Opinion: the devil is in the details

Opinion: the devil is in the details

by Michael Kingston

In all the noise around teacher burnout and pay disputes, one potentially transformative policy has been largely absent from the conversation. As a mid-career teacher on sabbatical, this is the one policy that allows me to imagine both successfully returning to the classroom and having an enhanced impact on the young people I teach.

Twelve days before the Education Ministers met to discuss nationwide teacher shortages, the NSW Government released a policy, “Number one tax on teachers’ time solved”. If executed well, the proposal to provide NSW teachers with “access to a full suite of high-quality, sequenced curriculum resources” has the potential to accomplish the holy trinity of easing teacher workloads, bridging educational divides and keeping teachers in the job.

While I am enthused to see the NSW Government addressing a root cause of the teacher exodus, close examination reveals the policy risks serious and preventable failure. Such failure would be a wasted opportunity to better support both the teaching workforce and Australian students.

This is an outcome we cannot afford. Australian students have been performing progressively poorer in English, Maths and Science, for the past twenty years. Even before the pandemic a 15-year-old in 2019 was a full year of learning behind where the average 15-year-old was in 2000. If this trend is not reversed, the impact on our nation’s future will be profound.

So how does a policy which gives teachers access to learning materials help lift outcomes and keep teachers in the job? More importantly how could this policy be amended to fulfil its potential?

It is a cliché that everyone who went to school has an opinion on teaching. However, as a teacher I notice that the lay public focuses on one element of the job – the delivery. This is understandable. We remember the teachers that ignited our curiosity or made us feel valued and intelligent. We also remember the teachers who couldn’t control the class, were rude or often lost their temper.

But delivery is only one element of teaching. It is the visible tip of the iceberg supported by content knowledge, lesson and unit planning, feedback and reflection. Yet fascination with how teachers deliver lessons pervades teacher training and Government policy, and this focus has historically come at the expense of examining the content being delivered.

The best analogy I have heard for modern teaching comes from a 2009 Noel Pearson essay. Pearson describes lesson materials as “the plane” and teachers as “pilots”. Teachers are trained to deliver lessons – that is fly the plane – but they are also expected to build the plane. Despite every jurisdiction using a state or national curriculum, teachers are asked to build personalised planes for their classes, without the proper training, typically under extreme time pressure.

This an enormous and unnecessary duplication of labour and huge contributor to teacher stress. Teachers need to be trusted to make alterations based on their cohort of learners, but to propose that every class requires radically different lesson materials is a damaging myth.

In this way, the NSW Government’s proposal to provide ready-made lessons to teachers is appealing. With quality lessons ready, teachers can focus on subtle modifications, providing regular meaningful feedback and effective delivery. The job instantly becomes more manageable and achievable.

Unfortunately, the fine print reveals the NSW Government’s resources will be rolled out in under eight weeks, by “qualified external organisations” identified through an opaque tender process. Critically, there is no mention of classroom teachers being able to see, let alone road-test, the resources before they are scaled through the system.

The combination of an exceptionally hasty timeline and an absence of actual teachers involved in the process makes me fear the worst. There is typically a significant ‘reality gap’ between materials provided by Governments or Education Departments and what works in the classroom. When resources are created by people far removed from classroom experience, teachers need to spend hours modifying the allegedly ‘time saving’ resources. The ‘solution’ ends up adding to the problem.

In 2022, we can’t afford for this to be the case. The NSW Government does have the kernel of a solution. Teachers do need equitable access to high quality resources. Access to such resources would ease teaching workloads and help bridge educational divides between schools while keeping teachers in the job. But this process will take time, and it will take real teacher input.

Michael Kingston is an award-winning NT classroom teacher, an editor the Curriculum Developer and Founder of Growth Through the Middle Years – a curriculum-development project aimed at empowering teachers to inspire and grow students' skills in every class.

Note: This op-ed originally appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald and has been republished with permission.