Contemporary Teaching Practice in the Era [Error] of NOPLAN

 Distinguished Guest Writer

Derek Hedgcock is a renowned and respected former State Primary School principal who developed innovative, progressive and successful programs based on awareness of emotions and what can be lived and achieved with a happy/green brain. He believes that schools should “construct live experiences that ‘wire’ habitual hope as a default pattern that ‘fires’ pathways to goodness and well-being.” He was able to demonstrate, very clearly, ‘how we can live a self-determining life by learning about the physiology and the psychology of our emotions’. He based teaching-learning programs on the notion that cognitive development is assured when the affective is secure. Productive classroom behaviour relies on SUCCOUR [being Loved, Popular and Accepted]. SURVIVAL [being Safe. Comfortable, Peaceful] and SUCCESS [being a Winner, in Control and Confident]. He quotes from G.S.Patton: “If everybody is thinking alike then somebody is not thinking” in an amazing Handbook called ‘Emotions Awareness for Behaviour Change’ that Derek produced for staff and others. It’s a remarkable tract.

His work at Mundingburra State School in central Townsville was truly ground-breaking. He knew what ‘autonomy’ meant and he took it. He and his staff and pupils challenged many of the established beliefs of ‘behaviour management’ and the outcomes were outstanding.

Such notions of Succour, Survival and Success run counter to the cruel psychology of NAPLAN and the beliefs held by testucating sciolists who have taken over schooling in Australia and other GERM countries and installed Fear, Disrespect for human feelings, Dominating adult-controlled teaching styles, Practice, Practice, Practice.

Derek'simageIt’s an ugly, confused, dysfunctional and confused education landscape that children and their parents now inhabit. It’s sad; and things look like getting worse.

Derek Hedgcock retired to Emerald in Central Queensland where his wife continues to do her best under the prevailing, politically-imposed conditions in the classroom. His artistic bent, disposes him to work with metal as his ‘ghoti’ [Pyne Phonics] here shows. He likes bike-riding and is soon to join a group for the second time as they pedal 1,600 kms. from Brisbane to Townsville to raise funds for Cancer Research.

You’ll enjoy his coda, attached.



Derek Hedgcock

The current $50K offer to teachers by the Queensland Government, enabling them a choice to quit teaching and “retrain”, includes a proviso that applicants demonstrate a “lack of contemporary teaching practice”.

Fair enough one might think?

Although a cycling acquaintance of mine, after my mention of the redundancy package and its eligibility based upon lack of contemporary practice, suggested in all seriousness that such a lack “would be an advantage wouldn’t it?

Get rid of the dead wood and make way for an embarrassing oversupply of neophytes keen to enter the profession, providing our children the most valuable, anticipatory or potential resource we have, a quality education for future generations?

What better way to improve learning than to use strategies that improved teacher quality?

However, a quick fix is not always the long-term solution as we well know. Resolving the issues of teacher quality is not simply a matter of replacing the old with the new. The most salient issue here is that of

“contemporary teaching practice”, which itself raises a number of questions, including perhaps the following?

  • What is contemporary teaching practice? Is there a consensual understanding of such a thing? Does it suffer the “Red Queen” effect … frenetically hurrying along in a vain attempt to blend with a changing landscape? The “is there anything new under the sun?” conundrum.
  • Is contemporary better than traditional and are there essentials to the latter that should always prevail in formulation of the former? The “baby and bath water” conundrum.
  • Does contemporary curriculum include within its design, explicit essentials that embody quality pedagogy, proven by authentic assessment practice that of itself embodies useful learning, life-long? The “does the big picture differ from the small picture or is it simply fractal?” conundrum.
  • Who decides these things, how and where? Is modern education maintained as a complex adaptive phenomenon or is it rigidly over- ruled by “power” people devoid of education principles and know-how? The “no idea is dangerous unless it is the only one you have” conundrum.

Was it Winston Churchill who said? ….”The dangers of democracy are soon revealed by a five minute conversation with the average voter.”

Education determined by populist, anachronistic, vote winning and ephemeral fads has always failed miserably, wasted vast amounts of money and significantly underachieved with respect to fulfilment of learner potentials and needs…. let alone their life-long, positive regard for education and learning.

Unless these conundrums are properly considered, resolving in ethically legitimate education reforms that are applied with learning in mind, as opposed to populist, political expediency, any process that culls teachers for purely political and financial reasons, such as is the true nature of the $50K tactic, will most likely be counterproductive.

In fact, whilst the nation’s governance of education remains reductively, political/fiscal there will never be a satisfactory resolution to the exponentially, increasingly vexatious challenges confronting that of teacher quality.

The only way to enhance and sustain enhancement of teacher quality, as is rightfully demanded by an increasingly complex and diverse society, is to keep learning front and centre of the education agenda and holistically at that. All modern education systems should display a very large and proudly demonstrative “L” plate: “L” for learning constantly, as opposed to lurching dangerously. All learners possess fundamental behaviours that can and should be addressed similarly, with increased attentions provided according to their social and economic circumstance.

Equity deficits are perhaps NAPLANS most insidious failing. Parting company with teachers on the basis of “lacking contemporary practice” when no clear understanding nor applied definition of precisely what such a dubious criteria is, is equally heinous, callous and mercenary: populist political/bureaucratic nihilism of education as an art form!

Conflicting and ever changing, complex social parameters require attention in order teacher quality be enhanced. They will never be resolved whilst politically devised strategies are summarily applied; being short-term and narrow in scope, such as is the current redundancy package…. whilst $50K, thanks for coming, see you later, sorry you don’t deserve a T-shirt, disposal…… is all that seems to be done?

There are many challenging questions confronting modern education. Simplistic solutions do not suffice to resolve them. Neither will vague, faddish criteria serve us well in our quest to resolve the plethora of current challenges modern societies confront regarding education.

Applying the term contemporary practice as a measure of teacher quality raises important considerations, including perhaps the following?

Consider teachers who are frustrated by seemingly endless, repeated years, deprived of due recognition for sound practice, dedication and perhaps even demeaned for their refusal to apply “contemporary practices” that are as yet unproven…. whilst constantly ambushed by faddishly flashy and cosmetically attractive, curriculum-guerrilla-warfare-like sorties that are randomly imposed upon them. Teachers who live by the adage “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it”……a true professional who questions critically, systemic curriculum change on the basis of their proven track record, can be easily discarded when ephemeral cleansing tactics are employed by a bureaucracy that is remote and disconnected from classroom learning.? Furthermore, who makes the call? Most often the self-evaluating professional is its own harshest critic and as such should not be left alone to the task of self-determined redundancy. Professional “suicide” is not healthy, neither for the individual nor the system. …. I apply the term “system” cautiously.

Consider teachers who endure seemingly limitless change “initiatives” that disappear almost as quickly as they suddenly arise, leaving a tide of confusion, instability and curriculum chaos by which even the fearless leader, the omni-absent, nameless one, is pressed to define the state of play without resorting to jargonised platitudes? Consider being scatter-gun impacted by all manner of emerging technologies that are often imposed by unqualified, exploitative entrepreneurs who consider them well suited to classrooms. Teachers are often given little or no training, whilst lampooned as troglodytes for maintaining that which has served their pupils well in the past and genuinely continues to do so? Someone once said and rightly so…. “Any teacher who fears being replaced by a computer, ought to be!”

Consider the teachers who take the $50K package and are immediately employed by the non-government school, just down the road? Are so-called ineffective teachers who “lack contemporary practice” really the target? Or, may it well be healthy enquiry, informed scepticism and stoic loyalty to pupil learning above personal comfort, that is being junked at a mere $50K a pop? Has teaching become so untenable for skilled teachers of high professional integrity that they may be willing to swallow their pride, take a deep breath and leap somewhat reluctantly into a $50K life-raft?

Much of Joseph Heller’s “Catch 22” centres around a character who self-trained at life-raft survival at sea and he was considered the crazy one? There’s a deal of truth in fiction indeed.

Let’s attempt a brief critical look at the questions raised earlier.

Firstly, is there anything new under the sun?

I counsel caution whenever learning is re-jigged by way of technology, for technology of itself is not learning. It is merely a tool and perhaps a maladaptive one at that.

David Suzuki is credited with the counsel ...”the generation that devised the silicon chip, spent its childhood exploring ponds and streams using jam jars and hand-held lenses”. This noted futurist cannot be readily dismissed as a non-critical thinker lacking contemporary practice?

In an age of increasing uncertainty, when the only certainty is change itself, the human brain, the organ of learning, the “technology” that spawns all other technologies remains essentially unchanged. We need to be careful that we don’t compromise its monumental capacities for learning by use of any machine of relatively limited scope: relatively limited that is, in comparison to learners being engaged in richly interactive discourse among other humans and real-life contextualised learning experiences to which they are truly, emotionally connected.

Not all technologies that purport to be multi-stimuli, qualify as richly interactive… Case in point!

The “activity sheet” is perhaps modern education’s greatest and saddest of all oxymorons. Schools devote immense amounts of time and money to this technology. When the photocopier is defunct, so too is the school…. almost.

Too much seated at the desk, stimuli devoid, disjointed busy work is enabled by this form of reprographics technology and its ilk. In direct proportion to the increase in paper use by way of the photocopier, there has occurred a decline in the extent and frequency of pupil exposure to extended passages of rich, flowing prose, vocabulary enrichment in context and dynamic, socially interactive analysis and making of rich language, spoken, written or read.

Likewise, much mathematics becomes arithmetic when conveyed by “activity sheet”

How can the brains of young learners become imprinted with rich language structures and their enjoyment, when most if not all of their language learning is centered at pieces of paper that do not speak expressively nor contain prolonged text that engages and sustains stimuli rich, multi-modal engagement. Nothing dulls norepinephrine levels more so, than the ubiquitous “activity sheet”. Norepinephrine is a neuro-chemical with a key memory fixative role. Its levels and effectiveness are directly proportional to physical activity.

How can pupils learn resilience if they do not ever encounter challenge that is sustained over an extended timeframe, requires persistence and repetitive re-visiting to result in polished, rehearsed, performances that demonstrate learning…? Do short, fragmented paper based “lessons” as per photo-copier technologies, suffice? Does the shift to interactive whiteboards suffice when they are as seems a common practice, not utilised to their potential, but are applied merely as light-show representations of the photocopier?

Does a battery of un-contextualised, culturally unfamiliar (unless practised) pencil and paper tests when supporting and encouraging learners is cheating, such as is NAPLAN, suffice as learning focused assessment?

Does the current C2C, Queensland extrapolation of the National Curriculum pass the norepinephrine test, the resilience test or the emotional connection/salience test…. let alone the does the activity match pupil cognitive maturity test?

Many children in contemporary culture have scant exposure in their most formative years of brain wiring, to rich prose and discursive language…… curse-ive maybe… but not richly descriptive, exciting and imaginatively stimulating. They spend countless hours playing computer based games, watching television programmes predominantly comprised of sound effects, vocabulary scant, poorly structured dialogue, devoid of descriptive language (replete with put-downs) and other essentials to acquiring capacity and inclinations for rich, high level language skills orally, least of all, in written form.

Perhaps therefore, we need to be most careful we do not junk the teachers who talk with children, read to them expressively from books and who supplementarily use modern technologies such as the abundant array of multi-media forms of quality literature, not only to entertain but to actually teach the diverse array of messages they contain…. both the technical/structural/generic but most importantly their cultural/ethical/moral. The latter takes time, insights and rich knowledge that often do not exist among the “contemporary” for that is the nature of age challenged brains that have wired wisdom.

Does experience count as an attribute of contemporary practice?

Could $50K be better spent by retaining the experienced to mentor the neophyte and if it really is about getting rid of the junk, there are well formulated diminished performance procedures. All it takes is a little courage and systemic support?

If “contemporary practice” is defined by wisdom and the opportunity to choose best pathways for learners: if “contemporary practice” is defined by education as opposed to schooling: if “contemporary practice” is defined by giving teachers the opportunity to be imaginative and selective…. OK.

Could the $50K be better spent for rejuvenation of teachers who have great skill and experience but simply have become battered and bruised by constant, feckless change, a misplaced sense of inadequacy, lack of reward and recognition or worst of all, plagued by constant relegation to the “oldies” scrap bin?

I suspect “contemporary practice” is being used as an instrument of coercion and fear to scapegoat teachers and abrogate political/bureaucratic leadership responsibility.

This raises a connection to the second question…. that of continuity, preservation of that which remains salient and knowing what to keep. Somewhere from collective cultures of Chinese wisdom, emerged the proposition…. “Beware they who know the answer, for they may not know the question!”

How do we separate the baby from the bathwater when there are no clear demarcations regarding which is which? Who decides and how? Do the decision makers actually visit classrooms repeatedly over time, qualified to make these judgements, providing adequate coaching that allows shortcomings to be addressed?

If contemporary practice is founded upon a centralised, scripted, “workbook” approach to which all schools must adhere, as is the nature of “C 2 C”, Queensland’s interpretation of the National Curriculum, we need to be a little apprehensive.

If contemporary practice comprises meek compliance with NAPLAN, a one-size-fits-all, blunt instrument of fear, almost devoid of genuine, defensible, learning based value and principle, and/or comprises data based judgements conducted by management approaches that are remote and removed from classrooms and the learning that daily occurs within them: lacking clear, collegial, teacher moderated criteria and benchmarks for evaluation of teacher effectiveness and assessment of pupil achievement, we ought to be concerned.

If contemporary practice is about computer-based technology competencies, we ought to worry, for most classrooms are filled with kids who will always be ahead of some teachers when it comes to savvy regarding the latest computer trickery.

If $50K is all that a government is willing to pay, with a never-to-be-employed-again caveat, we ought to panic indeed.

Before anything restorative can be done, including discarding under-performing teachers, there needs to be a purging of an underperforming curriculum.

But what of the National Curriculum I hear protestations?

Sure! A National Curriculum is an absolute necessity. Now that we have one… a newborn… it remains in the old bathwater, for it is knowledge based steeped in the traditional, Dickensian subject demarcations of knowing stuff. Furthermore each jurisdiction is currently hell bent on writing its own interpretation…. So back to a state-by-state based mess, it seems.

Contemporary practice demands clear and concise cognisance of learning as the most fundamental of all human behaviours.

A learning based curriculum as opposed to a subject/content, discipline or knowledge curriculum framework, with some form of learning based (not subject based) problem-solving, pedagogically sound foci at the centre, would surely pass as a sound basis for contemporary practice?

A curriculum which sets pupils up for learning…. establishing dispositions and capacities for learning…. before they are bombarded by the stuff of specialised knowledge based disciplines. Surely, in an era when discovery is more about that which emerges from the cracks and boundary areas among knowledge domains, is in fact the contemporary knowledge economy, it is important to take care when discrimination the old from the new?

Content based curricula are an anachronism if ever there was one! But pupils will always exist and need to be educated, with hopefully, a focus upon learning. Thus we arrive at the third conjecture?

Those who teach kids as opposed to those who teach subjects will never lack contemporary practice.

Phil Cullen … (if you don’t know Phil…. google “Treehorn” and you will soon become acquainted. Then again, if you’re reading this???)…

Anyway, Phil once said something about the pupil being in the frontal centre of the eye.

When defining contemporary practice “does the big picture differ from the small picture or is it simply fractal?” deserves consideration?

If it suffices for education to simply continue its existence under the “Red Queen” effect (cf Alice in Wonderland) , beetling onwards as if the only change necessary is to re-jig the content and every now and then apply some “new” technologies, why do we continue sliding in the performance ratings? Why are the billions being spent on education nationally, failing to match their deserved expectations?

Why indeed does the alleged parlous state of modern education allow travesties such as NAPLAN to thrive… as did Nazism emerge in Germany? Such emergences are surely signs of a society in chaos. Chaos cannot be subdued by fear, political populism or quick-fix strategies. Chaos requires calm, deliberation and least of all a rush back to the very past that has caused the problem…. Nor can complex deficits in something so important as a nation’s education provision for all and equitably so, be resolved by way of fear based compliance, cleansing good-riddance of the wise and experienced, silencing of critical analysis and perhaps most of all ignorance and layered simplicity.

Such is the nature of NAPLAN and all manner or superficialities, including the $50K wet-fish handshake, that are being applied to education in this country right now.

Is it possible that we don’t yet have a widespread, proper understanding, let alone awareness of the existence, of the real question? Is the dogma barking up the wrong tree? Is the content (an unfortunate word when there is so much disaffection) cart disconnectedly placed before the learning horse?

After all, whenever the cart is before the horse, the driver has reduced opportunity to appreciate the true quality of the manure, other than by second-hand observation or some other remote from the true source perspective. The manure is left untended and completely disregarded save by others who might come along behind…. A wonderful analogy for NAPLAN is the dogma cart before the horse?

Might we perhaps look at what we really should be on about? Should contemporary practice be based upon universal fundamentals to learning as a basic human behaviour? Should the maladaptive, silo based traditions of schooling as a subject/discipline framework be reconsidered and accordingly, delayed until the tertiary tier of contemporary education practice? Delayed specialisation is probably a wise approach in times when knowing more and more about less and less is the norm at the cutting edges of the knowledge economy?

Is it not wise to construct an understanding of learning as a developmental behaviour that is both the little picture and the big one at the same time? Dichotomous approaches such as mind and body etc have been discounted for some time now. Likewise, we ought to discontinue fragmentation of learning into discrete disciplines, at least for most of a pupil’s school based education and simply focus upon learn to learn….

Sorta like the old idea of learning to read before reading to learn. Sometimes we just have to swallow a bit of hubris and admit that some oldies are goldies? As much as it might grate upon those who lurk in gleeful anticipation of handing out the $50K lolly bags to the readily dispensable and non-contemporary?

Learning has been, still is and always will be, both the big and the large of education. Managerialism has nothing more than a supportive status. It is not the solution!

So, in my opinion, the decision has been made for us, and some time ago at that.

It is probably forgivable that we err?

Just as we retain behavioural patterns below our levels of conscious awareness, simply because they were “fired and wired” prior to language acquisitions and thus there remains our incapacity to, by verbal articulation, bring them into our own awareness, perhaps as a species, learning itself has such ancient roots, we continue a failure to keep it front and centre of contemporary practice.

So who decides?

Can’t put that onus upon the teacher without a fair and proper definition of what contemporary practice is and should be, let alone a complete lack of objective measurement to determine how much is missing before a lack is deemed to exist.

Can’t trust others to do it from outside the classroom context for these folk are either overcome by a multitude of disparate, ephemeral, systemic imperatives; don’t have any education expertise other than once having been to school in an era when practice was contemporary then but not now… apparently? …. Or, they are formulating and imposing the imperatives themselves, without knowing the answers, or the most important question of all.

What is the imperative question?

Surely it is not NAPLAN, an underperforming curriculum, political populism, ephemerally faddish change or the occasional, cheapskate $50K pay off?

It’s simply this.

What is learning and why are we not doing it with all that we now know about it, on the richly diverse bases of validated, modern scientific discoveries?


Let’s stop the Murdoch gravy-train, full of unloved kids heading for Mediocracity.

Phil Cullen Former Teacher

Derek Hedgcock – poem

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