Lessons lost in the Gonski debate

While politicians argue about how much money to throw at schools, Australia's poor education outcomes can be dramatically improved by working on the lost art of better teaching.

The furious debate about education and the Gonski report is missing what I believe is not only an important gap in our education system but is a root cause of Australia falling behind other nations.

Somehow, many decades ago, our education administrators in most states decided to substantially downgrade the education of teachers in the actual art and skill of teaching. Teachers were given a much broader education, which was important, but when many hit the classroom they were ill prepared to handle the problems they often encountered. Many, in time, learned good teaching skills while others left the teaching profession frustrated. Others never really made it.

This process contributed to a lot of students not being taught the basic building blocks required in education. And that is still happening. When she was federal education minister Julia Gillard could see the gap in student knowledge and introduced extensive nationwide testing. Naturally this showed up the deficiencies in education and was understandably opposed by teachers, many of whom had never been taught how to teach this base knowledge to students. Now we are discovering that our students are falling behind in the region.

I first came across this deficiency in teacher training some years ago after long discussions with a person who had been given the task of introducing electronic whiteboards to government schools. The whiteboards required extensive teacher training, which she could arrange but the teachers had to be enthusiastic.

Surprisingly she found that among the older teachers there was great enthusiasm, but among the younger teachers there was reluctance because they were struggling with the problems of discovering how to teach, given the inadequacies of their training. The last thing many struggling young teachers wanted was training on a completely new apparatus.

Many young teachers were also discovering that the skills they required in co-education classes were multiplied because of the differences in rates of maturity between girls and boys.

David Gonski thought the base problems could be overcome by spraying money at them. Others think they can be overcome with smaller class sizes. But smaller class sizes are expensive and tend to reduce the amount of specialised help that can be given to students who are falling behind.

One of the reasons large sections of the independent school movement have been so successful is that the better independent schools have selected teachers who have adapted to the deficiencies in their initial training. The teachers are often given further practical assistance in conveying knowledge and inspiring students to learn. Money can always help and there is no doubt that many schools need better facilities but it's time to get back to the base problem and when we do we will see the results improve.

Nb. I am a former chairman of Penleigh and Essendon Grammar, and have been on the board for 40 years.