The NSW school curriculum review is no trivial matter, and will have serious consequences for the state’s students. The importance of the curriculum – what students are expected to know and be able to do at each stage of school – by far outweighs jousting over funding, although it gets far less public attention.
Curriculum development is a balancing act and involves compromises and trade-offs. Children spend a limited number of hours in class each year, and there are many competing demands for this time: from foundational skills in literacy and numeracy, to general knowledge of the world and its history, health and physical activity, using technology, and now so-called general capabilities such as collaboration and creativity.
This balancing act is growing more fraught. There is strong advocacy to add to an already crowded curriculum in significant ways. Decisions have to be made about what to keep and what to jettison. These decisions must made with advice from subject matter experts, without recourse to superficial and dangerous propositions such as that from “21st-Century skills pioneer” Charles Fadel, who recently suggested trigonometry should be out and mindfulness should be in.
Care must be taken that curriculum does not implicitly or explicitly prescribe teaching methods. In theory, curriculum is agnostic about teaching. It specifies the content students should learn and the skills they should master, but does not state how these things should be taught.
The Australian curriculum says children should learn to calculate percentages by the end of Year 4, but has nothing to say about whether this should be learned sitting at a desk or playing in a sandpit. Schools make judgments about which teaching strategies are most likely to be effective.
However, in reality a curriculum can and often does encourage certain teaching practices. An example is the recommendation in the second ‘Gonski’ report to “strengthen the development of the general capabilities, and raise their status within curriculum delivery, by using learning progressions to support clear and structured approaches to their teaching, assessment, reporting and integration with learning areas”.
Creating a set of learning progressions is not a straightforward exercise. It heightens the influence of curriculum on teaching methods, and drives a particular approach to assessment. The Gonski report proposes “developing the general capabilities into learning progressions that will provide a detailed picture of students’ increasing proficiency.”
There are two risks in this. One is that it will authorise and promulgate the misguided notion that general capabilities are independent of knowledge of facts and concepts – including the fallacy that “learning how to learn” is the ultimate goal of school education.
The other is that the proposed policies and practices overshoot the existing evidence base, and therefore risk wasting valuable time and resources – not least the time of teachers who generally
already have a heavy administrative workload, and that of students whose education is at stake.
The general capabilities listed in the Australian curriculum – digital capability, critical and creative thinking, personal and social capability, intercultural understanding, and ethical understanding – are inarguably valuable for the world of work and for life more broadly. The crucial questions are whether they are really generic skills that can be conceptually sequenced on developmental progressions, and if they can be taught and assessed separate from content knowledge. The evidence at the moment suggests the answer to both questions is no.
Dr Jennifer Buckingham is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies and director of the FIVE from FIVE reading project.