Students need teachers, not technicians



Certain things still resonate from teacher training, though I no longer teach. In a lecture hall in Bundoora we were told, 'you can either be a technician or an educator'.

Girls at schoolBinaries have limited value, but this one does highlight a sticking point in the Australian approach to education. For the past several years, education has been treated as a technical problem, to be worked through by (funding) formula and (curricular) experimentation.

The most significant development is actually found in last year's budget, when the Coalition government committed to a needs-based model and incrementally raising funding levels. While it can be lauded for these, in real terms public and private schools are still treated as if they are competitive.

Recurrent funding over the next ten years will grow by 56.6 per cent for government schools, bringing the total to $102.1 billion. It sounds like a lot of money, and a welcome reversal of the previous Liberal line that fixing education is not about money. But non-government schools will also be receiving $141.4 billion over the same period, a growth of 55.6 per cent.

The current model allocates commonwealth funding for government schools up to 20 per cent of SRS by 2027 and up to 80 per cent for non-government schools; state and territory co-funding is not necessarily tied to SRS.

Australia thus remains an outlier among OECD nations, most of which do not fund private schools (yet have students ranking highly in international achievement tests). Meanwhile, the only new major school funding in this year's budget is $247 million for the chaplaincy program.

One of the pitfalls of a solely technical approach to education is that political will becomes a function of money, which in turn rests on political expedience between federal and state governments, further complicated by external lobbying. Education gets ground to a grain.


"In moving away from the so-called factory model of education, we should also be careful not to assign teachers again as technicians, rather than the educators we need them to be."


There was an opportunity a while back to pull out of the mire, to re-envision a place for education in society and in our future. The 2011 Gonski review on school funding seemed straightforward, setting out what teachers and principals already knew: that socioeconomic inequality has an impact on learning outcomes, and that a recalibration in school resourcing is desperately needed.

It is this recalibration that has since taken up much of the discourse — technical aspects for haggling among political parties and education sectors. For all the tinkering, the difference in funding between government and non-government schools is still minor.

The mechanical mindset is visible in other ways, too: in regular changes in curriculum content, assessment and classroom structure — usually without commensurate changes in time allowance and other kinds of support for teachers.

The second Gonski review, released before the latest budget, can be lauded for acknowledging that NAPLAN, the MySchool website and national teaching standards have had a limited effect on student achievement. But it also introduces a suite of changes in learning and teaching that will not only require further resources, but mire teachers in another round of pedagogical reinvention.

The Australian Curriculum was only just fully implemented in 2014. It might now be overhauled according to the latest thinking on 'learning progressions' and real-time online assessments. Gonksi 2.0 also proposes individual learning plans for students, which would drain time from teachers.

It is not that these ideas are without merit. It is that scaling them up will not come free, and the protracted stoush around school funding does not raise confidence that someone will pay.

In moving away from the so-called factory model of education, we should also be careful not to assign teachers again as technicians, rather than the educators we need them to be. Perhaps that is really how we can detach education from the assembly line.



Fatima MeashamFatima Measham is a Eureka Street consulting editor. She co-hosts the ChatterSquare podcast, tweets as @foomeister and blogs on Medium.

Topic tags: Fatima Measham, Budget 2018, education



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Existing comments

I am a retired teacher.My wife is still teaching. I totally agree with your comments Fatima. While the decision makers are not educators, the upheaval in education will continue. I get the feeling that we are for ever reinventing the wheel but so far the result has been frustration and stress for our classroom practioners . The level of red tape is at levels I never saw in my years in the classroom, so I am glad I am over it. I enjoyed my years teaching and encouraging my students to explore the world around them ( I was a teacher of History, Geography and what became called Social Science) . I saw my task as encouraging my students to think, reason and question as well as developing their innovative skills. I developed the concept of stewardship for the planet as the major driver in my teaching. Sadly today the focus seems to be preparing young people to be a cog in the wheel of growth and jobs without regard for the wellbeing of our fragile planet and the welfare of future generations.
Gavin | 11 May 2018

Gavin, you have hit the nail on the head! The central problem here is that decision makers are not educators! The same is true in other areas of political barrow pushing and decision making- how many Ministers have any track record at all in the area of their portfolio? I am a retired university lecturer, and I recall the wise claim of one of my own senior university lecturers- "I am not just a teacher- I am an educator". In my own graduate diploma in higher education, I wrote a minor thesis on the difference between training and education. The whole mechanical approach to education driven from the political level is in my opinion not only wrong-headed, but also counter-productive and also wasteful of resources that are tied up in trying to keep the politicians happy thing we are meeting "key performance indicators". Technology is at best a tool, even a very useful tool. But it is not a substitute for good education inspired and nurtured by good educators through face to face interaction.
Dennis | 11 May 2018

I agree Fatima. My latest "educational feedback" has been that I had been a "good performer" but ... That's when I stopped "performing" for anyone! I choose instead to be the best person I can be for the benefit of this world ... and not for the "performance of a University". What an indictment!!
Mary Tehan | 11 May 2018

Neuroscientists say: Bring back the Humanities.
AO | 11 May 2018

A thoughtful piece as usual Fatima. We keep forgetting the root meaning of the word 'education', which is 'to lead out of'. It is the opposite of the bullet theory of teaching, which assumes that the teacher fires knowledge into the student's (largely passive) brain. I suspect this problem exists in many other areas. My own field of clinical and counselling psychology has been plagued with the problem of technical solutions - the idea that you can deliver a manualised intervention (preferably in no more than six sessions) and get a good result with all clients, regardless of who the deliverer is. Huge vested interests go into supporting this view. But there is simply no evidence that counselling and psychotherapeutic interventions work (and they do work!) because of the consistent application of a model or technique. Put simply, you cannot isolate 'evidence based practice' from the qualities of the therapist and the nature of the relationship he/she creates with client. I strongly suspect that the same dynamic applies to teaching.
Lawrence Moloney | 12 May 2018

The more dependent classroom practice becomes on new technologies which drive it, the less the teacher becomes an educator and is re-defined, rather, as a "facilitator" and a "technician." There is also an over-emphasis on Science and Maths, at the expense of Humanities and Languages, which have been seriously diminished by their subordination to neo-Marxist ideology, particularly in History and English.
John | 13 May 2018

I admire your capacity, Fatima, to research and write intelligently about a wide variety of topics. Without doubt you nail the current problems about schooling as the trend to make technicians out of teachers and the mess that is Australian school funding policy. I wonder, without intending offense, and as a fellow Asian-Australian, whether you have missed a major aspect of the current school funding policy debate, insofar as it applies to Catholic school funding. Catholic schools are almost universally fully state-funded in nearly all of the developed countries in the OECD (except for the US, where, for perverse reasons to do with the separation of Church and state, and notwithstanding the fact that the US is one of the most 'religious' societies in the developed world, Catholic schools receive no state-aid and are therefore private schools, reliant on fees to sustain themselves). Because of Australia's constitutional hybridity, borrowing from both the US and UK's political traditions, Australian schooling follows the US example in enshrining secularism as the only fully-funded schooling model. In 1974, when Karmel investigated and made recommendations for school funding, the Whitlam Government offered Catholics fully-funded NZ-style integrated schooling, which we turned down, resulting in today's mess.
Dr Michael Furtado | 15 May 2018

I might add, Fatima, that were it not for the mainly Catholic school funding dispensation that Whitlam introduced (because Catholic schools ever since federation, when they were cut off from funding, originally constituted the overwhelming majority of state-aided non-government schools) the huge private-school sector, which you properly worry about being publicly funded in terms of your strong social justice values, would be reduced to the negligible and unfunded size it is in most other OECD countries. For a Jesuit publication to consistently ignore this fact is surely one of the greatest ironies of injustice as well as rewrites of history, given ES's reputation for substantial scholarly research en route to publishing an article, not just on teacher work but on school funding. Could it be that editorial policy is too compromised by the fact that our few Jesuit schools are among the most expensive in the land and therefore available mainly to the exceedingly well off, whose privileged position in society would be considerably jeopardised by any campaign by the Catholic Education authorities to replace their by now toothless funding policy with a pro-public-sector alliance that enacts Church teaching that the Catholic school is "first and foremost for the Poor"?
Dr Michael Furtado | 16 May 2018


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