A key intention of our education system is to prepare them to be successful, engaged members of society we need to start by considering the applicability of our curriculum and it’s delivery to both society and workplaces.
With this in mind, consider:
- Do you enter your workplace with the intention of spending one hour on mathematics, one hour on English one hour on history etc? or do you bring all of these skills, knowledge and capabilities together to apply where relevant?
- Do you schedule breaks and only access food or bathroom facilities at scheduled times during the day?
- Do you collaborate with others to build innovate, solutions, and bring the power of all to solving problems?
Yet, our curriculum, and those privileged to deliver it, are shaped and trained to prepare students for a world shaped this way!
Is our current curriculum content and methodology distracting us from real issues?
In an earlier piece, we posed the question “Does Teaching = Learning”, the answer is a resounding NO.
Teaching may lead to learning, but teaching is not the only instigator of learning, nor is it guaranteed that teaching equates to any learning! Is this reflected in our current curriculum design, implementation, and content?
Addressing these questions together is key, but at the same time, it will be irrelevant, unless we address our unwillingness to change our expectations for how and what students learn.
In reviewing the curriculum, it is important to consider the wealth of national and international research and evidence that is available to inform the shape and evolution of an effective Australian Curriculum, that will prepare students for the 21st century.
A relevant curriculum – now and into the future
Phil Lambert (2016) in ‘A Hard Focus on Soft Skills’ stressed that we are already living through an era of unprecedented change and the pace is accelerating. Many are focussed on what the ‘new normal’ will or should look like, neglecting the fact that the concept of normal was never agreed or consistent. We need to reflect and understand what was the norm? And for whom? This thinking belies the concept of personalisation and therefore universal design, where we meet the needs of each where possible, rather than trying to focus on the needs of all.
There will not be a new ‘normal’
There is clear recognition across the globe that the acquisition of technical knowledge and know-how (mastery and techniques), though important, is not sufficient for young people to successfully navigate life and work in a world that is increasingly complex, characterised by ambiguity and uncertainty. Many countries are taking steps in response to this reality as part of broader reforms and initiatives, with a focus on curriculum and policy. While there is a degree of commonality in the competencies being foregrounded, there are variances in terminology and local contextual factors that drive the prioritisation of particular skills, attitudes, dispositions, and knowledge within each country or jurisdiction.
No-one is questioning the need for students to acquire the basics in literacy and numeracy. Consistently, the importance of reading, national language(s), and mathematics is reflected in curricula frameworks and international assessment programs such as PISA.
Standards should not be attached to distinct school subjects as siloes, rather, to the characteristics and the qualities of thinking and positive action across the syllabi they are designed to foster. Syllabi are artifacts of the ‘teaching’ profession, similar to the support afforded by learning space, technology, etc. Similar to the integration of technology, if we only focus on the curriculum rather than on creating powerful learning experiences that support the development of the capabilities, skills, dispositions and character traits we want students to develop, we will continue to perpetuate the same norms in education with the same inequities and inequalities. Without a focus on how learners learn, we lose sight of the learning experiences that form part of the lifelong learning journey. Teachers should be held accountable for the quality of what they create, and how they create it.
As technological capabilities grow exponentially (e.g. artificial intelligence, robotics and machine learning) tasks previously undertaken by humans are becoming redundant, we need to shift our focus to the aptitudes that we as humans excel in, those capabilities that technologies do not have. For example, technological capabilities do not include empathy, they cannot make ethical decisions for the common good, they do not have morals, but more importantly, they cannot think critically, develop or use their values, they cannot innovate, create, or inspire others to imagine something that does not yet exist.
As society’s institutions evolve or dissolve, schools have continued to absorb the vacuum created. Curriculum requirements have increased because of government, community, educational, technological, employer, and political expectations. We have a long history of adding curriculum elements that students should ‘know’, rather than focusing on supporting learners to create this knowledge themselves. We teach and assess facts and knowledge, rather than developing the skills to gain an understanding of and reasoning behind historical events. We teach long and short division – but do we support learners to determine for themselves when each is most applicable.
Our students are propelled forward as consumers, rather than as creators of knowledge
Historically, curriculum reviews have led to an increase in content, continual additions of what students should know, with little consideration of any elements that should be removed, to enable new elements, or if they were no longer relevant, current or prioritised. Noting this, few if any community leaders, ever agree on what is not important, so consensus is not easy.
With every social problem that emerges, schools become the mechanism for societal change. There has not been one statement suggesting the removal, or de-emphasis of any of the myriad areas which have become school responsibilities. As society has evolved to reflect greater female participation in industry, workdays have extended, as have commutes, as fee paying schools have become more prominent, our expectation on our education systems have also evolved – again, not in consensus.
Taken in isolation, specific changes to the school curriculum may be readily explained and / or popular with certain sectors of the community. But, when all these changes are aggregated and shared, we have a considerable level of discontinuity and disparity of the suitability and priority of elements. The continual changes and iterations of the curriculum may provide governments with some favourable short-term press coverage and community support, but the delay in implementation and the side effects for updating resources and alignment for compliance mean this may all come at the expense of quality learning, oversight of their learning journey and the relevance of specific elements in relation to their context and improvement.
Add to this the consideration that schools are the first, and sometimes, the last port of call for many students and families in crisis. In some schools the welfare role that the teacher takes on engulfs their primary function, that is, to enable learning and guide students to learn and improve. Any curriculum review needs to embrace, but not be led by political, social and cultural perspectives, both in what has gone before and what is needed for the future of individuals as lifelong learners and as successful citizens.
How much of this is the responsibility of curriculum or in fact, of schools?
As existing societal pressures unfold and additional pressures emerge, any curriculum reform will require flexibility and adaptability to remain relevant, whilst accommodating current and emerging demands, from the perception of society and educators. Any curriculum review (or overhaul) needs to explore and address the tensions between syllabus demands, political pressures, jurisdictional initiatives, and individual school initiatives. This cannot be a long term discussion, nor a process that takes years to implement.
One approach may be the reframing of the concepts of literacy and numeracy to ensure currency, with a focus on the demands of today and into the future. The requirements and skills underpinning basic literacy competencies in the last century are still relevant in many cases, yet they only a small part of the literacies required to be successful in today and tomorrow’s society.
Curriculum is only one of many reforms that may impact on teachers at any given time. Interestingly, the ‘overcrowded curriculum’ is one of the factors teachers identified as contributing to excessive workload OECD, (2018), McGrath-Champ, Stacey, Wilson, Fitzgerald (2018) and School Stream (2018). Many teachers perceive their capacity to support learners as compromised, because of the lack of time for preparation, reflection, and collaboration. The requirements to adapt to new curriculum and new content with inadequate training, advice, examples of best practice and resources are a cause for anxiety.
There is vast debate on capabilities ‘or’ content knowledge, when in fact, this needs to be a balance – the capabilities cannot be developed without content and knowledge.
In Australia, there are ten themes that cut across all the key learning areas and stages. This includes seven general capabilities – Literacy, Numeracy, ICT capability, Critical and Creative Thinking, Personal and Social Capability, Ethical Understanding and Intercultural Understanding, and three cross-curriculum priorities – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures, Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia and Sustainability. More information on these is available at ACARA.
Tension is exacerbated because the general capabilities and cross-curriculum priorities can not be treated like content, which is found in the seven key learning areas of english, mathematics, science, humanities and social sciences, the arts, health and PE, technologies and languages. The capabilities are not additional to content and cannot be taught or assessed in the same way.
Further tension is created through the forcing of alignment between content and the capabilities and priorities. The capabilities and cross-curriculum priorities are ‘lenses’ through which teachers engage with content from planning to assessment. Not all capabilities and priorities are always applicable or relevant to specific content. Most importantly, the curriculum itself states:
They will have a strong but varying presence depending on their relevance to the learning areas.
There has never been, nor is there now, an expectation that all capabilities and priorities appear in every learning activity or experience.
Are we continually missing (or ignoring) an opportunity to create a genuinely transformational curriculum to address future workforce and societal pressures and recalibrate syllabi, towards a growth mindset educational culture?
Narrowing of the curriculum
A recent media report advocated a focus on Literacy and Numeracy in the early years with an integrated model of learning operating later in the learning journey. This must be forcefully rejected. Similar educational systems that attempted this style of reform have met with dramatic unintended outcomes. There has been cast discussion of this from the Australian Government Standing Committee, the Australian Government 2014 Review of the Australian Curriculum, Pearson (2005), and internationally in the Conversation (2019) and in the context of Nova Scotia (2014).
What we leave out says as much about us as what we leave in.
Creative and critical thinking are the key to challenging and growing our intellectual capabilities and building a successful equitable society. To achieve this, we need to value and effectively incorporate the general capabilities and the cross-curriculum priorities.
New syllabi position the student at the centre of learning, focusing on the methods of inquiry, skills and processes unique to the disciplinary area. Students engage with the content through the capabilities and priorities, neglecting or removing them will not de-clutter the curriculum, rather decrease the applicability of the content and the application of it, outside of the school context. Further removing our education systems from the real world context that further educators and employers demand.
Should we instead focus on removing the siloes and duplication across subject areas?
Some international curriculum developers acknowledge capabilities and priorities have value but recommend they be placed ‘into’ the relevant key learning areas. Paradoxically, this recommendation increases the inefficiencies and siloing, further removing applicability to real-world context. It also misunderstands their purpose as the threads that link content across the learning areas and across the grades.
Is it ideology that is driving the recommendations to remove cross-curriculum priorities and general capabilities, or could it be a misunderstanding of how teachers convert curriculum content into learning experiences, or an area for development to support teachers to effectively achieve this?
An alternative suggestion, to remove specific content dot points from existing syllabus will also not de-clutter the curriculum. Other suggestions could include:
- Prioritisation of the capabilities and priorities over content
- A stronger focus on what we need to remove, rather than what we need to add
- Addressing our traditional thinking that students are taught and assessed by rote learning. Do students need to recite the dates of wars? Or instead understand what lead to the war and victory or defeat? Offering the opportunity to embrace the learning from success and failure and for our students to gain the dispositions and attributes employers and researchers advise our students are lacking.
The new key priorities for the coming generation are not neatly locked into distinct, separate boxes, they are must be founded on physical and mental health, wellbeing and social-emotional growth. This new growth mindset orientation to learning requires student ownership, engagement, knowledge on how to learn, re-learn and unlearn, across their whole lifespan. How do we reflect this growth mindset in curriculum design and implementation.
The nirvana is to achieve maximum individual learning growth for every student, every year, in turn reversing the decline in Australia’s education outcomes. The greater the number of students who realise their full learning potential, the greater the cumulative lift will be in our overall national performance. Underpinning this, teachers must have access to diagnostic digital assessment tools, providing ubiquitous formative assessment capabilities, diagnosing a student’s current level of knowledge, skill and understanding, areas of strength and weakness. This will in turn support the identification of next steps in learning to ensure improvement, progression to their next stage in growth, and a record of their progress over time, against their own personalised learning journey and / or against a typical development trajectory.
How can teachers do it all?
One way to address multiple expectations is through integrated curriculum, which, when undertaken effectively provides learners with opportunities to develop core concepts and skills by connecting multiple subject areas to a unifying theme or issue. Advocates of an interdisciplinary curriculum believe that individuals learn best when encountering ideas that are connected to one another and reflect real-world experiences. A strong belief system exists supporting that ‘all things are connected’. Sadly, for many students our lecture-based, didactic, or modernistic, curriculum, ignores the needs and capabilities of our post-modern students, instead of reflecting a departmentalized approach.
Integrated curriculum addresses disconnection. The nature of interdisciplinary curriculum enhances student motivation by providing students with a curriculum centred on student-based, and often student-selected, themes. By placing the student at the centre, the various activities and actual learning seem to prevail over the various disciplines. There are efficiencies to be found by simply addressing the duplication across subject areas.
Inquiry-based learning or project-based learning are successfully being implemented in many schools nationally and internationally, integrating interdisciplinary content and skills for a deeper understanding, and preparing students for their future. Students spend their time working on something they are passionate about, identifying their own learning requirements, while teachers seamlessly integrate learning experiences across subject areas. Students have a much deeper understanding of essential knowledge while incorporating collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity, reflecting real-world learning and application. National and international examples have demonstrated the effectiveness, including through partnerships with schools, universities, and industry.
The Foundation for Young Australians, in their New Basics Report (2016) found a 181 per cent increase in the demand for bilingual skills across over 4 million job advertisements they audited.
“In the 1960s we had roughly 40 per cent of school leavers graduating year 12 with a (second) language, now it’s down to 10 per cent – that’s at a time where our overall engagement with the Asian region has increased. Clearly there’s a problem there.”
Internationally, schools and other educational institutions provide the opportunity for most students to learn languages, while linguistic diversity is actively encouraged within many further education establishments and workplaces.
“The most relevant data comes from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in which Australia’s languishing almost at the bottom of the pack in terms of how many of our high school graduates are leaving school with a second language..”
The debate about such a requirement within the curriculum has moved beyond purely discussion, not only to meet the needs of society and employers, but to also build cultural competence and global awareness. The only real questions are how, when and by whom. Languages development needs to start in primary schools, and we need to think innovatively about how this is provided to reflect existing skills, choice, culture, family background and availability, utilising the capabilities of face to face and online offerings.
Professional knowledge, understanding and learning
The continual update, revision and implementation of syllabi over the last five years flies in the face of teacher expertise which requires a deep knowledge and understanding of each syllabus. Many teachers do not have the capacity (mental or time), or professional support to understand the intention of the syllabus deeply. Scaling and sharing exemplars are both effective and efficient, but multiple interpretations of syllabi, which are then shared may not deepen teachers’ professional knowledge and practice. Is there transparency from the user perspective regarding what content is mandatory or the flexibility the outcomes afford? The user experience in accessing and application of syllabi does not reflect best practice or personalisation.
Teachers are frustrated and confused by the plethora of online learning modules; webinars and resources produced to support teacher professional learning and the application of this learning. They require ubiquitous access to exemplars that reflect context, innovative approaches and best practice, created and supported by specialist advisors.
Syllabus specialists should reflect expertise in their subject area, the effective integration of general capabilities and priorities, and also collaborative opportunities across subject areas.
The overcrowded curriculum debate cannot be seen in isolation from the broader reform agenda. Any discussion needs to incorporate consideration of workload, professional development, and the role of school and jurisdictional leadership.
The way forward
How much of what you learnt in your final years at school have you utilised since?
At a time where ‘teacher quality’ is high on the agenda, we should perhaps be addressing underlying issues such as curriculum and the opportunity for system-wide, evidence-based improvements to pedagogy.
A more radical proposal would be to ‘shake the tree of our industrial age thinking practices’ that are increasingly at odds with current and future schooling demands. Fundamental school structures have altered little in generations, curriculum practices are entrenched and empowered by legislation and policies that are founded on outdated requirements and a risk-averse culture, that are well past their use-by date. Much of what we have inherited is no longer relevant. The ludicrous notion that all teachers deliver the same content and skills as effectively as any another is chronically outdated and does little to support equity.
We need to redefine the intention and role of schools, and the outcomes we expect for students.
This should create and model a curriculum for now and the future, embracing a collaboration of essential capabilities, priorities, and knowledge.
John Mularczyk has demonstrated experience in high-level analysis and planning and provide support to the students, staff, parents, and systems in developing, driving and implementing programs of strategic change in areas including learning culture and performance, strategic planning, asset performance and evidence-based advocacy that places student experience and outcomes at the centre of learning. He has extensive leadership experience with a deep knowledge of contemporary learning and supporting technologies, combined with a vision for next-generation learning and teaching. After successfully leading three schools he has a proven track record of success in the delivery of high quality, family responsive management services, using data-driven planning and decision making to deliver services.
Kathleen Donohoe is the Director and Founder of Leading Thinking International. She supports school and industry to reimagine learning experiences across physical, virtual and social learning space, bringing national and international teaching, academic, research and executive experience. She is an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne, MGSE, with the ILETC Project. Kathleen has vast experience developing and implementing strategy for transformation, curriculum renewal, and physical virtual and social learning space, including as Director, Futures Learning at NSW Department of Education.
Australian Government 2014 Review of the Australian Curriculum https://docs.education.gov.au/system/files/doc/other/review_of_the_national_curriculum_final_report.pdf
Australian Government Standing Committee https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Education_and_Employment/Naplan13/Report/c03
Foundation for Young Australians. New Basics Report (2016). Last retrieved June 2016 from https://www.fya.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/The-New-Basics_Update_Web.pdf
Lambert, P., (2016), Hard Focus on Soft Skills, Future Frontiers Background Paper, Paper commissioned by Department of Education. Last retrieved June 21, 2020 from https://education.nsw.gov.au/media/exar/Hard_focus_on_soft_skills_Dr_Phil_Lambert.pdf
McGrath-Champ, Stacey, Wilson, Fitzgerald (2018). Understanding work in schools. The Foundation for Teaching and Learning. 2018 Report to the NSW Teachers Federation. Last access on June 22, 2020 at https://news.nswtf.org.au/application/files/7315/3110/0204/Understanding-Work-In-Schools.pdf
Nova Scotia (2014) No need to raise your hand. Education Reform, Nova Scotia Education. Don’t narrow the curriculum. https://noneedtoraiseyourhand.wordpress.com/2014/06/02/dont-narrow-our-curriculum/
OECD, (2018), As cited by Trevor Cobbold (2019). Teacher Workload Has Increased in Australia. Last access on June 22, 2020 at http://saveourschools.com.au/teachers/teacher-workload-has-increased-in-australia/
Pearson Curriculum Narrowing. By Kelly V. King Sasha Zucker http://images.pearsonassessments.com/images/tmrs/tmrs_rg/CurriculumNarrowing.pdf
SBS. Census 2016: Second-language learning in Australia ‘needs urgent attention’. Last retrieved June 21, 2020 from https://www.sbs.com.au/news/census-2016-second-language-learning-in-australia-needs-urgent-attention
School Stream (2018). The Principal Workload and Time Use Study – Principals going above and beyond. Last access on June 22, 2020 at https://www.schoolstream.com.au/the-principal-workload-and-time-use-study-principals-going-above-and-beyond/