The heavy load of an Education revolution: the chicken or the egg?

It is now generally recognised that there is an acute shortage of specialist teachers of mathematics and the natural sciences. The same is true of foreign languages, while history teaching in many schools is entrusted to teachers who lack training in the discipline. Why is this? Readers involved in the councils of our state secondary colleges will no doubt recall some of the arguments over staffing. Even if you can attract a teacher qualified to teach mathematics, French, history or literature, a case will be made for filling the vacancy with a teacher of one of the vocational subjects these colleges have been encouraged to develop. But all too often you can’t find a young maths teacher to replace the grey-haired one who has retired. This deficiency leads us to the universities. University departments that teach these core disciplines are under heavy pressure. Physics and mathematics used to attract many of the brightest undergraduates: now those with talent for mathematics are more likely to pursue degrees in information or biological sciences, where the career opportunities are greater and the salaries higher.As enrolments decline, so the funding for such departments dries up, and in many universities they have contracted or disappeared altogether.There is a similar predicament in the faculties of education. Since teaching cannot match other professions in prestige and rewards, these faculties struggle to attract the brightest undergraduates. Education faculties are poorly resourced.

Learning’s heavy load – Opinion – theage.com.au

Stuart McIntyre in the Sunday Age, April 1, outlined his observations on the current debate by the two primary parties over Education.

I paid attention when I read McIntyre’s points quoted above. We’ve had Rudd’s plan for early childhood education, as he slowly makes his way through the sectors in time (we hope) for the November election, but on reading McIntyre’s words, I wonder if we have a tragic chicken-and-egg-thang going on? That is, do we prepare our youngest learners in the first instance – then worry about how they might handle secondary schooling, VET or higher education? OR, do we need to look (as McIntyre highlights) to our universities NOW and address the chronic shortage of people who may at least be interested in teaching in these various sectors and thus, teaching our young children to begin with?

Where do we need to invest NOW, to make ongoing changes at later stages across the sectors? One reaction is that perhaps we have silo-ed the sectors a little too much in the past – an education revolution has nothing to do with paper shuffling and rhetoric, and plenty to do with making some real gutsy changes!

So why not have a go? Given the proposition outlined by McIntyre, what might we need from our unis to help facilitate:

  1. more discussion about both the early-childhood-education and national-curriculum-in-schools leads outlined by Rudd,
  2. a turn-around of the brain-drain across education sectors as retiring teachers move on and newer teachers give up in frustration, and
  3. a cultural change in the way educators – and learners – are viewed and treated by various sectors of society?

So, why not have an education “faculty” that stretches across or is embedded within all others? Surely a faculty of science with a strong science education presence is more likely to encourage budding scientists to also contemplate a career in science teaching, no? Perhaps you’d argue that this wouldn’t work because there’s already a good deal of educational research going on in the field of science education in our education faculties currently – but, my point would be, why is this work removed from the discipline itself? How much longer will we continue to extract theory from practice (or practice from theory you might also argue)?

Let’s do a quick scan of a handful of university science faculties to see how ‘present’ a focus on science education really is:

A Singaporean university has an active science faculty with research interests and centres for nano sciences, mathematics, chemistry, and medical imaging (to name but a few), but nothing obvious around science education per se.

Next, a Canadian university which does display some information about the teaching and learning initiatives undertaken by the faculty, promoting project-based learning and with a sense of community orientation, easily found from the faculty’s homepage. A portion of this centre is taken up with processes and procedures to support academics in their teaching, but it’s good to see that centre of this nature has come about from the faculty’s concerns about teaching and learning in the faculty itself.

On to an Australian university, with a range of pure and applied sciences, and although once more we see support services and information for the benefit of students and staff in the faculty, along with some obvious connections across departments, there seems little overt connection to other faculties like education. As with the Canadian university, there is also recognition of the linkages to community.

And finally, to a New Zealand university, whose homepage praises the quality of their lecturers and outlines the range of programmes on offer, yet, again, there is little mention of the education strategy through which such a faculty might engage students as prospective science educators in their own right.

  • Do we require our universities to take stock of a bigger picture view of education, as it relates across faculties and disciplines?
  • We see in two of the four examples above active links to community – could this be extended to include more active pedagogical links?

Not all that long ago universities were talking about a research-teaching nexus (briefly here and here), where one strengthened the qualities of the other to provide a scholarship of teaching embedded in a discipline: so what happened? Instead of an emerging ethos that brings teaching and research together, we have a research quality framework (DEST) audit process  – the expectations of which seem to also extend into learning and teaching – which sees “research” unis separate themselves further from “teaching” unis! AND which seems to also separate teaching from education research! Oh, the tangled web we watch unravel! :o)

Hmmmm. Where do we go from here? How do we somehow contain and try to make sense of these mixed messages about “what’s best” for our education system in Australia coming from various sources (and mostly with a government flavour)? Oh, and will we be hearing more from the state education ministers on this “national curriculum” idea?

Perhaps these words again from McIntyre, may help develop a solution or two:

However, it is mostly the disjunction of school and university that handicaps the country’s educational performance. We are told certain areas of knowledge and understanding are vital to education, yet we do nothing to ensure they are sustained in the universities, and nothing to co-ordinate the two. The school is treated as a command economy, the university as a strange island of entrepreneurialism and consumer choice subject to intrusive regulation from Canberra. As we approach the federal election it would be helpful if the two main parties could attend to the disjunction.

Image: MJA, 2004

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