Episode 4 transcript

Talking Teaching with Maxine McKew, Kerry Elliott and Sophie Murphy

00:00 - Maxine McKew

I'm Maxine McKew, and this is Talking Teaching.

Hi there, and good to have your company again. In this podcast, we're taking a fresh look at a national education report that was released in May of this year. Its full title is Through Growth to Achievement, but it's popularly known as the Second Gonski Review. Now compared with the release of the first report back in 2012, also chaired by businessman David Gonski, the second, certainly as far as the mainstream media was concerned, was a bit of a one-day wonder. But not for educators, and certainly not for policymakers.

The largest employer of public school teachers in the country, New South Wales, has already embarked on a complete review of its K-12 curriculum, and with a strong focus on scaling up the effective strategies outlined in Gonski 2. And there's plenty of action across the other jurisdictions, as well.

So what's in this document? Well at the heart of it, are all the things that effective practitioners are already doing: targeted teaching, diagnostic assessment, learning progressions. The challenge for our very desperate education system, is how we scale this up and move from teaching classes to teaching individual students. That's the big one.

As the Gonski Review says, "For the most part, Australia still has an industrial model of school education that reflects a twentieth century aspiration to deliver mass education to all. It's not designed to differentiate learning or to stretch all students to ensure they achieve maximum growth." The question that educators are now wrestling with is how we collectively make the kind of shift that will mean that five years from now, we're looking at a genuinely transformed school system.

So, to discuss all of this, I talked recently with four key players: Jim Watterson, Dean of the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, Asha Murthy, CEO of the Australian Council for Educational Leaders, Mark Scott, Director General of Education in New South Wales, and Kate Cunich, Assistant Principal of Oxley College in New South Wales. In fact, I started by asking Kate if she felt the review had identified the right problem.

02:48 - Kate Cunich

What a big question. The right problem; it is a big problem. So for those of us who are in schools, we know so much that the evidence says that we have to be working with all of our learners on progression, taking them on a journey. Yet, here we are, still confined to a classroom that is set up, as you say, for a twentieth century model. Yet, as professional educators, as expert teachers, we want to be twenty-first century, and in fact, we want to be global in our approach. So, I do think we have this real gridlock, and it's been described in different ways. But, when I'm challenging my staff, as a leader, I want to be able to say that it's more than differentiation. We really need to have a look at how we deliver the curriculum and to challenge every student. That is our core work.

03:32 - Maxine McKew

Mark Scott, can I bring you in at this point? Is this a helpful document, from your point of view, as the head of New South Wales education?

03:40 - Mark Scott

Yeah, I think it's a very helpful document, and I would expect that the key findings of Gonski will shape a lot of the way education reforms over the next decade. I thought there was an interesting reaction from some of our teachers who said, "Well, we know this. This is what we're trying to do. That we don't teach to a class, we teach to a classroom full of individuals, and we're trying to develop personalized learning approach."

But, what I see as the challenge in Gonski, is that systemic question that he identifies. The teachers may be wanting to do this, but are we set up to support them to deliver it? So, what is the shape of our curriculum? What's the balance in the mix of our curriculum documents? What assessment tools are on offer for the teachers to help them deliver this personalized learning and to track progress over time? What's the professional development requirement to really help teachers teach a classroom full of individuals, rather than teach on mass to a generic group? So, I think teachers have wanted to do it. Our best teachers are doing it. Many schools are on the road to delivering what Gonski aspired to, but as a system or as education systems around the country, I'm not sure that our supporting infrastructure is in place. To that extent, it's a challenging and demanding document, and I think it will trigger quite a lot of substantive reform in its wake.

05:02 - Maxine McKew

Jim, that's a nice segue to you, in the terms of the professional development and the extent to which we're set up to deliver on this. And for my reading, I must say of Gonski, the review is advocating really precisely what your master of clinical teaching is all about; developing expertise in young teachers, so that they can apply appropriate interventions to individual students.

05:26 - Jim Watterson

Precisely, Maxine, and I think Melbourne University and the Graduate School of Education has certainly pre-empted this report by making sure that our graduate teachers from our faculty are certainly focused on being able to identify where a young person's at, and then most importantly, develop that intervention. And I think that's an important skill that comes out through this report.

So from that perspective, I think it does focus on the major problem of practice, being able to, as a teacher, identify where each student is within a sometimes complex class and being able to progress that one year's worth of impact for each of those young people.

06:03 - Maxine McKew

Asha, can I bring you in? How do you see the challenges then, of really scaling up the best of what we're already doing?

06:09 - Asha Murthy

I think I'll reinforce the points that everyone's made so far, the notion that, teachers know. They know now, the lot of them doing it, individualized, personalized learning is something every teacher talks about. I think a point that Mark brought up, which is about the system structure ... I think the structure has a lot to do with what you can deliver. When you look at trying to deliver shifting outcomes, the Review talks about a lot of things, and I think a lot of them are "how to do things better." You want to transform the system. You want to keep improving it, but you also want to have some areas of risk-taking entrepreneurialism, which perhaps, is what we need to discuss. So the system structure, to me, has a lot to do with how we can move this forward.

06:57 - Maxine McKew

Could I suggest, in fact, it's not just system structure. We have system structures-

07:01 - Asha Murthy


07:01 - Maxine McKew

We have so many different structures.

07:04 - Asha Murthy


07:04 - Maxine McKew

Kate, could I come to you? To what extent do you feel our unwieldy structures are an impediment?

07:09 - Kate Cunich

The structure I often see, is the square box that keeps us constrained in the schools. So, we have conflicting initiatives. As you were speaking, Asha, I was thinking of what we're doing at Oxley, in terms of looking at something cool, like maths. How do we marry this idea of growth and progression with our Australian curriculum and really challenge and be bold as leaders. So I suppose, I have first-hand experience on taking an existing traditional structure in a school and being that risk-taker. I know that Gonski talks about the partnership. How do we take our parents on that journey, when we are being bold enough to challenge, in fact, a structure that they grew up with-

07:48 - Maxine McKew

So is that at key feature for school leaders, to keep pushing and pushing and pushing the system?

07:53 - Kate Cunich

Absolutely. I think we have to be bold and brave because we have this nexus. That's the perfect word. We know something has to give, so this is the time for Australian leaders in education to be bold.

08:05 - Maxine McKew

Mark, can I bring you in on another point? I noticed a recommendation in Gonski is a new online assessment and teaching tool. I can hear some teachers saying, "Oh no. Not another tool." But how do you see this in New South Wales? And in fact, if we do get this right, are we looking at some kind of post-NAPLAN assessment?

08:24 - Mark Scott

Yes, I think we are. I often draw parallels to the medical profession. I'm glad when I walk into the doctor, he doesn't just treat me as a generic man in my fifties. He or she's very interested in finding out precisely what is going on with me, and then imposing the right intervention to help my medical condition improve.

I think new tools are going to become available for teachers to really provide a far more detailed and granular diagnostic about what a child knows, what a child doesn't know, to identify learning gaps early, and help the teacher provide the right level of intervention to overcome knowledge gaps, to build confidence and to ensure that every child is learning. And so these formative assessment tools, there are some that are about now. To make them more widely available and provide these tools in accessible forms to teachers in every classroom in the country, I think is a wonderful thing. I think it's going to come, and it's going to provide that much set of richer and deeper information that far exceeds what NAPLAN can do.

NAPLAN is a single-point-in-time measurement exercise. It takes quite a long time to get the results. It's limited by its nature. But more regular, low-stress, systematic testing, providing rich data back to teachers and parents, but also providing systems with information in the performance of schools and performance of the system as a whole, I think this is a positive thing. And it's just putting better tools in the hands of professionals so professionals can do appropriate work with every child in the class. So, it might sound intimidating. I hope it less intimidating than NAPLAN. I hope it's more relevant and provides better information. And the people I've spoken to say the technology will absolutely enable us to deliver this in coming years.

10:12 - Maxine McKew

Jim, what do you think? Have you got worries about, actually, what's not in the Second Gonski Review?

10:23 - Jim Watterson

Yes, Maxine, and I do. I think Gonski 2 is the greatest missed opportunity I've experienced in my career. I think the thing that I'm critical of Gonski about is that it's very big on admiring the problem, and there's not enough evidence within the document that they've hit on the right problems. Nor is there a focus on current practice that does work. And there are some amazing schools and regions and states across Australia doing terrific work.

So I'm not critical of what Gonski talks about. I just don't think they are the issues that are going to change the national performance standards. Things like talking about rural and remote schools. Over four thousand of our ten thousand schools are outside of the metropolitan area, and we know that the performance drops, the further away from the city centre that you move. It doesn't talk enough about closing the gap for indigenous students. It doesn't really offer anything in terms of early childhood. And I think some of these big issues, more than just problems of practice really need to be focused upon if we're actually going to change the dial on Australia's performance. There's a lot more to be done here, and I just think in four or five years time, we'll certainly be improving practice through the prescription that comes through this Gonski report. But I think we'll still be searching for much bigger answers, in terms of how we can actually change opportunities right around the nation, in all locations.

11:39 - Maxine McKew

Asha, what do you think of Jim's critique?

11:41 - Asha Murthy

Well actually, I would agree in the sense that there needs to be more of a focus on expertise in this. The second thing is also about encouraging "What if?" kind of thinking or "outside-in" kind of thinking. So, we see that as the opportunity, to say, "If you want to shift the system, then perhaps, how do we enable people at the cull phase to do some of the things teachers are doing now, but then scale it up a little bit more?" Because we have a national perspective, we see it across all sectors, all systems, all states. And as Jim says, there's plenty of pockets of great stuff, but how do you scale that up?

12:18 - Maxine McKew

Kate, to Jim's point, and Asha's there, would the document have been more helpful to teachers if there'd been many more case studies of really good practice?

12:27 - Kate Cunich

I think so. The question that is always asked of me is "Show me. We know what to do, but how do we do it?" And I think, if I can say, the word that resonates most of all is "growth." I think that's a change of mindset for teachers, and this for me is one of the opportunities which shift the mindset from achievement to growth for every learner and progression. I actually think that will lift the system. But what do we do? I think the secret is in growth. I have fifteen year olds who now say to me, "I'm here; I need to go there." So the mindset is not failure, and I think that empowers teachers. My job is to grow my students, grow my learners, rather than to reach a specific bar. I think-

13:12 - Mark Scott

Maxine, can I just come back on Jim? I think Jim's assessment is a little harsh. I agree with Kate. I think the growth and improvement concept embedded in this is important. I think you can see the influence of John Hattie in this report, and I think you can see the influence of ACARA in this report. I suppose on the question of case studies, I feel there's a myriad of case studies in education. Challenge is how you scale that. That's where I think this report goes centrally to some fundamental issues. What is the nature of the curriculum that we need to teach young people? What is the mix between knowledge and capabilities? One of the reasons New South Wales commissioned Jeff Masters to do a full curriculum review the week after Gonski was released is in part curriculum form around the country is largely glacial, in the time scale it takes. I sometimes quote Woodrow Wilson who said, "It's easier to move a cemetery, than it is to change a school curriculum."

School curriculum change is very difficult, and so to put that on the agenda, and to also look at the review of the national curriculum in that context, I think that's appropriate. When I think of rural schools, remote schools, teachers operating in small settings, that's where the strength of the system needs to be vital to really help. So how good is the curriculum on offer everywhere? How good are the assessment tools? How can we disseminate and scale good practice? So that's where I think, it may not be exhaustive, but if we get the fundamentals outlined in Gonski right, I'm sure it's gonna be a benefit to schools and systems all around the country.

14:41 - Maxine McKew


14:41 - Jim Watterston

We do disagree a little bit, Mark. I'm not doubting anything that you say, and I think the idea of learning progressions and greater access to formative assessments ... Nobody can argue that that's not going to assist teachers and education across Australia. My question is, "Are these the key problems, the foundational problems that are undermining Australia's performance plateau, if you want to call it that?" And so, I do think there are some much bigger issues that have been ignored, or certainly left out of Gonski, and one of the big problems of practice that I didn't mention, in terms of what's not in Gonski, is the idea of mental health of young people and of teachers. So, the lack of access in rural and regional areas to psychologists, speech pathologists, health professionals; all of these people help build a village, if you like, and it's impossible to teach young children if you've got community issues that aren't being addressed. So, I'm not arguing with Gonski, I'm just suggesting that there is no evidence that these are the problems at the macro-level that will change the practice.

15:41 - Maxine McKew

Could I suggest that all of you, that some of these psycho-social issues we are seeing, and it's not just in regional schools, is because we've got children perhaps entering late primary years or early high school years without an adequate schooling. One of the things that Gonski talks about is to prioritize the acquisition of foundational schools in literacy and numeracy during the early years. Now, this is clearly where we are failing.

16:07 - Asha Murthy

Oh, I completely agree.

16:08 - Maxine McKew


16:09 - Asha Murthy

Actually that is an area that we've picked up in the last two or three years, but the evidence is overwhelming now in terms of the importance of funding, resourcing, really supporting the early years and the pathways into primary and secondary. Everyone talks about it. Everyone talks about it, but in terms of actual investment and resourcing ... The other point I just wanted to make in terms of the community and well-being, as Jim talks about, and one of the pleasing parts of the report is it talks about engagement, quite a lot.

16:40 - Maxine McKew

Can I just come back to this again? I think it's so important. I want to hear from all of you on this; our capacity to teach the foundational skills. Jim, can I come to you? Whether it's our university or any other of the universities that have teaching programs, how confident are we, we are sending teachers out there who know how to teach children?

16:58 - Jim Watterson

I'm confident that we know how to teach children from school age. I'm not confident that we prepare children for school adequately in our society from birth. James Hickman won the Noble Economics Prize about 20 years ago for being able to predict that there's a 13 percent return on investment for every dollar that you invest into early childhood. The answer to every problem of practice in a school is to invest in early childhood. Year 12 retention, invest in early childhood. It'll take 15 years to pay off, which is probably four cycles of government, but we have to get the early childhood part right because if we don't get that right, we are going to have teachers who are going to need to intervene in every single year of formal school education. It is a no brainer. We need and early childhood Gonski.

17:42 - Maxine McKew

Mark, in New South Wales, you've certainly got the extra investment in what, two years of preschool? But does this also not point to the fact of the status and the pay of early teaching professionals? We know that a degree-qualified early childhood teacher does not have anything like the status of a primary teacher. Does that have to change?

18:03 - Mark Scott

I agree. I think it's the key issue, and I think the evidence is clear that investment in early childhood education reaps enormous dividends for the individual, but also the society. And yes, I think there is a question about the status and remuneration of the early childhood educators. We have put extra money in New South Wales to provide a pathway for three-year-olds to do two days of early childhood education for two years before they start school; a great investment. And we know that the gaps that exist on day one of kindergarten, day one of the first day of school, only increase through the system. So I think the focus on that is right, I mean, I think it boils out of scope in the Gonski and the past-gone Brennan report covers this ground. But, I agree with Jim. There's not a coherent or cogent national strategy on this.

The other thing I would say though, that I think Gonski does capture, is that in the students that are falling behind, you're gonna disengage with learning. And we know that engaged learners, students who are engaged in school, they’re the ones who are most likely to advance in progress and succeed. This is where I think that that focus on progression, that focus on improvement, that commitment to every child's improvement is very central to this. But the fundamental thesis of Gonski that says to lay those foundations, in a very assorted way in those early years of schooling and be determined that knowledge gaps are not emerging earlier is a clear priority, and I think we'd all be able to agree on that.

19:31 - Maxine McKew

Kate, can I get a comment from you on this? Importance of the foundational skills? Because again, as you would know, if you don't get that right in your school, then you're really struggling to move children to the general capabilities, to get them to be critical thinkers and all these other things.

19:48 - Kate Cunich

As parents, we know when we hand over our precious children that we are giving the most important gift to education. Now, the challenge is not to take preschool for granted, not to take kindergarten for granted. Let's look at other systems around the world. How do they value those early years?

20:05 - Maxine McKew

Another recommendation in Gonski is to develop a comprehensive national teaching workforce strategy. As your first year, what should that look like, given our gaps in math, science, languages?

20:20 - Kate Cunich

It is the million dollar question, really, because we are, as you said right in the beginning, talking multiple systems. I don't think there is a silver bullet. I don't think there's a clear answer, but national organizations can get together and have a red-hot goal.

20:34 - Maxine McKew

Mark, how do we develop a fit-for-purpose workforce strategy? And one that helps do some of the things that Jim was talking about earlier, getting effective teachers and really effective leaders into some of the hard-to-place regions?

20:47 - Mark Scott

This is absolutely a critical issue. In New South Wales, we have this massive increase in students coming. We're spending a lot of money on building new schools. The critical question is really going to be, "Who is going to be teaching?" I suppose my only caveat on the Gonski recommendation is I'm not sure there's gonna be a national strategy that develops on this. I think there clearly are some challenges that go to the initial teacher education challenge. How do you get people into areas where there are subject shortages, like the math and the sciences? How do you create credible pathways into teaching the people a new career in a way that still ensures that there are very high standards, but also recognizes the significant opportunity cost for someone to do a mid-career transition? So, how do you build pathways into the profession? Fundamentally, each system is different. There are different needs that emerge, there's the rural and isolated strategy, there's special school strategy, there are hard to starve schools. We also have challenges in schools in areas that are very expensive to live, and how do teachers afford to live in those areas.

It is a series of specific challenges that apply for systems overall, so I'm not sure there's gonna be a one-size-fits-all national strategy that deals with this. But, I think we've got a lot to learn from each other, lots of information to share with each other, and there might well be some areas where, particularly around IGE, the central government uses its influence with the universities to help shape the agenda for us.

22:11 - Maxine McKew

Mark, what are you thinking, in terms of New South Wales, though? In terms of your future needs? Are you talking to universities about targeting bright maths and science students and saying, "Think about secondary teaching." Have we got to be far more-

22:26 - Mark Scott


22:26 - Maxine McKew

-Descriptive about this?

22:28 - Mark Scott

Yep, I think we've got to reach out and be more ambitious. We have a series of strategies that we're working on at the moment, and fundamentally, one of the things I think we've got to do is muscle-up as an employer and be clearer about our expectations. The New South Wales education department is the biggest employer of teachers in the country. We have muscle in that marketplace to be able to say to the Teacher Education Institutions, "This is what we need. This is what we require. This is how we will be employing." And I think you can look for us to do more of that, but also more assertive outreach strategies to bright, capable, energetic graduates in the range of disciplines that we want and try and create an attractive pathway for them into teaching.

23:14 - Maxine McKew

Jim, I'd like to hear from you on this, and this will be our final comment. But, on an end note, you've got particular concerns about school leadership. How do you see kind of the range of strategies we need to get really serious about to ensure we've got the right professionals in the schools?

23:28 - Jim Watterson

Sure. Part of Gonski, apart from talking about a national workforce strategy, talks about the attractiveness of the profession. So, if you talk about those four thousand schools or more that I was referring to before, outside of the metropolitan area, it is tough to attract high-quality leaders. We attract committed and well-intentioned and morally outright leaders in all of our schools, but they’re not trained to the level that they need to be. So a lot of those people are out there doing the best they can, under resourced, and certainly not ready to be able to deal with some of those problems of practice and pressures that are there.

So, I would've thought that one of the major opportunities through Gonski would've been to talk about how we attract more experienced people into rural areas, but how we also try and succession plan principals, long before they were appointed to those positions. I know from being in Queensland, that there are lots of really wonderful people that are out there doing the work that they never aspired to, but there hasn't been other people that would take the position. That's not the way we want to run a system across Australia.

You will only make the profession attractive if people feel like they're well-remunerated and that they've got opportunities to grow in their career by going and taking on service that wouldn't be their natural inclination in the first place. So, there's so much more that we need to do in leadership, and that is the number one priority to lift the quality of education performance in Australia.

In 1997, I spent a year as an exchange teacher in Canada in British Columbia. And the place to teach in British Columbia is in Vancouver. I was nine hours by road, north, in a place called Prince George, that had a mill on every corner of a valley, and it stunk and it was a horrible place. And people just crawled over broken glass to teach there because, at that time, you would get $20,000 as a teacher in Vancouver; you would get 40, if you worked in Prince George. People went and changed their life and lived there forever, had their families raised there, and this is where Gonski misses the point. There are bigger issues that provide a foundation for us to then look at curriculum, then look at pedagogy, formative assessment, learning progressions; It will all come. We need the quality and professional learning in place before we can think about those things.

25:37 - Maxine McKew

Thank you all for taking part in this discussion on Talking Teaching. I do say we will revisit this, but to Mark Scott, thanks so much Mark. And to you Kate, and Asha, and Jim. Thanks so much.

25:47 - Jim Watterson

Thank you.

25:47 - Mark Scott

Thanks Maxine.

25:37 - Maxine McKew

Well that's it for another Talking Teaching. If you'd like to read more about the Gonski details, and of course the full title of the report is Through Growth to Achievement, we've got a link to the report on our website. It's not for everyone, but it's a readable document. One other point about the network of schools that we talked about in our last podcast, quite a number of people have rung us about the details. If you'd like to leave your name and number, again on our website, we're taking expressions of interest for the network of schools for 2019. Talking Teaching is produced by myself, Maxine McKew, Sophie Murphy, and Kerry Elliott and is recorded and mixed by Gavin Nebauer at the Horwood Recording Studios at the University of Melbourne. And of course, he's the composer of the opening and closing music that you hear on Talking Teaching. Bye for now.