Simon Birmingham to enforce progressive teaching methods

When news first broke yesterday morning of the Australian government’s education proposals, most commentators focused on the idea of linking pay to performance. I commented on this and suggested that Labor should not seek to match this policy. Performance related pay is notoriously capricious and difficult to implement when applied to teaching.

At 3.10pm, Simon Birmingham – the education minister – issued a press release, clarifying his proposals. It seems that pay will not be linked to test scores but to the amount of progress that a teacher makes through the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers that are curated by the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL). At this news, educationalists started to lower their pitchforks, just a little. But this way of judging teachers is, I’m afraid, much, much worse. I would prefer the slings and arrows of test scores to the current proposal which will effectively enforce the use of progressive teaching methods by any teachers who wish to progress in their careers.

The standards themselves are pretty vague and full of apple-pie statements. Nonetheless, they can still shut down debate. Question the rhetoric around differentiation, for instance, and you may be told that you have to differentiate because it says so in the standards.

Should you seek clarification on what the standards actually mean in practice then there are various illustrations and discussion documents available on the AITSL website.

I have criticised these illustrations before. They promote inquiry learning, project-based learning, problem-based learning (all flawed) and the use of multiple cues or ‘searchlights’; a non-evidence-based approach  to the teaching of reading (see pages 37-40 here) where students are encouraged to guess words from the pictures in a picture book rather than to actually read them. One illustration named ‘The Paper Plane” – which was removed once I highlighted it – suggested taking students outside for a mathematics lesson in order to support ‘kinaesthetic’ learners. There are still resources on the site that suggest differentiating activities to suit students’ different learning styles. This one even discusses the different learning styles of teachers. Perhaps they’re waiting for me to find them all.

Again at my prompting, the ‘learning context’ of a different illustration was changed from:

“Through this approach [The School] seeks to develop student skills in collaboration, team-work, compromise, creativity and problem-solving, and to accentuate more activity-based discovery learning, project-based learning, and genuine team-based inquiry which are all important in developing STEM knowledge and skills.” [my emphasis]


“Through this approach [The School] seeks to develop student skills in collaboration, team-work, compromise, creativity and problem-solving, and to accentuate more activity-based learning, project-based learning and genuine team-based inquiry which are all important in developing STEM knowledge and skills.” [my emphasis]

I think that this is because I pointed out that AITSL chair, John Hattie, has said, “We have a whole rhetoric about discovery learning, constructivism, about learning styles that has got zero evidence for them anywhere.” Presumably the people who removed the word ‘discovery’ didn’t realise that ‘activity-based learning’, ‘project-based learning’ and ‘team-based inquiry’ are all inspired by constructivism which is itself a latter day manifestation of the philosophy of John Dewey.

All of the illustrations drip with allusions to Deweyan ideas about teachers as facilitators who enable learning by doing. This is not surprising given that this is the dominant world-view of the educationalists who developed and curate the standards and who presumably put together the illustrations and other guidance.

In the future, if you want to reach the top pay grade then you will no doubt need to demonstrate the ‘lead’ level of the ‘Classroom Practice Continuum‘. You may be wondering what that involves. Well, here’s a flavour:

“The teacher makes students responsible for establishing deliberate practice routines. They provide students with a choice of learning activities that apply discipline specific knowledge and skills including literacy and numeracy skills. The teacher facilitates processes for the students to select activities based on the agreed learning goals. The teacher supports the students to generate their own questions that lead to further inquiry. The teacher uses cues to differentiate between their responses to individual students throughout the learning time.”

So you won’t be able to tell your students what do do any more, you will instead need to give them choices of activities to select from. Is this excellent teaching? I am aware of no evidence to suggest that it is. It certainly does not flow out of the process-product research of the 1950s-1970s and a paper by instructional scientists Paul Kirschner and  Jeroen van Merrienboer describes the idea that, “learners ought to be seen as self-educators who should be given maximum control over what they are learning and their learning trajectory,” as an ‘urban legend’.

So I have to ask, Mr Birmingham, why are you going to insist that we all do this?

And this links to a wider point. I’ve recently been accused of trying to silence non-teachers in the education debate. This is clearly an absurd idea. Even if I wanted to, it seems to me that the average educationalist has many channels through which to express an opinion; journals, conferences, newspapers such as The Conversation, the blogs of research organisations, personal blogs and so on.

The accusation against me seems to have arisen from comments that I made about the proposed College of Teaching in England. In short, I believe that an organisation that is intended to represent teachers should consist of teachers. I don’t find this particularly controversial. Why do educationalists want to muscle in here too? It’s like a bloke with a meadow asking if he can graze his horse on my front lawn.

You may disagree. Shouldn’t we all just work together? Am I not being divisive? What harm would it do? Well, AITSL provides a pretty good example of that.


10 thoughts on “Simon Birmingham to enforce progressive teaching methods

  1. Presumably none of this will be binding on non-government schools? I taught in an independent school in Victoria which was using the AITSL standards to define exemplary teachers, but they were very much into the progressive fluff you describe.

    • Bart says:

      Non-government schools still have to have accredited teachers through the various teacher agencies (BOSTES, TQI etc.) which all basically follow AITSL’s standards.

  2. Sally says:

    From my experience the accreditation process is a bit of a joke. I don’t know if the situation has changed in recent years but for a while I was on a panel that was charged with reviewing accreditation documentation sent in by schools. These were received AFTER the designated TAA (Teacher Accreditation Authority) had signed off and approved teachers’ accreditation. When I raised concerns about a particular submission that comprised pages of worksheets with no writing on them at all – which in my opinion fell well short of showing any teaching competence, I was told that all I could do was write a report that would be directed back to the Education Department (not the TAA) and that once a TAA had approved the paperwork there was nothing that could be done to challenge the approval. This was a few years ago so hopefully things have changed.

    I know that most teachers and their supervisors are committed to doing the best they can but the scope for dodgy approvals within the system is huge. Consequently any plan to pay teachers according to AITSL competencies is seriously flawed.

  3. Tempe says:

    This is very worrying indeed. It was my hope that at the very least the conservatives would attempt to halt the damage wrought by constructivism in our classrooms. Now teachers will be almost hamstrung into using these methods. Last year I was hopeful that they might bring some much needed changes to our curriculum, like bring back knowledge. Alas…Maybe all that is left to do is to try to appeal to Labors sense of eqaulity for all and “educate” them as to how this is achieveable. I would like to start a nation-wide petition — is there any interest in this route?

    • Janita Cunnington says:

      I would welcome the chance to sign a petition calling for reintroducing active teaching and a knowledge-based curriculum to Australian schools. If there was a groundswell of support, especially among teachers, Labor may begin to see the electoral advantage in a sound and sensible education policy.

    • I would also support such a measure; the problem is how to avoid it being cast as a regressive measure or an appeal to “good ol’ days”. If such a petition were set up without provisions against such aspersions, it would cause more damage to educational advancement than if it were never raised at all.

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