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Getting Schooled On Teacher Training

By Maryanne Spurdle, Researcher, Maxim Institute

Education is firmly on political parties’ radars this election. As the ink dries on the Government’s pay agreements with teachers, the Māori Party is campaigning for every school to have at least one Māori member of senior management, ACT has proposed the ultimate in school choice, and the National Party wants to transform education one confiscated phone at a time.

The sheer variety of solutions to declining achievement, teacher shortages, and truancy reflects the complexity educational issues unleash. The best solutions are the ones that stick to the foundations and framework of our education system and resist trying to merely raise its curb appeal.

The Teaching Council is part of that foundation. It sets the standards for both teachers and the institutions that train them. In recognition of the fact that these standards need attention, it’s updating its Initial Teaching Requirements. The Council now wants prospective teachers to pass the equivalent of UE entrance exams in literacy and numeracy before enrolling in Initial Teacher Education. It also recognises that teachers would benefit from more time in actual classrooms practising in actual classrooms.

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Good ideas, but they exist alongside more opaque ones, such as “inclusiveness practice”—“All student teachers need to be able to teach in inclusive ways, as all children have the right to access equitable educational opportunities.” What’s a teacher trainer meant to do with this directive other than give the slow nod that all blindingly obvious statements deserve?

But there’s hopeful news out of Australia.

Four years ago, 42% of students attending Catholic Education Canberra Goulburn schools were underperforming in reading. Director Ross Fox believed that the schools’ frustrated teachers hadn’t been adequately prepared, so he retrained all 1,500 of them in evidence-based methods of teaching.

He was right. In just three years, the number of underperforming students dropped by 36%. Only 6% were still underperforming in 2022.

That impressive turnaround came after teachers were trained in four key areas: classroom management; how the brain processes, stores, and retrieves information; literacy and numeracy teaching strategies; and “responsive” teaching, ensuring content is culturally and contextually appropriate.

The news gets better. In July, Australia’s education ministers gave the nation’s universities two years to implement evidence-based methods in their Initial Teacher Education. Programmes will receive funding to do this and lose accreditation if they don’t.

In New Zealand, there are well-respected programmes, like the New Zealand Graduate School of Education, which centre their teacher education around evidence-based teaching practices. But, as in Australia, they’re not the norm.

ABC News summed up Fox’s take: “The science of learning was starkly different to most university courses which often taught student-directed learning and exploring education through societal power structures. In contrast … the science of learning was based on research that looked at the way young brains absorbed knowledge and structured lessons that reflected this.”

We should be taking notes. Australia isn’t the first country to figure this out. Let’s pray we aren’t the last.

*Maxim Institute is an independent think tank working to promote the dignity of every person in New Zealand by standing for freedom, justice, compassion, and hope.

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