Education Nation | An Interview with Dr. David Zyngier

“I am on the record stating that if we as a nation want to improve the standard of our teaching we must make teaching harder to access as a career. However, we have too many universities using teaching courses as a cash cow to cover the costs due to diminishing federal funding of research.”
-Dr. David Zyngier. E-Mail correspondence, 2016

Disclosure: My attendance at Education Nation (#EduNationAu) in June is through a media pass provided by the conference organisers.

All quotes in this article are taken direct from the interview with Dr. Zyngier unless otherwise noted. All interpretations of Dr. Zyngier’s views are my own and any misinterpretation also mine. The Interview with Dr. Zyngier has been included for the sake of transparency.

In addition to being granted an e-mail interview with Professor Geoff Masters, I have been privileged to gain an e-mail interview with Dr. David Zyngier, currently a Senior Lecturer in curriculum and pedagogy with the Faculty of Education at Monash University. There are a number of presentations at Education Nation which promise to generate significant food for thought, and which I suspect will generate heated (yet hopefully constructive) discussion and debate within Education circles.

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Dr. David Zyngier. Retrieved from tinyurl.com/jsrbzyr 19 May 2016

Potentially one of the most interesting sessions scheduled, certainly perhaps one of the most provocative, is The Great Debate: Australian democracy at risk – the future of Australia’s education system, a moderated debate on the age-old topic of public vs private education, taking place within the Rethinking Reform conference stream. This debate will feature Dr. Zyngier arguing the case for public education and Dr. Kevin Donnelly arguing the case of private education. I am expecting a highly interesting debate, particularly during the (moderated) questions from the floor component. Given that there is sure to be a capacity crowd, I asked Dr. Zyngier to provide a short summary of his position on the issue.

Dr. Zyngier’s view is that the continuing rise in education funding being provided to private education is having the effect of denying a fair go to the students who need the most support in favour of students who are blessed to be born into socio-culturally advantaged families. This is a significant factor in the increasing socio-economic divide between the working class and the upper class. Ultimately, this issue may result in public schools turning into “…ghettos or sinks of disadvantage leading to an ever increasing decline in educational achievement in those schools as the flight of cultural capital takes its toll.”

The quality of teachers and of initial teacher education (OTE) programs has come under fire again over the last twelve months, to the point that just this week, a grammar training manual has been launched for teachers, again prompting a wave of backlash and criticism against the poor quality of teachers. When asked about the quality of teachers and of calls for minimum standards for entry to ITE programs, Dr. Zyngier pointed out that “Teacher education is apparently the most reviewed area of society undertaken by state and federal governments with on average at least one each year over the past 30 odd years!” In fact, a brief switch to Google Scholar returned over seventeen thousand results with the required keywords teacher education research Australia  with the articles.

“Each review makes the same basic recommendations to improve ITE – student teachers need more time in the classroom and more practical experience – but the funding required to do this is never forthcoming.”

-Dr. Zyngier

During the last few years, a number of articles have been published in the media calling for better teachers and higher quality ITE programs, particularly during the period of time when Christopher Pyne was the Federal minister for Education, though it has continued since he left that role. In Dr. Zyngier’s view, it is not the quality of teachers that is necessarily the problem, but the quality of the teaching. Dr. Zyngier’s position is that the general public have heard successive Federal Ministers for Education, beginning with Julia Gillard and continuing with Peter Garret, Christopher Pyne, and the incumbent Simon Birmingham, quote from Professor John Hattie’s Visible Learning (summary here) that the main influence on a child’s academic outcome is the teacher.

Dr. Zyngier observes that teacher impact makes up to twenty-five percent of the difference, which, though a significant impact, is not as significant as we are led to believe from Professor Hattie’s work (as seen in this article). One clear source, in my view at least, of improving the quality of teachers and the quality of teaching, is the ITE programs from which our teaching force gain their qualifications. Dr. Zyngier indicated he is on record as having stated that “…if we as a nation want to improve the standard of our teaching we must make teaching harder to access as a career.”

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Percentage of Achievement Variance. Hattie, J. (2003), p. 3. Teachers Make a Difference What is the Research Evidence, ACER. Retrieved from tinyurl.com/z6agclg on 25 May 2016.

It is a sentiment I can agree with as there were a number of pre-service teachers in my own ITE program who openly admitted they were only there because mum and dad told them they had to get a job or a degree, and so they took the easy option. It is an indication of the rigorousness of teacher ITE programs that they are seen as being an easy option. There have been discussions about raising the minimum tertiary entrance scores (currently the ATAR), however, Dr. Zyngier indicates that this change should be made in conjunction with aptitude testing. Personally, I believe that there are changes required. However, my concern is that the personality and aptitude of a nineteen-year-old is not indicative, necessarily of the kind of teacher they will be at the age of thirty. It would, I suspect, serve to screen out some people who are categorically unsuitable to the teaching profession or those who are entering into ITE programs purely because they have told they need to get a degree or a job. Whilst I acknowledge that medicine is a different field requiring some different character traits, I believe that an examination of the entry into medicine programs would be a useful process to guide restructuring entry requirements for ITE courses.

Dr. Zyngier is a proponent of ITE programs being at the Masters level (as is the case in Finland), rather than remaining at the current Bachelor level, Though I am not sure about that, I can certainly understand the perspective, but I wonder, given the number of classroom teachers we currently have with postgraduate qualifications listed (this is shown in all public school annual reports), what impact this would have on teacher recruitment. Further, Dr. Zyngier’s view is that ITE programs should include a research component to educate teachers how to engage with and evaluate education research for their own practice. The added challenge to this is to ensure equitable access opportunities for those from under-represented communities, creating an additional layer of complexity in the process.

I agree wholeheartedly with the belief that a research component should be a requirement for ITE programs. Completing the Honours course as part of my own ITE program, though incredibly challenging, was rewarding and provided a very different perspective to research and the processes which researchers undertake as part of their work. This ability to engage with and discern quality research, understand the results and conclusions and implement them within a teacher’s specific context is particularly important given the importance of establishing the basic framework around which the entire education system is structured; the ability to read, write and understand use numeracy principles.

Finland has a high-performing educational systems vis-a-vis the OECD PISA and TIMMS testing regimes and therefore is often looked to as a beacon of educational hope. Given the disparate nature of the educational contexts in Finland Australia, is it realistic, or even fair, to uphold Finland’s educational system as something we should aspire to here in Australia? Dr. Zyngier acknowledges that Finland is very different to Australia, not least in regards to climate, geographical size, and population. The key difference, however, lies in what Dr. Zyngier terms  the policy trajectory.

Education policies in Finland are a non-political issue, being determined by education experts informed by evidence-based research. This is in stark contrast to education policy in Australia, where each new government, and even successive Education Ministers during a Government’s term in office, work to make their mark on education through either ideological or political policies. Again, in contrast to this, education policy in Finland was, and is, based upon equity first, which through a range of other policies, has led to a high-quality education system.

Teachers in Finland are highly valued. Dr. Zyngier points out that this does not equate to highly paid. The system also trusts teachers, allowing them to teach. Dr. Zyngier also wrote that privately run schools are rare (approximately two percent of primary and middle schools) and that if they charge additional fees, their public funding is stripped. Dr. Zyngier also indicated that Teacher unions are heavily involved in education and act as a significant resource for both policy and practice. This last point sounds very alien to me. As a public school student in the early 1990s, my recollection is of regular strikes and an ongoing sense of frustration and some anger from my parents towards the union due to the number of strikes and the impact it had on our education. Fast forward to today and it feels like the NSW Teachers Federation is seen as outdated and useless by many colleagues, with “what do they do for us?”  being an oft-repeated critique. A Teachers Federation that has a strong, healthy and positive working relationship with the Government and which contributes, as a partner, in the policy-making process sounds like a great environment to work in.

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Retrieved from tinyurl.com/jjout9j on25 May 2016

Dr. Zyngier notes that the driving emphasis in the Finnish education system has been an equitable education for all students whereas in Australia, it appears that the impetus is on quality outcomes with equity a distant second-place priority. This is played out in the choices parents have as to which school to send their child to. Dr. Zyngier indicates that almost all children attend the local suburban school in Finland, whereas in Australia there is currently a three-tiered educational system. Whilst there is the option of the local comprehensive school fully funded by the public, parents may also choose from schools which receive the majority of their funding from the public (typically most Catholic schools and low-fee religious schools), as well as elite independent schools which receive less than fifty percent of their funding from the public.

 

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School funding in Australia: all levels of government, all sectors. (Total $AUD34.1 billion). Retrieved from tinyurl.com/jjout9j on 25 May 2016

The subject of school funding is a particularly lively topic of discussion at the moment, with the impending Federal election and the promises made by both major parties about the way in which they will fund education. My personal view is that education is a basic right of all children and should be free to all, per Article Twenty-Eight of the United Nation’s Conventions on the Rights of the Child. I have issues with independent schools who charge exorbitant enrollment and tuition fees and still receive government funding. The entire staff at my current school would receive an average salary of just over AUD$80,000 each based on just the Year Five and Year Six student enrollments at one local independent school, never mind the rest of the enrollment fees from Kindergarten to Year Four at that school. Whilst I do not have a problem with independent schools per se, I do not believe they should receive any public funding, those funds should be reserved for, dare I say it, the public schools.

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OECD (2016), Public spending on education (indicator). doi:10.1787/f99b45do-en (Accessed on 25 May 2016)

The educational system that is often presented as an alternative model is that of Singapore, one of the so-called Asian Tigers (along with Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Taiwan). Dr. Zyngier points out that though the high results achieved in PISA and TIMMS are discussed, how those results are achieved is not. He continued by pointing out that research indicates that almost all students attend intensive afternoon cramming schools in addition to their regular schooling and private tutors. Furthermore, research indicates that these schools are typically reserved for the elite, while in Shanghai they “…actively exclude lower performing rural students whose parents do not have the necessary residency permits that will enable them to attend…”

Interestingly, and disturbingly, students who are adjudged to be under-performing in class, are often asked to stay home on the day of testing, which is a phenomenon we have seen in Australia in relation to NAPLAN testing.

Cultural attributes have rarely been a factor in conversations or articles I have read regarding educational impacts, however, the research has shown some interesting results. On standardised testing, students from Chinese backgrounds have been found to achieve higher results than their Australia, American or European-borne peers.  Dr. Zyngier notes the implication that cultural attributes are potentially more significant than previously thoughts, indicating that it is not the school or the teacher having the most significant impact on a student’s academic outcomes, but the family.

When I began my ITE, the Australian Curriculum was in the burgeoning stages of its implementation. When it was introduced to us during those early stages, it made a certain kind of sense; one country, one curriculum. When asked if a national curriculum should have been a goal, Dr. Zyngier pointed out that Canada and the USA, two countries of comparable physical size and political structure to Australia, do not have a national curriculum. He also commented that the impetus behind the apparent importance of the creation and adoption of the national curriculum was never made clear.

His view is that  nationally agreed competencies and skills should be of higher importance than concrete factual knowledge “…which was the subject of the overtly political review led by Donnelly & Wiltshire in 2014.”  The result of the review was predetermined by the selection of Donnelly and Wiltshire:

“…cultural warriors…their selection by then [Federal] Minister [for Education] Pyne. They found too much emphasis on Asia, Indigenous Australia, the Environment and not enough reference to Australia’s European and Christian heritage, a lack of focus on the basics, and too much faddish constructivism.”

-Dr. Zyngier.

Social media is prevalent now as a source of free and readily available professional learning. I personally find Twitter to be incredibly useful as a source of inspiration, feedback on practice, a source of ideas and a way of staying in touch with research. I do, however, acknowledge that is should not be the only source of professional learning or development, nor should is it necessarily designed to replace face-to-face mentoring and professional development opportunities. Dr. Zyngier agrees that there is a role for social media and online courses as part of a teacher’s ongoing professional development. However, the needs of individual teachers vis-a-vis professional development are varied and more support and time needs to be made available to teachers to allow them to adequately access those opportunities, whether this is working alongside a mentor, visiting other schools, online courses or attending a university course. I have seen on Twitter, some teachers talking about observational rounds, wherein teachers observe each others practice to provide feedback on a predetermined goal.

The media have been consistently reporting in recent years (for example; here, here and here) that approximately forty percent of new teachers are leaving the teaching profession within the first five years. I asked Dr. Zyngier what advice he would give teachers embarking on their EdVenture so that they do not join the forty percent. He responded that teaching is only for those who can commit to working very hard, very long hours, with a high workload and who can handle being blamed for societal failings and problems. Enjoying working with children is, of course, a must. This is advice I can certainly agree with, and from conversations that I have had with other educators, it would certainly appear to be quite sound advice.

I hope that you found this article as interesting as to read as I found it to write. I also hope that you get along to Education Nation in two weeks time, at Luna Park, to hear what is sure to be an interesting and thought-provoking conference. If you have not yet done so, I would also recommend you consider attending the live AussieEd event which is being held at Kirribilli Club after the conclusion of Day One of Education Nation.

As always, thank you for reading and keep an eye out for the Education Nation conversation on Twitter under #EduNationAu.

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