I have been clear that the choice of teaching methods should not be a political one. The ideologies underpinning different approaches do not line up easily with the political left and the political right. In fact, we should be choosing the objectives we want to reach and simply asking ‘what’s the most reliable way to get there?’.
Similarly, I do not see the choice between a knowledge-lite, skills-based curriculum and a knowledge-rich curriculum as a political issue. The choice arises from the same sets of ideologies as the choice about teaching methods and broadly the same set of arguments apply. If we can agree, for instance, that we want to educate students who are able to economically and critically engage in the life of a democracy, then we can evaluate these two types of curriculum on that basis; which one best delivers the goods? From my reading of cognitive science, abilities such as critical thinking are not general skills but instead largely emerge from possessing relevant knowledge. Even if there is an additional, perhaps dispositional, layer to critical thinking, this can only be developed once the knowledge is there. You cannot think critically about something you don’t know much about or, at least, your critical thinking will be superficial.
Yet, once we agree with the need to pursue a knowledge-rich curriculum, we do enter political territory.
We may, for instance, address one of E. D. Hirsch’s questions and ask, ‘what knowledge is needed to understand The New York Times?’. The logic is clear: In order to critically engage in the life of a democracy such as that of the United States, you need to be able to understand such sources. This does not mean instinctively agreeing with those sources, but it does mean that you can engage with the information and arguments that they present. If you decide to challenge and dissent then you can do so from an informed perspective and with a greater prospect of your view being heard, respected and acted upon. This is perhaps even more important in an age of fake news and social media bubbles and represents a renewed mission for educators.
However, for historical reasons, the answer to the question, ‘what knowledge is need to understand The New York Times?’ Is likely to be, ‘Lots of stuff that was done, discovered and written by dead European males’.
To some extent, this is not a problem. There is a distinction between learning about and being indoctrinated into the values of people, their work and their times. An obvious example is the large amount of curriculum time that British schools spend studying the rise of the Nazis and the holocaust. Nobody would suggest that this is about turning children into Nazis – the function is clearly a warning from history. Perhaps less obviously, learning more about important historical figures such as Churchill even acts to distance us from him. The uninformed know only of Churchill the war-hero; a Hollywood Hagiography. The informed know about his role in Gallipoli, the black-and-tans militia in Ireland and his racist views.
Nevertheless, we should often sacrifice the principle of teaching the most widely applicable knowledge in order to make room in the curriculum for other priorities and voices. These include the voices of women and historically marginalised people. The Australian curriculum should include the story of Eddie Koiki Mabo. Not only is it important to an understanding of modern Australia, the inclusion of a diversity of voices signals that this is everyone’s curriculum. By contrast, the progressivist idea of allowing students choice over their own learning and pursuing themes only if they are of personal relevance to the students, could see Mabo’s story overlooked in large parts of Australia.
We are now at a turning point. The case for a knowledge-rich curriculum is strong. Despite setbacks such as the recent Gonski 2.0 review in Australia, with its apparent preference for decontextualised ‘learning progressions’, as more schools across the world demonstrate the effectiveness of prioritising knowledge, the momentum will become irresistible and Australian schools will start to seriously examine such a model. If left alone, this will lead to just one more axis on which schools will vary; another basis for the exercise of parental choice. A number of supplemented Australian Curriculums will develop, reflecting the idiosyncrasies and priorities of their designers; a market, if you will.
Alternatively, we could embark upon this project together, reforming the existing Australian Curriculum and ensuring it reflects our values as a nation. This would rightly be debated as we throw around what should and should not be included. It would be a political discussion, drawing on voices from left and right. That is why I have suggested a national panel that would take submissions and undertake five-yearly reviews.
No group or set of interests should win the curriculum. It should always be in tension.