Donnelly and Wiltshire offer ‘expert’ advice on how our teachers should teach, but how expert are they?

This post was originally published 29 June 2015 on the AARE EduResearch Matters blog.

My Facebook and Twitter feeds have been awash with irate teachers for a number of months now, as a constant trickle of announcements, leaks and policy statements from our federal and state governments and political parties have grown into what can be viewed as an attack on Australian teachers, curriculum, and public schools.

The most recent trigger for the ire of my teaching friends was an article Australian schools are becoming too ‘kumbaya’ with progressive, new-age fads published on Saturday 20 June in the Daily Telegraph. The authors include statements from Professor Ken Wiltshire and Doctor Kevin Donnelly, who recently undertook a review of the Australian Curriculum at the request of federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne. We are asked to accept their claims, as they are “experts in education.” But are they?

‘Kumbaya’ schools

The main claim of the article is that “schools are becoming too ‘kumbaya’ and overrun with ‘progressive, new-age fads’ that are hurting our children.” Professor Wiltshire and Dr Donnelly deride contemporary pedagogies (teaching methods) as “wishy-washy” and argue that the “teacher should be up the front, not up the side. This is the problem,” Professor Wiltshire reportedly said. Dr Kevin Donnelly is quoted as saying, “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’.”

It is appropriate to accept this claim (and the assumptions that underpin it, including the definitions of “teaching,” and “progressive”) if there is sufficient, acceptable, and relevant evidence and reasoning to support it, and limited evidence or incomplete reasoning against it. So what evidence or reasoning is there?

The ‘evidence’ given to support the idea that schools and teachers are ‘failing’

Dubious evidence of the failure of the teaching profession is presented, consisting of cherry-picked and, to me, misrepresented data. The authors of the article inform us that “more than 80 teachers in government schools were sent to remedial classes last year because they were incompetent,” and that “263 teachers in the state’s primary and secondary schools were sacked between 2008 and 2014 — almost one per week — for misconduct or failing an improvement program.” Numbers themselves mean very little however, without knowing how many people make up the population of NSW government-employed teachers; this is how the data are misrepresented. There were 49 000 permanent teachers who met this criteria in 2014, and an unknown number of casual teachers.

With this new information, it is easy to calculate that the 80 teachers on probation represent a maximum of 0.16% of all teachers in the population; an almost negligible proportion. The 263 teachers who were “sacked” constituted a mere 0.5% of the population; hardly cause to declare a crisis. We wonder how many teachers received commendations for their service in the same year? Or how many professionals in other fields and industries were placed on probation or sacked? This evidence is insufficient for the conclusions drawn.

Dr Donnelly presents some reasoning behind his position, arguing, “Schools are suffering… due to the fact that many teachers and administrators got their tertiary education during the “flower power” era. However, this reasoning is dubious. “Many” is an exaggeration, as the late 1960’s and early 1970s were approximately 40 years ago, so Dr Donnelly must be speaking about a minority of the teaching population; those teachers and administrators who are close to retirement age. The majority of teachers have been educated since then.

Also, in the last 45 years there has been an explosion of research and theorisation regarding education, as well as the widely available technology to access them, which allows contemporary teachers to consider and research for themselves what constitutes best practice for their teaching context, and make professional decisions accordingly.

The authors of the article would like us to accept these views as they come from men with expertise. So the question is: should we accept Professor Wiltshire and Dr Donnelly as experts in this instance?

How expert are the ‘experts’?

In today’s society, we are regularly fooled into thinking that those who shout the loudest or have the most money are the most worth listening to (this is evident in the activities of politicians, of mining corporations, and celebrities who give opinions about medical treatments). When we do this, we are using speakers’ volume and wealth as proxies for judging their expertise, and using that expertise as a heuristic (mental shortcut) for deciding whether or not to accept the claims put to us.

Accepting the authority of an expert is something we do all the time; it can be a useful heuristic. There are so many decisions to be made each day in our lives, some of which can be very important and have long-term consequences. For example, we accept the expertise of our General Practitioner in prescribing us medications, for two reasons: our GPs have substantially more experience and understanding of the medical issues than we do, and we do not have the time (or access) to complete the research we would need to do to understand the issue well enough to make the decision for ourselves. Likewise, we accept the expertise of our lawyers when we need legal assistance.

An argument from expert opinion is a form of presumptive reasoning, the practical reasoning we do every day as we seek to make a decision on an issue of importance to us. We reason presumptively when we are forced to build our arguments on the limited information known to us, or when the conditions of the decision are uncertain. This form of reasoning is tentative and easily defeated by challenges from critics, or the discovery of additional information.

Doctor Douglas Walton, a Canadian philosopher in reasoning, has spent much of his life exploring, researching and developing understandings of presumptive reasoning. He suggests that we can accept an argument from expert opinion when the following critical conditions are met:

  • The expert is a credible source
  • The expert’s opinion is regarding the field in which they are an expert
  • The expert is trustworthy
  • The expert’s opinion is consistent with others in his or her field
  • The expert’s opinion is based on evidence

This scheme provides us with a useful framework to analyse the expertise of Professor Wiltshire and Dr Donnelly in teaching and teaching methods, and decide whether it is sufficient to accept their arguments, or not.

Is the expert a credible source?

Professor Wiltshire has credibility that arises from his work on the review of the Australian Curriculum. He has also served as chairs to advisory committees regarding technical and vocational education and training (TVET), and performed a review of the Queensland Curriculum in the past. But I don’t see that these are directly relevant to the comments about classroom teaching made in this article. Questions of experience and qualification when it comes to classroom teaching in schools were asked in email sent to Professor Wiltshire on Wednesday 24 June, but no response was received at the time of publication of this blog post. I am left to wonder then how ‘expert’ the professor’s comments are on pedagogical decisions of classroom teachers and schools.

In response to a blog post written by NSW Primary Teacher and Assistant Principal Corinne Campbell, about the Daily Telegraph article, Dr Donnelly wrote “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.”

His first marker of credibility, having taught for 18 years, seems to be a hypocritical argument; given that Dr Donnelly does not appear to credit the expertise of experienced teachers in his statements to the authors of the Daily Telegraph article. According to this Sydney Morning Herald article Dr Donnelly received his qualification in 1975; this means he is also a teacher who trained in the “flower power” era that he derided as the reason that schools are suffering. Books mean very little when it comes to credentialing expertise.

Donnelly’s opinions are regularly published by free market advocates The Institute for Public Affairs and conservative magazine Quadrant, among others. However, in my opinion, commentaries mean very little in terms of credibility, as they tend to be tautological, in that the more you publish, the more you are invited to publish. Post-graduate degrees are worthy of consideration, as are Dr Donnelly’s role in benchmarking projects. Dr Donnelly’s last statements indicate some credibility to talk about secondary English education, but this is quite different from primary English teaching, or the teaching of other subject areas.

Further evidence of Dr Donnelly‘s credibility as an expert in education that is commonly presented includes his role as Executive Director of the Education Standards Institute, and Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University (ACU). The Educational Standards Institute is a registered advisory business created by Donnelly with Donnelly as its sole Director, and so he gains no credibility from it. I could find only two peer-reviewed academic papers that list Dr Donnelly as an author (here is one), though he has authored an extensive number of commissioned reviews and opinion pieces.

He also has a PhD that was awarded in the early 1990s. I am a PhD Candidate so I know the work necessary to complete a research project of such scope, write a thesis and be awarded the title, but at the same time I wonder whether the research Dr Donnelly undertook for his thesis, The new orthodoxy in English teaching : a critique : an analysis and critical evaluation of the new orthodoxy in the teaching of English as exemplified by the Victorian experience, regarding secondary English teaching and curriculum in the early 1990’s, is generalisable to the contemporary pedagogies used in subjects other than English and at the primary level, or is relevant to the comments made in the Daily Telegraph article.

Are the experts expressing opinions regarding the field in which they are experts?

Professor Wiltshire is an expert predominantly in business and in business policy and governance. The comments presented as his in this article concern the quite different field of pedagogy and theories of teaching and learning.

In the case of Kevin Donnelly, even if we accept that Dr Donnelly is an expert in curriculum, the article concerns pedagogy rather than curriculum, and there is nothing to indicate he has expertise in pedagogy outside of the secondary English classroom.

In my opinion, both Professor Wiltshire and Dr Donnelly have credibility to speak about some aspects of education, but not pedagogy.

Are the experts trustworthy?

The reviewers were employed by the Australian Government to perform a review of the Australian Curriculum, and that review appears to align closely with the views of the minister who employed them to do the review. Perhaps that could make them either trustworthy or untrustworthy depending on how you want to look at it.

However I found no evidence to assume that they are trustworthy or untrustworthy, so my judgment on this criteria is suspended.

Are the opinions of the experts consistent with others in his or her field?

I am sure there will be a range of opinions posted in the comments to this blog post, and I look forward to reading them all. But I daresay that no, in general, the opinions of the two reviewers are not consistent with education experts (be they teachers or researchers). I would guess that the opinions are consistent with those of conservative politicians at the moment.

The article itself is inconsistent. While Donnelly and Wiltshire deride ‘new age’ teaching methodologies and call for a return of the teacher to the front of the room (indicating direct instruction pedagogies), the latter part of the article goes on to talk about the success of the International Baccalaureate (IB) program as “a highly respected worldwide diploma program where students complete a demanding academic course comprised of two languages, mathematics, a science subject, a humanities subject and art, [that] offers another stark juxtaposition with the HSC.”

But according to the IB website, “an IB education aims to transform students and schools as they learn, through dynamic cycles of inquiry, action and reflection. Teachers enable and support students as they develop the approaches to learning they need – for both academic and personal success.”

Inquiry learning, a key pedagogy in the IB curriculum, where “teachers are viewed as facilitators and not ‘distributors’ of knowledge’, is what Dr Donnelly has referred to as ‘kumbaya education.’

Are the experts’ opinions based on evidence?

There is no mention in the article that Dr Donnelly or Professor Wiltshire offered sufficient, acceptable, or relevant evidence that contemporary pedagogies are “hurting our children.” The article mentions that recent plateaus in international test scores are the cause for the reviewers’ concern and that “Australia is sliding behind a number of countries in education standards including Singapore, South Korea, Finland and Hong Kong”. But the use of test scores as evidence would give rise to new critical questions, such as whether the tests assess constructs, skills, understandings, or developed characteristics that are the intended outcomes of education, or whether we would prefer different outcomes from education in Australia. Therefore, we should question these claims, and the assumptions upon which they have been based.

What can be demonstrated by a closer examination of the performance of Australian students on international tests (PISA, TIMMS and the like) is that inequity is hurting our children. Analysis informs us that Australia has a high quality education system, and our results in reading, mathematics and science place us consistently among the top performing countries. However, our results also demonstrate widening social stratification. A summary of the research regarding these issues, with links to original papers, is available in this article published on The Conversation last year.

I believe that views attributed to Donnelly and Wiltshire in the Daily Telegraph article promote false narratives of failure: failures of teachers and their decisions regarding pedagogies, failures of schools, and failures of the curriculum they’ve recently reviewed.

The real challenge in Australian education is not ‘progressive new-age fads’ but the growing inequity between rich and poor. I’d like to see the Daily Telegraph publish some expert views about that.

 

Many thanks go to Corinne Campbell for her thoughtful and eloquent contributions to this article.

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