The role of a teacher and the purpose of education

How can evidence inform classroom practice?

Go to the profile of  Charlotte Pezaro
Nov 03, 2016
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This article is the second of a weekly five-part series about how evidence can inform classroom practice. Read part one, in which Charlotte argues that an emphasis on evidence-based practice would lead to prescribed practice.

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A teacher’s role is to make informed and intelligent decisions about practice to achieve various outcomes with and for students in their classes.

A teacher’s role is to make judgments about how best to help their students learn in the environments in which they teach. They generally do so competently, thoughtfully, and with appropriate caution, in consideration of their own values and those of their students and other stakeholders.

Teachers are aware that their decisions might not achieve the intended outcomes. They monitor the impacts of their decisions over time, evaluate the results, and respond flexibly as necessary.

Teachers reflect on their practice to grow and improve. As they do this, their experience informs their intuition for decision-making, and they become better at it (Berliner, 2004). In general, teachers are thoughtful, caring, knowledgeable, and skilful individuals.

Teachers are specialists in education, in the subjects that they teach, in their teaching contexts, and in their students, and can use their expertise and experience as well as evidence to make informed decisions about their teaching practice. The question that is relevant to teachers is not so much about the effectiveness of their actions, as about the potential educational value of what they do.

Academic achievement, though central, is not the only intended purpose of education

The curriculum and mandated assessment programs reflect the purposes of education, which are constantly discussed and debated, with a broad range of diverse views and values informing the debate. It is a sign of a healthy democracy.

Currently, the academic knowledge, understanding, skills, and capabilities that are valued by a society are described in mandated curriculums that teachers in all schools must follow. In Australia we have a national curriculum that articulates what is valued at each level of schooling from Foundation to Year 10. This necessarily describes the scope of what should be taught in the classroom (or conversely, may demand too much, as some teachers have complained of our curriculum).

Curriculums evolve, as they should do, and are in dispute, as they should be, as teachers, researchers, policymakers, parents, and students discuss what it is that they believe is necessary and desirable for students to know and be able to do when they graduate.

Programs of assessment such as NAPLAN (Australia’s National Assessment Program of Literacy and Numeracy, a standardised test completed by all Year 3, 5, 7, and 9 students every year) further narrow teachers’ choices about what, but also how and when to teach particular knowledge, understandings, skills and capabilities.

Academic learning is not the only intended outcome of education. Teachers might set additional learning goals for individual students. These may be behavioural, social, cognitive, affective, physical, or perhaps something else entirely. These goals are negotiated by teachers with students, their parents, other teachers, guidance officers, support staff, administration staff, etc, and are mediated by mandated policies and curriculums.

Education also provides students with opportunities to cooperate, collaborate, and socialise with peers of different backgrounds, identities, and experiences, in preparation for work and life as an adult. These opportunities may develop social, behavioural, affective, and cognitive, styles and habits.

The questions of what the purpose of education is, and what additional learning goals are desirable and appropriate for different students, require value judgments to be made in consideration of students, individually and collectively, and their learning environments.

Teachers are best placed to make decisions about learning goals for their students, and how best to achieve them, drawing on their professional and expert knowledge of individual students, classroom dynamics, and learning environments, as well as a range of evidence about learning and practice. Restricting the options for practice available to teachers to particular practices is unhelpful, as a range of practices might be needed to achieve different goals for different students. Prescriptive practice undermines the specialised knowledge and skills central to the professional role of teachers.

Personally, I would argue that the purpose of education is to provide students with the knowledge, understandings, skills, capabilities, and cognitive styles for making appropriate judgments and decisions for themselves, their families, and their communities. To me, a part of this is providing students with a safe space to explore the values of others and make decisions about what they personally value, and showing them that it is okay to change one’s mind, or one’s values.

How I would manage to achieve this goal, while still operating within the narrow framework of the curriculum and mandatory assessment programs would depend on the circumstances of the individual students I had in my class, my relationships with them, the dynamics and relationships between them, and the environment in which we learned. Further, I would need to be cognisant of the inconsistencies between the values demonstrated by my teaching practices and those required for achieving “success” in the assessment program.

You might, of course, disagree! As I’ve said, ongoing discussion about what we value, and why, what this looks like, and how we value it, is a sign of a healthy democracy. We are a diverse society, with many values, ideas, and skills to contribute.

A teacher’s role is to make decisions about practice to help their students to achieve particular goals. Discussions about evidence can (and should) inform teachers’ decisions. The consequence of prescriptive practice is the reduction in scope for teachers to make decisions regarding classroom practice and learning experiences in consideration of the specific needs, goals, and contexts of their students in particular teaching and learning settings.

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A version of this piece has appeared on Charlotte's blog, Hypothetical Thinking.

Go to the profile of  Charlotte Pezaro

Charlotte Pezaro

Academic, The University of Queensland

I am passionate about primary teaching, science education, technology education, and preparing pre-service teachers to become competent and confident teachers of science and technology. I have a Bachelor of Science (Psychology), and a Graduate Bachelor of Education (Primary). I was a primary school teacher with Education Queensland for 6 years, teaching in remote, regional, and city locations. Currently, I am a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland (UQ). My research looks specifically at the claim made in many curriculum documents around the world that “learning science helps people to make good decisions.” I also teach several courses in the Primary Education programs at the University of Queensland.

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