Decluttering the Australian Curriculum

The Australian Curriculum has never been particularly good. For example, Science is divided into three strands – science understanding, science as a human endeavour and science inquiry skills. In Year 6, the science understanding strand includes things like, ‘Changes to materials can be reversible or irreversible,’. That’s an extremely vague statement and not particularly helpful, but it is at least recognisable as science. Science as a human endeavour, on the other hand, includes completely meaningless and banal statements such as, ‘Scientific knowledge is used to solve problems and inform personal and community decisions’. And science inquiry skills, appears to be an attempt to hard-wire inquiry learning teaching methods into the curriculum, with its requirement for students to, ‘Identify, plan and apply the elements of scientific investigations to answer questions and solve problems using equipment and materials safely and identifying potential risks.’ It is as if Year 6 students are professional scientists, fully equipped with the necessary background knowledge to successfully plan and conduct experiments. Clearly, they are not.

And it gets much worse than this. In addition to the learning areas (subjects) of English, mathematics, science, humanities and social sciences, ‘the arts’, ‘technologies’, health and physical education, and languages, there are the ‘general capabilities’ of literacy, numeracy, ICT capability, critical and creative thinking, personal and social capability, ethical understanding and intercultural understanding. Now, you might be thinking, “Why do we need a learning area of English as well as a literacy general capability? Why do we need a learning area of mathematics as well as a numeracy general capability? Why do we need a learning area of ‘technologies’ as well as an ICT general capability?”

Well, the answer is obvious, right? The general capabilities are general. Without them, students would only be able to apply their knowledge of English to the subject of English or their knowledge of maths to the subject of maths. They would not be capable of reading anything or doing any calculations in a science class.

Such logic is obviously bogus. To the extent that the general capabilities are general, they may be fostered through a standard subject-based approach. And many of the general capabilities, such as critical and creative thinking, lack evidence of being general.

And it gets much worse than this. In addition to the learning areas and the general capabilities, there are the three cross-curriculum priorities of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and culture, Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia, and sustainability.

So it is pretty clear to me what we would need to do to fix it:

  • Be more explicit and detailed in the content listed in the learning areas in order to ensure that the curriculum is knowledge-rich
  • Strip back superfluous and waffly aspects of the learning areas or those that imply particular teaching methods e.g. cut science as a human endeavour and science inquiry skills from science
  • Remove the redundant general capabilities of literacy, numeracy and ICT
  • Acknowledge that critical and creative thinking look different in different learning areas, audit the learning areas to ensure these capacities are developed then cut them as general capabilities
  • Determine what, if anything, is of worth from personal and social capability and ethical understanding general capabilities and ensure these are placed in the relevant learning areas
  • Integrate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories into an expanded humanities and social sciences learning area, integrate sustainability into science and ditch the weird cross curriculum priority about engagement with Asia

The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) have announced a review of the Australian Curriculum and it looks like this this is not what they have in mind.

The press-release talks of ‘decluttering’ the curriculum, but this is not about removing redundant general capabilities. Implausibly, ACARA want to double-down on the general capabilities and, “…reduce the amount of content across all eight learning areas of the Australian Curriculum F-10, with a priority on the primary years, to focus on essential content or core concepts.”

A theme that emerges across the review and the preliminary research is the mystical concept, popular in the UK in about 2006, of ‘deep understandings’ and curricular depth.

You may find it odd that ACARA has already determined the outcomes of a review that it has not yet conducted, but that appears to be down to the preliminary research, the methodology of which is puzzling. Researchers decided to benchmark the Australian Curriculum against the high performing states of Finland, British Columbia, Singapore and New Zealand.

This is a deeply flawed approach. Different states perform differently on assessments such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) for a wide variety of reasons. Some states are small and relatively homogeneous, others are large and diverse. Some states are wealthier than others. Finland has a particularly ‘transparent orthography’ – the relationship between letters and their corresponding sounds in Finnish is far more straightforward than in English, making it easier to learn to read. It is therefore flawed to assume that Finland’s position above us in the PISA rankings must be down to their curriculum.

Of more relevance than positions in a league table is the question of the direction of travel. Which countries are improving relative to their own past performance? Which countries are declining? This may enable us to draw stronger inferences about any curriculum effects because we can assume factors such as the language of instruction and demographics stay relatively stable over time. Such an analysis would warn us off Finland which has been in significant decline on PISA since around 2006. Given PISA assesses 15-year-olds, education in Finland has probably been heading in the wrong direction since about the turn of the century. Perhaps the Finnish curriculum is a cause of this.

And the researchers also appear to believe in time travel.:

“…British Columbia’s new curriculum design privileges depth over breadth… Singapore’s revised curriculum includes a greater focus on 21st century skills such as collaboration.”

By exactly what mechanism can British Columbia’s ‘new curriculum design’ or Singapore’s ‘revised curriculum’ be a cause of past successes? For all we know, these innovations could be leading British Columbia and Singapore towards future declines in performance.

Oh well, ‘decluttering,’ probably sounded good. Who wouldn’t want to declutter? Who is in favour of clutter? So, ACARA decided to go with that.


6 thoughts on “Decluttering the Australian Curriculum

  1. Mike says:

    Great piece. Was planning to write a blog piece on this myself, but you’ve said pretty much everything I was planning to say!

    The inclusion of New Zealand on that list is also quite bizarre. If policy documents and/or anecdotes and comments from teachers across the ditch are any guide, the NZ education system is frankly a bit of a mess.

    I did worry somewhat when ACARA first flagged the idea of “decluttering” the curriculum a while back that they’d end up jettisoning the wrong things, and it looks like that’s the way they’re headed.

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  3. Tim says:

    I want to disagree on one part, but it may be because of different experiences. I’ve never been in a school where the ‘general capabilities’ were treated like subjects—no-one went to a ‘General Capabilities’ class, much less an ‘ICT Capability’ class, an ‘Ethical Understanding’ class, and so on—so I don’t find (say) ‘literacy’ to be redundant with English in that way, nor at odds with ‘a standard subject-based approach’.

    Instead, I’ve seen them as a reminder that literacy isn’t ONLY for the English classroom, that numeracy isn’t ONLY for the Maths classroom, etc. And this has value when, say, we Maths teachers need reminding that we have to deal with reading comprehension in word problems. We can’t just say ‘if our kids can’t do it, that’s the English teachers’ problem’.

    But then there’s the question of how (and why) to incorporate ‘personal and social capability’ into a lesson on fractions, or ‘ethical understanding’ in the topic of similar triangles. I exaggerate, but only slightly: there seems to be this notion that all of the general capabilities have to be included regularly. That, in theory, someone could come along at any time and ask what we’ve done to involve this or that general capability over the past week or so, and so we ought to have an answer. And further, that the only reason this doesn’t happen in practice is because the leadership share the opinion that many/most/all of them are bogus.

    So I, you, or we both, may be misunderstanding what ACARA put the ‘general capabilities’ into the curriculum to achieve… but so, it seems, does everyone else.

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