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Decluttering the curriculum

By Sam Di Sano on 7 November 2018NSWstaffroomLeadership

Anyone else as confused as I am? I thought we were working from a national curriculum and breaking down state-based silos in most areas of education. Come to think of it, wasn’t the Australian curriculum introduced by the Howard government before they lost power in 2007?

Just how national is our Australian curriculum?

A quick peek at their very good website shows that in Foundation through to Year 10 we actually do have an Australian Curriculum in all key learning areas and in the Senior Secondary years (11 and 12) so far 15 subjects in English, Maths, History, Science and Geography have rolled off the assembly line.

So, 10 years after the introduction of an Australian curriculum, that is why the recent announcement that the NSW state government is set to “declutter” its school curriculum befuddles me.

Gonski report

In case you missed it, the New South Wales government beat its chest that it will implement findings from David Gonski’s April 2018 education report in the first review of the state’s school curriculum in 29 years. Premier Gladys Berejiklian and Education Minister Rob Stokes announced the review after the Gonski report found curriculums across the country had failed a generation of students as the country’s position keeps tumbling down OECD rankings and it was time to move beyond the so-called ‘industrial model’ of teaching.

The NSW education minister, Rob Stokes, said the entire curriculum from kindergarten to year 12 would be reviewed to put Gonski’s report into practice, taking advantage of a:

“Once in a generation chance to examine, declutter and improve the NSW curriculum to make it simpler to understand and to teach.”

Implementation of the Australian curriculum

It all started to unravel for me when I read the implementation page on the Australian curriculum website. According to the website, State and territory curriculum and school authorities make decisions about the extent and timing of take-up and translation and are responsible for the implementation of the Australian curriculum in their schools, in line with system and jurisdictional policies and requirements. In other words, a fair bit of cherry-picking takes place, evidenced by this - The Australian Curriculum can be used flexibly by schools.

Reading that, it begs the question - do we actually have an Australian Curriculum in place or is it just a PDF sitting on everyone’s desktop, or in a folder gathering dust or stored somewhere in the cloud?

Don’t get me wrong, I am all for local context and schools tailoring curricula to meet the needs of their students, but when we have the NSW government set to review its entire curriculum, you have to wonder, what have they been doing for the last decade since the implementation of the Australian Curriculum?

Calls for a declutter

When it comes to curriculum offering, the answer is not as easy as reducing the number of subjects. As Don Carter, Senior Lecturer in Education at UTS correctly states, this would potentially deny students a range of learning experiences.

So how do we declutter?

So far, the advocates of decluttering the curriculum have focused on deleting subjects and concentrating on the basics, namely literacy and numeracy. Opponents of this slash and burn the approach, and I am one of them. This would be a backward step, potentially denying children learning experiences in and exposure to the knowledge, ideas and skills particular to learning areas other than letters and numbers.

What we need to do instead is to closely examine for overlap, duplication and redundancy in outcomes and where they exist, eliminate them.  

Unhelpful comments

Not all the comments supporting the review have been helpful to the cause. Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham, a father of primary school age children himself should know better, but he welcomed the move “to axe the extraneous” and focus on core content.

The NSW premier, Gladys Berejiklian, said these reforms provided greater focus on the basics including English, Maths and Science.

We want to ensure our students have every opportunity with the skills needed for the jobs of the future.” Berejiklian said.

She also welcomed that the review will clarify the teaching of ‘‘general capabilities’’ – the learning skills emphasised in the recent Gonski report that students will need for a 21st century job market.

Looks like we are back on the utilitarian bandwagon - education being merely seen as a means to developing skills needed for the workplace.

They are just kids

Conversely, I have been delighted to read a number of calls for the 2008 Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians to be re-visited, something I have advocated many times before. The Melbourne Declaration provides the philosophical basis for curriculum development in Australia, aiming to develop young people as successful learners, confident and creative individuals and active and informed citizens. Disappointingly though, no measurements have ever been developed for these and hence they have remained in limbo.

The review is said to start at the primary level first. That being the case, the review committee needs to consider context - primary school children should not be considered simply little adults in their pre-employment phase. Instead, let them be kids, foster awe and wonder; delight and fascination; and nurture within them a lifelong love of learning; enable creativity; encourage imagination and above all, let them enjoy their school education. Sadly, much of the experience of the school tends to kill off any sense of fun.

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