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Teacher Education - The Background of Teachers

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Over a decade ago educationists were aware of a need for greater political literacy in Australia. Phillips (1989, 21) lamented that few Australians could articulate what is meant by democracy.  He quoted Professor Hugh Emy as stating that very few students can tell you why the Constitution, Parliament or elections are important or why ideas about participation and citizenship deserve to be taken seriously. Phillips noted that as far back as 1983 there was evidence of widespread political ignorance which led to the Australian Electoral Commission and Commonwealth Parliament moving to involve themselves in furthering the cause of political literacy through the production of video materials and teaching kits. The focus of this material was Federal Parliament. 

At State level there was some increased involvement in the 1980s - apart from the Parliament conducting school tours and visits by members of the public, it appointed a public relations officer with educational responsibilities and established a board of advisory teachers. The Western Australian Electoral Commission created in 1987 also was given educational and research functions. However, across Australia it was generally acknowledged that a national approach was required. 

According to Phillips, a major issue was the absence of a school curriculum which explicitly provided education in politics as a basis for active citizenship skills (1989, 30).  The 1983 K-10 Social Studies Syllabus included politics as one of its five themes. However, given the disparaging connotations of the term politics and the fear of bias in teaching, the politics sequence was titled ‘decision making’. Each student progressing through primary and secondary school was expected to study decision-making units in each year of schooling. Materials were produced and professional development provided but on the whole the units were either not presented at all or not presented in sufficient detail for students to derive benefits from them. According to Phillips the most severe problem for the units was the inadequate content and conceptual background of the teachers and their lack of skills and attitudes to effectively foster political literacy. 

Moroz and Washbourne (1989) and Print (1990) also found that the decision-making units containing the bulk of political and civic education curriculum components were frequently avoided by teachers for presentation, presumably because they lacked the background to teach these units. At upper secondary level a similar problem existed for the politics tertiary entrance subject and enrolments remained stagnant for several years.

Some attempts have been made to boost the teaching of citizenship. For example, in 1992 the Social Science Association of Western Australia, under the authorship of  Phillips, identified for the benefit of teachers the attributes of an ideal citizen. The listing of knowledge, skills and values suggested was as shown below: 

Knowledge (main features of the polity)

·         Australia’s geographic and demographic features

·         Traditional rule and law making procedures (particularly those appropriate to Aboriginal people)

·         Cultural literacy and cultural heritage

·         The Federal System (the three tiers – Commonwealth, State and Local)

·         Features of Australia’s Constitution

·         The Commonwealth Parliament (House of Representatives and Senate)

·         The Cabinet System of Government

·         The Public Service and Statutory Authorities

·         The State Parliament (Legislative Assembly and Legislative Council)

·         Steps in the Legislative Process Elections (including electorates)

·         Electoral law (the preference vote and proportional representation)

·         Parties (basic)

·         Interest Groups (including groups and associations relevant to youth)

·         The Courts (including the High Court, State Courts, Family Courts, Small Claims Tribunal and the Ombudsman)

In summary how the system works.

Skills: Having a Say

·         Voting (firstly in the context of the youth’s experience; extended thereafter to the voting systems employed in local government and Parliamentary elections

·         Enrolment and registration

·         Discussion and debating

·         Telephoning and faxing

·         Letters

·         Talkback participation

·         Deputations

·         Report writing

·         Submissions

·         Petitions

·         Lobbying

·         Communicating (with public service departments and statutory authorities)

Other Action Skills

·         Organising meetings

·         Negotiating

·         Bargaining

·         Peaceful demonstrating

·         Organising coalitions

·         Reflecting and evaluating

Household Skills 

·         Health

·         Safety

·         Licensing (registration of cars, dogs etc)

·         Insurance/Banking (consumer education)

·         The household and the law (safety, marriage, parenting, etc)

Values (liberal – democratic) Ideals of Democracy

·         Freedom of the media

·         Freedom of speech and expression

·         Freedom of association

·         Freedom of assembly

·         Freedom of information

·         Freedom of religion and conscience

·         Freedom of mobility

·         The rule of law (including equality before the law and an independent judiciary)

 The Democratic Person

·         Tolerance of other points of view

·         Valuing fairness as a basis for making civic decisions and judgements

·         Willingness to express reasons for views and actions

·         Responsible but watchful in one’s attitude towards authority

·         A concern for social justice

·         Rectitude (honesty)

·         A respect for evidence in the forming and holding of opinions, and a willingness to change or modify one’s point of view in the light of more evidence

 Democratic Institutions

·         Universal suffrage (with special emphasis on youth)

·         Regular elections (at government, group and club level)

·         Competitive political parties

·         Loyal Opposition

·         Considerations

·         A civic consciousness

·         The work or commitment ethic

·         Employment and leisure rights

·         Development/environment balance

·         Basic heath care-protection

·         The private/public ownership balance

·         Family responsibilities

·         The ten commandments


 (Phillips, 1992, 4-6).

A decade further on, as we have seen, there have been positive developments for civics and citizenship education at both State and national level. We could expect positive outcomes to arise from the prioritising of civics and citizenship education within the Curriculum Framework (for example, by the inclusion of ‘active citizenship’ as one of the seven Learning Outcomes in the Society and Environment Learning Area Statement and also by the inclusion of ‘knowledge about political systems and their impact on societies and environment’ as essential knowledge in the Learning Area). In the past few years also, the Discovering Democracy project has been implemented, resource materials have been developed and distributed to schools and the associated professional development for teachers undertaken.

However, as Phillips noted back in 1989, without teacher expertise the best prepared syllabus in political education will not be effectively implemented. Excellently produced resources will be underutilised. Even some of the best teaching strategies such as mock parliaments and simulation exercises will not be recognised (1989, 30). The teachers teaching civics and citizenship education currently are, on the whole, those who were in schools at least a decade ago teaching the Social Studies Syllabus and, as discussed in the previous section, a body of research undertaken locally highlights teachers’ failure to enthuse students in the social studies area. 

The research undertaken by Moroz into student attitudes towards social studies, already discussed, was also associated with research into the attitudes of the teachers of the students surveyed. Moroz found that there was a wide disparity between teachers’ and students’ perceptions of social studies and that teachers had little understanding of the low and declining status of the subject as perceived by their students (Moroz and Reynolds, 2000, 34). A majority of teachers had not completed either a major or minor in Society and Environment curriculum in their undergraduate studies and their background in any of the social sciences was very limited.   

Baker and Moroz state that: It seems that this adherence to traditional teaching practices in social studies, more than the content, is what dissatisfies the students most about the subject. Teachers tend to repeatedly use recitation, textbooks, note-taking, whole-group instructional practices and, occasionally, audiovisual materials. Small group work, interactive cooperative learning activities, and inductive inquiry approaches to student learning are used infrequently… …Our research shows that the teaching/learning needs of the students in social studies classrooms are not being taken into account by the teachers who, in spite of the strong, student-centred, action-oriented policies in social studies curricula, continue to utilise teacher-centred, text-based instructional practices the students find uninteresting and boring (1997, 27-28).

Moroz notes that teachers schedule very little time for social studies, almost half teaching less than the Education Department’s suggested minimum of 100 minutes-a-week (1996, 63). He suggested that this might explain why they avoided the time-consuming student-centred activities. He commented that: The dangers are that without a significant increase in time allocation and other resources for Studies of Society and Environment the new citizenship education will be reduced to ‘more of the same’ by primary school teachers struggling to meet the demands of an already overcrowded curriculum (1996, 64).

Recent research into the background of student teachers in Western Australia highlights issues likely to arise in regard to future teaching in the Society and Environment Learning Area in primary schools, including citizenship and civics education (Reynolds & Moroz, 1998). Reynolds and Moroz emphasise that with the new Curriculum Framework the background and experience of teachers is critically important, even more so than formerly, because of the expectation that they should have a highly developed conceptual framework from which to develop the Learning Area Framework and Student Outcome Statements (1998, 42). 

However, the findings from the research suggest that the student teachers surveyed (future primary teachers) did not like social studies, ranking it 10th out of 13 subjects they themselves studied at primary school, and 9th out of 14 studied at secondary school. A large percentage had not studied any social studies in upper secondary school (14 per cent in Year 11 and 20 per cent in Year 12). Very few intended studying Social Studies Education at university – less than 10 per cent in any semester. Reynolds and Moroz (1998, 50-51) note that teachers who lack knowledge rely more heavily on available resources and this implies the continued employment of methods (such as use of text books) which they themselves found boring. 

The student teachers’ dislike of social studies implies that in their future teaching there will be a lack of enthusiasm and less effective teaching with a consequential detriment to student learning outcomes. Their lack of content in social studies suggests also that their understanding of the learning area may be an issue and there are implications in particular for specific social studies areas, such as political science, which is studied at upper secondary level by a very small minority of student teachers. Political science has a central role in civics and citizenship education.

A separate investigation undertaken locally by Reynolds (1999, 21) indicates that student teachers come from a restricted group within society. They are predominantly female, under 25 years-of-age and from the Anglo-Celtic cultural heritage (with three quarters Australian-born with Anglo-Celtic heritage and another 10 per cent from (British) Commonwealth countries). Students from Aboriginal, Asian and non-English-speaking backgrounds generally are under represented. 

Another more recent research study by Reynolds (2001) was undertaken to obtain information about the values held by student teachers. The survey targetted teacher education students at one Western Australian university in the third year of early childhood and primary teacher education bachelor degrees and in the secondary graduate diploma. This study confirmed that students are young, predominantly female and Australian-born. Thirty percent had never visited another country and 17 per cent had not visited any regions of Western Australia away from Perth and the South West. 

The student teachers were asked about their own values and their perception of Australian values. The findings indicated that a consistently low ranking was given to values categorised as those pertaining to knowledge, environment, societal values, world order, religion and change. These values have been described as those which are fundamental to an appreciation of the significance of societal structures and the values of a civil society (2001, 47). Conversely, the values ranked highly by student teachers were those based on the focus on individualism in schooling. Reynolds indicated that current degree courses concentrate largely on the study of curriculum and teaching to the exclusion of content studies focussing on the nature of society. He noted that, with entrants to teacher education courses holding fewer and fewer social studies and humanities units, it could be asked how the trainee professionals are to acquire an understanding of the societal framework which determines the life chances of individuals within it and the nature and effectiveness of schooling processes. 

The curriculum is established and the qualities of entrants to teacher education have been noted. It is now time to consider how the universities will prepare them over a period of the initial four years.

Acknowledgement of Country

The Government of Western Australia acknowledges the traditional custodians throughout Western Australia and their continuing connection to the land, waters and community. We pay our respects to all members of the Aboriginal communities and their cultures; and to Elders both past and present.