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Teaching the teachers

By Kevin Donnelly - posted Wednesday, 9 March 2005

The President of the Australian Education Union, Pat Byrne, argues that a national review of teacher training is simply a political exercise and a waste of time and money.

She is wrong. Serious concerns about the way beginner teachers are prepared for the realities of the classroom were highlighted in last week's Victorian State Parliament inquiry. A major misgiving is that overly theoretical courses are failing to turn out teachers of value and substance.

Certainly, a submission by the Australian Council for Educational Research to a federal inquiry last year noted that the variation in quality of teacher training education was "considerable" and "arguably one of the least accountable and least examined areas of professional education in Australia".


Part of the problem is that those responsible for professional development push their own political and new-age curriculum agendas.

First, the approaches to teacher training focus as much on analysing how education supposedly reproduces social inequality as it does on teaching teachers how to teach. Long gone are the days when learning was about introducing students to what Matthew Arnold termed the best that has been thought and said. Teachers are not simply there to impart a thorough grounding of history, literature, biology or mathematics, but rather to critique mainstream society and to fight for greater equity and social justice.

The Australian Education Union reasons this is because Australian society is a "class-based society that is diverse and characterised by inequality and social conflict".

But not only does the union ignore the fact that Australia pioneered such reforms as the eight-hour day, votes for women and progressive taxation, it argues that the best way to achieve social justice is to adopt a left-wing agenda on such topics.

The Australian Curriculum Studies Association, a peak body bringing together academics, teacher educators and teachers, adds weight to the argument, saying that Australian society is riven by social injustice and that schools must contribute to rectifying the situation: "They (schools) must work with all students to unmask and confront the complex social causes of inequality, including the function of schools themselves in this regard. In other words, schools must work at several levels to redress injustice in society which still fails to recognise it, and often to act upon it effectively even when it does."

Those lucky enough to have completed teacher training during the '70s and '80s will recognise the approach to education advocated by the union and the ACSA. Building on the works of sociologists such as M.F.D. Young, Pierre Bourdieu and Bowles and Gintis, schools become part of the ideological state apparatus.


As such, the argument goes, competitive assessment and rewarding individual effort simply reinforce disadvantage. Similarly, the way traditional subjects such as literature and history were taught gives the advantage to the more powerful and acts to marginalise already disadvantaged groups.

The result? ACSA's Policy on Social Justice, Curriculum and Pedagogy says traditional approaches to education, such as competitive assessment, are largely to blame.

While many parents and employers might think competition and excellence are worthwhile pursuits, and that success at school helps to overcome disadvantage and increases social mobility, teacher organisations argue the opposite. Thus, there is an emphasis on non-competitive and non-graded assessment and focus on affirmative action programs for so-called "victim" groups such as women, migrants and the working class.

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First published in The Age on March 7, 2005.

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About the Author

Dr Kevin Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and he recently co-chaired the review of the Australian national curriculum. He can be contacted at He is author of Australia’s Education Revolution: How Kevin Rudd Won and Lost the Education Wars available to purchase at

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