Australian teachers are governed by a set of largely meaningless standards. A key feature of these standards is that they discuss teaching in the abstract without detailing any specifics. For instance, under the standard, “Know the content and how to teach it,” we read that proficient teachers, “Apply knowledge of the content and teaching strategies of the teaching area to develop engaging teaching activities.” This is partly a repetition of the standard itself and partly an appeal to apple-pie statements. What do we mean by ‘engaging’, for instance? Are we talking about maximising academic learning time or are we talking about making lessons fun? It is not clear and so it is open to anyone interpreting the standards to impose their view on them. This means that a new teacher who is excellent at maximising academic learning time may be advised to make their lessons more fun.
Where the standards do make a call, it is often the wrong one. For instance, highly accomplished teachers, “Exhibit innovative practice in the selection and organisation of content and delivery of learning and teaching programs” Do we really want the ‘innovative’ selection of content or delivery of learning and teaching for the sake of it? Why is ‘innovative’ an inherent good? And there is a whole focus area on differentiation. Differentiation is an ambiguous term and many of its common manifestations lack any kind of serious evidence base. Do the standards sort the wheat from the chaff? No.
Perhaps the most obvious shortcoming is the focus area, “Understand how students learn.” Here, we are informed that proficient teachers, “Structure teaching programs using research and collegial advice about how students learn.” What research? Is all collegial advice equal?
Compare this, for a moment, with what engineers have to demonstrate on entering their profession. Thankfully, the people building your bridges and fridges have an identifiable body of knowledge that they must master. For a start, they need a, “Conceptual understanding of the mathematics, numerical analysis, statistics, and computer and information sciences which underpin the engineering discipline.” Given that these standards apply to all engineers, regardless of specialism, you may expect them to be a little vague. However, the demands are still quite, er, demanding. For instance, a new engineer, “Interprets and applies selected research literature to inform engineering application in at least one specialist domain of the engineering discipline.”
Engineers also seem concerned about warding off bad ideas. They are expected to ensure, “that all aspects of an engineering activity are soundly based on fundamental principles – by diagnosing, and taking appropriate action with data, calculations, results, proposals, processes, practices, and documented information that may be ill-founded, illogical, erroneous, unreliable or unrealistic.” I think teachers should be accountable in this way too.
Just like us, engineers are encouraged to be innovative and seek out, “new developments in the engineering discipline and specialisations.” However, they are also expected to apply, “fundamental knowledge and systematic processes to evaluate and report potential.” Because, well, some innovations may not be that great.
When it comes to teaching standards, there is a certain amount of inevitability about their vagueness. For instance, ‘effective’ teaching strategies are regularly mentioned and proficient teachers are expected to, “Apply knowledge and understanding of effective teaching strategies to support students’ literacy and numeracy achievement.” And yet it is never made clear what these effective teaching strategies are. Should teachers of early reading use a balanced literacy or systematic phonics approach? Should maths teachers adopt explicit teaching or inquiry learning? I can understand why this is not addressed because I can just imagine the fight that would erupt if any of these judgement calls were made in the teaching standards. However, by not making these calls, the standards become meaningless, effectively exhorting us to teach well and in ways that will help children learn, like that would never have occurred to us otherwise.
What is the solution? I am sympathetic to abandoning these sorts of standards entirely, while retaining standards of behaviour and ethics. Vague standards seem to have the potential to do more harm than good. Alternatively, we could try and resolve some of the differences and make the standards more specific. That would involve an almighty war with all the power in the hands of university education departments. I can’t see that ending well.
Alternatively, we could look for an innovative solution. State and federal governments could decide to give a small number of parallel bodies the power to accredit teachers and teacher education courses. Each body could have its own set of standards – balanced literacy and social constructivism in one, systematic phonics and cognitive science in another. It may sound messy, but it would give teachers the choice of exactly what kind of teacher they want to be and it would give schools a choice of what kinds of teacher they wish to employ. Time would do the weeding.