Editorial: Professional autonomy and our responsibility to the truth

he most powerful force for student learning is professional autonomy. Not the managerial autonomy that allows schools to build school facilities or try out novel management structures, but the autonomy of the professional teacher: the knowledge and experience to assess the situation and students and find the best means to teach those particular students.

Yet ironically, for all the complaints of supposedly falling standards in education, professional autonomy is often feared and attempts made to suppress it while maintaining a public demand for excellence and equity. For autonomy is not only important for student learning, but also for the preservation of democratic society.

Education International Secretary-General Fred van Leeuwen described the role thus in his opening speech to the International Summit on the Teaching Profession (ISTP) in Edinburgh: "There is a crisis in the resilience of democratic institutions. Teachers are part of the glue that holds society together."

That responsibility can be challenging and daunting. Fred went on to say: “Teachers must have the professional discretion to interrogate and defy curriculum directives that seek to rewrite history or present untrue information, a discretion that outweighs the rights of employers and governments. Teachers have a professional responsibility to ensure that future generations know what is true and what is false.”

He suggested that media literacy should be part of the curriculum to achieve what John Dewey described as critical thinking for informed citizens in a democracy.

Professional teachers should teach the truth by the best means they know, irrespective of political dictates. Many of our colleagues around the world are persecuted and suffer for upholding this professional standard. It shames us if we are not willing to uphold it in the comparative comfort of Australia.

Historical examples

Let’s consider these propositions away from the immediate arguments about facts and alt facts in a post-truth world.

For years, Japanese history textbooks were criticised for the misrepresentation of the Japanese army’s actions in China in the 1930s, and later in South-East Asia during the Second World War. I do not pretend to be knowledgeable about Japanese culture or the mores of Japanese society. But how do you teach an historical record that you know to be untrue?

The social studies and history that I was taught up to year 10 in the 1960s and 70s held scant reference to the Aboriginal peoples of Australia, and none at all that I remember of Torres Strait Islanders.

In the 1980s, the year 10 history work program that I was working with included, at best, a lesson about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and that was limited to pre-invasion (the book might have said “settlement”). I regarded the work program as more of a guideline than a prescription, and spent a week, including a document study, on the Myall Creek massacre and posing trick questions like “Who discovered the east coast of Australia?” I thought the Aboriginal students in my classes deserved a little more than a token appearance in Australian history.

I remember too when PM John Howard promulgated his 70 Australian history facts that every child should know. There were four about cricket (including the Aboriginal cricket team that toured England in the 19th century) but strangely not the date of the establishment of Queensland as a separate colony.

The history of the QTU tells us of the Bjelke-Petersen government’s attempted political interference in the curriculum to ban “Man: A Course of Study” (MACOS) and the Social Education Materials Project (SEMP).

Inconvenient truths

The mechanisms to prevent students learning inconvenient truths are many. Some are more obvious than others. The most obvious is control of the curriculum and an attempt to specify it to a degree of detail that allows no deviation. “Good luck with that” would be my advice, as I generally find teachers to be quite resourceful people. Yet it was at the heart of the review of the Australian Curriculum instituted by the Abbott government on its election, even before the implementation of the previous version.

A more insidious way is to overwork teachers so that, by necessity, they have to rely on pre-packaged materials. According to EI President and AEU Federal Secretary Susan Hopgood in her closing remarks to the ISTP, teachers are denied the time to reflect, collaborate and plan they need if they are to exercise professional autonomy and use their discretionary judgement in the interests of their students.

OECD Director for Education and Skills Andreas Schleicher spoke at ISTP about the central importance to education of teacher professionalism, teacher ownership of the profession, and confidence and trust in the profession.

How stands your professional autonomy and that of your colleagues? And what shall we do to build and preserve it?

Graham Moloney                                                                                                             General Secretary

Queensland Teachers' Journal, Vol 122 No 4, 2 June 2017, p5