Stop Blaming the Teachers for Poor Results

December 5, 2019 10 MIN READ Eddie Blass

We’ve seen a decline in PISA comparative results for Australia for nearly 2 decades now, and what have seen in response. More rigid curriculum requirements; more rigid reporting requirements; more rigid testing requirement; more pressure and blame on the teachers; more diversified funding of schools leading to greater inequality of provision; and in some states, the banning of some technology from the classroom. Same solutions being proposed by the same people, based on a belief of ‘back to basics’ on the premise that the basics haven’t changed at all over the last 20 years…

We have 20 years of evidence now to show that these solutions aren’t working, and shouting them louder is just going to increase the volume of the failure. We need to think about the problem differently and ask different questions. Instead of asking ‘what is wrong?’ and ‘who should we blame?’, we should be looking at practice that is working and asking how can we scale this change.

Research shows that one of the key reasons that kids disengage from learning is that it is not interesting them. They don’t see the relevance or purpose of the outcome. And I get it. What is the point of being able to pass a maths test of random questions? But give them the situation of running a company where they need to earn enough profit to ‘buy the lunch they want’ and you’ll be amazed at how much maths gets learnt. And this is real life. If your business doesn’t earn enough money, you’re eating cheap food rather than expensive take away! 

This is more than problem-based learning. It is self-directed learning, where the kids choose the problems they want to solve around situations that have meaning and relevance to them. It is about kids learning through application and the ‘need to know’, and about them finding out the answers for themselves in order to solve the problem. And won’t it be interesting to see what the actually cover? I cannot think of a time in my whole working life when I have used sine, cosine, or Pythagoras for example; but I do use algebra, fractions, percentages, measures of central tendency, probability, etc. 

The problems I would have chosen to solve would have been business-based problems requiring this base of mathematics and statistics, while a kid interested in architecture and design might have looked at angles, scale, and equations. 

The idea that everyone has to have a base knowledge of everything is outdated. The internet has more content available than any textbook or teacher, so what we need to learn is how to access that information and learning, and how to apply that to problems. Change the problem, and we still know the process.

The same with reading. I hated reading as a child and have really only got into reading in the last 10 years when I realized that I could actually choose what I wanted to read rather than being told what to read. Have I suffered in life from never understanding Shakespeare or other great literary works? I don’t think so.  I find I like to read novels set in other countries to learn about different cultural contexts – not something we were ever offered at school. Most kids love to be read to at night by their parents, but the fun of reading disappears once we get older because we are set texts to read and while they may be the teachers choice, or the exam boards choice, they are not ours. I still give up on books I don’t like reading, so I’m not surprised that kids do. 

Now, I’m sure that many are reading this thinking ‘nice idea but not practical in a classroom with a single teacher’. You’re wrong. It is very possible. It just involves a rethink of the role of the teacher from being the font of all knowledge who decides what the kids need to learn (usually with little choice due to the application of a set curriculum), to a facilitator of learning who engages with the learners at their level on their terms. They don’t have to have read the book in order to have a good conversation with the kid about it. In fact, the conversation is more student led if they haven’t read the book as the kid has to tell them about it!

There will always be a need for specialist teachers to teach advanced areas of curriculum, such as advanced maths for those who want to progress with that pathway, but for the majority of kids, a more generalized approach is sufficient for what they will need in life, and is more likely to be successfully completed.

Blaming teachers for not being specialist enough, being under-qualified and not doing their job well enough is not the answer and is opinion only. Changing the curriculum demands, timetable and organisation of schools, and moving to more flexible, process based assessment methods, would be a response that relates to the research in the field – and yes that may mean that some teachers need some professional development, but for many it is simply going to be given the freedom to really teach.