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National curriculum review: experts respond

The reviewers say the Australian Curriculum doesn’t have enough emphasis on our Judeo-Christian heritage and Western influence. What do the experts say? AAP

The much awaited review of the National Curriculum has finally been released with the reviewers calling for more of a focus on Western literature, and recognition of Australia’s “Judeo-Christian” heritage.

They reported the foundations of Australia’s heritage were being neglected, along with lessons on morals and spirituality.

The review, undertaken by former teacher and education researcher Kevin Donnelly and business academic Ken Wiltshire, was to:

consider the robustness, independence and balance of the Australian Curriculum

The review offers 30 recommendations in total, including:

  • More emphasis on our Judeo-Christian heritage, the role of Western civilisation in contributing to our society, and the influence of our British system of government
  • more emphasis on morals, values and spirituality
  • there should be a renewed focus on monitoring students’ progress
  • a smaller, more parent-friendly curriculum should be developed
  • examples of A to E standards of work should be created as markers of quality
  • the amount of content in the curriculum should be reduced, especially in the primary years. Prep to Year 2 should focus on literacy and numeracy
  • more research should be undertaken into different methods of teaching, with the results to inform future evaluations of the curriculum
  • a restructure of the curriculum authority, ACARA, should take place so it is “at arm’s length” from education ministers and the education department
  • the curriculum should be reviewed every five years.

We asked a panel of experts to comment on the findings.

Stewart Riddle, Lecturer in Literacies Education, University of Southern Queensland

This is a review where the outcome was pre-determined by the minister’s choice of reviewers and a long-running media campaign of promoting a “back to the basics” approach.

Yet, reading through this “balanced” and “fair” review, the first thing that struck me was the staggering lack of engagement with empirical research. Apart from government reports and curriculum documents, there are only a handful of references to research literature. Given the scope and scale of this review, such a limited engagement with evidence is troubling.

It seems that the whole curriculum review, from its announcement through to release, has been little more than a political distraction from addressing serious concerns about equity in our schools. For example, the review highlights the importance of addressing educational needs for students with a disability, while the government is cutting $100 million from disability programs.

There is an irony, perhaps lost on the reviewers, that they criticise a supposed ideological bias towards “whole language” in the English curriculum, yet adhere to a liberal-humanist vision of education, when they say:

Defining the purpose of education in terms of strengthening equity and social justice is warranted. At the same time, adopting a politically correct approach in areas like sustainability, Asia and Indigenous histories and cultures, and in subjects like history and civics and citizenship compromises the integrity of a liberal–humanist view.

It is unsurprising that the review calls for more emphasis on the Western literary canon. This has been Donnelly’s position for a long time. Nor is it a surprise that the review calls for greater emphasis on a mythologised Judeo-Christian heritage.

Of course, how much the curriculum is altered depends on how much of this review gets taken up by the various education ministers and their departments. No doubt, the existential challenges facing the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) will also be important over the coming months.

However, one thing is certain; any changes won’t be implemented in time for the 2015 school year, as Mr Pyne so optimistically predicted.

Misty Adoniou, Language and Literacy Researcher, University of Canberra

Many of the review’s “findings” are no surprise because they were “found” back in January before the review commenced.

The broad recommendations are to get rid of four of the seven general capabilities, and the three cross curriculum priorities of sustainability, engagement with Asia, and indigenous culture, and reduce the number of subjects studied in primary schools.

In the English curriculum the recommendations are to increase the amount of phonics taught and increase the focus on Western literature - just as they said they would be.

Perhaps the recommendation that was less predictable is the proposed restructuring of the early years curriculum - and it would appear the two curriculum reviewers have different ideas on what this might look like.

Dr Donnelly is suggesting Foundation to Year 2 be taught only English, Maths, History and Science. It appears Dr Donnelly is happy with the Foundation to Year 2 English curriculum as it is - but he’d like more focus on phonics teaching and less focus on “whole language”. Given that the current curriculum makes not one mention of “whole language”, and 10 of the 30 Foundation content descriptors are about phonics, and another 15 are about the linguistics of English it shouldn’t be too hard to achieve Dr Donnelly’s vision.

Dr Wiltshire is suggesting Foundation to Year 2 be taught only literacy and numeracy. His proposed model will be appealing to many early childhood educators as he is proposing that literacy and numeracy can be taught

incorporating important areas of child development such as play-based learning, socialisation and movement and coordination

The review doesn’t make it clear how Dr Wiltshire’s model would be enacted. Literacy isn’t a “subject” to be studied, it is a capability. It is how we communicate content. Dr Wiltshire does recognise this, stating

teachers would use relevant content from disciplines as they develop literacy and numeracy content and skills

However, given that his model includes no discipline content for Foundation to Year 2 it is not clear where this discipline content would come from. Perhaps it is up to the teachers themselves? That would be a novel idea.

Bill Louden, Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Western Australia

Getting the national school curriculum right is a serious business, so it is good news that the Donnelly/Wiltshire Review has taken a serious look at the strengths and weaknesses of the current Australian Curriculum.

It was a pleasant surprise to see the current Australian Curriculum described as “a significant achievement,” considering the florid remarks made by the reviewers before the review began.

The review offers a few of the expected free kicks about the lack of focus on Australia’s Judeo-Christian heritage and the impact and significance of Western civilisation, but on the whole it is a fair and thoughtful response to the many submissions received.

The review endorses the widely held view that overcrowding - too much content - is the most serious problem with the current Australian Curriculum.

It acknowledges that the compromises required to satisfy the range of stakeholders’ views have not been enough to deliver a truly national curriculum.

And it draws attention to a design weakness observable from the beginning: the absence of an overarching framework.

The recommendation that the “cross-curriculum priorities” and “general capabilities” be more firmly anchored in subject content will not please everyone, but it will help simplify the curriculum.

Similarly, there will be mixed views about the comments about the basics in English.

Professional associations were typically satisfied with the amount of emphasis on phonics and phonemic awareness in the teaching of reading, and the review has acknowledged that the Australian Curriculum deals with these issues in a more balanced way than earlier curriculum documents.

But given the fundamental importance of these decoding skills as the gateway to literacy and to much of the rest of the school curriculum, it seems reasonable to recommend that there be some further review of approaches to teaching reading in the early years of schooling.

David Zyngier, Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Education at Monash University

The review states that claims that the Australian Curriculum has been developed to world’s best practice are wide of the mark – especially in the lack of an explicit values foundation, set of design principles, and holistic approach to schooling.

It finds a number of significant flaws in its conceptualisation and design making claims that it is “world class” or “best practice” questionable.

It suggests that

the single-minded adherence to the prescriptions of the Melbourne Declaration and the failure to initially consider how all the elements of the curriculum would fit together has led to a monolithic, inflexible and unwieldy curriculum. It is imperative that this is addressed as a matter of urgency.

It is however a pleasant surprise to find that the review agrees that there is strong support for students being taught about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures, Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia, and sustainability.

Yet the reviewers are not convinced of the efficacy of having a cross-curriculum “dimension” of the curriculum that does not clearly anchor these so-called priorities in the content of learning areas and subjects, and recommend that a complete reconceptualisation of the teaching of the cross-curriculum priorities be undertaken.

However it is of no surprise that Donnelly and Wiltshire find that constructivist teaching – pedagogies which are now being taught throughout Australia and to new teachers in our faculties of education need to be rebalanced with more “back to the basics” teaching through direct and explicit instruction.

Constructivist pedagogy is incorrectly termed “student-centred inquiry learning” by the reviewers which is a total misunderstanding of constructivism which is based on extensive evidence based research about “what works” for all children not just those from the middle class.

Simply put constructivism is the theory that humans generate knowledge and meaning from an interaction between their experiences of the real world with others and their own ideas and is supported by learning psychologists as diverse as Dewey, Piaget, Bruner and Vygostsky. I seriously doubt that Wiltshire and Donnelly rank in their league!

A case in point is The Civics & Citizenship Education (CCE) Curriculum. This area of study, for example, is critiqued not by an educator or someone expert in the development of CCE but a professor of constitutional law who states that she is categorically against the inclusion of the cross-curriculum priorities “as a general principle”.

Her view, accepted by the reviewers is that CCE should be more focused on an instrumentalist and content based curriculum teaching about democracy but not teaching for democracy. The review understands CCE in thin electoral terms with a focus on system of government and purposively rejects any discussion of diversity as too ideological. The “expert” recommends that dealing

with ideological issues concerning the formation of identity, respect for others, shared values and belonging, would be more usefully included in the formative primary years, while in the secondary years, it would be more appropriate to teach the elements of the curriculum that require analytical thought and greater technical understanding of the system of government.

This is in fact what many experts in CCE research suggest is and has been wrong with our historic teaching of civics and what actually turns students off this subject – the focus on how government works in the secondary school classroom instead of deep discussions about how democratic systems can be made more democratic by enhanced participation.

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