Education Nation | Day One Session One – Brett Salakas

“What works in Singapore, works because we are Singaporean.”
 Brett quoting a Singaporean Principal he worked under

Disclosure: My attendance at Education Nation (#EduNationAu) was through a media pass provided by the conference organisers.

As you read this, I would like you to consider what you believe the purpose and goal of the education system should be. I will openly admit that I am a conference junky. I have written previously about my love of conferences and being in the same room as those on the same page as yourself, however, I had forgotten how tiring, both mentally and physically, they are. I am sitting in my hotel room using my phone to hotspot so I can write this, with Pink Floyd playing, still buzzing from conversations I have had, connections I have made and people from my online professional learning network (PLN) that I have known for some time, but never met in person.

The view from just outside the exhibitors hall, known as the The Playground.

I am going to structure my Education Nation series of review articles slightly differently to review articles from previous conferences. Ordinarily, I would write the review of each session, weaving general feedback on the conference event as a whole throughout, as it fit the session. For this set of articles, I want to focus on the speaker and their message; and instead, will keep those overview reflections to a specific article, which will be the final article in the series, to act as a conclusion piece. If you have somehow managed to miss the pre-Education Nation articles that I wrote, you can find those in a consolidated list of the articles for this event (which these review articles will be added to) by clicking here.


As I wrote in a previous article, I had the opportunity, unlike most attendees, to move between the conference streams. My first session was a part of the Rethinking Reform stream and was Brett Salakas (@Mrsalakas) speaking under the title PISA Pipe DreamsBrett opened by asking people to share what they were learning, questions, critiques and ideas via Twitter using the conference hashtag, #EduNationAu, which many people did. Brett then continued by telling us what he was not.

What Brett Salakas is and is not, in his own words.

This was followed by a brief historical overview of PISA and its purpose, which he summarised as being a way of helping governments monitor education system achievements and the impacts of education. By giving all of the students, who are the same age, the same test, it sounds like it should be a good way of tracking trends and variances between countries. Yet, Brett says, it is actually that which makes it rather murky.Students sit a two-hour written test which covers scientific literacy, mathematics, reading and financial literacy.

What this means is that the state of our education system in comparison to other countries is based on a test which takes place once every three years, and allows students roughly thirty minutes for each of the four sections, which then packages the data up in neat statistical bundles which are then able to be misused and misrepresented in the media, creating a sense of fear and concern, and a backlash, against the state of the education system in Australia.

Photo from Brett Salakas’ presentation. Newspaper headlines around PISA results and the Education system in Australia.

These headlines create this sense of worry about the state of our education system, the quality of our teachers and the worry about how we will remedy the situation. Often, it is easy to look to the leaders of the PISA results and ask the question “what are they doing? Let’s do that” and attempt to translate education policies and practices directly into the Australian context, without thinking through a range of issues that arise in doing so.

Brett then made the quote that I have included at the top of the article, which points out that we need to take into account the cultural context of what is happening and why it is working. Brett related that when he taught in Singapore the entire education system was streamed by ability groupings into the top, middle, and bottom third of academic results and students were taught and trained to perform to a high standard. Then he made a comment, told us about a standard practice which blew my mind and which would never happen here in Australia.

“My Year One ESL class in Singapore finished at nine pm on a Monday night.”

Stop and think about what that means for a moment. Year One students, most of whom will be either six or seven years old, lining up waiting for their teacher to arrive, beginning class and then not finishing until a time when I would like to be in bed. Presumably, there is going to be a period of travel time before those children arrive at home, and then actually get to bed and then fall asleep. That practice would cause uproar and outrage if suggested here in Australia. We need to find a solution that works here, for us, in our context.

Brett continued by pointing out a few facts about PISA, which he made quite clear were all confirmable on the PISA website. He reminded us that this fear-mongering and panic is based upon, essentially, a thirty-minute test (for each subject area PISA concerns itself with) and that there are a number of factors in play that are not typically talked about. He spoke about research by Alma Harris (@AlmaHarris1) that indicated many Nordic countries exclude migrants and refugees from the PISA testing and that some research shows many Asian countries prepare their students for PISA in a period of time immediately beforehand, in an effort to boost their results.

An interesting point was then raised, which I ha not thought about, but which does make sense, which was that although the PISA tests are written in one language, they do need to be translated into a range of languages as required for each country. The very act of translating the questions can have an impact on the complexity of the question, from a cultural point of view, as well as an academic perspective.

Wild Geese in flight.

The next issue is a phenomenon referred to as the Wild Geese of Korea, or, in Korean, Gireogi appa (literally ‘goose dad’), wherein Korean families are sending the mother and child to a Western country, to receive a Western education, perceived to be of a higher standard than a Korean education, whilst the father remains in Korea, in a small unit.The terminology applied within Korea regarding this is quite complex and structured. However, this phenomenon raises a very important question; what are the Koreans seeing about education in the Western countries, that we are not?

This segued into an amusing clip from the movie 300, the tale of King Leonidas of Spart and his eventual defeat during the Battle of Thermopylae. This clip, however, had the audio in French, with some clever subtitles. My thanks to Kelly Hollis for finding the original link

This clip was the entry point into a discussion about the attributes we actually would like to see developed in our students. Brett related an incident that occurred at his school during an athletics carnival; specifically, the Girls one hundred metre final, which would determine the age champion for that year. Brett spoke about two girls who, for their primary education, had ben the two standout athletes, sharing honours across athletics events each year, and that this would be the decider between them. It was a significant event, with lots of parents attending to watch, as happens at sports carnivals and both girls were taking it quite seriously, the eleven-year-old Olympics, as it were.

Only a short distance into the race, one of the two girls hurt herself, pulling a hamstring. Her rival had the advantage from the start and had pulled ahead and so was not aware of what had happened, however, the other girls all stopped to check and see if she was ok. Eventually, the leading girl realised something was not right and turned around to look. Upon seeing that her rival had stopped, injured, she made a choice. Instead of continuing to take the win and the title of age champion, she went back to her rival, her friend, and did what she could to help and show concern. Brett then made a poignant statement; “every parent there at that moment knew exactly, from what had happened, why they sent their daughter to this school. That choice, that act made it clear.” 

The education system in Singapore and the other high-performing countries on PISA tests work in their context as there are specific attributes which are being looked for. We need to decide what attributes we want to see in our children. Conveniently, Brett had an Answergarden for us to indicate the attributes that we feel are important.

A screen capture of the Word Cloud created as a result of attendees entries on the Answergarden Brett created.

We need to stop cherry picking aspects of education systems from countries which obtain high results on PISA testing and have a real conversation about what we, as a nation, want for our students from out education system. The countries which perform, and have performed, highly on those international standardised testing have historically put educational policies in place many years before they have had their purple patch which has focused on enabling their goal for education to be achieved. Correct me if I am wrong, but I do not believe that there has ever been a national conversation in Australia about the purpose and goals of education and how we go about achieving those goals*. Many key attributes that show up on the word cloud above, resilience, collaboration, confidence, are, Brett says, nationally imbued and are seen as typical Aussie characteristics; mateship, innovation, a fair go etc.

“Don’t curse the darkness, be the light”
-Attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt

This quote was Brett’s final message. We need to act as beacons of light and positivity in education to stave off the darkness and the negativity, and connecting with other educators, those who are working to shine the light, is a fantastic way of helping to do that. Brett shared ten (it was actually twelve) educators who he sees as great educators to follow.

  1. Kelly Hollis
  2. Zeina Chalich
  3. Rob McTaggart
  4. Magdalene Mattson
  5. Jake Plaskett
  6. Gavin Hays
  7. Jarryd Cook
  8. The EduTweetOz rotating curator Twitter account
  9. Eleni Kyritsis
  10. The Authentic Learning team
  11. Jane Hunter and
  12. Allan Carrington

My key takeaway from Brett’s session was that we need to have the why and what conversation about education, and work to gain some sort of consensus about education’s goal in order to stop the cycle of ideological-based policies and provide some consistency of expectation and purpose. The over-reliance on PISA as a measure needs to be re-evaluated as well, as this feeds into the media fear-mongering about education and influences, negatively, the education conversation and perception.

What was your key takeaway from Brett’s keynote? What do you believe the purpose and goal of education should be in Australia? Let me know, either by commenting on this article or by tweeting me.

The next article in this Education Nation series will look at the presentation by Professor Geoff Masters (@GMastersACER).

As always, thank you for reading.

*In the time since I published this article, I have been reminded of the 2008 Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians, which I had forgotten about. Whilst it does provide a potential launchpad for a national conversation about the purposes and goals of education, it was not, in itself, a national conversation, given that it came out of a meeting of politicians.


Education Nation | Interview with Dr. Kevin Donnelly

Disclosure: My attendance at Education Nation (#EduNationAu) in June is through a media pass provided by the conference organisers.

Education Nation is fast approaching, and this time next week, the final session of the conference will be concluding. One of the most hotly anticipated events of Education Nation is The Great Debate between Dr. David Zyngier (@dzyngier) and Dr. Kevin Donelly (@ESIAuatralia). Last week, I published an article from an interview with Dr. Zyngier, which was widely read. Dr. Zyngier is speaking on the side of public education at The Great Debate, and there are some strong arguments available for him to draw upon. This article will be an exploration of Dr. Donnelly’s responses to a series of questions similar to those presented to Dr. Zyngier. As with the previous interviews, I have included Education Nation Interview with Dr. Kevin Donnelly for the sake of transparency.


Dr. Donnelly provided a short summary of his stance on the issue of public versus private education. He posits that the claims that private schooling systems, e.g. Catholic and independent schools, are over-funded and cause residualisation of government schools, particularly those with disadvantaged students, is incorrect. He cites the simple fact that non-government schools receive significantly less public funding than government schools. For example, the below graph shows the relative expenditure across the two sectors and highlights the disparate nature of the level of public funding.

Retrieved from on 31 May 2016

Dr. Donelly also decries the claim that private schools only achieve strong learning outcomes comparative to public schools because they take the best students, noting that public schools are not truly open to all. This is a valid point to make as there is a range of public schools, particularly secondary school, which are selective based on academic results, requiring a certain academic ability for enrolment into those schools, often requiring prospective students to sit an entrance exam. Additionally, Dr. Donnelly notes that many public schools are situated in suburbs which are classed as high socio-economic areas (SES) and are therefore unaffordable for many people. Linked to both arguments, Dr. Donnelly notes that the socio-economic status of a student’s family is only ten to eighteen percent of the overall factors influencing learning outcomes.

I have noted in previous articles the recent discussions that have appeared in the media regarding teacher quality, and admission to and the quality of, initial teacher education (ITE) programs. Dr. Donnelly’s views on this are somewhat similar to Dr. Zyngier’s views. Dr. Donnelly cites Parsi Sahlberg (@pasi_sahlberg), a Finnish educational researcher who found that although half of the first-year ITE students are drawn from the fifty-one to eighty percent range, rendering the argument that pre-service teachers should be drawn from the academic top thirty percent, invalid. Sahlberg has also commented that “a good step forward would be to admit that the academically best students are not necessarily the best teachers.” Dr. Donnelly also notes a 2012 submission to a Commonwealth inquiry into teacher education by Professor Geoff Masters, who commented that restricting entry to ITE programs to top academic students “…is a blunt approach to improving the selection of teachers and falls well short of international best practice.”

Findings from Section 2.2.3 of Action Now: Classroom Ready Teachers.

In addition to discussing the prospect of restricting pre-service teachers to those with the top academic results, I asked Dr. Donnelly for his views about a different method of raising the expectations of ITE programs. In Finland, ITE programs are delivered at Masters level, rather than Undergraduate level here in Australia. He explained that research conducted by Andrew Leigh into effective teaching showed that holding a Masters degree does not necessarily equate to being an effective teacher, which seems to be consistent with Pas Sahlberg’s comment mentioned, regarding the fact that there is not a causal link between the academically best teachers and the most effective teachers.

Dr. Donnelly points to Pasi Sahlberg’s findings that a teacher’s commitment and ability to engage and motivate students, along with their communication skills and, of course, subject knowledge are more influential factors in identifying effective teachers. He also points to findings in the Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group report, Action Now: Classroom Ready Teachers, that the level of the degree, Bachelor or Masters, is not particularly important. What is important is the quality of the ITE program and whether trainee teachers have been properly prepared and are ready to begin teaching in a class on their own. I have written previously about my own ITE program, and I would agree that there is scope for improvement

After discussing the subject of ITE, the interview turned to Finland and our relationship and seeming obsession with modelling the Finnish educational model. Dr. Zyngier is critical of this obsession, noting that Finland’s results in PISA and TIMSS have been falling in recent years. Dr. Donnelly is also critical of the way that educationalists jump on the bandwagon of whichever country is generating the best results in international testing, which has moved between Singapore, Sweden, Finland and is currently Shanghai, particularly given that Finland’s results have been falling as shown in the below images from Trends in the Performance of the Top Performers on PISA 2003-Pisa 2012.


The above image shows that the number of Finnish students performing in the lower levels of PISA mathematics tests has increased significantly. Makes sense, therefore, that the number of Finnish students at the top end has fallen in the same period.


Dr. Donnelly, after acknowledging Finland’s falling results in recent instances of PISA, notes that translating educational characteristics of other countries can be very difficult due to the variation in contexts. This is an interesting comment, and one I look forward to hearing expanded upon further, particularly, I suspect in the presentation by Lila Mularczyk’ (@LilaMularczyk) on day two of Education Nation, where she is examining trends in international education policy and the translation to the Australian context. Dr. Donnelly reminds us that we can learn from international education systems, however, it needs to be evidence based.

Dr. Donnelly co-chaired the National Curriculum Review alongside Professor Kenneth Wiltshire. Given that the National Curriculum has not been implemented nationally I questioned whether or not a National Curriculum should have even been the goal for Australian education. Dr. Donnelly indicated that greater autonomy and flexibility at the local level, should have been the goal, not a one size fits all curriculum that has been torn apart and rebuilt to suit the needs of some states, and implemented as-is by others. Dr. Donnelly points out that under the Australian Constitution, the government does not have a responsibility for school education. Dr. Donnelly believes that “…we should abide by the fact that we have a federal system where all roads do not lead to Canberra.


Social media is playing an increasingly important role in the professional learning of teachers around the world. It is free, available at any time and on any range of topics, providing an alternative to the often expensive and/or boring and untargeted professional development sessions that teachers’ typically receive. Dr. Donnelly’s view is that whilst social media has a place, there is no substitute for providing teachers, particularly new-career teachers, with time to learn on the job, receive mentoring, and the time and ability to effectively reflect on and evaluate their own practice.

I asked Dr. Donnelly was his advice to early-career teachers that would help them avoid joining the forty percent of new teachers who are shown to leave the profession within their first five years. His advice was straightforward, yet challenging to implement:

Beware of education fads and do not be drowned in the bureaucratic and the time consuming micromanagement that is being forced on schools. Also, understand that student misbehaviour is on the increase and that a lot of students, especially at the primary school level, are unable to sit still, focus and concentrate for an extended period of time. Most importantly, realise and appreciate that being with young people is a great honour and responsibility, as there is noting more important than teaching – except being a parent.

-Dr. Kevin Donnelly.

When I interviewed Professor Masters early last month, I asked him about John Hattie’s comments regarding teachers as researchers and his sentiment was that it is unreasonable to expect teachers to be both highly trained and effective educators; and highly trained and effective educational researchers. It is reasonable, however, to expect teachers to be informed users of research evidence; evidence which should be a consideration for teachers when engaging in the informal research process of evaluative reflection upon their pedagogical practice.

I asked Dr. Donnelly for his views on Hattie’s comments, and he replied that the relationship between researchers in universities and ACER, and classroom teachers, has been fractured. Dr. Donnelly acknowledges that it has been some time since he has been a classroom teacher and that he would love to see the results of academic researchers in the classroom, attempting to implement the practices they promote in their research. He sees a strong connection between theory and practice and would argue that many teachers are capable of undertaking research, which would provide the benefit of the research being grounded in the realities of a classroom.

Dr. Donnelly presents some interesting arguments, and I very much look forward to hearing him speak in The Great Debate. Remember, you can submit your own questions for The Greate Debate by clicking here. If you have not yet registered for Education Nation then click here to register.

Education Nation | An Interview with Dr. David Zyngier

“I am on the record stating that if we as a nation want to improve the standard of our teaching we must make teaching harder to access as a career. However, we have too many universities using teaching courses as a cash cow to cover the costs due to diminishing federal funding of research.”
-Dr. David Zyngier. E-Mail correspondence, 2016

Disclosure: My attendance at Education Nation (#EduNationAu) in June is through a media pass provided by the conference organisers.

All quotes in this article are taken direct from the interview with Dr. Zyngier unless otherwise noted. All interpretations of Dr. Zyngier’s views are my own and any misinterpretation also mine. The Interview with Dr. Zyngier has been included for the sake of transparency.

In addition to being granted an e-mail interview with Professor Geoff Masters, I have been privileged to gain an e-mail interview with Dr. David Zyngier, currently a Senior Lecturer in curriculum and pedagogy with the Faculty of Education at Monash University. There are a number of presentations at Education Nation which promise to generate significant food for thought, and which I suspect will generate heated (yet hopefully constructive) discussion and debate within Education circles.

Dr. David Zyngier. Retrieved from 19 May 2016

Potentially one of the most interesting sessions scheduled, certainly perhaps one of the most provocative, is The Great Debate: Australian democracy at risk – the future of Australia’s education system, a moderated debate on the age-old topic of public vs private education, taking place within the Rethinking Reform conference stream. This debate will feature Dr. Zyngier arguing the case for public education and Dr. Kevin Donnelly arguing the case of private education. I am expecting a highly interesting debate, particularly during the (moderated) questions from the floor component. Given that there is sure to be a capacity crowd, I asked Dr. Zyngier to provide a short summary of his position on the issue.

Dr. Zyngier’s view is that the continuing rise in education funding being provided to private education is having the effect of denying a fair go to the students who need the most support in favour of students who are blessed to be born into socio-culturally advantaged families. This is a significant factor in the increasing socio-economic divide between the working class and the upper class. Ultimately, this issue may result in public schools turning into “…ghettos or sinks of disadvantage leading to an ever increasing decline in educational achievement in those schools as the flight of cultural capital takes its toll.”

The quality of teachers and of initial teacher education (OTE) programs has come under fire again over the last twelve months, to the point that just this week, a grammar training manual has been launched for teachers, again prompting a wave of backlash and criticism against the poor quality of teachers. When asked about the quality of teachers and of calls for minimum standards for entry to ITE programs, Dr. Zyngier pointed out that “Teacher education is apparently the most reviewed area of society undertaken by state and federal governments with on average at least one each year over the past 30 odd years!” In fact, a brief switch to Google Scholar returned over seventeen thousand results with the required keywords teacher education research Australia  with the articles.

“Each review makes the same basic recommendations to improve ITE – student teachers need more time in the classroom and more practical experience – but the funding required to do this is never forthcoming.”

-Dr. Zyngier

During the last few years, a number of articles have been published in the media calling for better teachers and higher quality ITE programs, particularly during the period of time when Christopher Pyne was the Federal minister for Education, though it has continued since he left that role. In Dr. Zyngier’s view, it is not the quality of teachers that is necessarily the problem, but the quality of the teaching. Dr. Zyngier’s position is that the general public have heard successive Federal Ministers for Education, beginning with Julia Gillard and continuing with Peter Garret, Christopher Pyne, and the incumbent Simon Birmingham, quote from Professor John Hattie’s Visible Learning (summary here) that the main influence on a child’s academic outcome is the teacher.

Dr. Zyngier observes that teacher impact makes up to twenty-five percent of the difference, which, though a significant impact, is not as significant as we are led to believe from Professor Hattie’s work (as seen in this article). One clear source, in my view at least, of improving the quality of teachers and the quality of teaching, is the ITE programs from which our teaching force gain their qualifications. Dr. Zyngier indicated he is on record as having stated that “…if we as a nation want to improve the standard of our teaching we must make teaching harder to access as a career.”

Percentage of Achievement Variance. Hattie, J. (2003), p. 3. Teachers Make a Difference What is the Research Evidence, ACER. Retrieved from on 25 May 2016.

It is a sentiment I can agree with as there were a number of pre-service teachers in my own ITE program who openly admitted they were only there because mum and dad told them they had to get a job or a degree, and so they took the easy option. It is an indication of the rigorousness of teacher ITE programs that they are seen as being an easy option. There have been discussions about raising the minimum tertiary entrance scores (currently the ATAR), however, Dr. Zyngier indicates that this change should be made in conjunction with aptitude testing. Personally, I believe that there are changes required. However, my concern is that the personality and aptitude of a nineteen-year-old is not indicative, necessarily of the kind of teacher they will be at the age of thirty. It would, I suspect, serve to screen out some people who are categorically unsuitable to the teaching profession or those who are entering into ITE programs purely because they have told they need to get a degree or a job. Whilst I acknowledge that medicine is a different field requiring some different character traits, I believe that an examination of the entry into medicine programs would be a useful process to guide restructuring entry requirements for ITE courses.

Dr. Zyngier is a proponent of ITE programs being at the Masters level (as is the case in Finland), rather than remaining at the current Bachelor level, Though I am not sure about that, I can certainly understand the perspective, but I wonder, given the number of classroom teachers we currently have with postgraduate qualifications listed (this is shown in all public school annual reports), what impact this would have on teacher recruitment. Further, Dr. Zyngier’s view is that ITE programs should include a research component to educate teachers how to engage with and evaluate education research for their own practice. The added challenge to this is to ensure equitable access opportunities for those from under-represented communities, creating an additional layer of complexity in the process.

I agree wholeheartedly with the belief that a research component should be a requirement for ITE programs. Completing the Honours course as part of my own ITE program, though incredibly challenging, was rewarding and provided a very different perspective to research and the processes which researchers undertake as part of their work. This ability to engage with and discern quality research, understand the results and conclusions and implement them within a teacher’s specific context is particularly important given the importance of establishing the basic framework around which the entire education system is structured; the ability to read, write and understand use numeracy principles.

Finland has a high-performing educational systems vis-a-vis the OECD PISA and TIMMS testing regimes and therefore is often looked to as a beacon of educational hope. Given the disparate nature of the educational contexts in Finland Australia, is it realistic, or even fair, to uphold Finland’s educational system as something we should aspire to here in Australia? Dr. Zyngier acknowledges that Finland is very different to Australia, not least in regards to climate, geographical size, and population. The key difference, however, lies in what Dr. Zyngier terms  the policy trajectory.

Education policies in Finland are a non-political issue, being determined by education experts informed by evidence-based research. This is in stark contrast to education policy in Australia, where each new government, and even successive Education Ministers during a Government’s term in office, work to make their mark on education through either ideological or political policies. Again, in contrast to this, education policy in Finland was, and is, based upon equity first, which through a range of other policies, has led to a high-quality education system.

Teachers in Finland are highly valued. Dr. Zyngier points out that this does not equate to highly paid. The system also trusts teachers, allowing them to teach. Dr. Zyngier also wrote that privately run schools are rare (approximately two percent of primary and middle schools) and that if they charge additional fees, their public funding is stripped. Dr. Zyngier also indicated that Teacher unions are heavily involved in education and act as a significant resource for both policy and practice. This last point sounds very alien to me. As a public school student in the early 1990s, my recollection is of regular strikes and an ongoing sense of frustration and some anger from my parents towards the union due to the number of strikes and the impact it had on our education. Fast forward to today and it feels like the NSW Teachers Federation is seen as outdated and useless by many colleagues, with “what do they do for us?”  being an oft-repeated critique. A Teachers Federation that has a strong, healthy and positive working relationship with the Government and which contributes, as a partner, in the policy-making process sounds like a great environment to work in.

Retrieved from on25 May 2016

Dr. Zyngier notes that the driving emphasis in the Finnish education system has been an equitable education for all students whereas in Australia, it appears that the impetus is on quality outcomes with equity a distant second-place priority. This is played out in the choices parents have as to which school to send their child to. Dr. Zyngier indicates that almost all children attend the local suburban school in Finland, whereas in Australia there is currently a three-tiered educational system. Whilst there is the option of the local comprehensive school fully funded by the public, parents may also choose from schools which receive the majority of their funding from the public (typically most Catholic schools and low-fee religious schools), as well as elite independent schools which receive less than fifty percent of their funding from the public.


School funding in Australia: all levels of government, all sectors. (Total $AUD34.1 billion). Retrieved from on 25 May 2016

The subject of school funding is a particularly lively topic of discussion at the moment, with the impending Federal election and the promises made by both major parties about the way in which they will fund education. My personal view is that education is a basic right of all children and should be free to all, per Article Twenty-Eight of the United Nation’s Conventions on the Rights of the Child. I have issues with independent schools who charge exorbitant enrollment and tuition fees and still receive government funding. The entire staff at my current school would receive an average salary of just over AUD$80,000 each based on just the Year Five and Year Six student enrollments at one local independent school, never mind the rest of the enrollment fees from Kindergarten to Year Four at that school. Whilst I do not have a problem with independent schools per se, I do not believe they should receive any public funding, those funds should be reserved for, dare I say it, the public schools.

OECD (2016), Public spending on education (indicator). doi:10.1787/f99b45do-en (Accessed on 25 May 2016)

The educational system that is often presented as an alternative model is that of Singapore, one of the so-called Asian Tigers (along with Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Taiwan). Dr. Zyngier points out that though the high results achieved in PISA and TIMMS are discussed, how those results are achieved is not. He continued by pointing out that research indicates that almost all students attend intensive afternoon cramming schools in addition to their regular schooling and private tutors. Furthermore, research indicates that these schools are typically reserved for the elite, while in Shanghai they “…actively exclude lower performing rural students whose parents do not have the necessary residency permits that will enable them to attend…”

Interestingly, and disturbingly, students who are adjudged to be under-performing in class, are often asked to stay home on the day of testing, which is a phenomenon we have seen in Australia in relation to NAPLAN testing.

Cultural attributes have rarely been a factor in conversations or articles I have read regarding educational impacts, however, the research has shown some interesting results. On standardised testing, students from Chinese backgrounds have been found to achieve higher results than their Australia, American or European-borne peers.  Dr. Zyngier notes the implication that cultural attributes are potentially more significant than previously thoughts, indicating that it is not the school or the teacher having the most significant impact on a student’s academic outcomes, but the family.

When I began my ITE, the Australian Curriculum was in the burgeoning stages of its implementation. When it was introduced to us during those early stages, it made a certain kind of sense; one country, one curriculum. When asked if a national curriculum should have been a goal, Dr. Zyngier pointed out that Canada and the USA, two countries of comparable physical size and political structure to Australia, do not have a national curriculum. He also commented that the impetus behind the apparent importance of the creation and adoption of the national curriculum was never made clear.

His view is that  nationally agreed competencies and skills should be of higher importance than concrete factual knowledge “…which was the subject of the overtly political review led by Donnelly & Wiltshire in 2014.”  The result of the review was predetermined by the selection of Donnelly and Wiltshire:

“…cultural warriors…their selection by then [Federal] Minister [for Education] Pyne. They found too much emphasis on Asia, Indigenous Australia, the Environment and not enough reference to Australia’s European and Christian heritage, a lack of focus on the basics, and too much faddish constructivism.”

-Dr. Zyngier.

Social media is prevalent now as a source of free and readily available professional learning. I personally find Twitter to be incredibly useful as a source of inspiration, feedback on practice, a source of ideas and a way of staying in touch with research. I do, however, acknowledge that is should not be the only source of professional learning or development, nor should is it necessarily designed to replace face-to-face mentoring and professional development opportunities. Dr. Zyngier agrees that there is a role for social media and online courses as part of a teacher’s ongoing professional development. However, the needs of individual teachers vis-a-vis professional development are varied and more support and time needs to be made available to teachers to allow them to adequately access those opportunities, whether this is working alongside a mentor, visiting other schools, online courses or attending a university course. I have seen on Twitter, some teachers talking about observational rounds, wherein teachers observe each others practice to provide feedback on a predetermined goal.

The media have been consistently reporting in recent years (for example; here, here and here) that approximately forty percent of new teachers are leaving the teaching profession within the first five years. I asked Dr. Zyngier what advice he would give teachers embarking on their EdVenture so that they do not join the forty percent. He responded that teaching is only for those who can commit to working very hard, very long hours, with a high workload and who can handle being blamed for societal failings and problems. Enjoying working with children is, of course, a must. This is advice I can certainly agree with, and from conversations that I have had with other educators, it would certainly appear to be quite sound advice.

I hope that you found this article as interesting as to read as I found it to write. I also hope that you get along to Education Nation in two weeks time, at Luna Park, to hear what is sure to be an interesting and thought-provoking conference. If you have not yet done so, I would also recommend you consider attending the live AussieEd event which is being held at Kirribilli Club after the conclusion of Day One of Education Nation.

As always, thank you for reading and keep an eye out for the Education Nation conversation on Twitter under #EduNationAu.

Education Nation | An Interview with Professor Masters

“There are few things as important in schools as providing all students with sound foundations in literacy and numeracy.”
– Professor Geoff Masters. E-Mail correspondence, 2016

Disclosure: My attendance at Education Nation (#EduNationAu) in June is through a media pass provided by the conference organisers.

All interpretations of Professor Masters’ views are my own and any misinterpretation also mine. The Interview with Professor Masters has been included for the sake of transparency.

After I had accepted the invitation to attend Education Nation in order to write a series of review articles about the event, I asked if it would be possible to conduct a series of pre-conference interviews via e-mail with some of the speakers. I was privileged to have been granted an e-mail interview with Professor Geoff Masters AO, the Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) as well as head of ACER’s Centre for Assessment Reform and Innovation.

Professor Geoff Masters. Retrieved from on 6th March 2016

In developing the questions for Professor Masters, I felt that it would be remiss of me to not take advantage of the opportunity to ask his opinions about statements by Professor John Hattie in April 2015, where Professor Hattie indicated that he felt classroom teachers should leave education researcher to trained researchers. I recall there being quite the uproar on social media as a result of Professor Hattie’s remarks, with a great number of educators commenting that there is no reason they cannot engage with research.

Professor Masters’ view is that it is unreasonable to expect teachers to be both highly trained and effective educators; and highly trained and effective educational researchers. It is reasonable, however, to expect teachers to be informed users of research evidence; evidence which should be a consideration for teachers when engaging in the informal research process of evaluative reflection upon their pedagogical practice.

The title of the article in which Profess Hattie’s statement was published was certainly clickbait and as with most instances of clickbait, upon reading further, the statements were not as provocative as at first glance. Indeed, Professor Masters’ response to this question implies that Hattie’s sentiment that teachers should leave the research to the researchers is reasonable. Indeed, when you read further in the article, where Professor Hattie is reported as also having said “I want to put the emphasis on teachers as evaluators of their impact. Be skilled at that,” I find it difficult to disagree.

I cannot speak to the level of training that other classroom teachers have received in research. Personally, having only received an introduction to educational research through the Honours program I completed as part of my initial teacher education (ITE) (delivered by Dr. Nicole Mockler), I do not feel that I would be able to put together a large-scale strong and rigorous research project on my own, whilst also managing the day-to-day requirements of teaching and evaluating the effectiveness of my practices. That said, I do feel that I have had enough training through the Honours program to enable me to read and utilise the outcomes of research to inform my reflections, or to work with a researcher to conduct more formal research.

Professor Masters further noted that high levels of training and proficiency are required for certain types of research, which dovetails neatly with Professor Hattie’s comment that “[r]esearching is a particular skill. Some of us took years to gain that skill.” I do not have years to invest in mastering the skills to become proficient with rigorous, high-quality formalised research. I would prefer, at this point in my career, to invest that time in developing my pedagogical practice. In that frame of reference, leave the research to the researcher is not, in my opinion, as provocative a sentiment as it first sounds.

Professor Hattie. Retrieved from on 6th March 2016

During the last four years in various staffrooms and study sessions with my colleague pre-service teachers, I have encountered a variety of opinions regarding the relationship and relevance that research has to classroom teachers. Whilst there are pockets of teachers who see the value in the relationship, by and large, educational research appears to be seen as irrelevant. Professor Masters stated that too often pedagogical practice is shaped by beliefs about what should work in the classroom and beliefs shaped by fads and fashions of the day (Greg Ashman has written about various fads and fashions in education including here, here, here and here). Additionally, I have heard the “it worked when I was in school/first started teaching/we did it this way in the 70s and 80s”  refrain regularly, with its unstated implication that it will still work.

To improve the quality of classroom teaching, and by extension, the learning outcomes for students, Professor Masters asserts that evidence-based pedagogical practices should be implemented; that is, those pedagogies which have been demonstrated through research and experience to be effective in improving students’ learning outcomes and engagement. The relationship between educational research and classroom teaching is one of sharing, with Professor Masters commenting that “[p]rofessions are defined largely by a shared knowledge base. Educational research is playing an essential role in building that knowledge base.”

It is interesting to note that there is a growing community of educators on various forms of social media sharing with their practices, both the successes and the failures, with each other, and it will be interesting to see what role the online Professional Learning Networks play in contributing to educational research in the future, both as a source of information and participants, and as a vehicle for dissemination.

Retrieved from on 6th May 2016

I asked Professor Masters what his thoughts were on what stood in the way of Australian education and the heights of PISA and TIMMS testing results that seem to be the benchmark by which educational success is judged. I did so with reference to the ITE programs in Finland and the well-publicised reign of Finland at the top of the table in regards to PISA and TIMMS. Professor Masters’ response was relatively simple. High-performing countries, such as Finland and Singapore have raised the status of teachers.

Professor Masters noted that there are a number of high-performing countries who draw their teachers from the upper echelons of secondary education, typically starting with the top thirty percent and some drawing only from the top ten percent, making teaching in those countries, a highly respected and sought after career. This is not the case in Australia, where the required Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank (ATAR) is quite low, as highlighted in this article from May 2015 which indicates that almost a third of all pre-service teachers achieved an ATAR of less than sixty. That demonstrates the low respect held for teaching compared with some of the ATARs listed in this article from January 2014, indicating that a to enter a Bachelor of Health Science/Master of Physiotherapy degree at the University of Western Sydney required an ATAR of 99.95, or the combined law degrees at the University of Sydney and the University of NSW, both with minimum ATARs of 99.70.

The school of thought that simply increasing the minimum required ATAR to enter an ITE program will improve the quality of teachers is not necessarily true. This article from October 2015 indicates that only a small percentage of pre-service teachers enter their ITE immediately upon completion of their secondary education. However, I do not believe that Professor Masters is advocating such a simplistic solution. His comment that “…teaching is a highly respected and sought after career and these countries have succeeded in making teaching attractive to their brightest and best schools leavers…” (emphasis mine) indicates to me that it should be merely one component of the admission process.

Professor Masters observed that in teaching in Australia is trending in the other direction to high-performing countries, becoming less attractive, an opinion I agree with. Personally, I am finding that time I would spend planning and preparing for a lesson is being taken up by mandatory training modules which provide no actual training, or on paperwork which is needed for the sake of bureaucracy. I, like many other teachers around the world, am struggling to balance work and family and am left feeling guilty for not spending time with my family. Perversely, I also find myself feeling guilty for not spending the time I want on marking and writing feedback, or on planning and resourcing a lesson, (often with things from my own home or which we have purchased with our own money).

One of many memes which can be found on the internet with a similar sentiment. Retrieved from on 6th May 2016

The debate about how to improve the attractiveness of teaching as a profession is an old and ongoing one, and I look forward to hearing it discussed during Education Nation. When asked for his view on how the issue could be resolved, Professor Masters pointed out that it would require a series of deliberate policy decisions on a range of issues including teacher salaries, resourcing, and autonomy; as well as the number of admissions into ITE programs. Professor Masters noted that the countries which appear at the top of the international testing results, including Finland, limit the number of pre-service teachers each year. This article indicates that only one in ten applicants is successful in gaining entry into a Finnish ITE program.

There are also come clear benefits to restricting the number of entrants to ITE programs. You are also restricting the number of graduates, thereby helping to prevent what has happened here in Australia, where there is a glut of teachers who are unable to gain permanent employment due to the high number of graduates each year. Professor Masters’ final point was that an important factor in the perception of teaching is the academic rigour of the ITE program itself. I have written previously about my own ITE (part one can be found here), and I do believe that ITE programs, in general, can be improved, and look forward to hearing about that topic at Education Nation.

NAPLAN, which commences next Tuesday for Year Three, Five, Seven and Nine students Australia-wide, is an incredibly high-stakes testing process which has the potential to cause great anxiety and consternation amongst students, parents, teachers and policy-makers, and which invariably receives a great deal of attention in the media. When asked about why he thought NAPLAN moved from being a low-stakes test to what it is now, Professor Masters wrote that it is part of a deliberate strategy to improve performances through incentives.


These incentives appear to use the carrot and stick method, with some financial rewards for school improvement or, alternatively, the threat of intervention and sanction for poor performance, and yet, the international experience has demonstrated that school behaviour is changed when the stakes attached to tests are increased. This is shown by the annual breaches that occur during the administering NAPLAN tests, including cheating and inappropriate assistance by some teachers, and the way in which many schools prepare their students for NAPLAN, as indicated in this article. Further to this, the public release of NAPLAN allows parents to compare schools and can result in some schools losing students as parents opt to send their child to seemingly ‘better’ schools.

Professor Masters commented that high-quality tests are an important component of education, providing diagnostic data around topics or concepts that require attention, monitoring improvement over time and evaluating the effectiveness and impact of programs and interventions. The widely used Progressive Achievement Test (PAT) is an example of the kind of test that can be an invaluable part of a teacher’s toolkit.

I do agree with Professor Masters about the value of testing. At the beginning of this year, Stage Three students in my school all completed a series of diagnostic tests across reading, spelling, and mathematics. That data was invaluable in identifying those students who need additional assistance in particular areas, and plays a role in developing Individual Education Plans (IEPs) for some students, and also for discussions with parents about the student’s results and progress throughout the year. It will also play an important role in quantifying students’ growth across the year when those tests are re-administered at various points throughout the year.

My final question to Professor Masters was his advice to new teachers as they enter their classrooms pressured to ensure that their students to achieve high NAPLAN results. He responded that “[t]here are few things as important in schools as providing all students with sound foundations in literacy and numeracy.” Professor Masters’ belief that the goal should be to improve our students’ literacy and numeracy levels, and that if we do raise the NAPLAN results, it should be as a result of improved literacy and numeracy levels. The problem, he pointed out, is that NAPLAN scores can be increased in ways that do not lead to better literacy and numeracy levels.

I am grateful to Professor Masters for his time and willingness to engage in the interview process. I very much look forward to hearing him speak at Education Nation, where he is speaking to the title Addressing the five key challenges in school education that matter to you on day one. Professor Masters will also be joining Dennis Yarrington, Dr. Kenneth Wiltshire and Lila Mularczyk for a panel discussion about Student Testing on day two. If you have not yet registered for Education Nation, I would encourage you to do so by clicking here.

As always, my thanks for reading, particularly given the length of this article. Please feel free to contact me with any comments, questions or feedback via the comments section below or on Twitter.

Research Skills and the Mekong River

“Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.” 
– Attributed to Zora Neale Hurston

When I was asked to take on my current role, I was told that I would be responsible for teaching computer skills and research skills, two sets of skills which contain a vast and diverse array of sub-skills. Due to the vagaries of disruptions to school timetables, I am at slightly different points in my program with each class and while I have moved onto the research skills component of my program with two of my Stage Three classes, but will not be able to do the same with my other two Stage Three classes.

The skill of taking high-quality notes is valuable, both for students (at primary, secondary and tertiary levels) and for the everyday person, requires critical thinking, the ability to understand and summarise, and is a critically important skill for any research, whether academic or social in nature. Yet it is, inexplicably, a skill which we do not often explicitly teach to our students. I will be spending the remainder of this term and some of next term filling this gap. I will be spending time teaching students how to summarise and synthesise information into useful notes, how to organise their notes, different strategies and when they might be useful using a variety of pedagogical practices and text types.

All Stage Three teachers are conducting a unit of learning with their class around the Murray-Darling, and as a way of connecting the concepts and skills that I want their/my students to learn with what they are learning in their own classroom, I am going to utilise the Mekong River as a vehicle for learning about, practising and using the various research skills including note-taking, referencing and synthesis and understanding the various concepts including credibility, reliability and validity, which are also important skills for digital literacy.

I am utilising the Mekong River for a few reasons. There are some striking similarities between Australia’s Murray-Darling River and South-East Asia’s Mekong River. Both play or have played a significant role in local trade and lifestyle at differing points along their lengths. Both have been seen as a resource for life, for money, for travel and both river systems are paying the price. Along with that aspect, this is an opportunity to expose my students to a range of Asian cultures and perspectives, a Cross-Curriculum priority under the current National Curriculum which they otherwise would not necessarily have an opportunity experience. As part of this I will be using a range of text-types, including documentaries about various aspects of the Mekong and the cultures along its length, showing the differences and similarities between the Murray-Darling and Mekong Rivers.

Finally, it allows me to connect the skills and concepts with what students are already learning about without subjecting students to hearing the same thing multiple times, both in their teacher’s classroom and then with me, which is not fair on the students, and would create issues for me around classroom management that can be avoided by simply not making those pedagogical choices.

One of the pedagogical choices that I have made regarding this unit of learning is to utilise Twitter as a way for my students to crystallise what they are learning and understanding, by giving them the opportunity to make a Tweet via my Teaching Twitter account @MrEmsClass, and already, some students have taken the opportunity, and have been quite excited by being able, to Tweet about what they have learned, such as Tahlia:

Thank you for reading, and as always I would appreciate hearing people’s thoughts on this topic, particularly anyone who has set out to explicitly teach research skills in the classroom to Stage Three students, or to Stage Two students, whom I hope to begin the topic with in Term Four. If you are interested in what we are learning in the class, feel free to follow my teaching Twitter account, or search the hashtags #PCPS #notetaking or #researchskills

Musings on Initial Teacher Education provoked by a Twitter conversation (Part 3)

“A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.”
– Attributed to Henry Adams

This is the third part in a series of reflections on initial teacher education (ITE). The opening article in this series focused on options to change the way that pre-service teachers are brought into their ITE programs with a view to lifting the quality of teachers. This is, of course, a difficult task and furthermore is a very contentious topic. The follow-up article was an examination of my own ITE program and ways in which it could have been strengthened with the view to improving the quality of graduates by making it a more rigorous program, and by better preparing graduates for the real world of the teaching profession. Today’s article will combine two of the topics originally listed in my opening article as they are heavily intertwined; the value of teachers and teaching as perceived in the public sphere and the role of the Education minister and his/her (currently his) stance towards education and teachers and the way the Education Minister is perceived by teachers.

I have been told that the position of Education Minister has not always been the popular and visible that it currently is, and that education as a topic of social discussion has not always been the ‘hot-button’ topic that it has been in the last ten to fifteen years. A brief Google search with the terms improve teacher quality brings up these results. A quick perusal of the search results reveals that there is a general call to improve the quality of teachers. Searching within a variety of topics within the sphere of education allows you to see the discourse of dissatisfaction emerging. This can be seen in educational topics such as NAPLAN results, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) and the creative arts.

It is my belief that the news industry is responsible, in large part, for shaping public perception around the value and quality of education and teachers. Personally, I believe they do a reprehensible job of representing the teaching profession and the education industry through the continual publication of articles that decry the effort, the worth, the value, the training and quality of teachers.

The other side of it is the now high-profile portfolio of Education and Training Minister, currently held by The Honourable Christopher Pyne MP, also wields a great deal of influence in the shaping of public perception in regards to the education sector. There has been an increasing interest and importance attached to the annual NAPLAN testing as a supposed measure of teacher and school quality. I am unsure whether this has been socially driven by parents concerned about the education their child is receiving, or whether it has been as a result of ongoing politically determined importance. Wherever the impetus for the increased misplaced focus on NAPLAN testing comes from, it does seem to have originated, at least initially, with the (then) Education Minister Julia Gillard’s unveiling of the MySchool website in 2010. In 2009, the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) was established to oversee the implementation of the planned Australian Curriculum.

The rationale behind this appeared logical; to allow greater consistency in skills and concepts taught nationally, thereby simplifying the process for students and teachers to move interstate. There was an underlying issue with this premise. It is not a truly national curriculum. I am unsure as to other states, but the current curriculum documents here in NSW are not the Australian Curriculum. According to the NSW BOSTES site, “New South Wales joined with the Australian Government and all other states and territories to develop an Australian curriculum…[t]hat incorporate agreed Australian curriculum content.”  

This Australian Curriculum, as of today (June 16, 2015) has not yet been fully endorsed or rolled out. Yet in January of 2014, Education Minister Christopher Pyne announced a review of the Australian Curriculum. At that point in time, not all curriculum documents had been written, endorse or rolled out. The results of such a far-reaching review would realistically not be expected for perhaps eighteen months after the announcement, to allow time for a proper establishment of the frame of reference, receipt of submissions from stakeholders, analysis of the data, synthesis of results and formulation of the resulting Review Paper. You would be incorrect in expecting that, as the Mr Pyne released the final report in October 2014

The Twitter conversation that sparked this series of articles included a comment from myself that “…we need an Education Minister who genuinely cares.” This was perhaps rather harsh on my part. I do not doubt that the Mr Pyne cares about his portfolio. The response I received was that “…I would like an Ed Minister (and this is fantasy) who relentlessly and publicly supported the teaching profession.” My immediate thought and my subsequent response to this comment was “…excuse me while I laugh at the absurdity of that ever happening.”

It is sad that the Education Minister is not perceived as being supportive of teachers. It is sad that the immediate response to an expressed desire such as that which was expressed to me is immediately met with sarcastic derision, as that is the perception that successive Education Ministers have fostered about their regard for education and teachers. I am unable to take seriously an Education Minister who instigates a review of a curriculum which has not been fully rolled out, let alone been in place for at least one full calendar year.

I do not know how to repair the relationship between the Education Minister and the teaching profession. I suspect that the views held by Mr Pyne are binary to those held by many teachers. What does need to happen though, is a cessation of Education being used as a political football to score points with the voters with disregard for the impact on the education sector, on students and on teachers.

I would very much like to hear any suggestions as to steps that can be taken to help repair the relationship between the Education Minister and the teaching profession specifically and the education sector in general. Thank you for reading this article, and sticking with me after the mammoth article yesterday. Tomorrow