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.
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.
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:
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
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.