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How the new HSC syllabus will change how you teach

By Lauren Condon on 14 March 2017StrategyNSWstaffroom

If you’ve ever doubted that this is an exciting time to be alive, look no further than NESA’s release of the new HSC syllabuses.

Look, I won’t lie, it was tempting just to go straight for the massive changes in content, but the introduction of the new syllabuses isn’t just a matter of new topics and new modules - we’re seeing a fairly dramatic refocusing of the HSC itself.

If you want to get technical, we can turn to Tom Alegounarias, Chairman of NESA:

"The major shift is towards greater depth, rigour, and mastery of content learning”.

In other words - the HSC will assess high quality student learning instead of the students’ ability to rote-learn a broad range of topics or memorise an explanation.

As we come to terms with the fact that it may not be enough to simply teach new content in the old way, let’s look at three ways to tackle ‘deep learning’ and develop an approach to teaching that’s fitting of the new syllabuses!

1. Embrace active learning

Many of the syllabuses have been trimmed down, encouraging students to have a deeper knowledge of fewer topics.

If we want students to spend more time on one topic and retain more information about it (no easy feat) then it’s going to require us to refocus on one of the biggest drivers of student engagement: active learning.

Instead of lecturing at a room of glazed eyes, give students more control over their own learning and ask them to actively participate to boost motivation and interest. You can dip your toes in with a group discussion, embrace a fully fledged flipped classroom or try something inbetween:

  • Lift the restriction on learning hours by giving students access to a 24/7 online resource
  • If possible, give students a say in choosing an area of interest or topic
  • Hand over the reigns of learning resources so students can accelerate their learning or be able to revisit content they struggled with
  • Teach an entire topic against the context of one case study students can invest a lot of time in
  • Present students with a problem and let them come to an understanding in small group discussions

These techniques may be a staple of some classrooms already but it’s worth doubling down on them as students can’t escape engaging with the content and experiencing some impressive retention.

2. Prioritise analogy and visualisation

The deeper students delve into topics, the more often they are going to come up against complex and abstract ideas.

Dubbed The Theory Scare, the research suggests that it’s no easy feat to help students “get” high level ideas that even academics struggle with. The key is helping students see the steps in the process of logic and relate to the abstract ideas.

  • Visualise complex processes

Reading a paragraph on elementary thermodynamics is infinitely less accessible to a beginner than a clear animation that isolates the different types of energy with colour and demonstrates the motion of how they act upon each other.

Visual memory has also proved to be far more powerful than retaining what we hear in a lecture so the image of that animation (and the understanding) will ‘stick’ in a student’s brain for quick recall in an exam.

  • Use analogies so abstract ideas are accessible to students

An abstract idea like individual and collective human experiences in the new Advanced English syllabus can be made instantly relatable to students with a perfectly crafted analogy.

Try asking them what it means to be year 12 students - the answers should be fairly similar - and then what it means to be themselves - different values, religions, homes, families, hobbies etc. The relationship between the different types of human experiences should ‘click’ and you can move on to applying this understanding to a text.

When students sit in that exam room, they don’t even need to memorise a complicated analysis, the abstract idea will always be accessible to them.

3. Take knowledge out of context

If the new HSC is targeting how well students can critically apply their knowledge, then we better get them practising as soon as possible.


Take the student out of their comfort zone by taking their knowledge out of context.

If students can cement a base-level understanding of the content early on then you can dedicate some serious class time to guiding their critical thinking with techniques like:

  • Pose seemingly unrelated questions and encourage students to draw on what they’ve just learnt. In Ancient History, you could ask, “What common elements have you seen across the religious habits of the different ancient societies and what does that tell us about Australian politics today?”
  • With fairly specific content like equilibrium in Chemistry, challenge students to find real - not hypothetical - examples from their life or the news
  • Consider inter-subject projects where students have to apply ideas from different subjects to the same problem

It’s a level of understanding that can’t be faked so students will become skilled in critically applying their knowledge and be ready for any curve ball questions in the HSC. As a bonus, you’ll also be able to pinpoint any struggling students or problem areas long before a weighted assessment.

So remember, new syllabuses mean more than just new content. We’re facing some big and exciting challenges. A new focus on deep learning and class time where students have access to your support, creativity and experienced guidance is now more precious than ever. Make the most of it by throwing out traditional, lecture-style classes and embracing a new approach.

Liked what you read? Check out more great articles:

How to use Atomi videos to teach the new syllabus in your classroom

The power of analogy in teaching complex ideas

A practical framework for introducing digital tools into your classroom

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