Education Nation | Interview with Dr. Kevin Donnelly

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

Education Nation is fast approaching, and this time next week, the final session of the conference will be concluding. One of the most hotly anticipated events of Education Nation is The Great Debate between Dr. David Zyngier (@dzyngier) and Dr. Kevin Donelly (@ESIAuatralia). Last week, I published an article from an interview with Dr. Zyngier, which was widely read. Dr. Zyngier is speaking on the side of public education at The Great Debate, and there are some strong arguments available for him to draw upon. This article will be an exploration of Dr. Donnelly’s responses to a series of questions similar to those presented to Dr. Zyngier. As with the previous interviews, I have included Education Nation Interview with Dr. Kevin Donnelly for the sake of transparency.

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Dr. Donnelly provided a short summary of his stance on the issue of public versus private education. He posits that the claims that private schooling systems, e.g. Catholic and independent schools, are over-funded and cause residualisation of government schools, particularly those with disadvantaged students, is incorrect. He cites the simple fact that non-government schools receive significantly less public funding than government schools. For example, the below graph shows the relative expenditure across the two sectors and highlights the disparate nature of the level of public funding.

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Retrieved from tinyurl.com/jdbben8 on 31 May 2016

Dr. Donelly also decries the claim that private schools only achieve strong learning outcomes comparative to public schools because they take the best students, noting that public schools are not truly open to all. This is a valid point to make as there is a range of public schools, particularly secondary school, which are selective based on academic results, requiring a certain academic ability for enrolment into those schools, often requiring prospective students to sit an entrance exam. Additionally, Dr. Donnelly notes that many public schools are situated in suburbs which are classed as high socio-economic areas (SES) and are therefore unaffordable for many people. Linked to both arguments, Dr. Donnelly notes that the socio-economic status of a student’s family is only ten to eighteen percent of the overall factors influencing learning outcomes.

I have noted in previous articles the recent discussions that have appeared in the media regarding teacher quality, and admission to and the quality of, initial teacher education (ITE) programs. Dr. Donnelly’s views on this are somewhat similar to Dr. Zyngier’s views. Dr. Donnelly cites Parsi Sahlberg (@pasi_sahlberg), a Finnish educational researcher who found that although half of the first-year ITE students are drawn from the fifty-one to eighty percent range, rendering the argument that pre-service teachers should be drawn from the academic top thirty percent, invalid. Sahlberg has also commented that “a good step forward would be to admit that the academically best students are not necessarily the best teachers.” Dr. Donnelly also notes a 2012 submission to a Commonwealth inquiry into teacher education by Professor Geoff Masters, who commented that restricting entry to ITE programs to top academic students “…is a blunt approach to improving the selection of teachers and falls well short of international best practice.”

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Findings from Section 2.2.3 of Action Now: Classroom Ready Teachers.

In addition to discussing the prospect of restricting pre-service teachers to those with the top academic results, I asked Dr. Donnelly for his views about a different method of raising the expectations of ITE programs. In Finland, ITE programs are delivered at Masters level, rather than Undergraduate level here in Australia. He explained that research conducted by Andrew Leigh into effective teaching showed that holding a Masters degree does not necessarily equate to being an effective teacher, which seems to be consistent with Pas Sahlberg’s comment mentioned, regarding the fact that there is not a causal link between the academically best teachers and the most effective teachers.

Dr. Donnelly points to Pasi Sahlberg’s findings that a teacher’s commitment and ability to engage and motivate students, along with their communication skills and, of course, subject knowledge are more influential factors in identifying effective teachers. He also points to findings in the Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group report, Action Now: Classroom Ready Teachers, that the level of the degree, Bachelor or Masters, is not particularly important. What is important is the quality of the ITE program and whether trainee teachers have been properly prepared and are ready to begin teaching in a class on their own. I have written previously about my own ITE program, and I would agree that there is scope for improvement

After discussing the subject of ITE, the interview turned to Finland and our relationship and seeming obsession with modelling the Finnish educational model. Dr. Zyngier is critical of this obsession, noting that Finland’s results in PISA and TIMSS have been falling in recent years. Dr. Donnelly is also critical of the way that educationalists jump on the bandwagon of whichever country is generating the best results in international testing, which has moved between Singapore, Sweden, Finland and is currently Shanghai, particularly given that Finland’s results have been falling as shown in the below images from Trends in the Performance of the Top Performers on PISA 2003-Pisa 2012.

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The above image shows that the number of Finnish students performing in the lower levels of PISA mathematics tests has increased significantly. Makes sense, therefore, that the number of Finnish students at the top end has fallen in the same period.

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Dr. Donnelly, after acknowledging Finland’s falling results in recent instances of PISA, notes that translating educational characteristics of other countries can be very difficult due to the variation in contexts. This is an interesting comment, and one I look forward to hearing expanded upon further, particularly, I suspect in the presentation by Lila Mularczyk’ (@LilaMularczyk) on day two of Education Nation, where she is examining trends in international education policy and the translation to the Australian context. Dr. Donnelly reminds us that we can learn from international education systems, however, it needs to be evidence based.

Dr. Donnelly co-chaired the National Curriculum Review alongside Professor Kenneth Wiltshire. Given that the National Curriculum has not been implemented nationally I questioned whether or not a National Curriculum should have even been the goal for Australian education. Dr. Donnelly indicated that greater autonomy and flexibility at the local level, should have been the goal, not a one size fits all curriculum that has been torn apart and rebuilt to suit the needs of some states, and implemented as-is by others. Dr. Donnelly points out that under the Australian Constitution, the government does not have a responsibility for school education. Dr. Donnelly believes that “…we should abide by the fact that we have a federal system where all roads do not lead to Canberra.

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Social media is playing an increasingly important role in the professional learning of teachers around the world. It is free, available at any time and on any range of topics, providing an alternative to the often expensive and/or boring and untargeted professional development sessions that teachers’ typically receive. Dr. Donnelly’s view is that whilst social media has a place, there is no substitute for providing teachers, particularly new-career teachers, with time to learn on the job, receive mentoring, and the time and ability to effectively reflect on and evaluate their own practice.

I asked Dr. Donnelly was his advice to early-career teachers that would help them avoid joining the forty percent of new teachers who are shown to leave the profession within their first five years. His advice was straightforward, yet challenging to implement:

Beware of education fads and do not be drowned in the bureaucratic and the time consuming micromanagement that is being forced on schools. Also, understand that student misbehaviour is on the increase and that a lot of students, especially at the primary school level, are unable to sit still, focus and concentrate for an extended period of time. Most importantly, realise and appreciate that being with young people is a great honour and responsibility, as there is noting more important than teaching – except being a parent.

-Dr. Kevin Donnelly.

When I interviewed Professor Masters early last month, I asked him about John Hattie’s comments regarding teachers as researchers and his sentiment was that it is unreasonable to expect teachers to be both highly trained and effective educators; and highly trained and effective educational researchers. It is reasonable, however, to expect teachers to be informed users of research evidence; evidence which should be a consideration for teachers when engaging in the informal research process of evaluative reflection upon their pedagogical practice.

I asked Dr. Donnelly for his views on Hattie’s comments, and he replied that the relationship between researchers in universities and ACER, and classroom teachers, has been fractured. Dr. Donnelly acknowledges that it has been some time since he has been a classroom teacher and that he would love to see the results of academic researchers in the classroom, attempting to implement the practices they promote in their research. He sees a strong connection between theory and practice and would argue that many teachers are capable of undertaking research, which would provide the benefit of the research being grounded in the realities of a classroom.

Dr. Donnelly presents some interesting arguments, and I very much look forward to hearing him speak in The Great Debate. Remember, you can submit your own questions for The Greate Debate by clicking here. If you have not yet registered for Education Nation then click here to register.

2 thoughts on “Education Nation | Interview with Dr. Kevin Donnelly

  1. That first graph needs some qualification. How many private and public schools are considered in those graphs? If there are 2.5x as many public schools as private schools, than private schools are indeed receiving more funding, according to those graphs. I’d like to see some numbers.

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