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Am I a professional?

Over the last 10 to 20 years the word “professional” has lost much of its meaning. Once upon a time a professional was someone who practised one of the traditional professions. Nowadays Jim’s Lawn Mowing offers professional cuts and edging, the Coffeeschool offers a “professional barista course” (only $99! One day 9.15 – 3.00!!) and Privategirls (NSFW) offer “Independent ladies who work for themselves as Professional Private Escorts”.

So am I more professional than a one-day qualified coffee maker? Well I would hope so, but who is to say? Wikipedia offers a convenient list of professions that helpfully includes teachers, but the list also includes firefighters. On the same page Wikipedia does give a definition of professions:

….that commonly have specialized educational training and legal qualification, of formal or mandatory study, has strict oversight or is self-regulating, and usually requires a person actively engaged to be a member of a professional body.

So if we take those in turn.

  1. Specialized educational training? Yes, in my case first education qualification only one year after a degree
  2. Legal qualification? Yes, you need the legal qualification to practise as a teacher
  3. Formal and mandatory study? Yes again, as above. Or maybe all three of these are really one point.
  4. Strict oversight? Yes – in my case the Victorian Institute of Teaching – the VIT (Vellem Discordant throws garlic)
  5. Member of a professional body? Hmmm, a bit trickier. I guess that is the VIT.

So is the VIT a professional body for teachers? In the about us section the VIT says:

The Victorian Institute of Teaching is a statutory authority for the regulation of the teaching profession in Victoria established by the Victorian Institute of Teaching Act 2001.

So it’s a regulator, not a professional body.

The Institute operates along similar lines to other regulatory bodies, such as the Legal Services Board and the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency

Ah, so teaching is just like lawyering and doctoring. But don’t lawyers have the various Law Societies/Institutes ($465 p.a) and doctors the Colleges of General Practitioners and Surgery ($2,645 p.a.) etc?

Well, similarly (we’ll see), teachers have the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership. The first mention on their about us page says:

The Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of the Lands across Australia and we pay our respects to Elders past, present and future.

That’s nice, then:

The Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) provides national leadership for the Australian, State and Territory Governments in promoting excellence in the profession of teaching and school leadership.

AITSL is a public company (ABN 17 117 362 740) limited by guarantee, established under the Commonwealth Corporations Act 2001 and subject to the provisions of the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013. It is funded by the Australian Government and the Minister for Education and Training is the sole member of the company. AITSL operates under its own constitution, with decisions made by an independent board of directors. ​

So not really a professional association for me as a teacher. What is does do is have a list of standards for professional practice that some bureaucrat/academic has decided are the things that I should be doing.

So how am I doing against Wikipedia’s list? Training, certification and registration all yes. But professional body?

VIT – I pay a fee each year to get a card that indicates that …. I have paid a fee. Plus they have the power to deregister me.

AITSL – I can’t “join”, but it does give me instructions on “how to teach”. A bit like the manual you get with the $99 barista course above.

That leaves the union. They would like to think they are a professional body for teachers but the truth is most people join just in case some kid accuses them of doing something untoward and they are going to get sued or fired, or both. In fact, if you are a teacher you would be foolhardy not to be a member of a union for that reason alone.

So on those criteria I would judge that I’m more of a professional than a barista/lawn mower/hooker but less of a professional than a doctor or a lawyer. But of course there are other standards to measure a professional – and the ever helpful Wikipedia says about professionals:

…the term is used as shorthand to describe a particular social stratum of well-educated workers who enjoy considerable work autonomy and who are commonly engaged in creative and intellectually challenging work.

So lets look at those terms:

  1. intellectually challenging work – indeed sometimes teaching can be. Not always, but often enough to stay interesting.
  2. creative – I’m not sure what I think about that
  3. enjoy autonomy – this is interesting.

One of the features of the “true” professions is to be able to engage in your work in an autonomous fashion. After all, if you see a doctor or lawyer you want their consideration of your problems or concerns, and for them to work to the best of their abilities to solve any problems. Is that the way teachers work? I would say increasingly not – teachers are more and more (I believe) instructed by administrators how to teach, and given less and less flexibility about what methods and techniques they can use in the classroom. The constraints are getting narrower and narrower.

This constraint of professional decision making capability amongst teachers has corresponded with an increase in bodies offering “advice” on what good teaching looks like. Instead of teachers as professionals looking at advice from bodies such as VIT/AITSL/Ofsted/research universities and then making informed decisions on the best way to teach, increasingly administrators pick some aspect from the above bodies, decide “good teachers do this” and instruct their staff on the way to teach in the classroom.

So am I a professional? Is teaching a profession? I would say no. I am a well-educated, certified and registered knowledge worker that enjoys limited autonomy within a highly internally- and externally-regulated working environment.

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Ridiculous & Meaningless Reports

Back into a school year and I’ve been reflecting on school reports. Consider these two reports based on ones I’ve recently written or received – if you teach in Australia you’ll recognise the general format. Assume before there is some sort of paragraph outlining the course, and afterwards there is a generic comment of the form “must work harder” but written in the sort of education-ese all teachers seem to be expert at:

Reports

When receiving reports I believe parents generally have three questions:

1) Did my child pass the subject?

2) How did he or she go?

3) How does he or she compare to the rest of the class?

The short answers to the above questions based on the reports would likely be:

1) Did my child pass the subject? Yes, clearly.

2) How did he or she go?  Quite alright, (probably).

3) How does she or he compare to the rest of the class? Hmmm. Who knows?

The longer answers to the three parental questions would be a bit different:

1) Did my child pass the subject? Don’t parents yet realise that “pass” and “fail” are no longer terms that have any currency in education? Your child demonstrated the necessary understanding to receive a Unit Result of “S” so that should be good enough (BTW, the only “N” in the level was a student who did not even pretend to do anything).

2) How did he or she go? Well, if it was my child I wouldn’t be very happy. I mean, anyone can get an A for a Research Assignment (in fact the lowest mark in the class was a B+ – we give one “everyone can succeed” assignment per semester). And C+ for workbook – that means only about half the work done, in a barely legible scribble. The semester exam grade was pretty good, but still below average for the class.

3) How does she or he compare to the rest of the class? Ranking students is against the philosophy of this school, and is counter -productive to students’ emotional development. Were I to calculate it (which I wouldn’t) your child would actually be18th out of 24, but it would require a court order for me to tell you.

I don’t know a single teacher who enjoys writing reports, and report writing time is notoriously the most stressful time of the year for teachers in schools. But I don’t believe reports are written to convey meaningful information to parents – there is the illusion of information, but reports omit as much as they convey. If reports did convey meaningful information we would experience less instances of parents insisting in Yr 12 that their child is going to be a doctor/lawyer/pharmacist when everyone (well, teachers) knows that the child would make a good checkout assistant at a supermarket. And we would not experience the situation where it falls to some poor special needs teacher in Yr 9 to inform parents that their child is actually functionally illiterate.

What if reports did convey extra information? Consider the examples below:

Grades

Now you may think that the average grades are unrealistic, but the point is the two reports, with exactly the same grades, give very different impressions of the level of achievement of the student.

Do schools report like this? Very few.

Could schools report like this? Every single one.

In fact, the sort of information in these reports can be calculated automatically by most reporting software, and many schools would generate the same sort of information for internal use. Schools undoubtedly say that more nuanced information regarding a child can be given at parent-teacher interviews, and this is indeed true. But who reading this could confidently say that parents do receive the full picture of their child’s achievement? What would be an average school’s PT turnout? 50%? 60%?

I would be happy to report in the way outlined above – and I would be happy to receive such reports for any children of my own. But across schools there seems to be a very great reluctance to report this way, and I really don’t know why.

Sugata Mitra & Ken Robinson

This post was initially just going to be about Sugata Mitra, with a separate post on Sir Ken, but after thinking about it I decided to write on both. Earlier this year I attended a conference that featured both Sugata Mitra and Sir Ken giving keynotes, and to certain educationalists (note – I did not say teachers) that’s a combination that sends paroxysms of delight shivering down their spines, equivalent to the shivers the teenage girls I teach would get at the thought of attending a 1D/5SOS double bill concert.

Now we all know Sir Ken, as his bio on his personal website begins:

“If there was a moment when our crisis in education hit critical mass it may well have been the date Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk went up on YouTube. In just 19 minutes his wry but eviscerating presentation gave voice to what so many of us are living through: our schools are failing to recognize creativity; we’re failing to prepare the next generation for the challenges that lie ahead.”

Hubris, anyone? (and guess – does he call his site kenrobinson.com or sirkenrobinson.com?)

However, it is true that among the people reading this roughly 100% will have seen his famous TED talk, and I’m ashamed to admit that I was once once of those self-important w@ankers that played it at a staff meeting and forced the whole staff to watch (but on the plus side I got years of bankable credit with the Art department). When you think carefully about what Sir Ken is saying you realise it can be summed up in the phrase:

“all teachers are shit”

Yes, Sir Ken believes everything we are doing is wrong, and we are ruining the current generation just as surely as we ruined generations past – setting them up to fail, and at the same time destroying the future economies of our respective countries, because what we are producing is not what is, or will be, required.

Now why Sir Ken is wrong has been expressed much more eloquently than I could here and here (but I will say that if he truly believes schools are killing creativity or do not provide enough time for the arts he must be willfully blind whenever he sets foot in a school) but the interesting thing is how believable he is. He does have a special gift when talking, with lots of wry little comments and self-deprecating jokes. Here’s an example from an interview he gave:

It’s always important for adults to remember they were once children themselves. I mean, I was. I have to admit to this. I spent my early life as a child.”

He’s just so cuddly I could just eat him up. At the conference he was equally wryly amusing, and had the audience eating out of his hand, nodding sagely at points he made, live tweeting “I’m listening to SIR KEN ROBINSON!!!!!!!”  and laughing after every little joke – in some cases laughing before every little joke because we knew what was coming. And at the end of his talk (summary “you are doing everything wrong”) he received a standing ovation from the thousands (literally – it was a big conference) in the audience.

Can you picture that – thousands of teachers applauding a man who had very nicely told them they had been approaching their life’s vocation completely the wrong way. To be fair much of the audience were administrators or other educationalists (because most teachers don’t get to go to interstate conferences) and among that audience saying “your teachers do everything wrong” was preaching to the converted.

Equally as amusing was the hero worship that preceded and followed Sir Ken’s talk – most subsequent speakers managed to drop the lines “as Sir Ken said at dinner last night” or “talking to Sir Ken at drinks yesterday” or “as Sir Ken also believes” etc etc ad nauseam. I was waiting for the “as Sir Ken said while we were standing at the urinals…” but alas, it never came.

But if Sir Ken was top of the bill at the conference a close second was Sugata Mitra. If you ever get the chance to hear Sugata at a conference watch his TED talk first, then save your time and money as you’ll just hear the same thing.

Sugata is famous for his Hole in the Wall experiment where computers were placed in the wall of buildings in poor Indian townships, and then left there with no instructions or explanation. When the researchers revisited they discovered that the children had a) taught themselves to use the computer and the internet, b) taught themselves English and c) taught themselves advanced genetics. From this experiment Sugata concluded that students do not need teaching or teachers – their natural curiosity coupled with internet access will lead to all the learning they need. A nicely written alternative view of the experiment is here.

A subsequent development has been his idea of “Self organised learning environments (SOLE)” which is at its simplest groups of students with internet access, and occasional skype sessions with a “skype granny” to aid the learning process. Again, naturally curiosity will lead students to the learning they need.

So unlike Sir Ken, Sugata doesn’t (necessarily) believe that teachers are shit, just that they are unnecessary. However, luckily for him Professors of Educational Technology at Newcastle University are in demand, so there’s career hope for us yet.

As it happens I have been part of a massive experiment – in this experiment tens of thousands of students were not given access to a lousy computer in a hole in a wall, but were given their own laptop! I am in daily (yes daily) contact with a subset of these students and I would like to report the following results:

a) all students have learnt how to use the machines (so Sugata & me best buddies on this)
b) no students have taught themselves a foreign language 😦
c) advanced genetics nowhere to be see 😦

However

a) advanced game playing much in evidence
b) advanced k-pop listening and viewing also in evidence

The students do use their laptops to extend learning initiated by teachers and teaching, but this sort of thing doesn’t count in Sugata’s view (I assume!). But saving Sugata’s bacon I have discovered that sometimes students look things up that interest them without teacher initiation. This is a completely new development because before the laptop initiative no students anywhere had ever looked things up in, say, a book.

I have also been part of a concurrent initiative where adults have been given access to a laptop, and have daily interaction with other adults who are expert in certain fields. This experiment took place in a “school”. I’m sorry to report that none of the adults in this experiment that were, say, History experts, have had their natural curiosity and access to other experts lead them to learn Physics. As it happens none of the Physics experts have learnt any Art History. And most shockingly, none of the Drama experts have learnt any advanced Mathematics – and vice versa!

The only conclusion is, pace Ken Robinson, that schools have killed their natural curiosity and creativity. He is right, after all.

The kids know what it takes to succeed.

In Victoria (where I currently work) the VCE exams are about to start. These take place at the end of year 12, and are externally set and marked. Unlike England there are no exam boards from which to choose – every student sitting Economics, say, sits exactly the same exam. From this exam the VCAA (the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority) derives a “study score” which represents each student’s relative grade in that subject when compared to the entire cohort.

During the year there are school-based assessments, but the school awarded grades are moderated against the exams.

From the study scores an ATAR (Australian Tertiary Admission Rank) is calculated which is simply a ranking of all students in the cohort across all subjects on a scale of 0 – 100. The best 20 (approx) students receive an ATAR of 99.95, the next 20 99.90 and so on. ATARs less than 30 aren’t reported.

ATAR scores are the primary discriminator by which students can gain entry to university. Students apply to a number of courses, and the high demand courses and institutions have high ATAR scores necessary for entry. Universities don’t set ATARs for entry beforehand – if they have 500 students applying for a course with 150 places they take the top 150 ATAR scores (in fact, a bit more complicated than that). So to study Arts at the University of Melbourne in 2014 a student needed an ATAR > 92.00 to get in (again, a bit more complicated, but true enough). To study Arts at Federation University in Ballarat a student needed an ATAR of > 50 (approx) as the university and course had lower demand.

So the VCE exams could be fairly described as “high stakes”, although every year around exam time there are lots of newspaper articles about how getting a lower than desired ATAR is not the end of one’s life.  Despite the high stakes nature of the VCE the exams do have general public support – they are thought to be rigorous, difficult but fair, and reward sustained hard work over the year. A generalisation, but these views are shared by students, parents, teachers and politicians. Although the VCE courses and exams are far from perfect, there has been no issue about exams being “dumbed down”, or alternatively that they are simply snapshots that are unrepresentative of the student and should not be used for important life choices (such as which university you can go to).

In schools students and teachers work very hard to prepare for the exams – the study designs are rigorous and there is a lot of content to get through. So how do you succeed at the VCE? Again, the papers are helpful and this time of year publish top tips from last year’s high achieving students – and so does the Department of Education. And a common top tip from students – complete all your school work and then do lots and lots and lots of old exams. Do every old exam you can get your hands on. Get in study groups and do old exam questions together. Do old exams and pester your teachers to mark them. Do old exams and take particular note of the examiners report. But do lots of old exams.

The VCAA very helpfully publishes old exams together with the examiners reports, and there is an entire industry of commercially prepared trial exams and books of exam-type questions sold to schools and students. Schools would typically have trial exams from multiple companies (5+, at least) so together with the real old exams students could easily have access to 25+ trial exams per subject. And the best students do these exams. I visited a school a few weeks ago where the science department handed out bound copies of these trial exams to chemistry & physics students (the only ones I saw) that were easily 200 pages thick – not of coursework, but simply hundreds and hundreds of questions.

So why is this interesting?

1) It’s accepted that the VCE maths exam (say) fairly and comprehensively tests maths ability
2) The VCE course is difficult, so much so that teachers struggle to cover the curriculum properly
3) Its generally accepted that success in VCE requires a great deal of hard work from the students (and teachers)
4) Doing hundreds and hundreds of questions is great preparation for the exam
5) Society agrees the VCE courses and exams are rigorous, fair, test ability and reward hard work.

No particularly earth shattering insights there – except that this approach has become increasingly different from any other aspects of schooling in the years before VCE. In many schools if you tried teaching Year 8 subjects the same way (difficult, lots of questions etc)  there’d be a revolt  (most likely from the teachers). Teachers and schools hold a disconnect – VCE requires hard work, lots of study, lots of questions, but earlier years do not. Before VCE you can apparently learn from group work, projects, discovery learning, self directed learning, with guides at the side while sitting in beanbags. But not a single school would accept that is a reasonable approach to take with the VCE. If the goal is genuine learning, we know which approach works.

A blog post (whose link I can no longer find – HT to whoever can point me in the right direction) written by a maths HoD I read recently suggested schools get their hands on old textbooks because these have short explanations followed by lots of questions. Modern texts have long winded explanations, acres of white space, with few questions. My recent experience bears this out.

Of course the argument would be that the pre-VCE approach results in “real” learning, and that the VCE approach is rote learning. The first point has been shown to be false (yes, simply a link is a cop-out) and I’ll leave the rote learning canard for another day.

21st Century Learning (not)

Here are a couple of photos of the Google booth I took at an Ed/Tech conference earlier this year which made me smile.

Google#1 Google#2

What do you notice? Yes – there is a “sage on a stage”. Students are seated in rows. The teacher is the holder of knowledge which is being poured into the empty vessels sitting in front of him (yes, a him). No inquiry based learning or problem solving going on. So, not very 21st Century, then.

Google is a very successful company. They communicate very well with a wide range of people, and provide tools used by millions of teachers around the world (including me). But demonstrably they know when its appropriate to perform something that could be described as “teaching”, and to do it in a “traditional” manner – because clearly it works.

Does Google believe in collaboration and all the other 21st Century-isms? Of course they do, but still they recognise there is a place for students sitting in rows listening to the teacher. And this is not an attack on Google – it is a post in support of Google because they are not tied to a particular philosophy of educating their customers, and are willing to vary their method of delivery depending on the content and the audience.

So, Google is pragmatic enough to recognise the inherent utility of traditional-style teaching and learning, but are our schools (many using Google products) as equally pragmatic?