Is New South Wales about to crash its curriculum?

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Hot on the heels of the underwhelming “Gonski 2” review of education in Australia, the Coalition government in the Australian state of New South Wales (NSW) has announced a review of the curriculum there. This is a moment of exquisite risk for education in NSW. Despite the fact that absolutely nobody of influence will pay attention to what I think, I feel a duty to play Cassandra.

Firstly, the NSW government seems to have swallowed the Gonski panel’s line on the ‘general capabilities’ of the Australian curriculum, seeking to ‘clarify’ the way that they are taught. This is accompanied by rhetoric about, ‘how we can best support students to develop that mindset and those skills in the modern world.’ This is the same, tired, jobs-that-don’t-exist yet mantra that has been seducing politicians across the world. Even if the only purpose of education was preparation for work, which it is not, then the best bet would be to teach students lots of knowledge about the world, because it is knowledge that we draw upon when solving problems and innovating. Here’s Dylan Wiliam again (courtesy of @primarypercival):

By contrast, generic skills don’t really exist. Insomuch as there exist heuristics that can be applied in a range of situations, they are limited in scope, depend on knowledge to apply them and are more characteristic of novice performance than expert performance in any given area. It is a waste of everybody’s time to write ‘critical thinking’ and ‘creativity’ into the curriculum in any general sense. Instead, these should be subject-specific aims.

You may think that an effort to ‘declutter’ the NSW curriculum might see an end to these capabilities, but instead, it seems that the review seeks to declutter the curriculum by placing even more emphasis on literacy and numeracy in primary school. This is based on the same flawed model that supports the general capabilities – it assumes that literacy, in particular, is a general skill that can be improved by practicing literacy. If we are not doing well enough at literacy then simply drive the literacy agenda harder, and harder, taking more and more curriculum time. Anyone got a bigger hammer?

Beyond the initial stages of reading and writing, literacy is not really a generic skill. Instead, it is developed through its use for specific purposes. If you want children to read well then they need a large vocabulary and access to ideas about the world. If you want them to write then the first question to ask is ‘for what purpose?’ Teaching a curriculum rich in knowledge of history, geography, science and the arts builds the world knowledge that is needed to access more advanced academic texts and reduces the gap between those who have access to these ideas at home and those who do not. For instance, you will not have understood the third sentence of this blog post unless you have sufficient background knowledge – no generic skill will help you.

Squeezing subjects like history and the arts in order to find even more time for literacy is perverse and self-defeating. If you want to know what it looks like then consider No Child Left Behind in the U.S.; hardly a resounding success. Yet, in education policy, the irony is that we never learn.



6 thoughts on “Is New South Wales about to crash its curriculum?

  1. The reason nobody of influence will pay attention to arguments for a knowledge-rich curriculum is because they can’t – at least not without conceding that their influence is based on the same fiction of generic skills.

    Over the past year I have run these arguments with many influential people in education policy and got nowhere. It has nothing to do with evidence, something to do with ideology, but most to do with psychology.

    I hate to play amateur psychologist but can’t help note that the most influential people in education today – whether in government, universities or think tanks – are generalists. Or, and perhaps more importantly, they think of themselves this way. They credit their professional success to a set of general and highly developed capabilities that ordinary folk don’t have (or, because of the factory model of schooling, yadda yadda, didn’t have an opportunity to develop).

    So in order for them to concede the argument about general capabilities and the school curriculum, they would have to entertain one of two possibilities:

    a) general capabilities don’t really exist and their professional success is based on networking, bluster and the “Matthew” effect

    b) their general capabilities – like manipulating meeting outcomes, creating compelling Powerpoint slide decks and using the latest management jargon – are misapplied to education in the same way they can be misapplied to any field by staying at an abstract, policy level. That is, I don’t really know anything about education but if I stick to the big picture and capture the zeitgeist then nobody will care because the they are bluffing like me (which is why it is important that teachers are not to get too involved in these discussions…).

    As neither of these possibilities will help their careers or (ironically, enough) self-esteem, they cannot accept that a knowledge-rich curriculum is important.

    1. Or, as Thomas Sowell noted, “Virtually no idea is too ridiculous to be accepted, even by very intelligent and educated people, if it provides a way for them to feel special and intelligent”.

      Educators have every incentive to claim the education is a profession which demands special training that can be applied to teaching any subject–even those as diverse as sociology and physics (never mind vocational subjects!).In truth, the instinct to instruct the young is so basic to the survival of our species that teaching might best be considered a primary skill like walking or speaking–one which is acquired with minimal explicit training.

      The only formal training I ever received was a Methods of Instruction course delivered by a senior NCO in the British Army in the space of a weekend. It anticpated Kirschner, Sweller and Clark by at least a generation. Indeed, the latter serves mostly as an affirmation of what good teachers have always known.

    2. I have frequently found that ‘experts’ really know very little and that most of their expertise is bluffing, general talk and smoke and mirrors. The contrast with someone who actually knows something about a subject is often hilarious – though the expert never gives ground and tends to point out that their opponent is not seeing the big picture etc. This scenario frequently applies to economists.

  2. Squeezing subjects like history and the arts in order to find even more time for literacy is perverse and self-defeating. If you want to know what it looks like then consider No Child Left Behind in the U.S.; hardly a resounding success.

    Yes! Thank you for pointing this out.

  3. The trouble is, the ‘generic skills’ crowd are noisy: prominent business people being a prime example. Noting that ‘business’ is the most vacuous area for following meaningless, unresearched fashion; just look at the plethora of empty books about ‘leadership’ and ‘strategy’: more to do with voodoo than science.

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