National Curriculum Debates

What if the national curriculum that’s going to revolutionise everything also included HOW to teach certain subjects such as perhaps reading? Would we all think it so benevolent and non-invasive then.

I’ve railed and wailed here about national curriculum before but Caroline Milburn’s article in the AGE today opens a new line; that methodology might also be part of this nationalist zeal. Summarising an ACER report the article says:

The major challenge in improving teaching lies not so much in identifying and describing quality teaching, but in developing structures and approaches that ensure widespread use of successful practices: to make best practice, common practice,” says the report, written for the BCA by senior researchers at ACER. The Rudd Government has signalled its intention to take an unprecedented role in influencing teaching methods. The first steps of a more interventionist approach in areas traditionally the preserve of education authorities and teacher training institutions were announced this year.

I like the response of literacy expert Dr Ilina Synder who writes:

The national curriculum initiative is an exciting opportunity to forge new directions and aspirations for school education, but she warns that teachers will resist it if it tells them what they should do in the classroom rather than setting out principles to inform the curriculum. Teachers will not welcome a heavy-handed approach that requires them to perform specific tasks without having control or input in the way they are conceived and evaluated. “Teachers expect to be accountable as professionals but they also expect acknowledgment of their professional knowledge and expertise,”

The debates moves on, but it’s currently only being had among politicians and academics. If teacher aren’t careful they’ll wake up to find that the debate is done and dusted and we’ll be told new ways of operating based on what looks good in Finland and what might get a politician re-elected in four years time.

Science good, maths holding, reading declining

Barry McGaw’s article Science Good, maths holding, reading declining, published in the latest EQ  (Autumn 2008) coming out of the Curriculum Corporation, discussing the latest data from international PISA testing, nicely illustrates some of my concerns with the national curriculum agenda.

McGaw, who has been appointed chair of the new National Curriculum Board, goes data-happy in his two page piece, talking repeatedly about how Australia ‘tied in fourth place …’, ‘tied in third place…’ and ‘Australia slipped in the rankings from fifth in 2003 to ninth in 2006…’. etc. etc.

And then this;

‘We can of course, continue to be pleasesd that our 15 year olds are among the highest performers in the OECD … But we should not rest content.

We are not usually satisfied with less than gold medal performances in sport. We should set similarly high aspirations for our education system…’

Really? That’s funny because the message I hear is that participation and effort and achieving your own potential is more important than winning. And that just getting there is a huge achievement for some. And that perhaps education is best seen in jingoist contexts. And that perhaps these measurements aren’t it all anyway.

No mention of Finland this time around, thankfully, but we can be sure that the National Curriculum executives will be flying in to Helsinki at some point.

Winter Gold Medal photo from FLICKR by danjc003

What troubles me about a national curriculum

I’ve blogged occasionally (most notably HERE) and grumbled a lot here and there about the intrinsic value or not of a national curriculum; now an idea that’s firmly here and on the agenda of both sides of politics, as seen in this ABC news piece from back in January.

The other day I was asked to submit some responses to a series of questions about national curriculum which made me think about it again, and prompted me to try to clarify what it was that concerned me.

In fact, I put together a SWOT analysis which tried to frame how I felt about this new push which concerns me in something like the way that any great concerted national push by politicians concerns me.

Strengths

Australia is one country, albeit bloody big; it makes sense that we would have one curriculum. You’d expect Finland to have one wouldn’t you? I wonder if we’d expect the United Kingdom to have one? Or China? or the United States. I think we’d probably expect that it’s more likely that China would have one than the USA.

Lots of students move with their parents across state boundaries. It would be a tad frustating to have to learn fractions all over again.

Weaknesses

Can a curriculum that is anything more than a fairly generic framework, almost a blueprint, be relevant to the very different needs of students across the continent?

One system, and a centralised system at that, rather than ‘competing’ systems might lead to a lack of innovation and diversity and be more open to centralised (aka political) control. Where will new ideas come from and who will be able to challenge these new orthodoxies?

Opportunities

There are some. The stars are aligned. There’s the possibility of a new national imperative and the promotion of a new discussion about what 21st Century Learning might really look like, and how it could be properly staffed and resourced.

Along the same lines, wouldn’t it be nice if we could, as a nation, somehow reconceptualise senior secondary curriculum as something other than an extended university entrance exam?

Threats

But what if that alignment led not to learning discussions but to new Federal accountability measures linked to narrow definitions of achievement, defined by national testing, that drove the curriculum?

What if we got all hung up on using narrow data to compile ‘league ladders’ of schools or sectors?

What if the central government had some weird and crazy ideas that they thought we be useful for students this week (obesity, drug use, traffic safety, insert latest issue from current affairs here) and decided to slot that into the ‘curriculum’? After all, the last government had us all pinning up a poster of Simpson and his donkey as a values statement.

What if, rather than a framework, we ended up with a narrow and prescriptive, content based curriculum that could satisfy tv grabs and mass media but not the future needs of our students?

What if the ability of schools and districts to respond flexibly and creatively to the needs of their students was replaced by centralisation and control? I go into a lot of bookshops. Dymock stores have everything on their shelves ordered and delivered from central office; you can tell.

What if, to create an ‘achievable’ curriculum we ended up with a lack of challenge and rigour?

What if the states changed their minds? THey have the responsibility for education under the constitution. What if it was not wall to wall Labor in the future and cracks started to open up?

There are opportunities here, but there’s a few concerns too. I’m not confident that ACER or the Curriculum Corporation or this weeks Federal Minister or any other single entity can be quite trusted to get it right.

The cartoon is by Petty from the AGE (bless him)