The Australian government is publicly committed to implementing the recommendations of the recent Gonski 2.0 review of Australian education, so it cannot simply rip it up. However, education minister Dan Tehan has signaled a key shift away from one of the Gonski priorities.
A key Gonski recommendation was, “Give more prominence to the acquisition of the general capabilities e.g. critical and creative thinking, personal and social capability” – so-called ‘soft skills’. In a new speech reported in the Sydney Morning Herald, Tehan essentially contradicts this position. While insisting that soft skills still have a ‘role’, he highlights the comments of Australia’s chief scientist, Alan Finkel, on the importance of disciplinary knowledge.
This is an encouraging sign. The pursuit of generic skills is misguided, as I have pointed out many times on this blog. The key misconception is to see them as general. With the exception perhaps of social skills, they are highly specific to a particular discipline and once you recognise this, you realise that subject disciplines already teach these ‘skills’ as students move towards the expert end of the novice-to-expert continuum. And that is a crucial point. The reason they are at the end of this continuum is because they build upon all the more basic disciplinary knowledge that comes before. That is why there are no magical shortcuts to critical thinking and problem solving.
Two linked issues still worry me about Tehan’s speech. Rhetoric about an ‘overcrowded’ curriculum is accurate if we imagine that it is redundant rehearsal of generic skills that is surplus to requirements. However, we have seen this argument used in the past to strip out important stuff such as science and history content in order to endlessly drill children in things like reading comprehension strategies. Indeed, such asset-stripping could be seen in some eyes as the kind of return to ‘basic skills of literacy and numeracy’ that Tehan is calling for.
One big plus is that I understand that Tehan will also be calling for a review of teaching, examining the attractiveness of the profession and looking to reduce out-of-hours working. Done well, this could have a positive impact on teachers that would, in turn, impact on students’ experiences.