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.