On the resistance to pre-prepared curriculum materials
And why it is most pronounced in secondary English
There have been innumerable surveys and reviews into workload in Australia, and so the NSW Government has engaged in a somewhat arcane and opaque tender process to develop ‘quality’ materials in record time to solve a problem that many teachers reported as an issue, but few seem to want solved.
In Australia, shared unit and lesson planning is not the norm. This might come as a surprise to overseas readers, who in all likelihood can’t see anything very wrong with sharing workload or adapting quality free resources. Perhaps it’s part of our national identity (or mythology) that we push back against any threat of authority and conformity. I have a few other ideas, going back to the roots.
My colleague Nathaniel Swain has poked the bear by supporting the idea of quality resources to support teachers. He asked for my view, and I’ve written about this more broadly. But I think the really interesting question is why secondary teachers, and in particular English teachers, are so vehemently opposed to what I think of as essentially rigorous (and if utilised across a team) low variance curriculum materials.
The secondary perspective
When speaking to a colleague recently, he told me that when he retrained from secondary to primary, he was shocked to find almost no programs. At the time, this was the norm. I found this surprising given the amount of content areas primary teachers have to cover and I could immediately see how pre-prepard materials would be a leg-up.
I see Twitter spats play out between primary and secondary teachers about this issue daily, because (I have to deduce) secondary teachers can’t begin to imagine the breadth and depth of knowledge required to teach a primary class. As well as this, they have to teach these little people to read within the first three years of schooling. And the release time for primary teachers is pretty mean.
Until recently, my experience of programs in secondary is that they're essentially a content-dump. This isn’t to say there are no ready-to-go resources provided or that the content isn’t great, but they tend to lack guidance about pedagogy, they tend to be short on skill-mapping, and as such, they’re more of a starting point than a resource. I’m going to speculate that even though there is a huge focus on unit programming in initial teacher education, a lot of teachers haven’t been taught what good programming actually is.
Receive new posts as they happen.
The roots of the issue in ITE
The uncomfortable truth is that most ITE is plagued by progressive relativism, so that when students graduate, they can only produce materials that are unmoored from a broader map of valuable skills and knowledge, with a focus on engagement over pedagogy. Barry Spurr has written about a postmodern approach to text selection here, but I think the fault is not particularly with undergraduate programs. It’s only when students come under the guidance of education faculties that ideas about challenge go out the window.
I was recently part of a focus group, where I conceded that pre-prepared materials to support a novel study would never work in secondary English. The desire to show students a mirror rather than a window is strong. Understanding of the Matthew Effect, where the rich get richer in terms of knowledge about the world, vocabulary and even reading ability, seems to be largely absent in secondary, with many teachers electing to meet their students where they are at with content selection, rather than expanding their world.
But if you combine this with the fact that most ITE for English teachers doesn’t include Science of Reading (or even Science of Learning), it’s easy to see how materials have become essentially a choose-your-own-adventure, and pedagogical myths pervade English classrooms for this reason. Learners are presented as more different than similar and many teachers believe even novice learners need to construct their own knowledge through inquiry. But to paraphrase Lyn Stone, the explicit instruction that supports reading and writing is ‘essential for some and harmful for none.’
Almost serendipitously, the timing of another Education HQ article aligned with Nathaniel’s piece, which absolutely supports my point about the issues with ITE that undermine any movement towards rigour and low-variance. An anonymous teacher is concerned that students can’t read challenging texts independently (that’s ok, it’s our job to give high support in the classroom); and that students can’t focus during sustained silent reading (a waste of instructional time for students who can’t read independently). The myths of ITE —often perpetuated by systems, schools and middle leaders —have left this teacher understandably at a loose end.
But the doozy here is the commentary from Alex Bacalja, senior lecturer in language and literacy at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education. I have to quote it in full.
There is a vast difference, the types of texts they use for storytelling and communication outside school includes social media, Tik Tok, Snapchat, film etc...
The subversion of English most of them experience in formal schooling is vastly different, it privileges print-based text and literary text and types of literature that are less familiar and therefore more challenging as well.
And one of the trends that we're see in a lot of research is that English teachers tend to pick texts that they love and that were formative for them, rather than starting from the perspective of ‘what are the best texts to engage my students?’
My commentary is unnecessary here.
I have worked in great schools with meagre programs. It wasn’t until a previous school underwent the process of registration a few years ago that I was mentored in relation to the detail actually required. Under threat of inspection, I wrote my first decent program, three years into my career and the feedback from a senior colleague was that the time-saving enabled her to focus on the more intellectually strenuous and time-consuming work of serving her senior classes.
Many English teachers are sticklers for some kind of punitive rite-of-passage, assuming that all the hours spent at university creating origami instructions to engage students in Japanese poetry would yield some kind of ROI in the classroom. I’ve recently been involved with Ochre Education who conduct teacher-testing on their materials. Honestly, I learned something from seeing the sequencing, layout and coherence, and while it made me a little dissatisfied with my own programs, that level of quality is something I can adopt - and perhaps in the near future adapt!
As instructional leaders, we can choose to show humility and be open to new ways of doing things. I think of pre-prepared materials, done right, with effective mapping of knowledge, skills and pedagogy, as the pizza dough and sauce. The toppings represent the ways that we adapt, interact in the classroom and refine. But while ever ideology is driving classroom practice, the solution to teacher workload —and sadly the growing achievement gap —will be a way off.