Trendy school fads are no sub­sti­tute for knowl­edge

A new re­view of the cur­ricu­lum has raised vi­tal ques­tions

The Australian - - COMMENTARY -

As a long-time ad­vo­cate of a high­qual­ity, rig­or­ous na­tional cur­ricu­lum, The Aus­tralian has se­ri­ous con­cerns about the rev­e­la­tion on Satur­day’s front page that stu­dents are to be taught fash­ion­able but con­tentious 21stcen­tury skills such as crit­i­cal and cre­ative think­ing, “mind­ful­ness”, “grat­i­tude” and “re­silience” un­der a rad­i­cal cur­ricu­lum over­haul. With the new it­er­a­tion to be ready within two years, Ed­u­ca­tion Min­is­ter Dan Te­han , who is new to the port­fo­lio, must waste no time in ask­ing hard ques­tions about the process and in­ter­ven­ing, if needs be, to safe­guard hard-won im­prove­ments.

In March 2007 we sup­ported op­po­si­tion leader Kevin Rudd’s promise of a na­tional cur­ricu­lum be­cause there was no rea­son for the na­tion “to host eight sep­a­rate state and ter­ri­tory ed­u­ca­tional sys­tems, each de­vel­op­ing their own syl­labuses”. A na­tional sys­tem, we ar­gued, would bet­ter en­able Aus­tralia to com­pete with na­tions where ed­u­ca­tion was more in­tense and fact-based; it also would ben­e­fit the 80,000 stu­dents who moved in­ter­state each year; and em­ploy­ers would have a greater un­der­stand­ing of job­seek­ers’ qual­i­fi­ca­tions.

As the na­tional cur­ricu­lum emerged un­der La­bor out of the ashes of the history, lit­er­a­ture and other ed­u­ca­tional wars, it was a solid start, es­pe­cially in pay­ing greater def­er­ence to the ba­sics such as lit­er­acy and nu­mer­acy. Four years ago, un­der the Ab­bott gov­ern­ment, a thor­ough re­view of the cur­ricu­lum by Kevin Don­nelly and Ken Wilt­shire pro­posed myr­iad im­prove­ments. These in­cluded greater use of phon­ics in early read­ing, more lit­er­a­ture from the Western canon and “an over­all con­cep­tual nar­ra­tive” in history, in­clud­ing recog­nis­ing the im­por­tance of Western civil­i­sa­tion and Aus­tralia’s Judeo-Chris­tian her­itage.

Most im­por­tant, the com­mon­wealth and the states ac­cepted the re­view’s rec­om­men­da­tion to “de­clut­ter” sub­jects, fo­cus on the ba­sics and to limit “cross-cur­ricu­lum pri­or­i­ties” em­bed­ded in most sub­jects — Asia, indige­nous his­to­ries and cul­ture, and “sus­tain­abil­ity” — to sub­jects where they were ap­pro­pri­ate.

Against that back­ground, ques­tions must be asked of the Aus­tralian Cur­ricu­lum, As­sess­ment and Re­port­ing Au­thor­ity by Mr Te­han and oth­ers about why an­other re­view is needed so soon. Lit­tle is known about the re­design, other than it draws on the re­view into ed­u­ca­tional ex­cel­lence led by David Gon­ski, as well as an OECD fu­ture of ed­u­ca­tion project and the work of a US-based fu­tur­ist who is earn­ing $215,000 to mod­ernise Aus­tralia’s maths cur­ricu­lum. The OECD project fea­tures “com­pe­ten­cies’’ that could find their way into the cur­ricu­lum, in­clud­ing adapt­abil­ity, com­pas­sion, eq­uity, global mind­set, grat­i­tude, hope, in­tegrity, mo­ti­va­tion, jus­tice, mind­ful­ness, re­silience, re­spect, pur­pose­ful­ness and trust.

Re­cently re­tired ACARA chair­man Steven Schwartz set alarm bells ring­ing on Satur­day when he said the so-called 21st-cen­tury skills move­ment was “the lat­est in a long line of ed­u­ca­tional fads”. Par­ents know from ex­pe­ri­ence how right he was to point out that en­thu­si­asm for pre­vi­ous fads in­vari­ably “gave way to dis­il­lu­sion” be­cause “the prob­lem is al­ways the same: chil­dren can­not learn to be crit­i­cal thinkers un­til they have ac­tu­ally learned some­thing to think about”. That makes em­i­nent sense. For­mer ACARA di­rec­tor of cur­ricu­lum Fiona Mueller, who re­signed last year, told The Week­end Aus­tralian she was con­cerned that the re­design rep­re­sented “a rather stealthy shift in ap­proach”, with enor­mous im­pli­ca­tions for stu­dents, teach­ers and other stake­hold­ers. For that rea­son, ACARA needs to ex­plain how such an ex­er­cise will im­prove class­room teach­ing, re­sults and Aus­tralia’s ed­u­ca­tional per­for­mance, which has de­clined rel­a­tive to other na­tions in 10 years de­spite a surge in spend­ing.

On past per­for­mance, vague con­cepts such as “soft skills” have done lit­tle to en­sure stu­dents master the ba­sics well and progress to ad­vanced learn­ing. “Crit­i­cal think­ing”, while vi­tal in ef­fec­tive schol­ar­ship, was skewed for too long in sub­jects such as English where “crit­i­cal lit­er­acy” of­ten amounted to an in­fu­sion of green, fem­i­nist and anti-cap­i­tal­ist think­ing at the ex­pense of study­ing clas­si­cal lit­er­a­ture and learn­ing to write cor­rectly, co­her­ently and suc­cinctly. Such mis­takes must not be re­peated.

Given the im­por­tance of trans­par­ent re­port­ing to par­ents and em­ploy­ers, re­plac­ing sys­tems of achieve­ment, such as A-E grades, with “gain” as a mea­sure of stu­dents’ suc­cess ap­pears du­bi­ous. Dr Don­nelly has warned a con­tent-free ap­proach to teach­ing would lower stan­dards and en­sure stu­dents un­der­per­formed. It is up to Mr Te­han to en­sure ACARA does not al­low such a slide to worsen an al­ready in­dif­fer­ent ed­u­ca­tion record.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.