Proscription and Prescription: Bitter Medicine for Teachers

Australia is a big country. A very big country. Despite being the size of the continental USA, it has only 22,000,000 people, scattered across the country and concentrated in large cities. This allows for a great deal of regional variation in terms of local culture, accents (yes, there is more than one Australian accent) and local industry requirements. Because of this, despite having national educational standards and shared ideas of what constitutes acceptable entry levels for University, there are understandable regional differences in the primary, secondary and tertiary studies.

Maintaining standards is hard, especially when you start to consider regional issues – whose standards are you maintaining. How do you set these standards? Are they prescriptions (a list of things that you must do) or proscriptions (a list of things that you mustn’t do)? There’s a big difference in course and program definition depending upon how you do this. If you prescribe a set textbook then everyone has to use it to teach with but can bring in other materials. If you proscribe unauthorised textbooks then you have suddenly reduced the amount of initiative and independence that can be displayed by your staff.

Excuse me, Doctor, you appear to be writing in invisible ink…

As always, I’m going to draw an analogue with our students to think about how we guide them. Do we tell them what we want and identify those aspects that we want them to use, or do we tell them what not to do, limit their options and then look surprised when they don’t explore the space and hand in something that conforms in a dull and lifeless manner?

I’m a big fan of combining prescription, in terms of desirable characteristics, and proscription, in terms of pitfalls and traps, but in an oversight model that presents the desirable aspects first and monitors the situation to see if behaviour is straying towards the proscribed. Having said that, the frequent flyers of the proscription world, plagiarism and cheating, always get mentioned up front – but as the weak twin of the appropriate techniques of independent research, thoughtful summarisation, correct attribution and doing your own work. Rather than just saying “DO NOT CHEAT”, I try to frame it in terms of what the correct behaviour is and how we classify it if someone goes off that path.

However, any compulsory inclusions or unarguable exclusions must be justified for the situation at hand – and should be both defensible and absolutely necessary. When we start looking at a higher level, above the individual school to the district, to the region, to the state, to the country, any complex set of prescriptions and proscriptions is very likely to start causing regional problems. Why? Because not all regions are the same. Because not all districts have the money to meet your prescriptions. Because not all cultures may agree with your proscriptions.

This post was triggered by a post from a great teacher I know, to whom I am also related, who talked about having to take everything unofficial out of her class. Her frustration with this, the way it made her feel, the way it would restrict her – an award winning teacher – made me realise how privileged I am to work in a place where nobody really ever tells me what to do or how to teach. While it’s good for me to remember that I am privileged in this regard, perhaps it’s also good to think about the constant clash between state, bureaucracy and education that exist in some other places.

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