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It’s time for parents to have their say on the national curriculum

The parents’ voice has been left out of the curriculum conversation. AAP/Dan Peled

Australia’s national curriculum, which is set to be reviewed, is an easy document for anyone to find and read. It really doesn’t require two experts – or six months – to report on it.

Over the past six years or so, thousands of experts have already had their input. Now it’s time for the parents of the tens of thousands of children who will be taught the curriculum to have their say.

What is the Australian Curriculum?

The Australian Curriculum describes what we think all students in Australia should know and do throughout each year of schooling.

It was introduced by the Howard Coalition government, and an independent board was set up to oversee its construction. The work continued under the Rudd/Gillard governments. Over more than six years, teachers, students, parents and citizens associations, academics and employers participated in a nationwide public consultation process to develop the curriculum, alongside an extensive audit of the national curricula of other countries.

So far, the English, Maths, History, Science and Geography curricula have rolled off the production line. This means they have made it through several years of drafting and consultation, and been signed off by every state and territory education minister, of both political persuasions.

Are there links between the national curriculum and declining international test results?

We can’t blame the national curriculum for a decline in Australia’s results in international and national tests. The English, Maths, History, and Science curricula were released only three years ago, and only the ACT has implemented them from the beginning. Victoria began implementation in 2013 and NSW will roll it out this year.

If Australia’s decline in national and international standardised testing could be reduced to something as simplistic as a faulty curriculum, then existing state curricula would have to bear the blame.

But the reality is curricula don’t teach children, teachers do. The national curriculum describes what to teach, but doesn’t tell teachers how to teach. Teachers must bring their own skills and knowledge of their students and their local contexts to the task of turning curriculum content into student learning.

It will be an investment in teaching that will change student learning outcomes, not tinkering with curriculum content.

Easy to read

Education minister Christopher Pyne and the two men he has charged with reviewing the curriculum, Kevin Donnelly and Ken Wiltshire, have all claimed that the curriculum is full of “impenetrable jargon”, and “eduspeak”.

These documents are written for educational professionals who have completed lengthy university degrees so we would expect there to be some language that is specialist to its field. In much the same way, doctors and lawyers have to deal with the jargon that is both necessary and specific to their fields.

National curriculum documents can be easily read by interested parents of students. AAP/Dan Peled

Notwithstanding that, the curriculum documents are remarkably free of unnecessary jargon. They are very easily read by interested parents and citizens. As an example, here are the four key inquiry questions that constitute the year’s curriculum for History in Year 6, which are typical of the plain English used throughout the curriculum.

Why and how did Australia become a nation?

How did Australian society change throughout the twentieth century?

Who were the people who came to Australia? Why did they come?

What contribution have significant individuals and groups made to the development of Australian society?

The national curriculum is a remarkably concise document, nothing like the “telephone book” Donnelly has described it as.

In the primary school years, one year’s content for each curriculum area fits onto one or two computer screenshots. In each secondary curriculum area, every year level has two or three pages of content. It’s hard to imagine how a year’s worth of content could be reduced any further, or why it would need to be.

A radical left-wing curriculum?

The content of the national curriculum is actually very conservative. The classic “Australian” touchstone of Anzac Day is covered explicitly in Year 3 and Year 9 history. The History Content Descriptors in Foundation, Year 1, Year 2 invite teachers to cover Anzac Day when they look at meaningful celebrations in the children’s lives and communities.

For those, such as Pyne, who are concerned Western civilisation and its impact on today’s Australia might not be getting a fair run, children in Years 4, 5 and 6 spend that time exploring the establishment of white colonial Australia through to modern-day Australia. And they do it again in Year 8, Year 9 and Year 10.

There is also nothing airy fairy about the new English curriculum – it’s all about explicit teaching of the language. In Year 1 – as well as a solid grounding in phonics – students learn about nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbial phrases.

The English curriculum ensures that students’ strength in the English language is more profound than some of their parents. AAP/Dan Peled

In Year 2 they move on to noun groups, articles, clauses and co-ordinating conjunctions, which will make seven-year-olds more linguistically savvy than the majority of the current Australian adult population.

A curriculum for all?

A nation’s curriculum should reflect its citizens. The appointed panel of two middle-aged Anglo-Australian reviewers will have no trouble seeing themselves in the current national curriculum.

Australia’s national curriculum is a pretty innocuous collection of traditional Anglo content. This is a shame for all the non-Anglo Australians in our classrooms who will find it much harder to see their lives and experiences being described.

As a result, teachers will have to work hard to ensure the curriculum meets the needs of all their students. And parents should be partners in that work.

By reading the curriculum content for their children’s year levels, parents can find the places they can help the teacher with resources, information and stories about their families and experiences. That will help the curriculum content come alive for all the students in the class.

This way, all students will be able to see themselves reflected in the curriculum. After all, it was written for all Australian children.

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