Keith Heggart

The Voice referendum: If you don’t know, I challenge you to find out

The claim by the ‘No’ campaign that if you ‘don’t know, then vote no’ in the Voice referendum is a troubling indictment on the state of democracy and civics and citizenship education in Australia. It privileges a passive and limited conception of citizenship that is at odds with what it means to be a citizen in Australia, and makes a mockery of Australia’s long history of civic action and engagement. It privileges wilful ignorance, and outsources the responsibility for informed democracy to politicians, rather than the citizens themselves, and in doing so, insults every Australian who has taken the time to explore the arguments for and against the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament. That such claims should flourish is hardly surprising; civics and citizenship education in Australia’s schools has, for too long, been overlooked by politicians and policy makers, despite the rhetoric to the contrary. 

Young Australians should be active and informed

This shout-out to ignorance is a direct contradiction to the Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Education Declaration. This document sets out the fundamental principles for education in Australia, and is agreed upon by all ministers of education from the various jurisdictions. There are only two goals within the Declaration, and the second one states that all young Australians should become ‘active and informed members of the community’. It goes on to describe that this includes (amongst other things) having ‘an understanding of Australia’s system of government, its histories, religions and culture’, being committed to ‘to national values of democracy, equity and justice’, and ‘contributing to local and national conversations’. There is a clear emphasis upon the role of a citizen to be involved – but also to be informed. This finding out information and thinking carefully is central to the Declaration – and also to what it means to be a citizen in Australia. 

Currently there is no greater national conversation than the upcoming Voice referendum. Yet it is a failing – of our media, of our politicians, and of our education system – that our young people are limited in their potential and their capacity to take part in that conversation because the education system is not providing them with the opportunity to develop the skills to become informed. Regardless of whether they are old enough to vote or not, the Voice referendum is a significant opportunity for young people to learn about civics and citizenship: about how democracy is done. And it is an opportunity that we are missing.

The system is failing our young people

There are lots of reasons for this state of affairs. Within the education system, there is confusion about the place of civics and citizenship education. While it is part of the Australian Curriculum, it is often taught in conjunction with other subjects, such as History and Geography. This leads to it being squeezed out in place of this other content. And of course there’s also the challenge that teachers face when trying to teach it: many teachers lack any specific subject expertise in topics like government, politics or civics and citizenship – which means that they are very conscious of their own ignorance in this area and are likely to avoid it.

Teachers are also at risk of being targeted for teaching about supposedly controversial issues in this subject area, such as topics like climate change,  equality and race, which means they run the risk of raising the ire of parents or the more extremist elements of the media. Finally, when it is taught, it is often taught in such a way that it is distant from a students’ own experience.

Learning about the constitution is vital, and indeed, should be a right of every child – but it needs to be done in such a way that allows students to connect their own experiences with what they are learning, lest it become a dull and uninspiring recitation of facts and figures. None of this is particularly new: since the first assessments about civic literacy as part of the National Assessment Program, concerns have been raised about the place of civics and citizenship education in Australia’s schools, as many students were failing even to reach proficiency. 

Never before has it been so easy

What is new is the onslaught of misinformation and disinformation that young (and not-so-young) people are exposed to via both social and legacy media. Never before has it been so easy for people to share biased information so quickly to such large numbers of people – and it is already apparent  that this is influencing the debate and having a detrimental effect on the ability of organisations with a vested interest in education about this topic in sharing their message and resources. Organisations like The Museum of Australian Democracy, or The Rule of Law Education Centre have largely been drowned out. This only highlights the importance of changing civics and citizenship education to address these concerns, so that citizens are better capable of engaging with national conversations, discerning facts from opinion, critically evaluating information and making their own informed decisions. 

Beyond Mparntwe

In order to do this, we need to recognise the importance of civics and citizenship in Australian schools – in actions, and not just in the Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Education Declaration. Part of this means understanding – and preparing – teachers for the important role they play as democracy workers through more focus on civics and citizenship education in initial teacher education programs. Beyond the Voice referendum, we must also find space within the Australian Curriculum for more civics and citizenship education, and even consider whether it should be taught as a separate learning area, as is the case in England.

We also need to recognise that young people are at risk from mis- and disinformation campaigns, and they need to be taught, at school, about such campaigns and how they can deal with them. Most importantly, though, as adults, we need to remember that wilful ignorance is not a democratic virtue, and we should challenge any short-sighted and divisive campaign that argues otherwise. 

Keith Heggart is an early career researcher with a focus on learning and instructional design, educational technology and civics and citizenship education. He is currently exploring the way that online learning platforms can assist in the formation of active citizenship amongst Australian youth. He is a former high school teacher, who worked as a school leader in Australia and overseas, in government and non-government sectors. He has also worked as an organiser for the Independent Education Union of Australia, and as an independent learning designer for a range of organisations. He tweets @keithheggart

More to read:

The perplexing political life of education online

One of our intermittent blogs during the #AARE2022 conferenceIf you want to cover a session at the conference, please email to check in. Thanks!

Online spaces have arguably given voice to more diverse actors and advocacy activities related to education policy. While policymakers have a responsibility to address areas of concern to Australian education, a highly digitised public sphere presents challenges to implementing appropriate reform. Online political machinations can open education policy decision making to moral panic, misinformation, and culture wars, but also offer new opportunities and hope. 

This symposium aimed to spark questions about the confluence of political shifts and online information sharing, commentary, and activism on the formation of Australian education policy. The series of papers presented in this symposium were a short overview of politics related to education online. Each raised questions about the influence of the Internet, and education-related information ecosystems, on education policy. The point of this symposium was to provide a national platform for discussing the challenges and possibilities of education projects that employ digital sociological approaches. The papers used a variety of online platforms and employed diverse methodological approaches to investigating education online. All projects are led by early career researchers and higher degree research candidates exploring cutting edge and traditional approaches to theory, qualitative and quantitative methods.

First, Barrie Shannon from the University of Newcastle spoke about how young people, especially young queer people, are looking online for relevant, affirming information about health, sex, gender and identity. Shannon explained that there is a wide body of knowledge that suggests young people in Australia are dissatisfied with the quality of the sexuality education they receive from school, that tends to take a heteronormative focus on puberty and reproduction, and the information that is presented is often piecemeal, irrelevant, or cautionary, framed as a minefield of potential risks and dangers. Further to this, contemporary political discourse in Australia positions trans youth in the fray of ongoing ‘culture wars’, with schools serving as central battlegrounds. This presentation drew on narrative data from trans, nonbinary and gender diverse Australians aged 18-26 who reported using social networking sites to find information, make friends and establish communities of care. Using the microblogging platform Tumblr as a case study, Shannon illustrated how the affordances of certain social networking sites facilitate alternative ways of communicating, peer-learning, and teaching that are not delivered by a formal authority figure and are not mediated by government policies or curriculum documents. 

Next, Blake Cutler from Monash University spoke about his work with Lucas Walsh, Libby Tudball, and Thuc Huynh surrounding  the rapid growth of the School Strikes 4 Climate movement over the past few years. Cutler argued that this movement has been an important way for young people to negotiate and enact their participatory citizenship and democratic rights, given the barriers they face to engage in formal means of civic participation. The presentation explored the role of Twitter in how young people identify with and express their political and civic identities in relation to the climate strikes. The team collected a total of 92,360 tweets from between 1 October 2018 and 5 October 2021 that contained the #auspol hashtag with at least one of the following: #climatestrikeonline, #fridaysforfuture, #climatestrike, #schoolstrike4climate. Using a novel deep learning algorithm they predicted the demographics of users to explore the role of young people (i.e., those under 29 y.o.) in this online space. 

Next, Keith Heggart from the University of Technology Sydney spoke about how Edutwitter is a fraught environment, with competing discourses about teaching approaches, how to teach reading, and the role of teachers in society. He explained how this space has become filled with a variety of third party actors, such as educational gurus, think tanks and institutes that work between politicians and the populace in the formulation of education policy. Heggart’s presentation examined the role of various non-governmental agencies in determining Australian education policy. Two sites were considered: Critical Race Theory in Australia, and the anti-vax movement amongst the Teachers Professional Association of Australia. These two sites provided evidence of policy borrowing (where policy is uncritically taken from other jurisdictions on the basis of its outrage appeal), policy washing (where extreme positions are cleaned through various interactions in order to appear more acceptable) and ideological absence (where organisations and other actors are quick to abandon principled positions in the pursuit of influence). 

Next, Naomi Barnes from QUT spoke about Wikipedia as a place where knowledge is contested and often vandalised. Unknown to many, Wikipedia communities have taken a major role in advocating for informed understandings of concepts like Critical Race Theory (CRT). As politicians increasingly do their policymaking in the media, Wikipedia stands as an important site of knowledge production. While ideas like CRT morph into policy objects, editors protect the page from misinformation and bad actors through a variety of editorial processes. Barnes explained this politics of knowledge protection and production within the context of the recent Australian Curriculum Review that saw both the Commonwealth and NSW Senates, courtesy of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party and Tasmanian Liberal senators, ban CRT for Australian schools. This replicates a pattern in the political spheres of both the USA and the UK and is a danger to evidence informed policy making. 

Finally, Jessica Prouten, an Educational Doctorate candidate at QUT, spoke about the link between the presentation of teacher identity on social media, looking at how practitioners manage the interplay between personal, professional, monetised, relational and activist spheres. The paper used Foucault’s ideas of governmentality as a lens to understand social media policy as related to teachers and how people manage behaviour and have their behaviour managed by a network of gazes. 

These papers, collectively, highlighted the simultaneous affordances and perplexities of online spaces, and prompted questions about the politics of education online, including:

  • What do these various online communities and spaces enable and constrain for those engaged with them?
  • What kinds of literacies do young people, educators, education leaders and policy makers and researchers need in navigating the politics of education online? and
  • What are the ethical considerations, for researchers, when working in these online spaces?

These papers, collectively, prompted a robust discussion of the politics of education online.

Dr Naomi Barnes is a network analyst and theorist interested in how ideas influence education policy. She is a senior lecturer in literacy teaching and has worked for Education Queensland as a senior writer and has worked as a secondary English, hstory and geography teacher in government, Catholic and independent schools.

Eve Mayes is a Senior Research Fellow and Senior Lecturer in Pedagogy and Curriculum. She currently lives and works on unceded Wadawurrung Country. Her publications and research interests are in the areas of student voice and activism, climate justice education, affective methodologies and participatory research. Eve is currently working on the ARC DECRA project: Striking Voices: Australian school-aged climate justice activism (2022-2025).

Distorted reports keep coming. This one will make you livid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to bridge the teacher and academic divide online

The Problem & the Proposal 

One of the most widely accepted facts in education is that teachers and academics often do not mix.  This hurts teachers engagement with research and its application in the classrooms. Social media, and Twitter especially, holds the potential to bring together teachers, academics, and others within shared spaces to develop collaborative approaches to research and to actively engage with it. Important within this is the idea of a pracademic: a person capable of working between and within the teaching profession and the world of research. As such individuals seem to hold the key to narrowing this gap. 

Social Media as ‘third space’

The concept of the pracademic is relevant when one considers the increasing expectations for teachers to be both research-based practitioners and data literate. Pracademics have relevance to improving education systems through their boundary-crossing expertise. But how might we better develop and cultivate these pracademics? Social media has an increasingly important role to play in this instance. As a small example, the number of practising teachers attending the Australian Association for Research in Education National Conference is likely low; this is not uncommon for educational conferences. For many teachers, engaging with research is a distant memory, connected more to their teacher training and university days than their current practice. We feel this requires urgent research attention.

Social Media and Teachers: The #AussieED example

There are many examples of social media mediated groups that support the development of pracademic identity. One example is #AussieED, perhaps the longest running education Twitter chat in the world, but certainly within Australia. This Sunday evening chat brings together educational thought leaders, academic study, and all manner of educational ideas in an intense, hour-long discussion open to all. Whilst not all Sunday chats are necessarily engaged with academic ideas or research on this forum, the openness of #AussieEd and its variety means that it serves as a significant and ever-changing professional learning opportunity for teachers, leading them to learn, as well as moving towards research engagement. 


A contrasting approach is the #edureading group, which was started in 2018, by Steven Kolber. This group brings together educators – howsoever they might be defined – from around the world to discuss an academic article once per month. Participants are asked to read an article before the meeting and then post their reflections in the form of three short 3–5-minute responses on the educational video sharing platform FlipGrid. The group then assembles for an audio-based conversation on the ‘Twitter Spaces’ platform, and this discussion culminates in an hour long ‘Twitter Chat’ informed by the previous two fora’s shared ideas. The learning design of this group allows education-interested people from around the world to bring their own context and experience to the virtual table to speak back to educational research. As a result, we’ve established that this group provides a fertile space for pracademic generation and empowerment. 


TeachMeets, which occur both online and face-to-face, trace their history to 2006 in Edinburgh, where teachers assembled in a pub to deliver short presentations to their peers. This model has continued to develop, drawing on distributed leadership models, it is known as a ‘guerrilla form of professional development’ entirely organised and run by teachers. This model runs counter to the populist and dominant form of professional learning that is increasingly reliant upon the sharing of edu-celebrities and expensive, money-making entrance fees laden with sponsors.    

Each of these three examples can carry differing levels of academic rigour depending on their membership, the topic being discussed and their direct engagement with research. But, if you are not familiar with any of these three forms, each is active and continuing and crucially, completely open to all interested participants. This runs counter to the dominant form of professional learning for teachers and academics, which is large-scale, paid lectures and workshops provided by a select group of experts. 

Our research

Our research, through an autoethnographic case study approach, showcases the way that Steven Kolber, a practicing teacher, and Keith Heggart an Early Career Researcher used these social media fora to develop our own ‘pracademic’ identities. For each of us, these spaces served as a ‘third space’ that was neither academy nor teaching but allowed for new identities and relationships to research to be developed.   


We proposed five main features of these democratic fora that separates them from less-focussed, less-academic adjacent social media spaces. These features are rigour and depth which requires that members of these groups engage directly with academic research and discuss these ideas in connection to their personal contexts. Whilst personal experiences are crucial, one key feature is discussion beyond immediate cultural context, this means leveraging the nature of ‘context collapse’ in online spaces and the global possibility of educators coming together. This depth, rigour and discussion beyond one’s immediate cultural context is possible because of the free, accessibility of the tools where these groups are formed. Within these fora knowledge creation both individually and as a collective group is of the utmost importance, not simply reading and responding, but building new knowledge through the combined wisdom of these groups. The lowering of boundaries and the shedding of titles and hierarchies within these groups allows genuine and new forms of collaboration to occur. We feel that when each of these five features are present, that these spaces can effectively develop pracademics, unlocking a range of new potentials for educational improvement. 

Why does this matter? 

This is increasingly important, as recently published research from the Monash Q Project confirms the differing levels of engagement with research, noting especially the differences between teachers and leaders engagement with research within schools. Whilst for education researchers, the engagement with the profession of teaching is also a challenge where the expectations of ‘publish or perish’ and the precarity of many positions provide unique challenges.

Next steps

Though this research is a small-scale, auto ethnographic case study focussed on two educators across the teacher – academic divide, we believe it has real value for new ways of conceiving of professional learning. In addition, we believe the discussion of pracademics and their role for improving education is important and worthy of continued exploration. Whilst the challenge of locating, developing, and collaborating with these pracademics is explored, we believe social media is increasingly important for these processes. 

  • DOI

  • Article located on the Journal’s website

Education focused pracademics on twitter: building democratic fora | Emerald Insight

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

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

Alan Tudge’s understanding of our history deserves a fail

The Federal Minister for Education Alan Tudge says the draft History and Civics and Citizenship curriculum is not up to scratch. According to a letter seen by The Australian newspaper, Minister Tudge has suggested that the draft curriculum ‘diminishes Australia’s western, liberal and democratic values’. According  to Tudge, the curriculum provides a negative view about western civilisation placing emphasis on ‘slavery, imperialism and colonisation’.

He’s not happy with any of Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority’s (ACARA) draft curriculum but history came in for a belting.

Tudge also suggested that there has been an effort to remove or reframe historical events, emphasising ‘invasion theory’ over Australia Day. In addition, he is also concerned that Anzac Day is presented as ‘a contested idea, rather than the most sacred of all days’.

His comments are of particular concern to the Social and Citizenship Education Association of Australia (SCEAA).

SCEAA represents a diverse and experienced group of teachers, researchers and teacher educators from across Australia. The Australian Curriculum, and how it might best be taught is central to our work and advocacy. In this respect, we have provided detailed submissions regarding the  Australian Curriculum.. We are critical friends and do not hesitate to offer suggestions for improvements where we feel they are warranted. It is in this role,, and with a great deal of respect, that we respond to the Minister’s comments. In the case of History and Civics and Citizenship, we would argue that the Minister has mis-characterised aspects of the proposed History and Civics and Citizenship curricula. 

If we are to consider the Minister’s comments regarding Anzac Day, as one example, the evidence does not support his claims that it has been removed or reframed. For example, in Year 3, students are taught ‘How significant commemorations [such as Anzac Day] contribute to [Australian] identity and the content descriptor explicitly references ‘the importance’ of Anzac Day. 

This does not sound as if Anzac Day is being marginalised in the curriculum.

 There is an elaboration that allows teachers to explore the idea ‘that people have different points of view on some commemorations’. Whilst this is optional, its inclusion is consistent with the principles of critical thinking and engaging with multiple perspectives that are foundations of democratic societies. It does not demand the study of Anzac Day as a contested idea. In Year 9, students explore ‘The commemoration of World War I’. Part of this includes ‘different historical interpretations and contested debates about the nature and significance of the Anzac legend and the war’. The documents that comprise the curriculum are carefully articulated to be as close to neutral as possible; they don’t advance an ideological argument against Anzac Day.

Regarding the Minister’s concerns about ‘slavery, imperialism and colonisation within the curriculum, it is important to reiterate that within History and Civics and Citizenship there is a great deal of emphasis placed on critical thinking, and considering different points of view and perspectives. In History, especially, students must engage with concepts like ‘Continuity and change’, ‘Perspectives’ and ‘Contestability’. They must do so by applying historical inquiry and skills, which includes the analysis and use of sources, and the examination of perspective and interpretations. Again, these arguments about meaning and value are central to what it means to be an active and informed citizen and member of the community, and a student of History.    

Perhaps there is some confusion about what history is, and how it is meant to be taught? In the comments above, it appears that the Minister is suggesting that young people undertake no critical thinking about the centrality of Anzac Day (or anything else) in our culture, but solely experience it as an annual patriotic rite. This positions the study of history as something that is only celebratory and patriotic. While History can promote  feelings, it should also encourage reflection, thought and reasoned debate – such as, in this case, about the continued importance of Anzac commemoration in Australia today. This understanding better reflects the experiences of our members, who after all, are those entrusted to make the curriculum a reality and who lead ANZAC day celebrations in schools. There is highly respectful dialogue and interaction between schools, RSLs and others around Anzac Day, with many opportunities for educational conversations. Furthermore, the effective study of History is one that presents multiple sides which are supported by evidence, and invites critical analysis of those multiple views on the balance of evidence, in a way that neutralises biases as much as possible rather than amplifying bias one way or another. 

As Australian educational settings are super-diverse we need to embrace a curriculum that is not monocultural and embraces and critically explores and presents our history so that all learners can relate to it and be valued. History, at its most effective form of contribution to society, is a doorway into our past in ways that help us to make sense of our present and then enable us to make better informed decisions for our future. It is not about advocating any one view, itself. The  Australian Curriculum reflects this best practice approach.

This misunderstanding also applies to the Minister’s comments regarding Australia’s western democratic values. Again, an examination of the Australian Curriculum documents might correct this. Students in Year 3 through to Year 8  learn about government, politics and democracy in Australia. For example, in Year 3, ‘students explain how citizens contribute in their community’, the role of rules and the importance of making decisions democratically’. In Year 5 students explore ‘What is democracy in Australia, how does our democracy work, and why is voting in a democracy important’. A content descriptor outlines ‘the key values, and features of Australia’s democracy, including the election process and the responsibilities of electors’. In Year 6 ‘Students study the key institutions of Australia’s democratic government. They learn how State, Territory and Federal laws are made in a parliamentary system and the role of law and law enforcement’. There is an entire sub-strand in the Year 7 and 8 called ‘Government and Democracy’ which focuses on the key features of Australian democracy and government, and also the role of political parties and independent representatives. Students are also called upon to evaluate political and legal institutions (including in positive ways!) as they ‘Explain how democratic, political and legal systems uphold and enact values and processes, and how Australian citizens use these to contribute to their local, State/Territory or national community’.

Again, there is no evidence that this represents any particular ideology. It is hard to see how the curriculum exemplifies a ‘left-wing’ bias as represented in the media coverage. Instead, what it does do is strive to meet the twin goals of ‘active and informed’ citizens and membership of the community that are present in the Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Declaration; nationally agreed goals for schooling agreed to by all state and territory Ministers of Education.. Students have the opportunity to recognise what is good about our current institutions and their past, but, perhaps more importantly, how they might strive to improve and participate as informed citizens in the democratic life of all Australians. This constant evaluation of systems and processes is essential to a healthy democratic system.

Whenever a new draft of a curriculum is opened for consultation, stakeholders from all backgrounds are invited to respond and raise their concerns and questions. Such action is to be encouraged, since contributions from diverse stakeholders,  (including teachers and their representatives) strengthen education in Australia as a whole. However, these contributions must be weighed against the content of the curriculum and the practice of teachers in their classrooms.  

Australians need informed, engaged citizens to contribute to a healthy and responsible democracy. We are committed to educating young people with these kinds of qualities through our teaching in both schools and teacher education institutions.

From left to right: Keith Heggart is an early career researcher with a focus on learning and instructional design, educational technology and civics and citizenship education. He is currently exploring the way that online learning platforms can assist in the formation of active citizenship amongst Australian youth. Keith is a former high school teacher, having worked as a school leader in Australia and overseas, in government and non-government sectors. In addition, he has worked as an Organiser for the Independent Education Union of Australia, and as an independent Learning Designer for a range of organisations. Peter Brett is an experienced History and Civics and Citizenship teacher educator and was involved in a variety of ways with the launch of citizenship education in England from 2002. He is a recent President of the Social and Citizenship Education Association of Australia [SCEAA] and a co-editor of Teaching Humanities and Social Sciences (Cengage, 2020). Sophie Fenton is an award winning founder, learning designer and researcher in education. She has taught History, Global Politics and Civics, as well as developing curriculum with VCAA and SEV. Today, she specialises in school design, curriculum adaptation and pedagogy innovation with a focus on human-centred design for the emerging cyber-physical world. 

Here’s what is wrong with testing teachers and Teach For Australia

Soul-searching and navel gazing into the quality of teaching and teacher education in Australia has been rife lately. There were already concerns about the decline in Australia’s international rankings. Then came the Grattan Report that identified a lack of engagement amongst large numbers of students in Australia’s schools. More recently we have series showing on SBS called Testing Teachers that focuses on a controversial model that proposes to put ‘quality’ teachers into our most disadvantaged schools.

All of this of course is adding to the panic, particularly among politicians, about seeking ‘solutions’ to the ‘crisis’ in teacher quality and teacher education.

Does any of this feel familiar? Such levels of public concern about the state of education in Australia are not uncommon: in fact, there have been more than 30 reports into education in the last few decades. These reports have identified a range of issues that are contributing to the ‘failure’ of Australia’s education system.

In this blog post I will look at two of the most commonly offered solutions as a means of ‘fixing’ teacher education: the ATAR solution and the Teach for Australia solution.

Raise the ATAR solution

The low ATAR requirements for teacher education programs are often cited as a reason for our declining rankings in international measures: the argument is that, as ATARs are demand-based, the low ATAR indicates that the ‘best and brightest’ university entrants are choosing other courses rather than teacher education, and hence students are not benefiting from being taught by the brightest individuals in Australia.

The solution to this is to artificially raise the ATAR, or the requirements for entry into teaching courses, or to cap the number of places available in order to increase demand.

Such arguments generally fail to acknowledge that many students enter teacher education courses via a non-ATAR pathway – but this leads to other possible solutions, like Literacy and Numeracy tests for pre-service teachers, although one must ask why, if pre-service teachers have graduated from Year 12 and completed most of a degree at university, they need to demonstrate literacy and numeracy that must surely have been needed to complete these courses in the first place.

The Teach for Australia solution

Another solution proffered, and the one I want to concentrate more on, is the adoption of programs like Teach for Australia. The TFA program is the one featured by the now running SBS series, Testing Teachers. Since the TFA program started in Australia in 2009 it has received significant amounts of money from the federal government. Teach for Australia is a teacher education program that is modelled on similar programs that already exist in the USA and the UK. The organization sees itself as a ‘remedy for social and educational inequity by employing outstanding individuals’. These outstanding individuals are required to have already completed (or be about to complete) a Bachelor’s degree, with a high credit average. There is particular emphasis on recruiting students from the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) disciplines.

The candidates undertake an application process, and if accepted into the Teach For Australia program, they undertake a 13 week training course. This is comprised of 7 weeks online training and 6 weeks face to face training. At the conclusion of the training, these ‘associates’ as they are now called, are placed in an educationally disadvantaged school for a period of two years. During these two years, associates will teach an 80% load, and they will be mentored both in the school and from an educational academic. At the successful conclusion of the 2 year program, they will receive a Masters degree.

Not surprisingly, despite the support of successive Federal Governments, there has been significant criticism of the TFA program from teachers and their unions and from education academics. The Australian Education Union (AEU) has stated that the program is an ‘expensive failure’, and there is certainly evidence that TFA does cost more than the usual teacher education program. The average across Australian institutions for a teacher program is $23 000, whereas TFA (according to 2013 figures) costs approximately $100 000. Whether it is a failure is more challenging to identify, mainly because there is a lack of research into the efficacy of TFA associates.

The Australian Council for Education Research (ACER 2013) identified that the program was successful in recruiting suitable, academically able graduates. After one year, principals considered the teachers to be as effective as other teachers, and perhaps more effective by the end of the second year. The report stops short of saying it is more effective than other approaches to teacher education, and it identifies the high cost of the program and its small scale as potential difficulties in the future.

The Centre for Independent Studies Senior Research Fellow, Jennifer Buckingham, in a comment about Teach For Australia suggests there is little objective data about the educational impact, but goes on to cite TFA’s own report that claims 90% of TFA associates have a greater impact on student achievement than other graduate teachers. Buckingham also cites overseas programs (Teach for America and Teach First) as examples of success, but provides no further details about how such success was measured or who did the measuring. Indeed, the research into TFA’s international cousins is no less problematic. Educational researchers from the US describe Teach for America as a harmful public policy, where teachers from the program provide significantly lower outcomes than certified teachers. Professor of Education at Stanford University, Linda Darling-Hammond, supports this assessment.

The sustainability of the program is also enough to cause concern amongst the teaching profession. According to TFA’s own data, 70% of associates remain in the profession after the two-year program. Further analysis of the data is not available, so it is unclear for how much longer these associates remained teaching. It should be noted that the program is still in its infancy. However, Senate Estimates suggest that less than half of the original cohort of 45, who began in 2010, are still teaching.

We are asking the wrong questions about TFA

Ultimately, these are the wrong questions to be asking about Teach for Australia or even teacher education programs. Few people involved in this space would argue that teachers have a central role to play in the future development and success of Australia. For this reason, we need to adopt the best practices in teacher education, so that the teacher profession is highly motivated, skilled and capable.

The question should not be whether TFA associates are better than traditional teacher graduates – considering the more high-achieving pool that TFA draws from, and the significantly higher levels of support that are provided to TFA associates over the course of their two year placement, a better question is why is there not compelling evidence that associates are significantly better than their colleagues? Considering the extra levels of support and the increased expenditure, surely TFA associates should be outperforming their fellow teachers in all areas.

There is no evidence to suggest that this is the case. Instead, the evidence suggests that, TFA associates are, at best, on par with their colleagues. In this context, then, it is interesting to question why this is the case. It is my argument that, as models of teacher education go, TFA has some valuable practices, but it is not sufficient in and of itself to provide Australia with the quality teachers that it requires. Thirteen weeks of training might be enough to provide associates with a modicum of understanding about teaching and learning, but there is much that is covered in traditional educational programs that would necessarily be excluded. This material is not mere ‘fluff’ to be casually discarded but is central to the practice of developing the knowledge and skills necessary for a teaching career.

Some ‘solutions’ that are not ‘quick fixes’

That is not to say that the TFA program is completely without worth; rather, there are elements to it that are worthy of consideration in more traditional teacher education programs. Instead of searching for ‘quick-fix’ solutions to the quality teacher crisis, (should we even accept that this is the issue, but that is a different blog post) we should invest the extra money into existing teacher education programs and to improve the professional development opportunities for teachers. Most importantly, extra investment should be spent on the time after a teacher enters the profession, as he or she begins to work towards proficient accreditation.

It is estimated that up to 50% of teachers leave teaching within the first five years of full time work. This is often attributed to either the crushing workload faced by teachers or the inability of teachers to find suitable permanent positions. Any solution to the issues facing teaching in Australia needs to address these serious hurdles and TFA does not do this.

Instead, we should be looking for a solution that provides all teachers with support throughout their career, but especially in the first 5 years. While many systems (including TFA, it must be said) provide mentoring and release time for teachers until they attain proficiency, it is true that many teachers leave the profession between their third and fifth year of full time teaching.

Teachers’ workloads have increased rapidly over the last decade. Two such examples are the collection and analysis of data and extra-curricular activities. In addition to the normal yearly and half-yearly examinations, some teachers are now expected to administer, prepare and review NAPLAN, practice NAPLAN, PAT-R, PAT-M, MAI and other tests as deemed necessary by the school. While the data might be valuable to the classroom teacher, it takes valuable time away from the actual teaching and learning. And it is not uncommon for teachers to be expected to ‘volunteer’ for a range of extra-curricular activities like coding clubs and sporting teams and social justice groups, some of which take place during pupil vacation periods or on weekends.

When faced with a workload that is often well in excess of 50 hours per week and the constant attacks on the quality of their work as professionals by some sections of the media and the government, it is hardly surprising that so many teachers leave the profession. Any solution needs to address these matters.

Rather, governments and employers need to work to reduce teacher workloads (80% of the current teaching load would be a good start). Such actions would improve the work-life balance of teachers, and this would help raise the status of the profession, which would in turn increase the desirability of teacher education courses. This is not a quick solution but it would be a sustainable one.

Keith Heggart is a Ph D student at the University of Technology, Sydney. He has previously been a teacher and school leader in Australia and the UK. He is also an organiser for the Independent Education Union. Keith works as a casual academic at Western Sydney University and the University of Technology, Sydney.


How young people are changing the way Australians vote and act as citizens

My research interests are closely aligned to the development of civics and citizenship education. Specifically, I am curious about the kinds of educational activities that encourage young people to become active or ‘justice-oriented’ citizens.

Now that our marathon federal election is over I believe it is time for us to look more closely at what is happening in Australia.

How do our young people engage with their rights and duties as a citizen?

Traditionally, Australians as a whole, but especially younger Australians, have been characterized as suffering from a ‘civics deficit’. The assumption is they are either ignorant or apathetic about the way their country is run, or both. I think this assumption is an interesting starting point for wider discussion.

As part of my research, I considered ways that both young and old people express citizenship; that is, how they act as citizens in modern Australian society. I am particularly interested in places like Penrith, Windsor and Randwick. I am fortunate enough to live in Penrith, which is part of the Lindsay electorate. (I confess I was heartily sick of the western suburbs of Sydney being called the ‘key battleground seats’ by the end of the election.)

Young people ‘do’ citizenship differently

From speaking with young people about their interests and concerns, and gaining some understanding about the way they perceive both their local and global communities, it is clear that young people ‘do’ citizenship. However they often do it in ways that older generations might not recognize as citizenship.

I am reminded of the arguments around social media. Young people are seen as not really understanding it, not caring about privacy and likely to be engaging in risky behaviours around it. Similar arguments are used in the debate about active citizenship and young people.

On the contrary however, I believe young people are neither apathetic nor ignorant. Rather, young people are a diverse group, and their interests in politics are slippery and variegated. These interests are far more likely to be expressed in a focus on a particular issue or issues, rather than by belonging to an organization or party.

For example, while it is true that young people are less likely to join political parties, increasing numbers of young people are likely to attend protest events, the Occupy movement is just one example of that. They are also more likely to take an active role, for example by creating material like short films and infographics and posting it to social media. Of course, there has been much criticism of so-called ‘clicktivism’, but I would argue that this is an example of the misunderstanding of active citizenship that dominates much of the discussion.

How older people usually express their citizenship

 The way young people are doing it is clearly different to traditional models of ‘doing citizenship’. While there has always been a place for protest marches and filmmaking, older generations have generally been ‘joiners’. They are more likely to join an organization they feel is reflective of their own identities and seek to enact civics and citizenship through the organizational structures and representative mechanisms. In the past, once they had joined the organization, whether it was a community group, a trade union or a political party, then it was the norm to allow that organization to represent the individual and act in what the organization decided was their best interest.

It was a form of identity politics that allowed for little in the way of expressions of free will and only allowed limited roles for individuals to be empowered. It is still the structure that dominates the political arena in Australia, but for how much longer?

Traditional organisations are declining in popularity

It is well known that many traditional organisations are suffering a decline in membership. Robert Putnam, political scientist and Malkin Professor of Public Policy at the Harvard University, identified this as a key feature in his analysis of the decline in social capital in the US. Such a decline is replicated in many organisations in Australia. For example, there is a decline in trade union membership and the membership of political parties. At the same time many other organisations, such as environmental groups and charities have also felt the pinch.

This declining membership has been an ongoing concern for people who work in these organisations. The blame is often attributed to the fact that young people no longer seem to ‘care’ about the things that these organisations represent.

I don’t think that that’s the case. Rather, I think that the decline in membership is a signal that young people are much more likely to be ‘issue-based’ rather than ‘organisationally-centered’. Such a change is evident in the recent federal election, and is perhaps applicable to a broader segment of the population than just ‘young people’.

Are Australians changing their approach to politics generally?

Despite the frenzied nature of the campaign, and especially so in the ‘battleground seats’, both political parties recorded very low primary votes. The Coalition’s primary vote has decline to 42.1% from a high of 53% in 1975, and the ALP’s vote is down to 34.9% from a high of 49.6% in 1972.

This suggests that many people are no longer identifying with the major political parties. It is my argument that they are ‘shopping’ their political engagement, and so are far more likely to be motivated by a particular issue rather than identifying with a political party.

I believe individual political identities are becoming fragmented. People no longer support a political party’s whole platform or complete agenda, but instead will pick and choose the issues that matter the most to them and then cast their votes accordingly.

Issues based activism

here was ample evidence of this in the election campaign. As I stood at a polling station in Penrith, I could see a vast array of volunteers trying to encourage people to vote in a certain way. There were, as you would imagine, the normal representatives of the major political parties, but there were also a lot of single-issue groups. These were not political parties, but individuals trying to convince voters to act in a certain way based on a single issue. The most obvious were the bright green ‘Gonski’ supporters, but there were also Medicare campaigners, Animal Rights and Unions NSW groups (although the Unions NSW is a difficult case, as many unions are aligned with the ALP).

Even the fact that Unions NSW was campaigning separately to the ALP suggests that they are aware of this growth in ‘issue-based’ rather than ‘organisationally-centered’ identities. Conservative groups are also aware of these changes in the body politic. I believe the rebirth of One Nation is a direct result of people’s concerns (rightly or wrongly) about the single issue of Islam in Australia, rather than any broad support for its wider platform.

The rise of GetUp!

Of course, some organisations have already recognized that such changes are happening and are seeking to make use of this new form of engagement. GetUp! Is the most obvious example. It seems to have captured what it means to be an issue-based organisation.

GetUp! has more than a million people on their mailing list, which is a significant figure in a small country like Australia. Interestingly, despite its apparent appeal to a younger demographic, large numbers of GetUp! are from the over 50s demographic, a period of life that is often characterized by increased involvement in social issues. GetUp! has campaigned about a range of issues, including things like the environment, successfully leveraging the support for specific issues (like opposition to the Adani coal mine) to change public opinion and challenge decisions in court. It is feasible that GetUp! has had a direct effect on the outcomes of elections. Obviously Cory Bernardi believes so as he has suggested starting a conservative movement to challenge it.

Where is all of this going?

What does this mean for the future of politics in Australia? That’s a difficult question to answer. The most obvious development, I think, will be the ongoing growth of single-issue groups and third parties that directly campaign about particular matters.

It would be easy to classify this as populist politics, but I think that would be a mistake. Rather, I see it as the voting public recognizing that they are capable of making changes about certain issues through the expression of their collective will, rather than relying on elected representatives to make those decisions.

The other change that I believe we will see is a change in the way organisations like political parties, charities, unions and not-for-profits engage with the public. I think there will be less emphasis placed on an ongoing relationship, and more emphasis upon the idea of one-off events, like protest marches, for example.

It is, of course, early days for this newly empowered citizen body. What the federal election has shown us is that people are capable of mobilizing and acting in what they perceive to be the best interests of their communities, and that some organisations are already finding ways to leverage this activism.

It is the young people of Australia who seem to be leading the way in this new kind of civic engagement. They are exploring new ways to interact with each other and with wider communities, and by doing so, changing the political landscape for all of us.


Heggart-copyKeith Heggart is a Ph D student at the University of Technology, Sydney. He has previously been a teacher and school leader in Australia and the UK. He is also an organiser for the Independent Education Union. Keith works as a casual academic at Western Sydney University and the University of Sydney

Special Religious Education, Ethics, sex education, drug education; does any of it make a difference?

The topic of whether religion should be taught in public schools has been an ongoing cause of rancour since the late 19th century when the first classes were held. In recent years it has become a clearly defined battleground for opposing religious and secular interests.

In this blog post I want to have a closer look at how this battle has panned out in New South Wales and Victoria, our two most populous Australian states, and the implications this has, more widely, for how we deal with vested interests in schooling in Australia.

The New South Wales pathway

New South Wales public education has allowed religious education since the late 1800’s. About a century later the state included the provision of Special Religious Education (SRE) in the Education Act (1990) which explained thatIn every government school, time is to be allowed for the religious education of children of any religious persuasion.

Children whose parents did not identify a religion were effectively marooned by this provision. While the SRE classes took place these children were not allowed to undertake meaningful learning activities. Instead they were told to do their homework, read a book or play board games.

A direct backlash to the way non-religious students were not allowed to undertake learning activities was The Education Amendment (Ethics Classes Repeal) Bill in 2011. This gave parents the option of having their child attend Special Education in Ethics (SEE) classes instead.

The act goes into detail: it states that there should be between 30 minutes and 1 hour of class time provided for either SRE or SEE each week, and parents should receive information about the classes, who will deliver it, and how it will be organised.

The ethics classes emphasise the idea of a Socratic dialogue. Students are encouraged to enter into a community of inquiry and discussion. According to Primary Ethics (who devise the curriculum):

Most of the topics in the curriculum provide students with the opportunity to develop increasingly sophisticated knowledge and skills in moral reasoning. Children in the younger primary years examine topics such as being left out, sharing and bullying, while older children reflect on issues such as homelessness and child labour to help them consider the feelings and interests of others – one important aspect of moral reasoning.

The ethics classes have been very popular. In 2013, 8,500 students attended ethics classes in New South Wales. By 2014, more than 20, 000 students were enrolled. Alyssa Kelly, the manager of Primary Ethics (who provide the curriculum) said, ‘What we aim to do is provide children who are sitting in non-scripture with something productive to do with their time.’

Not surprisingly, faith-based groups who have traditionally taught the SRE classes have strongly opposed the new SEE classes. In fact, there have been accusations that NSW Premier Mike Baird has recently done a deal with Christian Democratic Party leader, Fred Nile, to have the SEE class option removed from the NSW Public School Enrolment form.

This appears to be true – a cursory examination of the enrolment form shows that there is a box for parents to write their child’s religion in, which will mean that child will be automatically enrolled into the appropriate SRE class if available. However, if a parent wants to enrol their child into SEE, then the parent is required to contact the school for further information. This is a change to an older version of the form, which had a box available for parents to tick to indicate that they wanted their child to attend SEE classes.

The Victorian pathway

In contrast, Victoria has recently taken the unprecedented move of scrapping all Special Religious Instruction (SRI) classes from instructional time in state schools starting in 2016, stating that extra curricular activities such as SRI should not take place during instructional time. This means that SRI is still available in Victorian public schools, but only during lunch times or before or after school. The time previously devoted to SRI will now be focused on world histories, cultures and ethics.

Again, this move has outraged proponents of SRI, who feel that the Andrews government has broken a pre-election promise to support SRI in Victorian public schools. This comes after the state government changed the way parents enrol in SRI classes: whereas previously it was opt-out, it is now opt-in to SRI classes, which as seen enrolments plunge 42% over two years.

Public schools as the battleground for vested interests

I see the Religious Education and Ethics battles as examples of the way vested interests seek to use the public school system to further their own ends. Public school teachers and students are caught up in these particular power struggles.

It’s not just about religion and ethics. In the last couple of years, students and teachers around Australia have been asked to address a whole host of different issues that are add-ons to the main curriculum – from identifying potential terrorists, to educating about domestic violence, to addressing drug and alcohol issues. There are many other examples of schools being required to address social issues. It is a process that is known as educationalisation.

Some of these proposals are accepted with a minimum of conflict, while others, like Ethics and Religious Education as discussed above are far more controversial and have led to specific legislation being imposed on public schooling.

What is missing is evidence that these programs are effective

What has been largely absent from such discussions are the efficacy of these kinds of programs; that is, does teaching students about the dangers of drugs and alcohol make them less likely to abuse these substances? In terms of the discussion above, what effect does the teaching of either ethics or religion have upon students, the school or the wider community, and how might such effect be measured? For example, does teaching students about ethics make them more likely to be ethical? Does teaching religion encourage students to be more caring and less immoral or ‘sinful’? Is there any effect upon the behaviours of adults? Do these classes lead to lower crime rates or more harmonious societies?

Fortunately, there has been research into the effects of educationalisation as a whole. This research suggests that there is little effect from such programs, and, indeed, they might even be counter-productive. Stanford University professor, David Labaree, has written about this issue in the American context. For him, the conclusion is clear:

Yet education has been remarkably unsuccessful at carrying out these missions. It has done very little to promote equality of race, class, and gender; to enhance public health, economic productivity, and good citizenship; or to reduce teenage sex, traffic deaths, obesity, and environmental destruction. In fact, in many ways it has had a negative effect on these problems by draining money and energy away from social reforms that might have had a more substantial impact.

 Labaree goes on to explain why these programs are failures. In short, he argues that they fail because we put these ideas into the education system to be seen to be taking action rather than actually addressing the social ills:

We assign formal responsibility to education for solving our most pressing social problems in light of our highest social ideals, with the tacit understanding that by educationalizing these problem-solving efforts we are seeking a solution that is more formal than substantive. We are saying that we are willing to accept what education can produce — new programs, new curricula, new institutions, new degrees, new educational opportunities — in place of solutions that might make real changes in the ways in which we distribute social power, wealth, and honor.

In other words, we are seeking the appearance of a solution to these problems rather than an actual solution. In this way, we make education a ‘whipping boy’ that is often blamed for the failures of society.

Labaree doesn’t specifically mention ethics or religious instruction but I imagine that he would be as equally contemptuous of their role in schools. Surely, then, it is time to not just question whether religious instruction or ethics classes have a role in schools, but what that role might actually be – and how well these classes are fulfilling that role.

For example, if there is an argument to be made that religious classes help children,  through the lens of faith deal with major issues ‘including self-esteem, loss, caring for the environment, and coping with change’ (Whysre, 2016) then it would be appropriate to ask how effectively the classes do this. If, as Labaree suggests, they are not effective, then it is important to question whether such classes still have a role in public schooling.

The same argument can be made about ethics classes although their relatively recent arrival does make it harder to argue that they have addressed any social ills. Ethics Classes claims that children will be taught “to consider other people’s points of view and to be sincere, reasonable and respectful in dealing with their differences and disagreements” (Primary Ethics: Our Curriculum, 2016). As taxpayers, we have a right to question if these lessons are successful – and if there are no obvious results, then it is equally within our remit to question if they are of any benefit to public school children.

Perhaps, we are now in a position where studying the effects of religious and ethics instruction in schools might be possible, at least when comparing students from New South Wales and Victoria. As outlined above, the changes that are taking place in both public education systems might well provide us with some evidence in the future.

At the very least, this could be a starting point for a wider debate about educationalisation in Australian public schooling.


Heggart-copyKeith Heggart is a Ph D student at the University of Technology, Sydney. He has previously been a teacher and school leader in Australia and the UK. He is also an organiser for the Independent Education Union. Keith works as a casual academic at Western Sydney University and the University of Technology, Sydney.


A report card on Christopher Pyne’s performance as Education Minister

Christopher Pyne leaves the position of Minister for Education and Training and becomes Minister for Industry Innovation and Science in the new Turnbull Government. Keith Heggart gives Pyne a school style report on his efforts as the nation’s Education Minister.


Name: Christopher Pyne

Class: Education Minister of Australia (2013-2015)


Subject: Cooperation with stakeholders

Grade: F

Positive feedback is impossible to give in this subject area, much as I’d like to say he tried hard if nothing else. As I see it Christopher’s efforts have been more directed towards dismantling relationships with stakeholders, rather than building them.

Whether we are talking about primary, secondary or tertiary education, Christopher engaged in an ideological struggle against stakeholders that will have detrimental effects upon the education of students for years to come.

An example Christopher’s work in this subject is his dealings with the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL).

Education in Australia is currently undergoing significant change, with the introduction of the Australian Curriculum and the move towards a new model of Professional Standards for Teachers ( neither of these being Christopher’s innovations). AITSL has a significant role to play in these changes. In the past, AITSL has adopted a co-operative and collaborative model, working with teachers, policy experts and other stakeholders in the field. Everybody had a chance to have a seat at the table.

However, recently, Christopher made the unilateral decision to completely restructure the board of AITSL. He excluded some stakeholders entirely, and made the Institute a political animal rather than an evidence based policy one. This decision was apparently made without consultation or advice with any of the organisations and institutions involved. It is a clear demonstration of the ideological agenda Christopher pursued at the expense of education in Australia.

Teachers, the profession most affected by any decisions made by AITSL, had their representative bodies removed from the board, and thus no longer have a voice in decisions that will directly affect their lives and careers. Both the Australian Education Union (AEU) and the Independent Education Union (IEU), who represent more than 250 000 Australian teachers, have now confirmed that they will have nothing further to do with AITSL until this decision is changed.

Perhaps this is a first and urgent job for new minister Simon Birmingham.

The role of an education minister is to improve educational standards across Australia; the best way to do this is through collaboration and cooperation. Due to failure to do this, and his destructive and counter-productive actions, I feel I have no choice but to fail Christopher for this part of his role.


Subject: Higher Education Reform

Grade: E

One of Christopher’s flagship reforms as Education Minister was his plan to uncap university fees. He was seeking to allow universities, specifically the elite sandstone institutions, to charge what they wanted for their degrees (which according to various reports, could have seen some degrees double or even triple to costs approaching $100 000).

Thankfully, the fractured nature of the Senate meant that Christopher had to negotiate with some of the crossbench senators if his legislation was ever going to reach the Australian people. Christopher proved himself spectacularly inept at doing this (hark back to his inability to achieve co-operation with stakeholders).

Despite promises and desperate text messages before the voting (and also the holding to ransom of 1700 researchers and their jobs), Christopher failed, not once, but twice, to get the vote through the upper house.

As I see it the reason is simple: Christopher did not engage the public in this matter. He did not convince us deregulation was vital or in the nation’s best interest. Even Senator Glenn Lazarus, a political unknown in many ways, was straightforward in his criticism: Lazarus said he could not find a single reason to support the bill.

Regardless of whether you support the idea of fee deregulation or not (and you shouldn’t, it’s a ridiculous idea), Christopher’s role in this parliament was to get the legislation through, and in this he has proved himself to be out of touch with the other members of the parliament, and lacking the communication skills necessary to establish a vision. In this case, Christopher is certainly no ‘fixer’.


Subject: Student needs and school funding

Grade: E

Australian schooling is facing many challenges and undergoing significant changes at the moment: for example, primary and high schools are wrestling with the adoption of the Australian Curriculum and the increased emphasis being placed on high stakes testing (neither are Christopher’s fault, though he has since fiddled with the curriculum, again in an ideological way, we’ll get to that soon).

Into this environment (before Christopher) the Gonski Report was introduced in 2011. It sought to establish student need as the fundamental principal for the amount of funding a school should receive from the government and in doing so it sought to restructure the labyrinthine complexities of the current school funding model. Recommendations from the Gonski report were to be implemented over six years under the previous Labor government, with most of the money coming in the final two years.

During the election, the Coalition repeatedly promised that there would be no cuts to education, and even claimed a ‘unity ticket’ with Labor on school funding.

However, after the election, by November 2013, Christopher had already backpedalled  from this promise as he slashed spending from the education budget. This was bad enough, but it was only the beginning: more strange reforms and thought bubbles were on their way.

One of the ideas raised by Christopher included the suggestion that wealthy parents could contribute a fee to send their children to local public schools. This grew out of the idea that the federal government should become the dominant funder of all schools and systems, a radical change to the education system that has more to do with economic efficiency than investing in the future of Australia and its education system.

Australia has had free public education for decades; charging parents $1000 or more, as was rumoured to be the case, would effectively destroy that principle. The reality is, once again, Christopher was demonstrating his lack of understanding about the educational domain, and rather than treating it as an important civil good, he seemed to see it as a business to be squeezed in order to extract every last drop of financial advantage. Such an approach might be good for a Fortune 500 company, but not for school education.


Subject: Knowledge of Pedagogy and Curriculum

Grade: E

Perhaps the most controversial of all of Christopher’s reforms was his decision to undertake a review of the Australian Curriculum, announced in 2014. Before examining the nature and purpose of the review, it is worth considering the timing: the Australian Curriculum had not even been fully implemented in all schools and states at that time; why on earth would you undertake a review into something that was still being implemented?

Of course, the reasons for the review were not about evidence based research policy, how could they be? Instead, they betrayed Christopher’s ideological bias. This is particularly obvious in his choice of reviewers. Never mind the fact that the curriculum is already overseen by an independent body and on that body sit the representatives of every state and territory education minister, and never mind the fact that they had already approved the curriculum for adoption in Australian schools. Instead, Christopher risked restarting the ‘culture wars’ by appointing arch-conservative Kevin Donnelly to conduct the review, a man with very close connections to the Liberal party and a conviction that the current curriculum (with its cross curriculum priorities of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, Sustainability and Asia and Australia’s Engagement with Asia) was some kind of Marxist conspiracy.

Not surprisingly, Donnelly and Ken Wiltshire (the other reviewer) made a number of recommendations, including emphasizing the role of Western civilization and placing more emphasis on ‘morals, values and spirituality’, effectively sending Australian education back to the early 20th century. The emphasis on a ‘back-to-basics’ approach’ was at the expense of a wider range of instructional pedagogies that would meet the needs of all students. It certainly did not acknowledge the changing nature of learning and teaching in Australian schools in the 21st Century.

Christopher, once again, made decisions based upon his own ideologies rather than consulting with a wide range of education experts currently working in the field, and considering their advice.



Despite Christopher’s apparent potential, his time as education minister has been a disappointment, especially for many educators who have worked with him. Much as he might benefit personally, I advise, most strongly, that he should not repeat this class.


Here is Christopher Pyne’s self report  on his performance as Education Minister


Heggart copy


Keith Heggart is a Ph D student at the University of Technology, Sydney. He has previously been a teacher and school leader in Australia and the UK. He is also an organiser for the Independent Education Union. Keith works as a casual academic at Western Sydney University and the University of Technology, Sydney.



‘Growth mindset’ is not just for school students, teachers can grow their minds too

Most educators would be aware of the term ‘growth mindset’ by now. The idea is you can work on being smarter. Whatever abilities and talents you have are just a starting point, if you work hard, make mistakes and keep trying, you can achieve. Teachers are using it to encourage and motivate children in their classrooms.

But there is another application for this idea; it can be used as an underlying ethos for the professional learning of teachers.

The term ‘growth mindset’ has developed from  work of Professor Carol Dweck. Her research is psychological in nature. She is particularly interested in the areas of motivation and development.

As Dweck put it during an interview in 2012 :-

In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.

This has significant implications for teachers and parents, especially in the nature of the feedback teachers might use when interacting with students. Rather than complimenting students on their achievements (which would develop a fixed mindset), teachers should instead encourage them to develop a growth mindset by focusing on the struggle and the commitment needed, hence recognizing the effort required, rather than the end result.

But what might this mean for teachers’ own learning?

I believe in the current environment where ‘quality teaching’ and ‘quality teachers’ are catch cries, school leaders can use Dweck’s research to provide a space where all teachers can continue to develop and improve throughout their career in a meaningful way.

It could be incredibly powerful for a school to become a complete learning institution, where everybody is constantly learning, with teachers continually reflecting on their own practice and honing their skills.

This would mean some changes to the way most professional learning models are structured. For example, one of the crucial aspects in developing a growth mindset is acknowledging that mistakes are an essential part of the learning process.

If a school were to encourage teachers to adopt a growth mindset to their professional development, then the school would need to acknowledge that teachers will make mistakes in their teaching; that is, they might try teaching methods that are not as successful as they might have hoped. This is a significant change for teachers and schools; in many schools teachers are expected to adopt specific models of teaching to the exclusion of all others.

Also schools would need to provide teachers with the opportunity to reflect on their teaching in a much more structured way than currently occurs. Often teachers are time-poor, rushing from assessment to planning to extra-curricular event, but part of developing a growth mindset requires taking time to reflect on previous experience and new ideas, and decide on the next step in improving practice. This has to be a specifically allocated time, otherwise it will end up being swallowed by the usual day-to-day teacher commitments.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, school leaders need to adopt a growth mindset themselves if they expect their teachers to do so. This means school leaders should speak honestly about their mistakes, reflect on past endeavours and identify the way forward. This needs to be a transparent process so teachers can see the growth mindset in action.

I have to point out developing a growth mindset is neither immediate nor straightforward. Rather, it is closely linked to the development of other habits of mind like resilience and motivation. It requires a concerted effort on behalf of a whole school community to develop it amongst students. The same level of effort would be needed to develop it among teaching staff.

I suggest the benefits would be great for any school where staff put in such an effort. After all, what more powerful example could teachers set for students than that of being a constant learner?


Heggart copy


Keith Heggart is a Ph D student at the University of Technology, Sydney. He has previously been a teacher and school leader in Australia and the UK.