It would seem that the powers that be in central government have a firm focus as to the current direction of educational policy. In fact this focus is so firm that very little discussion can be entered into, particularly when endeavouring to debate issues with the current Minister. The philosophy they have adopted (that 5/5 students will leave school with NCEA Level 1) has been modelled from similar policies in the States (No Child Left Behind) and United Kingdom. This philosophy is now having a top-down impact on teachers in our classrooms, through the imposition of the National Standards policy and the imminent threat of performance pay. As Sir Ken Robinson states in his most recent TED Talk, centralised government is imposing its ideals and philosophies directly into each and every individual classroom in the country. Instead of teachers deciding on the direction in the classroom, it is a group of officials devoid of experience at the chalk face that are having the most impact on the future learning of the children.
So can teachers have their own philosophy? Why is it that a government can push forward with their own agenda, and yet teachers at the coal face who may have differing or opposing philosophies are not awarded the professional courtesy to teach to these philosophies within their classroom environment. While teachers certainly have policy and curriculum boundaries within which to operate, the profession allows a certain level of flexibility of which a teacher can put their own stamp on their classroom and the sort of learning that can occur. A example of this could be the way in which two teachers, working in neighbouring classrooms could deliver to their students an inquiry focus on ‘mammals in the sea’. A teacher who has the philosophy that students are empty vessels, needing to be filled with knowledge will provide the information in a vastly different way to a teacher with a philosophy that students are active inquirers, needing assistance in learning how to think, inquire and access information relevant to their study.
In my recent experiences it appears that even the most steadfast teachers are beginning to crumble under the weight of centralised government and the philosophies they are imposing on classroom teachers. It is almost as if teachers are simply too scared to have any sort of philosophy about their teaching practice, how children learn, and how these two correlate. I have no doubt that as undergraduates, teachers choose to join the profession with the very intention to be the most effective teacher they can be. They are encouraged in their training to develop a philosophy of their own, researching the very extremes of every corner of education theory. These include learning about the history of education, policy information, alternative theories including Rudolf Steiner and Montessori as well as understanding the enormous depth of child development theory. All this information is intended to form the basis of sound teaching practice as a result of having a belief in what you are doing as the teacher of children. As teachers begin their professional journey post-training college they are exposed to colleagues and school systems that may serve to challenge or confirm what they, as individuals, truly believe about the way children learn best. Their philosophy evolves over the course of the years and should allow a teacher to refine their craft resulting in students receiving education from confident, experienced and knowledgeable teaching staff.
And yet in the current education climate, teachers are struggling to stay true to their own philosophies, or to develop them in the first place. With never ending expectations placed on schools to deliver to standards set by central government, teacher philosophies appear to be lost in translation. There does not seem to be time for teachers to simply reflect on ‘why are we doing this’ and ‘what is the point of this for our children’ and ‘does this sit well with what I believe about children and their learning’? As a result, teachers are being swept up with the latest fads and practices, some of which have no correlation with their underlying philosophies.
Perhaps if teachers return to their beliefs around what is important for them in their classrooms, and conversations in staff rooms centre around philosophy, that teachers will begin to grow that confidence in having some autonomy in their teaching practice. If there is an ever increasing number of teachers knowing what is is they will stand for, the impact of central government may not be quite as far reaching as it would like to become.