional articles on education: https.

  8. Sue Burvill-Shaw says:

    This is perhaps the wisest support of teachers as professional practitioners I have read. We so desperately need to have Governments and Bureaucrats who trust the professionalism and skill of teachers! Most of the teachers who have survived the sustained assault upon this professionalism that accompanied the introduction of both NAPLAN and the so-called National Curriculum, have done so by sharpening their pedagogy and theory upon the grindstone of compassionate service to the learning of students! like Brian, I wish you and those who continue to fight the good fight, good luck!

  9. James Ladwig says:

    We’ll count you in, Sue


  10. Rose-Marie Thrupp says:

    Yes, James, you brought tears to my eyes. For so long I have listened as education systems say they value teachers and at the same time, teachers were to have no say in how schools are run. Worse, teachers are threatened with breaking codes of conduct if they speak out against their system. I continued to study throughout my career only to be told I needed to do what the department told me to do regardless that I knew the children, the school, the parents, the community.

    And towards the end of my teaching career, I learned something new…I was told that the Minister of Education was the client of the education system. For thirty years, I had believed it was the children and parents. At that point I knew things had gone badly wrong.

    No James, I have no answers for you. The bureaucratic machine has deskilled our teachers. Our teachers now have the skill to report a child’s behaviour on OneSchool but don’t actually know what to do with the child, to help the child manage their own behaviour, to grow and become vital, capable citizens.

    Where are we?

  11. James Ladwig says:

    Ross-Marie, thank you thoughtful reply.

    Indeed. Where are we?

    Hopefully, and I know it is more Hope than reality, we are at the begin of a shift in how we think about government, our states/ society, and what our grandchildren’s grandchildren will inherit.

  12. Lawrence Ingvarson says:

    While fully supporting the importance of working conditions that give teachers a degree of autonomy to exercise professional judgment, it is important to recognise that this autonomy must be conditional on a profession demonstrating that it is worthy of that trust. Professional judgment is not a matter of doing your own thing; it is exercised within a context of shared values and standards of practice.

    Legitimate authority over any professional practice ultimately rests with the public, however, wise governments recognise that it is in their interests to delegate this authority to professional bodies. This autonomy is not a right; it must be earned. Autonomy is what the public grants professions in return for convincing evidence that it can identify successful practices and that it can identify those that meet those standards. This ability is the fundamental credential of what it means to be a profession. Claims for professional autonomy are accepted only when mechanisms for self regulation gained public support.

    Isn’t regulation consistent with what it means to be a profession – the ability to define what members should know and be able to do, and the ability to identify those that meet those standards, or not?

    Your suggestion that professional standards standardise people may be a little extreme – and not supported by any evidence of which I am aware. Over the years I have worked on standards with many teachers’ associations and they have been uniformly committed and passionate about the standards they have developed. None believed they were standardising teaching.

    The tragedy is that over the past thirty years of reform our governments have not built on this commitment and ownership and trusted the profession with the responsibilities of a profession.

  13. James Ladwig says:

    Hey Lawrence, it might surprise you that I don’t disagree with almost everything you point out.. I am quite sure we don’t have a system that will produce a truly independent profession.

    In terms of evidence, I suspect you haven’t looked yet. Observational studies are the main-stay of my work in school reform, And I work in schools regularly — have for years. Then, consider the occasional PISA studies relevant to this, etc.. etc…

    Then ask, ‘where did all the activity and variety of debate we used to have around local curriculum initiatives go?’

    The best ya get these days is an internal debate on the various ways to efficiently maximise scores on tests buildt from basic skills surveys. (Gotta differentiate that curriculum based on conforming to it early, then ya gotta do that really fast based on a scripted ‘developmental’ sequence of items designed to produce the right amount of ‘cognitive differentiation’ etc…)

    Serious alternative systems few and far between, and rarely given sufficiently nourishment to last more than a moment longer than a change of government. And THAT’S why we need all the characteristics you articulated above.

  14. Marie Brennan says:

    We do know quite a lot about what conditions foster teacher judgement, teacher research and inquiry and pedagogical innovation. Your key question: ‘how do we build systems that increase the likelihood that teachers will make intelligent and wise decision in their work?’ is definitely overdue but could be answered in fruitful professional dialogue, which could include curriculum and employer agencies.

  15. James Ladwig says:

    We got a way / chance of constructing the conditions for that to occur beyond the current ideological constraints?

  16. Marie Brennan says:

    There is already a move to overhaul NAPLAN, so this is a foot in the door for better debate with teachers; even a NAPLAN sample study would remove a lot of the blind adherence to govt policy/ideology of performance templates and tests and give some room for debate without threats from principals to staff, from dept officers to principals and schools. That can shift public discourse. There are still good things happening in schools, with their communities, too often under the radar. So invest the millions from NAPLAN into teacher professional support and teacher participatory research, including across schools and between schools and communities; involve students as researchers too: a surefire way to get wider coverage.

  17. I think Hattie started the demise of professional autonomy and experience with his mantra –

    “Without evidence it is just your opinion.”

    Then worse Keven Collins the CEO of the Education Endowment Foundation, who have taken Hattie’s method toward RCT.

    “If you’re not using evidence to inform your decisions, you must be using prejudice.”

    As a result, the Vic Education Dept has implemented its 10 High Impact Teaching strategies based on Hattie. Although, they caveat this is not to usurp teacher judgement, but that’s exactly what has happened!

    Also if teacher’s judgement/experience meant anything, why did they not poll their 50,000+ teachers?

    Now all performance review, PD & interview for jobs, must align to these 10 so-called high impact strategies.

    Your paper is a welcome argument to restore the value of professional experience/judgement.

    It’s also good to see the Victorian executive of the Australian Education Union has also made “enhancement the professional autonomy of Principals and Teachers” their priority this year.

    I’m trying to add to this by showing teachers just how poor the ‘evidence’ really is.

  18. Sue Burvill-Shaw says:

    Could not agree more, George! The same is true in Queensland.

  19. James Ladwig says:

    All I can say is… we did our best to explain this would happen well before it did. And I am deeply disappointed in what I’ve seen occur, (Saying ‘I told ya so really doesn’t make anyone feel any better.)

    SO — if teachers really want to take up the challenge, frankly, it is really only them who can lead it. Next cab off the rank to me would be communities….

    but that’s me.

  20. Sue Burvill-Shaw says:

    Marie Brennan, I could not agree with you more! Instead of National Assessment programs and a top-down micro-managing National Curriculum the new century should have seen an investment in re-invigorating and re-imagining education for a new century! It is not too late! We must all call for: ” So invest the millions from NAPLAN into teacher professional support and teacher participatory research, including across schools and between schools and communities; involve students as researchers too: a surefire way to get wider coverage.”

  21. Andrea Stringer says:

    From a teacher’s perspective, this article is uplifting and refreshing. Throughout the years, one could argue that the educational system, media and public have slowly disempowered the teaching profession. On numerous occasions, the media has criticised teachers for issues such as, not effectively dealing with bullying or behavioural issues to not providing the correct assessment grade. One could surmise that teachers have very few public advocates.

    Ladwig highlights issues that are impacting on the teaching profession, such as test measurements, market-driven professional development, and pre-packaged curriculum and apps that are promoted as the panacea. Tired of these imposed solutions, teachers want to be viewed and respected as professionals. Empathetically, Ladwig advocates on behalf of teachers by saying that more ‘best practice’ policies from vested interests is not what is needed. While in agreement with Ladwig, teachers may argue that it is not only important, but imperative to promote teachers’ professional judgment with a degree of autonomy. Does our current system balance professional autonomy with accountability?

    Convincingly argued by Ladwig, the education systems are ‘standardised, stratified, countable’. Unfortunately, these education systems can provide politicians and independent stakeholders the evidence that supports ‘their’ agenda or needs. Misusing the evidence can have negative consequences on the profession, damaging the reputation of the teaching professionals. I applaud Ladwig for asking, ‘how do we build systems that increase the likelihood that teachers will make intelligent and wise decision in their work?’ This solution-focused question authentically shifts the concept from teacher compliance and accountability to teacher agency, while reinstating ‘teacher professionalism’ back into the education system. Teacher agency is an essential element when designing new education systems.

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