Susan Ledger

Why the future of professional experience is now in peril

Performance funding for initial teacher education, mandating core curriculum and improving the quality of Professional Experience are issues raised in the new TEEP report that require our urgent attention. 

Equally, concerns stemming from teacher workforce shortages, the changing nature of teachers’ work, and the increasing diversity and complexity of students highlight new and additional pressures on employers and initial teacher education providers to prepare the future workforce. 

But let us draw your attention to the language change within the report from “professional experience” to “practical experience”.  This might seem a subtle and slight shift in terminology, there are ramifications for how this positions pre-service teachers, supervising teachers, teacher educators and the profession more broadly. 

This is because this change in language is intentional and is emblematic of the policy shift influencing the work of initial teacher education providers. Practical Experience is an outdated term phased out in the 1990s as it was heavily critiqued for being overly technical and simplistic (LeCornu, 2016). Practical Experience was the terminology used when the field was under-theorised, under-resourced and under-valued. Through a strong research agenda, many academics have worked to define and advocate for the use of the term “professional” as it bridges the theory/practice divide and captures the complexity of the field. 

As leading academics on a national steering committee for Australian Professional Experience (NADPE), we are at the intersection of practice. 

We work in the space where initial teacher education, early childhood education, teaching and school leadership overlap.  Our roles provide us with unique perspectives about teaching and education. Because of this, we are concerned about this language change and what it represents. 

What happens when you take the profession out of Professional Experience? 

We are accustomed to being featured in the many reviews and reports on initial teacher education. Historically, Professional Experience has been positioned as everything from problematic and under-theorised excursions into classrooms, the saviour where pre-service teachers engage in the real work of teaching, or the solution to the theory/practice divide. 

But this report feels different. It positions Professional Experience as a weapon to introduce the core content into schools and is symbolic of the deprofessionaliation policy shift in teacher education.   

Teaching is a profession. It requires a high degree of specialised knowledge, continuous updating through professional learning, and is subject to regulation and registration that mandate standards and ethical behaviour.  

The Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) was established to provide a national framework for strengthening capacity at all career stages within the teaching profession.  The Australian Professional Standards for Teachers were developed by AITSL to raise and recognise teaching as a profession and to map this professional knowledge, practice and engagement across career phases.  The Standards contribute to the status of Australia’s education system as complex, sophisticated and regulated and ensure that it meets the current and future needs of all learners, from birth and within and across life stages.  We see removing the profession from Professional Experience as a backward step in maintaining a high-quality education system as it fails to acknowledge the level of expertise and specialised practice of teacher educators and does not account for the theorising of practice that occurs within Professional Experience and what it contributes to teaching practice across career phases.  

Professional Experience is a well-established term in the literature and within the lexicon of school leaders, teachers and AITSL.  The Institute has developed a range of resources and commissioned valuable work to support initial teacher education providers to deliver high-quality Professional Experience programs through its collaboration with industry and across Australia’s diverse contexts. 

At the core of this approach is educational research and theory that drives contemporary, evidence-based practice.  Over the past decade, Australian teacher educators and educational researchers have contributed to world-standard research into the circumstances and conditions of high-quality Professional Experience within initial teacher education.  This literature and practice have shown to be of significant value to the development of graduates and to the schools and systems that partner with universities around this work.  

Teaching practitioners have a fundamental role to play in preparing future teachers.  Their work in collaboration with teacher educators provides the necessary relationship between the knowledge that underpins contemporary, evidence-based practice and the skills, knowledge and perspectives necessary for effective application.  

The interdependence of these components is inherent in quality initial teacher education around the globe.  

Reducing the role of teacher educators to practitioners does not value the breadth of their roles within this sophisticated interdependence nor the expertise they bring to it.  By replacing “profession” with “practical” in Professional Experience, we risk minimising the moral and ethical decision-making, engagement with social justice concerns, identity work and sense of self-efficacy inherent within these influential components of initial teacher education programs. There is a risk that we return to an approach where there was a greater disconnection between schools and universities, limited resources for research and innovation in the field, and undermined the credibility of those who work in Professional Experience.

We agree with the report that highlights experience in schools as supporting pre-service teachers to develop their skills and expertise in the classroom and agree that it is and should remain a priority area. 

Indeed, the focus, discussion about and support for Professional Experience is long overdue. We applaud proposed investments in mentoring to support school-based teacher educators to continue the important work they do at a difficult time within the sector.  However, de-professionalising the field will not lead to improved outcomes.  It flags an intention to shift this work (and the knowledge that drives it) away from highly experienced teacher educators and educational researchers and into the realm of practitioners. This is problematic as effective Initial teacher education requires contributions from both teacher educators and practitioners. We therefore call for the preservation of the term “Professional Experience” to ensure the legacy of research and advocacy associated with this term is maintained to ensure that the expertise and theoretical underpinnings of Professional Experience are recognised.

From left to right: Jennifer Clifton is an Associate Professor at QUT, President-elect of the Australian Teacher Education Association (ATEA) and the Queensland representative for NADPE. Susan Ledger is Head of School – Dean of Education at University of Newcastle and chair of the NADPE Steering Group. Chad Morrison is Associate Dean: Equity, Diversity & Inclusion in the School of Education at Murdoch University and deputy chair of the NADPE Steering Group. Brendan Bentley is a senior lecturer in the School of Education at Adelaide University and the deputy chair of the NADPE Steering Group.

Header image found at Classroom Observation Specifics to Create Positive Growth

How to support our proud and essential profession

Each day this week, EduResearch Matters will publish the views of educational leaders on the state of education in Australia on the eve of the federal election. Today: Susan Ledger, Dean of Education, University of Newcastle

Education has been noticeably absent in this election agenda. What should policy makers in the next government do to support and respect students, teachers, leaders and educational researchers? Reform efforts must recognise the complexity, diversity and interrelatedness of all parts of the education system – students and families, early childhood, primary, secondary, vocational, higher education, and initial teacher education.

Teacher education would benefit from seven key actions. 

First, we must strengthen trust, understanding and support for the whole of profession – preservice, in-service and training. A combined approach within the profession will develop, induct and support great teachers who will inspire their students to learn (see Quality Teaching Model and  NSW Great Teaching Inspired Learning)

Second, we need to replace career bureaucrats with teachers and teacher educators in key policy-making positions in the same way other professions are represented.

Third, we must recognise and adapt for diversity. Much can be learnt from our Australian Teacher Workforce Data information. It highlights the need for more culturally and linguistically diverse teachers to align with the changing student population.

Fourth, teacher education would benefit from prioritising the three dimensions of the Australian Curriculum, the general capabilities and cross curriculum priorities rather than subject only. With the UN Sustainable Development Goals used as a backdrop.

Fifth, we need to prioritise ‘intelligent’ conceptualisations of what constitutes good evidence of teaching work (Mockler & Stacey, 2021). Collaborative research endeavours that draw from multiple perspectives, not singular silver bullet approaches would benefit all. Involving teachers as researchers in Research Invested Schools is helping to re-professionalise teaching and reinvigorate teachers as experts (Twining, 2022).

Sixth, we must focus on the learning journey of a student and strengthen links across the education lifecycle from early childhood to primary, secondary, vocational and higher education. We know, for example, that the return on investment in early childhood education exceeds all other phases, yet early childhood teachers and childhood workers earn significantly less than other educators.

Finally, the profession would benefit enormously by prioritising and actioning the recent Quality Initial Teacher Education Review recommendations, particularly:

·       Recommendation #1: Raise the status of Teaching

·       Recommendation #3: Reduce Teacher’s workloads

·       Recommendation #9: Support families and carers to engage with teachers

·       Recommendation #14: Establish a Centre for Excellence to teach, research and evaluate best teaching practice.

More than $550Million was spent on policy reform between 2009-2013 driven by the National Partnership Agreement on Improving Teacher Quality Program (NTPQ). Emphasising quality, standards, accountability and evidence-based practices,this reform transformed the education sector and led to the creation of:

·       The Teaching Ministerial Advisory Group (TEMAG);

·       Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL), the National Teacher Professional Standards and National Principal Standard, national accreditation for initial teacher education, nationally consistent registration for all teachers, and certification of highly accomplished and lead teachers;

·       a national curriculum, introduced through the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA);

·       Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority (ACECQA) and National Quality Standard.

·       And adjustments to the Australian Quality Framework for Higher Education (AQF).

Teachers, schools and ITE providers responded to the calls for change and accommodated and adjusted their practices. 

A decade later we are witnessing intended and unintended outcomes of this national policy reform. It has been successful in achieving its intended outcome – to develop a national standardised approach to our schooling system. Yet, we are also witnessing the unintended outcomes of the policy reform on our schooling sector.

Enactment of the NPTQ has resulted in uneven and potentially inequitable outcomes, resourcing, privileging and market-like rationalities. Media and politicians lament stagnating student results against benchmarks like NAPLAN and PISA. Teacher and teaching quality is under continual scrutiny. Teachers are leaving the profession in large numbers and it is increasingly more difficult to attract teachers into the workforce. Teacher shortages are already impacting students. Ideological debates between pedagogical choices in literacy, numeracy and teaching methods have arisen and promote competition over collaboration in teaching, learning and research forums. Burdened by unrealistic and often relentless administration many teachers, leaders and initial teacher education providers have been reduced to compliant technicians rather than inspiring practitioners. The workforce is undervalued and overburdened which has reduced the agency, confidence, and even the passion of the profession. 

A focus on quality and accountability is positive and encouraged, but not when it is narrowly focused and comes at the expense of the teachers, students and families within our education ecosystem. Our measures of quality and accountability that judge the health of our sector must include individual and collective wellbeing, evidence of passion for teaching and learning, and confidence in emerging pedagogically informed technologies.

From my 30 years of teaching in rural, remote and metropolitan hard to staff schools, both in Australia and overseas, coupled with my more recent experience preparing teachers for schools’ changing population, environmental impacts and pandemics, I believe we must focus on the development of the whole child, teacher, leader and system, not simply component parts.

Professor Susan Ledger is Head of School and Dean of Education at University of Newcastle and in that role is responsible for transforming teacher education, advocating for the profession and developing partnerships between schools, universities and educational sectors