The Australian 3/11/15
So who’s this bloke Marcuse?
Students know of Karl Marx but don’t know how his ideas might apply to their teaching.
Jennifer Oriel’s opinion piece “University courses make student teachers hostile towards the West” (The Australian, October 30) reflects the best of modern journalism, especially if it is measured by the immediate responses.
Oriel’s article, exposing the subversive ideological influences on university-based teacher-training courses, raised the ire of 574 respondents.
By contrast, two articles in the same paper by Judith Sloan and Natasha Bita on the billions of taxpayers’ dollars (yes, billions) wasted by irregular practices of education private providers received just a couple of dozen comments across the two articles.
It would seem a left-wing conspiracy inside teacher education courses is of far greater import than the actual rorting of taxpayers’ money, and maybe rightly so. A belief in thousands of teachers indoctrinating the youth of today and the leaders of tomorrow is certainly of great significance. And Oriel does an important service in reminding us of this.
Unfortunately, I argue that her perceptions may be flawed. As someone who taught in schools for 28 years, has taught in three universities and now teaches in one of the nation’s largest teacher education providers, I believe Oriel’s picture is very much at odds with the reality of the situation. To be sure, post-colonialism has permeated universities but mainly in social science courses, not in education. A straw poll of 37 students walking down the corridor or buying coffee before their first lecture revealed that less than 10 per cent had ever heard of Paulo Freire (one thought he was an injured Wallaby) and none had heard of Herbert Marcuse (“Was that Phillip Hughes’s brother?”).
While some knew of Karl Marx from their school history days (the Russian Revolution is the most popular course in Year 12 history in Western Australia and economics is widely taught), not one student could think of how Marx’s ideas might apply to their thinking about being a successful teacher.
And there’s the rub. Teacher education campuses are full of students whose overriding concern is to be a good teacher, and in large part that means they can walk into a class and leave again seven hours later, having kept some sort of order in the classroom and having engaged the students positively in that time. If you ask them whose ideas they hear about most, it’s probably John Hattie.
Hattie’s great contribution has been to make all of us — teachers and students — think carefully about what it means to be a successful teacher, and it’s his mantra of “Know thy impact” that has far greater resonance than “All power to the Soviets” or “Vive la revolution!” You’ll find students poring over the work of Bill Rogers or one of the other gurus of behaviour management with far greater purpose than ever dipping into Freire or even, lamentably, John Dewey.
Teacher education students spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about their ability to control children in class and therefore their ability to teach effectively. They always have done so (as their lecturers will honestly testify) and they always will.
Dylan Wiliam and his ideas on formative assessment remain another, if less important, influence; the students hope to use formative assessment once they have got the students quiet and listening. In Queensland, teacher education students may know more about Robert Marzano, one of the most brilliant educational entrepreneurs in the US. He still has important messages about the art and science of teaching and his messages have been adopted by many schools in the state.
And what of the lecturers themselves? The major ideological debate I have experienced has been over direct instruction (or explicit instruction) and its educational value. In the two states I have taught in, each with a high proportion of indigenous children, and with many students expecting to teach in rural and remote locations, Noel Pearson’s strong claims have received mixed responses. Yes, there’s a whiff of ideology behind the claims of each party but the divisions are largely debated rationally and civilly with the research literature summoned to support both points of view.
As far as the other perceived ideological stance — phonics versus whole-word reading — everyone I speak to seems comfortable with the view that it’s a combination of the two. It’s not either-or but and.
As for political ideologies, the worst it has ever got are divisions over Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard or Tony Abbott, as one might have in any bar on a Friday evening. One of my colleagues had no more idea about Freire than the students I surveyed.
In my experience, all that graduating teaching students want is to be a good practitioner in their chosen profession, make a difference in young people’s lives and earn some returns from their four years of study. We can be proud of them rather than condemnatory.
Bill Allen is a senior lecturer in education at Edith Cowan University.