initial teacher education

It’s a No-Brainer: Beginning Teachers Should Learn About the Brain

Universities around the world train professionals to support children and young people’s academic and social-emotional development. A lot of this training is about the brain. Paediatricians, for example, learn much about the biochemistry of the child’s brain. Endocrinologists learn a lot about the brain’s role in adolescent psycho-physical development. Developmental neuropsychologists learn about the brain’s neural structure. Occupational and speech therapists learn about neuroplasticity. For teachers, it is the human memory system that is central to what they do—especially for how they develop and deliver instruction. The recent Strong Beginnings report has quite rightly recommended that initial teacher education include core content related to the “brain and learning”.

The Human Memory System Goes to School

The human memory system—especially working and long-term memory—is central to how we learn (Baddeley, 2012). Working memory is the space for information that students are currently and consciously aware of, and where they focus their attention in the moment. Long-term memory is where information is stored for later retrieval and application by the student (such as when they attempt to solve a problem, or answer a question). Working memory is very limited in capacity and duration—just a few items of information for about 15-30 seconds. Long-term memory has vast storage capacity. When information moves from working memory to long-term memory, we can say that it has been learnt. 

Where Do Teachers Fit?

The task for teachers is to develop and deliver instruction in a way that accommodates the limits of students’ working memory and harnesses the vast potential of long-term memory. According to cognitive load theory (a major theory of instruction; Sweller, 2012), teachers do this by managing two types of load on students as they learn: intrinsic cognitive load and extraneous cognitive load. Intrinsic cognitive load refers to the burden put on learners by way of difficult subject material, syllabus content, and learning activities. Extraneous cognitive load refers to the burden put on learners by way of unnecessarily complex, confusing, and unclear instruction. 

If there is too much cognitive burden on students, their working memory becomes overloaded and only part (or none!) of the information will be encoded to long-term memory. That is, the student does not learn. Effective instruction reduces cognitive load on students, eases the burden on working memory, and maximises the opportunity to encode information to long-term memory. Load reduction instruction (LRI; Martin, 2016, 2023; Martin & Evans, 2018) has been developed as a practice framework for putting key tenets of cognitive load theory into action.

Load Reduction Instruction

LRI is an instructional approach to help teachers manage the cognitive burden on students as they learn—especially when students are learning something new or difficult. LRI has five key principles as shown in Figure 1. The first four principles are:

  • Principle #1: Reduce the difficulty of instruction in the initial stages of learning, as appropriate to the learner’s level of prior knowledge and skill; 
  • Principle #2: Provide appropriate support and scaffolding to learn relevant knowledge and skill; 
  • Principle #3: Allow sufficient opportunity for practice; 
  • Principle #4: Provide appropriate feedback-feedforward (combination of corrective information and specific improvement-oriented guidance) as needed.

Figure 1

Load Reduction Instruction (LRI) Framework – adapted with permission from Martin (2016)

These first four principles are quite linear, systematic, and structured approaches aimed at easing the burden on students’ working memory in the initial stages of learning (when they are novices)—so they can successfully encode the information to long-term memory. 

Then, when teachers are satisfied students have learnt the necessary information, principle #5 comes into play: 

  • Principle #5: Guided independent learning.

Independent learning is appropriate at this point because students no longer benefit so much from highly structured approaches once they have acquired fundamental knowledge and skill (the “expertise reversal effect”; Kalyuga, 2007). They now benefit from more open, problem-solving, inquiry-oriented approaches. 

The Brain as a Basis for Building Pedagogical Bridges

In fact, the fifth principle of LRI is where explicit and constructivist instructional approaches can be drawn together. That is, once the teacher has provided sufficient difficulty reduction, instructional support, practice, and feedback-feedforward for students to learn requisite knowledge and skill, more exploratory and inquiry-oriented independence is beneficial for students’ further learning and development. 

Teachers’ knowledge of the human memory system is thus essential for capitalising on the pedagogical opportunities afforded by explicit and constructivist approaches to instruction. When they understand and teach to the human memory system, gone is the false dichotomy of positivism (e.g., explicit instruction) and constructivism (e.g., discovery learning) that has plagued initial teacher education for decades: as far as the human memory system is concerned, the success of one instructional approach is inextricably tied to the success of the other. 

To the extent that core content in initial teacher education focuses on the learner’s brain and helps beginning teachers understand the human memory system and their part to play in this, bring it on. 

Andrew Martin, PhD, is Scientia Professor, Professor of Educational Psychology, and Co-Chair of the Educational Psychology Research Group in the School of Education at the University of New South Wales, Australia. He specialises in student motivation, engagement, achievement, and quantitative research methods.

The way teachers work must change now. The Scott report doesn’t even try to fix the real challenge

There is a collective sigh of frustration from education academics when initial teacher education (ITE) is yet again the subject of review, with a series of recommendations that promise to transform not only ITE, but the teaching profession. Apparently the problems with the teaching profession are entirely the result of the failures of ITE. 

It is also crucial to consider these most recent recommendations in context – they are  the most recent in what has been a decade of ITE reform. 

Released on July 7 and titled Strong Beginnings: Report of the Teacher Education Expert Panel, this review has 14 recommendations across four domains, reflecting the earlier discussion paper: strengthening ITE programs to deliver confident, effective beginning teachers (which is mostly about embedding core content); strengthening the link between performance and funding of ITE programs (which is mostly about reporting and data); improving the quality of practical experiences in teaching; and improving access to postgraduate ITE for mid-career entrants.   

The opening sentence in the executive summary, “[T]he importance of great teachers cannot be overstated”, is uncontestable – thank you – we agree.  The closing paragraph provides the rationale and context for the recommendations that follow, acknowledging the “major reforms” progressed under Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group (TEMAG, 2014) and noting “but there is still more to do”.  

Warning bells – tinkering with ITE will not be a panacea for the workforce shortage challenges facing the sector, with ITE a small part of the much more complex landscape, and with a long lead time to take effect.  

I read the report and recommendations from the informed and insider position as a Dean of Education, Chair of the Queensland Council of Deans of Education, program accreditation panellist and chairperson; for the duration of the time we collectively traversed the intense period rolling-out the reforms of TEMAG. 

It was indeed major – and very costly – reform.  Only recently, around the nation, have those reforms been fully implemented.  And we even have a few graduates who have journeyed through these new programs. It is important to acknowledge their added length combined with the time it takes to complete the programs – for many enrolled part-time due to the tough economic environment that demands they work alongside their study. 

We have only a few years of graduates from these TEMAGed programs so we don’t yet know the impact of the major reforms.  Hence, the value and impact of the TEMAG initiatives are not yet known in terms of the profession and workforce – in fact there is a gap in research about many aspects of ITE, a point clearly made in the report. 

The recommendations thus are appended to a significantly revamped ITE sector that has not had the benefit of resources to research and review the effects of major reform

The big shifts resulting from TEMAG include: additional non-academic requirements for entry to ITE; the Literary and Numeracy Test for Initial Teacher Education (LANTITE); program standards; and demonstrating classroom readiness through the Teaching Performance Assessment (TPA), as a final hurdle, alongside mandatory volumes of learning and consistent professional experience time allocation. Some of these reforms are dubious in terms of adding quality and value and the cost benefit analysis for ITE, but none has been contested in the report recommendations. That’s a missed opportunity.   

There are some recommendations in the report that could be silver linings. Acknowledging the need for additional funding to research ITE and resourcing this deficit, and the intention to consider TPAs comparatively, are standouts for me. This makes sense as the focus should be on the readiness and novice expertise of ITE graduates about to enter the workforce, taking into account the learning and value that comes from their ITE program.  

Other glimmers of hope among the recommendations include: establishing a separate authority for oversight and achieving national consistency (contentious, but important); greater visibility of mentor teachers; and the importance of investing in professional experience by all members of the profession, which is a key aspect of program retention and identity development for ITE students. The mechanics for activating these innovations however, is lacking, so these might more properly be regarded as potential positives. The current demands on the ITE sector to meet accreditation requirements are significant, so adding to that does mean additional workload for tertiary educators, hence it is refreshing to see funding for transition and funding for the establishment of leadership institutions.  This is happening at a time when the number of tertiary experts in education is also depleted consequential to universities tightening their belts, so a reasonable implementation timeline will be crucial.

Less convincing is the need to specify core content. The question of what is core has been narrowed to four areas that appear, frankly, to be incontestable and likely already to feature in ITE programs in the country. It will be the necessary changes to standards that will take the time and the task of making visible the core content for compliance assurances, and the relative volume of learning and level of prescription that is yet to be defined that will undoubtedly cause consternation for the implementation of the core content recommendations. And the question of what is to be removed from programs is already sounding around the nation – adding more means something has to go. The loss of agility and likelihood of sameness is thus concerning, cookie cutter education programs seem to be the antithesis of what we need to ensure we attract and graduate a diverse teacher workforce.

Importantly, refinements in ITE do not solve the problem of workforce shortages in classrooms today.  

There is extensive research that points to the need for a major shift in the way we do schooling today.  The way teachers work also needs to change.  This is crucial for the necessary transformation that is needed to reset school education to reflect the needs of contemporary society.  The TEEP recommendations work within our current system and can be considered as an incremental step in the bigger challenge of transforming our schooling sector and the teachers entering it.

Professor Donna Pendergast is the Director of Engagement in the Arts, Education and Law Group and former Dean and Head of the School of Education and Professional Studies at Griffith University. Her research expertise is education transformation and efficacy.

This sure ain’t Hollywood: It’s a long way from neurons to the classroom

Let’s face it, it can be fun to poke holes in the premise of silly Hollywood films. The idea that a character portrayed by Scarlett Johansson has tapped into the 90% of her brain we don’t use provides a basis for glossy action set pieces but isn’t founded in reality. Research in neuroscience does not support the idea that we only use 10% of our brains. 

The recently released discussion paper from the Teacher Education Expert Panel recommends that initial teacher education students in Australia learn about ‘how the brain learns and retains information’ and are inoculated against such neuromyths. These include the idea that people are ‘left-brained’ or ‘right-brained’ or that students should be instructed in their preferred modality-based learning style. 

During the last few decades, neuroscience has uncovered more about the inner workings of our brains than in the entire recorded history prior to this time. New imaging technologies have unlocked many of the mysteries of the enormously complex machinery in our heads. These discoveries have led to major breakthroughs in the treatment of numerous disorders and promise many more. The research has also provided deep insight into what’s going on in students’ heads when they are learning. This is all undisputed. 

However, as the cliche goes, it’s a long way from neurons to the classroom. The notion that a working knowledge of how the brain functions (or doesn’t) is immediately useful to the day-to-day work of teachers is flawed. We found no clear relationship between the level of knowledge about the brain and how effective teachers are. Neuromyths in education are themselves a neuromyth. 

It isn’t through an understanding of the brain that most of the useful basic research on learning comes from. Rather it is research on the mind (I’m not going to get into the relationship between the two, which has been a topic of fierce debate since Descartes). The most impactful basic research on learning is often from the learning sciences, particularly psychological science

The biological level of understanding learning is important in its own right. However, it is mostly through controlled studies on attention, memory, emotion, and metacognition, among other factors, that we can dismiss some potentially harmful ideas about learning and point us in more productive directions. That there is a correlation with some now observable parts of the brain is less important and often not useful. 

For example, studies on the mind provided the evidence to debunk the learning styles myth. Not having to consider what to do about the kinesthetic learners in my classes when I’m designing lessons is useful to me as a teacher. That students are using all their brains in my class (or not) is less so. 

Does it really matter whether the emphasis here is on the brain or the mind?  It is, after all, useful to know about some aspects of neuroscience to prevent being sold on ideas such as brain training, that have no empirical basis. There are problems that are perpetuated by overemphasising the brain. These include but go beyond people using neurobabble to sell questionable products and approaches. 

Focusing on the brain perpetuates an overly reductionist notion of basic research on learning. Much of the criticism levelled at the learning sciences more broadly is associated with the supposed positivist nature of the research. Through the control of factors in search of causal relationships, the work is far too removed from the complex environments that students learn in, so the argument goes. The emphasis on the brain does not help with these criticisms. Reducing learning to biological processes is inherently reductionist. 

There is undoubtedly a role for basic research to inform education. What we do in the classroom should be informed by rigorous evidence of causal factors. Cognitive Load Theory, Multimedia Learning Theory, and research on self-regulated learning are all critical contributions to improving what we do in physical and virtual classrooms. All have a foundation in basic research on the mind. These are just some of the many examples. The ongoing challenge is to figure out how basic research translates to practice. 

While foundational research is useful and needed, it can’t be applied in a prescriptive way. One of the other major criticisms of the role of basic research on learning for education is that the work de-professionalises teachers. This argument is perhaps best captured in Gert Biesta’s notion of ‘learnification’.

It was once the case that people like B.F. Skinner were convinced that basic research could provide the recipe or formula to ‘fix’ education. These strongly positivist notions were largely abandoned in the late 20th century (with perhaps some notable exceptions including some technology companies and consulting firms). The research field has moved on and this is why criticisms of modern learning sciences are often way off the mark. 

Jason Lodge

Most of us who work in this space aren’t hardened positivists like Skinner and are not trying to teacher-proof learning at all. Basic research provides a foundation, principles (such as those derived from Multimedia Learning Theory) that require the professional judgement of a teacher to use effectively in their complex classroom environment with their students. Basic research, therefore, has the potential to empower teachers, not de-professionalise them. 

The translation of basic research to education can be effective when not formulaic. Translation from the lab to the classroom and back again is not straightforward but is absolutely possible. The process is best built on partnership. For example, the highly successful Partner Schools Program run by my colleagues at the University of Queensland brings the science of learning and the classroom together through conversations and collaboration between researchers and teachers. Importantly, instructions on how to teach are not being cast out from atop ‘Mount Evidence’. 

For initial teacher education to move forward, it would help to empower emerging teachers via a solid grounding in the basic research that has the most potential for impact in the classroom. That research isn’t about how the brain works. The key research primarily comes from psychological science, not neuroscience. What is also important is to lay a foundation for partnership between researchers in the learning sciences and teachers so that we might strive for a convergence of ideas and approaches between the laboratory and the classroom. Focusing heavily on the brain and neuromyths isn’t going to get us there, as useful as they might be for debunking silly Hollywood tropes and supposed ‘brain-based’ learning tools.

Jason Lodge is an associate professor of educational psychology, head of the Learning, Instruction and Technology Lab in the School of Education and deputy associate dean (academic) in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at The University of Queensland. His research focuses on the cognitive, metacognitive, and emotional mechanisms of learning in education. His work with the lab primarily emphasises self-regulated learning with technology.

‘My attitude COMPLETELY changed’: why universities should move new teachers from resentment to respect for Indigenous Australia as we vote on the Voice

Editor’s note: One of the biggest challenges in Australian education is how we embed an understanding of Indigenous cultures and knowledges. As Australia approaches a vote on The Voice, universities have a responsibility to change Initial Teacher Education (ITE)  to incorporate cultures and knowledges appropriately. Students enrolled in ITE already have views on what they will learn in their compulsory courses – and those views are confronting. How can educators move students from uncomfortable and scared, to be bold and prepared? This is a longer blog post than usual – but in it, Quandamooka scholar Dr Mitchell Rom explores how we might produce a teaching workforce that places sufficient value on Indigenous knowledges and perspectives.

In June this year, the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) released its final report Building a culturally responsive Australian teaching workforce as part of its Indigenous cultural competency project. This national report is a progressive step in the right direction towards raising awareness and understanding of how to better support Indigenous students in schools. The term “cultural competency” is defined in the report as, “When organisations and individuals…expand their cultural knowledge and resources in order to better meet the needs of minority populations” (Cross et al., 1989, as cited in AITSL, 2022, p. 35). The term “cultural responsiveness” is also used in the report which stated that “Being ‘culturally responsive’, in the context of Australian schools, is the ability to respond to the diverse knowledges, skills and cultural identities of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students” (AITSL, 2022, p. 9). 

Prepared over three years, the report suggested that ITE should play a key role in developing the cultural competency and responsiveness levels of pre-service teachers or future teachers in Indigenous education. It stated “It is critical that ITE programs prepare teachers for the wide range of students they may teach, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students” (AITSL, 2022, p. 17). The report further recommended that “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander content should be included as a mandatory unit of study or indeed, mandatory cross-curricula focus, within ITE programs” (AITSL, 2022, p. 6). Having recently completed my PhD in ITE and compulsory Indigenous education, I agree with these statements and the importance of ITE programs. However, the recent report unfortunately does not acknowledge that the Indigenous education space at university is filled with colonising and complex challenges for academic teaching teams and pre-service teachers. Before looking to ITE programs as one of the answers to improving the cultural competency of teachers, it is important to consider the varied challenges linked to Indigenous education courses in these programs.

Study findings

My PhD study was grounded in the context of the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers (APST), Graduate Standards 1.4 and 2.4, which were introduced by AITSL in 2011. These two national standards emphasise teaching Indigenous students (1.4) and teacher skills and knowledge around reconciliation in schools (2.4) (AITSL, 2011). Universities have now turned their attention to preparing our future teachers to be able to meet these national standards and develop cultural competency in this area through offering Indigenous education courses.

The study specifically focused on the key learning, teaching and education policy challenges situated in contemporary Indigenous education courses at university. The study involved 174 non-Indigenous pre-service teachers from an elite Queensland university who were studying a compulsory Indigenous education course. It also involved five academic teaching staff from the same course, as well as myself as a Quandamooka teacher who has taught in three Indigenous education courses across two Queensland universities. The research identified, through a storying methodological approach (Phillips & Bunda, 2018), a total of 11 key challenges across three interrelated areas of the university. These three areas included key challenges within the university classroom space (lecture or tutorial context), the broader university institution, as well as with education policy, namely APST 1.4 and 2.4 by AITSL.

Pre-service teacher journeys in Indigenous education

Pre-service teachers can have varied experiences of studying Indigenous education at university. The study found that some pre-service teachers were willing to engage with Indigenous education from the initial commencement of the course. For example, one pre-service teacher shared “At the beginning of the course, I felt excited and ready to expand my views and knowledge”. Another pre-service teacher noted “I felt increasingly comfortable with the way everything was taught and became more understanding, appreciative and open minded about Indigenous ways of knowing, being & doing”. Some pre-service teachers began the course displaying resistance towards Indigenous education and then were able to change their attitude and position as the course progressed. In addition to this, some pre-service teachers remained resistant learners throughout the entirety of the course, despite the efforts of teaching teams and national policy agendas such as APST 1.4 and 2.4.  Overall, the research found that many Queensland pre-service teachers experienced challenges navigating a compulsory Indigenous education course within their ITE program.

Stepping into the course, 126 pre-service teachers shared that they had mixed initial views towards learning Indigenous education. One pre-service teacher stated “I was wary [the course] would be wrapped in anti-Western rhetoric and would focus on demonizing Western culture”. Another pre-service teacher shared “I didn’t have a high opinion or high expectation from the course title alone and felt apprehensive going into this course mainly due to what people had said about previous semesters (most people told me this course sucked)”. Other words used to describe student feelings towards beginning Indigenous education included “uncomfortable”, “borderline apathetic”, “unimpressed”, “confused”, “confronted”, “dreading it”, “pointless”, “guilty”, “very hesitant” and “unprepared”. Moreover, 66 pre-service teachers shared that they had limited engagement, knowledge and understanding with regards to Indigenous education prior to university. In the study, pre-service teachers shared that “I’d never had much to do with Indigenous studies in my schooling so I wasn’t sure what to expect in this course” and “My experiences [with Indigenous studies] at school were mostly tokenistic”.

Within the university classroom, nearly 40 pre-service teachers showed a level of resistance towards studying the course. One pre-service teacher commented on the compulsory nature of the course and stated “I was not looking forward to beginning the course and was extremely unhappy it was compulsory since I knew I’d be thought of as a middle-class white male that oppressed everyone”. In relation to being introduced to the concept of white privilege in class, another pre-service teacher shared “I didn’t like how the tutorials made me feel. It felt like the teaching staff would make activities that addressed how white privileged I was and almost make me feel shit about being white”.

As the course progressed during the semester, a number of pre-service teachers were able to shift their attitudes regarding Indigenous peoples and education. For example, one pre-service teacher wrote “My perspectives, understandings and attitude around Indigenous education have COMPLETELY changed but I also believe that this was attributed to the study habits and attitudes I brought into tutorials and lectures”. Another pre-service teacher shared “In class, I was continually faced with situations where I would think ‘But that’s not my fault’, but was able to stop and transform my understanding so that I could use my white privilege to ensure the deserved respect is given to the first peoples of Australia”. These student experiences demonstrate learning, understanding and growth in this contested learning and teaching space. I am confident these non-Indigenous pre-service teachers will continue to work to strengthen Indigenous education as allies.

Unfortunately, the study also highlighted various inconsistencies in relation to pre-service teacher development. In the final week of studying the course, one pre-service teacher mentioned “I would say that the nature of this course has made me look at Indigenous education more negatively”. Another pre-service teacher shared “Right now, I feel confused and this course has left me more scared of teaching Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students than I was before”. On finishing the course, one hesitant pre-service teacher wrote “While I write this in the final week of the course, I still do not feel like I’m prepared to meet [APST] 1.4 & 2.4”.

Moving forward

Some pre-service teacher experiences shared above highlight an education system that is gradually shifting towards a greater respect for Indigenous education matters. While this is positive, the findings also reflect a current system (particularly in relation to some schools in Queensland), that does not place sufficient value on Indigenous knowledges and perspectives. This is reflected in many pre-service teacher comments around their previous learning and their own ill-preparedness to commence the Indigenous ITE course. In light of this, and the broader study findings, education stakeholders including AITSL need to be aware that improving cultural competency requires an understanding of the complex challenges situated in compulsory Indigenous education. It also requires a recognition that there are key challenges that sit external to the control of academic teaching teams including, in particular, pre-service teachers arriving at university ill-prepared from schools and remaining resistant to studying Indigenous education. Broadly speaking, for these challenges to improve, educational institutions at all levels (from primary schools to universities), and those who lead and work in these social institutions need to continue to shift and change. This is needed so that by the time our pre-service teachers commence Indigenous education studies at university, they are more equipped to navigate these spaces and become culturally competent and responsive practitioners. One way of doing so is by placing greater value on Indigenous knowledges and perspectives in schools. This includes ways of thinking that seek to challenge the colonial status quo. By doing so, this will support our future teachers to be more effectively prepared when working with Indigenous students in our schools and therefore will continue to strengthen Indigenous education.

Mitchell is a postdoctoral researcher interested in Decolonial studies, Education and Health. His PhD focused on the key learning, teaching and education policy (Australian Professional Standards for Teachers 1.4 and 2.4) challenges situated in the contemporary Indigenous Australian education space at university. He initially trained as a secondary school teacher in the disciplines of English and History in Queensland and studied Education for over a decade. He also taught at university, published and worked across various levels of education. As a Quandamooka researcher, Mitchell is interested in discussing social matters with like-minded scholars for positive community change. Mitchell is an advocate of strength-based thinking and decoloniality. Contact him on LInkedIn.

Image in header is Ren Perkins, a PhD student undertaking research with and about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teachers, in action.

How to get career change teachers to stick

The Federal Government review of Initial Teacher Education has reinvigorated debates about attracting high-quality candidates into the teaching profession and preparing them to be effective teachers. 

In response, the Quality Initial Teacher Education Review 2021 Discussion Paper has highlighted several issues, including ways to attract high-performing mid-career professionals into the teaching profession to increase teacher supply.

Workforce planning for schools: Putting the cart before the horse

The review of Initial Teacher Education provides an opportunity to rethink schools’ current workforce planning strategy. It has, among other things, brought attention to how we can better capitalise on the contributions that diverse, passionate and qualified individuals with different career backgrounds can make to the teaching profession.

Yet, workforce planning for schools in Australia has traditionally relied on short-term, inconsistent and at times one-off initiatives to staff schools, especially those that suffer from teacher shortage problems. Recruitment bonuses, incentives and special entry pathways into teaching have been central to government strategies. This reactive approach has prioritised teacher recruitment to teacher retention.

A more comprehensive workforce planning strategy needs evidence-informed decision-making to recruit and prepare and retain qualified career change teachers. 

Career changers in the teaching profession

While career change teachers have always been part of the Australian education landscape, we know little about them, the challenges they face, and the support they need in their career transition into the teaching profession, as we outlined in an earlier article. We’ve done a new study including interviews with 17 career change teachers to uncover the motivations and challenges facing these career changers. 

What do we know about career-change teachers?

I got made redundant, which was the catalyst for a career change from my previous role. I could have probably quite easily gone and gotten a job in my same career somewhere else, but I just decided to use it as an opportunity to make a more significant change. One of the reasons that I wanted to go into teaching was because I wanted to work in a field that was more connected to the community rather than in a corporate environment.

Career change teachers make unique contributions to the profession by bringing practical experience and specific skills. Based on their previous experience, connecting abstract knowledge to real-life applications is natural for career change teachers.  This can make learning more engaging and meaningful for students. They also come equipped with interpersonal and organisation skills from their previous careers. 

Our study found that many career-change teachers are driven by a sense of ‘calling’ and a desire to make a difference in the lives of young people. 

I was doing chartered accounting and then banking for about the last 12 years. That was my sort of pathway for a bit and I was increasingly finding it not very fulfilling. I was very busy and stressed and all those sort of things, but not feeling like I was actually contributing to a community and people as much as I wanted to. 

Supporting career change teachers in their transition

A common thread in our participants’ responses was the challenges they faced in their transition, which affected their morale and job satisfaction. 

Challenges included: 

  • Adjustment to professional identity as teachers
  • Transfer of skills from the previous occupation to teaching
  • Establishing collegial relationships in the new workplace
  • Maintaining work-life balance
  • Meeting financial commitments
  • Developing self-efficacy and professional confidence in the new career
  • A mismatch between expectation about and reality of teaching 

The support provided by initial teacher education programs is integral to a positive transition to teaching and long-term teacher retention. In their adjustment from their previous career to studying and teaching, the support provided by university-based mentors, familiar with the needs of career change teachers, is the first step in this direction and vital in bridging the gap between study and teaching. 

The university provides us with what they call a clinical specialist so someone who is an experienced teacher, sometimes an academic, sometimes someone who’s been in more senior roles in schools. […] I had a very good clinical specialist. She had a lot of experience working in schools such as mine, where sometimes the behaviour can be really challenging […] I think in my first year that was really important because the behaviour was quite challenging and it took me quite a while to figure out how to teach in that environment. 

School-based mentors can offer specific advice about teaching, curriculum, the school context, expectations and practices.  

I have a mentor at school who I meet every week for a period. She has been very helpful and I go to her for advice even outside our scheduled meeting time. The school also provides support for new staff and they organise meetings to coincide with important events such as report writing and parent teacher interviews to ensure that we know what to expect and to provide any help. The school also has a teacher who provides support to new staff so I can always contact her if I require any help with anything. 

Retaining Career Change Teachers

Understanding the challenges that career change teachers face in their transition and the support they need is the first step in ensuring our schools are staffed with the most qualified teachers. Tailored, adequate and ongoing support is essential in preparing and retaining the most passionate career change teachers. It helps reduce investment loss due to the revolving door of teacher recruitment and teacher attrition.

While career change teachers can be drawn to the profession as a part of a larger solution to teacher shortage problems, these problems are likely to persist if education systems fail to address systemic issues that impact teachers’ sustainability within the profession, including issues relating to relatively low pay, insecure employment, heavy workloads, inadequate ongoing support and ever-increasing administrative duties in teaching.

From left to right: Babak Dadvand is a senior lecturer at the School of Education, La Trobe University. Babak’s research is in areas of teaching and teacher education with a focus on issues of equity, diversity and inclusion in relation to teachers’ work and student experiences. As a teacher educator, Babak has worked with multiple cohorts of pre-service teachers, including those who enter the teaching profession through employment-based pathways into teaching. Babak’s current body of research is focused on the challenges that pre-service and in-service teachers face and the types of support that they need in their transitions into the profession, especially within the more challenging working conditions of schools that serve communities that are socially-historically marginalised. This Industry Report is informed by and builds upon Babak’s recent research and teaching work. Merryn Dawborn-Gundlach is a senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne. She is a subject coordinator and lecturer in the Master of Teaching (Secondary) and Master of Education (International Baccalaureate) courses at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education. Merryn is active in developing initial teacher education in Victoria, as coordinator of the Master of Teaching (Secondary) Internship course, a position which supports change of career teachers as interns in schools. Merryn’s research interests focus on transition and retention of early career teachers, developing scientific reasoning competencies of pre-service science teachers, investigating the supports required by change of career teachers and supporting out of field Physics teachers in Victoria. Jan van Driel is a Professor of Science Education and co-leader of the Mathematics, Science & Technology Education Group in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education (MGSE) at the University of Melbourne. His research interests include science teacher knowledge, teacher education and professional learning. He has supervised 25 doctoral students to successful completion. He has served on the boards of associations for educational research in the Netherlands and the USA. Currently, he is co-editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Science Education anda member of the Education Committee of Council of the Australian Academy of Science and the executive board of the Australasian Science Education Research Association (ASERA). In 2018, he was identified as national field leader in Education by The Australian. In 2021, he received the MGSE Research Excellence Award. Chris Speldewinde is a Research Fellow and Sessional Academic currently undertaking a doctorate at Deakin University that examines STEM teaching and learning in Australian bush kindergartens. Chris has several academic and practitioner publications regarding bush kindergartens. Chris works on projects involving with multi-university research teams investigating issues in early childhood, primary and secondary school education. He also has interests in the implications of teacher education; teaching out of field; policy and governance in education; and early childhood and primary school education. 

The new review: good, bad, ugly and curiously ignorant

In what, internationally, is becoming a sure sign of an impending general election, here we have yet another review of initial teacher education in Australia – a ‘thousand and second damnation’, perhaps, in the words of one of the review panel members. Delivered to former minister Alan Tudge in October but released last Thursday with the minister still missing in action because of an inquiry into a relationship he had with a staffer, the report of the Quality Initial Teacher Education (QITE) review is a curious mix of serious reflection and scatter gun politics, with a deeply colonial flavour.

The Good:

The report powerfully underscores the national responsibility to address Australia’s First Nations communities through multiple means in educational contexts, including better support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to enter the profession and better preparation for all teachers to teach in a culturally responsive and sustaining way. Combined with a strong emphasis on ensuring better representation of Australia’s diverse and multicultural communities in the teaching profession, the report’s authors should be congratulated for signalling the powerful part that teacher education can play in fostering a fairer and more equitable society.

Also worthy of note is the call for the government to raise the status of the teaching profession in Australia and, more indirectly, cautioning policy makers about using schools in politically motivated culture wars if they wish to improve both recruitment and retention in the teaching profession.

The Bad:

The report is sometimes characterised by a naïve understanding of what counts as ‘evidence’. For example, the injunction to use more randomised control trials in teacher education programs, apparently recommending universities deny some prospective teachers in control groups the beneficial treatments, at the same time as urging universities to reduce the length of programs to get teachers into classrooms quicker. The rhetoric around the ‘gold standard’ of RCTs is telling; it’s most often wheeled out when people have not engaged with the multiple forms of evidence that can give policy-makers good reasons why a reform is worth scaling. Good policy requires good judgement  about what research can and can’t tell you rather than slavish adherence to methodological dogma.

Further contradictions are apparent in the report’s approach to innovation. The system-wide encouragement of innovation is critically important factor in developing the quality of ITE – to be welcomed – but panel’s recommendation of greater political control of the content of ITE curriculums through proposals for ‘quality’ measures tied to commonwealth funding will lead to an overwhelming focus on compliance. The evidence internationally is that the tighter you control provision through monitoring and audit cultures, the less creativity and innovation you get. A different kind of culture is needed, one that expects universities to be innovative with ITE.

Similarly, a welcome emphasis on high expectations for ITE programs is contradicted by the proposal to shorten them to a year for those with ‘good subject knowledge’, for example. This recommendation both contradicts the evidence about teachers’ subject knowledge (where a teacher’s advanced qualifications in mathematics, for example, can lead to poorer outcomes in mathematics for primary age students) and runs against international trends where the period of initial preparation is being extended. The issue for career-changers is how they support themselves during a career transition not the length of the program alone and there are already examples of accelerated programs where student teachers are paid for work in schools alongside learning to teach. Reducing the length of programs in itself will just make it more difficult for the panel’s aims to be realised.

The Ugly:

The references to the ‘United Kingdom’ Core Content Framework are just embarrassingly ignorant and unworthy of inclusion in a serious document. There is no UK framework. The UK is made up of four nations and the panel is referring to the highly controversial framework for England that is widely regarded as deeply ideological and fundamentally amateurish (it was shown to be copied and pasted from another document in a political rush to get education policies out prior to the 2019 British general election). Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have far different frameworks for ITE – with the Welsh policies being especially worth reading for their requirement for schools and universities to work together in consortia. This part of the report is pure colonial political theatre.

Which brings me to perhaps the single greatest weakness. Overall, the report continues to perpetuate the myth that the quality of an ITE program is overwhelmingly down to what universities teach on campus. This report, like so many others, betrays a profound lack of attention to the importance of what happens in schools. Schools placements – especially longer ones – present powerful, practical learning opportunities for student teachers. Yet Australian schools, especially private ones, do not all have a history of offering placement opportunities. Any serious national effort to improve ITE would also address how schools can better exert their powerful influence on what and how new teachers learn to teach in collaboration with universities. The best policy frameworks internationally (e.g. Norway’s, the US federal ‘teacher residency’ initiative, and yes, Wales) do just that.

Having a whack at universities just prior to a general election is an expedient way of provoking a ‘debate’ about the state of a country’s education system without attacking teachers directly. Despite a strong start – such as emphasising the part that teacher education can play in fostering a fairer and more equitable future for Australia – the QITE report soon descends into yet another rather predictable damnation. 

Viv Ellis is Dean of the Faculty of Education at Monash University. His latest book (with Lauren Gatti and Warwick Mansell), The New Political Economy of Teacher Education: The Enterprise Narrative and the Shadow State, will be published by Policy Press in November 2022.

Why we must talk about teacher professionalism now

In 2016, Judyth Sachs reflected on her 2003 monograph ‘The Activist Teaching Profession’ and asked, ‘Teacher professionalism: Why are we still talking about it?‘. In that paper, she argued ‘the time for an industrial approach to the teaching profession has passed’ and made a case for ‘systems, schools and teachers to be more research active with teachers’ practices validated and supported through research’ (p.413). I am not sure what Judyth would say five years later but I think this is the discussion that still needs to be had. We do need to talk about teacher professionalism in Australia in 2021 and particularly the way it is being constructed and reconstructed through teacher education policy.

In 2020, Martin Mills and I compared teacher professionalism as it was constructed in teacher education policies in Australia and England, and concluded,

… derision and mistrust of teacher education is evident in both contexts. The construction of teacher professionalism through the policies in Australia and England reflects a managerial approach dominated by performance cultures, increased accountability, and teacher standards … the extent to which teachers research and improve their practices, and invoke professional judgement involving interrogation of available research … rarely feature .

Mayer & Mills, 2020, p.14

The 2014 Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group (TEMAG) review and the resulting updated accreditation standards and procedures have constructed teacher and teacher educator professionalism in Australia. Two key drivers are evident: making sure the ‘right’ people come into the profession and making sure beginning teachers are ‘classroom ready’. Teacher education was clearly positioned as a problem that could be fixed by tighter accountability mechanisms related to these drivers.

While the TEMAG review claimed to consider ‘wide-ranging evidence and research’ in recommending that the Australian Government act ‘on the sense of urgency to immediately commence implementing actions to lift the quality of initial teacher education’ (Recommendation 2), previous government reports, governments commissioned research consultancies, and/or reports from multinational entities like the OECD and McKinsey & Company, were used to support a perceived need for change. Peer reviewed and published research by teacher education academics rarely featured. In this way, evidence to support the claims and recommendations was constructed in a particular way, supporting Helgetun and Menter’s (2020) claim that evidence is often a rationalized myth in teacher education policy because policies are regularly politically constructed and ideologically based. 

An important component of the TEMAG argument and recommendations, as captured in the report’s title, was that graduates from teacher education programs must be ‘classroom ready’. As a result, teacher education accreditation requirements changed to include a final-year teaching performance assessment. This caused much upheaval, requiring significant changes to the teacher education curricula and to teacher education resourcing in order that programs remained accredited. However, little attention was given to what should be assessed; that is, what beginning teachers should know and be able to do. More attention was given to how teacher educators must design and implement the performance assessment, and various accountability mechanisms for surveillance of this process. The assumption seemed to be that the already developed Australian Professional Standards for Teachers accurately detailed the required professional knowledge, practice, and engagement, and that what was needed was a tighter accountability framework for teacher educators and their practices. Of course, regular critiques of such standards highlight how they construct a particular type of professionalism by focussing on what teachers do rather than what and how they think. None of this was not interrogated in the TEMAG review.

In addition, great emphasis was given to ensuring that the ‘right’ people come into the profession. This focus on the person (i.e., on teachers, not their teaching) resulted in recommendations about required academic skills and desirable personal attributes and characteristics for entry to teacher education programs. In the end, measures of academic skills ended up being the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) and levels of personal literacy and numeracy. Of course, many teacher education entrants are not secondary school graduates. Thus, the political and media hype about ATAR and the quality of the teaching profession is misguided. In relation to personal levels of literacy and numeracy, TEMAG recommended that teacher educators ‘demonstrate that all preservice teachers are within the top 30 per cent of the population in personal literacy and numeracy.’ Not surprisingly, this 30% category proved rather challenging to associate with a score on the Literacy and Numeracy Test for Initial Teacher Education Students.

Another aspect aimed at ensuring that the ‘right’ people were admitted to teacher education was the recommendation for selection processes to assess the ‘personal characteristics to become a successful teacher’ (Recommendation 10).

At its worst, this conjures up visions of the 1930s so-called teacher characteristics ‘research’ associated with what makes a good teacher (which inevitably included being female and liking children).

Ensuring the ‘right’ people come into teaching was translated into accreditation requirements for providers to use non-academic selection criteria and, in practice, this has meant everything from a short personal statement attached to applications to the use of commercially produced tests designed to assess personal characteristics. Moreover, teacher education providers were required to ‘publish all information necessary to ensure transparent and justifiable selection processes for entry into initial teacher education programs’ suggesting a mistrust in providers to make appropriate decisions about selection of entrants to their teacher education programs.

Thus, teacher professionalism in Australia is being constructed as being the right type of person with appropriate personal characteristics and levels of personal literacy and numeracy, who can demonstrate successful teaching practice against standards within a system that determines performance indicators and mechanisms for classroom readiness. Moreover, teacher educator professionalism can be interpreted as ensuring the production of graduates who are classroom ready at point of graduation via programs that are accredited using nationally consistent standards.

In Australia and in England, the relentless reviewing of teacher education continues in 2021. And, yet again, the wording does not disguise the goals of these reviews. In Australia, the ‘Quality Initial Teacher Education Review’ will consider how to attract and select high-quality candidates into the teaching profession and how to prepare ITE students to be effective teachers Nothing new to see here. In the UK, the Initial Teacher Training (ITT) Market Review is focussing on ‘how the ITT sector can provide consistently high-quality training, in line with the core content framework, in a more efficient and effective market’

Do we need to keep talking about teacher and teacher educator professionalism? Definitely! 

Diane Mayer is a professor of education (Teacher Education) at the University of Oxford and an honorary professor at both the University of Queensland and the University of Sydney.

It’s anarchy in England. Australia’s ITE must now steer clear.

The announcement of the Quality Initial Teacher Education Review (QITER) and publication of the expert group’s discussion paper reminded some in the initial teacher education (ITE) and research communities of the continuing influence of England on Australian education policy as well as this country’s own unique history of a hundred and one damnations in teacher education reform. The QITER discussion paper refers to English innovations such as  Now Teach as well as to policy documents like the 2015 Carter Review. And the QITER expert panel has met with their English equivalents, according to panel members at a recent Australian Council of Deans of Education (ACDE) event.

 Since that ACDE event, the English panel, tasked with conducting a review of the ‘ITE market’, has published its report. The panel proposes dismantling much of England’s ITE infrastructure, forcing all providers to be reaccredited from scratch (to financially unviable criteria and unrealistic timelines); mandating 28 weeks’ placement in schools in all 38-week postgraduate ITE courses; and requiring absolute compliance with a government-prescribed curriculum – the Core Content Framework – under threat of dis-accreditation through inspections by the government’s schools inspectorate. Despite having demonstrated high quality ITE provision over at least the last ten years, according to the government’s own data, it is now possible for universities and school-based providers to fail inspections on the basis of what some of their staff believe and say in interviews with inspectors (there is no observation of training). Indeed, in the last few weeks, courses have started to fail because of what some people believe about teaching and programs have closed.

Unsurprisingly, these proposals shocked the sector and have led to unprecedented collective opposition: from all types of ITE provider (indeed, the response from school-based trainers has been the strongest); the UK Chartered College of Teaching; teacher unions; and individual professionals. Some high-profile universities like Cambridge have intimated they will close their courses. In an interview with Times Higher Education, Jo-Anne Baird, director of Oxford University’s Department of Education, said ‘I don’t know any university that would be able to create a model that runs counter to the principles of academic freedom.’ Even leaders of so-called ‘Teaching School Hubs’, likely to benefit from the proposals, have ‘expressed fury’ at the government’s response.

 So, in these last few weeks, especially, I wasn’t surprised that colleagues in Australia, noticing what they describe as ‘similar voices’ here, have asked me, as a relatively recent arrival in Melbourne  from London, whether what is happening in the UK could happen here? 

My answer has been ‘no, at least not yet’ and this is why.

First, England is not the UK. Historically, Scotland has always had greater independence in education and, since political devolution in 1999, Wales has been developing its own distinctive education system that is largely autonomous. So, my summary of the current state of ITE pertains to England only. We are not talking about comparisons with ‘UK policy’ but considering Australia (crucially, a federation) in relation to one out of the four UK jurisdictions.  And what has gone on in England, as I will explain, makes it an international outlier – or aberration, depending on your point of view.

Since 2010, the school system in England has become increasingly ‘academised’ – meaning the majority of secondary schools and increasingly large numbers of primary schools are either directly controlled by the education minister for England or controlled by that minister through an intermediary trust (a ‘multi-academy trust’). Local government has been marginalised to the extent that it now has few residual powers. England therefore has a highly centralised school system in terms of lines of accountability; schools are ultimately directly controlled by the education minister. These centralising, controlling policies come from a different branch of British conservatism to the one that has historically emphasised small government.

 This degree of tight control over a national school system is fundamental to understanding ITE reforms in England and what is possible in Australia. To create the conditions for the English situation to be replicated here, a new constitutional settlement between the states and the Commonwealth would be essential so that Mr Tudge and his successors directly control all Australian government schools. 

Control over schools in England – cleverly presented by Conservatives as an opportunity for a ‘school-led’ system – is critically important in explaining is the situation in England because when the state controls school funding, the curriculum and assessment, teachers’ professional standards, in-service professional development and qualifications, it is a comparatively small (if significant) step to then control how teachers are trained.

 Secondly, the distinctive context for the English ‘ITE Market Review’ has been produced in part by the abolition of virtually all autonomous, non-governmental regulatory or deliberative bodies (known as ‘QUANGOS’) in education in England following the 2010 general election. Justified by austerity policies following the global financial crisis, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the Training and Development Agency for Schools, the National College of Teaching and Leadership and others were all abolished by the education minister, Michael Gove, alongside then special advisor, Dominic Cummings, an architect of the Vote Leave (Brexit) campaign.

In the Political Economy of Teacher Education (PETE) project, my colleagues and I drew on the work of Jennifer Wolch to describe the abolition of these agencies as ‘selective dismantling’ of key institutions that provide democratic oversight and scrutiny. As we pointed out, such selective dismantling ‘reduces opportunities for public deliberation and accountability while strengthening the decision-making powers of policymakers’. Governance structures, professional regulation and accreditation, curriculum and assessment policies, funding – are all now owned by the ministry – the Department for Education – right across England, with few exceptions. One exception is Ofsted (the schools inspectorate) that also inspects all ITE providers. However, in addition to being seen less as an independent agency than a tool of enforcement for party-political purposes, Ofsted has also been empowered to conduct ‘research’ that becomes an integral part of justifying policy. Concerns over the quality of Ofsted’s ‘research’ reached a peak recently concerning its review of Mathematics teaching when authors of several studies cited asked for the review to be withdrawn over misappropriations of their research.

So, beyond a single national government school system controlled by the minister, for similar conditions for ITE reform to exist in Australia, all Commonwealth and state regulatory and deliberative bodies would have to be abolished – goodbye AITSL, ACARA, the teacher regulatory authorities, etc – and their powers redirected to the federal minister in Canberra.

Additionally, a national inspection agency would be needed, with right of entry to all government schools and all universities and powers of dis-accreditation. And finally, that inspection agency would have to be controlled by the federal minister and the agency led by a political appointee who, even if they didn’t gain the approval of parliament, as would normally be expected, would nonetheless be empowered by the minister.

 In addition to these structural differences, the cultural, political and economic contexts for education in England have also developed along highly distinctive lines, something we identified in the PETE project as a new political economy of teacher development, In 2016, Verger, Fontdevila & Zancajo characterised English education policy as ‘privatisation as state reform’ where ‘public sector monopolies’ had to be marketised to be made more efficient and radical policy interventions were justified by ‘crisis frames’. In our early work in the PETE project we aligned ITE policy reforms in England with the loose coalition of interests known as the GERM – the Global Education Reform Movement. Under this analysis – and consistent with Wolch’s research on outsourcing public services to the private sector – a market of new entrepreneurial, private providers would emerge that would challenge ‘vested interest’ legacy institutions such as universities.

Innovation would come through market disruption.

However, what has happened in England – or, at least, has become more obvious – is that successive governments have not primarily intended to create a market of any kind; there has been no genuine interest in new forms of enterprise and competition. Their intention has not been merely to create what Wolch called a ‘shadow state’ – an assemblage of multiple non-state providers functioning in a (quasi-) market ‘administered outside of traditional democratic politics’.

 Rather, for these Conservative governments, the ‘market model’, as Wendy Brown observed, is just familiar narrative cover for increasing state control. 

Since 2010, reaching its apex in the recommendations of the latest report on ITE, England has experienced the heightening of the fundamental ‘free market/strong state’ contradiction in modern British conservatism where an absolute commitment to restoring/sustaining (often regressive) cultural traditions and traditional forms of authority has trumped free market principles and libertarian instincts and has done so in increasingly authoritarian ways.

Distinctively, too, English education ministers have relied on a very small number of individuals (a few teachers, current and former, often with very limited classroom time, usually active on Twitter, and one with unsuccessful experience as a nightclub bouncer; some chief execs of those multi-academy trusts; and always, always the same professor) upon whom they have bestowed political patronage, a sub-set of whom have also been funded to compete with legacy providers like universities or traditional education entrepreneurs. In the PETE project, we characterised these types of organisations as ‘co-created shadow state structures’ as they arose out of the meeting of the needs of an authoritarian state with the entrepreneurial instincts of some of those in receipt of political patronage. In our analysis of one policy intervention in 2017, for example, we found one organisation had won the largest proportion of the available funding for teacher CPL despite the fact that it didn’t exist at the time of the tender and had no track record.

Again, for similar conditions for ITE reform to exist in Australia, a different kind of conservatism would have to be dominant in policy-making, similar to the variety that has taken control of education in England. My limited experience of Australian politics suggests that while cultural restorationism and authoritarianism are not entirely absent from politics here, what tends to dominate are more classical liberal models that value ideals of small government, free markets and personal liberty. 

That’s not to say that traditionalism and authoritarian statist instincts, in the way that Poulantzas conceptualised them, do not have influence but they are not determining education policy in quite the comprehensive and urgent way that they are in England.

Finally and crucially, ITE providers in England – including, perhaps especially, the universities – lost the arguments about teacher education a long time ago, largely because they were not present in them. 

The organisation representing universities involved in ITE in England went along with the general direction of reforms and only recently seems to have woken up to the fact that it is now ‘do or die’ for the sector

Additionally, sector leaders in England, often in the research intensive universities, prioritised research performance and league tables and were prepared to proletarianise teacher educators (and I use that word technically) in pursuit of ‘research excellence’, as Jane McNicholl and I showed. What has been missing in the years leading up to the current crisis in England are confident, non-defensive voices arguing the case both for genuine diversity of provision and innovation in ITE and for building strong research programmes in teacher education, just as would be the aspiration in any other area of research. Universities, especially, if they believed they had a strong contribution to make to ITE and that, as universities, that contribution was partly in the form of research and innovation, failed to make it happen in England.

In discussing what might happen in ITE in Australia, I have met a few people who have argued vigorously for a more ‘joined-up’ education system here. I have heard frustration that good ideas emerging from the Commonwealth government are not picked up by states and that children and young people do not always get the education they deserve. One or two have even said to me they wished Australia was following the example of England in both the direction, coherence and pace of reform. My response has been ‘be careful of what you wish for’. Australia needs to aim a lot higher than England when looking for good ideas to influence innovation here. There are excellent examples of evidence-based interventions elsewhere in the world that can improve the quality of teaching. We need to look up, not down, we can’t be complacent, and we shouldn’t let the empire strike back. 

Viv Ellis is Dean of the Faculty of Education at Monash University. His latest book (with Lauren Gatti and Warwick Mansell), The New Political Economy of Teacher Education: The Enterprise Narrative and the Shadow State, will be published by Policy Press in 2022.

The One Teacher Test Which Won’t Make A Difference

Improving teacher quality has been central to recent education reform initiatives around the world. However, what counts as ‘quality’ within different educational contexts is highly contested, value-laden, vague and misconstrued. The Australian media, in particular, continues to circulate key political messages surrounding teacher quality, with the media suggesting that the problem lies with teachers themselves rather than the teaching practices, curriculum and resources they employ. The most salient solution, or that which is then offered to its readers for consumption, is the need for more national policy reform measures to address the failures or inherent decline of our education systems.   

National policy reform initiatives, in Australia and the US for example, have aimed to combat the seeming decline of their nation’s educational achievement as measured through scores on international achievement tests (e.g., PISA, TIMSS). This decline signals a loss of international competitiveness, contributing to a failure narrative which continues to haunt many education systems around the world. In Australia, concerns have been raised that a decline in national and international test scores signals a problem with the quality, or performativity, of its education system. Given that it is widely assumed that good teachers are inextricably linked to their students’ achievements, many educational policies have been underpinned by the assumption that quality in education can be quantified. In other words, the idea that teacher quality can be quantified and measured through the same measures we use to measure student achievement—standardised tests. However, the limitation of such an approach ignores the importance of context when determining what counts as quality in education. 

The Literacy and Numeracy Test for Initial Teacher Education (LANTITE)

My research colleague, Russell Cross, and I were intrigued when the Literacy and Numeracy Test for Initial Teacher Education (LANTITE) was introduced in 2016. LANTITE was part of a suite of educational reforms introduced and which aimed to ensure that we selected the best and brightest into teaching. While we both agree that teachers should have strong literacy and numeracy skills, we are also aware that standardised tests can be powerful gatekeepers—determining who enters the profession and who does not. To better understand the impact of this policy on teacher education and the teaching profession more broadly, we endeavoured to critically interrogate LANTITE as policy. We wanted to problematise the assumptions that underpinned the policy and consider the (un)intended consequences of such an approach. We drew upon Cochran-Smith and colleagues’ four-dimensional framework which examined:

  1. The discourses and influences which shape policy formulations
  2. Constructions of the problem and solutions of teacher education
  3. Policy enactment or how policies are interpreted into practice
  4. The outcomes of the policy

As I outline below, this framework allowed us to explore the power relations involved and examine the relationships between key actors (e.g., teacher candidates, initial teacher education programs, TEMAG, etc.). Given that policy is described as a web, cycle and enactment, with policy being created, directed, translated, and interpreted within different contexts, policies are not transactional and/or one-dimensional but are a complex web of compromises and settlements among policy actors. 

Addressing the teacher quality problem with policy solutions

In countries like the US and Australia, a discourse of outcomes has shaped discussions about quality within teacher education. This entails a focus on quantifiable and measurable outcomes, such as student test scores, retention rates and job placements, which then become measures for determining the quality of teachers and teacher education programs more broadly. However, recently in Australia, there has increasingly been a focus on inputs, in addition to outcomes. We observe this in regards to how the LANTITE, a federal initiative, is positioned as a policy solution to the perceived teacher quality problem. The LANTITE as a policy solution suggests that the problem lies within initial teacher education programs—in how they select teacher candidates into their programs and whom they allow to graduate. Initial teacher education programs have been criticised for being ‘cash cows,’ establishing minimum entry criteria so that universities can meet financial targets. This suggests that the teacher quality problem is due to the selection of low quality teacher candidates. Therefore, LANTITE is offered as a cost-effective solution (not for teacher candidates who pay for it but for the education system more broadly) to filter out those who should not be in teaching.  

We also argue that LANTITE as a policy solution—a standardised literacy and numeracy test for teachers—attempts to directly respond to the decline in Australian students’ literacy and numeracy test scores on national and international standardised tests. This suggests that the decline in Australian students’ standardised testing scores in literacy and numeracy skills is directly related to the literacy and numeracy skills of their teachers. Therefore, one might assume that if we ensure that teacher candidates score well on a standardised literacy and numeracy test, so too should their students on similar tests.  While, again, we argue that teachers should have strong literacy and numeracy skills, we argue that this might be too simplistic and care should be taken in thinking that a standardised literacy and numeracy test can (or should) 1) ensure that those teachers passing this test will ensure strong student scores in national and international test scores and 2) act as a valid measure of teacher quality in such as wide range of Australian school contexts.

Reforming teacher education?

Educational reforms are a natural part of a progressive society—the desire to improve what we are currently doing and how we are doing it. However, we wanted to examine whether or not the LANTITE, as a policy solution, was creating substantive reform within teacher education. Given the financial burden placed on teacher candidates to take the test, we wanted to know how many students were being excluded from the profession of teaching and how this test influenced the perspectives of teacher candidates. Our quantitative analysis on 2,013 LANTITE scores from a large metropolitan university were consistent with the national LANTITE pass rate of 90-95%. However, our analysis found that when students failed an attempt, they had a 50% chance of passing the test on their subsequent re-sit. Therefore, the 5-10% who failed the test, in our sample, did not reflect the number of teacher candidates who failed the maximum number of attempts but who had failed at that particular point in time. This suggests that many of the 5-10% would later go on to pass a subsequent attempt.  Given that most students receive up to four opportunities to sit the test and the overwhelming majority of students who sit the test pass it, LANTITE does not appear to be a very effective policy measure in clearly discerning who should enter teaching and who should not. With this said, however, there is still more research needed to investigate who is failing the maximum number of attempts and the reasons why. Some teacher candidates have argued that LANTITE discriminates against those with learning disabilities, those who suffer from test anxiety and those who are mature-aged. This calls into question how test accommodations are (or whether they should be) made and whether a standardised test is the most fair and balanced way to measure literacy and numeracy skills. The teacher candidates in our study argued that the test was just one of many hurdles that they have had to endure and will continue to endure as they must incessantly fight to prove that they are capable of being a good teacher. 

While LANTITE may not appear to have made a substantive impact on who is entering the teaching profession statistically (I acknowledge that it can have a significant impact for teacher candidates at a personal level), our research findings suggest that it is shaping how society, through discourses in the media, and how teacher candidates themselves view the profession. Unfortunately, the LANTITE policy positions the profession, teacher education, and teachers at a deficit. There is an assumption that the profession attracts those who are seemingly not very capable and therefore the best solution is a consistent, national approach to regain some semblance of quality. I, as an educator and researcher, wholeheartedly want to attract (and keep) the right people into the teaching profession but I am unsure as to whether the LANTITE is the most effective way to do so. 

Dr Melissa Barnes is a senior lecturer in Monash University’s Faculty of Education, working within the fields of teacher education, assessment, policy and TESOL. She teaches and leads research initiatives that focus on policy construction, interpretation and enactment, with a focus on how policies, including structures such as curriculum and assessments, impact and shape teaching and learning.

The government must know how to fix the teacher shortage. Why won’t it act now?

Schools are struggling with major teacher shortages and the reason is clear.

Australia’s education system is missing one fundamental part – a national teacher recruitment and retention strategy. 

Every other country I have reviewed has one; here’s England’s, here is Bulgaria’s, Zimbabwe’s is recently announced.  I’m not emphasising this because we should copy other countries. There is a much stronger argument –  internationally the importance of the teaching profession is widely understood, with appropriately weighty policy attention.

Australia’s current Quality Initial Teacher Education Review will make a contribution in this regard and it has broadened terms of reference to include “attracting and selecting high-quality candidates into the teaching profession“. However, the scope does not include retaining teachers nor effective allocation of them to areas of need. This is an area of pressing need and one of the structural systemic failings of our education system.

It will not be addressed with piecemeal policy shots. 

Policy gaps

The fact that we don’t have a national strategy on this speaks volumes about how teachers are undervalued in Australia; and how few with political power recognise the foundational role teachers hold in our economy, social fabric and democracy. 

The difficulties arising from this neglect, and there are many,  include: the current crisis in recruitment of teachers (shockingly evident in NSW where every week another school has to  take action because they are so understaffed), shifts to a less secure workforce, declining academic standards in admission to teaching degree, deteriorating work conditions and workload.

We desperately need a teacher recruitment and retention strategy – as a tool to redress this neglect, provide due respect to teachers and contribute to broader systemic reforms to reverse the declines we are seeing in many educational indicators (and no, I don’t just mean PISA scores). Piecemeal initiatives here and there are not enough, and those initiatives sometimes appear to willfully neglect the evidence base for what works in attracting and retaining teachers.

NSW’s recent announcement to provide what amounts to a cash incentive to attract mid-career professionals over to teaching, with six months of coursework and a six-month paid internship is yet another example of foolish policy. 

This approach has already failed once, as demonstrated by the Commonwealth Government response to the Action now, classroom ready teachers report some years ago. 

Attracting, recruiting and retaining candidates to a profession is a complex, multifactorial and lengthy process that will not be solved with a single incentive. It needs coordinated, comprehensive strategic response, with a long-term plan and system wide reform. This is not the same as the National teacher Workforce Strategy which does not lay out a plan to adress problems, but suggests monitoring via the Australian Teacher Workforce Data project which is still not fully operational after more than a decade in development.

We need a strategic plan built on evidence.

What the evidence says

A systematic review published earlier this year by See, Morris, Gorard and El Soufi provides an up-to-date analysis of the relevant literature. As a systematic review, which excludes research that does not meet research quality benchmarks, it provides a quality-assured evidence base. What does it say?

I am guessing this will not be news to the teachers out there:

“The only approach that seems to work at all is the offer of monetary inducements, but there are caveats” (See, Morris, Gorard and El Soufi, 2021, p.2.)

The caveats include that monetary inducements work only in attracting those already interested in teaching. The monetary inducements must also be large enough to compensate for challenging work conditions – and provide some offset for teachers who could be attracted to better paying jobs. Reforming both working conditions and financial incentives is important to attract high quality candidates to the profession. The recent Gallop review Valuing the Teaching Profession made it clear current teacher salaries are not competitive with those of similarly qualified professions – addressing this would require a 10 to 15 percent rise in teacher salaries. 

The systematic review also suggests that financial incentives also work better for attracting young females to teaching. They are less likely to work on older and male teachers. It is unclear how they would work in attracting diverse candidates to work in diverse Australian schools. Importantly, the monetary incentives are also only temporary, with no residual benefit. Once the incentive is finished, its power is gone. However monetary inducements do also work in retaining teachers, especially in changing school contexts. Thus, effective policies are more likely those with incentives for entering initial teacher education, and satisfactory pay across the full career span with special incentives for those working in challenging schools.

The review found no evidence for locally recruiting and training teacher education programs intended to supply hard-to-staff schools. Nor that teachers trained via alternative routes are more likely to stay in teaching – why would we keep investing money there then? It also found no good evidence that “pathways” improve recruitment into programs, with only one program shown to be effective in that regard.

There were some, complex findings regarding the effect of professional support for all teachers and mentoring for beginning teachers. Such effects impact on working conditions and workload, which are important considerations.

Uniquely Australian

Australia faces some unique challenges in regard to teacher recruitment and retention. In the 2020 report The Profession At Risk I had the unsavory task of analysing Australia’s declining trends in Initial Teacher Education admission standards, and degree completion rates.There are clear and disturbing trends in ATAR scores, but limited transparency on standards overall. Despite more and more students entering teaching degrees, less than 60 per cent of education students complete their degree within six years. I argue that the poor transparency and low standard for entry in Australia, far below international benchmarks, may be contributing to ( not a result of) the dwindling esteem of the profession- adding a unique element to the Australian teacher recruitment landscape. 

Other analyses suggest Australia also has specific problems with allocation of our teaching workforce.The OECD report Effective Teacher Policies shows that, uniquely, Australian schools have more teachers, and better qualified and more experienced teachers, in advantaged schools than in disadvantaged schools. 

But we also have a notably low share of top performing students who go on to be teachers; and those students are also more likely to teach in advantaged schools. This stands in contrast to the majority of OECD country who allocate the most high achieving, qualified and experienced teachers to the most disadvantaged schools. This is another reason why we need a comprehensive and coordinated national strategy. 

Like waiting for Godot

Teacher recruitment and retention isn’t a new issue for Australia. There have been periodic crises and reviews over that last four decades. A review way back in 1986 suggested a more coordinated, and politically neutral approach was needed. Recommendations have rarely been acted upon. A 2014 Australian DFAT report Teacher Quality Evidence review, exploring suitable policies for international development recipient countries found   

“The systemic development of teacher quality is dependent, first and foremost, on effective teacher recruitment strategies…Supporting effective teacher workforce management by donors can and should include strategies and interventions to deploy teachers in hard–to-reach areas as well as supporting national governments to develop rewarding conditions of service for teachers, ensuring that they are adequately remunerated

If this is the advice we are providing for international aid programs a decade ago, why are we yet to address it for our own precious education system?

Rachel Wilson is associate professor at The Sydney School of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney. She has expertise in educational assessment, research methods and programme evaluation, with broad interests across educational evidence, policy and practice. She is interested in system-level reform and has been involved in designing, implementing and researching many university and school education reforms. Rachel is on Twitter @RachelWilson100