In early January, 2014, the Commonwealth Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne, announced a review of the Australian national curriculum co-chaired by Professor Ken Wiltshire from the University of Queensland and myself. Reviewing the national curriculum was a key aspect of the Coalition’s education policy leading into the 2013 campaign and Christopher Pyne, when shadow education minister, had made public his concerns about the rigour and balance of the national curriculum.
After considering over 1500 submissions and undertaking extensive consultations across Australia, the Report was delivered in August with thirty recommendations. The Commonwealth government’s initial response to the Report was released on October 12. (It can be found at: http://www.studentsfirst.gov.au/review-australian-curriculum.) The focus of the review was primarily on the process the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) employed to develop the curriculum as well as evaluating the balance, rigour and quality of the curriculum documents in the eight learning areas.
Not unexpectedly, the response from Australia’s cultural-Left education establishment was highly critical, largely because most of the professional organisations and subject associations involved in school education had played a major role in shaping the national curriculum and ensuring it reflected their views. In an open letter, dated January 13, 176 academics complained that the review was premature, given the national curriculum had yet to be fully implemented, that complaints about cultural-Left bias were unfounded, and that neither Ken Wiltshire nor I had the curriculum “knowledge or expertise” to carry out the task.
Tony Taylor, from Monash University, criticised Pyne for appointing “hackneyed cultural warriors”, the Australian Education Union President Angelo Gavrielatos attacked Pyne for “playing politics with the education of Australian children”, and David Zyngier, also from Monash University, described the review as a “slap in the face” to the hundreds of teachers who had helped design the curriculum.
My postgraduate qualifications centre on curriculum, and I had previously undertaken three benchmarking projects evaluating Australian state and territory and the New Zealand school curricula in an international context. I had also published three books with a curriculum focus, including: Why Our Schools are Failing, Dumbing Down and Australia’s Education Revolution. Professor Wiltshire also has years of experience in education at national and international levels.
Is there a national curriculum?
While it is true that all states and territories have agreed to implement the first of three phases of the national curriculum, involving English, mathematics, science and history from foundation to Year 10, there are significant differences across the various jurisdictions. Such differences raise doubts about whether, in fact, there is a truly national curriculum that is being uniformly implemented. Given that under the Australian Constitution school education is a responsibility of the states, and not the Commonwealth, official submissions from New South Wales, Western Australia and Victoria argue against a one-size-fits-all national curriculum and assert their right to “adopt and adapt” the national curriculum as they see fit.
The submission from the New South Wales Board of Studies Teaching and Educational Standards (BOSTES), in addition to criticising the consultative approach adopted by the ACARA when developing the national curriculum, argues against what are described as the general capabilities. ACARA describes the general capabilities, involving generic skills such as critical and creative thinking and intercultural and ethical understanding, as a “key dimension” of the national curriculum and argues that they should inform all the various learning areas and subjects. BOSTES, on the other hand, argues that the essential content associated with specific subjects should be the prime focus of the curriculum and, as a result and except for literacy and numeracy, the five remaining general capabilities “have no status as an alternative organisational frame to the subject disciplines”. The BOSTES submission goes on to argue that it “does not endorse general capabilities and cross-curriculum priorities as frames for delivery of mandatory curriculum content and outcomes”. The New South Wales authority also argues, given that its state-based curriculum has only recently been legislated, that it will not be making any substantial changes or revisions as a result of the national curriculum review.
The joint submission from the West Australian curriculum and education authorities, while accepting phase one of the national curriculum, puts a question mark over phases two and three when it argues that they “need significant review to ensure that the knowledge, understandings and skills across all subjects can be managed by teachers (in particular generalist primary school teachers) and students”. In addition to the problem of an overcrowded curriculum, the West Australian submission also questions the educational validity and worth of the general capabilities when it argues that “the general capabilities should not become a de facto curriculum at the expense of specific content knowledge”.
While not making a formal submission and while largely agreeing to implement the national curriculum, the Victorian curriculum and education department authorities argue against uniform nation-wide implementation of the national curriculum. They argue that jurisdictions, sectors and schools “should be free to interpret and select from the existing material according to the values, judgment and views of the school and its community within the accountability requirements of each jurisdiction”. The Victorian authorities, similar to the submission from the Catholic Education Commission of Victoria (CECV), also argue for flexibility and choice at the local level when suggesting, in relation to the national curriculum, that it should be “the prime responsibility of jurisdictions to determine how and how much of the material to use in schools”.
It should also be noted that, notwithstanding that ACARA has designed fifteen subjects for Years 11 and 12, implementation of senior school subjects is voluntary, and individual states and territories have retained their control over assessment, examinations and certification at the senior school level.
The place of moral, spiritual and religious values and beliefs
The Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians is the roadmap that all education ministers have agreed to when formulating education policy, and it is generally cited by ACARA as the basis for the development of the national curriculum. When detailing what constitutes a balanced, rigorous and worthwhile education, the Declaration refers to “the intellectual, physical, social, emotional, moral, spiritual and aesthetic development of young Australians”.
In addition to concluding that the implementation of the national curriculum is far from consistent or uniform, the Report, based on submissions and consultations, also argues that ACARA has failed to remain true to the intentions of the Melbourne Declaration. In particular, the way the various subjects have been developed and designed fails to recognise the central importance of education dealing with moral and spiritual values—especially, but not restricted to, those represented by Australia’s Judeo-Christian heritage.
Evidence that the national curriculum undervalues religion includes the submission from the CECV that questions the emphasis given to indigenous, Asian and sustainability priorities to the detriment of teaching about the “foundations of our liberal democracy, shaped by our Judeo-Christian heritage”. The Anglican Education Commission in Sydney, in its submission, also emphasises the significance of moral and spiritual beliefs and values when it argues, “Our justice, government, education, health and general welfare systems are all established on the Judeo-Christian foundation of this civilisation.” The Presbyterian Church of Victoria’s Church and Nation Committee’s submission is also critical of ACARA: “One glaring omission of the curriculum is that it fails to give an understanding of our Judeo-Christian heritage which had, and continues to have, such a great impact on our country.”
A number of submissions also put the case that the national curriculum fails to acknowledge the cultural and literary significance of the Bible. To support its case the Australian Christian Lobby refers to the fact that the well-known atheist Richard Dawkins supports the Cameron government’s decision to send a copy of the King James Bible to every school in England. One of the academics chosen to review the Australian English curriculum, Barry Spurr, argues, like Dawkins, that the Bible has important literary and cultural significance. Spurr, after citing Northrop Frye’s belief that the Bible represents “the single most important influence in the imaginative tradition of Western literature”, argues that the Bible also cultivates an awareness of the literal, metaphorical and allegorical uses of language.
In relation to moral and spiritual values and beliefs a number of submissions also argue that the national curriculum should better deal with religions and belief systems more broadly and in addition to Judeo-Christianity. The submission by the Australian Association for Religious Education (AARE) argues that the national curriculum should include “a study of religious, spiritual and secular beliefs and worldviews which compose the human world” and that students should be taught about the “important role these different belief systems and worldviews have in the lives of many Australians”. Significantly, given recent events in the Middle East and the impact of fundamentalist Islamic terrorism here and overseas, the AARE submission justifies a greater emphasis on moral and spiritual values and teaching about different religions and belief systems because of the challenges faced by an increasingly pluralist Australian society in a post-9/11 world where sectarianism is on the rise. Rabbi Dr Shimon Cowen, when putting the case for introducing a subject titled Theology, argues in a similar fashion by suggesting that all students should be introduced to the major religions and belief systems, with a focus on “common theological categories and ethical principles”.
Contrary to the argument put by the Australian Education Union in its submission that the legislation in the various states forbids government schools dealing with religion, on the basis that state schools are secular, the reality is that government schools are permitted to deal with religion, not only in the sense of allowing schools to host religious education classes but also in relation to subjects like history, art, music and literature. The Victorian legislation, for example, states that students can be taught “about the major forms of religious thought and expression characteristic of Australian society and other societies in the world”. The West Australian legislation, notwithstanding the requirement that schools are “not to promote any particular religious practice, denomination or sect”, also permits teaching about religion when it states that schools are allowed to include “general religious education in the curriculum”.
A number of the submissions argued for an increased focus on moral and spiritual values, especially those represented by Judeo-Christianity, and also argued for a more balanced and extensive treatment of the nature and significance of Western civilisation. The submission from the Institute of Public Affairs argues that the national curriculum is “unbalanced, ideologically-biased and systematically hostile to the legacy of Western Civilisation”. Barry Spurr, after analysing the English curriculum, makes a similar point when he argues that while the curriculum refers to indigenous literature it fails to adequately acknowledge the “Western tradition of literature in English”. Greg Melleuish from the University of Wollongong makes a similar complaint after analysing the History national curriculum when he concludes that it fails to properly acknowledge and deal with the contribution of Western civilisation to Australia’s historical development as a nation and the world in general.
Is the national curriculum balanced and academically sound?
In addition to evaluating and making recommendations related to the process ACARA employed to develop the national curriculum, the reviewers were also asked to evaluate the curriculum in terms of being robust and academically rigorous. Any curriculum document either implicitly or explicitly favours a particular view of the purpose of education, the preferred style of teaching and learning and the nature of knowledge and how students perceive and relate to the world.
And it is here, once again, that the national curriculum, despite ACARA’s boast that it is world’s best practice, is open to criticism. In chapter one, the Review differentiates between five approaches to defining the purpose of education. The first is a utilitarian one that focuses on teaching practical, work-related skills on the assumption that education is about preparing students for the workforce and future careers. The second embraces a futures perspective where the need is to meet the unseen challenges of the twenty-first century—an ever-changing and evolving future where knowledge is uncertain and generic competencies like learning how to learn and acquiring transferable skills are essential.
Emphasising child-centred learning represents the third approach; where the subject disciplines are secondary to responding to the child’s interests, abilities and motivation, and learning is often restricted to what is immediately contemporary and relevant. Drawing on a cultural-Left critique of education and society, the fourth curriculum model defines the purpose of education as teaching students to be politically correct and socially critical. Australian society is seen as inequitable and socially unjust and education is defined as an instrument used by the elites to further consolidate their power and privilege and to disempower the marginalised and the disadvantaged.
The fifth approach has existed for hundreds of years and is associated with the evolution of Western civilisation. The Victorian Blackburn Report describes this as education introducing children to “our best validated knowledge and artistic achievements”. The English national curriculum, drawing on Matthew Arnold, describes this as dealing with “the best that has been thought and said”.
The more traditional view argues that education should be objective and impartial, that continuity is as important as change, and that education is inherently moral and transcendent in nature. Instead of privileging work-related competencies, child-centred learning or radically transforming society, the more traditional view favours introducing students to what the English philosopher Michael Oakeshott describes as a conversation best exemplified by the established disciplines of knowledge.
Based on the various reports and background papers employed by ACARA to justify its interpretation of what a national curriculum should look like, and by the fact that the national curriculum places cross-curriculum priorities and general capabilities on equal footing with the content associated with the various subjects, it is clear that the national curriculum favours the first four responses to defining the purpose of education. As a result, and as noted by a number of submissions, the national curriculum is overly technocratic and utilitarian, as proven by the way it defines education in terms of measurable outcomes and the way it privileges generic competencies and skills over essential content.
Much of the justification for the national curriculum is also couched in New Age jargon and psychobabble that emphasises so-called twenty-first-century learning where the purpose of education is restricted to preparing students for an uncertain and ever-changing future instead of grounding them in the significant events, movements, ideas, and artistic and scientific achievements from the past. Suggesting that subjects like mathematics and science, in addition to all the other subjects, must be taught through a politically correct prism involving indigenous, Asian and sustainability perspectives clearly reflects a bias where students are given a jaundiced and tokenistic knowledge and understanding.
Some submissions ask the question: If there are to be cross-curricula priorities, why include sustainability and not entrepreneurship? Others argue, given the inherently political nature of the way in which the priorities were chosen, that including them risks the danger of the curriculum becoming a political football.
Three curriculum models
Generally speaking, it is possible to differentiate between three models of curriculum: the more traditional syllabus model; a second that focuses on inquiry and process-based learning, to the detriment of essential content; and a third, described in the USA as a standards approach.
In the 1960s and 1970s the overwhelming majority of Australian state and territory schools followed a syllabus approach characterised by succinct and detailed curriculum outlines based on the established subjects, explicit teaching and regular testing and consequences for failure. (The syllabus model is still prevalent in many high-performing Asian education systems, such as Singapore, Japan and China.)
In the 1980s and 1990s a more progressive, process-centred model replaced the syllabus approach. As a result, teacher-directed learning gave way to a collaborative approach where learning was based on the child’s interests and motivation, meritocracy was attacked as elitist and socially unjust, and the purpose of education was defined as making children socially critical. A variation of this process model is the competency movement where generic skills, such as working in teams and critical and creative thinking, prevail on the basis that schools must prepare students for an ever-changing workplace and a competitive, IT-rich global environment. The most recent manifestation of this progressive model is “twenty-first-century learning” where teachers no longer teach, they “facilitate”, children are “knowledge navigators” and “digital natives”, and the content represented by the subject disciplines is secondary to clichés like “life-long learning”, “collaborative, negotiated goal setting” and “learning how to learn”.
The US-based Thirteen Ed Online describes this approach:
the classroom is no longer a place where the teacher (“expert”) pours knowledge into passive students, who wait like empty vessels to be filled. In the constructivist model the students are urged to be actively involved in their own process of learning. The teacher functions more as a facilitator who coaches, mediates, prompts, and helps students develop and assess their understanding.
“Twenty-first-century learning”, generally speaking, also embraces postmodern theory, where there are no absolutes because, supposedly, how we relate to and understand the world is subjective and relative. The subject disciplines, instead of being inherently valuable and worthwhile, are considered simply socio-cultural constructs that maintain privilege and marginalise the disadvantaged.
While it should be acknowledged that the current national curriculum represents a definite improvement on the previous attempts, such as the Keating government’s national statements and profiles, it still favours a child-centred, inquiry-based approach to learning that undermines the need for explicit teaching and essential content. The History national curriculum states that it “employs a skills and inquiry-based model of teaching”, and the Science and Geography national curriculum documents adopt a similar approach when they emphasise “inquiry-based teaching and learning”. Much of the History and English curriculum documents, during the primary school years in particular, also emphasise basing learning on the immediate world and interests of the child.
As noted by a number of submissions and during consultations, the English curriculum also places greater emphasis on the progressive, whole-language model compared to a more traditional approach associated with phonics and phonemic awareness. The whole-language approach mistakenly argues that learning to read is as natural as learning to talk and that children should be allowed to look and guess by identifying words according to their context. A phonics and phonemic awareness approach stresses teaching children the relationship between letters and groups of letters and sounds.
The submission from Learning Difficulties Australia argues: “the Australian curriculum does not provide sufficient guidance to ensure effective teaching of reading using a phonics approach”. The submission also criticises the English curriculum for adopting a model made up of “a little bit of phonics and a lot of whole language” and suggests that the curriculum is not explicit or systematic enough in detailing for teachers what constitutes “a carefully sequenced and detailed phonics program”.
The impact of constructivism
That the national curriculum has more in common with an inquiry- and process-based model of curriculum than a syllabus model should not surprise. As noted by the late Ken Rowe in the Commonwealth inquiry into the teaching of literacy, the prevailing orthodoxy in teacher education and curriculum development across Australia is based on constructivism, an approach to teaching that emphasises child-centred, inquiry-based learning and less explicit forms of teaching. Rowe writes, “curriculum design, content, teaching preparation seems to be based, at least implicitly, on an educational philosophy of constructivism”. Rhonda Farkota, from the Australian Council for Educational Research, notes that “almost every teacher-education program in Australian universities is based on a student-directed approach”. An OECD report related to the 2008 Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) stated, in relation to Australia and five other countries, that support for constructivism “is especially pronounced”.
As noted by a number of submissions to the review, the concern about constructivism is that research suggests there are other more efficient and effective methods of teaching and learning, such as direct instruction and explicit teaching. Both are based on the premise that teachers need to teach, instead of facilitate, and that new knowledge, understanding and skills, in particular, need to be presented in a systematic, explicit and highly structured way.
John Sweller, an educational psychologist from the University of New South Wales, in his submission, argues that “Initial instruction when dealing with new information should be explicit and direct”. Rhonda Farkota argues:
for the acquisition of basic mathematical skills, the research clearly shows that teacher-directed learning is better suited. Needless to say, these basic skills must be firmly in place before students can approach problem-solving questions with any degree of competence.
To argue in favour of explicit teaching, of which direct instruction is an offshoot, does not suggest that there is only way to teach or for children to learn. Rather it is to argue that teachers need to be familiar with a range of pedagogical approaches and to understand when to employ what is most effective.
The general capabilities
Associated with inquiry-based, process learning is the argument that generic skills and competencies are at least as important as the content associated with the subject disciplines. At one extreme is the argument that content is only “stuff”, secondary to the process of learning, with no inherent value or meaning.
There are seven capabilities included in the national curriculum: (1) literacy, (2) numeracy, (3) information and communication technology capability, (4) critical and creative thinking, (5) personal and social capability, (6) ethical understanding and (7) intercultural understanding.
The general capabilities have much in common with the Mayer competencies and those advocated by the Carmichael and Finn reports published in the late 1980s and early 1990s that argued that the school curriculum must be more work-related and utilitarian. Especially, given the unpredictability of what future workplaces might look like and the argument that content is secondary to generic skills, the belief is that the more traditional, syllabus-based curriculum is obsolete.
A number of submissions support the inclusion of general capabilities. The Australian Parents Council argues they are designed “to assist students to live and work successfully in the twenty-first century”. The Australian Curriculum Studies Association describes the general capabilities and cross-curriculum priorities as “a lynchpin of the Australian Curriculum”. The South Australian Education Department follows suit when it argues that the capabilities prepare students for “a rapidly changing world”.
A number of submissions are also critical. In addition to the criticisms raised by the BOSTES and the West Australian education authorities, the inclusion of general capabilities is also criticised by John Sweller. Based on developments in cognitive psychology, Sweller argues that it is impossible to teach generic capabilities or competencies in isolation, since they are domain-specific:
We should be teaching domain-specific knowledge, not generic skills … There is little more useless than attempting to teach generic thinking skills and expecting students to be better thinkers or problem solvers as a result. Despite decades of work, there is no body of evidence supporting the teaching of thinking or other generic skills.
The ability to be creative or to think critically depends on mastery of domain-specific knowledge that requires concentration, discipline and what is termed “automaticity”—the ability to make use of what has been mastered so that it can be recalled automatically. Federalist Paper 2, The Future of Schooling in Australia, commissioned by the Council for the Australian Federation, describes the domain-specific nature of particular competencies:
Expertise requires deep knowledge of a particular subject discipline that shapes the way in which experts represent problems in the discipline as well as how they solve them. Expertise does not readily transfer across disciplines, and skills such as high-level problem-solving are not disembodied competencies that can be used independent of a deep knowledge of a particular subject discipline.
The ability to be creative or to think critically is domain-specific in the sense that it varies depending on the particular subject or discipline that is being mastered. Critically analysing a William Blake poem or an Impressionist painting is very different from evaluating a mathematical algorithm or testing a scientific hypothesis.
The review’s Report includes thirty recommendations covering issues such as governance, the curriculum design and developmental process employed by ACARA and curriculum rigour and balance. The Report suggests, given the federal nature of Australia’s education system, that the task of improving and strengthening the national curriculum needs to involve the states and territories as well as school sector authorities and the Commonwealth government. The Commonwealth government’s response to the Report released on the October 12 supports this suggestion.
Chief among the Report’s recommendations, given the often rushed and politically expedient nature of how the national curriculum was developed, is the need to return to first principles. Recommendation number 8 calls on education ministers to convene a national forum to “consider the purpose and goals of education” and to identify “the aims, values and principles which should underpin the nature of the national curriculum for Australia within the context of the federal system, including the curriculum’s mandatory requirements”.
It is important to note that the Report puts forward two models dealing with the issue of what should be centrally imposed and the extent to which schools, sectors and jurisdictions should have the flexibility and freedom to decide curriculum matters at the local level. The need for flexibility and choice at the local level, known as subsidiarity in the Catholic school system, is important as schools, especially non-government schools, need the autonomy to reflect and give purpose to their unique mission and the needs and aspirations of the communities they serve.
The Donnelly model offers a significant amount of freedom as it recommends that only phase one of the national curriculum involving English, mathematics, science and history across foundation to Year 10 (and which is currently being implemented) remains compulsory. The recommendation is that the other two stages, involving a further seven subjects and learning areas across foundation to Year 10, are voluntary.
In part, the rationale for a minimal, mandatory core curriculum is that all students, regardless of background or school attended, deserve to be familiar with what the Blackburn Report describes as “our best validated knowledge and artistic achievements”. In liberal, democratic societies like Australia there is also a certain prescribed body of knowledge and understanding necessary if citizens are to be critically informed and properly educated. In an increasingly diverse society, it is also important that all students learn about the values, institutions, beliefs and way of life that bind a society and contribute to a commitment to the common good.
In opposition to Dr Donnelly’s minimalist model Professor Wiltshire’s favours a more centralised approach where the national curriculum remains compulsory in all subjects and learning areas across foundation to Year 10. Both models are premised on the need to make the curriculum less detailed and crowded, thus giving schools greater time to enact aspects of the curriculum, both formal and informal, that they consider relevant and necessary.
In the light of the Melbourne Declaration’s commitment to dealing with moral and spiritual values and in response to many of the submissions, the Report recommends there be a greater emphasis on spirituality and morals in the curriculum and, in particular, Australia’s Judeo-Christian heritage and the debt owed to Western civilisation. This includes the need to better recognise “the role of economic development and industry” in Australia’s development as a nation. Contrary to the argument put by the Australian Education Union that state-controlled education must be secular in nature, state government legislation around Australia permits state schools to teach about religion—either involving religious instruction classes or by being included as aspects of the formal curriculum.
Given concerns about the crowded and unwieldy nature of the national curriculum, especially in the primary school years, the Report also recommends that “ACARA revise the structure of the Australian Curriculum to reduce the amount of content to a narrow core”. To simplify the curriculum and make it easier to implement, the Report also recommends that the three priorities and general capabilities no longer be treated in a cross-curriculum way—with the exception of literacy and numeracy. The alternative approach recommended by the Report, drawing on research in developmental psychology about how children best learn and the belief that the established subjects must be centre stage, is that the existing priorities and capabilities, where relevant and educationally sound, be dealt with in the context of particular subjects.
Given fears about declining standards, as measured by Australia’s performance in international tests, the Report also recommends that “research be undertaken to establish the efficacy of different pedagogical approaches ranging from constructivism to explicit teaching and direct instruction”. Australia’s education establishment has enforced constructivism and progressive off-shoots like whole language for far too long and the Report argues it is time to recognise that teachers need a range of teaching and learning models that are based on sound research about what is effective and best able to raise standards and improve outcomes.
Contrary to the fears expressed by cultural-Left educationalists, when the review was first announced, that it was simply a political exercise guaranteed to enforce a conservative, ideologically biased view of education, the responses to the Report have been overwhelmingly positive.
Apart from the odd complaint by the Australian Education Union and the Greens, principally related to school funding, the consensus is that the report is balanced, well researched and constructive. In particular, the media response and responses from groups like the Australian Primary Principals Association are in agreement that the curriculum is overcrowded and that it needs to be slimmed back to essential knowledge, understanding and skills. All agree that there needs to be a “back to basics” approach represented by a greater emphasis, especially in the early years, on literacy and numeracy and more explicit, teacher-directed learning. A more rigorous and academically minded curriculum represented by focusing more on phonics and phonemic awareness, physical geography, classical literature, especially poetry, and the narrative associated with Western civilisation and the nation’s Judeo-Christian heritage is also supported.
Instead of trying to incorporate the three cross-curricula priorities, involving sustainability, indigenous and Asian perspectives, in all subjects, the Report’s recommendation that they only be dealt with where relevant and educationally sound has also been publicly endorsed.
At the time of writing, while the Commonwealth government had released its initial response, flagging which of the Report’s recommendations it is willing to accept, the states and territories had yet to respond.
A copy of the Final Report and the Commonwealth government’s initial response to the curriculum review was released on October 13 and can be found at http://www.studentsfirst.gov.au/review-australian-curriculum . Dr Kevin Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and Director of the Education Standards Institute. He co-chaired the national curriculum review with Professor Ken Wiltshire.