The Future of Education
by Kristy Wood
I always wanted to become a teacher because I had a great passion and love of working with children. As a child I would pretend to play school and would often spend hours on end sketching and designing my own classrooms. I entered the teaching profession with a lot of enthusiasm and I really loved being with the kids.
When I first started teaching, some things about the job didn’t quite make sense to me – like the priorities we sometimes focused on and the way in which things were done. For example, we would spend an hour in a staff meeting discussing the colour and length of children’s socks or how we wanted their books ruled up, yet we didn’t spend any time talking about the level of aggression being displayed by some children and what was possibly going on for these kids and how we might support them. I know that many of my colleagues also became teachers because of a similar love of children; however, in the day-to-day practice of school life, little of this joy or enthusiasm was expressed as it quickly became about meeting outcomes and the many other tasks required of a teacher. Unfortunately, some of those great teachers that I studied with have since left the profession.
Some of the issues occurring in education today are high staff turnover and teacher stress, depression and burnout as well as an increase in the issues schools are being asked to deal with. The Weekend Australian ran an article on the 17th of June 2012 titled 'Confronting the real problem in nation's schools'. This article states that “the latest Staff in Australia's Schools survey conducted by the federal education department found about 30 per cent of primary school teachers and 35.4 per cent of secondary teachers were dissatisfied with their students' behaviour, and about 10 per cent of those who had left the profession cited student behaviour as the main factor behind their decision”.
I recently attended and presented at the Australian Teacher Education Association (ATEA) Conference for teacher educators and academics. My interest in going was to see what was happening at the university and higher decision making levels and to get a sense of where the future of education in Australia was heading. I was deeply inspired by the two main keynote speakers, Professor Marie Brennan (who was introduced as the guru of teacher education in Australia) and Professor Kay Livingston who has been seconded as Director in Education Scotland, the Scottish Government agency responsible for leading and supporting the transformation of the Scottish Education System.
During her address Marie Brennan shared that “we are currently living in a society of overwork. We find it hard to stop doing one hundred things a second”. She shared that “we need to rethink our purpose of education and find ethical reasons for being, as we don’t know where we are now so we don’t know where we might want to go. We have more ‘ouches’ in our field than not – there is dystopia, despair and loneliness. We are currently living in such a way that we have little or no time; in the past, we had the occasional crisis but now it seems that we are living in a state of constant crisis – this is now omnipresent”.
In my experience, what Brennan shared is very true. Many teachers express that they are so busy trying to do everything that is asked of them, that they feel exhausted and have little or no time to really connect with the children. Many question what the point of it all is. There is a drive to achieve and meet standards, but on the ground this may not be what the children in their class need on a particular day. There just isn’t the time to address what is really going on as the focus and pressure to achieve is often made of greater importance than the well-being of the people within the system.
In her address Brennan also stated: “Many people are driven to achieve and want their kids to do well, so that they can have a good career in life, but there is a hollowness to the way in which it is being done. People feel this hollowness, but they are not prepared to drop out of it for fear of it ruining their chances in life. This is particularly pertinent for the middle class who feel they need to hang on to any advancements they can get to give their children the best chance in life”.
Growing up in a middle class family, I can relate to what Brennan shared. School life was very much focused on future outcomes and what you would ‘be’ when you left school. Never was there a focus on the quality of the life you would live, just on whether you would progress to what was considered a successful career. How you felt about yourself and what you did, didn’t matter so long as you could get a ‘good’ job and a decent income; whether you enjoyed the job or not wasn’t really relevant.
Brennan discussed how ”it’s not about band-aiding the bad bits”, and that “taking the USA’s and UK ‘s approach to a national curriculum doesn’t work. Our current curriculum is a disgrace: it is targeted to the middle and top and it doesn’t make connections to the world of all children”. She has been working with some teachers in Queensland who are overwhelmed with what is expected of them with the introduction of the new curriculum. They feel that the direction in which education is heading is moving away from the needs of the children they serve. They have shared how the curriculum is overly full and lesson content is too prescribed. There is no time to stop and if a child doesn’t understand something, there isn’t the space to find a way that might help them to better understand it. The teachers are under extreme pressure to get through the curriculum and achieve results.
Brennan shared how “the education system is heavily influenced by political agenda. Early childhood has been moved into the same kind of standards as the schooling sector. The standards movement hasn’t helped to develop creative and future-oriented forms of education, and there is no time with the new curriculum”.
I was recently talking to a group of early childhood teachers in NSW. They shared how there is now a pressure to teach kids to read and write at a younger age. They have parents approaching their centre anxious that their three and four year old children can’t read and write yet. The early childhood teachers questioned where childhood had gone. Kindergarten and preschool used to be about play and learning how to get along with others, now it is about achieving. The teachers also shared how they noticed that many young children are experiencing a lot of anxiety, as there is a pressure on them to be perfect and achieve.
The staff from one centre in an affluent area in Sydney shared how for years their preschool was under pressure to give in and do what all the other centres in the area were doing and offer literacy and numeracy programs. They implemented these for a period of time and then felt it wasn’t working: the children were becoming more anxious as they felt the pressure on them to achieve and consequently less inclined to experiment and try new things. The centre then reverted back to a play-based focus and noticed that the children were happy and more willing to try new things as they now had the freedom to follow their curiosity and impulses. The preschool found that initially, some parents did not like the play-based approach as they held the beliefs and push that was being promoted community wide that academic learning needed to happen in early childhood settings. The centre now claims that they are play-based and do not offer formal education programs. Some parents have moved their children to other centres, but the majority love the approach of this centre and how their children feel about going there. This centre was also recently assessed by the Early Childhood Education and Care Directorate and awarded a stellar rating of exceeding the National Quality Standard in every area of assessment.
We need to put learning into context. When a baby is learning to walk, we don’t expect them to get up and take steps without ever falling, being unsteady or wobbling. If a baby falls over once, we don’t tell them they are doing it wrong, we support them. If they fall over ten times, we don’t get frustrated with them, we continue to support and encourage them. If a child takes longer than another child to learn to walk, we know they just need more encouragement and support. So, what has happened to that process and understanding of learning?
We now have pressure in early childhood centres for children to be achieving, and there is a pressure and time frame in which they need to get there. A day care worker was telling me recently that she needed to present a learning journal each day for the one year old children in her care. She needed to justify how she was spending the day and what educational outcomes were being met. She said it took a lot of time to prepare the journal and that it often took her away from being able to spend time with the children; sometimes she only had time to change their nappies and then put them down again so she could fulfil the paper work requirements. She felt sad that it was moving in this direction as she loved being with children but felt that in her day she spent little time actually being with them.
Brennan explored how “we are currently in a situation where we are educating children now for future occupations or jobs that don’t even exist yet. So we need to be teaching children to read the world, not just the word. Facilitation of knowledge is not enough of the job of teachers. Education is currently tied to the project of the nation, but we need to make it about global citizenship and how to be with others in the world. We need to make it about embodying the person, not just looking at education as the teaching of brains on sticks. We need knowledge - different kinds of knowledge, linked to people's lives and networked across countries and linked to action and new kinds of citizenship where we care for one another as a world community. Otherwise, we end up with Thatcher's ’there is no such thing as society’. Individualism is not a sensible goal for schooling, which ought to be about building the social - making human connections, and connections to place”.
Our focus on individualism has not worked. It adds to a lack of care, empathy and understanding in society and encourages a 'do what I can to get on top of others' mentality, regardless of any concern for the level of integrity and the impact on those around us. This also plays out in how we now see schools competing with each other for student enrolments and the focus and push for children to achieve better NAPLAN results. Many teachers express how everything goes on hold to prepare children for NAPLAN. As school communities we also need to be pooling resources and work together to achieve greater resources and support for our teachers and students.
Brennan asked “so how do we make it better now?” She continued by saying that “we need to walk with others and find other ways of looking at and being in the world together”. This comment strongly connected with the main themes of Kay Livingston’s address.
Professor Kay Livingston has also had a wealth of experience, in the education sector in the UK and internationally. She was the former director of Scottish Teachers for a New Era and has particular expertise in the research and development of new approaches to teacher education for the 21st century.
Livingston presented that her biggest learning in reforming the Scottish education system was that “relationships matter”. And, “when it comes to reform or making changes, we need to first consider the human factor and the impact decisions will have on individual people". She observed that “changes in course programmes and the different approaches to learning and teaching were challenging for staff in the Faculty of Education and teachers in schools and having an impact on their identity as teachers and consequently their confidence".
Livingston shared that “lifelong learning should be the norm for pupils, teachers and teacher educators. But this isn’t always the message conveyed to pre-service teachers”. Livingston reflected on an experience of when she was a university lecturer in education supervising a student teacher. She shared how she had watched this student teacher develop and prepare during her time at university. This student was totally committed to wanting to be the best teacher she could be, she was very organised and her dedication to studying, planning her lessons and researching impressed Livingston. Livingston went to supervise this student teacher on her practicum. The student had prepared a great lesson that she taught. After the lesson the student was reflecting with Livingston on how the lesson had gone. She shared how she thought the lesson had gone really well, that she had been able to effectively manage the behaviours and teach what she had prepared, she was chuffed that it had gone to plan and that the lesson had appeared to flow. Livingston then asked her, “so what do you think the children learnt from that lesson?” The colour drained from the student teacher’s face, as she began to feel that she hadn’t even seen the students; she had been too busy teaching and she had no idea what they had learnt. Livingston shared that in this moment she realised that we may well be preparing teachers to teach but not preparing them to understand and encourage learning.
Livingston continued by saying that “teacher education needs to be about that personal interaction in the learning process. Whole people come to work, they don’t leave their ideals, beliefs, values and ideologies behind; they are with them in all they do and this influences how they interpret and understand things. At the university level we need to get to know our students and to understand them as individuals and what they bring to the teacher education programmes. She said we expect teachers to understand their pupils, but this isn’t necessarily how we educate teachers. We need to make the education process more about understanding individual learning needs and aspirations”.
Livingston expressed that “we often have a picture that the university lecturer is the expert and they will deliver the knowledge that student teachers need. But we need to dismantle these hierarchies by asking everyone to be career long learners. The principles of 21st century learning apply to teacher learning as well as pupil learning. How do we support the learning of teachers who are in different places in their own learning? Some teachers fear that if it is more active learning that we promote, then they might lose control in their classrooms. Change takes a long time because of the emotional challenges going on, so when we make changes to education policy, we need to consider how we will support the individuals in this. At the moment there is a double vision with education. It is to empower schools and teachers to make decisions, but then the government ministers set results and assessments that need to be achieved and these two things feel in tension for many teachers. It leaves educators with a feeling of confusion about how to act”.
I have heard many teachers talk about this exact conundrum. The pressure from the hierarchy above to get students to perform and achieve, which has increased over the years, can push teachers into an anxiety and drive as they now don’t have the freedom to approach things in the way that they feel may be needed. When the teachers are under this kind of pressure to perform, it permeates into their classrooms.
In an article in the Australian Teacher Magazine titled ‘A breeding ground for stress and burnout’, Jo Earp states: ”Teachers are overloaded with paperwork, time that’s required to prepare classes, the reports for assessments and parent-teacher interviews, and deadlines for submitting grades and the constant marking of assessments and similar tasks. Then the other stresses of actually being in a classroom with little teacher assistance; having diverse classrooms with lots of students that have very special needs, and the teacher being expected to cater for all these diverse needs. The teachers who are really committed and dedicated work too long, too hard and too intensely and are then vulnerable to burnout.
“Burnout is the point at which all your normal coping mechanisms have been exceeded. In other words, there is emotional exhaustion and nothing left to give. Another component of burnout is depersonalization, when a person starts to distance themselves from the job. A teacher becomes less sympathetic towards their students, they have less tolerance for any classroom disruptions, and they don’t prepare their lessons as well and are not committed to their work.” (Earp, 2012)
A teacher said to me recently: “I wish I could just teach. I wonder, do I put time into dealing with how the kids are, but when I do that I don’t have time to get them to achieve the results we are pressured to get them to achieve. But if I don’t spend the time on this stuff, the well-being and care and talking to them, I can’t get on with the work because they are not in a space to learn until this other stuff is dealt with. Then I wonder, what’s the point of it all? I’m doing myself in trying to achieve all of this, it’s not working for the kids or me, their achievements aren’t improving and neither is how they feel. Are we really smarter than the animals, or have we just created a greater mess?”
The future of education needs to be about people first and foremost. When we are making system wide decisions and policies, we need to look at the impact this will have on people and how they will be supported by the systems and policies that are put in place. A lot of teachers join the profession because of a love for children and humanity. We need to keep this the foundation of education and develop what is needed from there. Often economics and political agendas determine educational policy, curriculum and focus instead of being developed and determined by the real needs of the children whom the education system is supposed to be serving. Those involved in the separate areas of research, policy and practice need to talk to each other and develop a better understanding of each other.
We need to acknowledge what is really going on and explore why there is an increase in the rates of teacher stress, depression and burnout and how this then impacts on the quality of education being provided to our children. We also need to look at the ever increasing conditions we are seeing in children like the rise in anxiety and depression at ever younger ages and begin the process of working together and supporting each other to create an education system that puts all people first. The current stresses, dissatisfaction and burnout rates impacting on all areas of education from early childhood to university level is concerning. It is now more urgent than ever before that we start to make some changes. Changes that include focusing not only on the brain and intellect, but also on the quality of life and our relationships in it - our children’s future and the future of our society depend on it.