There are very few days of the week where I don’t receive urgent emails or phone calls from school principals pleading for graduates or current pre-service teachers who can fill vacant positions in their school. Those desperate communications reflect the harsh reality that many school leaders and teacher educators face daily in the struggle to minimise the impact of the current teacher workforce shortages in Australia.
This is the backdrop against which the recently published Teacher Education Expert Panel Discussion Paper is set as teacher educators, school leaders, government departments, regulatory authorities and policy makers seek to engage with what has been proposed in the document. The discussion paper reflects the work of the expert panel (led by Mark Scott, pictured) in responding to Priority Area 2 of the Education Ministers’ National Teacher Workforce Action Plan which was released in December 2022.
The teacher shortage backdrop is a stark reminder that many factors contribute to graduate teachers’ early career experiences in schools, as they seek to move from graduate teacher to proficient. Issues already highlighted in the National Workforce Action Plan, such as unsustainable workloads, perceived status of the profession, prevalence of short-term employment contracts (perhaps now less of an issue), increasing complexity of student behaviours, and many others factors that influence a graduate teacher’s decision to stay or leave the profession, independent of the quality of their initial teacher education. It must be recognised that conditions in our schools are also the conditions in which our pre-service teachers are learning as an essential part of the professional experience dimensions of initial teacher education. My point is that we cannot separate the conditions in which teachers practise their profession from the activity of initial teacher education, because they combine to mediate the ‘quality’ of a pre-service teacher’s collective experience of initial teacher education. Starting from this point, it is helpful to work through some of the key considerations proposed in the discussion paper.
The proposed core content outlined in the discussion paper addresses the four areas of: (i) the brain and learning; (ii) effective pedagogical practices; (iii) classroom management; and (iv) enabling factors for learning.
It is not clear if the panel had undertaken a thorough review of what is currently included in a range of ITE programs addressing knowledge of how the brain learns, but it is likely that many programs do address this very topic already as part of achieving graduate standards 1.1 and 1.2. However, I would concede that in the absence of any such curriculum-wide review, there is no guaranteed national consistency on whether this important aspect of teacher education is included in all accredited programs. But in considering the need for the brain to be included as core content in all ITE curriculum programs, it is equally important to remember those other aspects of standard 1.1 and 1.2 which remind us that ‘brains’ don’t learn in isolation in classrooms, and that the life circumstances of young people influence their learning opportunities. In considering the possibility of core content related to cognitive science, it is important not to dichotomise such content with understandings about the sociology of teaching and learning. Perhaps the answer may be to develop a more accurate description of standards 1.1 and 1.2 to reflect the importance of cognitive science in the preparation of teachers, but not at the expense of the sociological and physical dimensions.
The panel’s considerations related to effective pedagogical practice and classroom management as core are also likely to be identifying areas already addressed in initial teacher education programs against multiple graduate standards.
Having been a reviewer of many ITE programs myself, I have seen a relatively high degree of consistency in relation to what is being taught, practised, and assessed regarding effective pedagogical practice and classroom management.
Having been a reviewer of many ITE programs myself, I have seen a relatively high degree of consistency in relation to what is being taught, practised, and assessed regarding effective pedagogical practice and classroom management.Damian Blake
Although my personal experiences of reviewing ITE programs does not constitute a systematic consideration of what all programs address on these important topics, I do return to my earlier observation that what students learn about effective pedagogical practice and classroom management in any ITE program is equally dependent on what is learned during their professional experience placements. I would suggest the panel’s reform area 3 addressing the quality of professional experience is actually threshold to any considerations for core curriculum related to effective pedagogy and classroom management.
The final element of core included in the discussion paper addresses developing teachers’ understandings of enabling factors for learning, including those related to First Nation’s Peoples, cultural responsiveness, family engagement and diverse learning needs. I would agree that there is much work to be done in all of these areas, but perhaps a more genuine starting point would be a respectful and systematic approach to decolonising initial teacher education in Australia. That means coming to terms with the unintended consequences of previous ITE reforms that may have adversely impacted access to initial teacher education for our First Nation’s Peoples in particular.
The panel proposes to link funding to performance measures in categories related to: (i) selection of diverse and high quality candidates; (ii) retention; (iii) classroom readiness; and (iv) employment outcomes.
This section of the discussion paper will draw much attention from university leaders, as it is likely to impact individual providers’ ongoing commitment to deliver initial teacher in their institution. The proposed categories have some alignment with elements of Stage 2 accreditation, and many providers already seek to achieve continuous improvement in relation to these elements. However, I am not aware of any evidence that would support publicising a table of comparative performance as the most productive way forward for achieving continuous improvement. In contrast, it may risk providers adopting a gamified approach to funding and completely distract from the genuinely important elements of increasing diversity in the teaching workforce.
I would also note that some of the challenges already faced in relation to these measures are genuinely outside the control of ITE providers. As noted earlier, the perceived classroom readiness of graduates and their likelihood of continuing employment in the early career years is linked to the conditions in which they are working. And despite many of the selection measures already being adopted under previous ITE reforms to strengthen the ‘quality’ of ITE entrants, their experiences of the reality of classroom life in all its glory does impact their commitment to completing a program and becoming a teacher.
Rather than funding linked to these performance measures, it would be more productive to have a serious funding discussion focussed on enabling high quality and scalable professional experience arrangements that serve as threshold dimensions in the provision of quality initial teacher education. I think this third element of the discussion paper does provide a real opportunity to improve one of the most important, threshold aspects of initial teacher education which, unfortunately, is also one over which ITE providers have minimal influence. It has been highlighted for its importance in most previous reviews and I would suggest it should be leading the charge in any genuine attempt to further improve the quality of initial teacher education.
Professor Damian Blake is the Head of School for Deakin University’s School of Education, after 15 years as associate dean, teaching and learning.