Responding to 21st century challenges: the future for teacher education

by Professor Field Rickards

It is not difficult to figure out why there has been so much attention devoted to teacher education lately. ATARs for entry to teacher education programs nationally vary widely and the quality of entrants into undergraduate teacher education is steadily falling. This lowers the esteem in which society holds the profession and deters bright students from studying teaching.

Furthermore, we have an over-supply of teaching graduates (particularly in primary and secondary humanities), which is being exacerbated by the demand driven system for undergraduate university places. While it could be argued these graduates are contributing towards the Government’s higher education participation goals, the system is also letting down hundreds of them who fail to find employment in their chosen field. Some would also argue this oversupply also constitutes a waste of public money.

However, as educators know, teachers have the biggest in-school influence on students’ learning outcomes and their professional preparation is vitally important. Governments are right to focus on getting the best people into teaching degrees, and ensuring their preparation is of a high standard. I welcome the attention they are currently paying to teacher education - it provides an opportunity for an informed debate about what we want teacher education to deliver in Australia.

Recognising graduate clinical teacher education

Teaching in the 21st century will be profoundly impacted by universal access to information, advances in neuroscience that help us better understand learning processes and the development of assessment tools which guide teaching interventions.

Contemporary teaching needs to be much more than information transmission. Teachers need to respond to these developments and integrate them into their practise, working collaboratively to solve problems and share the latest advances in practice.

More than ever, teachers’ role is to deliberately intervene to ensure every student achieves or exceeds their learning potential – as my colleague Professor John Hattie puts it, “every student should achieve at least a year’s growth in return for a year’s input.” I believe this ability to meet individual student learning needs requires an evidence-based interventionist teaching practice; at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education we call this practice clinical teaching.

Clinical teaching is intellectually challenging, requiring high levels of analytic thinking and judgement. As such, it requires study at the Masters level – as already occurs in some nations with top performing education systems. This is why, in time, I believe all teachers should complete clinical graduate study before qualifying. However, this is a long-term vision; in the meantime, we need a way forward that includes both undergraduate and graduate programs.

Just as we require high standards for entry into other professional degrees like medicine, law and psychology, we should require equally high standards for entry into teacher education. There therefore needs to be some rationalisation of the numbers of school-leavers studying teaching at the undergraduate level, particularly in areas of over-supply.

At the same time, we need to start building the numbers of clinical teachers in our system, and formally recognising their expertise. A good starting point is the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) national program standards, which currently offer little differentiation between undergraduate courses and postgraduate courses in terms of graduate outcomes.

A more demanding set of standards based on the attributes of clinical teachers should be applied to all graduate teacher education courses, and institutions should be supported to meet these standards.

So, what is clinical teaching?

Clinical teachers are interventionist practitioners who:
  • monitor and evaluate their impact on learning and adapt the lesson to meet the needs of each student - rather than expecting the student to keep up regardless of their circumstances
  • use evidence about what each student knows and understands at the start of the teaching period to inform their teaching interventions
  • target their assessment and teaching practices to maximise the information obtained and the chances of improving the impact of teaching on student learning
  • construct appropriate teaching and learning environments for every student, whatever their developmental stage and current abilities
  • evaluate the impact of their teaching, to inform next steps.

Teaching is much more than passionate information transmission and behaviour management – too often, universities prepare teachers to teach subjects rather than students. Instead, our approach is to prepare our graduates as clinical practitioners who can meet the individual learning needs of their students.

The structure of clinical teacher education course is also important, although not sufficient – shared thinking between the school and the university is essential. We need to break the cycle of teachers mentoring pre-service teachers in the manner in which they were taught. This simply recycles practice, without incorporating new research or fresh perspectives.

In the Master of Teaching, our teacher candidates spend two days a week in schools, supported by a school-based Teaching Fellow and a University-based Clinical Specialist, in addition to their Mentor Teacher. In this way, their university and school learning is seamlessly linked.

Preparing graduate teachers as clinical practitioners has never been more urgent. Australia’s performance in international rankings is slipping, and our most able students are falling behind the fastest. New research from my colleague Professor Patrick Griffin has also found that the top 25 per cent of students in particular are not progressing as quickly as the bottom 25 per cent. We need teachers who can stretch our most able students and meet their individual needs, and we need them now.

Teacher Selector

Academic achievement is not the only measure universities should use to select pre-service teachers.

We have been developing an additional tool to inform the selection of candidates into the Master of Teaching. This sophisticated online instrument will measure candidates' aptitude for teaching, based on the qualities we know excellent teachers possess (literacy, numeracy, cognitive ability, personality) and build a solid evidence base for the identification of effective teachers.

Introducing this tool will further enhance our selection processes, so that we know we are admitting the teacher candidates with the highest potential to become great teachers. We hope to introduce it from 2014.

No more low standards

We need to stop settling for ‘ok’ in education. We should have high expectation of all our students – I would like to see them all reach their highest levels of achievement. This means demanding high standards across our system, and teacher education is a good place to start.

This article originally appeared in Campus Review.