Should we be listening to the ‘Experts’ in Education?

Yesterday, the Daily Telegraph posted a particularly scathing article about school education in Australia, quoting Australian curriculum reviewers, Professor Ken Wiltshire and Kevin Donnelly, both of whom apparently are ‘dismayed’ by the “progressive new age” fads that are invading our classrooms.

Wiltshire is quoted saying,

It’s a good idea to have self-discovery but kids need to have knowledge…The teacher should be up the front, not up the side. This is the problem”

And Donnelly apparently said,

‘our schools suffered due to the fact that many teachers and administrators got their tertiary education during the “flower power” era. “Kumbaya hits it on the head”

I call it ‘edutainment’ … teachers instead of teaching become guides by the side.

“You don’t need to go back to the 1950s but the pendulum has moved too far towards ‘care, share, grow’.”

There were problems with the article. The fact that 86 teachers in NSW public schools were put on ‘improvement programs’ in 2014 is used as evidence of the poor quality of the profession. What they fail to point out is that this number represents only 0.18% of the 49 000 permanent teachers who were employed by the NSW government in 2014.

Neither Donnelly’s nor Wiltshire’s criticism of modern teaching methods were backed by evidence. Wiltshire provided one decontextualised anecdote, and Donnelly resorted to cheap name calling. Hardly grounds for any reasoned discussion on education.

But what irritates me more than any of that is the way Donnelly and Wiltshire are held up as experts on education, and therefore what they say carries weight.

Wiltshire’s bio can be found here, an Donnelly’s is here. For some perspective, it’s also worth checking out Cameron Malcher’s take down of Donnelly over here.

From what I can see, neither Wiltshire nor Donnelly could be considered authorities in classroom pedagogy. As a former English teacher, Donnelly is more qualified and experienced than Wiltshire in that area, but are either of them expert or knowledgeable enough to be making such damning pronouncements about current teaching practice?

They are expressing opinions, as we all do, but their position lends them a weight and authority that I think is being misused.

So who are the experts in education? Who are the people we should be listening to?


30 thoughts on “Should we be listening to the ‘Experts’ in Education?

  1. Listen to the people doing the job. The much maligned classroom teachers! Just for once listen to the people who have to implement the curriculum designed by people who are not at the coal face. After 40 years as a teacher I have seen “great ideas” come and go. The bottom line is we as teachers just want the best for our students. The current curriculum is trying to do a good job but it is too crowded and there is no time in a 5 week unit to spend time revisiting concepts that are not understood by the kids before we have to assess and move on. I also seriously question the way we are expected to work back from assessment so we have teach to the test. Seriously, not good pedagogy.

    • Thanks for commenting Anne. I do believe we need to listen to teachers more, however I also think we need to hear from other experts, like the academics who are able to take a broader view. I’m not sure what the way forward is, but I’d love to have some sort of round table dialogue where a range of voices are able to be listened to. I suppose blogging is a start, anyway!

  2. danlaw7 says:

    I agree with you. So why would a minister who has had responsibility for education for a very long time put these two in charge of a review of Australian Curriculum? Irresponsible!
    Thanks for keeping the discussion interesting and engaging Corrine! Always interested in your perspective. 🙂

  3. Kevin says:

    For what it is worth – taught for 18 years in secondary schools, written 4 books on school education, post graduate degrees in curriculum, undertaken 3 international benchmarking projects comparing curriculum and written over 500 comment pieces, including many for professional journals. Plus past member of the Victorian Board of Studies and on the Year 12 Panel of Examiners for English and a number of state and federal education committees. Maybe I know just a little bit about education.

    • Joel says:

      With any due respect, your credentials do not suggest someone who is an expert in pedagogy. Curriculum perhaps, but not methods, and certainly not methodology.

      • Kevin says:

        I wonder what Ph’D in curriculum involves – ah, yes focuses on teaching and learning, that is pedagogy 🙂 FYI – I rarely, if ever criticise teachers, mainly educrats and teacher academics, professional associations and unions responsible for dumbing down the curriculum. Most of my attack on OBE was because of its adverse impact on classroom teachers.

    • john says:

      You have never taught children in the era of the internet and devices. You have never been a teacher in a primary school or principal in any school. Anyone can sit on the sideline and write opinion pieces, papers, journal articles and conduct projects but how many educators genuinely accept or embrace your work? Who really is the guide on the side?

      • Kevin says:

        Funny how the latest research paper commissioned by the NSW education department affirms what I have been arguing for years about the need for explicit teaching and a more content driven model.

    • I agree with Joel. Kevin, you may be an expert in curriculum design but not pedagogy. They are different things. I’m not trying to offend but writing comment pieces is offering your opinion and does not necessarily mean you are an expert. IMO the media often gives the spotlight to people like you too often and do not seek out teachers who are at the coal face. There needs to be a balance.

    • Jason Borton says:

      Making scathing remarks about the teaching profession like you have does nothing to improve schools or teaching practice. It is disrespectful to the almost unanimous majority of dedicated educators that work in schools every day. Having a background as a teacher doesn’t give you the right to make such unfounded judgements.

    • Thank you for taking the time to read, Kevin. I do appreciate it, and I’m honoured that you took the time to respond to this small time blogger. I’m certainly not doubting your extensive knowledge of education or your right to express your views. My question though was if it is appropriate for the Daily Telegraph to use your opinion as one that is authoritative on contemporary teaching methodologies across disciplines,from K-12. My understanding is your specialist area is in secondary English, which I imagine would be vastly different, for example to the way we teach English in K-2. But, I see you have responded to that question in a range of comments here, so thank you.

      On a personal note, while you said in one of the comments that you rarely criticise teachers, the quotes attributed to you were critical of the practice of many contemporary teachers, and the flippant language was quite denigrating. It was hurtful and disheartening to read those words and I believe they will make our job in the community even harder. If readers pay attention to those, they will lose respect for us. To improve education in Australia, I believe we need to respectfully engage with all stakeholders, including the teachers whose work is so vital.

  4. Denyse Whelan says:

    Maybe that is the case, Kevin. However, it is clear that your work gives you the credentials required to comment generally and pass negative judgement on many, many dedicated and professional teachers in Australia. This is not what someone who is informed and experienced in school education in Australia would agree with. That person is me. I can list my qualifications and degrees too but choose not to, other than to say I never consider myself an expert. I am a lifelong learner who has been teaching and learning in Australian public schools for 60 years- from student to teacher to principal and back to teacher. Thank you Corinne for your publication of this post.

  5. Commissioned, Kevin, commissioned! I’ve never been “commissioned” by a Dept of Ed (although I have been approached to “endorse” behind closed doors) and I never would be because they know I will tell them what they don’t want to hear, regardless of which govt is in power. That, Kevin, is the difference. The true test of an academic expert is publication quality, blind peer review & competitive externally funded empirical research. None of those are achievable if ideology & opinion is the operating logic.

    • Dr Kevin Donnelly says:

      I would have thought a Ph’D thesis was peer reviewed – and as they say, the process of peer review normally involves getting like minded academics agreeing with what you submit – it’s called group think.

      • Dr Donnelly if your only peer reviewed work EVER was your Phd – which I believe is correct – then you have no evidence based grounds to critique education or teachers or teacher academics. What you proffer is just opinion – ideologically framed to selectively quote from other’s research to support your opinion.

        I am not sure who says that peer review is group think – certainly not journals in science like Nature or in Education journals like Education Researcher, Journal of Teacher Education, Teachers and Teaching Education, Educational Research Review etc. I have published in these education journals. Have you?

  6. In my view it is good to seek input from academic experts. The problem is that politicians make the choices. As a result instead of obtaining views from across the spectrum they only choose to take advice from experts who support their own point of view.

    • I agree – there is constant debate in education and I think we need to hear a range of experts. We also need to find a way for teachers to have more of a voice, we are key stakeholders with our own relevant expertise, but so often I feel we’re left out of the dialogue

  7. Emma says:

    The kind of expertise I value comes from those who maintain a close connection with the realities of the profession AND of young people and the world they live in. Qualifications are of limited use if you don’t connect with, understand and learn from the people you pass judgement on or develop policy for. I often wonder of some experts: when was the last time you spent a day in a school, shadowing a teacher or a leader? When was the last time you spoke to a group of young people about their aspirations for the future and what they value about their teachers, their school and their learning? When was the last time you asked teachers for their perspectives on what has changed and stayed the same in schools and with students in 20, 10 or even 5 years? For me, relevant expertise comes from those who understand the context in which teachers are teaching and students are learning.

    • Hi Emma, your comment has really struck a chord with me. Thank you for taking the time to write. That close connection with contemporary realities of teaching, and across diverse communities is vital.

  8. Richard Olsen says:

    Hi Corrine,

    It would be nice if those who put forth silly ideas about education were so easy to identify! If they weren’t as passionate about education, or hadn’t worked in schools a certain number of years, or if they been educated to a certain level, or published a certain number of papers… Unfortunately none of these things help us distinguish the good education ideas from the harmful ones.

    To suggest Donnelly or Wiltshire aren’t as passionate, qualified, intelligent or experienced as us, is almost certainly wrong (not that you made those assertions.) The fact that they promote harmful ideas has nothing to do with their experience or who they are, nor do any of these things help teachers and school leaders to identify the good education ideas from the harmful ones.

    To understand why Donnelly and Wiltshire believe what they do, and to adequately counter their arguments, we need to examine what they believe about the nature and purpose of education, for this is where their ideas are based. As a consequence that’s where the real deficiencies in their arguments can be found.

    What does Donnelly believe about the nature learning that suggests teachers need to be up the front? What does he believe about the “flower pot era” that is wrong? Do you agree? Where is the pendulum, which Donnelly is referring, moving from and to?

    Yes, Donnelly should be more upfront and genuine about what he believes, instead of hiding behind cheap shots and emotive imagery, but just because he use these tactics, doesn’t mean that we should copy his approach…

    • Hi Richard,

      Thank you so much for adding your perspective. I really appreciate your comment and as always, you’ve given me much to consider.

      My intention wasn’t to counter Donnelly or Wiltshire’s arguments on education in this piece. It was more to challenge the way the media, in this case The Daily Telegraph, selects people to speak as ‘authorities’ on education. In the article Wiltshire’s and Donnelly’s opinions are used to provide supposedly credible evidence to support the writers’ argument. If they are going to use expert opinion as evidence I believe they should be speaking to people who are credible ‘experts’, and my blog explains why I’m not sure if Donnelly and Wiltshire are. I also think they should be presenting a range of views, but that’s probably asking too much of the Tele.

      For me, this is an issue around how the media writes about education rather than an argument with Wiltshire and Donnelly’s views on education. And I agree, to counter those arguments, there would need to be a quite different discussion.

      • Richard Olsen says:

        Well if that is the case, I totally agree, don’t believe anything (not just about education) that is reported by mainstream media.

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