Politics, the world and teacher education

July 2013

 

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Are the international and political contexts of education being adequately addressed in New Zealand teacher education programmes? JUDE BARBACK looks at what measures several schools of education are taking to ensure an outward-facing approach.

New Zealand shares in the global obsession with educational policy. Our fascination grows with the charter school debate raging in the US; our preoccupation with educational measures in Finland and Shanghai remains; we watch Australia and Britain experiment with league tables; we marvel at Ivy League universities embracing open education delivery methods; we consider whether pushing Asian languages is the way forward. We constantly wonder which country has got it right?

Similarly, New Zealand comes under the same scrutiny from other countries in determining their educational policies. In this era of globalisation and advanced technology, and given the universal nature of education, it is no surprise that the hunt for best practice is shared by many nations.

 

Politics and education

But are these international and political contexts adequately considered in our teacher education programmes? While the focus should remain on tailoring teacher education to the needs of

New Zealand students, schools and societies, there is a need for New Zealand teachers to be aware of what is happening in education on a global and political stage.

Ritesh Shah, lecturer at the University of Auckland’s School of Critical Studies in Education believes it is important for teachers to understand the global origins of educational philosophies and pedagogies.

“Whether we realise it or not, our teaching practices, policies, and perspectives have been influenced by international ideas and values for quite a long time,” says Shah.

He gives the example of student-centred learning and how this has stemmed from the progressive education movement that arose in the United States at the end of the 19th century.

“Today, we take student-centred, or inquiry-based learning as a given, but it hasn’t always been the case. Our teachers need to understand this.”

Shah also points to the example of the Tomorrow’s Schools reform in the late 1980s, which he describes as the product of a broader restructuring of the state driven by neoliberal political ideology which arose in the United States and quickly spread by leaders such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.

Politics and education are undoubtedly tightly connected. Shah says that many of the contemporary debates that we see occurring at the moment in New Zealand education—from the introduction of partnership schools, to a push for tighter teacher accountability—are the result of national and international political agendas that aim to reshape the function and role of education vis-a-vis the state.

“We see and hear of our politicians selectively borrowing ‘international best practices’, or so they claim, to suit the broader political platform they seek to promote. And lately, actors like the OECD and the World Bank are increasingly driving education policy on a global scale, through comparative league tables, benchmarking exercises and advice on ‘what works best’.”

However, Shah says we need to be mindful of blindly borrowing ideas from elsewhere and forcing them onto our teachers.

“Educational ideas, policies and practices do travel but often they mutate along the way. What works in one context may not work in another. This is also important as we move to ‘exporting’ our own teaching approaches and pedagogies to systems under reform in Southeast Asia and the Middle East.”

“To ignore the political, social, economic and cultural contexts that education as we know it is located ignores the highly contested and often fraught battlefield on which the purposes, means and ends of education are continuously being redefined; and increasingly so on an international scale that is driven by pressures of globalisation.”

Fraught battlefield indeed. The turbulent politics surrounding education in New Zealand in the past few years has arguably been a deterrent for those considering becoming a teacher.

While most prospective teachers are more likely to have been drawn to the profession by a desire to teach, rather than a desire to understand the global and political contexts of educational policy making decisions, it seems the latter is important in helping to fully shape a prospective teacher’s education.

Shah believes education students need to be aware of the connection between educational practice, policy and politics and faculties of education have a duty to include these aspects in course curriculum.

These components are present in the vast majority of New Zealand teacher education programmes although it appears more emphasis has been placed on this area in recent years.

 

Waikato’s Centre for Global Studies

The University of Waikato’s new Centre for Global Studies in Education is a good example. Officially launched in April this year, the centre is largely the product of the hard work of husband and wife team Professor Michael Peters and Professor Tina Besley. After spending 11 years overseas, including six years at the University of Illinois UC, where they became directors of Global Studies of Education, the couple were inspired to establish a similar programme at Waikato upon their return.

Besley shares Shah’s view that an outward-facing approach to education is paramount. “We can’t be too insular,” she says.

Besley believes taking a global approach to course delivery is necessary for discussing such a global subject, and she says there is a strong push for a suitable web-conferencing system to allow teaching via a synchronous mode. The centre is working collaboratively with the university’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences towards this aim. Besley describes this as a “starting gambit”; the hope is that online course delivery will occur throughout the university in the not too distant future.

A suitable delivery method is also necessary to suit the needs of an increasingly global audience. Besley says the centre has already attracted

New Zealanders based in Asia and the United Kingdom, as well as those in New Zealand who are unable to physically attend the university, due to location or disability.

The hope is that in the long-run, the centre for global studies will be multi-disciplinary in scope, not limited to education, which reinforces the notion that education is not a standalone subject, but should be considered as part of a much bigger picture.

Indeed, the centre is involved in some big projects, including tackling wider social issues of youth unemployment and children in crisis. A national conference is planned for later this year which will aim to bring together all the strands of research and look at putting solutions into place. An international conference looking at youth unemployment and how education and higher education feed into that is planned for next year.

Its research also extends to subjects such as open education, looking at the growing prevalence of MOOCs (massive open online courses) and their implications for institutions like Waikato. Besley gives the example of University of California, which is developing lower level tier courses through MOOCs and giving credit for these courses, thus contributing to students’ qualifications. Such changes could dramatically change the landscape for higher education, she says. “We can’t ignore it.”

 

Taking an international focus

Other institutions are also taking measures to emphasise the international scope of teacher education. At the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Education, several papers included in the teacher preparation courses address international influences on schooling and teaching practices, historically and at present. This ‘outward’ focus is maintained in its postgraduate programmes, in which issues of pedagogy, practice, curriculum and policy are situated in the global landscape. It currently offers one postgraduate paper entitled Education and the Development Process that critically analyses processes of globalisation and localisation and their implications for education policies and practices on local, national, regional and global scales. The faculty also draws on the experience of its international research students as well as those who choose to complete fieldwork abroad. The faculty’s Research Unit for Pacific and International Education was established to more critically and explicitly study the regional and global dimension of educational policymaking and practice, and provide expert advice and research on such matters.

The University of Otago College of Education’s paper International Perspectives in Education has a similar focus, introducing students to a range of global education issues beyond New Zealand’s immediate national borders. Each week a different issue is the focus of lecture and tutorial discussions with the aim of giving students a set of tools to think about, talk about and also to act upon in potential education work settings internationally. The coordinator for the paper, Dr Greg Burnett, says a core foundation for the paper’s critical exploration of international education issues will be

Michael Singh’s (2004) education in the “contact zone”.

“Accordingly the paper stresses international education’s productive potential as well as its cultural politics, intersections, fluidity, heterogeneity, mobilities, and dynamism. The paper resists an ethnographic gaze that sees schooling, cultures, identities, knowledges, etc. across borders of difference as discreet, essentialised or exoticised,” says Burnett.

“The paper provides a foundation upon which students can position themselves as teachers, or other education workers, in encounters with significant cultural, social and economic difference in potential future work contexts, both in New Zealand and internationally.”

 

Drawing on international experience

Otago also provides an opportunity for international students to join their initial teacher education students and learn about education in New Zealand as well as spend some time in schools. Two papers have been designed for Study Abroad students, who are enrolled in a teacher education programme in their home country, to experience teaching in a New Zealand context. The development of these papers has involved discussion with Otago partner institutions to ensure the students can credit the work they undertake in New Zealand to their programme study in their home institution. One paper has a focus on children and their learning, inclusive practice and how the New Zealand education system is organised while the other is set up to allow the students to spend time in a school or early childhood centre.

Mary Simpson, Associate Dean for Teacher Education, is enthusiastic about the initiative. “We are very excited about this development which we are sure will provide a wonderful experience for international students and bring their perspectives into our classrooms thus broadening the perspectives of our domestic students.”

Simpson says she hopes it will also encourage domestic students to consider a Study Abroad experience as an option. “Our focus is not on numbers but on ensuring the experience is a rich and satisfying one for everyone. Many of the staff at the College have spent time working overseas, others have worked closely with international students who have been part of programmes. They are experienced and skilled at working with and supporting international students. We are sure we have the mix right,” she says.

Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Educational Psychology and Pedagogy has a similar programme underway. Each year postgraduate students from Malaysia, China, Vietnam, and Indonesia, as well as experienced teachers from Hong Kong, travel to the Faculty of Education to complete their tertiary education or to upskill as part of a professional development programme.

“It’s a win-win for the Faculty,” says Dr Carolyn Tait from Victoria’s School of Educational Psychology and Pedagogy. “They learn from us, and in return we learn from them.”

Much of the teaching of international students within Victoria’s undergraduate education programmes is in fact informed by the research of the Faculty’s international students—at Master’s, and more frequently, PhD level.

“These international PhD students go home to gather data in their own education systems and return with results that in turn give their supervisors here in New Zealand an opportunity to gain expertise of teaching and learning issues in other countries, particularly South East Asian nations,” says Tait.

As well as contributing to new knowledge in their home nations, these students’ research informs the delivery of the Faculty’s teacher preparation courses and undergraduate programmes. It’s an edge the Faculty is looking to capitalise in the near future by working with carefully selected institutions in South East Asia to deliver pre-service teacher education courses in collaboration with local institutions.

Collaborating with schools is already an important ethos in the Faculty of Education. For nine years they have worked with the Hong Kong Institute of Education to provide five to six-week immersion programmes for pre-service and in-service teachers who are in the process of upgrading their skills. Faculty of Education staff teach modules of the Institute’s professional qualifications while the students are in Wellington, and oversee short teaching experiences in Wellington schools.

“We’ve received feedback from the schools involved in this programme which indicates that they too enjoy the opportunity to learn about different cultural practices and languages afforded by the programmes,” she says.

Courses from the Faculty of Education contribute to other programmes within Victoria University, including the four-year Bachelor of Education TESOL offered by the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences. The qualification prepares students to teach English at primary and secondary schools in overseas countries and the current intake of students are all from Malaysia. Part of their degree, including an extensive on-the-job training, is completed in Malaysia, but students also complete carefully structured teaching placements while in Wellington where they observe Kiwi teaching styles and practice these methods themselves.

Tait says the programme gives the students a huge confidence boost. “They are often introduced to a different role for teachers than they’ve seen at home. Participating gives these students an opportunity to consider the implications for their own teaching practice when they return to Malaysia.”

As always, there’s a plus side for local school pupils, teachers and any New Zealanders who also regularly participate in the programme: the chance to learn more about the cultural practices, viewpoints and learning styles from New Zealand’s closest Asian neighbours and important trading partners.

“We live in a truly globalised world,” says Tait. “Developing an international perspective as well as local knowledge in teacher education is only going to become more important.”


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