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Teaching, a profession whose time has come

Professor Frank Crowther
Professor of Education, University of Southern Queensland

Professor Frank Crowther is editor of Teachers as Leaders in a Knowledge Society, the 2003 Year Book of the Australian College of Educators. The following is an excerpt from Professor Crowther's Introduction.

What should be the role of our schools and other educational institutions in contributing to whatever form of Smart Nation we determine to be most appropriate to pursue? Is the teaching profession up to the task that we decide to set for our educational institutions in the pursuit of a dynamic Smart Nation future?

These critically important questions have not been accorded the concentrated attention that they deserve in the thinking and writing of Australian educators and scholars. But a concerted effort is made to address them in the chapters that follow. The outcome is a set of understandings that I believe will enable us to set our sights clearly on new and exciting forms of professionalism and educational leadership. In this opening chapter, my purpose is to make a start to that end. The chapter, as with the year book in its entirety, is essentially an optimistic statement. Teaching, I contend, is a profession whose time has come.

Smart Nation. Knowledge Society. Why?

To some Australians, we're already about as smart as we can get. We've won every sporting cup that is worth winning, we can sing and act with the best of them, we've survived the Asian economic meltdown, we have a secure future linked to the world's greatest power base and our education system is producing graduates who are among the most skilled and most competent in the world. So why preoccupy ourselves with questions of how to become smart? We're already smart enough and if we didn't have a cultural cringe from two centuries of living in a colonial shadow we'd realise it.

Some other Australians don't accept this line of thinking. They believe that we have become a divided nation that has failed to resolve issues of ecological sustainability, indigenous people's rights to a decent quality of life, and meaningful relationships with our neighbours, particularly those of Islamic heritage. They believe that the Lucky Country is losing its way, that my generation has failed to build on the extraordinary heritage provided to us by preceding generations. To these Australians we have a huge job to do before we can consider ourselves a Knowledge Society in any authentic sense.

Nobel Prize winner Peter Doherty's view is that smart nations, scientific education, technology and progress are inseparable - it is through the synergistic linking of scientific education, corporate strategy, community infrastructures and government policy that worthwhile new ideas that have commercial value are most effectively generated. My suspicion is that most current state and Commonwealth political leaders agree with him, judging by the creation of science and high-tech centres across the country. The Australian Research Council also undoubtedly agrees - the ARC's current priorities for funded research place almost total emphasis on science and technology. But there are other important perspectives.

Noel Pearson, I would think, would draw a clear linkage between social justice, community responsibility, and his concept of Smart Nation. Gough Whitlam and Bob Hawke, I can only assume, would probably agree - it was Gough Whitlam who as Prime Minister introduced into this country's education system the concept of affirmative action through community-based educational processes to offset various forms of disadvantage. And it was Bob Hawke who, as Prime Minister, espoused the vision that that no Australian child would live in poverty.

Green Party leader Bob Brown and a growing community of environmentalists would perhaps see a Smart Nation differently yet again - a country where ecological sustainability is at least as important as technological progress and where preservation of our natural resources is valued more highly than short-term economic prosperity. And what of Kerry Packer and Rupert Murdoch? I can only assume that to them the most important new ideas have essentially a commercial value, and that Smart Nation and national competitiveness through multi-corporate business go hand in hand. Republicans and monarchists might have different perspectives yet again on what a Smart Nation look like, as might Germaine Greer or the heads of our religious institutions.

Without question, each of these viewpoints regarding what constitutes a Knowledge Society manifests a dynamism that we as educators should at least recognise, if not applaud. Each places a value on our nation, on our national interest, from which we all stand to benefit. But it is also clear that defining what we mean by Knowledge Society, or Smart Nation, is not as easy as it might at first seem. Moreover, what if it turns out that we are wrong in our basic premise that Smart Nationhood in and of itself is what matters?

British philosopher Bertrand Russell pointed to the importance of this question some eighty years ago when he reflected on why the Chinese civilisation was still a dynamic force after 3000 years, while the Greek and Roman civilisations lasted about a third of that time. To the Greeks and Romans, patriotism and nationhood were what really mattered - the 'little institutions' that enabled values to be nurtured and passed through the generations were increasingly diminished until their Empires imploded. But to the Chinese, according to Russell, there never was a Chinese nation per se - rather, there were processes of cultural transmission that emphasised particularistic values associated with extended families, communal groups and Taoist or Confucian ethics. It follows very clearly from this logic that if we use terms like Clever Country we had better keep firmly in mind that civilisations don't necessarily sustain themselves just through state and national visions and strategies. The 'little institutions' of our lives should figure prominently in our definition.

Two conclusions follow from this brief analysis. First is that what we mean by a Knowledge Society is largely a matter of perspective - it may be dominantly scientific in nature, but it may also be dominantly ecological, humanitarian, aesthetic, spiritual, political, and so on. Second is that our little institutions may be at least as fundamental in creating a bona fide Smart Nation as are macro-institutions such as governments, unions, professional sporting competitions, the military, universities, national research centres and so on. Which of course raises the question: Of what relevance are our schools in our future as a Smart Nation?

Our Schools - Thirty Years under a Cloud

Our schools, and our teachers, have had a very difficult time for a period of several decades - approximately the career span of those teachers who are now preparing to retire or who have retired recently. This is evidenced in the media in particular, where commentators have seemed unrelenting in their denigration of our schools for as long as some of us can remember. Not surprisingly, the image of teaching as a profession has declined during the past three decades, as has public confidence in our school system. The reasons for this complex situation are very important to consider as part of our deliberations about where our schools fit in any plans we may have for a Knowledge Society.

The release in 1966 of James Coleman's report, Equality of educational opportunity, was heralded in the United States at the time as a sign of a new world - one in which disadvantage would reduce and Lyndon Johnson's 'Great Society' would begin to unfold. With it came well-known emancipatory programmes like 'Headstart', Sesame Street and initiatives to bus children from the ghettos of large American cities into middle-class schools in outer suburbs. Whatever the merits of the Coleman Report in the US (and the counterpart Plowden Report in the United Kingdom) may have been, it raised serious questions about the capacity, and therefore the integrity, of the teaching profession. Neither schools nor teachers make any fundamental differences to children's life chances, the Coleman Report asserted. It is socioeconomic context that matters, so resources should be allocated to programmes and institutions that affect the socioeconomic context, rather than to the work of teachers and schools per se.

With the election of the Whitlam government in Australia barely a half-decade later, Coleman's influence reached Australian education directly and unequivocally. The 1973 Karmel Report and the related creation of the Commonwealth Schools Commission heralded perhaps the greatest educational changes for this country during the twentieth century. Disadvantage in its many forms was pinpointed for Commonwealth intervention, school communities were brought into decision processes and expert-driven curricula replaced classroom pedagogy as the essence of educational priority. Without questioning either the desirability of these reforms or the far-sightedness of the Karmel Report and a succession of subsequent national policy initiatives, the fact remains that classroom teachers increasingly became construed as a secondary consideration in educational processes.

This period of social reconstruction and emancipation was also marked by the emergence of educational administration as a discipline in its own right, and by the associated central focus on the principal as the core of school authority and activity. By the early 1990s teaching as a profession had been reduced in its political influence, its public image and its ascribed status.

In retrospect, 1994 and 1995 were the watershed years for our profession. It was in 1994 that internationally renowned organisational theorist, Peter Drucker, wrote that:
Knowledge workers may not be the ruling class of the knowledge society, but they are already its leading class. And in their characteristics, social position, values and expectations, they fundamentally differ from any group in history that has ever occupied the leading position ...Education will become the centre of the knowledge society, and the school its key institution. (Drucker 1994, pp. 63-6).
Drucker's inference that teaching might be a 'leading profession' and his statement that the school was potentially the key institution of the future ran against the flow of most that had been written about schools for at least two decades. In the next year, what I regard as the most significant research statement since the Coleman Report thirty years earlier was also published. The statement in question concluded as follows:
The most successful schools were those that used restructuring tools to help them function as professional communities. That is, they found a way to channel staff and student efforts toward a clear, commonly shared purpose for student learning; they created opportunities for teachers to collaborate and help one another achieve the purpose; and teachers in these schools took collective - not just individual - responsibility for student learning. Schools with strong professional communities were better able to offer authentic pedagogy and were more effective in promoting student achievement (Newmann and Wehlage 1995, p. 3).
With this single paragraph, University of Wisconsin researchers Fred Newmann and Gary Wehlage illuminated Drucker's prediction and presented to the education community an antidote to thirty years of professional debilitation. Their supporting evidence, grounded in authoritative, longitudinal research, represented a break in the Coleman-induced cloud that had hung over the teaching profession for a generation. When teachers work synergistically to create a shared schoolwide approach to pedagogy, they asserted, the potential of the profession to enhance school outcomes, and in so doing affect the life-chances of children from all backgrounds, is immense.

Within eighteen months, the Annenburg Foundation in the US had spawned a range of national research and development initiatives that confirmed and extended Newmann and Wehlage's findings. In Australia, the Innovation and Best Practice (IBP) Project, funded by the Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs, established the applicability of the American research findings in Australian education systems (Cuttance 2001).

Schools that engage in self-managed holistic development, valuing teachers and employing processes of distributed leadership, it was concluded from aspects of the IBP study, can engender new forms of meaning, belonging and identity. In so doing, they lay the foundations for clarified educational expectations and also for heightened teacher, student and community aspirations. In this way, the basis is laid for achieving enhanced outcomes. Even more importantly, schools that work this way model for their communities how knowledge building can occur. They become, in essence, what Peter Drucker predicted they would become - the key institution of a Knowledge Society.

This provocative conclusion, and the research that underpins it, enables us to conceptualise what a Smart Nation may look like when viewed from a distinctively educational perspective: communities of people working together so that their collective intelligence results in creation of new knowledge to enhance their quality of life and contribute to a sustainable and better world for others.

Teachers as Leaders in a Knowledge Society
College Year Book 2003
Australian College of Educators
Edited by Professor Frank Crowther


Coleman, J., Campbell, E., Hobson, C., McPartland, J., Mood, A., Weinfeld, F. and York, R. 1966, Equality of Educational Opportunity, Department of Health, Education and Welfare, Washington,DC.

Crowther, F., Kaagan, S., Ferguson, M. and Hann, L. 2002, Developing Teacher Leaders: How Teacher Leadership Enhances School Success, Corwin Press, Thousand Oaks, CA.

Cuttance, P. and the IBP Consortium 2001, School Innovation: Pathway to the Knowledge Society, Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs, Canberra.

Drucker, P. 1994, 'The age of social transformation', The Atlantic Monthly, 27, pp. 53-80.

Doherty, P. 2003, 'Smart Nation: science, education and prosperity', lecture to the Brisbane Institute, 25 March.

Egner, R. and Denion, L. 1961, The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell, 1903-1959, Routledge, London.

Hallinger, P. and Heck, R. 1996, 'Reassessing the principal's role in school effectiveness: A review of empirical research', Educational Administration Quarterly, 32 (1), pp. 5-45.

Karmel, P. (chair) 1973, Schools in Australia, Report of the Interim Committee for the Australian Schools Commission, AGPS, Canberra.

Newmann, F. and Wehlage, G. 1995, Successful School Restructuring. A Report to the Public and Educators, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI.

Subject Headings

Educational planning
Teaching profession