Quality teaching in Australian schools
This week Curriculum Leadership publishes the first of two edited extracts from the Executive Summary of the report Teaching and leading for quality Australian schools: a review and synthesis of research-based knowledge, commissioned by Teaching Australia and produced by the University of Western Sydney.
This report is a stocktake of recent research into quality teaching and school leadership, prepared in consultation with professional organisations and members of the teaching profession in each State and Territory.
The study has reviewed Australian and international research generated over the past five years, using ‘best evidence synthesis’ methodology. This technique involves identifying, collecting, reviewing, and interpreting relevant studies; drawing empirically grounded, theoretically informed conclusions from each of them; and synthesising the results.
The report identifies a range of professional attributes and practices that have a positive impact on student outcomes. Importantly, it shows that the skills and knowledge of teachers and school leaders can be strengthened through ongoing professional development, reflection and dialogue. It also shows that quality teaching and school leadership do not involve applying a predetermined set of methods. They are contextual and dynamic.
Contexts and challenges
The OECD reports that raising the quality of teaching has provided an important focus for legislation and policies directed at education and training reforms for the future. However, the OECD also emphasises that teaching is mediated by a range of contextual factors and should not be assigned ‘exclusive salience in the educational process’. (OECD, 2005).
An important finding from the research is that quality teachers and school leaders manage change positively. They tend to be selective about the internal and external pressures they respond to, and be able to harness pressures, such as government accountability measures, to serve their schools’ priorities.
Management and physical environment
Research provides evidence that a school’s management and physical environment impacts on teacher quality and student outcomes. Learning achievement increases when schools retain an educative rather than an administrative focus, with high expectations for learning outcomes supported by quality pedagogies and opportunities for self-assessment and continuing professional development. Strong leaders may also work to reduce class sizes and make the physical environment of the school exciting and welcoming.
Teachers need considerable support to engage productively with new technologies. In future research it will be important to know whether, how and why the use of multiple technologies by teachers influences or is influenced by the quality of their teaching.
The complexity of teaching has also increased due to the growing diversity of the student population, brought about by government policies on immigration, on youth, on student participation rates and on assistance to special needs students. Research on teaching quality shows that teaching that is responsive to student diversity has a significant positive impact on both low and high achievers.
Quality teaching and school leadership can also make a difference in challenging school environments, particularly through positive interaction and demonstration of care for students.
Parent expectation and choice
Greater interstate mobility has resulted in calls for greater consistency of education policy and practice. Schools are also losing their monopoly on teaching students as parents access other sources of education. The research literature indicates that expectations about the performance of schools are rising across the board, partly a result of an assumption that successful education outcomes can be expected for all students and are necessary to compete for employment. The expectations of schools and parents are not always aligned. Open two-way collaboration between parents and teachers can contribute significantly to quality teaching and student outcomes.
Professional satisfaction and student outcomes
Changing policies and expectations about the role of teachers have increased the intensity and complexity of teaching and have led to a perceived loss of professional status. A number of studies have shown that issues such as mounting accountability requirement, micro-management and centralised control have led to more demanding work environments, emotional exhaustion and stress, and declining motivation, self-esteem, health and performance. Teachers have been found to experience ‘moral complexities and ambiguities’ in their work due to frequent shifting in schooling agendas.
Declining teacher morale and professional satisfaction is one of the greatest challenges facing schools. Systems are experiencing teacher shortages, particularly in specific teaching areas, and in some jurisdictions the gaps are being filled by unqualified teachers.
There is a clear association between the motivation and enthusiasm of teachers and student outcomes.
The OECD, in particular, recognises that raising the quality of teaching is an important focus for education and training policy but also recognises that many aspects of teacher quality are not captured by indicators such as qualifications, experience and tests of academic ability.
Professional practices of quality teachers
Selection and implementation of content
Quality teaching involves content that is rigorous, integrated and relevant. Content of high intellectual quality helps students develop stronger critical and creative thinking capabilities. Students in classes that are regularly provided with tasks of high intellectual quality show marked improvement on standardised assessment tasks regardless of their previous achievement levels.
Quality teachers integrate content, tasks and technologies across disciplines, making explicit links among subjects and highlighting socially relevant connections. These connections are more powerful when they respect students’ diverse cultural identities. Activities based on intellectual and real-world problems have been found effective in engaging students. Other effective strategies included integrating multiple tasks and knowledge; using pedagogical scaffolding and feedback; allowing appropriate time for student learning; linking pedagogies to curriculum goals and the needs of individual students; and minimising teaching disruptions.
Control over curriculum and its design
In light of current debate about curriculum and assessment across Australia, it is important to note both positive and negative outcomes from a centralised curriculum. Some research suggests that centrally mandated curricula are less responsive to local needs and student diversity, offering fewer opportunities for teacher autonomy, creativity and professional engagement. Other studies have found that decentralised curriculum can result in stress and work intensification for teachers.
Knowledge and practice of quality pedagogies
Research suggests that no single instructional strategy is consistently successful. The most successful teachers are those who are able to use a broad repertoire of approaches. Effective teachers use explicit, direct teaching but also give students a substantial role in the reflective creation of knowledge through, for example, the negotiation of learning tasks and student-led questioning.
Quality teaching involves environments and relationships that are supportive, inclusive and ‘owned’ by teachers and students. Important features include:
Assessment for learning
Appropriate feedback is powerful in moderating student achievement, and has an impact on students’ concepts of themselves as learners. Feedback should be specific, frequent, positive and responsive to students. Some research indicates that the provision of feedback in the form of comments, rather than in the form of marks, enhances student learning and transfers the responsibility for learning to the students themselves.
Attributes and capabilities of quality teachers
Effective teachers are enthusiastic, creative, committed and passionate about their work, and they are good communicators. However, there is a need for more research on the relationship between teachers’ motivation to enter teaching and their commitment, retention and efficacy.
Relational attributes and teacher leadership
Teacher quality improves within a collegial, collaborative environment. Teachers can further their own professional development by observing the strengths of their teaching partners, sharing workloads, reducing duplication, and gaining support in exploring innovation. The need to achieve consensus with colleagues can act as a form of control on teacher autonomy.
Teachers who are leaders within and beyond the classroom can identify with and contribute to a community of teacher learners and leaders. Such leadership can occur at committee, class, grade and school levels.
Professional attributes and capabilities
‘Teacher quality’ has been defined as ‘expertise in relevant subject content studies coupled with skills in teaching and learning’. Studies of the importance of initial teacher qualifications and certification have shown that well-prepared beginning teachers are more effective than under-certified, unqualified, unprepared recruits. The typical problems of beginning teachers are lessened with adequate preparation prior to entry into the profession and sound induction. Full certification, including a major in the subject taught, positively correlates with student achievement. However, evidence about the most effective form of initial teacher education is inconclusive.
To achieve the best outcomes for students, subject knowledge needs to be integrated with pedagogy. Pedagogical knowledge involves knowing how to organise and present subject matter, how students learn the subject and the worth of available curriculum materials. Quality teachers interpret student behaviour based on this knowledge in order to be responsive, creative and successful in facilitating learning.
Ongoing professional learning
Research shows that knowledge about content, learners and pedagogy cannot be achieved through an initial teacher education course on its own and that quality teaching is reliant on ongoing professional development on subject content, teaching, learning, students and education policies.
A disposition toward self-awareness, a willingness to engage in reflective practice and a capacity to be self-judging have been found to be beneficial in teachers’ professional learning, especially when based on professional interaction, feedback and cooperation. Moreover, professional development needs to be sustained: one-off workshops have limited benefits.
Professional standards and certification
Professional standards are used to establish expectations of what teachers should know, understand and be able to do when they enter the profession, as well as throughout their professional careers. They have been found to impact positively on quality teaching and contribute to ongoing professional learning. Assessment or certification processes for teachers based on standards have been shown to have positive outcomes although they can also increase teacher workload and frustration.
Much hope is placed on quality teaching and school leadership for the future of Australian students, citizens and workers. We have growing expectations about the ability of schooling to develop students’ skills, knowledge and understandings for an uncertain world ten to twelve years ahead, and to provide the groundwork for lifelong learning for an unknowable future. The research summarised in this report shows that quality teaching and school leadership can help us to meet these expectations.
Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) 2005, Teachers Matter: Attracting, Developing and Retaining Effective Teachers, OECD, Paris.
Subject HeadingsTeaching profession
Teaching and learning