Give teachers more freedom

24 January 2017

It's time to roll back curriculum constraints and give teachers the freedom to make their own professional judgements, writes Dr Nicole Mockler.

Student sitting an exam

There is little space left for teachers to make their own decisions and act on their own ideas and knowledge. Image: iStock.

The role of the teacher in an Australian classroom is changing, and not in a good way. As I see it, the relentless pressure for schools to perform well in NAPLAN, the demands of various mandated curriculum and the ubiquitous concerns about ‘quality teaching’ are making teachers lose confidence in their own professional abilities. There is little space left for them to make their own decisions and act on their own ideas and knowledge as educators.

I believe it is time in Australia to start reclaiming the notion of teacher as curriculum worker, that is someone who can translate and transform their professional knowledge into appropriate conditions for learning for their particular students in their particular schools. There needs to be a pushback to the current constraints.

We know from myriad research (just look at Finland) that teachers flourish and children learn when teachers are given such freedoms.

I am not saying we should embark on a mission to get rid of MySchool or NAPLAN, or try to dismantle the national curriculum, that would probably not be a fruitful mission for our energy. There are, however, I believe, some ways in which we, as an education community, each with our different roles, might walk this tension between the enabling and constraining factors to help teachers make this space for themselves.

How the problem grew

In their 2007 book Schooling by Design, Wiggins and McTighe expressed their frustration with what they saw as an uncomfortable relationship between teachers and curriculum:

Over the years, we have observed countless examples of teachers who, though industrious and well meaning, act in ways that suggest that they misunderstand their jobs. It may seem odd or even outrageous to say that many teachers misconceive their obligations. But we believe this is the case. Nor do we think this is surprising or an aspersion on the character or insight of teachers. We believe that teachers, in good faith, act on an inaccurate understanding of the role of “teacher” because they imitate what they experienced, and their supervisors rarely make clear that the job is to cause understanding, not merely to march through the curriculum and hope that some content will stick. (2007, p. 128)

This observation probably made them seriously unpopular with teachers, but I think the issue is at least as much a systemic one as it is an individual one. To be honest, I think we’ve been deprofessionalised in terms of our capacity as a profession to undertake curriculum work over the past 20 years.

As the amount of curriculum content has gone up, we’ve been encouraged to see the tick box list of dot points (as we like to call them in NSW) as the curriculum itself for the purposes of accountability, and like the frog in the pot of gradually boiling water, we perhaps haven’t noticed how stark the difference really is. Personally, I don’t think that initial teacher education programs have, as a rule, been good at supporting the development of ‘curriculum worker’ as a principal dimension of beginning teacher identity either, preoccupied largely with the ‘what’ and less than we should be with the ‘how’.

The original Shape of the Australian Curriculum paper, published in 2009, had the following to say about teachers as curriculum workers:

The curriculum should allow jurisdictions, systems and schools to implement it in a way that values teachers’ professional knowledge and that reflects the needs and interests evident in local contexts, as it will be teachers who decide how best to organise learning for students. Organisation of learning should take account of individual family, cultural and community backgrounds; acknowledge and build on prior learning experiences; and fill gaps in those experiences. (ACARA, 2009, p. 8)

The national curriculum will describe a learning entitlement for each Australian student, clearly explaining what is to be taught and learned in each area. Implementing the national curriculum, as in the case of state and territory curriculums, will rely on teachers’ professional judgments about how best to organise learning for students, how to reflect local and regional circumstances, and how best to take advantage of their own specialised professional knowledge and their students’ interests. (ACARA, 2009, p. 11)

By the 2012 version of the paper, these passages had morphed into:

Jurisdictions, systems and schools will be able to implement the Australian Curriculum in ways that value teachers’ professional knowledge, reflect local contexts and take into account individual students’ family, cultural and community backgrounds. Schools and teachers determine pedagogical and other delivery considerations. 
(ACARA, 2012, p. 11)

The Australian Curriculum makes clear to teachers what is to be taught. It also makes clear to students what they should learn and the quality of learning expected of them. Schools are able to decide how best to deliver the curriculum, drawing on integrated approaches where appropriate and using pedagogical approaches that account for students’ needs, interests and the school and community context. (ACARA, 2012, p. 25)

The differences are subtle but the shift from teachers deciding how best to organise learning for students to schools being able to decide how best to deliver the curriculum is not just a semantic one.

I know of no teacher in touch with their students and their learning who can’t tell you vastly more about those students’ performance than a supposedly objective test score.

Teachers as curriculum workers

The role I am thinking of is where teachers understand curriculum work as a complex process involving prioritisation, translation, and transformation of knowledge into appropriate conditions for learning. It is about understanding curriculum work as a deeply creative and productive process that relies on confidence with and command of content; deep pedagogical expertise; and a good understanding of the learners in question. It is understanding teaching as scholarly work, as intellectual work, as knowledge work.

As I see it, it is around embracing and consciously growing teacher professional judgement as a matter of professional development priority. Teacher professional judgement has been regarded with increasing suspicion over the past 20 years, but so much of teachers’ curriculum work, not to mention other work, relies on finely honed professional judgement. We’ve come to think of it as unreliable and ‘subjective’, when in actual fact we should be fighting this take on it and working collaboratively to sharpen it.

We might do this by sustaining real conversations about curricular and pedagogical practice, pushing each other to draw evidence from a broad range of sources and use it in both employing our judgement and opening that judgement up to the scrutiny of others. I know of no teacher in touch with their students and their learning who can’t tell you vastly more about those students’ performance than a supposedly objective test score.

I won’t pretend that professional judgement is the ‘silver bullet’ that professional standards were posed to be in the early 2000s, but so much of engaging in critical curriculum work relies on confident and well developed professional judgement that I believe we must focus on this as a matter of priority, lest it disappear entirely down the rabbit hole in our fixation on ‘objective data’.

We’re hearing a lot of late about the possibilities for curriculum integration in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths). Without teachers being supported to embrace their identity as curriculum workers more overtly, more stridently and more expansively, visions of integration, whether oriented toward STEM, STEAM (STEM + Arts), or anything else, are, to my mind, unlikely to come about.

Dr Nicole Mockler is a Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of Sydney, with a background in secondary school teaching and teacher professional learning. This article was originally published by the Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE).

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