Last week the states agreed to the implementation of changes to the national school curriculum brought about by the National Curriculum Review undertaken last year.
Of the 30 recommendations, the government ultimately followed through on only four:
- Reduce curriculum crowding
- Increase parent accessibility
- Address the needs of students with intellectual disabilities
- Increase phonics in the curriculum
So what does this mean for what our kids are learning in schools?
Misty Adoniou, Senior Lecturer in Language, Literacy and TESL, University of Canberra
A year ago Messrs Donnelly and Wiltshire published the results of their review of the Australian Curriculum. They made 30 recommendations for changes to the curriculum - including more emphasis on a Judaeo-Christian heritage and more phonics, of which four were implemented and agreed by the states.
A year on, where are we?
For a start, we have a new education minister in Simon Birmingham - a young minister who backed Malcolm Turnbull in the Liberal leadership coup and was rewarded with the ministry. A Liberal progressive, Birmingham thinks the ousted Liberal leadership was not future-oriented, so it seems unlikely he will be as fixated on ancient cultural references and back-to-the-‘50s phonics programs as his predecessor was.
Nonetheless, in what turned out to be his final act as minister, Christopher Pyne did manage to get aspects of his sponsored curriculum review ratified by the state education ministers last week.
The curriculum has become “uncrowded” by combining history, geography, civics and citizenship, and economics and business into one subject - which is what everybody had been doing anyway. So not much innovation there, just a bit of smoke and mirrors. The state education ministers did, however, do a bit of curriculum “re-crowding” by adding a domestic violence strategy to the curriculum mix.
Parent accessibility to the curriculum has been addressed by a somewhat imperceptible website redesign. Adapting the curriculum for students with intellectual disabilities is a worthy but challenging task, which is going to take another year or two to materialise.
And that leaves us with phonics - there will be even more phonics in the English curriculum. We can be assured Australian children will most definitely know their sounds. Whether they will learn to read with comprehension is an entirely different matter.
So, all in all, the curriculum review was much ado about nothing much - just an exercise where a newly incumbent government sprays a policy from a previous government so that it smells more like them.
I wonder what the review recommendations would have been if we had asked the “consumers”, the ones who have this curriculum done unto them - the students. Heaven forbid they’d know what works for them but let’s suppose for a moment they did. I suspect they might have wanted things that never feature in any curriculum - relevance, purpose, excitement, humour.
Of course, these are not curriculum content descriptors; they are not knowledge to be learned. However, they would make worthy cross-curriculum priorities - threads that run through all the subject areas. I’d even be happy with a footer on each page of the Australian Curriculum that said something like
Don’t forget the joy of learning.
Now that would be an innovative curriculum reform.
Bill Louden, Emeritus Professor of Education, University of Western Australia
Australia’s national curriculum has now been endorsed in eight learning areas by the Ministerial Education Council. The result of thousands of consultation meetings since 2007, hundreds of draft versions across the many learning areas, dozens of Ministerial Council meetings and a major rewrite following the Donnelly/Wiltshire review in 2014, the national curriculum will now be implemented in all Australian schools from 2016.
The great achievement is that the curriculum matter has been settled: nationally, we have agreed to stop arguing the toss about curriculum content for a while and get on with the more important work of implementation.
This is important, because it provides a common structure for resource development. Textbook publishers can focus on a larger national market, rather than one segmented by state and territory borders. Australia’s wonderful collection of digital educational resources can be indexed back to a common structure. And teacher-made materials and units of work can be shared nationally, building the quality of resources available and reducing workload for people teaching similar groups of children in different locations.
In schools, a settled Australian curriculum is just the start. Schools still need the things that matter most: leaders who focus on classroom teaching rather than what is in the principal’s in-tray; school-based scope and sequence plans for each term and year; close attention to achievement data; fine-grained achievement targets for individual students; peer observation and in-class coaching of teachers; and teaching practices supported by rigorous research evidence.
Glenn Savage, Senior Lecturer in Education Policy, Melbourne Graduate School of Education, University of Melbourne
The design of the Australian Curriculum has emerged out of complex debates about the kinds of knowledge and skills young people need in an increasingly globalising and changing world.
In an attempt to reconcile competing arguments about curriculum design, the curriculum seeks to blend three distinct dimensions, each reflecting a different way of understanding curriculum:
The discipline-based “Learning Areas” are the traditional school subjects, or what students need to know. There are strong arguments for maintaining disciplines at the heart of a curriculum.
“General Capabilities” outline the skills or attributes that are seen to be relevant to young people, or what students need to be able to do in our increasingly globalised 21st century.
“Cross-Curriculum Priorities” require teachers to engage with contemporary issues not necessarily made explicit in the school subjects. These are currently Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories and Cultures; Sustainability; and Asia and Australia’s Engagement with Asia.
Through attempting to blend these three dimensions, the Australian Curriculum responds to a number of different and potentially competing arguments about what students “should know and be able to do”, by marrying traditional disciplinary knowledge with 21st-century skills and contemporary political priorities.
The latest Education Council changes to the curriculum have not flagged a change to this three-dimensional structure, although the exact nature of change remains to be seen.
At the end of the day, however, it’s what gets “put into practice” that matters most. We can argue about the “content” of a curriculum until the cows come home – and these are clearly important arguments to have – but the truth remains that the “real” curriculum is always that which is put into practice in Australian schools.
When curriculum ideas and priorities get translated into practice, the curriculum often manifests in diverse and sometimes unexpected ways, sometimes producing outcomes quite different from those the curriculum writers set out to achieve.
There’s also a good argument to be made that Australia doesn’t really have a national curriculum yet. Instead, our federal system of governance has ensured multiple interpretations and enactments of the curriculum have emerged across states and territories.
In Victoria, for example, the AusVels curriculum (last week renamed the Victorian Curriculum) has emerged, which represents a hybrid of the Australian Curriculum (Aus) and the previous Victorian Essential Learning Standards (Vels).
The emergence of state and territory hybrids means there are now multiple versions of the Australian Curriculum operating across the nation, rather than one homogenous version.
Despite what we might “want” a curriculum to look like, what we “get” is the result of multiple actors, at multiple levels of government, and in multiple schools and sectors, who enact the curriculum in different ways.
Nevertheless, ongoing debates about the content of schooling are not only inevitable, but are an essential condition of a healthy schooling system and democracy. As the recent federal review suggests:
There is little as controversial in education as determining what it is that young people should be able to know, understand and be able to do following their time at school.