The articles in this edition of Professional Voice cover a diverse range of subjects - climate futures education, pedagogy, staff welfare, school autonomy, autobiographical episodic memory and a re-imagining of schooling reform. The commonalities however are many: each of the authors clarifies the significant issues in their subject area and indicates why and how changes need to take place, and all of the articles are research-based and designed to generate new ideas and understandings of matters which impact on the professional lives of those who work in schools.
Two of the articles in this edition of the journal are about climate change education. Australia was in the spotlight at the world climate summit in November in Glasgow for all the wrong reasons. The threadbare “Australian way” policies which the Prime Minister took to the summit were seen by most delegates and commentators as merely slogans, as bereft of substance as the emperor’s new clothes. They came from a government which is locked in to providing direct taxpayer support for fossil fuel companies presently estimated to be over $10 billion per year.
Australia’s climate policies were ranked last among 64 countries by the Climate Change Performance Index unveiled at Glasgow and recent data has shown Australia to rank as the highest carbon emitter per capita in the OECD. The federal government refused to join other countries in pledging either to reduce methane or to work to phase out coal-fuelled power generation. Instead of being seen as working constructively to limit global warming to 1.5oC, Australia was placed in the recalcitrant category, a very wealthy country unwilling to pull its weight to help stave off the existential threat to our shared planet.
Australia is a signatory to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and, as a party to this Convention, has responsibility to undertake education and public awareness campaigns on climate change, and to ensure public participation in the matter - including the participation of children and youth. Hilary Whitehouse sets out the evidence that Australian governments have been a dismal failure in meeting these responsibilities. She describes education for sustainability in Australia as being both under-funded and regarded as “unnecessary to the ‘real’ purposes of schooling”.
Whitehouse believes the “deliberate silence” when it comes to implementing effective climate change education policy in Australia is largely due to poor national political leadership influenced by climate change denialism. The research indicates that “there is a high correlation between lack of action by governments and younger people’s increased levels of negative feelings towards their futures”. There is an urgent need for education for sustainable development to be integrated into all national and state education policies to increase both the trust of young people and to support their role as active agents of change.
The second article on climate change education, by Natalie Purves, takes this argument further, contending that young people have a “right and responsibility” to participate in decision-making and action on climate change and climate justice. The ongoing worldwide protests on climate change by young people reflect both their capacity to generate enormous grassroots mobilization and their commitment to make political leaders listen to their voices about their future. Purves is critical of the Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Education Declaration for removing previous references to climate change and integrating sustainability across the curriculum. She believes that all subjects in the Australian curriculum should have a role in preparing students for the climate crisis. Areas of learning such as environmental politics should be in the school curriculum so that students are more aware of the legitimate role that protest plays in current environmental movements. This approach would be in keeping with educational principles such as ‘learning for life’, independent learning, the development of creative and problem-solving skills, and the enabling of student voice, agency, and leadership.
Recently, the curriculum and pedagogy being used in schools have come under fire from partisan warriors with loud media voices. The federal Minister for Education, Alan Tudge, attacked the national history curriculum review for being too critical of past events and claimed that instead of giving students the message that Australia is “the greatest country on Earth” it would lead to “future generations being unwilling to defend the nation”. A position described by historians as a complete misunderstanding of what history is for and why it matters.
On the pedagogy front, articles in The Australian and The Age have used a publication from the conservative Centre for Independent studies by John Sweller to condemn inquiry-based learning. Alan Reid’s article in Professional Voice analyses the flaws in this argument and demonstrates its limited knowledge and misunderstanding of inquiry-based learning and, more broadly, about what happens in contemporary Australian classrooms. Reid describes teachers as practical expert educators exercising their professional judgement in the classroom. This means using a range of teaching approaches including various forms of inquiry-based learning and explicit teaching for the purposes of selecting “the most appropriate approach given the context of her/his students’ learning needs at any point in time”.
The mental health and wellbeing of students and school staff have come to the fore during the era of COVID lockdowns and remote learning. Rebecca Collie describes the findings from her research into teacher wellbeing, which included data from before as well as during the pandemic. She defines wellbeing as a “combination of feeling good and functioning effectively” at work. “Feeling good” is about job satisfaction, a sense of vitality at work, and low stress and low burnout at work, while “functioning effectively” covers work engagement and occupational commitment. Collie found that teachers who had received helpful feedback, who felt they had more input in decision-making and whose principals indicated they provided greater student discipline support reported higher levels of occupational commitment. Arising from her research, she recommends that principals could increase teacher wellbeing by: inviting teachers to provide input in relation to decisions and school policies; offer teachers control over when and how they undertake their work when feasible; and offer justifications or rationales for the purpose of tasks or duties that are assigned to teachers.
John Munro writes about the important function of ‘autobiographical episodic’ memory (AEM) in student wellbeing and achievement. He defines AEM as:
This is what you know from your experiences. It tells you what to expect in any situation, how well you handled similar experiences in the past and how you can deal with issues that arise.
AEM is stimulated or ‘triggered’ by the situation or context you are in and helps to explain the range of negative emotions and well-being of students during lockdown. Students had AEM experiences to support formal academic learning in the classroom and, separate to these, experiences to support how they lived at home. Learning at home lacked the routines, support systems and scaffolding that underpinned classroom learning and, crucially, lacked the on-going activity of an in-person professional educator who directs and orchestrates the learning activity in a range of ways. Munro contends that the effect of AEM is broader than simply applying to lockdown. “It allows us more generally to initiate change in our lives, to see how things might be improved” and impacts directly on our emotional state and well-being. Students need to know how to explicitly enhance and use their AEMs to handle change effectively.
Over the past two decades the professional autonomy of teachers has been squeezed between red tape accountability, standardisation and the development of “best practice” semi-mandates delivered by external “experts” and bureaucrats. For example, surveys have shown a majority of teachers believe their authority to evaluate learning and assess growth has been undermined by political interventions favouring narrowly-based standardised population testing programs. The evidence shows that an emphasis on these programs, at the expense of more meaningful forms of classroom-based assessment, not only impacts on the professional agency of teachers but has led to a range of negative educational outcomes.
Two of the articles in this edition of Professional Voice address the issue of professional autonomy. Katrina MacDonald, Jill Blackmore and Amanda Keddie provide some early findings from their project about school autonomy and the implications for socially just schooling. One of their findings is that autonomy in the management of schools does not necessarily lead to improved teacher and principal professional autonomy. Rather than school autonomy translating into the improvement of instructional leadership, curriculum, pedagogy and teacher professional development, accompanying Department policies of compliance and accountability can “create performative tensions for both teachers and school leaders and significant administrative workloads”. The authors comment that school autonomy works best for both students and staff where school leaders are able to use their local decision-making to enable teacher autonomy, creativity and professional collaboration.
Glenn Savage believes the many attempts by Australian governments over the past two decades to “revolutionise” schools have ended in evident failure and, as a result, there needs to be a re-imagining of schooling reform. He questions what he calls the “global consultocracy” whose claims to know “what works” have been taken up by governments everywhere to standardise and “align” diverse schooling systems around common practices. The problem with this is that these 'answers' often don’t work or only work in some limited contexts. And they not only privilege the ideas of remote designers over those of local professionals with deep knowledge of their local context, they “can act as powerful disincentives for the profession to generate and share locally-produced evidence”. Savage argues that this imbalance needs to be urgently corrected and the investment of energy and resources for reform should go into the professional experts in schools to “experiment, solve problems and collaborate to create solutions in context”.
John Graham is editor of Professional Voice and works as a research officer at the Australian Education Union (Vic). He has been a secondary teacher, worked on national and state-based education programs and in the policy division of the Victorian Education Department. He has carried out research in a wide range of areas related to education and training. He has written extensively about the many issues impacting on teachers and teaching as a profession, teacher education, curriculum change, and the politics, organisation and funding of public education.
This article appears in Professional Voice 14.2 Re-evaluations: Climate education, pedagogy, wellbeing and professional autonomy