Trendy school fads are no substitute for knowledge
A new review of the curriculum has raised vital questions
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.