Oct 17

What should we teach?

Quite frankly, it was ridiculous. Having eight different school curricula in a country of only 22 million was inefficient. So, Kevin ‘07 gets a big tick from me for introducing a National Curriculum. Given this was a few years’ ago and there have been a few political assassinations and a change of Federal government since, it was not inappropriate for the Federal Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne, to now review this curriculum.

So – how healthy is our National Curriculum? We needed to find out. The Minister chose Dr Kevin Donnelly and Professor Ken Wiltshire to review the Curriculum. This choice caused conniptions among the left-leaning elements of our society for the two chosen were rumoured to be somewhere right of Genghis Khan in their thinking. There was a fear the review would be more than a tad harsh on any curriculum that did not advocate capital punishment for those who did not do their homework. They need not have feared. The review of our National Curriculum was well-balanced and remarkably fair.

Donnelly and Wiltshire found there was too much over-crowding of the curriculum, particularly in our junior schools. They are right. We need to teach less in order to learn more. They also found there were too many problematic obligations and suggested it could be difficult to teach the indigenous perspective of quadratic equations! They found there was too little rigour in some areas. Giving equal attention to the literature on the back of a breakfast cereal box as to Shakespeare, was not congenial to higher order thinking.

Donnelly and Wiltshire also advocated a bit of a shift from a child-centred ‘constructivist’ approach to learning to a more teacher-centred ‘transmission’ model. Don’t be bamboozled by these terms. They say what they mean. A constructivist approach sees a child constructing their knowledge as they would a Lego creation – by selecting the pieces they want. This is both good and bad. It is good because it encourages creativity and discovery. It is bad because some of the sculptures being built were rubbish. The solution? Introduce the transmission of some quality stuff from teacher to student … a few non-negotiable doses of Mozart instead of a constant diet of ‘doof-doof’.

A touch more rigour and a bit less politics is wanted by Donnelly and Wiltshire. For example, more physical Geography (mountains, cyclones and trees) and a bit less politico-human Geography (why we should stop uranium mining in Woop Woop). In literacy, this translates into the greater use of a phonics approach to spelling, i.e. teaching the rules of spelling, rather than adopting a whole word recognition approach. Think, ‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’. (Be careful this does not always work.)

I’m glad the reviewers noted that the National Curriculum lacked a conceptual framework. We need to know not just what to teach, but why? This brings me to a mega beef I have with contemporary curricula. Courses often test similar skills and exercise similar ability. The capacity to write well is tested not only in English but in History, Geography, Economics, Religious Instruction … you get the idea. I’ve seen too many Geography exams centre on a six page fold out with 8 point font and advanced language content. This required speed reading and superior literacy skills. The exam was no longer a test of Geographical skills. It was a test of literacy. Again.

We need to identify the major skills required of an educated person. We need to identify the knowledge required of an educated person. We need to identify the reasons we teach.

I grieve over the low-trust model that sees Big Brother Government controlling 100% of what we teach in our classrooms. I would love it to be nearer 80%, thus leaving room for some uniquely relevant home-grown content. We need life skills courses. We don’t want schools to be ‘Four Year Schools’ whereby they only prepare students for the four years after school, i.e. university or college. We need schools to be 88 year schools – schools that prepare students for the 88 years their students will face after school. But I digress.

I’m giving our National Curriculum a B+. And I’m a hard marker!

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