School curriculum: the best way to teach our new teachers

Our series on teacher education shows how university education faculties must link theory and practice if they are to properly prepare new teachers for the classroom. Danielle Toon shows that the best way to connect preparation to practice is by teaching teachers how to analyse and implement school curriculum.

In October Learning First held a final meeting of a global Community of Practice (CoP), involving teams of university and school system leaders from Australia, Brazil, Finland and the United States working on reforms to improve teache­r education. Our blog post last month described the first lessons from this meeting in Memphis, Tennessee: the need for teacher education providers, schools, states and districts to forge deep partnerships to address the gaps between schools and the institutions that prepare people to teach in them – gaps that leave too many beginning teachers in Australia and the United States feeling ill-equipped for the classroom.

Our second big lesson from the teams’ pilot work, backed up by the research literature and our analysis of global best practice, is about the importance of school curriculum. Teacher preparation must understand and work with the detail of what teachers need to teach.

It will seem strange to those outside education that teacher preparation in Australia and the United States rarely trains teachers in the specifics of curriculum. Instead, university courses prioritise abstract theories and philosophies. Few teacher candidates are taught how to analyse, adapt, and use textbooks and other curriculum materials. This would be like medical training not teaching trainee doctors how to select and use specific treatments, or legal training not teaching prospective lawyers how to apply particular legislation.

School curriculum is the specifics of ‘what’ a teacher teaches to kids. It is the content and concepts that teachers deliver every day in their classrooms. It is fundamentally linked to what students learn.

Curriculum is a complex and contentious topic in Australia and the US, where teachers have a high level of autonomy over materials used in their classroom, and where debates over what students should learn quickly turn political and ideological (this post explores the different definitions of curriculum in Australia and the US). Yet research shows that the quality of curriculum materials can have a big impact on student learning, and while the evidence is not yet conclusive, the importance of the role of curriculum in teacher learning is emerging. Blending teacher professional development with research-based curriculum materials can positively influence student achievement because this combination addresses what teachers and students do every day.

Learning First’s research on high-performing education systems shows that by the time Finnish and Japanese teachers enter a classroom, they are versed in how to evaluate, adapt, and use curriculum materials. They have studied quality materials during their training and have had many opportunities to use them in a classroom with feedback from expert mentors. OECD data show that compared to novice teachers in many other OECD countries, beginning teachers in Finland and Japan feel well prepared in the subject knowledge, pedagogy, and classroom practice required to teach in school. In the US, a study of 31 elementary teacher preparation programs in New York City found that beginning teachers who have had the opportunity to review local curriculum perform better in terms of student test score gains in mathematics and English Language Arts.

Why, then, do teacher preparation programs in Australia and the US not focus more on school curriculum? In some ways, it would be easier if we were in Japan and could just give teacher education students the national textbook they will use in whichever school they go to.  However, the array of curriculum materials used in Australian and American schools makes it harder to prepare new teachers to teach these materials.

Hard, but not impossible. Despite the challenges, teacher preparation should not leave novice teachers to figure out curriculum materials by themselves. Too often this leads to their sourcing random curriculum material, of highly variable quality, from Pinterest or Google. Preparation programs should teach novice teachers to be intelligent consumers of the materials available to them.

Our paper for the CoP, Using K-12 curriculum to improve teacher preparationposes three questions for teacher preparation providers regarding their use of curriculum to improve beginning teacher learning:

  1. Is there detailed curriculum guidance – perhaps from the state department of education – that we can use to help teach our candidates how to interpret achievement standards and plan coherent sequences of instruction?
  2. How can we teach candidates to recognise and select high-quality curriculum materials, and are there tools to help with this?
  3. Can we implement high-quality curriculum materials as teaching tools in our courses? If so, how do we select and use these materials? What do we teach candidates about adapting and using them in classrooms?

At the meeting in Memphis, we workshopped these questions with a number of US teacher preparation providers and system leaders. We started not by fixating on the problems but by focussing on what is possible to teach candidates.

Professor David Steiner, former Commissioner of Education for New York State, talked about using tools, such as the Instructional Materials Evaluation Tool, to help teacher candidates in how to analyse, recognise, and select high-quality materials from the avalanche of online and hard-copy resources available. He talked about how vetted open educational resources such as EngageNY make it easier for candidates, teachers, and teacher educators to access high-quality sample materials to adapt and implement in classrooms, then analyse the results.

Providers and system leaders from Tennessee talked about the state strategy and curriculum resources to improve the teaching of literacy. We heard how the Tennessee Department of Education incorporates providers into the initiative by offering teacher preparation faculty access to reading research, data and training opportunities. We spoke to district-provider partners from Shelby County Schools and the University of Memphis who are working together to use new state guidance for teaching literacy to improve coursework for candidates. 

We also heard from representatives from the Louisiana and Massachusetts departments of education. We discussed Massachusetts’ focus on curriculum, and how it is starting to encourage providers to have their candidates evaluate, adapt, and implement curriculum materials during early training in classrooms.

We discussed Louisiana’s extensive curriculum guidance and textbook review tools, and how the state is working with providers to incorporate these resources into preparation courses. In a first step, the department has defined a list of competencies for initial teacher certification that is heavily based on the subject-specific knowledge and pedagogies required to teach Louisiana’s curriculum.

Finally, providers from Florida and Texas discussed how they might incorporate school curriculum reviews into partnership meetings with districts, by implementing processes to examine student data and revise coursework topics.

These examples, and others described in our paper, reveal how providers, schools, and education systems can work together to use school curriculum to better connect teacher preparation and practice. More opportunities are emerging every year, ready for enterprising and committed educators to take them.



Danielle Toon is a former Manager at Learning First.

Deep school and teacher education partnerships can be done: here's how


Policymakers have long known that teacher education faculties and schools need to work together more closely to prepare new teachers for the classroom. Yet no amount of high-level rhetoric has moved us closer to the goal. Danielle Toon shows why substantial change may now be underway.

In a recent speech to the Australian Council of Deans of Education, Shadow Minister for Education Tanya Pilbersek called for schools and universities to forge closer links to improve the training of new teachers. “We need to encourage universities to partner with schools, to work with them to embed the best evidence-based practices for learning, to conduct trials and to undertake research,” Ms Plibersek said.

Her call is not new. The Australian Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group report made it in 2015, as did many of the 21 reports on teacher education in Australia from 1980 to 1999; as do several US reports written over the last 20 years.

But how do we actually create better links between schools and universities? If it were easy it would have happened 21 reports ago. These reports provide little guidance on how to build better school-university partnerships, and they rarely acknowledge the difficulties of doing so between institutions with different priorities, cultures, incentives, and language.

Despite the difficulties, there are now more partnerships than ever in teacher preparation in Australia and the US. Yet not all are living up to their potential. Too many stay narrowly focused on operational issues such as finding practical training placements for teacher candidates. Too many struggle to move from polite conversations to rigorous partnerships that substantially improve teacher learning. Few schools, for example, get a real say in what is covered in university courses. A common complaint is that “candidates come with ideas and strategies that are just disconnected from the realities of the classroom.”

Over the last two years the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have hired Learning First to facilitate a global Community of Practice (CoP) that supported teams of university and school system leaders from Australia, Brazil, Finland and the United States to pilot a reform to improve teacher education. Four reports drawing on the CoP work are published here. The teams’ pilot work, along with our analysis of global best practice and the research literature, has taught us a few things about how schools, universities and their local governing body – school districts in the US, regions in Australia – can build partnerships that turn out classroom-ready teachers.

First, partners need to find common ground. They need to build mutual understanding of how teachers get better and what they need to learn. Two reference points for collaboration that are not used enough in teacher preparation are:

  1. What we know about good teacher professional development, and
  2. The use of school curriculum materials (that is, what teachers need to teach to students).

Japan is an example of a high-performing system that develops effective teachers through a powerful form of teacher planning and collaboration known as lesson study. Japan also uses high-quality school curriculum materials. We’ll discuss the use of curriculum materials in a future blog post.

Second, good school and university partners gradually deepen their collaboration, to the point where they can have robust and specific conversations about each other’s responsibility for improving beginning teacher learning. It is a journey that takes effort, resources, mutual understanding, and time.

Over the course of the CoP, and across many systems, we saw partnerships deepen in the following ways. A diagram here shows how partnerships develop maturity and depth.

Partners, for example, might start with ad hoc conversations built on good personal relationships. But over time they need to move to formal partnership arrangements that can withstand personnel changes and enable regular and structured sharing of data and feedback.

The most effective partners do not stay focused on governance arrangements. They realise that while good structures are important for building better partnerships, what partners do within these structures is what matters most. Structural changes will have little impact if they do not improve how teacher expertise is developed.

From a mutual understanding about good teacher professional learning and high-quality school curriculum should come joint projects. Eventually, the partners will jointly design, deliver and evaluate coursework, practical training and induction – all elements of early career professional development for novice teachers.

School and university partners can begin to deepen collaboration in many ways. They should develop a shared vision and framework for teacher learning. Then they should increasingly work on concrete aspects of the framework, at the same time developing capabilities and incentives that will enable their staff to collaborate. The journey might involve some of the activities shown in this diagram.

Examples of activities to support deep collaboration between district / school and university partners:

danielle toon

danielle toon

Danielle Toon is a former Manager at Learning First.

Why teachers should stop worrying and learn to love the d-word

Tim Lambert

Tim Lambert

In many schools, “data” is a dirty word. But it shouldn’t be. Learning First manager Tim Lambert explains how we can make data great again.

Many teachers don’t like “data”. At best it sounds technocratic and soulless. But there's another way to look at the word.

Long before NAPLAN and MySchool, before performance frameworks and international survey rankings, teachers assessed and graded, and administrators recorded attendance and attainment. This was information, evidence – data. But teachers did not fear that this information would be used to judge their performance.

Today governments want to see constant evidence of return on investment.  Key Performance Indicators, surveys and assessments try to capture all aspects of school performance. The word “data” entered the school lexicon, born of the computer’s ability to collect oceans of information. At some point in the staffroom conversation “data” and even “evidence” took on sinister connotations, related to accountability and compliance.

And that is a pity, because call it what you will, using evidence or data to relentlessly examine what’s working for our students is at the heart of great teaching. Teachers and school leaders need data to make informed decisions about where students are in their learning, and what they are ready to learn next.

It’s true that too much data can be a barrier to good decisions. Data can also give us information that isn’t useful, or is difficult to interpret and apply. So how do schools use data or evidence to actually support teaching and learning decisions made every day, in every classroom? Here’s an educator’s rough guide.

1.  Measure what matters. There’s a temptation to collect data about whatever is measurable, because the systems are there to collect it, and it’s bound to be useful. But while technology can cope with a blanket approach, that blanket can be stifling for staff. Good leadership involves setting clear priorities, and actively managing distractions that eat up time and energy.

What matters? Students’ learning needs, first and last. If you are crawling over data that doesn’t tell you where your students are and what progress they are (or are not) making, you are wasting time and effort. Be specific. There are plenty of things that define your priorities: the school annual plan, the annual report, the school review report, subject or year level plans. In the classroom, decide which priorities are the most important for your students, picking only one or two to focus on at a time. Then work out what data and evidence will show how your students are going against these.

2.  Collect the data that matter. For teachers, these are data that help to improve teaching and learning. A load of other data ‘matters’ because it relates to compliance and management issues, but leave that to the administrative leaders. Teachers and instructional leaders should be concerned with data about students’ learning. As academic educator and writer Patrick Griffin says so well:

 Evidence is what (students) do, say, make or write. There are no other forms of observable evidence that we can use in the classroom.

In other words, the data that matter form the bread and butter of teachers’ work. Collecting and analysing data shouldn’t feel like a burdensome “extra” on top of classroom practice. It should be a deeply integrated into the routines of planning, teaching, assessing, and seeking and providing feedback.

3.  Use data for good, not evil. If data do strike fear into the hearts of staff, it’s because they are not being used properly. The evidence is objective. It doesn’t judge or condemn, it just tells you how things are. That’s how data should be used. If you are working with colleagues who are committed to doing the best for their students’ learning, it makes sense to use data and evidence to have constructive, challenging conversations about what does and doesn’t work in the classroom, and why.

4. Use data to ask questions first, and draw conclusions last. If your NAPLAN, STAR or PAT-R data indicate problems with students’ learning in a particular area, embrace the heads-up, and start investigating. Find out directly from your students about what they understand. Sit down with colleagues and samples of students’ work, and talk about what you see. Compare work by the strugglers, the stars, and the kids in the middle (who probably don’t get talked about enough). Discuss what you would expect to see from a student who has comprehensively met the achievement standard. Talk about what and how you currently teach this content, and what you could learn together to strengthen how you teach it. And if the data tell a consistent story about great student progress, use the evidence to celebrate the success.

“The big idea is that evidence about learning is used to adjust instruction to better meet student needs – in other words, teaching is adaptive to the learner’s needs” Dylan Wiliam 

Teachers and school leaders should reclaim “data and evidence” as a key part of their professional practices and judgements that they make, based on daily interaction with students they care about, and thoughtful assessment of the work. Be deliberate and focussed in your data collection. Allow it to challenge and improve your teaching. As British educator Dylan Wiliam has said, “When teachers do their job better, their students live longer, are healthier, and contribute more to society.”

For practical guidance on using data and evidence to improve teaching and learning, see:

Griffin, ed. (2014) Assessment for Teaching, Cambridge University Press

Parker Boudett, City, and Murnane, eds. (2013)  Data Wise: A Step-by-Step Guide to Using Assessment Results to Improve Teaching and Learning, Harvard Education Press

Wiliam (2011) Embedded formative assessment, Solution Tree Press

Tim Lambert is Manager at Learning First.

What we teach matters

Jacqueline Magee looks at the rise of curriculum as a force in school reform.


“There is a story to tell, and it’s about curriculum – perhaps the last, best, yet almost entirely un-pulled education-reform lever.”  – Education commentator Robert Pondiscio, Louisiana Threads the Needle on Ed Reform

Across the world, few education policy makers have seen curriculum as a powerful lever for reforming schools. Dismissed as a tool for teachers and a battleground for ideologues, curriculum has been overlooked as a core pillar of school improvement strategy. That is all beginning to change.

The research is increasingly clear that quality curriculum matters to student achievement.  What’s more, there is emerging evidence to suggest that quality curriculum has a larger impact on student achievement than many common school improvement interventions - and at a lower cost.

These findings should have profound implications for education policy, but they should not be surprising. After all, “curriculum” is what we teach, and what we teach surely matters to student learning. As leading curriculum researcher Dr David Steiner of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore puts it: “What we teach isn’t some side bar issue in American education; it is American education”. 

To discuss the role of curriculum in teaching and policy we have to agree on what it is, yet the term is notoriously contested. After conversations with Australian and American policymakers and school and district leaders, we find it useful to distinguish between achievement standards and curriculum materials in the following way:

  • Achievement standards are expressions of the goals of student learning, typically at the state or federal level. Achievement standards outline what we expect students to know and be able to do at different stages of schooling, usually expressed in year levels.
  • Curriculum materials are the means to achieve the goals expressed in the achievement standards. They include lesson plans and activities, scope and sequence documents, textbooks, computer programs and associated pedagogical guidance for teachers.

When Australians talk about “curriculum” they tend to be referring to achievement standards, while Americans tend to mean curriculum materials.

Much recent research on the impact of curriculum on student learning has emerged from the US since the development of the Common Core State Standards. This research focuses on the impact of “content-rich, standards-aligned” curriculum materials, especially textbooks. For example, a recent study found that textbook choice had a substantial impact on student outcomes. One of the report's authors suggested that curriculum choice could do more to lift student outcomes than could a teacher with three years or more in the classroom, as opposed to a novice.

Several US states and districts have begun to develop systems to identify and make available high-quality curriculum materials, and to encourage teachers to use them. The Louisiana State Department of Education has developed a rating system to distinguish the highest-quality materials from lower quality ones.

Since Louisiana is a local-control state with very little direct influence over the resourcing decisions of its school districts, the Louisiana Department of Education devised a “pull strategy” to increase take-up of quality curriculum materials. By drawing on the expertise of teachers at every stage of the curriculum review process, the Department has supported the take-up of the highest-rated materials. Further, the Department only grants state contracts to the publishers of these materials, so districts can purchase them at a lower price than other, less rigorous curriculum materials.

The approach seems to have paid off: a recent analysis found that teachers in Louisiana are more likely than those in other states to use standards-aligned curriculum materials. Louisiana teachers also demonstrate a better understanding of the state achievement standards, and “report undertaking more instructional activities that align with their standards”. Though we can’t draw a causal link, Louisiana’s focus on curriculum and aligned changes in instruction has been credited with playing a part in recent, significant improvements in student outcomes.

The experience of some American states and districts reinforces some of Learning First’s research findings in high-performing systems such as Finland, Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong and British Columbia. In these places, high-quality curriculum is always part of the story.

For example, the Finns see their national core curriculum as a tool for ensuring that students from all social backgrounds benefit from the same high-quality education. The curriculum articulates the overarching goals of the education system and identifies the objectives of instruction and key content, providing the framework for the selection and design of curriculum materials at the school level. System leaders help to narrow the gap between the national core curriculum and what is enacted in classrooms by ensuring teachers have access to aligned, high-quality curriculum materials.

Given the well-publicized autonomy of Finnish schools and teachers, it is perhaps surprising that Finland has a culture of textbook use in lesson planning. While the market for publishing curriculum materials in Finland is open, in practice there are just a few key trusted publishers. They sit on the national curriculum steering group and hire experienced teachers to write the textbooks and associated “teacher manuals” that explain key concepts and pedagogical advice. Teachers are not required to follow textbooks but many – particularly new ones – value these materials and use them regularly.

Yes, what we teach matters. But what does this mean for educators and policymakers? How do we test the rigor of achievement standards and ensure that teachers have access to high-quality, standards-aligned materials – including (though not limited to) the oft-derided textbook? How do we narrow the gap between the documented curriculum, such as the achievement standards that sit on department of education websites, and what is actually taught in classrooms? How can policymakers meaningfully engage with teachers, make the most of their instructional expertise, and get their buy-in across systems? What can Australia and the US learn from other systems? And what does all this mean for interrelated policy levers, especially initial teacher education and ongoing teacher professional learning, that influence what and how we teach?

These are important questions, and their answers will have profound implications for education policy in Australia and internationally. We will examine some of these questions in more detail in upcoming Learning First papers and blogs.

Jacqueline Magee is Senior Associate at Learning First.

Teacher building not teacher bashing: an entreaty to the profession, system and society

Tim Lambert


International test results suggest that our schools are stagnating, even struggling. Are teachers to blame? In this post Learning First Manager Tim Lambert writes that while teachers have a moral imperative to understand their huge impact on student achievement, improving teacher and student performance needs a system-wide response.

In a recent article in Fairfax media, economist and columnist Ross Gittins calculated the economic and social gains that could be made by improving the performance of our schools at a massive $17 billion since 2003 – or about 1 per cent of GDP.

But instead of improvement, Gittins wrote of the sustained decline in academic performance (as measured by PISA results) since that time. He blamed, in part, ill-informed taxpayers, misguided government policies, and denial among teachers. Then he wrote:

“This is why teaching is a problem too important to be left to teachers. The more so because some teachers – a minority, I trust – have become hyper-defensive, refusing to acknowledge there's a problem, telling themselves that, if there is a problem, it's everybody's fault bar their profession's, and branding any non-teacher who dares to offer an opinion a "teacher-basher".”

Is Gittins right? Do teachers need to improve, and can they be entrusted to do so?

Let’s hear from the British teacher-turned-researcher-and-writer, Dylan Wiliam. Acknowledging that educational outcomes depend on a range of factors, many of which are beyond the control of schools and teachers, Wiliam nevertheless identifies teaching quality as the crucial variable, adding that what teachers do control “is whether they improve or not”. Research shows that the most effective teachers are at least five times as effective as the least, but teachers typically slow -- and many stop -- improving after the first two or three years in the job.

Yet Wiliam also points out that both predicting and measuring teacher quality is extraordinarily difficult, which is why policy levers such as improving the quality of entrants into the profession, and in-service performance-management, have limited effect.

The solution, he argues, lies in teachers' sustained pursuit of expertise. What’s needed are “recruits who are passionate about helping all students achieve at high levels (and) will be willing to invest the energy needed” for “at least ten years of deliberate practice” that focuses on improving performance.

“When all teachers embrace the idea that they can improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better, this creates a natural collegiality that supports all teachers in embracing the need for continuous improvement...... This is not the hackneyed idea of “keeping up with new developments”—it is, rather an acceptance that the impact of education on the lives of young people creates a moral imperative for even the best teachers to continue to improve.”

In other words, schools will only improve if teaching improves. But that fact in isolation does not make Gittins right. Charging teachers with improving their own practice is unrealistic – and unfair. As Gittins effectively acknowledges, teaching quality is a system problem, and it needs system leadership to address it.

Strong or poor teaching arises from many sources: the content and quality of initial teacher education; access to good instructional leaders and leadership training; the demands and constraints on non-teaching time, to name a few. These are system-wide challenges. School improvement is indeed about teachers reforming their practice, but with the vital instigation and support of the system.  

Departments need to take the lead in making effective professional learning a system-wide priority. As Learning First’s work with high-performing systems reveals, high quality professional learning from Ontario to Singapore is something that teachers do together, over an extended time. It is guided by external experts but is rooted in teachers’ actual classroom work.

Departments need to create incentives for schools and teachers to do a number of things: form professional networks; deeply examine evidence of students’ learning needs and identify how their teaching practice could target them; and monitor and evaluate what happens when they try new approaches. Teachers must encourage and challenge each other to improve, but the Department or district must create the conditions for this huge culture change. 

The system must train educators to lead effective professional learning and give feedback. It must ensure that schools can access, understand and use timely performance data. It must employ curriculum experts who can guide teacher research, and system leaders who work closely with schools to make sure improvement work comes first in school timetabling, budgets and internal accountability.

So, blaming teachers doesn’t help. What can they be charged with? In an era of unprecedented levels of school funding, the profession can show leadership by pushing for sustained, effective professional development. Ditch the one-shot, feel-good PD that has fleeting impact on what a teacher thinks and does.  Instead, use funding to make time for collaborative, practice-focused professional learning. And commit to the energetic pursuit of expertise -- when the system genuinely puts its energy there first.

Tim Lambert is Manager at Learning First.

Four issues schools face when using evidence for improvement

Kids in class for Katie and Tanya Vaughan blog.jpeg

It is widely agreed that schools seeking to improve should start by examining the evidence of where their students are in their learning. But it’s not that simple. In this post, Dr Tanya Vaughan of Social Ventures Australia and Katie Roberts-Hull of Learning First set out some big challenges schools often face as they try to deepen their improvement work – and what to do about them.


School leaders and teachers are constantly looking for ways to improve professional practice. For decades, these efforts mostly involved teachers attending external workshops on the latest trendy topics, with usually limited impact on student achievement. But in many systems, including Australia’s, educators are moving to bring professional learning in-house and ensuring that new practices are based on the evidence of their own students’ learning.

This change has the potential to greatly improve school practice. Many schools are now veterans at reshaping teaching based on evidence and have seen results in improved student outcomes. Yet for many other schools this is a new focus, and they may need guidance on what are the best approaches to choose from and how to implement them.

Learning First and Evidence for Learning have reviewed hundreds of research papers, conducted research trials and seen practice at many schools. Combining our experience with international and local academic evidence, we’ve identified four common issues that schools face when trying to use evidence-based improvement practices:

Issue 1: Starting with solutions instead of problems – or ‘solutionitis’

‘Solutionitis’ happens when schools are so focused on using ‘evidence’ that they jump to a potential solution without first analysing the students’ learning problem.

Analysis of international research (Jensen, Sonnermann, Roberts-Hull, & Hunter, 2016; Tanya Vaughan & Albers, 2017), shows that an improvement cycle (or impact evaluation cycle) is critical for teacher learning and school improvement. A school improvement cycle starts by analysing a student learning problem; by gathering lots of data points to deeply understand the issue and then to prioritise a specific problem of practice. The goal is to better understand the problem first because that helps identify which possible solutions may be most useful in the next stage of the cycle.

For example, a school interested in evidence-based practice may learn that ‘feedback’ is a high impact approach, and decide to roll out professional learning on how to give better feedback. But this is probably the wrong approach. While better feedback may be helpful, the school has not first identified a clear problem it is trying to solve. Not only might there be a better approach to solving the student learning issue but because the school has not identified a specific goal that implementing feedback would address, it is almost impossible to measure whether the introduction of feedback has made a difference to student learning.

To check whether your school is suffering from solutionitis, ask these questions:

  1. What student learning issue are we trying to address by implementing these new practices?
  2. Have we spent time analysing multiple types of data on this issue before jumping to the solution?
  3. Do we have a clear student learning goal in mind that we can track and review later to make sure this solution has had an impact on it?

Issue 2: Limited access to clear summaries of evidence

After a problem has been analysed, teachers need to determine the next step – how to solve the problem. This is where evidence comes in. Schools need access to clear information about what practices work best. Plain English summaries of evidence, such as those provided in the Teaching & Learning Toolkit by Evidence for Learning Toolkit (Education Endowment Foundation, 2017) are most useful. Easy-to-digest evidence summaries are critical for this stage of the improvement cycle. For example, a team of Year 1 teachers may have prioritised improving reading skills for a subset of students who are falling behind. As they look for solutions, they need access to reliable information on which instructional approaches for young readers have the strongest evidence, and which approaches are less effective.  

The improvement cycle falls short if teachers do not have access to the right information in the right format about how to improve their teaching practice to solve their priority student learning issue.

Not every student learning approach has a perfect evidence base, but teachers need to know what evidence is out there, how strong it is, and examples of how to use it.

Issue 3: No follow-up to check whether the intervention has worked

A critical part of the improvement cycle is to review and evaluate whether changes made have improved student learning. Even if a practice has perfect evidence behind it, implementation can fall short, and new practices don’t always work perfectly on the first try. Also, existing evidence is often based on research coming from different contexts to your own school or classroom (for example, research based on students of a different age to the students you are teaching). Therefore it is vital to check that the practices are improving student learning in your context. Often a tweak to implementation, or a reconsideration of the new practice, may be needed after the initial evaluation and review.

Issue 4: Not ensuring the success of the intervention  

New approaches must be given the greatest chance to succeed. Learning First and Evidence for Learning are interested in understanding the key parts of the implementation schools need to focus on to ensure a successful change becomes embedded. To help identify the essential ingredients for improving student outcomes, Evidence for Learning commissioned a scoping review of studies of implementation in education.

The summary report identifies four crucial components of implementation:

  1. Fidelity: Did we stay true to the plan, or was the approach altered during implementation?
  2. Dosage: How many hours of teaching, coaching, or otherwise are needed for the greatest chance of success?
  3. Quality of implementation: What is the quality of support provided by teachers and school leaders?
  4. Acceptability: Did stakeholders, including students, accept the relevance and importance of this approach?

One example of implementation can be found in the research evaluation of The Song Room program (conducted by Dr Tanya Vaughan) which is highlighted in Evidence for Learning’s Australasian Research Summaries (see references below). The Song Room uses a range of programs to ensure that children across Australia have access to music and creative arts education. The research describes the four elements of implementation. The amount of time students took part in The Song Room program was found to influence the level of impact on their learning outcomes, demonstrating the importance of dosage. The longer the program participation, the stronger the impact on attendance, grades and NAPLAN results.

The qualitative analysis found that the support of the school leader (quality of implementation) was important to ensuring successful student outcomes. Acceptability was investigated through interviews with students. These produced some of the most insightful and powerful parts of the evaluation. For example, one student described how The Song Room program had reduced bullying at the school. The student pointed to another student within the group and said, ‘You used to bully me before we were both in the same drumming group’. The other responded, ‘Yes I did, and now I don’t anymore’. A critical part of the program’s success at this school was making students the leaders of their groups. Given a leadership opportunity, the students stepped up to the challenge and the result was a reduction in bullying.


The growing focus on evidence-based school improvement is incredibly promising. Many schools are only at the beginning stages of implementing new approaches, and could benefit from considering evidence through the lens of an improvement cycle. If schools get the improvement process right by using the cycle, they will be more likely to have success with implementing evidence-based approaches.

Examples of improvement cycles

Below are two examples of the many different types of improvement cycle – schools may find others also useful.

Katie and Tanya blog - graph 1.png
Katie and Tanya blog - graph 2.png


Caldwell, B. J., & Vaughan, T. (2012). Transforming Education through The Arts. London and New York: Routledge.

Education Endowment Foundation. (2017). Evidence for Learning Teaching & Learning Toolkit: Education Endownment Foundation.   Retrieved from

Jensen, B., Sonnermann, J., Roberts-Hull, K., & Hunter, A. (2016). Beyond PD: Teacher Professional Learning in High-Performing Systems, Australian Edition. Retrieved from Washington, DC:

Kivel, L. (2015). The Problem with Solutions. Carnegie Commons Blog. Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Vaughan, T., & Albers, B. (2017, 20 July). Research to practice – implementation in education. ACER Teacher Magazine.

Vaughan, T., & Caldwell, B. J. (2014). Improving literacy through the Arts. In G. Barton (Ed.), Literacy and the arts: exploring theory and practice. Dordrecht: Springer.

Vaughan, T., Harris, J., & Caldwell, B. J. (2011). Bridging the Gap in School Achievement through the Arts: Summary report  Retrieved from

 Dr Tanya Vaughan is Associate Director, Evidence for Learning, at Social Ventures Australia. Katie Roberts-Hull is a Manager at Learning First.

Here’s to great teachers: learning from Singapore with the Teaching Fellows

Jacqueline Magee

Schools Plus Fellows visiting a school during their study tour

Schools Plus Fellows visiting a school during their study tour

Schools Plus, which works to increase disadvantaged schools’ access to philanthropy, asked Learning First to lead a group of outstanding Australian teachers and school leaders on a learning tour to Singapore, one of the most consistently high-performing systems in international tests. Jacqueline Magee describes the visit.


In his book, Learning from Singapore: The Power of Paradoxes, Professor Pak Tee Ng from the National Institute of Education describes teaching and its impact. He writes:

“This labour of love is down to earth. It may not be glamorous. It is long-suffering. It does change lives, not in dramatic ways, but quietly and surely”.

I’ve read these resonant words many times. They remind me of my teaching colleagues in the schools I have worked in: those who have spent their entire professional lives in the classroom, helping their students learn, caring for them, spending their weekends and holidays preparing lessons and giving feedback. All without the hope or expectation of recognition. All without the high status afforded to many other professions. All for one reason: to make a difference to their students’ lives.

With the support of the Commonwealth Bank, Schools Plus, which raises funds for disadvantaged schools, is shining a light on the life-changing work of twelve such exceptional teachers and school leaders from across the country. The winners - brilliant teachers, innovative thinkers, and highly effective principals - were announced at an awards ceremony in March following a rigorous assessment process. A panel of education and business leaders chaired by Schools Plus Pioneer David Gonski madethe final selection of Fellows. Each received $30,000 towards a significant project in their school, $10,000 towards personal professional development, and a study tour to Singapore led by Learning First.

In July the Fellows and I visited Singapore schools and key institutions, including the Academy of Singapore Teachers, the Academy of Singapore Principals and the National Institute of Education. We wanted to examine the policies and practices of Singapore’s system – one of the highest performing in the world – and consider the lessons that might be relevant to the Fellows’ work in diverse Australian contexts, from metropolitan Sydney to suburban Brisbane to remote Western Australia. The Fellows devised specific research questions, including on teacher professional learning, leadership, and innovative curriculum and pedagogy. They also discussed their experiences and ideas for reform with their Singaporean counterparts. The Fellows are now back working in their schools. 

The Fellowship is about much more than the financial reward and a trip to Singapore. Schools Plus and the Commonwealth Bank have identified a cohort of highly talented and committed educators who have dedicated their lives to students and schools across the country. Through the Fellowship, this group is now working together to make their mark on teaching and learning, and on Australia. In Singapore the Fellows began to define their collective purpose and plan their next steps – this is just the beginning.  Individually, they have been changing the lives of their students for years. Collectively, they plan to improve Australian education – quietly, surely, and in dramatic ways.

Nominations for the 2018 Commonwealth Bank Teaching Awards open in September 2017 at

Congratulations to the 2017 Teaching Fellows: Sharyn Angel (Qld), Chad Bliss (NSW), Shanti Clements (NSW), Leah Crockford (NT), Michael Devine (Vic), Wilbur (Charlie) Klein (WA), Sarah Mathews (Qld), Lesley Mills (NSW), Christine Roberts-Yates (SA), Craig Skinner (WA), Belinda Wall (NSW) and Eddie Woo (NSW). Read more about the Fellows here.

Jacqueline Magee is Senior Associate at Learning First

Why it is time to rethink teacher professional learning

Katie Roberts-Hull

Schools spend a lot of money and time on teacher professional learning, but the evidence that it improves teacher practice is very thin. Katie Roberts-Hull suggests a new way to help teachers improve their craft.

To improve student outcomes, we need to improve teaching. This means teachers need to acquire further knowledge, skills, and tools. Some of these are (hopefully) provided during initial teacher education but, ideally, teachers will continue to learn new knowledge and practices on the job.

An enormous amount of investment goes into ongoing teacher professional learning. In Australia, teachers report almost universal access to professional development opportunities. Yet many feel these opportunities have little or no impact on their teaching. In the United States, one study estimates that about $18,000 per teacher is spent on professional development each year. The same study also found that very few teachers actually improve their practice as a result. It is generally taken for granted that teachers can improve through professional development, but the evidence shows that it is very difficult.

For professional learning to be effective, it must improve student outcomes. Therefore, effective professional learning is not as simple as learning something new.  Teachers must be able to learn something new, put it into practice, then assess whether it is implemented well or whether they need more development to further improve. It all adds up to a lot of time devoted to improvement in one specific practice area.

There is very little quality research on teacher professional learning, but some reviews of research (see table below) have identified useful findings about the time required for effective professional learning. There is no clear threshold, but it is clear that attending one or two workshops on a topic will not help a teacher improve practice in that area. Instead, to really improve, teachers need sustained learning for an extended period -- probably between 14 and 80 hours over six to 24 months. This is a massive amount of time, especially considering this time is needed for improvement in one area.

Teachers usually undertake professional learning across many topics at the same time. They might have a learning community talking about formative assessment, a mentorship discussing behaviour management, a workshop on reading comprehension strategies, a coach on maths instruction, and feedback from classroom observations on student questioning. All these activities rack up professional learning hours, but since they are spread among many topics, the teacher may not get the benefit of sustained learning in one priority area. Instead of developing deeper knowledge and skills, teachers may instead be left with more shallow understanding and few practice improvements.

Teachers may get close to getting 14 or more hours of professional learning in a term, but it is rare for them to get this much time to focus so deeply on one practice issue. Since research shows that a large amount of time is needed to improve, schools might consider ways to refocus professional learning activities around one prioritised teacher learning issue, possibly allowing teachers to stay focused on this one issue for the entire year, or longer. Schools may find this awkward, because there are so many issues that need to be addressed. But allowing teachers the time to focus deeply on one issue will be more effective than trying to cover many topics with little time spent on each.

Research on how much professional learning time teachers need



For more details on the evidence on teacher professional learning, see the appendix of Learning First’s 2016 report: Beyond PD: Teacher Professional Learning in High-Performing Systems.

Katie Roberts-Hull is Manager at Learning First


What should primary teacher specialisation look like? Another lesson from Japan

Katie Roberts-Hull

Learning First’s new report, Australia’s primary challenge, explores how to develop more subject expertise among primary school teachers. In this fifth blog in our seriesKatie Roberts-Hull examines an initial teacher education program in Japan that is designed to ensure primary teaching graduates are fully prepared for the subjects they will teach.

Primary school teachers have a complex and tough job. They are responsible for establishing the foundational skills that students will use to build knowledge for a lifetime, and they often have to do this across four or five different subject areas. While many may assume that they only need basic knowledge for the role (how hard can it be to teach grade 3 maths?), in fact primary teachers need subject expertise that is quite specialised and takes years to acquire. For example, to teach reading, primary teachers must understand what a phoneme is, and how to teach phonemic awareness. Most adults don’t have this knowledge, and teachers need quality training to be able to teach it effectively. 

Initial teacher education is where most teacher candidates begin to develop knowledge specific to teaching. In Australia, where some teachers’ own primary and secondary school education may be lacking, initial teacher education provides a critical opportunity to improve candidates’ subject expertise before they teach.

Primary teacher education programs in Australia are now being required to design specialist programs. Each primary teacher candidate will have to choose one subject area in which to develop deeper knowledge. It’s a big shift in teacher education curriculum, but ideally teachers will leave programs prepared to teach all subjects, but with expert knowledge in one area.

So what does a strong primary specialist program look like? It should:

  • Focus on the foundational knowledge that teachers need at the primary school level
  • Emphasise pedagogical content knowledge (e.g. skills tied to specific subject areas), not just general pedagogical skills
  • Closely align training to the national school curriculum

One great example of a program that follows all these principles is Naruto University of Education in Tokushima, Japan. In Japan primary teachers teach all subjects, but they select one area of specialisation in initial teacher education.

Naruto University of Education

To prepare teachers to be generalists, all prospective teachers – primary and secondary – are required to take “core” courses in each subject area. These courses are developed in collaboration by a subject expert, a pedagogy expert, and a veteran teacher. The three work together to make sure the courses emphasise pedagogical content knowledge and the combination of theory and practice. Teacher candidates take three core courses in each of ten subjects: Japanese, English, society, mathematics, science, music, arts, physical education, technology, and home economics. These three core courses cover the basics of the subject, and student teachers then choose one subject in which to specialise.

For example, the compulsory core maths courses explain the basics of teaching maths in primary and lower secondary school. They include instruction on:

  • The school curriculum (referencing the Ministry of Education’s Course of Study)
  • How young children learn maths
  • Teaching methods for mathematics
  • Overview of key content taught in early years, upper primary, and lower secondary
  • Practice creating lesson plans and micro teaching

If a teacher candidate decides to specialise in maths, she takes the equivalent of a major. The maths program is designed to have a foundation in arithmetic, but includes courses in more advanced mathematics as well. There are two “fundamental mathematics” courses that are not required, but they are recommended to students who lack a strong maths background from school. In practice, almost all primary mathematics majors take these two courses.

The maths major includes courses focused on both content knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge. Content knowledge courses include: arithmetic; geometry; algebra; fundamental mathematics I (mathematics learnt in high school, such as quadratic functions); fundamental mathematics II (bridging high school to university level maths, such as derivatives and integration); and analysis (advanced calculus subsequent to fundamental mathematics courses). Geometry, algebra, and analysis have subsequent and more advanced elective sections.

Maths majors also take pedagogical content knowledge courses on teaching methods for each key area of primary mathematics. These courses teach the basics of primary mathematics assessment and require sample lesson plan design and a simulated practice lesson.

This example shows that it is possible to create a rigorous primary speciality, while still preparing teachers for generalist roles. Importantly, Naruto’s curriculum focuses on foundational skills for primary teaching, like arithmetic, instead of the common Australian practice of having student teachers take advanced maths courses that are much less relevant for teaching young children. Australian teacher education programs can learn from examples like these as they design new primary teacher preparation courses.   

More details on the Naruto University of Education curriculum can be found here in the appendix of Australia’s Primary Challenge.

Naruto University of Education course requirements for a major in primary mathematics (2016)

Japanese Blog graph.png
Note: The arrows show course prerequisites
*Fundamental mathematics I and II are “electives,” but in practice almost all primary mathematics majors will complete them.


What can initial teacher education learn from medical education?

Leah Ginnivan

Learning First’s new report, Australia’s Primary Challenge, explores why primary teachers should develop more specialist expertise and how they can do so.

This post examines another model for instilling greater content expertise in our teachers, especially during their initial teacher education.

Initial teacher education reformers often invoke the medical model of training as a framework for improving initial teacher education. But what exactly about this model applies to teaching teachers?

Practising medicine and teaching a class of schoolchildren differ in many ways. Yet both professions are based on skilled decision-making, both require practical application of academic knowledge to people with different levels of functioning. A beginning teacher might understand fractions and theories of child development, but the test is whether he knows them deeply enough to be able to help a frustrated eight-year-old make sense of a problem and choose a strategy to solve it. Similarly, a junior doctor might be able to recite the risks and benefits of an anti-clotting medication, but she won’t be judged as competent if she can’t then advise, prescribe, interpret tests and communicate with patient and their families.

Building the right kind of practical skills and academic understanding is therefore a challenge for both teacher education and medical education. Just as no doctor can learn all that must be known in a lecture theatre, expertise in teaching comes from experience. Both medical and teacher education programs are under pressure to fit more into a short few years. Both must make trade-offs about what’s essential to teach early on and what can be learned on the job.

Medical schools are widely seen to integrate this practical knowledge in a more coherent way than most teacher education programs. Although pedagogical approaches vary widely among medical schools, our understanding of what should constitute initial medical education is well defined. Every medical school in Australia must show that its graduates have the skills to “practise safely and efficiently under supervision as interns’ as well as ‘a strong foundation for lifelong learning and for further training in any branch of medicine”.

Under standards developed by the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, graduate teachers are expected to “demonstrate knowledge and understanding of the concepts, substance and structure of the content and teaching strategies of the teaching area,” as well as strategies for differentiating teaching according to student needs, among other things. Yet teachers in Australia are often unsupported in their early years of practice, and supervision is nominal. Too often, ongoing professional development is perfunctory. Most worryingly, as we show in our new report, Australia’s primary challenge, too many teachers are entering classrooms lacking a strong foundational knowledge in the subjects they are teaching.

How does medical education ensure that a junior doctor is safe to practise under supervision? Firstly, selection into medical education is rigorous. In Australia, students must demonstrate academic capacity, general reasoning ability (measured through an aptitude test) and often sit an interview to be granted admission. Many medical schools require entrants to have scientific ability, including scores on the aptitude test, and prerequisites in biomedical sciences. While selection processes are contested, attrition rates in medical school are very low in Australia (an average of 2.1 per cent a year for domestic students in the first year and 1 per cent in subsequent years). By contrast around 40 per cent of undergraduate teaching entrants will not complete their course.

In Australian medical schools, foundational knowledge is developed through a mix of lectures, practicals, and clinical exposure. Most students are given many opportunities to consolidate knowledge and skills by practising in clinical environments. Skills such as differential diagnosis are taught through group work, clinical teaching, and in a classroom or seminar setting. Generally, active clinicians have a central role in teaching, and medical schools actively foster close ties with hospitals and research institutes to create a pool of expertise for teaching staff and student mentorship.

Assessment includes both exams on basic scientific content, as well as mock physical examinations, attendance at practical sessions, portfolios demonstrating clinical reasoning, and assignments. In the Objective Structured Clinical Exam, for example, clinicians examine students on an aspect of clinical skill, for instance taking an accurate blood pressure or a drug and alcohol history from a ‘patient’ (usually an actor). The range of assessment at medical school is intended to create a richer picture of how a student is progressing.

Perhaps most importantly, medical education is never complete. Medical graduates must complete an internship year before attaining general registration with the Medical Board of Australia. Internship is a formal process involving structured teaching as well as compulsory rotations in medicine and surgical wards, and close supervision. This is generally followed by another year as a resident, before being accepted into a specialty training program, which generally lasts for two to seven years. Further education, and demonstrated mastery as judged by clinical peers, is needed to progress into senior roles. Although the calibre of clinical teaching and supervision certainly varies, the breadth and scope of experience of young doctors is intended to make it clear which areas of knowledge and skill need further development. 

In contrast, a first-year graduate teacher in a primary school is often responsible for 20 or more young students at different stages of learning. She or he may have contact with mentor teachers, but they will rarely collaborate on specific strategies and opportunities for feedback and supervision are limited. Australia’s Primary Challenge details how four high-performing systems – Finland, Hong Kong, Japan and Shanghai -- provide this kind of support for new primary school teachers.

Lastly, academic research into medical education is a thriving field, with ongoing attempts to refine what constitutes effective education both at the initial level and throughout a medical career. Despite the profound importance of teachers, we know comparatively little about the specific techniques ITE providers should employ. The good news is that revived interest in improving teacher quality means that universities, schools, and individual teachers can experiment and contribute greatly.

Classroom teaching is hard work. It should also be viewed as highly skilled work, but too often it is not. The task for educators is to emulate the medical profession and develop rigorous processes, both during teacher education and in schools, that would fully equip teachers with the skills they need to properly do their job.

Leah Ginnivan, a former associate of Learning First, is a medical student.

What schools everywhere can learn from Japanese lesson study

Samara Cooper


Learning First’s new report, Australia’s primary challenge, explores why primary schools in Australia should develop more subject expertise among teachers, and how they could do so by drawing on the example of schools in Finland, Japan, Shanghai and Hong Kong. This third blog in a series examines how the Japanese school system builds in expertise from a teacher’s first school experience to her last, through a process known as lesson study.

Imagine you’re a teacher who gets the chance to spend weeks preparing just one lesson. You go back and forth with colleagues on how best to design the lesson to meet student learning needs, anticipating potential questions and student errors in understanding. Then you deliver it to your class while a group of colleagues watches and studies whether students are engaged and learning. After the lesson, you sit down with the group and discuss how it went, how the students approached the task and how the lesson can be improved next time.

In Japan this process is called jugyokenkyu, or lesson study. Jugyo means teaching and learning, kenkyu means study or research lesson study. Lesson study is used in practicums (supervised placements in schools during initial teacher education), in teacher induction and in teachers’ everyday work. It is the main form of professional development throughout a teacher’s career. Japanese lesson study has become widely known, and many other countries – from the US to China to Zambia – have implemented similar programs.

Lesson study is used to help teachers develop the expertise to teach a subject. Deeply rooted in practice, it incorporates much of what is known about good adult learning and high quality professional development. In particular:

  • Lesson study is not undertaken by individual teachers but is a whole school, collaborative process. Many schools choose a broad research theme at the start of the year. They then create a schedule for lesson planning, with multiple research lessons (lessons observed by and discussed with colleagues) to take place throughout the year. Within the school-wide theme, smaller groups of teachers choose a more specific topic for study, based on an analysis of student learning needs. Together they plan and carry out two or three lesson study cycles a year.
  • Lesson study focuses on developing subject expertise in a way that incorporates everything a teacher needs to know and do to improve student learning. It involves subject-specific groups of teachers analysing student reactions and thought patterns and designing lessons to best teach the content. The collaborative nature of lesson study means that new teachers learn directly from more experienced peers who have deep teaching expertise in that subject. It can also make for much more creative teaching, as teachers debate how to impart knowledge in a way that grabs students. Writing a book on education in Japan in the early 1990s, American researcher Catherine Lewis discovered that Japanese teachers had devised many engaging ways to show primary students how to figure out the area of a parallelogram, whereas it had been taught to her as a formula to memorise when she was in school in the US.
  • Lesson study focusses on student learning. It relies on the ability of others to observe and analyse not the teacher’s performance but its impact on the students. It is very important for other teachers to carefully observe the students because a lot of teachers don’t realise that the way they are teaching is not advancing students’ learning. Teachers can perform lesson after lesson and never realise that the way they are teaching is not getting through. Other teachers in their classroom can observe not only the teaching but the way students are learning (or not).
  • Lesson study devotes a significant amount of teacher time to planning and reflection. A typical lesson study cycle takes at least five weeks. Planning for a single research lesson can involve 10 to 15 hours of meetings. It is a slow and considered process. At the end of the year, teachers will often write an action research report that pulls together all their learning, including a detailed lesson plan, summaries of their professional learning and questions to consider for future research lessons. This way learning is always built upon previous knowledge and never lost.

Lesson study is not about creating the perfect lesson. It is about establishing collaborative practices that explicitly tie teacher professional learning to student learning. Once such practices become established, schools become true learning organisations for both teachers and students. The work of Learning First focusses on how to build these organisations. Lesson study is one valid approach, and other systems have much to learn from it.

The stages of lesson study


Samara Cooper is a former associate at Learning First. Read Australia’s Primary Challenge.

Time for teacher educators to step up on primary teacher specialisation

Jacqueline Magee

Learning First’s new report, Australia’s primary challenge: how to lift teacher quality in early school years, argues that Australian primary school teachers should specialise in subject areas such as mathematics, science, and literacy. It sounds like a controversial proposal, a transformation of the ideal of generalist teachers that has sustained Australian primary school teaching for many decades. In fact, the idea of primary teacher specialisation is growing among leading Australian educators and is now part of Commonwealth Government policy.

The research is increasingly clear that strong teacher subject expertise significantly improves student learning. Australia’s primary challenge shows how high-performing systems such as Shanghai, Finland, Japan and Hong Kong develop teacher expertise through specialisation. All four systems – even Finland and Japan, which have generalist primary school teachers, as Australia does -- encourage teachers to develop their practice in just one or two subject areas, both during initial teacher education (ITE) and in their professional learning on the job.

Drawing on this evidence, Australia’s Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group (TEMAG) recommended in its 2015 report, Action Now: Classroom Ready Teachers, that primary school teachers be supported to specialise their teaching practice in science, mathematics and languages. In a move with significant implications for prospective primary teaching candidates and higher education institutions, the Australian Government accepted TEMAG’s recommendation that “higher education providers equip all primary pre-service teachers with at least one subject specialisation.” ITE providers are now on notice that they are required to make this happen.

This new primary specialisation requirement is now part of the Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) National Program Standards and will be assessed by ITE program accreditation panellists convened in each state and territory.

The new primary specialisation standard requires ITE providers to establish clearly defined pathways within programs that lead to specialisations in key areas of demand. Providers are also expected to assess graduates on their expert content knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge, and what highly effective teaching looks like, in their area of specialisation. Finally, provider annual reports must publish the specialisations they make available, and the number of graduates per specialisation.

These requirements sound very general, but for many teacher education providers they represent significant reform. To add clarity, AITSL published more detailed advice on the new specialisation requirements early this year. The AITSL guidance emphasises the importance of content knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge, but it is up to providers to decide the exact curriculum for the specialisations.

It is therefore a critical time for the future of primary teacher education. The plans ITE providers are making for primary specialisation have the potential to significantly improve the subject expertise of teachers in key areas. There is also a big risk that these efforts could fall flat, meeting minimum requirements but not instilling more rigor into primary teacher preparation. ITE providers must carefully construct primary specialist curricula, learning from other systems that have prepared highly-skilled teachers for decades. Australia’s primary challenge provides examples of teacher education curricula in countries such as Japan and Finland, which similarly prepare generalist teachers with one subject speciality. A future blog post will look at one example in more depth.

Time will tell whether these reforms will have the impact TEMAG and the Australian Government intended. If done well, a greater focus on developing teacher subject expertise will increase student learning, provide overdue recognition for the complexity of primary school teaching, and make teacher workload more manageable.

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Why Australian primary school teachers should specialise

Katie Roberts-Hull

We open our new blog with a series of posts accompanying the launch of our report, Australia’s Primary Challenge.


Alarm about the performance of Australian school students in PISA and other international tests is growing. Australians are falling behind students in many other advanced nations. In maths, the proportion of Australian high performers in PISA tests has halved, to 11 per cent, over the past 14 years. Meanwhile the proportion of low performers has shot up – they now outnumber high performers two to one.

This week Learning First publishes a report, Australia’s primary challenge, that shows how Australia can lift its game by learning from four of the world’s high-performing school systems: Hong Kong, Japan, Finland, and Shanghai. These systems all ensure that their students are equipped to read and do foundational maths from the earliest years of school. In these systems, the most effective teachers do not just know their subjects (content knowledge) they also how to teach them (pedagogical content knowledge).

Australian primary school teachers are likely to be generalists, teaching all or many subjects. Because all teachers need deep subject expertise to teach well, primary teachers have a unique problem – how can they develop expert knowledge in each of the many subjects they are teaching?

Specialisation, encouraging teachers to focus on just one or a few subjects, is one way to help teachers develop deep expertise. Specialisation can take many forms. In Shanghai and Hong Kong, primary teachers only teach one or a few subjects. In Japan and Finland, primary school teachers teach all subjects, but require teacher candidates to specialise in their initial teacher education (ITE). Australia is beginning to encourage primary teacher specialisation in ITE, which will be addressed in a future Learning First blog post. This post will focus on the different options for primary specialisation after ITE, with teacher roles in schools. 

Specialisation in schools

In the US and Australia, there is concern that low-quality teacher education and development has led to a vicious cycle – where teachers with less knowledge produce students with less knowledge, who then become teachers with less knowledge. It’s hard to imagine breaking out of this cycle without allowing teachers the opportunity to develop expertise in one subject area at a time.

While there is little rigorous research on teacher role specialisation, it has been shown to offer several potential benefits:

  • Increased subject expertise: With fewer subjects to teach, teachers can go deeper into planning, preparing and undertaking professional learning for their subject(s). They have more time to develop their pedagogical content knowledge and gain more confidence in their teaching abilities.
  • Decreased workload: Teachers who prepare for fewer subjects might work less and worry and burn out less, particularly in the first few years of teaching.
  • Teachers can focus on subjects that most interest them: Depending on school need, teachers with a passion for a subject can ideally focus on it more.

One potential and important downside to in-school specialisation is diminished student-teacher relationships. Teachers who teach only one or two subjects have more students and do not know them as well as generalist (i.e. self-contained) teachers do.

There are ways to combat this risk, including a method popular in Shanghai and Finland: teacher “looping”. Teacher looping is a practice in which teachers follow the same group of students, teaching them from one grade level to the next. Practices like looping can improve relationships because teachers have more time getting to know students.

Three models of specialisation

If primary teachers specialise in a subject during ITE, schools can choose one of these three models to ensure teachers take the most advantage of their speciality.

Fully specialised – only teach one subject

It may seem extreme to think of primary school teachers as only teaching one subject, but most schools to already have specialist teachers in arts, music, and PE. It’s odd that we assume specialist skills are needed for these classes, but not for maths or literacy.

In Shanghai, primary school teachers are very specialised. A primary maths teacher will study maths in ITE, and then essentially just teach maths. This allows teachers to choose their preferred subject area, develop deep knowledge, and improve their skills over time.

Schools that want to go this route should be ensure they consider ways to mitigate any negative impact on student-teacher relationships.

Partially specialised – teach two or three subjects

If primary schools don’t want to go for full specialisation, teachers could specialise in one subject in ITE, and teach that, plus one or two more subjects. In Hong Kong, primary teachers who teach science also teach social studies and technology. They have fewer students than with full specialisation, but they still get many of the benefits of teaching fewer subjects.

Generalist teacher with specialisation

In Japan, primary school teachers teach all subjects, but in ITE they choose one in which to specialise. A primary teacher who is a maths specialist will deeply study primary maths in ITE, and get a short overview of all the other subjects he or she will teach. Many schools then hire teachers purposefully to ensure a good mix of specialities, and the teachers grow to become curriculum or subject leaders in the school in their chosen areas.

Whatever the model, schools need to design an effective professional learning culture that instils subject expertise. Future blog posts will cover the subject-specific professional learning models which are essential for making primary specialists effective.

Katie Roberts-Hull is Manager at Learning First.

How can we create effective professional learning? Lessons from high-performing systems

In any district, state or country, when student learning stagnates or falls, the response is universal: we must improve teaching to improve learning. All of the evidence shows that this is the right response. But it’s incredibly difficult. We spend millions of dollars on teacher professional development, but it’s not having the desired impact on our kids’ learning.

But in some high-performing systems it is working. What makes these systems different? What steps can other systems take to make professional learning effective?

Too often, children from low-income communities do not receive a great education, and in several education systems, the number of high-performing students is shrinking. The response to these problems is almost universal: to focus on improving teaching to increase kids’ learning.  

It is the right objective, but while there are pockets of success, the money invested in teacher professional development has not resulted in improvement in most schools. It is incredibly difficult to improve teaching and learning across tens of thousands of classrooms. Too few school systems succeed in making the transition. But for those that do, the benefits to children are immense, and the working lives of teachers improve dramatically.

Too often, a typical teacher reaches the end of the year exhausted. She is enthusiastic about educating children, but she often feels overwhelmed by the complexity of the job. She sits in her office knowing she has had success with many of her students but she wishes for more success for them and feels a bit disappointed with her opportunities to develop her professional expertise. She has technically clocked on a lot of ‘PD hours’ going to seminars and workshops, but she remembers many of them as being sort of boring and not really relevant to issues she was facing in her classroom. She only received feedback from a classroom observation once, and she never got the chance to view other teachers’ classes, like she was hoping to. It is so hard for her to improve her teaching – to help the kids she is having trouble reaching – when no-one looks at what she does and tells her how to improve. She was assigned a mentor in her school, and although the mentor was helpful for administrative questions, she didn’t receive much advice after someone has actually watched her teach. She knows she is not alone. Many teachers around the world have access to professional development, but most teachers report little impact on their actual teaching.

Learning First’s new report Beyond PD: Teacher professional learning in high-performing systems examines systems that have made the transition, namely, British Columbia, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Singapore. These systems vary in their geography, history and culture but all have a similar strategy to improve teaching and learning.

So, why is professional learning having a real impact in these systems? What are the steps other systems can take to refine their improvement strategies?

First, ensure that teacher professional learning is focused on an improvement cycle that begins and ends with student learning. The topic of teacher professional development should be determined by the learning needs of students in a classroom. Teaching is developed to address these learning needs. Professional development should not be considered effective unless it actually improves student learning.

Second, develop a strategy that changes how teachers and school leaders work in schools. To achieve this, reforms should extend well beyond traditional professional development policies. This requires changes in:

  • How we hold schools accountable – increasing accountability for the quality of teaching and the development of teachers;
  • How we develop our school leaders – high-performing systems have created new leadership positions in schools to develop teachers and improve professional learning. These new leaders, like their school principals, are specifically trained in how to use the improvement cycle to continually improve teachers and their teaching; and
  • How we target school resourcing to make sure teachers have enough time to focus on professional learning. 

Over time, this blend of policies can have a profound impact. Professional learning becomes central to teachers’ jobs. It is not an add-on. It is not something done on Friday afternoons or for a few days at either end of the school year. Teacher professional learning is how educators improve student learning; it is how they improve schools; and it is how they are evaluated in their jobs. 

Professional learning that starts and ends with student learning

Professional learning programs in high-performing systems follow an improvement cycle in schools that is anchored in student learning. It is not the name of the program that is important – whether it is a mentoring program or a professional learning team – but whether it functions on an effective improvement cycle that follows these three steps:

First, teachers assess students to identify their learning needs. So teachers in a primary school may look at the data and realise they have a problem in Grade 3 maths. They then deeply analyse student learning in this area (mainly through assessment) to better diagnose where students are and are not learning.

Second, they develop the teaching practices that meet the student learning needs identified in step 1. So after diagnosing the key areas for improvement, these teachers then draw on experts and look at the evidence on how to improve instruction. They pick the most effective strategies and try them in their school.

Finally, they evaluate the impact of these new practices on student learning, refining practice along the way. As these teachers and school leaders try new methods of teaching, they evaluate whether teaching is improving and how students are affected. Teachers and school leaders observe each other's lessons and provide feedback on how to improve teaching and learning. If the new practices are working, teachers share what they have learned throughout the school. If they are not, then teachers analyse why and further refine instruction.

A new teacher in Shanghai is nervous as she prepares to face her class of 45 students for the first time. Her learning curve over her first weeks, months and years is steep, but she knows that she can expect great support. She has two mentors: one provides subject-specific guidance, the other general teaching advice. Her mentors know that they will not be promoted unless they help her improve. They observe her classroom teaching on a regular basis, and she observes her mentors’ classes to learn and work on those aspects of her teaching that are most critical to her students. In between classes, she regularly attends research groups with other teachers to analyse specific teaching and learning issues in their classrooms. None of this is easy, but it is all focused on what her students most need. This makes her job easier as her development is specifically aimed at the teaching and learning issues she is most struggling with. Expectations for her development are high.

The improvement cycle is not new, and many schools around the world have and are trying various forms of it. It is based on the global evidence of effective professional learning. But the improvement cycle has also failed many times. It fails when it is used in isolation. To make it effective – to truly get the improvements in teaching and learning we have been looking for – requires a strategy that continually develops and reinforces effective professional learning.

A strategy to improve professional learning and teacher development

For this to result in actual improvement, a reform strategy must recognise the difficulties of shifting the way teachers work together and teach their students in thousands of schools. It requires multiple change leaders in schools to lead and role-model effective collaborative professional learning. It requires new evaluation and accountability policies to continually reinforce these new ways of working in a school. And it targets resources to enable it all to happen.

New professional learning leaders to lead the change in schools

To transform the way people work every day, in every classroom, in every school, requires strong leadership with specific skills in how people and organisations can change and move away from their usual practice. All of these high-performing systems recognise how difficult this is, so they have developed new leadership positions in schools and across the system. These new leaders are regularly trained alongside school principals, so each school has multiple leaders acting to change the way people work to ensure that teachers’ individual and collective professional learning is meeting school objectives.

Importantly, the new leaders are teachers; they are peer leaders, chosen from the teaching force to lead professional learning in each school. They often remain in the classroom on a part-time basis. Part of the reason they are effective is that other teachers are more likely to change the way they work when they see colleagues – not just official leaders – role-modelling effective practices.

Evaluation and accountability should be structured to improve professional learning

Too often, policymakers are told they have to choose between strategies emphasising accountability or development. So when a young teacher is not getting the professional development she needs – her mentor is not improving her teaching or her school principal has development days that target the wrong areas – it is often viewed as a problem with teacher professional development policies. In high-performing systems this would also be viewed as a problem of accountability. In these systems, accountability focuses not only on student performance, but also on the quality of instruction and professional learning.

Teachers in Shanghai will not be promoted unless they can demonstrate that they are collaborative. Similarly, mentors will not be promoted unless the teachers they mentor improve. School principals in British Columbia must prove that they are following an improvement cycle, and that it is improving results. If professional learning programs in Shanghai schools are considered to be of low quality, then the central office will take over much of the school’s professional learning.

Teachers need time for professional learning

A common problem preventing the development of effective professional learning in many systems is a lack of time. Teachers simply do not have sufficient time in the day for taking up effective professional learning. Shanghai provides the clearest example of a system that commits a large amount of time to teacher professional learning. They focus on the quality rather than the quantity of teaching. The average teacher in Shanghai teaches for only 10-12 hours per week. Considerable time is allocated to professional learning. But Shanghai is an outlier even amongst high-performing systems. For example, British Columbia made huge gains with only 1-2 periods per week allocated to formal professional learning.

Reform can start with small changes          

Importantly, creating effective professional learning does not require a complete overhaul of education policy. Progress in high-performing systems came through incremental improvements. For example, Singapore did not implement all of its reforms in one go: it changed one aspect at a time over many years, pragmatically trying what worked and discarding what did not work until it achieved a finely balanced approach.

This report offers a roadmap for reform: namely, to emphasise an improvement cycle as the key to school improvement and to build the leadership, capacity, and accountability for the quality of the improvement cycle in schools. Over time, this transforms the improvement cycle into a culture of continuous professional learning that turns schools into true learning organisations. When this occurs we will get the improvements in student learning that we all hope for.

Click here to read the report.

Click here for the Australian edition of the report.