My submission to the New South Wales Curriculum Review

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Below is my submission to the New South Wales Curriculum Review. You can make your own submission here.

What should the purpose of schooling be in the 21st century?

Despite what many advocates claim, schooling does not need to radically rethink its purpose for the 21st century. Models of human cognitive architecture vary, but virtually all posit the existence of a very limited short-term or working memory and an effectively limitless long-term memory. We can overcome the constraints of working memory by drawing upon webs of interconnected concepts from long-term memory (Kirschner, Sweller & Clark, 2006). The process of education should therefore be about purposefully expanding the knowledge available in long-term memory. This is not, as some would have us believe, about asking students to memorise rote, disconnected facts, but instead about developing a rich and connected knowledge of the world. For instance, instead of focusing entirely on teaching supposedly general-purpose skills such as reading comprehension, we should recognise the role that prior knowledge plays in comprehension (Hirsch, 2003) and actively and purposefully build this prior knowledge through a structured curriculum.

It is important to note that the limitations of working memory can be overcome by knowledge in long-term memory – knowledge that we can think with – and not by knowledge sat inertly on the internet. In this sense, the internet changes little. In a different sense, the students with the greatest amount of knowledge available in long-term memory are the students who will be able to draw upon, and make the most of, knowledge on the internet.

What knowledge, skills and attributes should every student develop at school?

One way to identify the most valuable knowledge for students to learn is to look at the kinds of sources that we expect educated, democratically active citizens to be able to access. For instance, journalists writing a story about conflict in the Middle East for the ABC News website will not start by informing readers of everything they need to know in order to understand the article, such as the geography of the Middle East or the history of the conflict. Instead, they will tend to assume this knowledge. It is this assumed knowledge that we need to teach at school, otherwise students will not grow into critical and active democratic participants.

A useful question to ask is: What knowledge has endured? We do not want to teach knowledge today that will be obsolete in a few years time. Contrary to popular opinion, this is often the knowledge that has been most recently produced. At school, I was taught how to justify text in a word-processor known as ‘View’. This knowledge is of no use in 2018 because that word-processor no longer exists and that knowledge does not carry forward to anything else – it is a terminus rather than a depot. In contrast, my scientific understanding of the cause of the seasons is as true and accurate as when I learnt it in primary school. Similarly, although language changes over time, the rules of grammar and spelling change only slowly.

Teachers should look to teach students about powerful domains of knowledge. These are areas that have formed part of the wider culture and that have formed connections to areas outside of their original context. For instance, when a journalist writes of an entrepreneur ‘flying too close to the Sun’, an educated adult will recognise this as a reference to the Greek Myth of Daedalus and Icarus.

How could the curriculum better support every student’s learning?

The curriculum needs to be rigorous, structured and sequenced. A mistake is to see the curriculum as the accumulation of generic skills that can then be assessed along a continuum. Under this misapprehension, schools and education systems seek to create rubrics to assess students’ progress in these skills. However, this misunderstands the importance of relevant domain knowledge in applying any of these skills. For instance, a teacher will find it much easier to demonstrate that a child can “support ideas with some detail and elaboration” by asking him or her to write about a family trip to the zoo than about Australia’s system of compulsory voting. In general, such generic continuums encourage teachers to dial down the intellectual challenge.

Instead, we should build a bank of benchmarked responses to specific questions and measure progress against these once the relevant domain knowledge has been taught. Ideally, NAPLAN reading and writing would focus more on the content of the previous year’s Australian Curriculum when selecting texts and prompts, but in the absence of this, state systems and individual schools should build these assessments. We can then intervene with those students who are making little progress.

What else needs to change?

We need to recognise that many so-called 21st century skills are not general skills at all (Tricot & Sweller, 2014). Critical thinking is a good example. It does not really exist as a general capability that students become better at across contexts. Instead, it is highly domain dependent. A trained scientist can fail to think critically about an area that he or she knows little about and a young child can succeed in thinking critically about an area that he or she knows a lot about (Willingham, 2008). This is due to the importance of domain specific knowledge in long-term memory. Instead of seeking to teach critical thinking in the abstract, we need to teach standard subject disciplines (characterised by their unique ways of thinking) to the level where students are capable of thinking critically and analytically about that particular domain.


Hirsch, E. D. (2003). Reading comprehension requires knowledge—of words and the world. American Educator27(1), 10-13.

Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. E. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational psychologist41(2), 75-86.

Tricot, A., & Sweller, J. (2014). Domain-specific knowledge and why teaching generic skills does not work. Educational psychology review26(2), 265-283.

Willingham, D. T. (2008). Critical thinking: Why is it so hard to teach?. Arts Education Policy Review109(4), 21-32.


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