Teacher Education Expert Panel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jason Lodge

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

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

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

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

Good question: Did the teaching panel even look at what’s available now?

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.