Curriculum review filled with contradictions

The National Curriculum Review prompts more questions than answers and leaves educators unsure of the future. AAP

A close reading of Dr Kevin Donnelly and Professor Ken Wiltshire’s review of the Australian Curriculum reveals contradictory messages regarding the future curriculum for primary and secondary schools.

The reviewers acknowledge that Australia is the first federal country in the world to have a comprehensive national curriculum that includes knowledge, standards and capabilities.

They admit there is strong support and appreciation across the country for what ACARA (the Australian Curriculum and Reporting Authority) has achieved in developing the curriculum, in spite of some initial doubts and resistance.

The curriculum should have less … but more. AAP

While they cannot agree on the way ahead for schools, they argue the curriculum needs to be pared back, but also should have more depth.

They recommend that the focus in the early years of primary school should be on literacy and numeracy, but also that schools should include a more holistic approach, with a focus on values, morals and an increased emphasis on spirituality and student well-being.

These goals are already included in the “general capabilities” that are part of the current curriculum and which outline things students should be learning that aren’t necessarily maths or English. These include personal and social capabilities, critical and creative thinking, and ethical and cultural understanding, which should be present in the teaching of all subjects.

Yet the reviewers recommend:

With the exception of literacy, numeracy and ICT, which continue as they are in the Australian curriculum, the remaining four general capabilities are no longer treated in a cross-curricular fashion.

They undermine the general capabilities further in the recommendation that:

Critical and creative thinking, personal and social capability, and intercultural understanding should be embedded only in those subjects and areas of learning where relevant.

These crucial life lessons for young Australians can’t be developed in a lesson or two. This learning is achieved through planning by educators educating the whole person beyond just subject-based learning.

On the one hand, the reviewers recommend a “back-to-basics approach”, but admit they are

persuaded that the lack of integration of the curriculum in the primary years – particularly in the humanities and social sciences – has exacerbated the issue of an overcrowded curriculum.

Exercise caution with inquiry learning … but teachers should decide how they teach. AAP

Further, they conclude that education authorities should implement the content of the Australian Curriculum with some flexibility in how it is sequenced and delivered.

They recognise the importance of the independence of schools to offer a tailored curriculum that meets the specific and local needs of the school’s population. But they then offer a reductionist view that emphasises the core learning areas of English, maths and science in the primary years.

The reviewers criticise inquiry and constructivist learning, which are methods of teaching that encourage students to take charge of their own learning with questions and problem solving, but also say:

Of course there is nothing wrong with diversity in approaches to curriculum delivery. Indeed, it is to be applauded given the scope for adaptation to different school contexts, populations and locations, not to mention the benefits of innovation.

In spite of comments throughout the review reporting satisfaction with the Australian curriculum, and even the conclusion that the cross-curriculum priorities of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures, Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia, and sustainability, should be retained (with some revisions), there is very limited discussion of these priorities and advice on the way ahead for them.

The findings of “new”, “fresh” subject specialists included in the review seem to hold more sway than the diverse submissions of 1,600 education authorities and curriculum organisations. For example, the Australian Academy of Science and the Australian Science Teachers Association express support for the science curriculum and its inclusion in the early years of education. But “subject specialist” Professor Igor Bray suggests that science should not be introduced until Year 3.

The subject matter specialist commissioned to consider the geography curriculum, Mr Alan Hill, suggests a major rewrite and restructure of content in the geography curriculum to address his perception of an imbalance between physical and human geography. Yet the expert panel who advised on the curriculum felt that the balance was correct. At the end of it all, we are left with little clarity about what’s next.

Both reviewers conclude that in years 9 and 10, 11 subjects are to be studied - language, history, geography, economics, business, civics and citizenship, health and physical education, technologies, the arts, science and maths - at the discretion of the education authorities. The cross-curriculum priorities will be retained as well. This increases rather than pares back what students will study at these levels.

So Education Minister Christopher Pyne still has much work to do when he sits down with state and territory education ministers in December to ponder the review findings. The contradictions and suggestions in the review may well encourage the states and territories to develop the curriculum in their own varied ways and undermine the progress that had been made with the curriculum.

We are left wondering if implementing the current online Australian curriculum might be a more helpful way ahead for schools.