Transformative turns in the profession of teaching

As Australians, we are currently living in new times where traditional values concerning families, work and leisure have been reconstituted to reflect postmodern times, Dean, Education Policy and Strategy, Australian Catholic University Tania Aspland writes.

Learners are becoming disconnected from traditional school based practices and teachers struggle to elicit support from parents and guardians. With fruitful economic reform in Australia, students should be in an education system that promises plentiful employment opportunities. The world ahead offers diverse career pathways. However, employers claim that schools and universities are failing to prepare students for a productive future.

Are teachers facilitating learning pathways that complement the future challenges of employment?

The OECD’s The Future of Education and Skills 2030 project has raised two key questions:

What knowledge, skills, attitudes and values will today’s students need to thrive and shape their world?

How can instructional systems develop these knowledge, skills, attitudes and values effectively?

These are significant questions for teachers as our society demands a different type of graduate. The national school curriculum and the current schooling structures, including the role of teachers, may not be aligned with the demands implicit in this international report and the changing nature of education.

Globalisation has reshaped dominant cultural practices and as such, a local curriculum can become somewhat misplaced as students engage with world issues, disasters, terrorism, and an uncertain future.

Teachers interact with multiple student identities and the problems they live out each day as they juggle these conflicting identities. Students and teachers are challenged by far ranging agendas that intersect with curriculum content, pedagogy and assessment.

The cultural constructs in which they are living – youth culture, hybrid families, transient employment, fractured relationships and economic diversity – are often at odds with the vision and mission of the school curriculum.

All too often students are leading what Dorothy Smith (1990) refers to as ‘bifurcated lives’ where they experience what is required of them by parents, teachers and employers and what they perceive to be realistic and meaningful learning interactions. This is particularly the case for those students who are in search of the ‘wow’ factor in school.

Double lives

This bifurcation can be lived out in many ways. Some students may comply and live out the expectations of the teaching profession and their school administrators albeit incongruent with their own ideals. Others live out the incongruencies through disruptions, non compliance, disrespectful engagement and disconnection. The professional education landscape is fraught with tensions, uncertainty and incongruencies that are leaving many stakeholders – teachers, students and parents – feeling disengaged.

The teaching profession must recognise and reconstitute the nature of teachers’ work. The profession must consider a move away from the traditional conceptions of teachers’ work to a more differentiated model of learning engagement that defines teachers as knowledge workers.

Within the paradigm of normativity, the constructs of knowledge are envisaged as finite – bodies of knowledge that are fixed and predetermined, like that which is conveyed as ‘text book’ knowledge.

Underpinning this view of knowledge is a belief that student learning is primarily about the acquisition of finite and factual material delivered by experts through dictation and demonstration that leads to the understanding of pre-specified content. Aligned to this way of thinking, the conception of the teacher is of one unit per one space and essentially teaching is shaped around one curriculum document that is largely reproductive of the status quo of the privileged.

The purpose of schooling in this conception of education is reductionist in nature, designed primarily to prepare students for existing (not future) work or vocational engagement and, to largely sustain the constructs, structures and functions of the existing society.

I suggest this model of schooling or education is no longer viable for students of the new generation who are characterised differently as learners and the leaders of the future.

As I have noted some time ago (Aspland 2011), a traditional model of schooling advocates certainty in uncertain times. It is based on an ontological world view that is at odds with the explosion of knowledge that accompanies global connectivity. It presumes an unproblematic view of knowledge acquisition despite contexts where contestation, dilemmas and ambiguity prevail; a conception that is no longer desirable in the changing world of schooling.

Alternative teaching

The profession needs to embraces an alternative conception of teachers as knowledge workers for new times.

It is an educational necessity that schools and universities take up the challenge of managing global knowledge as the core of learning. Knowledge is multiplying quickly across the globe and it is accessible to all, in uncensored forms at all hours of the day and night. Students need no longer restrict learning to institutional contexts but have access to learning indefinitely. In this sense students do not rely on schools or teachers for learning.

In a time when students are feeling alienated and teachers demoralised due to the changing nature of education and the increasing regulation of our industry, we must counter the many attempts to deskill our profession.

Teachers need to reinvent the ways they work with knowledge and manage teaching and learning experiences differently for a new generation of learners.

Students want learning to be no longer restricted by traditional schooling structures of time, space and rules of engagement. In these complex times, the conceptions of learning must reflect a paradigm that values collaboration, collegiality, connectivity and the ongoing cycle of knowledge construction, deconstruction and reconstruction as central to higher level thinking.

This of course implies the urgent need for a new national curriculum framework, new roles for teachers and a relocation of the facilitation of learning into more open spaces (both virtual and material).

The challenge for our profession is to work collaboratively as an educational community of teachers, unions, governments and universities to create new ways of managing knowledge; to reconfigure schools to become learning communities not institutions of regulated learning.

In these new settings, the teacher is one of a diverse professional team. Teachers as knowledge managers are called upon to facilitate learning through social networks of expert teams and new patterns of collaboration as multidisciplinary partners leading learning.

They are called upon to replace the singular classroom and its inherent power relations with new communities of learners who engage both locally and globally through personal and technological forms of communication, interaction, debate and discussion in the place of didactic instruction. The monological classroom discourse is replaced by spirited debate as students strive to build a better future. This analysis and call for reform is not rocket science. There are plentiful cases of innovation across Australia, but they are largely a result of individual efforts that lack support from governments and as such, are difficult to sustain.

Profession in crisis

The IEUA National Conference this year provided evidence of such innovation and yet also highlighted the challenges outlined above. Some might say the profession is in crisis and that we are losing our professional autonomy.

If we fail as a profession to address what is problematic we may be under threat of extinction. In a time when students are feeling alienated and teachers demoralised due to the changing nature of education and the increasing regulation of our industry, we must counter the many attempts to deskill our profession. We must reclaim our profession and take control of our work as teachers and at the same time embrace the future challenges of curriculum, pedagogy and learning.

I uphold the belief that a profession such as ours represents “a disciplined group of individuals who adhere to ethical standards and who hold themselves out as and are accepted by the public as possessing special knowledge and skills in a widely recognised body of learning derived from research, education and training at a high level, and who are prepared to apply this knowledge and exercise these skills in the interest of others”. (

While the profile of teachers and teaching as a profession experience constant review and critique in the media, we continue to enhance the lives of our students in conditions that are challenging. Our moral obligation to our community is upheld due to our commitment to the profession despite the challenges outlined above.

However, it is timely to consider how we position ourselves as professionals in the future. It is time for change and the reconstitution of our work as teachers, but we must determine who we are to become as a profession and we need to do so professionally, collectively and with confidence.


Aspland T 2011 Teacher Education for new times: Differentiate or die. Journal of Research, Policy & Practice of Teachers & Teacher Education (JRPPTTE), 2011 Vol. 1, Issue 1, p77-87.

OECD 2018 The Future of Education and Skills 2030 project. Paris: OECD Publishing

Professional Standards Council (2014). What is a profession?