Education exists in an uneasy domain and the teaching professional is forced to navigate between a multitude of conflicting tensions. Our education systems are dominated by abundance of voices all shouting for attention and offering a solution to the problems they have diagnosed. Each individual claims expertise and insights gained from years as a student is sufficient experience to allow one to speak with authority.
Politicians know that education is an election issue and politicians exist to give their public what they want. Henry Ford knew that had he sought the opinion of his customers they would have requested a faster horse. Henry listened to other voices instead and delivered the Model T. Henry was not a politician. The political take on education is one developed mostly from a distance. It reflects a belief that education needs fixing and that the blame for its current state lies with teachers. It relies on limited data, that is oversimplified, misinterpreted and packaged to suit the predetermined message. It plays to false dichotomies which in a two party system of democracy neatly allows one side to offer the opposite solution to that recommended by their opposition. Opinion polls drive policy but the opinion of those most likely to offer truly useful information is largely ignored or given equal credence to that of the masses.
The media in its present form exists to sell advertising in competition with Google and Facebook; the pretence that they are in the business of selling papers or attracting viewers has passed its use-by. A headline that proclaims consistent progress or an article that offers an in-depth exploration of the complex nature of educational decision making is unlikely to achieve as many Ad views as one proclaiming that the system is broken. Every journalist has an opinion and celebrity counts more than expertise. Why seek the opinion of an educator when that of a half-baked entertainer is available. Truly deep journalism, that explores complexity and is aware of context is a risky enterprise and one that is unlikely to increase impressions. Only on the fringes does one find a more rounded view where educator voices are included and respected for the expertise they bring but this is not where the mainstream public finds their news.
With little access to a more nuanced view of education the general public has a limited perspective. If you are a parent you will have some insights into what occurs in schools but an understanding of why it happens and a picture of the greater complexity behind the scenes is likely to be lacking. Reporting of assessment results rings alarm bells. Reading that Australia’s results on international assessments leads to calls for inquiries into schools and teachers rather than for a close accounting of what the assessments measure or their inherent validity. Little mention is made of the geographic distribution of underachievement or the link between NAPLAN results and ICSEA ( Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage) scores. Everyone who has been to school has an opinion on the subject and debate continues with little reference to research or genuine expertise. Dichotomies abound and issues are oversimplified. Back to basics is the answer unless you advocate for 21st Century Skills. Follow Finland or maybe Singapore; their results are stellar. Rely on the judgement of an education professional; no thanks.
In the middle of all this sits the professional educator. Armed with years of training, a broad knowledge of research, experience from the classroom and an understanding of learners and learning. Teachers understand the complexity of education. They use their professional knowledge to plan learning experiences that meet the needs of their students. They balance multiple demands on their time while complying with seemingly contradictory policies and curriculums. They enact multiple dictates from a polyphony of interest groups all while ensuring that the needs of their students come first. They know that test scores are just one measure of their achievement and understand that the success attained by many students thanks to their care, is not reflected in any of the standardised measures.
In modern times more than ever though, being an exceptional educator is perhaps not enough. If education is to rise to the challenge of a rapidly changing world, if we are to ensure our students are prepared with the skills they will require in times of uncertainty and volatility, educators will need to find their voice and become agents for change. Teachers need to understand that education is shaped by political forces and that excellent classroom practice needs to combine with advocacy for education as a respected profession that takes collective control of its future. Policy must be something driven by educators, not something which happens to educators.
As in so many aspect of education, John Dewey had the measure of the situation,
It is . . . advisable that the teacher should understand, and even be able to criticise, the general principles upon which the whole educational system is formed and administered. He is not like a private soldier in an army, expected merely to obey, or like a cog in a wheel, expected merely to respond to and transmit external energy; he must be an intelligent medium of action. John Dewey, 1895.
By Nigel Coutts