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Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group Consultation 2014 Submission


Victorian Association for the Teaching of English (VATE)


1. What characteristics should be fostered and developed in graduate teachers through their initial teacher education?

How can those best suited to the teaching profession be identified?
What are the skills and personal characteristics of an effective beginning teacher? How can teacher education courses best develop these?

VATE believes that the following characteristics should be fostered and developed in subject English graduate teachers through their initial teacher education:

    • a passion for teaching as a profession requiring a considerable degree of altruism, and a vision of what ‘subject’ English might be,  both now and in the future. The ‘elsewhere of potential’ (a phrase of Seamus Heaney’s) which was the organising theme of the 2003 international English teaching conference held in Melbourne.
    • an openness to the complexities of language and experience and their interrelationship, and a responsiveness to the literary imagination
    • an empathy for young people and a recognition of, and respect for, their differences, diversity, interests, cultures, curiosity and creativity
    • a commitment to one’s own lifelong learning  that enhances and deepens both subject expertise and understandings of how students learn.  Michelangelo’s ‘I am still learning’ would be an apt epigraph for the profession
    • flexibility, resilience and a capacity for risk taking and experimentation in dealing with all the expectations, as well as contingencies, of the complexities of teaching.  As one member put it ‘ a capacity to cope when the technology fails’
    • given the people – centred nature of teaching,  interpersonal skills, emotional intelligence, and critical self awareness
    • a recognition that teaching is a collegial profession in which one learns both individually and through collaboration with others
    • a commitment to reflective practice which is grounded in sustained and informed thinking about the particularities of their students, classes and school environments.
    • the corollary of that commitment, a healthy scepticism towards ‘evidence based’ data which undervalues the specific and nuanced contexts in which teachers work, and which ignores the professional knowledge, insights and judgments of teachers
    • a recognition that choices in, and decisions about, education are influenced by cultural, socio-economic and political  considerations and  contexts, and a willingness to be active participants in  professional discussion and debate about what those choices and decisions might be

2. What teaching practices should be developed in graduate teachers through their initial teacher education?

How can the teaching practices that produce the best student outcomes be identified?
How can teacher education programmes encourage teachers to reflect on evidence to support their choice of teaching practice?
How does reflection on evidence translate into student outcomes?

There is no one ideal initial teacher education course.  VATE members, who are teacher educators, work in a variety of ‘customised’ programs in both university and school based contexts, or a combination of both. However, VATE believes that an exemplary initial education course, focused on the teaching of subject English, should exhibit the following:

    • programs and practices which require  pre-service teachers  to demonstrate and develop the  characteristics  instanced in Question 1.
    • programs and practices which would enable pre-service teachers to develop and implement curriculum, pedagogical  and assessment choices and practices which meet the learning needs  of diverse range of students in a varriety of educational contexts
    • programs and practices which enable pre-service teachers to develop an understanding of the range of  theoretical underpinnings which inform those  choices and practices
    • a recogniton that an English curriculum is, of itself, a ‘rich task’, involving  experimentation, planning, cohesion and integration. It is dynamic and evolving and, therefore, the subject of ongoing professional learning beyond initial education.  Such a curriculum should be responsive and adaptive to the students whose needs it serves and the contexts in which it is delivered.  It should allow students to engage with and enjoy, and to create, analyse and critique a wide variety of oral, print and multimodal texts. It should be receptive to the personal cultures in which students create and consume texts, and the learning practices involved in that.  The development and delivery of such a curriculum requires a commitment to collegial cooperation – the idea of faculties, project teams, learning domains, etc, conceived as ‘professional learning communities’ ¬– in which, not only are curriculum, pedagogical and assessment frameworks shaped,  but questions of implementation planning and resourcing,  student and time  management,  organisational structures, etc,  can be addressed.
    • a corollary of the previous point is that there should be more integrated, rather than fragmented, approaches to designing teacher education courses in ways that enable pre-service teachers to see rich connections between the different aspects of their learning.
    • a recognition  that, as potential English teachers,  pre-service teachers have access to  a rich history of  English teaching traditions and models  – cultural heritage, personal growth, critical literacy, etc –  which they should  be encouraged to see as dynamic resources upon which  they can draw on  in developing their own practices, and  their sense of professional identity.

3. What level of integration should there be between initial teacher education providers and schools?

What evidence is there that effective integration achieves good teaching practice? What are the most effective types of integrated experiences in preparing new teachers?
What are the cost implications of more integrated professional experience? Are there more effective ways in which professional experience might be funded?
What other methods, or combination of these methods, could achieve better outcomes than the current approach to professional experience?
How can partnerships between teacher education providers and schools be strengthened to make teacher education more effective?
How can teacher education providers and schools best work together to select and train mentor teachers to effectively support pre-service teachers on professional experience?
How can consistency of good practice and continuous improvement across teacher education providers and schools be assured?

VATE members strongly affirmed the importance of an ongoing relationship between initial teacher education providers and schools but they did so with a number of caveats regarding criteria needed to ensure the practicum component of initial education achieves its maximum effect.  Such a component should not be ad hoc or reliant simply on the good will of schools to provide mentors/supervisors. It should be the expression of a relationship which is coordinated (with input from both schools and providers), sustained, and appropriately resourced (for both providers and schools). As one VATE member put it: ‘Pre-service teachers benefit from sustained contact with teacher educators and school mentors. They need the chance to try their own actions based on their developing understanding of teaching and learning, and then have the chance to receive feedback from multiple sources’.  Another member commented: ‘Schools should be sites where teachers, teacher educators and pre–service teachers are engaged in conducting research which not only fuels personal learning but which gives the profession greater insights into the experiences of young people’. This is not to suggest a return to an apprenticeship/intern model but rather to see the value in ongoing, meaningful partnerships between schools and initial education providers which foster collaborative inquiries and research  into how the complex processes of teaching and learning can be understood and enhanced.

Furthermore, VATE believes that the delivery of a school practicum component  should be conceptualised in ways that make it the beginning of an ongoing mentoring program within schools in which experienced and early career teachers worked together as members of a mutually beneficial professional learning community.  Mentees would benefit from the practical experience and professional advice of their mentors. Mentors, in turn, would benefit from their mentees’ access to recent knowledge and research about curriculum and pedagogy.  

One VATE member proposed the idea of a professional learning exchange between providers and schools in which, for a designated period of time, teacher educators themselves worked as teachers in schools in exchanges with experienced teachers who lectured/tutored in initial teacher education programs.

4. What balance is needed between understanding what is taught and how it is taught?

What is the desirable interaction between content knowledge and teaching practice for developing teachers?
What is the difference for primary and secondary teaching? Why is there a difference?
Should there be explicit training in how to teach literacy and numeracy in all teaching courses?
How can the balance between the need for subject specialisation and a generalist approach in primary teaching qualifications be addressed?
What, if any, changes need to be made to the structure of teacher education courses? Should content be studied before pedagogy (i.e. should ‘what’ to teach be studied before the ‘how’ to teach)?
What barriers are there to restructuring teacher education courses to ensure they address these concerns, and how may they be overcome?
Why does Australia face a shortage of maths, science and language teachers?
What can be done to encourage teaching students to develop a specialisation in these areas?

VATE sees the need for both the teaching of content/subject specific knowledge and the need for approaches to teaching attuned to that subject specific knowledge. For experienced English teachers it is axiomatic that one does not think about the content knowledge of a curriculum without thinking simultaneously about how that content – be it skills or texts – might be taught in productive, purposeful and engaging ways.

As well, VATE believes there is a third component to the equation: teachers should be aware of how young people learn, and develop their teaching strategies accordingly. English teaching has a strong history of including, in curriculum and assessment planning, the development of  collaborative ,as well as individual, learning, contexts,  metacognitive strategies, and strategies which take into account  different learning styles.  The English teaching profession has also done pioneering work in developing the concept of a ‘negotiated’ curriculum  in which  students have a say in what they might be taught,  how they might learn,  and how they might be assessed.

5. Other Any other comments in response to the Issues Paper may be provided here.

VATE is an affiliated member of the Australian Association for the Teaching of English (AATE) and strongly endorses the AATE submission. The VATE submission should be read as a complement to that submission.

In its 50+ years history VATE has counted many distinguished English and literacy teacher educators among its members.  In that capacity those educators have helped create a continuum between their own work as initial  teacher education providers and that of  VATE. They have conceived their professional responsibility, in part, as an induction of new teachers into a collegial professional learning community. In so doing they have recognised the importance of an association such as VATE in connecting their graduates with state, national and international professional learning programs, practices,  research and networks beyond their immediate local  school  environment.

One VATE member pointed out that between 1979–2006 there have been 101 reviews of teacher education in Australia, and who knows how many since.  Another suggested that, unless handled judiciously, such reviews can have a deleterious effect on the morale of the profession.  One might ask what purpose might be served by another review given that teacher educators are themselves reflective practitioners who think about how they might improve what they do. In any review, their professional judgments ought to be given paramount consideration.

Teaching is a profession that has been easy to malign by politicians and media who expect teachers to provide simple solutions to complex issues.  Against that, English teachers have always nurtured and promoted a vision of subject English beyond reductive notions of instrumentalism and functionalism.  They have affirmed its role in fostering creativity and the imagination, the experimental, the innovative and the ‘new’. It would be unfortunate if this review produced recommendations that began with a deficit model of the profession that in any ways suggested that initial teacher education needed a radical fix.

VATE also wishes to express its concern about the potential impact of the mooted changes to the HECS scheme on the future of the profession. A combination of that and the vagaries of the contract system for early career teachers undermines the attraction of teaching as a secure profession in which one might make a decent living without unnecessary financial stress. As one member said, with some exasperation, as the profession stands at the moment: 'We need clever and committed professionals who are willing to work for peanuts!'.

Although it does not fall within the scope of this review, VATE is also concerned about the impact of the mooted HECS changes on teachers' willingness to undertake research for further qualifications. The profession, as a whole, has benefited from this particular commitment to furthering their professional knowledge.

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