This is an ‘open letter’ written on behalf of the teachers involved in the #aussieED PLN. It is a request to understand your vision for the future of education in Australia.
So often education is politicised. This letter is an attempt to steer away from the murky politicised debate of education and focus on a positive connection between grassroots teachers and their education minister.
During a recent #aussieED chat on twitter (where thousands of teachers gather weekly to discuss issues and pedagogy) I asked, ‘If you could ask the Education Minister anything, what would it be?’ I was overwhelmed by the scale of the reply. The responses were quite varied and I will do my best in this letter to encapsulate the spirit of the requested questions.
I was very proud of the fact that the majority of questions centred around looking forward. People are keen to hear what the vision for the future is. To invoke the well-known educator Carol Dweck, teachers are interested in having a growth mindset about the future of our education system. We are not fixed on the policies of the past. We are forward thinkers who want to embrace new opportunities and create better results for our students. However, teachers are realistic, we are fully aware that we need to work within our systems and these systems take the lead from the government, hence the question, What is your vision for the future of education in Australia?
- Higher education
For me the question of Higher Education is very much tied with our growing obsession of the PISA results. @AlmaHarris1 in her recent keynote at the ACEL conference challenged the ‘status quo’ of putting up the PISA results on some sort of international pedestal. Alma suggested we need to look at the context of each country and the way in which it analyses its data to achieve its given results. Alma quoted a principal from Singapore who said, “What works in Singapore works because we are Singaporean.” As a teacher who spent many years teaching in South East Asia, particularly Singapore, I can give a first hand account of how many of the procedures and expectations that are commonplace there would falter and be untenable in Australia. Here the lesson clearly is: The cultural context of the environment in which you desire to change educational policy must be reflected in a country’s official policies. Strategies which take that culture into account are likely to be more successful than ones that are simply transplanted from another part of the world and dumped on teachers and students. As Drucker says, ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
Given this, one must ask if Australian Primary and Secondary education is not meeting the desired outcomes as are perceived by government officials, why is an Australian education (particularly a tertiary education) so hotly desired by international students; particularly international students who come from countries that perform high on the PISA results. Clearly, this juxtaposition shows that the PISA results do not reflect the thought processes of the students and families who move internationally just to obtain an Australian education.
For me, I see this as a lack of collective clarity of Australian values. We need to know what is it about being Australian, about our Australian Education and way of life, that we are proud of and that other nations find so alluring. It is unlikely the Australians will suddenly have students studying all hours of the night to increase our performance in standardised tests marginally. What could be more effective is embracing what is awesome about our Australian culture and embedding those traits into the curriculum. Historically, Australians are known as hardworking problem solvers. One only needs to look at our ANZAC history or the way that we ‘punch above our weight’ on international trade markets to see that we can figure out how to get things done. Perhaps our curriculum should reflect and nurture our Australian characteristics and heritage rather than chase PISA pipe dreams?
There were three areas however that are causing educators around Australia some distress and in many ways they are all interrelated. One is the overcrowding of the curriculum. It is becoming a common mantra with many teachers, particularly those in the early years who they wish they had fewer areas to cover so they could focus on the crucial areas! Secondly, funding is always a concern. For me however, funding is the one political football I am happy for politicians to play with. As a minister you need to juggle the books, as a teacher I need to teach my students. We help each other by doing our respective jobs well. Things become muddy and murky when politicians start telling teachers how to teach. This leads me to one of the biggest challenges for the future of education in Australia which is ‘well being’. We often talk of student wellbeing, and rightly so, but how often do we address the issue of teacher wellbeing? Too often am I counselling teachers who sit in their kitchens and cry at the end of the day or the weekend because of the overwhelming workload and responsibility placed upon them. Just like a footballer getting ready for a big game; we want teachers in the right headspace to teach more effectively! How can you give your best, when you don’t feel your best?
Thank you in advance for taking the time to read this letter. I would warmly welcome any ministerial response and I conclude this letter with an open invitation to all ministers to join the #aussieED PLN online and interact with teachers directly.
Yours in education
Mr Brett Salakas
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