Fixing the Aussie Curriculum

The Australian Curriculum is under review and so far much of the comment has been directed to the history component of the curriculum and the suitability of the reviewers. However, I’d like to take another tack.

It is essential that we have a national curriculum. There are powerful arguments in its favour. Without a national curriculum, the poorest members of society suffer. They are the ones most likely to move schools during their education as their parents seek work or as family structures change. Without a coherent, unifying form to the curriculum, this leads to a disjointed education. Respected US academics such as E D Hirsch Jr and Daniel T Willingham  claim that breadth of knowledge is essential for reading comprehension. Reading itself is an essential skill for learning new concepts and so this means that a critical part of preparing students for learning new things in the future is to ensure that they build broad knowledge in school. Middle class kids have an advantage; their parents talk to them about the news and take them to visit museums. It is the poorest students who suffer if schools don’t see the imparting of knowledge as a core focus. A national curriculum provides a clear structure around which to do this.

Of course, not everyone agrees with the current balance of knowledge in the Australian Curriculum, as is entirely healthy in a robust democracy. In their submission to the review, the Australian Primary Principals Association (APPA) are critical about the total amount of content. They make valid claims that some of this content is inappropriate for primary school students. I’m certainly not sure what some of the economics concepts are doing in there. If anything, this seems to be more about modern society’s infatuation with all things to do with markets than it is with equipping students with a broad understanding of the world.

However, the APPA make their case by sharing another concern; one that will be familiar to all those who have had anything to do with contemporary schools. They express support for the use of ‘inquiry’ approaches and they worry that, “These approaches, however, take longer than direct instruction or equivalents, so the volume of content specified must be reduced to allow for study in depth. In the case of Civics and Citizenship, the volume of content, if taught in the time available, could not be addressed in depth through inquiry approaches.”

To those not familiar with the terminology, ‘direct instruction or equivalents’ is relatively easy to understand. When teachers use these approaches they generally start by explaining something new to the students – perhaps giving some examples – before having a whole class discussion. The students then move on to practice using these new concepts in one way or another. ‘Inquiry’ approaches are a little harder to get to grips with. At the extreme end, students may all be working on individual projects, perhaps researching on the internet or conducting an experiment. A more contained example might be where a teacher asks the class an inquiry question and provides relevant tasks and resources to help students find their own way. The key difference is that some of what a teacher would explain to students when using a direct approach would be left to students to work out for themselves in an inquiry approach.

You can see why the APPA state that inquiry learning takes longer. However, it seems like a common sense proposition that inquiry leads to students learning the content better or perhaps at a deeper level. After all, there is considerable effort expended by the students in trying to work things out; effort that is expended for them in a teacher explanation. However, no firm evidence has emerged in the literature to favour inquiry approaches to learning over direct ones. In fact, some notable academics have claimed that inquiry learning ‘overloads’ students and is therefore a less effective way to teach. Perhaps this is therefore not a good enough argument against the total volume of curriculum content.

So far, I have talked of the Australian Curriculum as if it were a list of the knowledge that we might wish our children to be taught. And it is this. However, it is also so much more. Difficult as it is to convey in all of its complexity, it might be worth looking at just one example: The seven ‘General Capabilities’. According to the 149-page document that outlines them, “The general capabilities encompass the knowledge, skills, behaviours and dispositions that,  together with curriculum content in each learning area and the cross-curriculum priorities, will assist students to live and work successfully in the twenty-first century.”

Reasonably enough, the general capabilities include literacy, numeracy and information and communication technology (ICT) capability – which means being able to use computers and the like. However, we also have critical and creative thinking, personal and social capability, ethical understanding and intercultural understanding. These latter two, whilst desirable, seem more like facets of a moral education than something that you might term a ‘capability’.

Critical thinking has often been promoted as a goal of education. There are many definitions but most would include the ability to judge the reliability of a source of information. The problem with this is that it just doesn’t seem to function as a general capability at all. People who know a great deal about politics but very little about science tend to be great at thinking critically about politics and terrible at thinking critically about science. This is one reason why we should never trust those experts in a particular field who suddenly, and with great fanfare, turn their attention to a completely different field and declare all of the experts wrong.

American professor of psychology, Dan Willingham, has this to say about critical thinking: “Can critical thinking actually be taught? Decades of cognitive research point to a disappointing answer: not really. People who have sought to teach critical thinking have assumed that it is a skill, like riding a bicycle, and that, like other skills, once you learn it, you can apply it in any situation. Research from cognitive science shows that thinking is not that sort of skill. The processes of thinking are intertwined with the content of thought (that is, domain knowledge). Thus, if you remind a student to “look at an issue from multiple perspectives” often enough, he will learn that he ought to do so, but if he doesn’t know much about an issue, he can’t think about it from multiple perspectives.”

When we look into how we might go about assessing personal and social capability, we run into another contentious area. For instance, by the end of year six, students should be able to identify their own ‘learning style’ and state whether they are a visual, auditory or kinaesthetic learner. The idea that different children have different learning styles has been around for a while in education. In essence, the hope is that if we can identify these learning styles we can then tailor our teaching to more suit them; we could give visual learners more visual aids and so forth. However, an extensive review by psychology professors in the US found little evidence that learning styles actually exist or that there is any benefit in tailoring teaching to suit them. In their summary, they state, “The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing. If classification of students’ learning styles has practical utility, it remains to be demonstrated.”

We know where we are with content knowledge. We can define it and then set about arguing over it. Perhaps this is the area where an Australian Curriculum should focus. Removing the more speculative stuff would vastly reduce the complexity of the document and allow individual schools or education departments to decide on their own approaches to these areas, should they choose to approach them at all.

[Read more from Greg Ashman here]


2 thoughts on “Fixing the Aussie Curriculum

  1. Pingback: The new Australian Curriculum is profoundly flawed | Filling the pail

  2. Pingback: Back to basics will not work | Filling the pail

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