Discover more from Rebecca Birch - On Education
On Standards (capital S)
The case for an overhaul
The times they are a-changin’ and the horses they are a-frightened. We’ve had some extremely positive news in Australia, with the final report of the Quality Initial Teacher Education Review, ‘New Beginnings,’ being released yesterday. The report calls for the teaching of ‘core content’ about how students learn, including ‘the single most important thing for teachers to know,’ namely cognitive load theory. I can’t overstate how important this is. Australian education has been held back by policy and systemic agnosticism for too long. And some universities have actively pushed back against the research, particularly in relation to reading instruction.
Within hours of the report release, universities were releasing commentary ranging from “We already do this” to “Stop telling us what to do.” Other gems included, “All our grads are happy” (there’s something like a 40% attrition rate, so perhaps the dropouts weren’t asked) and “The classroom isn’t a laboratory,” (that old chestnut). My personal favourite trope — alive and well in the last 24 hours - is where universities declare that any criticism of ITE is tantamount to teacher-bashing. It was almost like the responses were pre-drafted, ready to hit ‘send,’ much like the obituaries of ageing celebrities. The reaction, I hope, is proportional to the change about to hit the sector.
While I was elated for a little while, the many questions raised by reality started to dampen my mood. With such a negative response from major universities, will this review just result in tokenism? Is there the expertise within universities to teach the Sciences of Learning and Reading when we know that many have been promoting theoretical, inquiry and ‘balanced’ approaches? I feel the need to hashtag these statements with #notalluniversities because there are universities and individual academics doing great things without the impetus of a review. The final and, to me, most hobbling feature of the review is the way that the AITSL Teaching Standards have been shoehorned into the core content, rather than put in the bin.
The case for a rethink
The Australian Professional Standards for Teachers (APST) were published 10 years ago, well before COVID-19 at a time when people were starting to think of students as digital natives (they’re not), that teachers were redundant in light of Google, and colleagues needed significant support in things like typing a Word document (we love you, senior teachers of the world!) They reflect a focus on individualism and entrepreneurialism, and they emphasise the difference between learners rather than the similarities. It’s an understatement to say things have moved on since then, with much of the world pivoting to online learning, and the rise of grassroots movements like ResearchEd and Think Forward Educators bringing research to teachers.
The Standards are full of duplication with many suggesting that students learn in different ways. They even go as far as to suggest that students from various socio-economic backgrounds learn differently, which could be read in a multitude of ways, when in fact these groups are more likely to be casualties as a result of ‘instructional salad’. In relation to ‘how students learn’ the document is completely agnostic, allowing universities to teach whatever they like. Got an expert in WebQuests or AI on staff? Fine, waste a term asking students to build a website.
I’ve included a sample below of how the report awkwardly maps the Standards onto the core content. The detail mapped to Standard 1.1 and 1.2 is welcome, but in the spirit of the original document, and in practice, applicants needed to demonstrate that “physical, social and intellectual development and characteristics of students” needed different responses. Adaptive teaching and MTSS appear nowhere in the Standards. All three of Standards 1.3, 1.5 and 1.6 emphasise the differences between learners, whereas the new ‘core content’ seeks to rationalise teaching practice against the weight of evidence, so that the majority of learners receive universally excellent Tier 1 instruction. Under the APST, reading instruction gets one half of one Standard, shared with numeracy.
From a policy standpoint, it makes sense not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Universities may be less resistant if the existing framework is mapped —even if just performatively — onto the new one. But I think I’ve made a case here that this review would have been the perfect time to really question their efficacy. The report does this but then like an amnesiac maps them onto the core content anyway. Perhaps when the horses settle, the next logical question can be whether the Standards are in need of a makeover — ok, perhaps not the bin.
This still happens.