University of Melbourne Magazine

Pathway to the top of the class

  • The criticism has gained urgency against a backdrop of Australia’s slide in the rankings of international test results for school students, known as PISA, and evidence showing teacher quality is the biggest influence on students.

    Rickards says the PISA evidence reveals why it is important for education courses to become more rigorous.

    “We need teachers who can stretch the brightest students and understand the misunderstandings of the most struggling students,” he says. “Teaching is the most complex and challenging profession of all because we’re trying to deal with classes of children who have different learning experiences and different backgrounds and we’re trying to achieve at least a year’s growth every year in every child. It’s extraordinarily complicated work.”

    Professor Field Rickards, Dean, Melbourne Graduate School of Education.

    Professor Field Rickards, Dean, Melbourne Graduate School of Education.

    Rickards says Australia’s slow but steady slide in the rankings of international student test results also reveals the nation’s schooling system has reached a critical point.

    “At a broad level our schools have been doing things in a similar way for decades but the world changes and I don’t believe our schools have changed sufficiently to adapt to those changes,” he says. “That’s why we need a Master of Teaching degree. Teaching has always been a challenging profession. But it’s now even more complex and challenging and so we need to better equip the next generation of teachers with skills that can adapt to the changing environment.”

    The University of Melbourne introduced an overhauled model of teacher training in 2008 with a seeding grant from the Federal and Victorian governments and the Catholic Education Office in Melbourne. A year later an extra $8 million was provided by the Rudd Government for the next three years.

    The University replaced its traditional courses with the two-year, graduate entry Master of Teaching course. The program is based on a “clinical model” of training, equipping teachers with higher-order diagnostic skills to act as researchers in their classrooms. Trainees are taught to collect and analyse student data and use it to take a more interventionist approach to their pupils’ learning needs.

    Unlike traditional education courses, trainees spend a lot of time each week working and learning in schools. Many universities offer much less practical training time in schools, mainly because it is highly expensive.

    Despite the Graduate School’s clinical model being more expensive to run, it is achieving impressive results.

    An external, independent review in 2010 surveyed its graduates employed in primary and secondary schools. The survey was taken six months after the graduates started their first job. It found 90 per cent of those surveyed said they were well prepared for their new profession.

    Other surveys of new teachers conducted in Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom typically reveal about 40 per cent of new teachers are satisfied with the way their courses prepared them for the classroom, according to Rickards.

    He says it is pleasing to see the Graduate School receive global recognition from the only international measure that examines the quality of university subjects.

    The QS (Quacquarelli Symonds) World University Rankings is an annual league table of the top universities. For the 2014 rankings by subject, QS evaluated 3002 universities and ranked 689.

    “The QS ranking reflects our research and the impact of that research, including its impact on teacher education,” Rickards says. “It also reflects how our peers around the world rank us and what employers think of the quality of our graduates.”

    For Matthew McDonald, the decision to choose teaching as a career instead of law is one he doesn’t regret. “The law degree was great and it’s given me fantastic knowledge and skills,” he says. “But when I started to do placements at law firms I realised I didn’t want to spend many years of my life as a lawyer.

    “I wanted to do something more creative. At the end of the day I wanted to feel that I was making a difference in someone’s life, that I was helping someone. That was the reason I chose teaching.”

    – Caroline Milburn