Donnelly’s review set to limit future for young Australians

By Nicole Mockler

The final report of the Australian Curriculum Review conducted by Kevin Donnelly and Ken Wiltshire has recently been handed to Minister Pyne, according to leaks reported in the media.  Apparently “vague” and “broad” “postmodern themes” will be swept aside in favour of a greater focus on basic literacy and numeracy.

Basic literacy and numeracy are important of course.  They underpin the curriculum.  The argument goes that if our young people don’t have basic literacy and numeracy skills, it’s hardly worth trying to teach them more sophisticated skills.  But for a country such as Australia to treat basic literacy and numeracy as an end point rather than as the starting point they should be, is to promote a very impoverished vision of education.

To go further and relegate creativity, ethical understanding and intercultural awareness to the category of “broad postmodern themes” dismisses the foundations we need to succeed as a nation. Let’s break it down.

Creativity is the basis of innovation.  If we’re intent on even half-heartedly delivering on our claim to be the ‘clever country’, we won’t get there on basic literacy and numeracy alone.  Far from being a vague postmodern theme, creative thinking is essential for the creation of knowledge across every field of human endeavour, from science to history to mathematics to the arts.

Ethical understanding is, as a friend and colleague reminded me on social media recently, hardly an invention of the postmodern age.  To suggest that ethics is somehow marginal while at the same time advocating a return to the values of the past is hypocritical.

And then there’s intercultural awareness.  It’s hard to imagine an educated, tuned in Australian who wouldn’t recognise the growing importance of intercultural understanding, defined within the Australian Curriculum as learning to “value their own cultures, languages and beliefs and those of others”, in the 21st century.

One need look no further than a recent front page headline in The Australian declaring that “We’ll fight Islam 100 years” to see how desperately wrong we can get it and why we need more, not less, intercultural awareness if our communities, from local to global, are to flourish in the 21st century.

Of course, until the report is made public, all we have is the mainstream media’s particular take on what it contains. We may find that the report has been grossly misrepresented.  It’s worth noting, however, that Donnelly has in the past decried many things he disagrees with as “postmodern”, and so such a finding within the review would not seem out of place.

Donnelly has tarred formative assessment, outcomes based education, contemporary expressions of civics and citizenship education and of course critical literacy with the ‘postmodern’ brush in his writings over the years.

It seems like common sense to say that our kids need basic literacy and numeracy.  But the fact is, our kids need much more than that if they’re to build successful lives in the messy, complex, sometimes bewildering world of the 21st century.  We should wish for them much, much more than basic literacy and numeracy skills.



Nicole Mockler is a Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of Newcastle. Her research interests include teacher professional learning and identity and the politics of education, and she teaches in the areas of curriculum, pedagogy and professional practice and research methods. Her published work includes Student Voice: Beyond Legitimation and Guardianship (Springer, Forthcoming) and the Australian Curriculum: Classroom Approaches series (Palgrave, 2013).  She is a member of the Executive of the Australian Association for Research in Education, an Associate Editor of Critical Studies in Education, and a General Editor of the book series Local/Global Issues in Education.


Read the mainstream media leaks on the report HERE

19 thoughts on “Donnelly’s review set to limit future for young Australians

  1. Ania Lian says:

    My comment is the same as I made to the posting yesterday on “Muddled Thinking”: For as long as we ourselves use the term BASIC, we legitimise it and make it REAL. Just because our taxonomies tell us that making a difference between A and B is less complex than telling the difference between, say, moral and immoral action, this does not make it yet TRUE. All actions involve complex processes and when we ourselves underestimate it, we automatically create the world where there is TRUTH (the basics) and the fluff (all the complex stuff). However, if we consider that the distinction between A and B depends on meaning-making, i..e the kinds of processes that allow us to “hear” A in its many versions of dialects and accents, we can see that had it not been for the things around A, we would never hear the A ( I am Polish and my A is not the same as someone elses, but the same goes for the individual instances of “A” of the native speakers). In short, every phonetician knows there is no such a thing as A in and of itself. And so we can see that whatever skill we talk about, it is the same skill, and it involves “making informed choices”: the skills of creativity (cant create without having many/contrast), or critical thinking (can work with elements if we dont have many/contrast), or resilience (cant rephrase unless we have options/contrast), ethics (can assess unless we have options/contrast), cant hear unless we can contrast , cant read comprehend unless we can contrast and so on. So let me cast my vote for complexity and the death of the word BASIC — someone else on this blog spoke about this before.

    Ania Lian
    School of Education
    CDU, Darwin

  2. David Zyngier says:

    Nicole I just hope that you are wrong – but fear you are right.

  3. Instead of relying on media reports, maybe a good idea to wait until the report is released and then to judge it on its merits. Best wishes, Kevin.

  4. andypandy says:

    Dr Donnelly, I eagarly await your report and recommendations. It is the first time since my children started primary school 6 years ago that I feel there is some hope.

  5. Nicole Mockler says:

    I look forward to doing this, Kevin. My hope is that the representation so far in the media is very wrong, and I look forward to having this confirmed. Best wishes, Nicole

  6. Dave says:

    This seems a rather pre-emptive strike from a defensive ideologue? Perhaps not, but the disconnect between some of the statements in this article and reality smacks of the emperor’s new clothes.

    ie: “Basic literacy and numeracy are important of course. They underpin the curriculum” and yet, apparently a focus on these, “dismisses the foundations we need to succeed as a nation” because “for a country such as Australia to treat basic literacy and numeracy as an end point rather than as the starting point they should be, is to promote a very impoverished vision of education”

    I don’t think anyone is suggesting that this should be the end point, but a beginning point. A huge proportion of our population DON’T achieve that beginning point. So whom is promoting an impoverished vision of education?

    We have the poorest literacy rate of all English speaking countries. If 7.3 million Australians have difficulty with basic literacy (ABS) then one wonders if the author is only talking about those who meet her idea of “educated”? Of course, the more disadvantaged a child is, the worse the literacy outcomes are. Phew, so we keep the rich richer and the poor poorer. The current practices excludes 40-50% of our population from participating in society, let alone the dialogue in educational spheres. I guess then we can be sure that those who participate in the discussions about ethical understandings, intercultural awareness and creativity will only be those who are wealthy enough to achieve reasonable literacy.

    “It seems like common sense to say that our kids need basic literacy and numeracy. But the fact is, our kids need much more than that if they’re to build successful lives in the messy, complex, sometimes bewildering world of the 21st century. We should wish for them much, much more than basic literacy and numeracy skills.”

    No, it doesn’t “seem like”, it is common sense. The current system is fundamentally flawed, and deliberately and vociferously ignores the scientific evidence base on teaching fundamental skills such as reading. Fundamental. Perhaps a better word than basic, which here is being used in a pejorative sense, to imply that fundamental skills such as reading and mathematics are somehow beneath the lofty ideals of our educators.

  7. andypandy says:

    Wholeheartedly agree Dave. I’m tired of this line of argument. All empirical and psychological evidence points the way towards explicit/direct instruction. I don’t understand why we must always have this argument. It just goes without saying that practicing something a lot makes you better at it. You can’t skip the practice part, which many teachers seem to think you can. The basics are the foundations on which all else rests. For far to long educators have paid lip service to these foundations and naturally enough their pedagogical approaches and seemingly scornful approach to the basics (as though they are somehow secondary to higher order thinking rather than essential to) leaves me bewildered and our kids confused and under performing. At my children’s primary school they only do a 1/2 hr of maths a week! It that good preparation for what lies ahead? If only teachers knew how many of their students get tutored they might begin to realise how the system they have been “encouraged” to use is at the very least unsuccessful and time wasting and at best damaging. Their is nothing egalitarian about the current system. It with holds knowledge rather than instills it.

  8. Nicole Mockler says:

    Thanks for your comment, Dave.
    The media report to which I was responding in this post began with the words “Teachers would be instructed to focus on literacy and numeracy rather than vague postmodern themes like ‘intercultural understandings’ (sic.), under a plan to revamp the national curriculum”. Where a skill becomes a key focus of the curriculum, it’s often the case that student performance is judged in relation to that skill – in other words, that the acquisition of the skill becomes the aim. I hope that you’re right in the claim that nobody is suggesting that this should be an end point, but we won’t know until the report is released.

    I’m interested in where you get the information about Australia having the poorest literacy rate of all English speaking countries. On PISA 2012, which is the latest such international comparison, Australia outperformed New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States on reading, and this performance has been relatively consistent over the years of the PISA Program. In fact in 2012 the only anglophone countries who out-ranked us were Canada and Ireland. The PISA results can be explored here: If you have alternate data that suggests we are in fact at the bottom, I’d be most interested to see it.

  9. andypandy says:

    In my view your comments are not useful. I firmly believe that the curriculum is a mish mash, with good intentions, but muddled and lost with so much focus on themes. For goodness sake standard mathematical algorithms are not even mandated!. Further, it pushes skills over knowledge. As you say the basics are important – so important in fact that you can’t move into creativity thinking until you have them firmly consolidated. I don’t believe the review is questioning that there is more to educating, rather they are saying that we have lost our way and need to give students the basics before they can negotiate more complexity. At present many educators somehow think you can throw a novice learner in at the deep end and they will work out how to swim. Learning builds on previous knowledge. The basics are important as anything else. My belief is that you are misrepresenting the argument for more focus on the basics. I am a left wing voter but stand very firmly with the review team on this one. I would like to see less post-modern themes and more focus on knowledge acquisition in those traditional areas of schooling. Bring it on…

  10. andypandy says:

    Nicole, I also wanted to add that creativity is not something you can teach. Also, it does not appear out of some vacuum. Creativity is something that usually occurs once enough background knowledge has been amassed. Great scientists, in general, don’t just make great leaps on their own. Usually they have drawn on previous work and understandings that they analysis and question. Yes, creative thinking is important so all the more reason to give our students the focus on the basics in primary school so they can draw on this knowledge to hopeful become the creative thinkers of the future.

  11. Nicole Mockler says:

    Thanks for your comments, andypandy. I’ll respond to them all at once here.

    I’d be very interested in the empirical/psychological evidence you’re referring to supporting explicit/direct instruction. A great deal of large-scale Australian research has in fact found the exact opposite. Some examples of this would be the Queensland Schools Research Longitudinal Study, the Systematic Implications of Pedagogy and Achievement study and the Redesigning Pedagogies in the North study, all of which pointed to the need for pedagogical approaches far more complex and responsive than the scripted lesson approach favoured by DI and its stablemates, particularly for children from low-SES backgrounds. As Allan Luke has argued on this blog, while “explicit instruction in its various forms is one necessary part of an effective teaching repertoire– direct instruction is not and by definition cannot be seen as a universal or total curriculum solution”.

    Learning does indeed build on previous knowledge and I do believe that I stated very clearly that the basics were important. A problem arises, however, when we treat the basics as an end point rather than as a starting point for the curriculum. Furthermore, knowledge and creative thinking are not binaries – students need to develop both in concert with each other from a young age.
    As far as what the review is or isn’t questioning, neither of us would know at this point. We need to wait until the report is released. This post was a response to the leaks that have been reported in the mainstream media, not the review itself. I’ll leave that for later.

  12. andypandy says:

    Thank you for your response Nicole. I have looked at the papers on pedagogy that you recommended. Unfortunately I gained very little from these “research” papers. It seems they were written by educational academics and rely on actedotcal “evidence” – but evidence of what? I’m not sure I understand what they were trying to achieve nor what the conclusions were. In the main I found them most unsatisfactory, nothing of substance and not in the least insightful. In order for a study to register as worthwhile to me it needs to start from a place that is not bias, that is it must be objective. Therefore, I am suspicious of papers written by ed. academics who set out to find what they want to find based on what some teachers think. The evidence I prefer is not based on hearsay but far more empirically based. I am sure you have heard of “Project Follow Through”. That was a very thorough study – the biggest study ever carried out in relation to pedagogical practices and the impact on learning, I believe. As I’m sure you’re aware DI was superior to every other form of pedagogical practice not only in the academic realm but also it increased student’s higher self esteem – not surprising if you consider that naturally student’s feel better about themselves when they have succeeded at something. I am extremely surprised that someone in your position does not know that DI was actually first developed for disadvantaged kids ie those from lower socio-economic backgrounds! Also we have Hattie’s meta-analysis. Direct instruction had a very high effect, .82, again, as I’m sure you’re aware. This can not be dismissed. Papers written about what we know of cognitive load also help to explain why explicit/direct instruction is far more effective and efficient.

    It frustrates me that we have academics churning out papers of nonsense and pushing a ideological, almost religious line, while ignoring real evidence – some of which has been around for many, many years.

    If we turn to naplan results, which I’m sure you’ll dismiss, in seems that many schools that do well are those that have embraced explicit instruction. John Fleming turned low-achieving schools around in a very short space of time with this pedagogical approach. Lastly, to me it just seem completely illogical to suggest that kids can learn well without being “taught”. It simply makes no sense.

  13. andypandy says:

    Hattie believe that “…the underlying principals of DI place it among the most successful out comes”. He goes on to say

    “Every year I present lectures to teachers education students and find that they are already indoctrinated with the mantra ‘constructivism good, direct instruction bad. ‘When I show them the results for these meta-analyses, they are stunned, and they often become angry at having been given an agreed set of truths and commandments against direct instruction.”

  14. andypandy says:

    You state: A problem arises, however, when we treat the basics as an end point rather than as a starting point for the curriculum.

    Again, nobody said that. The important thing is that the basics are given more respect and emphasis. Without them there is no beginning point there is just a fruitless attempt to rush toward the end point which is unattainable because the students don’t possess any foundational knowledge to draw on…

  15. Hi andypandy – I have to agree with you on this one. In my book Dumbing Down, now available as an e-version, I refer to project Follow Through and well as research by John Sweller from Sydney – both support explicit teaching and di. Best wishes, Kevin

  16. andypandy says:

    Lastly , in my view, a good study that was attempting to prove which pedagogical approach was the most successful would measure students results not discuss a handful of teacher’s opinions.

  17. andypandy says:

    Another recent study called An alternative time for telling: When conceptual instruction prior to problem solving improves mathematical knowledge published 5/2/14 sought to exactly measure the effect of when explicit instruction is provided. In a randomised experiment, 122 students were taught about mathematical equivalence. Some of the students were given explicit instruction before problem solving. For the others, the order was reversed.

    The study concluded:

    “Providing conceptual instruction first resulted in greater procedural knowledge and conceptual knowledge of equation structures than delaying instruction until after problem solving. Prior conceptual instruction enhanced problem solving by increasing the quality of explanations and attempted procedures.“

  18. andypandy says:

    Here is some more evidence from a new study that demonstrates why basics, mastery and fluency in maths is so important. Those children that have memorised maths facts are more able to deal with complex maths problems and therefore do better in maths overall. Therefore it would make sense that drilling children in school in addition and multiplication tables is a very worthwhile endeavor.

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