What should early primary school look like?

Last year, Kevin Donnelly, senior research fellow at the Australian Catholic University and Ken Wiltshire, University of Queensland professor of public administration were commissioned by the government to review the Australian National Curriculum. I was reasonably happy with the review when it was published. The current curriculum includes eccentric, designed-by-committee ideas such as the general competencies. These consist of literacy, numeracy, information and communication technology (ICT), critical and creative thinking, personal and social capability, ethical understanding and intercultural understanding. They are meant to be embedded across everything in a way that I’m not convinced that anyone really understands and which I suspect just leads to lesson plans with codes on them to indicate which one is being done today. The review included this quote from John Sweller (my PhD supervisor) on critical thinking and problem solving skills:

“It is a waste of students’ time placing these skills in a curriculum because we have evolved to acquire them without tuition. While they are too important for us not to have evolved to acquire them, insufficient domain-specific knowledge will prevent us from using them. We cannot plan a solution to a mathematics problem if we are unfamiliar with the relevant mathematics. Once we know enough mathematics, then we can plan problem solutions. Attempting to teach us how to plan or how to solve generic problems will not teach us mathematics. It will waste our time.”

Donnelly and Wiltshire then went on to modestly recommend that these general capabilities should only be embedded in subjects to which they might be relevant.

Tom Bennett asked me to help with the organisation of researchED Sydney in February and so I made contact with Donnelly and invited him along. He was put on a panel to discuss evidence in education where he made a bit of a misstep – considering the audience – because he played-down the possibility of using evidence to inform what we do, suggesting that teachers have good ‘crap detectors’. This did not go down well with the phonics community – see Pamela Snow’s blog.

However, I was astonished to hear on the grapevine that a number of people had boycotted the conference due to Donnelly’s attendance. It seems that Australian education is in such a state of self-righteousness and sensitivity that it sees fit to no-platform speakers that it doesn’t like, even if those speakers have been commissioned by the government to review the national curriculum. Donnelly has made comments on a whole host of issues that I would disagree with. But, you know, you don’t have to agree with someone in order to listen to what they have to say. We learn from testing our ideas. I think that this fingers-in-ears attitude will serve educators badly in the inevitable disruption of Australian education to come. I suspect that rather than seeking to explain to the community how their tax dollars are used, there will be a lot of ‘how dare you attack teachers!’ stuff like we’ve seen in the U.K.

The Donnelly and Wiltshire review contained a couple of models for primary education. It now seems that the government has decided to implement aspects of the review, according to reports in yesterday’s media. Channel 9 even invited Donnelly onto its morning breakfast show to discuss it (I wonder how many education school professors swore off Channel 9 as a result…). The headline was a push for the use of phonics. Sadly, I don’t think that this will work. Teachers have been told to use a phonics-based approach for some time now and yet they still resist, persisting with practices such as the three cuing system. There is a party line where teachers who use less effective analytic phonics approaches or phonics as a last resort will say, “Of course we use phonics! We use it as part of a balance of approaches.” I see no reason to believe that we have progressed since 2006. I am growing convinced that the only way to ensure that phonics is taught systematically is to institute something like the U.K. phonics check. I hope I’m wrong.

However, the media reports also suggest a thinning of the curriculum in order to favour a ‘back-to-basics’ literacy and numeracy approach. History and geography will be removed as discrete subjects, being replaced by an overarching, “Humanities and Social Sciences”. The idea is that the curriculum needs to be de-cluttered to make space for the important stuff.

We need to be aware just how horrible “Humanities and the Social Sciences,” could be in the wrong hands. We could have Dewey-inspired approaches that start with the child and their place in the world etc. rather than learning about the Romans or the Egyptians or about the countries of the world. The simple view of reading suggests that reading consists of decoding plus comprehension. Comprehension is basically a function of background knowledge. For instance, you might be able to decode the word ‘gladiator’ but if you don’t know what a gladiator is then you won’t comprehend. More subtly, consider the following passage from Chapter 1 of ‘The English Reformation” (which I just happen to had to hand):

“England was a conglomeration of semi-isolated local and regional communities over which royal control diminished with every muddy or dusty mile of the highways and byways leading from London. The people who lived south of Hadrian’s Wall still spoke no common language; travellers from London arriving in Cornwall or Northumberland might as well have found themselves in France or Hungary for all they were able to understand local dialects.”

I suspect that quite a few educated Australians will struggle with that. It helps, for instance, to know that Hadrian’s Wall roughly delineates England from Scotland such that “South of Hadrian’s Wall” is synonymous with England. But you also need to know that Cornwall and Northumberland are regions of England and that the King tended to reside in or near London.

We need to systematically build world knowledge amongst young children if we want them to become skilled readers. We need rich subjects embedded in the curriculum such as history and science – not mentioned in the media reports – in order to do this. You can’t do phonics all day; not even the most ardent proponent would suggest this. There is too great a danger that a focus on ‘literacy’ might lead vacuous guided reading sessions where students are required to deploy three cuing strategies. Hirsch writes well on this.

Our politicians and public servants need to be aware of these arguments and of the deeply-entrenched practices that they are attempting to change.

Indeed, Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority chairman Steven Schwartz is quoted as saying, “There was an attempt to reduce the amount of material in the curriculum to leave room for creativity,’’ in The Australian. This makes me very nervous.


3 thoughts on “What should early primary school look like?

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

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