Sunday, 8 March 2009, 1.00pm
I feel privileged to be able to address today's group of graduating teachers. As a teacher myself I feel compelled to pass on to you something of what I've learned about our profession.
In my view, the most important aim you can have as a teacher is to seek to inspire your students to learn. That might sound straightforward, but it isn't.
When I look back on my own schooling, I recall only two teachers who inspired me. One was my science teacher in the first three years of high school; the other was my mathematics teacher in my final year of high school. I wonder how many such teachers each of you can recall?
Over the years I've asked many hundreds of adults to reflect in a similar way on their own schooling. Somewhat surprisingly, the results are generally similar to mine. Most people report that they had only one or two teachers who really switched them on to learning.
I don't have a sure-fire prescription for producing inspirational teachers, but I do have some ideas that you might care to think about. I think that enthusiasm for your work is important. I also think it's important to have a genuine caring attitude toward your students, and respect for them. And I think one of the best ways to manifest a caring attitude is by being effective in your teaching.
There are two aspects of teacher-effectiveness that I want to talk about briefly. Firstly, you need to make sure that your students get maximum benefit from the time you spend with them. You can do this be making sure that your programs and lessons are carefully and thoughtfully planned. Secondly, you need to systematically monitor and record the progress of your students. In fact if you don't do this you're hardly worthy of the title, teacher. But monitoring and recording student progress isn't easily done. It can be time-consuming and exhausting. In fact it will be a major challenge for each of you to find ways of doing this without consuming most of your available time and energy.
I now want to change direction completely and talk about the proposed national curriculum. This is a matter that will have a significant impact on your future work.
The national curriculum is being developed by a new body called the National Curriculum Board. The Board is initially working on national curriculum in four areas: English, History, Mathematics and Sciences.
A national curriculum is a curriculum for all students: the able, high-achieving students; the average students; and the less-able and lower achieving students. Providing for these differences in ability and achievement is a very complex business. And there is no"best" way of doing it, because each possible approach has its own potential weaknesses.
In this respect, the National Curriculum Board has already stated, explicitly, that it will not meet this challenge by providing differentiated courses. The Board's position might be reasonable for English, History and Sciences, but for reasons that I'll describe it's a recipe for disaster in Mathematics.
My position is based on my knowledge and experience related to mathematics, the learning of mathematics, and how children develop intellectually.
Firstly, Mathematics and the learning of Mathematics
The main point I want to make here is that there is a substantial intellectual component in mathematics. It's this feature that makes mathematics (and activities such as chess and Sudoku) attractive to many able people. Unfortunately, it's also this same feature that makes many parts of mathematics less accessible to less-able students. Furthermore, there are inherent hierarchies of concept difficulty in the various areas within mathematics. It's simply not realistic to undertake certain courses of study in mathematics without having reasonable levels of mastery of certain prior concepts and skills.
Secondly, I want to make some points regarding the intellectual development of children
You don't need to be a developmental psychologist to recognise some of the universal features of child development. Do we"teach" children to walk? Not really; it happens naturally. Do we"teach" children to talk? Once again, No. Children absorb language, almost by osmosis. Provided they have normal hearing, all that is needed is for them to be immersed in a language-rich environment. The genetic code takes care of the rest!
In a similar way, intellectually-able children aged 10 or 11 or 12 reach a stage where they show an interest in challenging mental activities, such as Chess. Without having learned about simultaneous linear equations some of them are able to solve problems such as 2 apples and 3 oranges cost $4.10, and 3 apples and 4 oranges cost $5.70, how much does an orange cost? In the language of developmental psychologists, these students are entering what is called the"formal operational stage" of intellectual development. It is important for the on-going development of these students that they be engaged in challenging mental activities. To fail to provide these students with intellectually stimulating school experiences is akin to placing a 1 year-old child in an environment where no language is spoken.
What I'm saying is that mathematically-able students, aged 10 or more, need challenging mathematics programs for their intellectual and academic development. The programs they need are quite different from those that are appropriate for students of lesser ability. I hope that this point will be recognised and accepted by the National Curriculum Board and the people who will be responsible for developing the future national curriculum in mathematics.