For the last 18 months, the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) have been revising the foundation to year 10 curriculum. A draft version of the document released in April, sparked fierce debate about what should and should not be included.
Education ministers across the country will likely consider approving version 9.0 of the curriculum in early 2022. States and territories will then have the task of negotiating timelines for implementing the revised curriculum into their systems and structures.
There are three things education ministers should remember about the curriculum’s purpose that should underpin their decisions.
1. It is not a set of instructions
The purpose of a curriculum is not to ensure all teachers across Australia are teaching the same thing at the same time. Instead, a curriculum provides a map for teachers to make choices about what will engage their students. It gives teachers the broad boundaries of the learning that should occur across the year in each subject.
In 2008, then Education Minister Julia Gillard promised a curriculum that would assure families moving interstate their education would not be impacted, as a national curriculum would mean consistency in each state, region and school. Many denounced this justification for the curriculum, recognising there are no assurances a school’s approach would be identical. They were right.
Every child receiving an identical curriculum education is not possible, nor is it fair. A lock-step curriculum doesn’t consider the learning needs and prior knowledge of the students in the classroom. Our students are not identical, nor is what they need from a curriculum.
Teachers need to be trusted as professionals. They are best placed to determine what their students need at different times. What they need from the curriculum is the flexibility to make those choices.
2. It can’t ‘fix’ every social issue
One of the aims of the curriculum review was to
refine and reduce the amount of content across all eight learning areas […] to focus on essential content or core concepts
But there have still been criticisms the proposed draft remains dense and unwieldy. The curriculum is a collection of content defining each subject’s important knowledge and skills. It outlines the essential knowledge all students need to know in a subject, in dense policy language.
The curriculum also includes a number of general skills, known as the General Capabilities. Some of these enable learning, such as literacy, numeracy, information and communications technology ability, and critical and creative thinking. Other general capabilities support students to learn how to live with others. This includes ethical behaviour, personal and social skills and intercultural understanding.
These general skills provide an avenue to cover a wide array of topics and ideas that help students in their personal development. Rather than telling our children how to think, these capabilities empower students to interpret their world, allowing them to consider how to engage with others and react appropriately.
However, as issues arise in our society, we hear the cry for them to be added to the curriculum taught in schools. Domestic violence programs, bullying programs, bushfire education – all of these are worthwhile and should be taught. However, locking them into the curriculum would mean teachers do not have the flexibility to respond to them in a timely way, or to new issues that emerge.
The general capabilities provide a curriculum with flexibility to allow teachers to respond to the social issues affecting students in front of them. Programs developed to teach important topics such as bullying should support the curriculum, not be added to it.
But by continuing to wedge in and tack on to the curriculum, we simply overwhelm teachers with areas they may not have time to cover appropriately.
3. Students need more than numeracy and literacy to flourish
The Australian Curriculum review in 2014 proposed narrowing curriculum offerings. This means focusing on literacy and numeracy alone in the early years, and adding three or four subjects in upper primary before reintroducing the array of learning areas in high school.
These recommendations weren’t adopted, and the current proposed curriculum doesn’t reflect these ideas either. But there are still calls to focus on the so-called “basics” of literacy and numeracy in the early years.
These are misguided. Every learning area can expand students’ literacy and numeracy, but a timetable should not be English and maths alone. As well as being valuable for their own sake, subjects like music and languages provide students with cognitive benefits that can flow to other learning areas. Design technologies encourage critical and creative thinking, while humanities and social sciences help students understand their place in the world and develop empathy for others.
All of these things are just as important in the early years as they are in secondary school.
Learning needs to be engaging and challenging, broadening student horizons. In April 2021, CEO of ACARA, David de Carvalho, wrote the authority was “giving the national curriculum the ‘Marie Kondo’ treatment”. While he meant a move towards minimalism, it’s more important for ministers and their advisors to ask themselves “does this curriculum bring students joy?” For Australian kids, that is the most important question.