Talking Teaching

May 28, 2012

what’s the academy *for*?

There’s a trend – a trend that is worthwhile & not before time – to recognise excellence among tertiary teachers. (Where ‘tertiary’ = beyond the compulsory education sector, which is so much wider than ‘just’  universities.) In New Zealand we have the national Tertiary Teaching Excellence Awards, which recognise & encourage excellence. These awards are funded by the Tertiary Education Commission and managed and administered by Ako Aotearoa, and winners become members of the Ako Aotearoa Academy.

Anyway, I was talking with a group of colleagues on Friday, & one of the topics of conversation was, what’s the Academy for? What does it do?

Well, if you follow that last link, & then peruse the various sections & links on the Academy page, you’ll find it does quite a lot, both for its members & also to foster excellence in learning & teaching across the tertiary education sector: workshops, teaching tools & narratives, the annual symposium for academy members (which is a most excellent event), and a range of member contributions.

All this truly is wonderful stuff – and yet, there’s something that worries me. Because, outside the sector, both Ako Aotearoa & the Academy have, well, quite a low profile. I believe there is a risk – especially in the current economic climate – of the Academy in particular being seen as something of an echo-chamber for the teaching elite, with the associated question: why, in tight financial times, should it continue to be funded? Having a lowish profile is Not Good in these circumstances, because it means that there are few people outside the Academy & Ako Aotearoa who would argue for its continued existence, or mourn its disappearance.

Which would be a pity. Because, having a body of expert teachers actively sharing that expertise means that, over time (& alongside other Ako activities), knowledge that contributes to enhanced teaching practices will spread. Because, when that happens, so too will learning and learners’ experiences be enhanced, so that society can be ever more sure that those learners are prepared for what the 21st century can throw at them. Because, we have so much to contribute (the current debate on what constitutes excellence in secondary school teaching springs to mind).

It’s just that somehow, at the moment, we’re just not very good at getting that across.

May 21, 2012

how much do we value our teachers?

Filed under: education — Tags: , , , — alison @ 9:41 pm

Here in New Zealand I find that topics related to education (its quality, delivery, cost & so on) are never far from the headlines. So I’ve been following the various media reports on class sizes and performance pay for teachers with considerable interest. This afternoon I was sent a link to an article in the National Business Review – the article itself was quite… interesting (surely the number of teachers in this country hasn’t increased from 10-11,000 to 52,500 over the last decade? Why didn’t the reporter question that statement?), but it’s something in the comments thread that I’d like to address here.  ‘Anonymous’ remarked that

Police should get a lot more pay than teachers. They put their lives on the line every day , they have to deal with some of the worst members of our society on a daily basis , they work 8 fullon hours each day and usually 10 hours(with no extra pay) unlike teachers who have plenty of free time , they work shift work which is very disruptive to family life and they only get the 20 days holiday each year that most workers get . Compared to those in the police,school teachers have the good life believe me…..

I agree, members of our police force do all of this & earn every cent of their salaries. But I can’t agree with the implication that teachers, & the job teachers do, are somehow less valuable to society. Just how much value do we place, should we place, on those people society expects to prepare our young people for the increasingly complex demands of the world beyond school?

We need to remember, too, that in some cases teachers’ lives are also on the line.

And I must strongly disagree with the statement that teachers get ‘plenty of free time’. I’ve worked with an awful lot of dedicated, highly skilled teachers over the years since I moved back to university from my own secondary school classroom, and both my experiences & theirs belie that ‘free time’ statement. Teachers spend around 5 hours a day actually in the classroom, with up to 30+ students at a time (with the possibility of more, under the changes recently flagged by the Ministry). Typically there are meetings before & after school, & grounds duty on a rostered basis – and let’s not forget that a teacher doesn’t ‘just’ teach in a particular subject area but spends time on things like pastoral care as well.

The extra-curricular activities that add so much richness to students’ school experiences wouldn’t be possible if teachers didn’t offer their services in lunch breaks, after school, in weekends & holidays: something for which they don’t get extra pay, either, and which – from personal experience – can also be very disruptive to family life. (The NZ International Biology Olympiad teams, for example, owe their considerable success to the fact that classroom teachers give up evenings, weekends & holidays to coach, assess & mentor them.) And then there’s the marking, lesson-planning, report-writing, keeping up with all the other paperwork, parent-teacher interviews, all of which chews into the evenings & weekends, & those on-the-face-of-it generous ‘holidays’ as well.

Free time on a daily basis? I don’t think so.

May 3, 2012

the ero on primary school science: ‘should do better’

Filed under: education, science teaching — Tags: , , — alison @ 5:53 pm

The Education Review Office’s report on primary school science is all over the news today: here at Yahoo, for example. You’ll find the original paper, Science in the New Zealand Curriculum: Years 5 to 8on the ERO website. It does not fill me with joy and the following quotes from the report’s Overview should show why:

Effective practice in science teaching and learning in Years 5 to 8 was evident in less than a third of the 100 schools [surveyed for the report]. The wide variability of practices between highly effective and ineffective practices was found across all school types.


Few principals and teachers demonstrated an understanding of how they could integrate the National Standards in reading, writing and mathematics into their science programmes. In the less effective schools principals saw science learning as a low priority. They struggled to maintain a balance between effective literacy and numeracy teaching, and providing sufficient time for teaching other curriculum areas, but particularly science.


Knowledge-based programmes were evident rather than interactive thinking, talking, and experimenting approaches… Student involvement in experimental work was variable.

So – I was saddened by the report, & I wasn’t exactly surprised either. I’ve written previously (here, for example) about the problems and challenges faced by primary school teachers wanting to enhance their students’ understanding of & engagement with science. Back in 2010, Bull et al presented data showing that the average NZ primary school student spends 45 hours a year studying science (it was 66 hours in 2002), with only 6 other countries of those surveyed spending less time on the subject.  The other worrying point was that the number of students reporting that they never did experiments increased between 1999 & 2007. At the time I commented that it could simply have been that the students didn’t always recognise when they were involved in science activities, but also that at least some primary teachers might lack confidence in teaching science & so omitted it from any integrated lessons. And indeed, the 2010 ERO report cited by Bull & her colleagues found that

most primary teachers did not have a science background and that low levels of science knowledge and science teaching expertise contributed to the variation in quality of science teaching across schools… [and] that many teachers had not learned about science in their pre-service teacher training.

Nor am I surprised that schools & teachers struggle to balance the literacy & numeracy requirements of National Standards with encouraging students to a deeper understanding of science. After all, it’s not that long ago since schools lost the services of school science advisers, who’d been tasked with supporting science education and teachers’ professional development in this area. That loss makes it rather ironic that this latest ERO report recommends that the Ministry should look at ways to provide such support and ongoing professional development in areas including:

  • integrating literacy and numeracy into science teaching and learning
  • considering the place of National Standards for achievement in reading, writing and mathematics across all learning areas, including science
  • developing an approach to inquiry based learning that maintains the integrity of different learning areas, including science.

A ‘back to the future’ prescription, in a way. And, if we accept that science and technology and engineering and mathematics are crucial to our future, it’s a prescription that needs to be met. Students who have positive, engaging experiences of those subjects at primary school might just be more likely to want to continue their engagement at higher levels. Including going on to study at university level. In light of today’s statement by the Tertiary Education Minister, Stephen Joyce, that the Government intends to “rebalance tertiary education toward science, technology, engineering and maths”, then all science educators (primary through tertiary) need to look at how to support teachers and students in developing that engagement.

And in that same light: next week is NZASE National Primary Science Week, set up to offer both engaging activities for primary students and free professional development opportunities for their teachers. There’s a lot going on in the regions, and they’re a brilliant opportunity for scientists in the universities, research institutions, and industries to help deliver the support that our colleagues in the primary schools desperately need. So, a question for my colleagues: what can you do to support this event, if not this year, then next? It could just make a difference, in your own classroom or workplace, in the future!

A.Bull, J.Gilbert, H.Barwick, R.Hipkins & R.Baker (2010) Inspired by science: a paper commissioned by the Royal Society and the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER), August 2010

Education Review Office (2012) Science in the New Zealand Curriculum: Years 5 to 8.

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