Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Pyne curriculum review - Dr Donnelly's challenge

I should say at the outset of this post that I am not an automatic supporter of an Australian national curriculum nor, indeed, of national uniformity in a general sense. I do support uniform national approaches where a case can be made, but broadly I like diversity because it allows experimentation. Let the states do their own thing, and then focus on the best. National schemes with their attempts at uniform benchmarks do not allow that.

The announcement by Australian Education Minister Pyne that Professor Ken Wiltshire AO and Dr Kevin Donnelly had been appointed to review the Australian national curricula and the associated curricula setting processes has been greeted with a degree of outrage. This is one example of reporting. here a second, while my old blogging friend Neil Whitfield provides a blog example. As an aside, isn't it interesting how the Guardian in Australia has become the voice of the Australian left? It seems that we don't have a local newspaper to fulfil that role.

Putting aside my general reservations about national curriculum, I have no especial problem with the Minister's announcement. For background, this is the official ministerial announcement, Here are the terms of reference, here the bios for Professor Wiltshire and Dr Donnelly, while this is the transcript from the press conference launching the review. Note from the terms of reference that there are two aspects to the review. I quote:

The reviewers will consider the robustness, independence and balance of the Australian Curriculum, including:

  • the process of curriculum shaping, development, monitoring, evaluation and review.
  • the curriculum content from Foundation to Year 12 for subjects developed to date, with a particular focus on the curriculum for English, mathematics, science, history and geography.

There has been little response in the commentary to the first terms of reference. I don't think that anybody would actually argue that we shouldn't look at the process of curriculum setting and review. It is slow and cumbersome. To a degree, it has to be. If we are going to have national curricula where the states and territories are responsible for delivery with the Federal Government attempting to provide command and control, then the process will always be slow. However, we can always improve. Both men and especially Professor Wiltshire would appear to be well qualified to address this aspect.

The angst comes from the second bullet, content.

In answer to a question at his media release, Minister Pyne made this revealing comment:

Well I’m very hopeful the states and territories will want to work with us to have the best curriculum possible. And this is a very objective process. We have a national review, it’s for people that are outside the current system, and I think having fresh eyes is always a good approach.

Leave aside the "very objective process" comment, it's the last sentence that is revealing. The review is "for people that are outside the current system." That is why I have no especial problem with it.

To my mind, the present approach to curriculum setting is confused at a number of levels. To illustrate this, let's take Minister Pyne's own views, for he seems to be as confused as everyone else. To begin with, he seems to conflate two very different things.

The first is the effectiveness of the education system in delivering measurable results. Here the Minister attempts to link the review to questions of national economic performance. The Australian education system is falling behind measured by global standards. We must improve if we are to be internationally competitive. The second is the general content of what is taught, much of which has little to do with measurable performance narrowly defined. It is in this area that we come to in part to values and world views, areas that have little to do with either economic performance or educational performance as measured by current tests. 

Mr Pyne puts all this together. On top of this, he seems to suggest that the current curriculum setting system actually precludes alternative views. This is the justification for a review that is "for people who are outside the current system". I believe that Mr Pyne is correct on this point, if not quite for the same reasons. As I have argued in other contexts, our current systems of public administration and of policy setting have become rigid and sclerotic. They only allow things that fit within current frames and can be expressed in appropriate ways. Everything else is excluded. There is actually very little scope for new thought. That is why I am comfortable with this review, for there is a chance to challenge prevailing orthodoxy.

Can Messrs Wiltshire and  Donnelly do this? I wonder. Dr Donnelly faces the biggest challenge. In arguing against what he perceives to be ideological bias, I suspect he has become locked in to particular positions. Now he has to put his own positions aside and work first as an analyst, clearly defining the issues. In doing so, he also has to put Minister Pyne's positions aside.  That's a hard ask, since Minister Pyne seems clearly attracted by Dr Donnelly's previous positions. I do wonder whether he can manage it. To add to his difficulties, both he and Professor Wiltshire are relying for resources on an Education Department that is itself locked into current systems. Who, there, might provide new ideas or even the rigorous and challenging analysis required as compared to simple summaries of submissions received?

We will see.


Interesting to watch this one evolve. David Crowe in Friday's Australian had no doubt about Minister Pyne's motivation: Christopher Pyne tackles leftist 'bias' in classrooms. This view is shared by regular commenter here, DG: The educational system is now becoming an avenue for infiltrating a Green / Left agenda as a proxy for teaching essential skills that pupils need to learn before they can start to make discriminating choices for themselves.

Interestingly, from a short survey of right/right leaning blogs, the issue has so far been dealt with by deathly silence. All the commentary is from the left or centre left, and all has focused on the cultural war issue. I find myself in the slightly unusual position, at least on the surface, of being the only source outside the Australian's normal partisan position to attempt to mount a counter view on the whole thing.

Over at his place, Neil Whitfield's More pieces on the perturbing Pyne Probe, provides a useful perspective written from the present dominant position in the commentariat. He includes links, including to Darcy Moore's The 21st Century Education ‘Debate’ in Australia. Neil also quotes the Sydney Morning Herald editorial on the matter.

In my post, I quoted the Minister's comment that this review was "for people that are outside the current system." I also said that that was why I had no especial problem with it, noting the way current systems locked out alternative views. Now if you look at Neil's piece, at the SMH editorial, at Darcy's piece, at the links they quote, you can see the process at work, at the defence of both current process and indeed content.

This doesn't mean that I actually disagree with them on all points. Far from it, although I have expressed my own views about the failures in the current system. I just don't like imposed, rigid, uniformity.

To illustrate this, I agree with Scott (and Neil) on the dangers of education by mechanical measurement. As one anon noted, I certainly agree that education and current schooling are not the same thing and am opposed to the entrenchment of privilege in schooling. Perhaps, too, the "soi-distant" experts should spend time in some inner city or rural schools, although in fairness to our polllies many do. I would also agree with some of Darcy's stated priorities.

All that said, I strongly support the admission of alternative views as a way of breaking the mind-lock imposed by current systems. I am also far less concerned about the risks and dangers that appear to concern others. After all, at the end of the day, what can Minister Pyne actually do?

He can simplify to some degree, he may shift focus at the margin, but to bring about change in an area like the national curriculum he has to deal with the states and all the other stakeholders. This requires judgement and tact. Australia is not the UK with its central systems, nor is Mr Pyne (or Mr Abbott for that matter) a Maggie Thatcher. At worst, the next Australian Government and it will come, will simply roll elements back.

The old rule as laid down by Yes Minister is never start an inquiry if you don't know the results and what you might do about them. I am not sure about Mr Pyne's wisdom here. If the views of critics of Messrs Donnelly and Wiltshire are correct, then he will face a mess that might derail the national curriculum movement. I wouldn't mind that too much. Alternatively, he might find himself facing recommendations that actually reduce his already limited power to dictate. I wouldn't mind that too much either.

As I said in my post, we will see. 

Update two

I see all this has finally dragged Catallaxy into a response:

I don't feel like analysing the posts or the 300+ comments garnered so far, although there are some points on which I agree.

I think that the most useful thing that I can do now is to let the matter rest until there is more on which I might make a useful comment.

Update three

In today's Financial Review, (Wednesday 15 January 2014) Jennifer Hewett had a piece entitled "Education Minister Pyne has a point on schools."  I have given the link, although it is behind the firewalls. Ms Hewett rights from the right of politics on economic matters and usually reflects the views of the business community at the bigger end of town. While I hadn't intended to comment any further at this point, I thought it worthwhile summarising her views since they are representative of one stream of thought. I am paraphrasing.

The starting point is that our education system has failed, constantly falling behind in areas like literacy, numeracy and science and this despite all the money spent on it. The education establishment that has been in power for the last 30 years has failed. It's time for a fresh look.

It is easy to parody arguments such as why the current curriculum underplays the importance of Western civilisation, but the underlying criticism is valid. As a parent, Jennifer has suffered through frustrating years of her kids essays on topics like "imaginative journeys" using the required "key words". This provides a segue into criticism of of the central themes that are meant to integrate all aspects of the national curriculum - Asia, indigenous culture and sustainability. For the record, this is the description of these from the science curriculum

"Cross-curriculum priorities

The Australian Curriculum is designed to meet the needs of students by delivering a relevant, contemporary and engaging curriculum that builds on the educational goals of the Melbourne Declaration. The Melbourne Declaration identified three key areas that need to be addressed for the benefit of both individuals and Australia as a whole. In the Australian Curriculum these have become priorities that provide students with the tools and language to engage with and better understand their world at a range of levels. The priorities provide dimensions which will enrich the curriculum through development of considered and focused content that fits naturally within learning areas. They enable the delivery of learning area content at the same time as developing knowledge, understanding and skills relating to:

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures
  • Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia
  • sustainability.

Cross-curriculum priorities are addressed through learning areas and are identified wherever they are developed or applied in content descriptions. They are also identified where they offer opportunities to add depth and richness to student learning in content elaborations. They will have a strong but varying presence depending on their relevance to the learning area.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures

Across the Australian Curriculum, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures priority provides opportunities for all learners to deepen their knowledge of Australia by engaging with the world’s oldest continuous living cultures. Students will understand that contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Communities are strong, resilient, rich and diverse. The knowledge and understanding gained through this priority will enhance the ability of all young people to participate positively in the ongoing development of Australia.

The Australian Curriculum: Science values Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures. It acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have longstanding scientific knowledge traditions.

Students will have opportunities to learn that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have developed knowledge about the world through observation, using all the senses; through prediction and hypothesis; through testing (trial and error); and through making generalisations within specific contexts. These scientific methods have been practised and transmitted from one generation to the next. Students will develop an understanding that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have particular ways of knowing the world and continue to be innovative in providing significant contributions to development in science. They will investigate examples of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander science and the ways traditional knowledge and western scientific knowledge can be complementary.

Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia

Across the Australian curriculum, this priority will ensure that students learn about and recognise the diversity within and between the countries of the Asia region. They will develop knowledge and understanding of Asian societies, cultures, beliefs and environments, and the connections between the peoples of Asia, Australia, and the rest of the world. Asia literacy provides students with the skills to communicate and engage with the peoples of Asia so they can effectively live, work and learn in the region.

In the Australian Curriculum: Science, the priority of Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia provides rich and engaging contexts for developing students’ science knowledge, understanding and skills.

The Australian Curriculum: Science provides opportunities for students to recognise that people from the Asia region have made and continue to make significant contributions to the development of science understandings and their applications. It enables students to recognise that the Asia region includes diverse environments and to appreciate that interaction between human activity and these environments continues to influence the region, including Australia, and has significance for the rest of the world.

In this learning area, students appreciate that the Asia region plays an important role in scientific research and development. These can include research and development in areas such as medicine, natural resource management, nanotechnologies, communication technologies and natural disaster prediction and management.


Across the Australian Curriculum, sustainability will allow all young Australians to develop the knowledge, skills, values and world views necessary for them to act in ways that contribute to more sustainable patterns of living. It will enable individuals and communities to reflect on ways of interpreting and engaging with the world. The Sustainability priority is futures-oriented, focusing on protecting environments and creating a more ecologically and socially just world through informed action. Actions that support more sustainable patterns of living require consideration of environmental, social, cultural and economic systems and their interdependence.

In the Australian Curriculum: Science the priority of sustainability provides authentic contexts for exploring, investigating and understanding chemical, biological, physical and Earth and space systems.

The Australian Curriculum: Science explores a wide range of systems that operate at different time and spatial scales. By investigating the relationships between systems and system components and how systems respond to change, students develop an appreciation for the interconnectedness of Earth’s biosphere, geosphere, hydrosphere and atmosphere. Relationships including cycles and cause and effect are explored, and students develop observation and analysis skills to examine these relationships in the world around them.

In this learning area, students appreciate that science provides the basis for decision making in many areas of society and that these decisions can impact on the Earth system. They understand the importance of using science to predict possible effects of human and other activity and to develop management plans or alternative technologies that minimise these effects." 

To Ms Hewett's mind, this type of approach  has little to do with and detracts from fundamental issues such as teaching science. She is highly critical of outcomes based jargon (she suffered as a parent because no one could understand this stuff, teachers included) and believes that the system is failing to teach in the best ways.

So far as Minister Pyne is concerned, she obviously feels that some of his key concerns are correct. However, she doubts that he is sufficiently adept to bring about real change.


Neil said...

Thanks for this cool analysis, Jim, but I am irredeemably cynical about this. I still think it is a set-up, not a true inquiry.

Scott Hastings said...

"The second is the general content of what is taught, much of which has little to do with measurable performance narrowly defined."

There are many in our community who are ardently opposed to using such a mechanistic measure of educational outcomes.

Schooling should prepare students for work or further education, but it should not be limited to only those goals.

In simpler terms, is the goal to produce citizens or proles for the enrichment of the elites?

All too often I feel, creativity and innovation are beaten out of kids by the school system, rather than being nurtured. And that hurts not only our national culture, but the very thing Pyne worries about, the future of the economy.

Jim Belshaw said...

Let's assume that it is a set-up, Neil, that Mr Pyne is pre-determining the result for his own ideological purposes. In this event,there is going to be a major blow-up that is likely to then affect subsequent Government decisions.

There are some dynamic issues here that I haven't thought through properly.

Evan said...

I think you are being remarkably naive Jim. I'm with Neil on this.

We will see what the states have to say.

As to learning - we now how this happens and how to facilitate it. Schooling is pretty much the opposite. I don't expect the review to raise this.

And I don't think schooling should be the training of office fodder either (let employers pay for the training they won't - and not be allowed to import those trained by other countries either.

Anonymous said...

I'm with Neil Scott, and Evan, too. Pyne covers his face with egg every time he opens his mouth, and Donnelly is a laughing stock within the profession. Schooling and education are two entirely different animals, as you, dear Jim, would be one of the first to point out, I am sure. Could I suggest that the soi-disant 'experts', such as Pyne and his ilk actually spend some time in a heavily underfinanced under-qualified-staffed inner city or out in the sticks state (which state? doesn't
matter) and then talk about 'inquiry'. What? No Olympic swimming pools? groomed ovals? specialist drama/IT/you name it centres?????

Anonymous said...

Bravo, Jim! The educational system is now becoming an avenue for infiltrating a Green / Left agenda as a proxy for teaching essential skills that pupils need to learn before they can start to make discriminating choices for themselves. A good example of the left wing clap trap taught in schools is "Human society and its environment" (HSIE). This is the sort of rubbish, masquerading as "teaching", that is holding Australia back.


Neil said...

In NSW HSIE is the group name for History, Commerce, Geography. plus Aboriginal Studies and Work Education. HSIE is thus NOT a subject itself, Leftish or otherwise.

Neil said...

Sorry to butt in again, Jim, but as you recall I growled about Rudd/Gillard's education decisions also in the past, and I really did then and do now question the whole crisis mentality around our education standing. This recent post on PISA -- well, 4 December -- is a good example:

Anonymous said...

We will see.

Pretty revolutionary concept that, Jim: actually waiting upon the outcome of a review, before passing judgement.


Neil said...

Jim, people like me and Maximos and the rather younger Darcy defend what we all believe are solid insights and achievements, and we know how hard won they have been. When ignorant arrogant twerps like Pyne come along we get very frustrated,, since he really has zero other than prejudice to offer!

Neil said...

Jim, people like me and Maximos and the rather younger Darcy defend what we all believe are solid insights and achievements, and we know how hard won they have been. When ignorant arrogant twerps like Pyne come along we get very frustrated,, since he really has zero other than prejudice to offer!

Neil said...

Sorry about the double post -- a glitch from Blogger/Chrome/

Jim Belshaw said...

I do understand your point, Neil!

Anonymous said...

From your latest links to 'plexy, in the post titled 'An unenlightened education':

Australia was the scene of the Enlightenment’s most audacious experiment: an attempt to build a civilisation from scratch by applying scientific knowledge and liberal thinking.

- by shipping excess riffraff who couldn't be squeezed into the floating wrecks then serving as spill-over gaols, to the nearest bit of terra nullius, with a few ill-equipped officers and enlisteds in charge?

I expect the revised curriculum will refer to the reaction of the pesky prior occupants as 'Aboriginal Nimbyism'.

But anyway, I do agree with:

Students should grow up in a world of infinite possibly

- with a little text revision.


Scott Hastings said...

Oh the irony if this does lead to a curtailing of Pyne's powers, what a magnificent outcome that would be for those who oppose fascism.

Jim Belshaw said...

On the quote, kvd, a good Australian history curriculum is required. On your response, ditto! Or maybe an Oz Oz history curriculum is just to difficult unless you want to put the student off the subject for ever?!

Clearly, Australia was not the scene of the Enlightenment's most audacious experiment. Apart from anything else, the Enlightenment was hardly in a position to run experiments. On the other hand, while your description has more content, it is hardly accurate in historical terms either!

To the extent that I am a writing historian, I say a pox on both their houses! I may play in the policy wars, but I won't play in the so-called history wars. I suppose I do to some degree, but I am more interested in history as it was in all its complexity.

Jim Belshaw said...

We come to similar conclusions, if from very different perspectives Scott. I want to limit regardless of party or persuasion.

Anonymous said...

For the record, this is the description of these from the science curriculum:

But if you go to

and click on "F10 - Curriculum"
and then click any one of:

- English
- Mathematics
- Science
- History
- Geography

Whichever (and that's 2 clicks thus far), but after that, click on (that's 3)"Organisation" for a submenu, and way down there (on each one) is:


As old and tired as I am, I get the feeling that the wording on each and every one of these links is similar - if not identical.

But never mind that; let's jump to this objectionable point in the science curriculum - bypassing all stuff contained in the earlier subheadings ("stuff" like chemistry, biology, physics, etc.) thus bypassing pretty much all of the actual content, until we get to
Cross-curriculum priorities!!!

Shock, horror - our links to indigenous peoples, and our geographic region, and our environment are mentioned as potential (if appropriate) considerations.

I think at worst the authors of this document are guilty of multiple cut and paste, or maybe plagiarism, if each strand worked alone. But Pyne will have the truth of it, don't you worry about that.


Scott Hastings said...

I agree with kvd about the appalling cherry pick there. This is looking more and more like a witch hunt.

Anyway on the stated goal of engagement with Asia, the message is clearly not getting through regardless. I base this on the number of schools dumping LOTE (Languages other than English) in general and Asian languages in particular from their curriculums. Anecdotally I have even heard of some schools switching back from Indonesian or Chinese, to French because the demand was greater. Not sure there's a good economic argument there!

Likewise in terms of respect for our first peoples, I feel like the message is still not getting through to a great extent.

Jim Belshaw said...

Too tired to respond properly, kvd. When you dig into the detail, you will find science, year 9, "Science as a Human Endeavour / Use and influence of science."

The content description is: "The values and needs of contemporary society can influence the focus of scientific research."

The elaborations are: "considering how technologies have been developed to meet the increasing needs for mobile communication;
investigating how scientific and technological advances have been applied to minimising pollution from industry; considering how choices related to the use of fuels are influenced by environmental considerations;
investigating the work of Australian scientists such as Fiona Wood and Marie Stoner on artificial skin; considering safe sound levels for humans and implications in the workplace and leisure activities; investigating contemporary science issues related to living in a Pacific country located near plate boundaries, for example Japan, Indonesia, New Zealand."

The cross curriculum priorities are: Asia and Australia´s engagement with Asia; Sustainability.

The general capabilities include ethical understanding, intercultural understanding.

Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, it is more than scissors and paste. I don't pretend to have sufficient understanding understanding as to time or weighting, but it does go to the purpose of the science course.

Evan said...

As to the scissors and paste; this is how this kind of (bureaucratic) curriculum design is done.

The boxes for the different things are ticked under each heading. So scissors and paste and fill in the blank.

The virtue is consistency and transparency (if you consider these virtues).

Anonymous said...

- is the link for the wording you quoted which has caused Ms Hewitt such angst.

Evan has it right: if you replace the word 'Science' with any of English, History, Mathematics or Geography you will be hard put to find any significant textual differentiation in the resulting links.


Jim Belshaw said...

As a very general contribution, not being a teacher who has to teach any of the curricula, I am not sure how the curricula work in a classroom setting, how all these things balance.

From first principles, one of the key things is to be clear on the scope of the course, recognising that this will change by levels. This includes defining what is out of scope. The hard question is generally deciding what to exclude; modern systems have a tendency to want to add things in.

In deciding the scope of the course, you have to define your objectives. These can conflict. Again as a very general statement, the more objectives you have and the more precisely defined those objectives are, the more problems are likely to arise.

I think that one of the problems in the debate, or at least I find it so, is a lack of clarity about just what is being discussed.

Even though I was tired, kvd forced me to look at detail on the cross areas as defined. I chose science (I could have done taken maths) as a discipline with a defined field. Then I spent an hour trying to follow the links through.

I happen to believe that any discipline needs to understand its own history, of the changing principles and assumptions that underlay the work done. Call this the philosophy of science. As an ethical if often confused person, I happen to believe that you should understand something of the ethical dilemmas that arise in your work.

I question whether or not the cross-discipline components contribute to either. They are meant to be integrating elements across disciplines. By implication, they have their own objectives that exist independently of any subject.

This is the heart of my problem. It means altering the content and outcomes of a course to achieve objectives that have nothing to do with the course or discipline, except tangentially. This can be done in a light or heavy handed fashion.

To my mind, the Aborigines or sustainability or the Asian century have little to do with the teaching of science. Why, then, load them in? What is the purpose?

Scott commented that respect for the first peoples is not getting through to any extent. I work in this space, and I constantly want to walk away. It's too hard.

I am now late so must move.

Evan said...

Education is about shaping people. And a vision of the future. Every time a child enters kindergarten we are making decisions about what we think the future will be and who we want them to be.

Put more simply we answer the question: What is education for?

This is really what is at the heart of the conflict. And it is awfully difficult to have an education system where this question isn't answered or can't be discussed.

An answer like, a person's chief end is to glorify god and enjoy him (sic) forever; results in a quite different education to; schools should prepare office fodder to promote the nation's economic wellbeing; and is different again to answer like, develop the capacity of individuals to experience and create joy for themselves and others.

I'm saying there is no way to have a value free education. I do think curricula should include some commitment to accuracy, even if what we discover is shameful or makes us feel bad. The curriculum could include ways to process these bad feeling (it isn't hard, but I doubt it will happen).

Neil said...

I am getting weary of this. However, I just looked at the National Curriculum (English) again and asked myself "Could I still teach 'The Merchant of Venice' in Year 9?" Answer, yes, just as I did in the 1960s, 70s, 80s, 90s, and Noughties! One exception -- I couldn't in 1988 and 1989 because I was in an Orthodox Jewish school and they banned 'Merchant of Venice'. Mind you it was also the only school that mandated opposing racism and raising environmental issues in all subjects -- and that was in 1988! Today my "Merchant of Venice" unit may even be better for all the resources and technology I could draw on, and it would be no worse for thinking through the curriculum issues in the National Curriculum. Conclusion: we are all wasting our time and energy on this tripe. If I can stomach it I may do a post along these lines soon.

Anonymous said...

The Merchant of Venice is quite unsuitable for school teaching. It contains many mixed messages and there are far more appropriate Shakespeare texts for schools. What with the likes of the BDS movement, this is precisely the sort of thing the Curriculum Review should be scrutinising. Oh, I know the Habima performed MoV at the Globe last year, but that was for a mature audience.


Jim Belshaw said...

I really blinked at this for a moment, DG, until I realised what BDS stood for and saw the tongue firmly in cheek. Clearly the BDS movement needs to become involved in the curriculum review. Meantime, we can continue to enjoy

Neil said...

DG -- I suggest "Titus Andronicus" for the pie scene alone.

Anonymous said...

Neither do kids (and many adults) properly comprehend black humour.