Three steps to fix Australian education

With the release of the ‘Gonski 2.0’ review imminent (we hope), I thought it would be worth setting out my thoughts on how to improve Australian education.

1. Improve the Australian Curriculum

The Australian Curriculum is light on knowledge. History doesn’t even exist at the primary level, having been subsumed into something called ‘HASS’. The supposed content of HASS includes things like ‘inquiry skills’. When you reach the ‘knowledge’ component, you are confronted with statements like this:

“The content in the history sub-strand in this year gives students opportunities to develop historical understanding through key concepts including continuity and change, perspectives, empathy and significance. Through studies of their family, familiar people and their own history, students look at evidence of the past, exposing them to an early understanding that the past is different from the present (continuity and change). They come to understand why some events are important in their own and others’ lives (significance), and how different people commemorate events that are important to them (empathy, perspectives).”

In Year 1, students learn, ‘how people may have lived differently in the past (empathy).’ No periods of history are specified or differences outlined and this is all in the service of building a nonexistent generic understanding of the concept of empathy.

HASS is a textbook example of an ‘expanding horizons’ curriculum of the kind inspired by John Dewey and already debunked by 1980.

Science fares no better, despite us all apparently being in the grip of a mania for ‘STEM’. This apparent contradiction can be resolved when you understand that the STEM craze has little to do with actually teaching maths and science knowledge to students and everything to do with groovy makerspaces, robotics clubs and the doctrine of inquiry learning.

The Science component of the Australian Curriculum is divided into three strands; Science understanding, science as a human endeavour and inquiry skills. Examining the science understanding strand, we find bland, vague statements such as, ‘Different materials can be combined for a particular purpose,’ as if that represents a scientific understanding.

Meanwhile, teacher educators enthusiastically endorse the ‘general capabilities’ of the Australian Curriculum such as critical thinking and creativity, despite there being little evidence that these capabilities are general. This is because they subscribe to an ideology of education that downplays the value of knowledge. This is harmful, as Dylan Wiliam explains:

Instead, we need a knowledge-rich curriculum. We need to outline exactly what content students should be taught. This would not be a simple list of facts but would include concepts such as the particle theory of matter. It would include books that all children would study, paintings, pieces of music and so on. The selection of these items would rightly be contentious but you don’t solve that by being vague; all vagueness achieves is the delegation of these decisions to individual teachers and schools, without any democratic scrutiny.

Instead, I would propose a process of five-yearly reviews. The reviews would be conducted by a panel that would take open submissions from the public. The final proposals would have democratic oversight, with perhaps a committee of the parliament or even the whole parliament signing them off. This would prevent the capture of the curriculum by one particular group of interests.

2. Improve the national system of assessment

We need an early phonics check, like the one recently trialled in South Australia, to ensure that readers are not lost to literacy early. As many phonics advocates have maintained, let’s place a warning sign and a fence at the top of the cliff instead of parking an ambulance at the bottom of it.

NAPLAN assessments should continue to take place in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 but the reading and writing components should be embedded in curriculum content. For instance, if students have been studying the great barrier reef then they could be asked to write an informative piece about it or they could be given something to read about the reef. This is would level the playing field dramatically. Currently, students from homes that provide a knowledge rich environment, by organising visits to museums, visits to zoos and overseas trips and discussing the news around the dinner table, are at an advantage on these assessments.

Assessing the actual content of the Australian Curriculum would have the additional advantage of ensuring that it gets taught.

3. Set standards for PE and the arts

Even if we start to assess curriculum content through NAPLAN, not all of a school’s curriculum could or should be assessed. Children should play sports, sing, act in plays, paint, go on school trips and engage in a wide range of non-paper-and-pen experiences. The accountability system we have now, and the one I am proposing, create an incentive for schools to reduce time for some of these activities.

So we need a national agreement about what the right balance should look like and the curriculum panel I have outlined could propose that. It then needs to be enforced. Schools could be inspected to check that they are providing the right mix and parents could trigger inspections if they had concerns. This would not be an English-style inspectorate because I am not proposing that it would attempt to judge the quality of provision. It would simply ensure that statutory obligations were being met, although it could also have a role in checking safety and behaviour. Different states would need to have their own models.

None of this will happen

Obviously, none of the proposals I have outlined will happen in Australia. Too many people have invested time and credibility in the current system. Very few understand the importance of building a broad knowledge of the world. I am not even convinced that all of our doughty advocates for systematic synthetic phonics, i.e. the good guys, appreciate the central role of background knowledge in reading comprehension and the profound implications this holds for the curriculum.

These intractable problems are the reason why I have latterly become more interested in an alternative; the charter schools of the U.S. and the free schools and academies of England. By giving schools freedom, most will continue doing what they have always done, but some will experiment with a knowledge-rich curriculum and, in so doing, prove the viability of the approach; an approach that could then spread.

This is much less ambitious but it might be how we get there.

What about teaching methods?

You may have noticed that none of my proposals relate to the way teachers teach, even though this is a frequent subject of discussion on my blog. This is because I don’t think it is as important as curriculum. I don’t think centrally mandated methods make as much sense as centrally mandated goals. Even if bureaucrats choose to push the right methods, experience shows that they won’t be implemented with fidelity. It is best for schools to decide.

Having said that, it can be something of a false division. I would place knowledge of grapheme-phoneme correspondences firmly in the Prep and Year 1 curriculum so does that mean that I am mandating phonics as a teaching method? Pretty much. Once you start teaching actual stuff, the method picks itself because, despite the sophistry, we all know that explicit instruction works, in stark contrast to fluffing around doing group-work while pretending to be an historian or whatever.


26 thoughts on “Three steps to fix Australian education

    • “Highly stressful”. It’s just a school test. That’s all. If this is too stressful for our kids then how are they ever going to go for a job interview, bid for a house, ask someone out etc. It’s a kind of mass delusion.

      • Iain Murphy says:

        Hopefully this comment is coming from experience of completing this task. If not it seems a little over simplified.

        It’s not the actual test that is the problem but the process around it. From timetable changes to non-experts in the room, to the whole component of everything being scripted, to random checks it’s all going right.

        Add to that the very limited special considerations for students can make this process very tricky.

      • John Perry says:

        Gillian Howell, amongst others, have done a lot of research into the harm that high-stakes tests (including NAPLAN, which has burst its “low-stakes” boundaries to join NCLB and other failed examples) can cause to children. This is just one example:

  1. “…Through studies of their family, familiar people and their own history, students look at evidence of the past, exposing them to an early understanding that the past is different from the present (continuity and change)…”

    Whenever I read something like this, I always think back to a pertinent remark once made by Simon Schama (can’t remember where, unfortunately):

    “[All these activities] basically present history as ‘the study of *me*’. But the whole point of history is ‘the study of *THEM*’.”

    • Felicity says:

      Agree. And I think most kids would be *much* more interested in a study of, say, the ancient Egyptians, medieval knights or Aboriginal history, than an ad nauseum exploration of their own lives.

  2. Tom Burkard says:

    If I’m ever remembered for anything, it will be the policy papers advocating sythetic phonics that I wrote for the Centre for Policy Studies between 1996 and 2006, when the Rose Review put in train its implementation in England. However, I’ve never advocated the Phonics Check; to the uninitiated, it seems absurd that young children are made to decode non-words. In fact I agree that it is a pointless distraction–after all, there are plenty of real words to practise on.

    It would be far more effective to administer standardised reading tests at 6+ and 8+ (or at least one at 7+). The majority of England’s LEAs did just that prior to 1990, and until then no one objected that this imposed any kind of a burden on primary schools. However, results of these tests were confidential, and after the late Martin Turner–then an ed psych for the borough of Croydon–conspired with eight colleagues from other LEAs to release scores which showed a catastrophic decline during the late 1980s when the ‘real books’ craze was at its peak, suddenly these tests became the work of the devil.

    Admittedly, standardised tests would be more expensive than the phonics check (which costs almost nothing), but they have two huge advantages. Parents are unlikely to be that bothered if they find out that their child can’t read a non-words like ‘charb; or ‘frex’, but questions sure as hell will be asked if they find out that little Alfie is 18 months behind in reading. The schools with the best results will inevitable play a role in disseminating their teaching to less successful one in their cluster and their LEA–I’ve seen this at work when promoting our own materials, and it’s a very cooperative and positive experience–as opposed to being yet another bloody imposition from on high.

  3. “History doesn’t even exist at the primary level, having been subsumed into something called ‘HASS’”
    HASS literally stands for History. History and Social Sciences.

    The HASS curriculum for Year 1 students is not as lacking as you imply. The quotes you took were from the general description of the year, not of the specific content they will be learning, which of course would be less detailed.
    Here’s an example (ACHASSK029): “How the present, past and future are signified by terms indicating time, as well as by dates and changes that may have personal significance, such as birthdays, celebrations and seasons”
    These students are Year 1 so they are still learning the absolute basics – what type of families there are, what families were like in recent history, other cultural celebrations and how these relate to the students for example. One simply needs to press the “Elaborations +” button to find a detailed example of the knowledge to be taught.

    In HASS, the periods of time explored become progressively more specific as one reads the subsequent year group curriculum through to high school. It is rather coy to suggest the entire Australian curriculum requires improvement based on a subjective understanding of the introductory history content.

    • I don’t think that adds anything substantive to the part I quoted. The point is that this is an ‘expanding horizons’ social studies curriculum of the kind debunked by Kieran Egan back in 1980.

    • Helga says:

      My children are currently in grades two and three at a (generally good) QLD state school and Greg’s criticism accords precisely with our experience. Every year HASS assignments involve nothing more than personal introspection (a favourite toy you no longer play with, a great birthday memory, a bird’s eye map of your bedroom). There is cursory attention paid to culturally significant events, such as ANZAC day, but it’s pretty shallow.
      My son is now in his fourth year of education and this year’s topic is ‘a significant event’. It has to be something that occurred to the child. The teacher’s suggestion was ‘losing your first tooth’. Discussions with teacher-friends and parents of older kids suggest it doesn’t get much better than this in primary school. Is world and ancient history covered at all? It doesn’t seem to be.
      My own children have a rich cultural life outside school, but I feel sick thinking about families who rely on the education system.
      What kind of voters will they be if they think losing a tooth counts as a significant historical event!

      • It is interesting to hear your perspective, Helga. I would expect by Year 4 that the students would be learning of specific historical periods and events so I wonder if it may be the state difference, as I am in WA and can only go by ACARA for QLD. A quick check of Year 4; it appears that over the year they should be learning about Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders, one world explorer/navigator, the First Fleet and the nature of contact between Europeans and Aboriginals surrounding that. This makes your son’s topic seem significantly insufficient for his year group so I’d be curious what the official school syllabus is for his group.

        However my experience is with secondary school, so I am keen to ask around about some current primary school experiences and gain some more perspective after reading yours.

    • Tempe Laver says:

      As they enter the upper grades of primary and move into high school my experience is that they do finally stop concentrating so much on “me” and more on “them”, thankfully. But they did still manage a year 6 “me” theme were the students wrote about a family member and their personal story. Also, there seems ot be a lot of repetition in primary with focus on Aust, not world history, and more specifically convicts & settlement. This is what happens when you let individual teachers choose the specific content for they year. It happened in English too when one of my kids read the same Roald Dahl novel three times!

      History in high school is still not prescriptive enough. It isn’t chronological and follows no sequence. There seem to be choices as to what the teacher can choose to study ie Ancient Egypt, Rome or Greece. They mention an overview but neither of my kids have done any kind of overview. Instead it ends up being a piecemeal of disconnected periods. There is no flow and no concept of continuity and change if you don’t know what proceeded and what came after.

      History is a story of the world. The “me” plays a very small and largely insignificant part in that history. Sure it’s kinda fun to explore your family roots but that shouldn’t be what’s taught in schools. If we don’t want ignorant kids then we need to teach them the narrative. This is more likely to develop empathy than anything else, in my view.

  4. Fiona says:

    I disagree, Greg, I’d like to see you engage in discussion rather than shut down alternative viewpoints. Stop being so linear.

  5. Mamaburns says:

    My concern is that the gaps between children having a rich life of experiences and those who don’t getting wider. I have seen bright children who do not get the wide experiences and build up of knowledge lose interest and fail to reach their potential. This is where we are failing pupils.

  6. John Perry says:

    I don’t think it [the way teachers teach] is as important as curriculum. I don’t think centrally mandated methods make as much sense as centrally mandated goals. Even if bureaucrats choose to push the right methods, experience shows that they won’t be implemented with fidelity. It is best for schools to decide.

    That paragraph I definitely agree with.

  7. Iain Murphy says:

    Great article Greg, completely agree with your assessment of the curriculum and it’s application.

    Think on 3 there needs to be an opportunity for some schools (sports academies or dance halls) to get an exception to the amount of time spent on certain crafts.

    Think there is still potential for the curriculum to be more holistic rather than segregated especially before year 10 with the ability to teach explicitly within context. For example: expecting students to understand their bodies through body systems that also include cooking good food and therefore ratios.

    Biggest worry I’ve seen with 1 as it relates to the Science curriculum is the dependence on textbooks to provide the details, curriculum by absence, which isn’t great.

  8. I agree that curriculum (understood as an aggregation of educational objectives / what we should teach) is key. Once the curriculum is clear, the pedagogy (i.e. the methodology) will
    start to fall into place.

    But doesn’t this raise the question of how you specify educational objectives if, as you, Daisy, Dylan et al have argued at length, rubrics have failed? It is perhaps easier to criticise what hasn’t worked than to devise something that is better.

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