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.