University of Southern Queensland (USQ)

Toil and trouble: why time-poor teachers choose these texts today

When Queensland introduced a prescribed text list in 2019, teachers had a smorgasbord of choice, but they went with the bread and butter options.

New data from the Queensland Curriculum And Assessment Authority about the texts shows English teachers play it safe when it comes to the texts they teach in Units 3 and 4 (Year 12). 

A major system overhaul in 2019 increased external quality assurance measures; introduced externally designed, unseen examinations; and a placed a limitation of text choice for teachers. 

But this sort of syllabus reform reduces teachers’ sense of self-efficacy and agency as well as increasing the stakes for each assessment. That has a trickle down impact on younger year levels. 

Research at the time revealed a great deal of anxiety among teachers. While this was an opportunity to reinvigorate their practice, a lack of time given to support the transition seems to have stymied this reinvigoration; teachers’ text selection choices are shaped by a range of pressures, and so the canon is the surefire solution. 

Schools are given a choice of eight texts for the External Assessment. Of the 508 Queensland schools offering the General English syllabus, 347 of them (68%) select Macbeth, and the next nearest text, with 68 schools, is another Shakespearean work, Hamlet, meaning over 80% of schools select a Shakespearean play. The three Australian authors on the list for the External Examination (Hannah Kent, Andrew McGahan and Tara June Winch) are studied by less than 50 schools collectively (9%). 

The big numbers for the three internal assessments are also strongly canonical: The Great Gatsby dominates the list of novels, with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, George Orwell’s 1984 and Tim Winton’s The Turning the only other text to have greater than 50 schools using them. The list of poets is the most balanced, but still leans canonical, with Dawe, Duffy, Frost, Plath and Owen topping 100 schools each. 

The QCAA advice regarding text selection requires:

There must be a range and balance in the texts … Courses should include texts from different times, places and cultures, including texts that aim to develop in all students an awareness of, interest in, and respect for the literary traditions and expressions of other nations in the Asia–Pacific region. Australian texts, including texts by Aboriginal writers and/or Torres Strait Islander writers, must be included across the course of study and within each unit pair of the course. At least one of the Australian texts studied over the four units of the course must be by an Aboriginal writer or Torres Strait Islander writer. Schools may include texts translated from other languages.

Yet the data clearly suggests that while text selections may meet the technical requirements of the syllabus, they do not take up the spirit of inclusion and diversity suggested by the QCAA. This disconnect between aims and reality is well established, as Shakespeare, mid-20th century dystopia and well-known poetry are safe-havens, which don’t require the development of new resources, or the teaching of contentious issues in a fraught political climate. 

It is important to note that the data about text selection focuses on Units 3 and 4, but it is Unit 2 that has a unit focus on Australian texts, so this is where it is most likely to encounter Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander- authored works. While schools are not bound by the prescribed list in Units 1 and 2 (Year 11), a number of forces work to push teachers towards ‘sticking to the list’. Queensland has a textbook hire scheme, in which schools provide textbooks to students at a substantial discount. These texts are returned and reused the following year, which means that schools cannot change the set texts regularly, and that class sets of texts become a resource that can be swapped between year levels or between schools, perpetuating the original text choice. These systemic forces are not unique, and while they vary from state to state, they have the same effect of narrowing text choices. 

The other key and most pressing impetus for text selection is resourcing: if teachers choose a text no one else is doing, they have to start from scratch in terms of developing the teaching materials. Online teacher forums and Facebook groups are filled with requests for resources and teaching ideas, as time poor teachers look to work as efficiently as they can. The other advantage of homogenous text selection is safety in numbers. In preparing students for an unseen examination, having a resource-rich professional community teaching the same text offers teachers security that they are preparing their students well. 

As Head of English and Languages at The Glennie School in Toowoomba, Emily Scott, explains, text choice is in part constrained by a school’s existing resources. Complying with the syllabus requirements across the 4 units  is akin to “a jigsaw puzzle. Building upon students’ prior knowledge, development of skills, and varying genre types are key factors to consider when selecting texts”. Further, Scott suggests teachers also have to consider “school culture, and the interests and needs of your students when choosing texts from the prescribed text list. What may work for one school may not necessarily be best placed in another context”. 

This focus on supporting learners in their contexts is reiterated by Cate Park-Ballay, Head of Faculty- English at St Hilda’s School on the Gold Coast:

we find ourselves in an educational landscape where we are no longer perceived as the ‘sage on the stage.’ Instead, we actively promote an environment that empowers student agency. Our goal is to extend learning beyond the traditional classroom boundaries, selecting texts that not only facilitate independent student exploration but also provide easy access to excellent resources shared by knowledgeable colleagues worldwide.

Both of these reflections from experienced curriculum leaders highlight the many competing pressures and priorities at play in designing a course of study and making suitable text selections. The time and workload pressures placed upon teachers mean there is an increasing gulf between “being the kind of teacher they want to be, and the type of teacher they have time to be”. This time poverty means teaching the dominant text, with the extensive resources available through professional networks, is the logical choice. With an onslaught of systemic processes like textbook hire, a high stakes testing environment and workload demands working against teacher agency and creativity, it is little wonder that we retreat behind the canon, perpetuating a more monocultural narrative with reduced teacher autonomy. As a result of curriculum and systemic pressures, have we lost sight of the joy of reading?

Alison Bedford is a senior lecturer in history curriculum and pedagogy at the University of Souther Queensland. She provides supervision to students undertaking systematic and scoping literature reviews and is interested in the methods of discourse analysis in her own work. You can find her on LinkedIn and Threads.

Reading: What Happens With Home Schooled Students?

Reading is a critical skill to have for school and life success and there are multiple suggestions as to how to teach it effectively and quickly in schools – but what happens in home schooling?

Little is known about how Australian home educators teach reading to their own children, but early evidence suggests parents have a different set of values..  

Reading approaches may differ considerably across home educating families with some adopting an organic approach to reading instruction with less urgency to see their child read by a specific age.

Growth in home education

Australian home education is visibly growing in popularity and registrations have doubled in the past five years with some hypothesising that the rise can be attributed to the COVID-era. As of 2023, the registered numbers of home educated children in each state or territory demonstrated significant growth across the country: 

State/Territory of residence2018  2022
New South Wales4,24912,359
Western Australia3,5636,151
South Australia1,3152,443 
Australian Capital Territory302413
Northern Territory110Not available 

A diverse population

Home educating families represent a diverse population and the approaches used in their children’s learning vary significantly. These have been shown to range anywhere along a continuum of autonomy from greater parental-determined structure through to unstructured child-led “unschooling” approaches.

Our recent study has investigated how Australian home educators teach their children to read and why they make specific choices in taking these approaches. We have heard from 185 home educating parents throughout Australia about their own experiences, approaches and attitudes.

The families in this study fell into similar categories regarding the degree of structure in learning that have been previously defined. Some indicated a formalised curriculum and parent-led approach:

What the families in this study said

I have used a phonics-based approach with direct instruction. This took the form of 15 minutes a day.  However, I would read aloud to my child 30min-1hr a day with no expectation of it being ‘reading practice’ but rather them enjoying the story.  Now my child is a bit older, she practises reading aloud 15 minutes a day of a book that she chooses.  We sit together and if she gets stuck, I am able to help.

Others took a more child-led approach and allowed their children to teach themselves to read, following their child’s lead and doing little formal reading.

[We did] no formal teaching. He learned to read through observing written text in real life, showing curiosity, and us reading aloud to him. He picked it up naturally, and we helped with reading difficult words. I expected it would be difficult, but he learned to read because he wanted to understand the world around him.

Creating a culture of reading aloud

The most common parental expectation around reading was creating a culture of reading aloud to their child, which was seen across the spectrum of structured and unstructured families. There were also those who expressed the importance of surrounding their child with a literacy-rich environment.

I’ve always read to my child, even when pregnant, so that is a big part of the reading process to me, as well as having plenty of age-appropriate books strewn around the home to explore. Currently [I’m] allowing my child the freedom to learn to read. We read novels daily and have simple picture books/early readers available for when she’s interested.

A most interesting observance was that many families revealed an unpressured approach to learning to read that let go of expectations regarding reading age. The concept of being a “late reader” was therefore not necessarily a concern to some home educating families. 

Difficult to teach

One parent noted the challenge of a child who was “difficult to teach” and indicated that allowing them to learn at a later age led to no long-term reading disadvantage:

He was most difficult to teach and had major melt-downs. So around 8 years old we took a step back when he still couldn’t read simple cvc words. I continued to read to him but wouldn’t push for him to ‘learn’ to read – he is now 9 and by letting him figure it out on his own time with zero pressure he has used technology including computer games such as Roblox to understand how to read and sound words out and I would say he is now a very, very good reader no different to what my first 2 children were at his age! Who went to school at that age!

Other families saw their children become early readers without any intention or pressure.

At around 2 years old she showed interest in letters and the alphabet. ‘B is for Butterfly’, etc and singing the alphabet song…Then one day, around 3.5 years old, I found her stumbling through a picture book on her own. I then tried to provide books around the house that were about the right beginner-reader level and the right interest level (that was tricky)… I didn’t push at all as she was so young so there was absolutely no stress or pressure on whether or not she could read yet. Now, at 4.5 years old, she’s an independent reader and enjoys chapter books like “The Faraway Tree”.

An organic approach

The stories from these families indicated that many took an organic approach to reading instruction that relied upon a range of avenues, including environmental print, sibling interactions, singing, subtitles on television, technology, and of course, reading aloud. The idea that children learn to read when they are ready was also widely recognised and supported.

These stories from home educating families encourage us to think about teaching reading as a joy filled and natural endeavour. Providing the right mix of opportunity and trust in a relaxing atmosphere may prove beneficial for some children who initially find reading challenging.

From left to right: Krystal Cathcart is a final year PhD candidate at the University of Southern Queensland. She is currently a home educating parent of four children. Katie Burke is a Senior Lecturer Arts Curriculum and Pedagogy at the University of Southern Queensland, Australia. She is also a former home educating parent.

Georgina Barton is a professor in the School of Education at the University of Southern Queensland, Australia. At UniSQ, She is the Research Cluster – Pedagogy lead.

What private school boys risk when they hit university

Through a combination of wealth, influence, and polished marketing campaigns, elite schools project an image of superiority, which can instil a sense of confidence that these are the best possible environments for cultivating future success. But studies reveal educational background is not always a reliable predictor of academic achievement, with government school students often performing just as well, if not better, than their non-government counterparts.

Despite this evidence, elite schools continue to produce a disproportionate number of university-bound students.

My research investigated the life trajectories of former elite boys’ school students in Australia and has shed some light on how their educational background shaped emotions and feelings surrounding the transition to university.

Elite schools have long been associated with cultural, economic, and social privilege, paving the way for prestigious university admissions and esteemed careers. While the predictable pathway from elite school to top university, and eventually lucrative professions is well-known, little attention has been given to how elite school alumni might perceive and navigate the transition to university.

Access to higher education and future employment opportunities are heavily influenced by factors such as parental income, place of residence, and secondary schooling. The significant resources available to elite schools provide academic advantages and opportunities to a selective and exclusive group who can afford the high tuition fees.

So, what happens when graduates of these schools hit university?

Extensive research has been conducted on the transition to university, delving into the processes of adaptation, navigation, and transformation. While studies have focussed on the narratives of graduates, other research explores the complex and contradictory nature of transitioning into university, framing it as a process of self-development.

Emotions can play a significant role in university transition as students construct new identities in response to the unfamiliar learning environment. For example, the process of becoming an undergraduate student can be particularly complex for students from low socioeconomic backgrounds or culturally and linguistically diverse communities. However, there is a scarcity of research on the emotions and feelings of students from privileged backgrounds. In listening to the stories of university transition, as told to me by men who attended elite boys’ schools, it became clear that the narratives and transitions of these students were less coherent and confident than expected. Specifically, these transitions were marked by experiences that challenged their beliefs about academic excellence and privilege.

The study

My research was informed by three case studies from a larger project, which investigated how old boys negotiated their masculine identities in relation to elitism and privilege, with a particular emphasis on examining how they have reconciled outdated attitudes and values that were endorsed by their schooling. The wider study included nine men who were primarily recruited through a combination of my pre-existing relationships and insider status as an old boy. Most participants identified as heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied, middle-class, and White. In listening to their stories of schooling, higher education, and trajectories into adulthood, the importance of narrative in conceptualising their schooling experience, and its impact on self-reflection and re-evaluation, became a key focus.

Old boys on campus

The findings revealed three themes that shed light on how the participants experienced the transition from an elite boys’ school to university. I elaborate on these themes below to illuminate the emotions and feelings that were entangled with this experience.

Preparing for university

Theme one highlights the challenges and constraints that were imposed on the participants by their schools, and how this was implicated in feelings of uncertainty and indifference towards their preparations for enrolling in a university program. All participants felt an inherent expectation to attend prestigious universities, considering it a natural step in their educational trajectory. While all but one enrolled at a Group of Eight university, their journeys were far from straightforward. Within these environments, there was a tension between prioritising personal values and pursuing expected trajectories, as well as feelings of doubt and indecision surrounding program and course selection.

The feeling of uncertainty not only affected decision-making but also shaped undergraduate identities. The pressure to conform to an expected trajectory limited opportunities for imagining alternative pathways. As such, there was a distinct lack of any plan for their university education.

As John explained to me, ‘I walked out of the school gates with no plan for what I was going to be doing, but just the expectation it was going to be great.’

This casual and indifferent approach to university preparation has been recognised elsewhere. As Musa Okwonga noted of his time at Eton College, elite boys’ schools are a safe environment, reassuring students that even if they have trouble in life, ‘everything will be okay’ and ultimately, ‘everybody makes it in the end.’ Despite emerging from this environment, the participants revealed that the lack of preparation for university compounded feelings of doubt and unease, while also presenting a sense of disappointment about unexplored study possibilities and careers.

Restricting pathways

Theme two focuses on the experience of arriving at university and the bias and entitlement that was carried by the participants from their elite boys’ school. All discussed the pressure they had experienced surrounding enrolment at a prestigious university, regardless of its alignment to desired study options and imagined futures. This resulted in a snobbish attitude towards those universities that were perceived as having lower academic standards and expectations. Such biases were also directed towards students from government schools who were met at university. In particular, the participants revealed dominant assumptions that students from government schools would not perform as well academically and should be avoided to keep a social network of the best and brightest. As such, the participants recognised how the bias transported from their schooling influenced their beliefs and interactions with students at university who were outside the elite school network.

Bursting bubbles

The final theme examined how university became a site where preconceived notions of excellence and intelligence were challenged through what the participants referred to as ‘bubble burst’ moments. The participants shared stories of encountering students from government schools who excelled academically, challenging their beliefs about their own educational background, and preconceived notions of its superiority. This rupture in their understanding led to a reconfiguration of their identities and a realisation of the sheltered environment from which they had emerged.

Understanding old boys

While students who attend elite boys’ schools continue to enter prestigious universities, and pursue pathways into esteemed and financially rewarding industries, the accounts about transitioning to university, as provided to me, suggest that this process may not always be straight forward, planned, nor easy.

Despite an often emotionless and rational exterior, some old boys might arrive at university with a sensitive and troubled set of feelings that are implicated in their identity formation as undergraduates.

It is also possible that the expectation to attend prestigious institutions, combined with biases embodied while secondary school students, can hinder the exploration of alternative pathways and limit interactions with a diverse student body. However, the ‘bubble burst’ moments shared with me suggest that university can constructively challenge preconceived notions of excellence and intelligence, forcing elite school alumni to reassess their values and beliefs.

By delving into the complex experiences of these students, this research serves as a small contribution to understanding the impact of elite schooling on university transitions and the durability of privilege.

Cameron Meiklejohn is a PhD Graduate from the School of Education at the University of Southern Queensland. His research interest focuses on the feelings and life trajectories of men who attended elite boys’ schools in Australia and the meanings they attach to their schooling experience.

Examining the crucial role of remote education tutors: Who are they? What problems do they face?

The events of 2020 have shone a spotlight on learning remotely from home as schools and teachers shifted their classes online.  However, for many children in Australia, distance education, that is education delivered in the home, is the norm rather than a response to exceptional pandemic circumstances.

Central to the delivery of distance education in Australia are remote education tutors who are accountable for the face-to-face supervision and educational support of students. Unlike schooling at home during the pandemic, it is a requirement that children in Australian schools of distance education have adult supervision for the duration of their school day. Distance education would not be possible without the commitment of these tutors.

There are many problems with the provision of distance education in Australia today. Debates continue over availability, accessibility, and affordability. However we are especially interested in the remote education tutors, the vital role they play and the problems they face.

Remote Education Tutors

Outside the metropolitan cities and regional towns of Australia, much of the country is sparsely populated, with many students requiring remote access to education through distance education schooling. The qualified distance educator who organizes and administers the curriculum for students is often located hundreds of kilometres from where the learning takes place. Families are directly responsible for setting up a dedicated area at home as a formal schoolroom space for children who are being remotely schooled and for supplying a tutor who will oversee the learning.

The tutor who plays this vital part could be a parent or adult family member, a governess, or someone employed by the family to tutor children using the lessons, resources and tools provided by the assigned state or territory government distance education teacher.

The tutors act as facilitators, conduits, and connectors. Successful distance schooling is seen as a shared responsibility of distance education teachers, students and the remote education tutors. Research has highlighted the importance of the partnership between distance educators and the home providers for quality learning outcomes.

Problems with Remote Education Tutors

Although a recommendation to conduct research into the role of the remote education tutors was made over 20 years ago by the Queensland School Curriculum Council, this has received limited research attention.  The remote education tutor supervisory responsibility often falls on mothers, who feel obliged to fulfill this multiple and sometimes conflicting role.  The assumption that mothers are available to provide this supervision is changing in concert with broader social changes, and many now see it as no longer valid.

However, there is limited literature currently available on the demographics and the work identity of the remote education tutor. 

We believe the opportunity for quality distance education is unsustainable and inequitable because of the:

Our research

In addressing these issues, we are researching who is doing the work of Remote Education Tutors, where they are located and their perceptions of their work, including their needs satisfaction. This research is part of work being undertaken as a partnership between Australian Geographically Isolated Learner Education (AGILE) project an the University of Southern Queensland (USQ).

We have just recently activated a national survey to map the experiences and perceptions of remote education tutors.  The purpose of this research is to: identify who represents the remote education tutor workforce in Australia; understand how this role impacts on personal lifestyles and professional work; find out how to support those in this role; and inform change.

There are three parts to our survey:

  • Part A Australian Remote Education Workforce;
  • Part B Remote Education Tutor’s Personal and Professional Perspectives; and
  • Part C Remote Education Tutor’s Basic Needs Satisfaction in the Work Domain.

Participation in this project is entirely voluntary and 100% anonymous.  For those who are interested, the survey takes about 20 minutes to complete.

As educational researchers from the University of Southern Queensland, we see the potential of the project lies in its capacity to acknowledge the work of remote education tutors, recognise the lifestyle and professional impacts of this essential work, and raise the profile of this role as an occupation. 

The often-overlooked role of a remote education tutor In Australia is crucial to ensuring the sustainability and equity of children’s access to consistent and quality educational support.

Dr Karen Peel is a Senior Lecturer of Initial Teacher Education in the School of Education at the University of Southern Queensland.  She has extensive experience in curriculum design and implementation of practices for effective teaching and learning.  Her research is situated in the fields of self-regulated learning, classroom behaviour management, teacher resilience and currently in the work of Remote Education Tutors.  She has published and co-published in educational journals and refereed books and has presented at a number of national and international educational conferences.

Patrick Danaher is Professor (Educational Research) in the School of Education at the Toowoomba campus of the University of Southern Queensland. Patrick has continuing research interests in rural education, including the educational aspirations and outcomes of occupationally mobile families such as circus and show people who travel through regional, rural and remote communities. More broadly, he is interested in formal education’s ambivalent capacity to perpetuate sociocultural marginalisation and to contribute to sociocultural transformation.

Dr Brad McLennan is a Senior Lecturer of Initial Teacher Education in the School of Education at the University of Southern Queensland.  He has 30 years’ experience in collaborative curriculum design and implementation of practices for effective teaching and learning in both the primary and higher education sectors.  His research is situated in the fields of classroom behaviour management, teacher efficacy, self-determination theory and currently in the understated work of Remote Education Tutors.  He has published in international and domestic journals and refereed books. As a priority, he continues to forge strong relationships and partnerships between the University and key stakeholders across all facets of education.

The national survey closes on Sunday, 17 January 2021.  If you are, or have you been, a governess, home tutor, parent or family tutor, or distance education tutor in Australia, tell us about your experiences because there is not much information about this, and Australia needs to know.  We also encourage you to share the survey link.