Teaching Quality – Discovering the Teacher’s Role in Learning

Students and teachers stnading around charts on the wall

The Monitorial System of education used to teach the masses in the nineteenth century. From, A Cyclopedia of Education: Volume 4, edited by Paul Monroe (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1918).

The phrase ‘teacher quality’ is “judgmental, simplistic.. and undermining of real teacher professionalism”, argued Melbourne high school English teacher, Peter Job, recently.  The current debate about ‘teacher quality’ portrayed teachers as “static commodities like cars or vegetables”, he observed.  Instead of ‘teacher quality’, he advocated the discussion should be instead focused on ‘teaching quality’.

Peter Job’s article on The Drum website picks up on an issue that has been debated since the nineteenth century.  Is teaching like following a recipe – copy it from a book, apply each step to any class and expect that a learned student will emerge at the end of the allotted (cooking) time?  Is the teacher a mere implementer of previously approved teaching methods learned by rote and applied without modification to every pupil? Or does a teacher’s training, ongoing professional development, teaching experience plus professional judgement lead to better learning outcomes for their students?

The Teaching Reading in Australia researchers examined this issue from a historical perspective.  Research Associate Professor Phil Cormack (School of Education, University of South Australia) compared two systems of education that emerged in Britain during the industrial revolution (‘Reading Pedagogy, ‘Evidence’ and Education Policy: Learning from History?’ downloadable at the Teaching Reading in Australia website).  The ‘monitorial system’ developed by Joseph Lancaster used the best performing students in a school to teach the other students by strictly adhering to a particular method of teaching invented by Lancaster and supervised by one head teacher in the large classroom.  The purpose of this system was to enable mass education with the most efficient use of resources.  There was no leeway to adapt the method of teaching to better suit particular students or to improve on it by innovation in the classroom.

The other system of teaching highlighted by Cormack in his paper was developed by David Stow.  He advocated the use of well-trained teachers in the school classroom and emphasised the importance of the relationship between the teacher and the pupils.  He wanted the teacher to not only impart knowledge to pupils in the classroom but to help pupils apply that knowledge properly in their every-day lives.

Both approaches to teaching in schools were widely implemented, but over time the practice of using properly trained teachers to exercise professional judgement in the classroom became the preferred model in the education system.  Throughout the nineteenth century there were complaints about the inadequacy of an education that trained the children to memorise their reading books but left them ill-equipped to understand what they had read or the content of previously unseen text. In a paper written by the lead researchers on the Teaching Reading in Australia project and presented at a symposium, the comments of an American education reformer, Horace Mann, about this issue are quoted (see ”Re-reading the Reading Lesson:  Episodes in the History of Reading Pedagogy’, pp 9-10, available for download from the Teaching Reading in Australia website).

There were many such complaints about students learning nothing more than to parrot the contents of a school reader during the nineteenth century.  New South Wales school inspectors, J Gardiner and E Johnson made the following comments which were included in the Council of Education’s annual report of 1867:

Speaking generally, it must be stated that the elements of reading are taught badly.  The ordinary mistake is, to teach the names of the letters of the alphabet instead of the sounds of the letters.  The time consumed in some schools before children even make this small progress ranges from six to twelve months.  Teaching the alphabet is evidently regarded by many teachers as mere drudgery, and as so much lost time, if they are required to perform the duty.  In many instances, therefore, this labour is delegated to monitors, whose time may be said to be wholly occupied in vain endeavours to obtain order.

The monitorial system was still popping up but as Gardiner and Johnson observe, that approach to teaching was not satisfactory.  It is also interesting to note that in this supposed era of discipline, disinterested children misbehaved.

The inspectors continue:

Faults equally objectionable characterize the teaching of reading in most of the succeeding stages.  Little effort is made to explain the meaning of the more difficult words; nothing is done to relieve the lessons of tediousness and monotony, but the pupils read again and again until their minds get so accustomed to the never-varying succession of sounds as to be apprehensive of little else.  Children taught after this fashion, when stopped in the middle of a sentence, and asked to explain the meaning of some word, phrase, or allusion, seem to awake as from a dream, look in perfect bewilderment at the examiner, and seem utterly unable to realize what they are expected to do.  This purely mechanical aspect which is imparted to the teaching of reading is the great defect that underlies the whole of the after teaching.

A child reads and makes certain mistakes; he is told to read again; he reads again, and falls into the same errors; he is ordered to read again; and this process is continued ad libitum.

J Gardiner and E Johnson, ‘Report of the Council of Education Upon the condition of the Public Schools for 1867’, p. 127

The mechanical teaching and learning process was failing to engage either teacher or student.  The teacher regarded teaching the mechanics of the alphabet as “a drudgery”, while the students failed to understand what they read and were so bored they misbehaved.  The relationship between the student and the teacher, seen as crucial for successful learning in the classroom by the Teaching Reading in Australia researchers, was in great need of bolstering.

There were many reasons for the unimaginative and boring learning programs that stifled learning in most New South Wales classrooms.  In the latter part of the nineteenth century voices from within the education system identified the poor standard of training received by teachers as one of the reasons for the poor state of learning in the colony’s schools.

Most teachers were trained under the ‘pupil-teacher’ system in New South Wales during the nineteenth century. Many started this training when they were fourteen.  The training took four years.  It entailed teaching a class full-time under the eye of an assistant teacher taking classes in the same room.  Before and after school, the pupil-teachers would be given classes by the headmaster.  Once a year they would sit for exams.  It was exhausting work.  The teenagers started the day by having a class with the headmaster, then spent a full day trying to discipline pupils who were almost the same age as they were. After school they had more classes with the headmaster then went home and prepared lessons for their pupils the next day.  The quality of the training was not good (Austin 1972, p. 247).

By the end of the century more and more voices of concern about the quality of teacher training were being raised from within the education system (see for example the work done by Margaret Hodge and Harriet C Newcombe to address this issue).  It was increasingly recognised that teaching needed to be regarded as a profession with the requisite pre-service training covering the latest research about how children learned, teaching practice as well as advanced education in the subjects that they were expected to teach to school students. A speech by Professor Francis Anderson at the Annual conference of the Public School Teachers of New South Wales in 1901 was the catalyst that sparked reform in teacher education in that state.  The Sydney Teachers College was established and New South Wales recognised the professional bearing of teachers in the classroom.

Without doubt there have been significant advances in the educational standards and outcomes of New South Wales schools that can be attributed to the professional work of teachers.  As with any profession, there will always be need for ongoing improvement.  Progress will not be made by criticising the entire teaching workforce.  Rather, discussion that considers the views of teachers and eschews short-cut, simplistic ‘fixes’ is more likely to support the education system to address the issues that need addressing.

Further Background

I always try to refer to articles and books in my posts which should be easily accessible by the general reader.  For a more comprehensive reading list, please refer to the bibliographies in the articles and books below.

Austin, A G, Australian Education 1788-1900:  Church, State and Public Education in Colonial Australia, (Carlton, Vic:  Sir Isaac Pitman (Aust) Pty Ltd, 1972).

Campbell, Craig and Geoffrey Sherrington, ‘Education’, Dictionary of Sydney, 2008.

Cormack, Phil, ‘ Reading pedagogy, ‘evidence’ and education policy: Learning from history? Australian Educational Researcher, 38(2), 2010, 133-148.

Green, Bill, Phillip Cormack and Annette Patterson, ‘Re-Reading the Reading Lesson:  Episodes in the History of Reading Pedagogy’, Teaching Reading in Australia, 2010.

Job, Peter, ‘Teacher quality’ and the myth of educational failure’, The Drum, 25/6/2012.

Trethewey, Lynne and Kay Whitehead, ‘Sowing the Seeds of a Pre-Service Model of Teacher Education in the Early Twentieth Century’, Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 28(1), 2003, Article 4.

2 thoughts on “Teaching Quality – Discovering the Teacher’s Role in Learning

  1. Interesting, Yvonne. My grandmother’s older brother was a pupil teacher in Queensland, about the turn of the 20C. He later rose through the system to become a headmaster.

    I couldn’t comment on the quality of his teaching, but I know from my own experience that the process of teaching is an excellent method of learning. I think the pupil teachers learned a lot through the process – equivalent to an apprenticeship really – and it provided a measure of social mobility for bright children to move into a white collar occupation.

    I’m not advocating a return to it (!) but it had its uses.


    • Thankyou for making this thoughtful comment Marion. I agree that the pupil-teacher training was probably an effective way of raising many teachers in Australia while the education system was at the fledgling stage. However, by the turn of the century the limitations of this training for many teachers was becoming evident to many observers. Learning was a miserable experience for many of the students and consequently their potential to learn was stifled.

      It is interesting to read Professor Anderson’s comments at the Teachers’ conference in 1901. while criticising the current system of teacher training and advocating a complete overhaul, he said that “I do not overlook the number of excellent teachers among you, men and women who, in spite of little reward and much discouragement, have striven to make themselves acquainted with the best that is thought and done in education. But I feel sure that such men and women will be the first to rejoice in any reform which will make the path less difficult for their successors” (Francis Anderson, ‘The Public School System of New South Wales’, Angus and Robertson, 1901, pp 26-7). He acknowledged that some teachers could become excellent teachers under the pupil-teacher system. What he was arguing was that very few teachers were able to attain to this level because the pupil-teacher system gave them very few opportunities to do so. The pay was bad, the working hours were exhausting during the years of training and many pupil-teachers were taught by head teachers who also had very limited training. It was a sink or swim method, and too many teachers floundered.

      The new system of teacher training that was offered by colleges during the twentieth century incorporated teaching practice in schools as well as academic work. As with any professional training there needs to be a balance between both.


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