PISA results point to need for more teacher support

Giving teachers precise guidance on what to teach could improve Australia's international report card.

02 March 2020
Two students at their desk looking forward
Image: Understanding what works in the classroom is key to improving student results.

More support for teachers of mathematics, reading and science could help improve Australian students' results in international tests, according to a leading education consultant.

Australia recorded one of the sharpest falls in performance of any country in the most recent OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), sparking calls for a major rethink of the nation's education system.

But the answer may lie not in major curriculum changes or bolder vision statements, but rather in a better understanding of what is happening in our classrooms, said Dr Ben Jensen, founder of education consultancy Learning First.

"We had a lot of ideas about how PISA was ... maybe the Australian curriculum's fault or some people have said technology, even though there is no evidence around that," Dr Jensen told Department of Education Secretary Mark Scott on the Every Student Podcast.

"I think we definitely need to be more precise about what we do and provide more advice on what needs to be taught and then advice on how we teach that," he said.

Previously director of the Grattan Institute's School Education Program and an education analyst with the OECD, Dr Jensen said teachers were bombarded with high-level requirements but there was little analysis of what that meant for their work in the classroom.

There was also little guidance on which teaching materials in the marketplace were high quality, and a big push over the past decade to improve teacher quality and increase evidence-based practice almost entirely involved general pedagogy, rather than being subject specific, he said.

"There are real differences in how we teach science to how we need to teach mathematics and what needs to be covered, so we just need to be more precise about that and offer that to teachers," he said.

He said teacher professional status had become conflated with autonomy so that discussions about providing more support to teachers was interpreted as impinging on teacher autonomy.

"If you believe teaching is just general pedagogy, if you believe teaching is pretty straightforward and it is really about classroom management and just caring about kids, if that is all teaching is then, yes, you can leave it all to teachers," he said.

"If you believe that it is a true profession that requires incredible expertise then, of course, you provide support and that is what other systems do."

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