An Interview with Kevin Donnelly: How Good is Teacher Training in Australia?

Aug 7, 2012 by

Kevin Donnelly

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Kevin, how would you characterize the current “state of the art” of teacher training in Australia?

There is a good deal of debate about the quality and value of teacher training in Australia. Over the last few years there have been a number of reviews and professional bodies, like the association of school principals, argue that beginning teachers are not being properly trained and prepared for the classroom. While the schools of education argue that all is well, surveys of beginning teachers suggest they are not being adequately prepared to cope with the realities of the classroom.

2) What do you see as the major flaws in teacher training?

Many of the academics involved in teacher training have never been classroom teachers or worked in schools. Many are also committed to a cultural-left, progressive view of education that uncritically celebrates fads like open classrooms, critical literacy and personalized learning. Student teachers are not given a balanced and comprehensive grounding in research-based classroom practice and are often indoctrinated with ineffective theories like constructivism.

3) Do you feel there is too much theory and not enough practice? Or too much book learning, and too little supervision?

While a certain amount of theory is necessary, much of the theory in teacher education is postmodern, neo-Marxist, politically correct and new-age. There is too much emphasis on sociology of education and pop-psychology and not enough emphasis on more traditional theories associated with the philosophy of education movement.

It would also help if practicing teachers had more say in teacher training courses and students spent more time in the classroom being mentored by experienced and successful teachers.

4) I have been to Finland (a bit colder than Australia) and their teacher training is very intense, and extremely supervised by master teachers. Could this be a factor as to why they are apparently # 1 in the world?

Unlike Finland, where teachers are highly respected, well paid and the profession attracts high-quality beginning teachers, the situation in Australia suffers a number of problems. Many of those entering the profession have very poor academic results, the profession is not highly regarded or well paid. I believe that the Finnish system also has a greater ‘hands on’ and practical focus.

5) Kevin, I have also been to South Korea- where there is a good deal of competition in schools, but a good deal of suicide- Do you look at trade offs in this regard?

There always has to be a balance between competition, pushing students to achieve the best that they can and not causing unwanted stress and anxiety. I’d argue that in English speaking countries like the US and Australia we have gone too far towards wrapping children on cotton wool and pushy the self-esteem movement whereby students are never told that they have failed or have been put under pressure.

6) Kevin, to take a line from a recent movie- teachers seem to say to me ” We were never trained for this “….when they encounter pupils with health needs ( epilepsy, asthma, etc ) and behavioral problems ( violent , aggressive , assaultive behavior)…How extensively do teachers need to be trained to work in a field that seems to be constantly changing?

Teachers need to the expertise, knowledge and skills to be good subject teachers. While they need to be trained in how to deal with unruly and disruptive children they should not have to be social or health workers. Schools should employ counselors and social workers and let classroom teachers get on with their job.

7) Let’s look at technology- how can teacher training programs prepare teachers first to work with the current crop of students, and then with the ever changing technological changes of the next 10, 20 years?

Technology will never replace teachers as teaching is inherently a human affair that relies on engagement and communication between people. New technologies have their place in schools but children need to learn the basics like mental arithmetic and memorizing poetry using their very own computer – the one sitting on their shoulders. Teachers also have to realize that while there are new technologies being introduced just about every year, there are basic elements of good teaching that will never change.

8) I don’t know if you deal with the “cultural sensitivity” issues in Australia as much as in the U.S. What are some of the political issues that teachers have to be careful of, or be trained to deal with?

Teaching has become a politically correct minefield; especially in subjects like history and Language Arts. Our new national curriculum is all about celebrating PC perspectives associated with Aboriginal, Asian and environment issues. In some schools we cannot celebrate Christmas as it might offend non-Christian religious groups and traditional fairy stories are banned because they privilege heterosexuality and marriage between a man and a women

9) Now, I have been to Sydney, which I know is not representative of your entire country- but how extensive are the problems in terms of training teachers to work with kids who have emotional problems, learning issues, attention deficit disorders, as well as vision, speech and hearing difficulties?

Like the US, Australia is facing increasing numbers of behavioral and medical problems in the classroom like ADD. Many children are being over-medicated for the wrong reasons and teachers are finding it impossible to maintain a disciplined environment. Many teachers are not always fully trained in these areas and schools do not have the money and resources to cope.

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