On music and literacy learning in the middle years


I used to teach English in a P–12 school that happened to have a spare piano sitting against a wall in a classroom where I found myself timetabled. I also brought in an acoustic guitar from home and would regularly compose the Song of the Week with both my Year 7 and Year 8 English classes. These would be based on the curriculum we were working on at that time.

Sometimes these songs were useful as a strategy for learning new concepts or remembering things, but mostly they were a fun excuse for having more music in my English lessons.

Perhaps it was easy for me to do this as a musician, but I have always been fascinated by the link between music and literacy learning, which is what prompted me to do my doctoral thesis on the topic (Riddle, 2012) and eventually led me to my current position at university, where I now teach literacy and English curriculum courses to future primary and secondary teachers.

In this short piece, I would like to make a case for embedding more musical experiences into literacy learning activities, not as some trite add-on but as a way of tapping into the deep, rich musical lives of young learners. There is a real power in music, which I think is often left largely unrealised in the busy work of classrooms, where a crowded curriculum, standardised testing and large administrative burdens make it difficult to find time for play, creativity and expression.

The potential of music in literacy learning

In his riveting book, Musicophilia: Tales of music and the brain, musician, neurologist and author, Oliver Sacks (2008), remarks, ‘It really is a very odd business that all of us, to varying degrees, have music in our heads’ (p. 43). He goes on to argue that music is an intrinsic part of being human and that we do not need to be musically-trained or know how to play an instrument to tap into the enormous potential of music as a human experience of being, knowing and doing.

It is commonly understood that the memorisation of things such as lists, rules and concepts is assisted through the use of musical mnemonics, including rhymes, rhythms, alliteration and melodies.

No doubt everyone has experienced having a song stuck in their heads for an entire day, or the moment we are trying to remember something and start automatically humming to ourselves. These ear worms can be a potent memory recall tool; just think of what happens when you are trying to remember the sequence of letters in the alphabet or colours of a rainbow. Music often triggers memories, sensations and emotions that take us to a particular place or time in our lives where we first heard that song.

As well as being a useful memory trigger, music can also have a calming effect and is used in many different ways by music therapists working with patients who are suffering from conditions including neurological disorders, as well as significant mental, physical and emotional trauma (Bunt & Stige, 2014; Davis, Gfeller, & Thaut, 2008). I had the great privilege of spending my Year 11 work experience placement with a blind music therapist and saw first-hand the awe-inspiring work that they do.

There is a growing body of research indicating that the links between language and music are much stronger than we previously thought (Hansen & Milligan, 2012; Tomlinson, 2013). As neuroscience gains more sophisticated tools for mapping the brain, there is increasing evidence to support the argument that music and language learning are closely linked (Brown, Martinez, & Parsons, 2006; Patel, 2010). The French playwright and novelist, Victor Hugo, is famously supposed to have said that, ‘Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent.’ Perhaps there is a potential at the point where music and language meet.

Much research has been done into initial language acquisition in the early years (Brandt, Gebrian, & Slevc, 2012; Kay, 2013; Salmon, 2010; Standley, 2008), working with second language learners (Paquette & Rieg, 2008) and the importance of using songs and rhymes with young language learners (e.g., see Hansen, Bernstorf, & Stuber, 2014). Furthermore, we know that music is a great vehicle for developing expression, fluency, aesthetics, collaboration and interaction, self-regulation and social competence (Wiggins, 2007). But what about literacy learning in the middle years?

I argue that music has a central role in the formation of young teenagers’ identities, building important social and emotional connections to their lives, as well as acting as a backdrop to other daily activities and as a refuge from the complexity and confusion of the world (Riddle, 2013). Music, like language, is an inherently social practice and thus, I believe we can make meaningful links between music and literacies learning in order to connect to the lives of young learners (Riddle, 2014).

Both music and language are multimodal in nature, combining various modes of social communication in dynamic and interrelated ways. Cope and Kalantzis (2009) demonstrate the links between modalities of meaning made possible in literacies learning and music through ‘audio representation: music, ambient sounds, noises, alerts, hearing, listening’ (p. 178), alongside written, oral, visual, tactile, gestural and spatial modalities.

The New London Group (1996) claims that it is the role of schools and teachers to ‘recruit, rather than attempt to ignore and erase, the different subjectivities – interests, intentions, commitments, and purposes – students bring to learning’ (p. 72). School literacies learning experiences should be multimodal, multi-textual, multi-sensory and multicultural, and perhaps a little more music will go a long way.

While I am not claiming that music should always be embedded in literacy lessons, I am suggesting that there is a case for its inclusion, both from a cognitive angle and its links to language processing and speech, and also from a social and emotional perspective. Music is good for us and might be just the thing needed in the lesson after lunch on Friday afternoon.

Strategies for music and literacy learning

Some particular strategies for experimenting and playing with music and literacy learning might include:

1. Using a popular song as a stimulus for a short creative writing activity. Play the recorded song to the class, brainstorm a descriptive word list using the song lyrics, musical style and students’ responses, then write a creative piece from these, such as a poem, a narrative or a scene-setting description.

2. Playing a short instrumental melody to students and ask them to put lyrics to it. This is a useful strategy for working with figurative language.

3. Teaching language concepts such as grammar rules, literary devices and generic features through songs, whether they are pre-existing or ones you make up with the class.

4. Trying to spend an entire lesson or part of a lesson singing rather than speaking with the students and get them to do the same. This is good for playing with pitch, pause, pace, cadence and rhythm, which are important aspects of developing effective public speaking skills.

5. Analysing song lyrics for poetic devices, parts of speech and figurative language. This works well for poetry units, but also can be useful in working with language features of narrative, persuasive and expository texts.

6. Playing music in the background while students are working individually on a writing task.

7. Inviting students to bring a song to share, where they present a short analysis of the musical and textual features to the class. This provides students with the opportunity to make connections between their musical knowledge, language use and literacy learning.

Besson, M., & Schön, D. (2001). Comparison between language and music. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 930 (1), 232–258.
Brandt, A., Gebrian, M., & Slevc, L.R. (2012). Music and early language acquisition. Frontiers in Psychology, 3. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00327.
Brown, S., Martinez, M.J., & Parsons, L.M. (2006). Music and language side by side in the brain: A PET study of the generation of melodies and sentences. European Journal of Neuroscience, 23 (10), 2791–2803.
Bunt, L., & Stige, B. (2014). Music therapy: An art beyond words. London: Routledge.
Cope, B., & Kalantzis, M. (2009). ‘Multiliteracies’: New literacies, new learning. Pedagogies, 4 (3), 164–195. doi:10.1080/15544800903076044
Davis, W.B., Gfeller, K.E., & Thaut, M.H. (2008). An introduction to music therapy: Theory and practice. Silver Spring, MD: American Music Therapy Association.
Hansen, D., Bernstorf, E., & Stuber, G.M. (2014). The music and literacy connection. London: Rowman & Littlefield.
Hansen, D., & Milligan, S.A. (2012). Aural skills at the juncture of research in early reading and music literacy. Music Educators Journal, 99 (2), 75–80.
Kay, A.M. (2013). Sound before symbol: Developing literacy through music. London: Sage.
Paquette, K.R., & Rieg, S.A. (2008). Using music to support the literacy development of young English language learners. Early Childhood Education Journal, 36 (3), 227–232.
Patel, A.D. (2010). Music, language, and the brain. London: Oxford University Press.
Riddle, S. (2012). Singing of musickers as literacies learners: Storylines of becoming. (doctoral thesis), The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Queensland.
Riddle, S. (2013). Youth as rhizome: Music, machines, and multiplicities. Social Alternatives, 32 (2), 45–48.
Riddle, S. (2014). Musicking as literacy: Possibilities and pragmatisms. In G. Barton (Ed.), Literacy in the arts: Retheorising learning and teaching (pp. 235–249). Cham, Switzerland: Springer International Publishing.
Sacks, O. (2008). Musicophilia: Tales of music and the brain. New York, NY: Vintage Books.
Salmon, A. (2010). Using music to promote children’s thinking and enhance their literacy development. Early Child Development and Care, 180 (7), 937–945.
Standley, J.M. (2008). Does music instruction help children learn to read: Evidence of a meta-analysis. Applications of Research in Music Education, 27 (1), 17–32.
The New London Group. (1996). A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures. Harvard Educational Review, 66 (1), 60 92.
Tomlinson, M.M. (2013). Literacy and music in early childhood. Sage Open, 3 (3), doi:10.1177/2158244013502498.
Wiggins, D.G. (2007). Pre-K music and the emergent reader: Promoting literacy in a music-enhanced environment. Early Childhood Education Journal, 35 (1), 55–64.

Article published in Literacy Learning: The Middle Years

Riddle, S. (2016). On music and literacy learning in the middle years. Literacy Learning: The Middle Years, (24)3, 16-18.

The English teacher, the modern Prometheus

The ‘inspirational teacher’ is a classic protagonist in films such as Dead Poets Society, Mr Holland’s Opus, Dangerous Minds, and my own personal favourite, School of Rock.

We laugh and we cry while watching the teachers and their young charges deal with the vagaries of life both inside and outside the classroom walls.

We cheer as the teacher perseveres with the troubled student and finally makes the all-important breakthrough.

The credits roll, and then we go back to reading negative pieces in the press decrying the state of education – falling standards, falling results, not teaching the basics and at the same time not teaching kids how to prepare for jobs that don’t yet exist.

We get distracted by the public debate and my point is that in real life, we seem largely unwilling or unable to acknowledge that teachers do so much more than teach students things that are written in curriculum documents, assessed through assignments and examinations, and then reported back to parents every six months. The labour of teaching goes well beyond what can be measured.

This brings me to my reason for writing this piece – I want to share a story about a real English teacher, in a real school in Queensland.

Earlier this year, Graham Potts had his debut novel, No Free Man, published. Dedicating the book to his High School English teacher, Graham wrote:

To John Acutt: to me you are a Promethean figure, a great teacher who opened up a world of words and ideas. Dedicating this book to you is the least I can do – you started this, after all.


At the book launch, Graham again publicly acknowledged the influence of John’s support and guidance as a teacher, and toasted his contribution. A story in The Courier Mail following the launch highlighted the important role that an English teacher played in his decision to pursue writing.

I asked John how he felt about having a book dedicated to him, and he told me:

The significance of these gestures was not lost on me. He genuinely believed, and publicly acknowledged, that his teacher had made an impact on his life. It’s not something that we hear very often from our students, and when it happens, it reinforces the significance of the job that we do.

Every day, every teacher, has opportunities to make an impact on a student’s life. When I encouraged Graham Potts to enter a short story competition, and showed faith in him, I helped unlock the potential he had to help him find the determination and confidence to undertake the arduous journey of writing, and having published, his own novel.

When I asked John if he would be happy for me to share the story with Words’Worth readers, he was a little concerned that it might come across as wanton skiting.

I disagree.

In an email to John in late 2015, Graham wrote the following:

I graduated from Rosewood State High School in 2001 and, while my memories of school are a little faded, I do remember that you were my English teacher – in fact, I don’t think I could forget it. You were a teacher that recognised that I had a talent for writing and encouraged me to do more of it.  

I’ve come a long way since the first seeds were planted (arguably, the first seed was planted in primary school, but saplings need care before they can become trees). And, now, I’m sending you this e-mail to share the good news: I’m about to become one of Australia’s newest published authors.

Thank you for all of your encouragement in those formative years. Your insistence and dedication were important. I am especially grateful to you for helping me enter in a writing competition (Somerset College Novella Writing, I think). Believe it or not, some of the early ideas from that manuscript survived and are in the final draft.

Without your early assistance, I’m not sure I would’ve made it this far, and I am very grateful for that.

It’s been a long journey, and I still have many more stories to tell before I’m done, but thanks for the education – I wouldn’t stand a chance without it.

And here’s the thing. I know that Graham isn’t making any of this up, because John was also my English teacher at Rosewood State High in 1995, and is in no small part responsible for me wanting to become an English teacher.

I now teach future English teachers at the University of Southern Queensland and I constantly remind them that our work involves much more than delivering curriculum and assessment, and the thousand administrative tasks that teachers are expected to undertake. Our work is about connecting young learners to the love of the word, and to engaging them with rich texts and language experiences that meaningfully connect to their lives. If just one of my graduates goes on to have the impact on one of their students that John has with Graham, it is all worth it.

In my correspondence with John while preparing this piece, he wrote to me:

During this whole adventure, as a teacher, I have felt incredibly humbled by the generosity of Graham. He didn’t need to give anybody, other than himself, any credit at all. Writing is a long and lonely process, and for the most part you travel it alone. So, for him to acknowledge me in the way he has, and for sharing his success, speaks very highly of his humility.  

He has been busy since the publication with many book signings and writing workshops from Sydney to Darwin. He also made his debut at the Sydney Writers’ Festival on the 20 May this year. On the day before he was kind enough to come to Ipswich Grammar School and run two creative writing sessions with Year 11 and 12 students. Maybe he planted a seed in someone’s mind on that day.

Graham claims his writing effort in the competition he first entered was no great success but the experience ignited a slow burning ambition, the best sort, that didn’t extinguish. And an English teacher helped to light the flame.

5251Graham’s book, No Free Man, is available from Pantera Press.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, it is “an action-packed espionage thriller in the mould of Robert Ludlum or Lee Child…taut and suspenseful and skilfully plotted…there’s no question Potts is the real thing.”


This article was originally published in Words’Worth, vol., 49, no. 2.

Budget 2016 brings temporary solutions for schools, and puts more demands on students and teachers

While the 2016 budget looks pretty harmless for schools, the announcements about testing, standardisation and linking teachers’ pay to performance could prove problematic. Some of the policies proposed do not match what the research says.

Temporary solutions

An extra A$1.2 billion injection into schools funding over 2018 to 2020 sounds generous, unless you compare it to the Coalition’s 2013 election promise of a unity ticket on Gonski. It is about a quarter of what Labor has promised for schools funding.

The additional $118.2 million in extra support for students with disabilities over 2016 and 2017 is absolutely welcome as a necessary step towards greater fairness and equity.

Yet there will be strings attached to these funding promises. These include:

  • literacy and numeracy testing in Year 1
  • minimum literacy and numeracy standards for Year 12 school leavers
  • performance-based pay for teachers.

And all of this may be temporary, given that the government intends to completely reset funding distributions from 2018.

New tests for seven-year-olds

Included in the policy is a national test for reading, phonics and numeracy in Year 1. There will also be annual reporting to parents of their children’s achievements against national literacy and numeracy standards.

There is some argument to be made for nationally consistent data collection on literacy. Schools are already required, however, to report to parents each semester on their child’s progress against literacy and numeracy achievement standards in the Australian curriculum.

The federal government also runs the Australian Early Development Census, which collects data on children’s language and communication, social skills, health and wellbeing during their first year of school.

State governments, individual schools and teachers also undertake a range of diagnostic testing during the early years of schooling. Many use the Progressive Achievement Tests (PAT), developed by the Australian Council for Educational Research.

Similar tests facing backlash overseas

Few details about the testing and reporting measures are currently available.

One possible approach is to follow the UK model of a phonics screening check at the end of Year 1.

The UK also runs a national test in Year 2 as part of a comprehensive standardised testing regime.

These tests are facing a widespread backlash from teachers and parents, who argue that the tests are inappropriate.

Similarly, pressure to boycott high-stakes testing of children is growing in the US.

We will need to see the detail of the government’s proposed Year 1 reading, phonics and numeracy tests before we can tell if they might add anything meaningful to student achievement data or if this will simply extend NAPLAN down to Year 1.

Minimum literacy and numeracy standards for Year 12

Within five years, the government will require a minimum standard of literacy and numeracy from all students to complete Year 12.

While the policy does not specifically say how this will be assessed, the trend points to another standardised test being introduced at some point soon.

The states already have literacy and numeracy standards built into their exit requirements. For example, the Queensland Certificate of Education requires a minimum standard of literacy and numeracy, as does the Western Australian Certificate of Education.

At this stage it is unclear what the government’s policy adds to the state-based requirements already in place.

Performance-based pay for teachers

The government wants high-performing teachers to be rewarded with increased performance-based pay, assessed against the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers.

In the policy document, it argues:

Teachers ought not be able to automatically move from one pay increment to the next without demonstration of their teaching ability and effectiveness against these standards.

However, research into linking teachers’ salaries to performance is mixed to say the least.

There is some evidence to suggest that performance pay makes little difference to student achievement.

For example, one study found that there was limited impact on student achievement, with another claiming that higher average salaries are linked to higher national achievement levels.

A further study found performance-based pay had some impact when there are:

high-powered incentives linked to multiple indicators of teacher performance.

Once again, the devil will be in the detail. We should be cautious of any moves to link teacher pay to single simple measures, whether those are standardised test results or the national teaching standards.

What this policy means for schools

Taken on balance, there is little of significant concern for education in this budget.

However, there is an implied threat of funding being withheld tucked away on page 14 of the Quality Schools, Quality Outcomes policy, where it says:

indexation of Commonwealth funding will be contingent on states and territories
and the non-government sector meeting the outlined reform commitments.

The details of these reforms are not yet clear, nor are the measures of increasing school and student outcomes. The government warns that schools funding must also be:

based on a realistic appraisal of the current budget situation and not commit future governments to unaffordable arrangements.

A commitment to resolve a funding model for schools from 2018 is provided, along with the warning that there will be further strings attached in the quest for “real reforms”.

While the 2016 budget looks pretty harmless for schools, there is no doubt that school funding and education will be one of the key battlegrounds in the upcoming election.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

When it comes to schooling, who gets to speak and who is silenced?

Education is a lively, contested and really fascinating field to work in, particularly when it comes to schooling. Everyone has something to say on the topic, including teachers, educational researchers*, parents, politicians and the media**.

Debates rage over progressive vs. traditionalist pedagogies, reading instruction, school funding, public vs. private, and so on. Generally, I think these debates are worth having, and perhaps in a certain Hegelian way, we might end up somewhere better as a result.

However, I get really concerned when I see one group or another attempt to shut down debate, enforce restrictive rules of engagement, control the membership of the discourse, or attempt to silence the voices of those they disagree with.

I think that we need to carefully consider the question of when it comes to schooling, who gets to speak and who is silenced?

I worry when someone declares that they are only interested in the opinions of one group to the exclusion of the Others.

I worry when someone proclaims to be ‘the voice of reason’.

I also worry when someone presumes to speak for the collective, rather than admitting the truth of their own subjective position.

And I think that these concerns have a valid basis, if we consider the history of silencing and marginalisation in public discourse.

Even the briefest of encounters with postcolonial, feminist and queer theories helps to give some understanding of the dangers of a) speaking for others and b) silencing, marginalising and excluding the voices of different groups. Consider the long-lasting effects on the lives of Indigenous peoples, LGBTI communities, not to mention people with disabilities, and perhaps most importantly here, children themselves.

Do we have the right to speak for anyone else, regardless of how good our intentions might be?

Should anyone be able to dictate the terms of engagement in educational discourse, to decide who gets to speak and who should be silenced?

My two cents: no.

Arguing that non-teachers should stay out of education debate is about as useful as saying that non-academics have nothing of value to say about research. Perhaps all of us non-politicians shouldn’t be allowed to critique the practices of our governments and public institutions unless we happen to be employed as policy makers or bureaucrats.

I could go on, but I think the point is made.

Finally, when it comes to education discourse, I think we should heed the advice of Tormund Giantsbane to “Gather the others and let’s talk”.



* Sometimes referred to as non-teachers, educationalists, and my personal favourites:  potatoes or edupotationalistas.

** I’ve left the most important group out here deliberately, because students themselves rarely have the opportunity to ‘say’ anything about education. Education is something that is done ‘to’ them by very concerned adults who allegedly know best.

Does more money for schools improve educational outcomes?

A report released by UNICEF ranked Australia 24 out of 37 participating countries in education equality.

It is the latest evidence of a widening gap in educational outcomes between the most and least advantaged students.

The federal education minister, Simon Birmingham, has made a point of uncoupling school funding from education outcomes since coming to the role in last September’s cabinet reshuffle. He has argued consistently that more money does not lead to better outcomes.

In a recent address to the Independent Schools Council of Australia, Birmingham argued:

“Often the term needs-based funding is used as a proxy for arguments for more funding in totality.”

Instead, his focus is on the government’s Students First policy. This emphasises school autonomy, parent engagement, teacher quality and the curriculum.

Does money matter?

Is the minister correct in arguing that money doesn’t really matter?

There is no simple answer to this, because improving educational outcomes for all Australian students is not a simple issue with a single solution. However, one thing is clear: widening inequality is at the centre of the problem.

Despite being labelled a high-quality education system, Australia demonstrably has an equity problem.

A significant research review last year found that:

Cumulative political compromises have left Australia with a hybrid school system which is inequitable and unsuited to Australia’s changing social and economic circumstances.

A recent report from the Grattan Institute found significant gaps between students from different educational backgrounds, which widen across the years of schooling. The report authors said:

Bright kids in disadvantaged schools show the biggest losses, making two-and-a-half years less progress than students with similar capabilities in more advantaged schools.

The major factors of educational disadvantage include Indigeneity, English language proficiency, remoteness and disability. Many children, such as those in care, have multiple, compounding factors of disadvantage.

Research indicates that a strong correlation exists between social disadvantage and lower educational outcomes.

Furthermore, Australia has one of the most segregated schooling systems in the world, with the majority of disadvantaged students in public schools.

Data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) demonstrate that a focus on equity is necessary as:

Disadvantaged schools tend to reinforce students’ socioeconomic inequalities. This represents a double handicap for disadvantaged students, since schools do not mitigate the negative impact of the students’ disadvantaged background and, on the contrary, amplify its negative effect on their performance.

In the results for the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), the difference between Australian students in the top socio-economic quartile and the bottom quartile was equivalent to about two-and-a-half years of schooling.

The gap is similar between non-Indigenous and Indigenous students, and between students in the Australian Capital Territory and Northern Territory.

The narrative of decline in international rankings might be a concerning one, but the deeper concern is that we have a system where the least advantaged continue to be locked out of access to high-quality educational opportunities.

Needs-based school funding is essential

Birmingham is correct when he argues that:

While funding matters, what you do with it matters even more.

Increasing targeted needs-based school funding is an essential but not sufficient condition. There also needs to be a compound approach to resourcing at student, classroom, school and system levels.

Compound resourcing includes things such as more support for teacher aides, counsellors and community liaison, whole-school pedagogical approaches, parental engagement, targeted interventions and programs, as well as adjusting curriculum for the diverse learning needs of different students.

Giving teachers more support for ongoing professional development and making closer connections to universities, health providers and social services, government agencies and other support organisations, as well as community groups, are also important.

There is evidence to suggest that more money actually does matter in the long term. A compelling body of research shows that increasing school funding to tackle educational and social disadvantage makes a significant difference.

A focus on reducing educational inequity will not simply narrow the achievement gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students, but will pay multiple long-term social and economic dividends. These include a healthier population with increased skills and productivity and lower welfare dependency, alongside reduced crime and poverty rates.

Yet, with the budget only a couple of weeks away and an election on the horizon, it seems unlikely that there will be any big news on funding or addressing the significant structural hurdles to a more equitable schooling system.

Instead what we have are Turnbull’s threat to withdraw federal funding for public schooling and Labor promoting a watered-down Gonski funding to play politics in the lead-up to the election.

What would truly be in the interests of all Australian students would be for governments of all persuasions to leave the politics at the door and work together on a policy solution for better resourcing all schools and students.

And, yes, that means more money where it is most needed.

The Conversation

Stewart Riddle, Senior Lecturer, University of Southern Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

What to do when you know how to teach all the things to all the people all the time

There’s an assumption often made in education debates that really troubles me, which is the expectation that teachers should know everything there is to know about education.

The omniscient, omnipresent teacher. The superhero educator who is all things to all people all the time.

And it’s completely unrealistic.

As one small example, graduate teachers are expected to be classroom ready, which raises interesting questions about ‘which’ classrooms and what ‘ready’ actually means.

Take the following scenario, involving four hypothetical graduate teachers:

  • Benji has done a four-year Bachelor of Primary Education that includes 100 days of professional placement in public schools around Brisbane
  • Gabi is a Teach for Australia associate and has been sent to a low-SES public high school in Geelong
  • Suzie has just completed an online Graduate Diploma of Education and had 55 days of supervised prac at a local independent P-12 school in Cairns
  • Jimmy finished his Masters of Teaching, majoring in special education, and has spent his last placement in a special school in Adelaide

What does ‘classroom ready’ mean for these four graduates? Would they bring the same expertise, experience, capacities and dispositions to their work? Have their degrees provided them with ‘readiness’ that is easily comparable?

For me, it’s like kinda like insisting that all medical graduates should be ‘hospital ready’ instead of recognising that there is a lengthy process in becoming a doctor, including years of internships and residencies.

Yet we send teachers into schools, sometimes with less than six months of preparation, and somehow expect them to be able to manage all the complexities that come with the gig.

Teachers are expected to manage ever-increasing workloads, deal with the overemphasis on metrics-driven accountabilities and testing regimes, work with a perpetually-overcrowded curriculum and the attendant conflicting priorities from different levels (school, state, federal) of the system.

Teachers do more administrative work than ever before, are responsible for the safety, care and support for the young people in their charge, as well as being required to manage the social cohesion and behaviour of incredibly diverse students in their classes.

All of this before teaching a single thing to a single student.

Further, teachers are expected to have excellent interpersonal skills when working with students, parents and other colleagues, as well as dealing with some pretty confronting student issues from time to time.

Are there some teachers in classrooms who would do themselves, their students and communities a favour by moving into a different occupation? Absolutely, just as there are politicians and business leaders who would do the world a favour by quietly going away.

Teachers, by and large, do a fantastic job with average remuneration under complex and often tough circumstances, and rarely receive public or private praise for the enormous benefit they provide to society.

I don’t believe in superheroes, but I think that teachers come pretty close to the real thing.

Note: I was a high school English teacher for 7 years before becoming an educationalist potato academic. And yes, I do still miss the classroom, although I find lots of satisfaction in the work that I do with future teachers.

P.S. Anyone who does know how to teach all the things to all the people all the time, please do let me in on the secret!

These are testing times: will teacher tests make a difference in the classroom?

Mid last year the then Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne, announced that the Federal Government would fund a trial literacy and numeracy test for initial teacher education students.

This test was one of the significant recommendations on how to improve teacher quality identified in the Report of the Teacher Ministerial Advisory Group (TEMAG). The review undertaken in 2014 by this advisory group was the 102nd inquiry into teacher education in Australia.

The test itself is the resultant product of the deliberations on how to supposedly measure that “initial teacher education entrants will have personal literacy and numeracy skills equivalent to those of the top 30% of the adult population”. This benchmark figure is part of the ‘standards’ required to be met by universities in respect to the national accreditation process for teacher education courses in Australia.

The Australian Council for Education Research (ACER) designed the trial test which contained 130 items, including reading comprehension, technical writing skills, algebra, statistics and geometry. ACER claims that the test has been designed to reflect the contexts in which aspiring teachers are likely to exercise personal literacy and numeracy; personal and community, schools and teaching and further education and training.

The first phase of the trial test was undertaken by 5000 volunteer student teachers across the country, with 92% passing in literacy and 90% in the numeracy component (or if you prefer the reporting style of some media, 1 in 10 failing the test).

The second phase is the implementation of the test from 1 July 2016. The cost of sitting the test will be the responsibility of the students. Student teachers will be required to pass the test in order to graduate.

It is not yet clear how many times the test can be retaken. It is also not clear what universities will do to assist student teachers undertaking preservice courses who do not pass the test. It is clearly ludicrous to have students undertake years of study in teacher pre service courses, be they four year bachelor degrees or two year postgraduate education courses, who cannot graduate because of performance on a one-off test at the end of their course.

Media headlines in 2015 ran variations on the theme of ‘1 in 10 teachers can’t spell or count’ – predictable hyperbole from a hyperventilating mainstream media more interested in capitalising on moral panic than engaging in productive debate about how to ensure access to the best educational opportunities for all young Australians.

For example, The Australian reported that the tests would “weed out unfit graduates”, while the Courier Mail claimed that thousands of graduates are entering classrooms “without the proper skills to teach”.

Of course, the first question to ask is what are the proper skills to teach, then how exactly do these literacy and numeracy tests assess those skills?

A quick glance at the website of the Queensland Department of Education – the biggest employer of graduate teachers in the state – lists the following as the skills and qualities of good teachers:

  • having a strong knowledge in particular subject areas
  • enthusiasm
  • being good at explaining things to others
  • ability to work in a team as well as using your own initiative
  • being a people person and enjoying working with a diverse range of people
  • good time management
  • having patience, a sense of humour and fair mindedness, and
  • coping well with change and enjoying a challenge.

None of these are assessable in a single test. There is a broader discussion going on at the moment about lifting ‘teacher quality’ in Australian schools, fuelled by the Federal Government’s Student First policy platform and an enthusiastic mainstream media. Some of the measures include raising university entrance scores, undertaking personality testing for teaching applicants, and ensuring that teachers are in the top 30% for literacy and numeracy. These tests are intended to ensure the latter.

Yet there is little evidence of a causal link between effective classroom teaching and the academic performance of prospective teachers. It is also unclear exactly what this style of pre-emptive testing means for meaningfully deciding who is classroom ready and who is not.

While it is hard to argue against having the very best and brightest in our classrooms, there has not been a convincing case made for how these tests will ensure that we produce competent and effective teaching graduates.

Perhaps we should turn to the providers of initial teacher education to ensure that graduates are ‘classroom ready’.

There are already robust accreditation processes in place for universities that deliver initial teacher education programs and moves are underway to better align these nationally against the AITSL professional standards as well as the existing state regulatory authorities.

Take, as one example, a four year bachelor of education that requires preservice teachers to connect theory and practice in their coursework and professional experience placements. There are increasingly sophisticated literacy and numeracy demands placed on them throughout the program, as well as a range of professional learning experiences that cannot be pre-empted either through high school academic results, ATAR scores –or standardised literacy and numeracy testing.

Put simply, there is no way that a test can possibly come close to the level of professional learning that needs to be demonstrated by teaching graduates in order to pass their teaching degree and become registered teachers.

This of course begs the question, why have the tests at all?

This article was originally published in the Independent Education magazine, Issue 1, Volume 46, 2016.