curriculum review

Why Alan Tudge is now on the history warpath

Australian children will never defend the country if the draft history curriculum is adopted. That’s the takeaway from the Federal Education Minister Allan Tudge’s speech to the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS) on Friday. 

The minister called for yet another curriculum reform to ensure “a positive, optimistic view of Australian history”. 

His reasoning? “Individual students learn to understand the origins of our liberal democracy so that they can defend it, they can protect it, they can understand it, and they can celebrate it”.  

The impact of such talk on the education system is cause for concern. Curriculum reform is expensive for the economy and disruptive for the sector. Tudge’s comments are unusual given the Australian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (ACARA) just completed a public deliberation over the History curriculum earlier this year.

This begs the question:

What the hell is the Minister doing? 

It’s about the election but there is something more. The use of two political spaces, Sky News and the libertarian think tank Centre for Independent Studies (CIS), rather than the more bipartisan National Press Club, supports the campaigning thesis.  My previous research has shown CIS and the Institute for Public Affairs have a specific focus on causing education issues to go viral. When an issue goes viral, it becomes something talked about in more households and more online accounts, whether challenged or accepted. As the lobbyist theory goes, more viral = more likely to have popular influence. Add to this Tudge’s online blocking of multiple historians and teachers of history over the past weeks, as they question his weird focus on optimism, a clearer picture emerges. This commentary is not about policy. It is about the election and getting that little word “optimism” associated with the Coalition. 

It’s probably electioneering

There is a federal election on the horizon, and even if the Government is re-elected, there will be a cabinet reshuffle. So why is Tudge making so much noise about History education when he only has five months left in the job? I believe the imminent election is the key to unlocking Friday’s weird flex.

It is tempting to look at the transcripts from Tudge’s comments and dismiss them as far-fetched. But it is more important to draw back the lens to view a government with an election in five months, after a pandemic year filled with bad press. 

When taking a broad view of the Federal government, it is interesting to note that the word “optimism” is popping up in many Federal press releases and media interviews. Minister for Health and Aged Care, Greg Hunt, has been using the word consistently since COVID19 vaccines were developed, but the word has also crept into other portfolios. Prime Minister Scott Morrison is the “man for optimistic narratives”, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg is optimistic of an economic recovery, Trade and Tourism Minister Dan Tehan is optimistic about resolving the French submarine diplomatic disaster, “government sources” from Attorney General Michaelia Cash’s office say they are cautiously optimistic about resolving the industrial relations bill, and Foreign Minister Marise Payne even has “optimism” in her Twitter profile, even if it is about breeding racehorses. 

Optimism has popped up enough times to warrant attention. The word taps into a public desire for something good to happen after the heartbreak and restrictions of the COVID 19 pandemic. We also know that the current federal government is very keen to ensure popular optics. “Optimism” is a useful word for dismissing the Opposition’s criticism of the Government at the same time giving hope to the population. It’s a powerful word that escapes a lot of generalised attention, and does a lot of political heavy lifting.

How “optimism” works in History education

The tactics of this current government’s History education rhetoric is different to the Howard government. The History Wars have a few skirmishes every time there are announcements about education’s role in the development of the nation. While Ministers and their lobbyists clutch pearls over declining scores in literacy and numeracy, and students are squeezed into STEM for the economy, History has always been about what type of nation Australia’s children should be actively informed about. In the past, this battle for the soul of the nation has at least had some semblance of debate, with academics, historians and politicians getting into the nitty gritty of what it means to raise active and informed citizens. They have engaged with alternative readings of events, even if only to dismiss them. 

Tudge’s History War is different. 

Tudge’s reasoning is riddled with misinformation and weird predictions but he keeps coming back to this word “optimism”. While he drags out the History Wars’ bread and butter about balancing the positive things Australia has done alongside the violence of the colonial past, his desire to squeeze in the use of “optimism” in other ways looks more forced.  

For example, as mentioned previously, the review of the Australian Curriculum was just completed in July. It was not until after the Australian public were invited to make submissions on the proposed changes to school offerings that Tudge began to get quite vocal about changing it. Which leads me to wonder, if he really wanted to make the curriculum more optimistic, why didn’t he begin this campaign before the review ended. A closer look at his reasoning shows that some of the items in the History curriculum he thought were pessimistic have already been removed in the latest draft. So why did he think they were worth talking about? 

He uses old news to argue that if the draft curriculum goes forward, students “won’t necessarily defend our democracy as previous generations have done” using data from the Lowry Institute to support his claim. Apart from being completely impossible to make that prediction, what Tudge doesn’t say is that the Lowry Institute poll on democracy shows young people’s faith in democracy is on the rise, trending up from 31% of the population believing in democracy in 2012, to 60% in 2021. So using Tudge’s logic, the current History curriculum is doing exactly what it is supposed to do. 

But by flipping a 60% win to a 40% deficit, Tudge can politik about the need for optimism. 

These are tactics, not ANOTHER education reform strategy

This points to education tactically being used to further the Federal Government’s re-election campaign, rather than a strategic move to save the soul of the nation. Tactics are localised responses to circumstances, whereas strategies are more stabilised and long term. So in other words, the federal cabinet ministers are finding issues to associate with the word “optimism” and putting it in front of as many voters as possible. For education, the History Wars have a history of going viral, even before the internet. And if you look at Tudge’s comments on Friday, the History curriculum is nestled in with the other two big viral topics – literacy and numeracy test scores. 

Ultimately, education cannot continue to be used by politicians this way. Education researchers and journalists need to work hard on holding these tactics up to the Australian public and pushing back on the use of words like “optimism”. While researching for this article, it became increasingly noticeable that the media has begun to use the word to describe the Government. And it’s not just the Murdoch press. Every time a journalist associates that word with the Federal Government, they are giving them free political advertising. 

This is just another electioneering policy announcement where Federal politicians have called for a review of the Australian Curriculum: History declaring the hearts and minds of Australia’s youth as under threat. This same rhetoric was used in the 1990s when Henry Reynolds and Keith Windschuttle faced off over the “black armband view of Australian history” in the proposed national curriculum. We need to start asking why this government sees the need to renew the History Wars while still pointing out the misinformation in their rhetoric. 

Education researchers need to look hard at their expert subjects and then pan out to see if they are simply being used as a pawn in a wider federal agenda. Education has been in a state of flux for many years now and this requires research that pre-empts, just as much as it reacts. That involves looking wider than the education portfolio. If we look outside of our silos, there’s some clues about where we are going.

Naomi Barnes is a lecturer in Literacy, Faculty of Education, Queensland University of Technology

Alan Tudge’s understanding of our history deserves a fail

The Federal Minister for Education Alan Tudge says the draft History and Civics and Citizenship curriculum is not up to scratch. According to a letter seen by The Australian newspaper, Minister Tudge has suggested that the draft curriculum ‘diminishes Australia’s western, liberal and democratic values’. According  to Tudge, the curriculum provides a negative view about western civilisation placing emphasis on ‘slavery, imperialism and colonisation’.

He’s not happy with any of Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority’s (ACARA) draft curriculum but history came in for a belting.

Tudge also suggested that there has been an effort to remove or reframe historical events, emphasising ‘invasion theory’ over Australia Day. In addition, he is also concerned that Anzac Day is presented as ‘a contested idea, rather than the most sacred of all days’.

His comments are of particular concern to the Social and Citizenship Education Association of Australia (SCEAA).

SCEAA represents a diverse and experienced group of teachers, researchers and teacher educators from across Australia. The Australian Curriculum, and how it might best be taught is central to our work and advocacy. In this respect, we have provided detailed submissions regarding the  Australian Curriculum.. We are critical friends and do not hesitate to offer suggestions for improvements where we feel they are warranted. It is in this role,, and with a great deal of respect, that we respond to the Minister’s comments. In the case of History and Civics and Citizenship, we would argue that the Minister has mis-characterised aspects of the proposed History and Civics and Citizenship curricula. 

If we are to consider the Minister’s comments regarding Anzac Day, as one example, the evidence does not support his claims that it has been removed or reframed. For example, in Year 3, students are taught ‘How significant commemorations [such as Anzac Day] contribute to [Australian] identity and the content descriptor explicitly references ‘the importance’ of Anzac Day. 

This does not sound as if Anzac Day is being marginalised in the curriculum.

 There is an elaboration that allows teachers to explore the idea ‘that people have different points of view on some commemorations’. Whilst this is optional, its inclusion is consistent with the principles of critical thinking and engaging with multiple perspectives that are foundations of democratic societies. It does not demand the study of Anzac Day as a contested idea. In Year 9, students explore ‘The commemoration of World War I’. Part of this includes ‘different historical interpretations and contested debates about the nature and significance of the Anzac legend and the war’. The documents that comprise the curriculum are carefully articulated to be as close to neutral as possible; they don’t advance an ideological argument against Anzac Day.

Regarding the Minister’s concerns about ‘slavery, imperialism and colonisation within the curriculum, it is important to reiterate that within History and Civics and Citizenship there is a great deal of emphasis placed on critical thinking, and considering different points of view and perspectives. In History, especially, students must engage with concepts like ‘Continuity and change’, ‘Perspectives’ and ‘Contestability’. They must do so by applying historical inquiry and skills, which includes the analysis and use of sources, and the examination of perspective and interpretations. Again, these arguments about meaning and value are central to what it means to be an active and informed citizen and member of the community, and a student of History.    

Perhaps there is some confusion about what history is, and how it is meant to be taught? In the comments above, it appears that the Minister is suggesting that young people undertake no critical thinking about the centrality of Anzac Day (or anything else) in our culture, but solely experience it as an annual patriotic rite. This positions the study of history as something that is only celebratory and patriotic. While History can promote  feelings, it should also encourage reflection, thought and reasoned debate – such as, in this case, about the continued importance of Anzac commemoration in Australia today. This understanding better reflects the experiences of our members, who after all, are those entrusted to make the curriculum a reality and who lead ANZAC day celebrations in schools. There is highly respectful dialogue and interaction between schools, RSLs and others around Anzac Day, with many opportunities for educational conversations. Furthermore, the effective study of History is one that presents multiple sides which are supported by evidence, and invites critical analysis of those multiple views on the balance of evidence, in a way that neutralises biases as much as possible rather than amplifying bias one way or another. 

As Australian educational settings are super-diverse we need to embrace a curriculum that is not monocultural and embraces and critically explores and presents our history so that all learners can relate to it and be valued. History, at its most effective form of contribution to society, is a doorway into our past in ways that help us to make sense of our present and then enable us to make better informed decisions for our future. It is not about advocating any one view, itself. The  Australian Curriculum reflects this best practice approach.

This misunderstanding also applies to the Minister’s comments regarding Australia’s western democratic values. Again, an examination of the Australian Curriculum documents might correct this. Students in Year 3 through to Year 8  learn about government, politics and democracy in Australia. For example, in Year 3, ‘students explain how citizens contribute in their community’, the role of rules and the importance of making decisions democratically’. In Year 5 students explore ‘What is democracy in Australia, how does our democracy work, and why is voting in a democracy important’. A content descriptor outlines ‘the key values, and features of Australia’s democracy, including the election process and the responsibilities of electors’. In Year 6 ‘Students study the key institutions of Australia’s democratic government. They learn how State, Territory and Federal laws are made in a parliamentary system and the role of law and law enforcement’. There is an entire sub-strand in the Year 7 and 8 called ‘Government and Democracy’ which focuses on the key features of Australian democracy and government, and also the role of political parties and independent representatives. Students are also called upon to evaluate political and legal institutions (including in positive ways!) as they ‘Explain how democratic, political and legal systems uphold and enact values and processes, and how Australian citizens use these to contribute to their local, State/Territory or national community’.

Again, there is no evidence that this represents any particular ideology. It is hard to see how the curriculum exemplifies a ‘left-wing’ bias as represented in the media coverage. Instead, what it does do is strive to meet the twin goals of ‘active and informed’ citizens and membership of the community that are present in the Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Declaration; nationally agreed goals for schooling agreed to by all state and territory Ministers of Education.. Students have the opportunity to recognise what is good about our current institutions and their past, but, perhaps more importantly, how they might strive to improve and participate as informed citizens in the democratic life of all Australians. This constant evaluation of systems and processes is essential to a healthy democratic system.

Whenever a new draft of a curriculum is opened for consultation, stakeholders from all backgrounds are invited to respond and raise their concerns and questions. Such action is to be encouraged, since contributions from diverse stakeholders,  (including teachers and their representatives) strengthen education in Australia as a whole. However, these contributions must be weighed against the content of the curriculum and the practice of teachers in their classrooms.  

Australians need informed, engaged citizens to contribute to a healthy and responsible democracy. We are committed to educating young people with these kinds of qualities through our teaching in both schools and teacher education institutions.

From left to right: Keith Heggart is an early career researcher with a focus on learning and instructional design, educational technology and civics and citizenship education. He is currently exploring the way that online learning platforms can assist in the formation of active citizenship amongst Australian youth. Keith is a former high school teacher, having worked as a school leader in Australia and overseas, in government and non-government sectors. In addition, he has worked as an Organiser for the Independent Education Union of Australia, and as an independent Learning Designer for a range of organisations. Peter Brett is an experienced History and Civics and Citizenship teacher educator and was involved in a variety of ways with the launch of citizenship education in England from 2002. He is a recent President of the Social and Citizenship Education Association of Australia [SCEAA] and a co-editor of Teaching Humanities and Social Sciences (Cengage, 2020). Sophie Fenton is an award winning founder, learning designer and researcher in education. She has taught History, Global Politics and Civics, as well as developing curriculum with VCAA and SEV. Today, she specialises in school design, curriculum adaptation and pedagogy innovation with a focus on human-centred design for the emerging cyber-physical world. 

How to do the sums for an excellent maths curriculum

As we await the release of a new Australian curriculum for mathematics, debates about its contents are developing. As is typical with educational debates, the issues are often painted in binary terms: traditional vs progressive, explicit teaching vs problem solving, content vs skills, procedural vs conceptual knowledge. In mathematics education, these debates have existed for some time, pitting supporters of explicit teaching of clearly defined content against those who advocate for more opportunities for mathematical problem solving and reasoning. However, in order to produce mathematically-able citizens at one end of the spectrum, and at the other, the mathematicians of the future, we need both. We need students with extensive mathematics knowledge and skills, who can also think flexibly and creatively with that knowledge to be confident problem solvers. 

So what do teaching approaches have to do with the new Australian curriculum? A curriculum should outline what is to be taught alongside its purpose and intent. In addition to outlining the mathematics content for each year level, the current Australian curriculum for mathematics includes four proficiency strand: understanding, fluency, problem-solving and reasoning. The strands describe “how content is explored or developed; that is, the thinking and doing of mathematics.” These proficiencies are integrated with the content to ensure that students can work adaptively with mathematics content rather than just be competent users of set procedures. The world that students will inhabit in the future will require them to have strategies to solve complex problems and apply their mathematical content knowledge to unfamiliar situations. Taking on these challenges will require them to be confident and experienced problem solvers. Knowing how to apply mathematical procedures and algorithms only to familiar situations is not sufficient. 

The world that students will inhabit in the future will require them to have strategies to solve complex problems and apply their mathematical content knowledge to unfamiliar situations.

Criticisms of learning approaches that enable students to problem solve or to reason mathematically often assume that teachers are trying to teach generic skills in the absence of content. This is not the intent of the Australian mathematics curriculum, where it is expected that the proficiencies are integrated with the mathematics content. Students need sound content knowledge in order to draw on that knowledge to solve problems. They cannot think critically without sound underlying knowledge to think critically about. In mathematics they need both procedural and conceptual knowledge, which develop iteratively alongside one another. Teachers have a role to play in providing quality explicit instruction which takes into account cognitive load theory but students also need time to explore and compare alternative problem solutions and to communicate their mathematical reasoning.  

We know that mathematics is a polarising subject. Most people have strong views about their attitudes towards the subject and their capacity to do mathematics. Such views were generally formed as a result of their schooling. Unlike other school subjects, mathematics induces widespread anxiety and negative feelings, often attributed to traditional teaching and assessment practices. These negative attitudes cause many learners to opt out of mathematics in the senior years of schooling and to disengage with the subject from an even earlier age. The TIMSS data tells us that more positive attitudes, in terms of valuing, liking and confidence with mathematics are related to higher achievement. So teaching approaches that support the development of positive attitudes are vitally important so that students don’t start to consider themselves as a ‘non-maths person’, losing interest in mathematics early in secondary school. Traditional explicit teaching, while appropriate some of the time during a teaching sequence, if overused, can alienate some learners, leading to disengagement and a reduction in student confidence leading to a decrease in enrolments in mathematics in senior years of schooling and beyond. 

The new Australian Curriculum is an opportunity to create a curriculum that will enable students to develop a deep understanding of and appreciation for mathematics. The curriculum should provide guidance for teachers so that they can teach students in ways that develop understanding and competence but also develop an interest in the subject and a desire to learn more. We want our students to finish school with positive attitudes to mathematics and confidence to use mathematics within their personal and working lives. This will only happen if teachers provide a balanced approach to learning mathematics, with time for students to learn from explicit instruction, but also to apply their creativity and knowledge to unfamiliar situations, building confidence in themselves as learners, preparing them for whatever the future holds.

Professor Kathryn Holmes is the director of the Centre for Educational Research in the School of Education at Western Sydney University. She is also the asssociate dean, research, School of Education

Associate Professor Catherine Attard is the deputy director of the Centre for Educational Research in the School of Education, Western Sydney University. She is also president, Mathematics Education Research Group of Australasia

 Tomorrow Emeritus Professor of Educational Psychology at UNSW John Sweller adds to the debate.

Curriculum review: where was NESA’s consultation?

This column by Debra Batley is the first of two columns discussing the recent NESA announcement.

NESA’s announcement on Monday 15th January that its curriculum overhaul was powering on into 2021 by cutting over 80 elective school developed courses not deemed “core” had several disturbing aspects to it. There was next to no consultation in this decision and it was particularly unsettling given that it followed closely on the heels of NESA’s December blanket dis-endorsement of all providers of professional learning in NSW (with the exception of DOE, AIS NSW and Catholic Schools). The decision around professional learning was also done in the name of curriculum reform, and was completely without consultation – the Professional Teacher’s Council lost endorsement, along with almost every professional teaching association in NSW. 

This is not what the Geoff Masters‘ review promised. This document was aspirational: it gave a reasonable time frame, talked of the importance of collaboration with key stakeholders in the writing of new curriculum documents, and left teachers with hope that the review process would be positive for both students and teachers. 

Unrealistic timeline

Instead, we have an unrealistic timeline. How can curriculum possibly be written, piloted, tested, sent out for consultation, adjusted, and teachers trained in the 18 month time frame that the Minister’s office has given NESA? The results of a short timeline are already emerging, with shortcuts in collaboration and consultation with key stakeholders being taken. Education is often a political football, however there is a growing perception that minority parties such as One Nation are ‘running the table’. It would be good to see the evidence basis for these latest reform decisions. 

Had teachers had been consulted on the culling of elective subjects, they probably would have replied that a large body of evidence suggests students do better when they are intrinsically motivated in their learning, have self-determination and autonomy. They maybe would have mentioned that researchers such as the late Sir Kenneth Robinson have found that educational outcomes are improved by learning across domains. 

Furthermore, they may have argued that school developed electives are particularly relevant to the school’s context. The culling of electives assumes a ‘one size fits all’ approach for their organisation (100 hours or 200 hours). Some schools in NSW take the opportunity to offer electives on a semester basis (50 hour courses). One well known Northern NSW School includes subjects such as Philosophy and Cosmology amongst their semester long elective offerings. Performing Arts High Schools have developed courses such as Circus Skills and Musical Theatre. Two of the biggest electives at my school are content endorsed courses; they are looked forward to by students, and I am certain they attract enrolments to the school. As a teacher I dread finding out that Year 9 Music has been placed on the same line as Outdoor Education – I know this means a small music class. 

Whilst the Hon. Sarah Mitchell may not see the value in these courses, for some students, these are the subjects that ignite their passions. 

It is somewhat ironic, that whilst the curriculum reform agenda is pushing for a depth as opposed to a breadth of understanding, the NSW Government is opposed to the idea of a child becoming an expert in printmaking – “this can be included in visual arts”. I would have thought that 100 hours of printmaking – which can include nine main types, and a multitude of subtypes – would actually model deep learning and provide students with practical skills. Disturbingly, even though the  Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Declaration expresses a desire for “all learners to explore and build on their individual abilities, interests, and experiences”, the recent curriculum review decision seems to contradict this. 

What is core curriculum anyhow?

The elective decision also raises the question of what is ‘core’ curriculum. A blanket rule with this decision was that all languages were to be retained. The result of this is that some subjects with very low enrolments are protected (such as Sanskrit), whilst subjects with large enrolments (Physical Activity and Sports Studies – CEC) are potentially listed as electives to be ‘cleared out’. The weight of evidence supporting the idea that educational outcomes are better for students who have access to a broad curriculum is enormous. Furthermore, it is the students who need it most, who are the ones in danger of missing out. The Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Declaration states that students, whilst needing the fundamental skills of literacy and numeracy, also require learning in other domains. The study of elective subjects can contribute to this learning. Often through the well-being and motivational benefits this brings, a student’s overall learning is supported. It is clear that there is an academic hierarchy in NSW; however, a blanket decision to remove electives won’t fix it. A better solution would be using the knowledge of teachers evidenced in designing and writing some of the outstanding Endorsed Courses available for everyone. Philosophy anyone?

Debra Batley is a high school music teacher in North Western NSW. She is a current doctoral student at UNSW and her research area is in educational equity and its interaction with creative arts curriculum. In 2017-2019 with funding from AIS NSW she completed a 2 year long school based research project, examining the impact school based music tuition could have as a remediation tool for older readers who were not meeting stage outcomes. Debra is also the Chair of ASME NSW and is a passionate advocate for high quality music education for all students.

What does ‘back to basics’ really mean? What ‘reforms’ are being signalled this time?

Premier Gladys Berejiklian has been describing the NSW curriculum review as a signal to go “back to basics” despite Professor Geoff Masters, who headed up the review, insisting it is more about decluttering the curriculum.  To educators like me the phrase “back to basics” has signalled different education reforms over the years, which begs the question, what is Premier Berejiklian signalling?

Since the 1950s and earlier, at every level of government, politicians have touted their versions of “back to basics’” reforms in education as a way to show their political leadership and to assure us of the stability of their governments. The catch-cry taps into widespread, ever present, cultural fears about literacy and numeracy standards. It signals that a simple and easy solution to educational problems is available by just ‘reforming’ the sector responsible for teaching reading, writing and arithmetic.

However, in 2020 when anxiety over education is particularly heightened, a “back to basics” move also appeals to nostalgia for a time before the pandemic, before a decade of constant reform, before precarity, before everything got so scary.

The trouble is we know from looking at our past experiences of politicians talking about going “back to basics”, the actual ‘reforms’ they have given us under the “back to basics” banner have been very different.

What does the phrase “back to basics” actually mean?

The phrase is what linguists call an empty signifier, or what the D-Generation might call a “hollow” phrase. This and similar phrases are the basis for policy writing jokes in Utopia and The Hollow Men and other comedies about political life. In other words, “back to basics” is clear enough to have passing meaning, but vague enough to mean nothing in particular or to have multiple meanings attached.

It can mean cuts to funding for public schools

The term emerged in the 1950s in the United States but has been used since the 1970s to signal Australian education reforms. In 1977, the Fraser government used “back to basics” to reform the vocational education sector. In 1988, Nick Greiner swept the Coalition to victory in NSW promising a “back to basics” approach to education, but this time the signal was for massive cuts to education including defunding the public system, raising class size and complexity by introducing composite classes, closing smaller schools and sacking 2400 teachers and 800 support staff.

It can mean flagpoles and teaching ‘values’

“Back to basics” was base line rhetoric for the Howard government’s approach to education and shifted its use from simple system and curriculum reform to ideological reform. The phrase signalled moves to neutralise the ‘left-wing’ his government claimed had infiltrated the teaching profession. The National Framework for Values Education in Australian Schools and the flagpole program in 2005 linked federal funding to the display of “traditional” Australian values. Howard’s government opposed diversifying the curriculum from white colonial history texts.

It can mean “removing the black armband of history” and always involves phonics and grammar

Conservative commentators were surprised at the Gillard government’s appropriation of their spin when the Australian Curriculum was finally released after over two decades of negotiations and drafting. Following the Howard government’s definition of basics referring to traditional values and combining it with solid literacy and numeracy practices, the Australian Curriculum removed “the black armband view of history”, which taught students the nature of British colonialism in Australia, specified the teaching of sound-letter phonics, and re-introduced grammar.

In 2010, “back to basics” was used to signal a return to the “golden age” of grammar. The phrase worked to signal both nostalgia and reassurance about basic reading and writing in the emerging era of social media. Though Professor Peter Freebody, who led the drafting of the Australian English Curriculum, explained that the literacy levels in Australia had improved since grammar was removed. The hearkening back to days where children were remembered to be obedient and do their homework tapped into alluring, if false, white Australian cultural memories of the 1950s.

In 2008 it meant NAPLAN and in 2014 (another) curriculum review

“Back to basics” was also used by politicians to describe the introduction of NAPLAN in 2008 by Julia Gillard. This bipartisan agenda which started under Brendan Neilson’s Federal ministry, was a ‘transparency’ move to publish literacy and numeracy results and other government collected data about schools on the My School website. The review of the Australian Curriculum by Christopher Pyne in 2014 was also touted as “back to basics”.

It can mean a focus on PISA scores and the dismantling of education authorities

Current Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan insisted just last year in December, that Australian education needs to go “back to basics” because of our declining PISA scores. What Minister Tehan was really signalling was the introduction of learning progressions, the collapsing of two of Australia’s largest education authorities (Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership and the Australian Curriculum and Assessment Authority) into one body, the development of an evidence institute, and the reform of teacher education.

I could go on much more about how each time we have been taken “back to basics” we have seen major political moves that mostly seem to use education as a political pawn in one way or another. What you should know is that each time there has been a push back from literacy, numeracy, and assessment experts who argue that “basics” is never the point. They argue that the needs of our widely disparate education systems in Australia are complex and any problems that arise need complex solutions.

 Which comes back to my question, what does Premier Berejiklian mean when she dubs the NSW curriculum review as “back to basics” reform?

If the history of the phrase is any indication, you can bet it is about more than just reading, writing and arithmetic.

Dr Naomi Barnes is a researcher in education communication at Queensland University of Technology

Pyne’s curriculum review misses the big picture

Senior Lecturer in the School of Education at the University of South Australia

 

Commissioning a review of the national curriculum and then installing a known critic of that curriculum, Kevin Donnelly, as one of the lead reviewers is like putting Dracula in charge of the Blood Bank – the results are entirely predictable.

It is a self-referential exercise limited by the narrow views of those driving it, judging by the tone of the debate so far.  It could have been so much more.

I have been reading Alain de Botton’s new book, The News, in which he critiques the narrow boundaries of what gets reported in the mainstream press:

In the field of education, it seems ‘normal’ to run stories about class sizes, teachers’ pay, the country’s performance in international league tables and the right balance between the roles of the private and state sectors. But we would risk seeming distinctly odd, even demented, if we asked whether the curriculum actually made sense; whether it really equipped students with the emotional and psychological resources that are central to the pursuit of good lives. 

In Australia, everyone has been to school so everyone has an opinion on education, based on their own experiences. Unfortunately, some people are given the opportunity to express these opinions in the media, where they become reified and elevated in importance.

Kevin Donnelly, for example, is ‘one of Australia’s leading education commentators’ (according to his bio), and gets published in the national press. So he must know what he is talking about, right?

Yet his focus on ‘back to basics’ teaching and sterner disciplinary methods in the classroom diverts the readers’ attention away from the bigger questions:

What is education for?

What do we want for our children?

Is it more important to teach them calculus than how to be a good parent for example?

Christopher Pyne has been to school so also has an opinion, based on what he experienced at St Ignatius College 30 years ago. As Alan Reid pointed out in this blog on April 10, the fact that Pyne is now Education Minister and feels qualified to drive government policy based on his personal opinion is alarmingly interventionist, compared with policy decisions in other areas such as health.

In obsessing about teacher quality, school funding and student performance I suggest that we seem to be missing the point – forgetting that schooling is part of the bigger picture of education. We should recognise that schooling is just one aspect of how our society chooses to guide and shape its children and young people for growing up and participating in society. Family, friends, homelife, environment, industry, media, social media, sport, music, religion – all contribute to shaping young lives.

De Botton’s invitation for us to consider taking a step back to question the whole system of education might be a radical way of seeing the forest instead of just the trees. For example, is it really sensible to institutionalise our children for 12 of the best years of their lives? To make them spend 5 days a week for 40 weeks of the year in a classroom setting? To spend all that time with a cohort of children of the same age but with different backgrounds, learning needs, behavioural styles, parental values? To expect teachers to be able to deliver standardised curriculum in exactly the same way for exactly the same year level in every school in the country?

And comparing the Australian education system with that of Finland, which is fashionable given their successful PISA results, is like comparing apples with oranges. The countries are fundamentally different in the way they educate and employ teachers, fund and govern schools, and embed education in the national psyche.

I have been to Finland and spoken to teachers and principals, who say that while they may be pleased with the outcomes of their schooling system against world comparisons, they are actually more concerned that their children should be happy.

Why don’t we start with this challenging premise:

 an effective curriculum should produce happy children

as we engage in these ongoing debates about education?

 

TOMDr Tom Stehlik is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education at the University of South Australia. His research interests include adult learning, student engagement, school governance and communities of practice. He has had a long association with Steiner Education as a parent, educator, researcher, consultant and board member of a Waldorf School. In July 2014 Dr Stehlik will take up an Endeavour Executive Fellowship to study teacher education and schooling in Finland.