Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Australia's new draft national curricula

Like most commentators, I have yet to properly absorb the content in the new draft national curriculum in English, History, Maths and Science. This covers teaching in these subjects from kindergarten to year ten. However, a few things are probably clear even at this early stage.

The first is that the inclusion of the Aborigines, Asia and sustainability as unifying elements across the curricula is likely to prove contentious at a number of levels.

  • To what degree is it appropriate to have to have unifying themes across such varied curricula?
  • If there are to be unifying themes, are these the right unifying themes?
  • How do the themes cascade down, affect the content of individual curricula?

There is plenty of scope here for savage debate linked to existing fault lines in Australian thought.

The second thing to note is that the curriculum documents themselves are, by their nature, quite complicated with somewhat different structures and multiple components. At this point, I have only looked at the English and History curricula that Neil kindly made available on-line. The English curricula is broken into three streams; language, literacy and literature and is heavily skills focused. By contrast, history is broken into two streams, knowledge and understanding and skills.

All the curricula need to be individually examined in terms of:

  • just what students are meant to learn over the period
  • knowledge areas that might be excluded
  • practical difficulties for teachers and schools in implementing the curricula
  • likely impact of the curricula on later study.

The last point, the impact of the curricula on later areas of study, covers a range of transitional and longer term effects. Current curricula in years 11-12 may need to be amended, while universities may also need to amend their course structures. In the longer term, there will presumably be national curriculum for years 11 and 12.

We can expect therefore expect one thread of the debate to focus on practical implementation issues. The time lines set by the Government appear short: three months for review, then implementation next year, starting with a pilot group of schools. Schools and teachers will need to translate the new curricula into teaching material. New texts may need to be written. School libraries may need to replace existing material. At this point, it appears that no funding allowances have been made to meet the inevitable transition costs. 

A second thread will focus on specific educational issues. In Sunday Snippets, I referred to a post by Legal Eagle expressing her anger at reports of the inclusion in the science curriculum of what she saw as inappropriate a-scientific material derived from the three over-arching elements. I also referred to a new report from the University of New England that seemed to suggest that the decline in the numbers studying science at senior level lay not in lack of interest, but rather in a widening of school choices that has reduced the role of traditional science core subjects.

I will have to leave discussion here to those with a better understanding of science and science education, but I think I have identified what are likely to be core issues.

Debate on the history curriculum is likely to be the most complicated and divisive one because it mixes together so many issues. This is an area where I do have some knowledge, as well as views.

To my mind, the starting point needs to be a purely analytical one. At the end of year ten, what will students actually know and, just as importantly, what won't they know? Further, to what degree will their studies give them an integrated framework that will aid future historical studies? Answering these types of questions requires a detailed analysis of the structure of the curriculum, one that will certainly take me a little while, for it's a reasonably complicated document.

Take Aboriginal history as an example. Following completion of year 10, what might students actually know and not know? This is not as straight forward as it seems, for Aboriginal history can also be included in other components such as local history.

Once I know this I am then in a position to make some judgements, taking into account views I have already formed from my own studies of Aboriginal historiography.

In similar vein, what will students know about the history of Britain and the Empire that formed the cultural and historical context for much of Australian history after 1788? Again, this requires analysis of the total curriculum.

In looking at the content of the curriculum I think it very important not to get caught into broad generalisations too soon. Let me illustrate this by taking my two examples.

From experience, I would expect the Aboriginal history component to (among other things):

  • be over-weighted by black-white relations and dominated by current conceptions that are in fact a-historical
  • fail to adequately recognise the diversity in the history of Australia's Aboriginal peoples
  • be light on the long pre-history of Aboriginal occupation of the continent.

From experience, I would expect the British and Empire component to be (among other things):

  • grossly underweight
  • dismissive, promoting an Australian centric position.

Assume, for the purposes of discussion, that I am right on both counts. This does not mean that the whole curriculum should be dismissed. Rather, I then have to argue my position in terms of both content and weight within the curriculum, recognising the practical constraints facing teachers who have to teach within the time allocated. Here there is already a potential problem in the curriculum's sheer size.

Finally, while I have been writing, Neil has posted National Curriculum: a question. This post bears upon practical implementation issues. I have no idea as to the answer of the questions that Neil posed. Yet another gap in my knowledge!


Neil said...

Thanks for the reference, Jim. The post now had additions.

Neil said...

I did mean "has"...

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, Neil. Noted the release of the newspaper story. Will comment on that later.

Re my second post of today, seriously, I'm losing track!

Legal Eagle said...

I've got no problem with them having an indigenous component in the curriculum, but it has to be done properly and respectfully, and not as some kind of "token" thing. I totally take your point about acknowledging the diversity of indigenous cultures - it's seldom done. The culture of people down here in Victoria was quite different to people up North.

I saw a great picture of some handstitched possum skin coats made by people who lived around Lake Tyers once. I doubt that's the image that comes to people's minds when they think of what indigenous people wear - but it's COLD here in Victoria. There's also evidence of stone structures from what I recall.

It also has to be not a case of squeezing indigenous knowledge into subjects where they don't quite fit (eg, science).

Jayne said...

Legal Eagle is right; the Kulin Nation itself, which covered from Central Vic to Melb and Mornington Peninsula, is made up of 5 different Peoples, each again made up of multiple clans.
Then there are many other independent family groups throughout Vic, not forgetting the Kurnai People of Gippsland who were traditional enemies of the Kulin Nation People but who were lumped together on missions.
One national curriculum will, yet again, fail to cater for the various differences between Indigenous cultures unless they allow lee-way for local govts/schools to call upon local Elders for guidance and input.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi LE and Jayne. Obviously you (and I) are talking to the converted! I really do want Aboriginal history taught as history. JayneI am writing a paper that links to this in some ways just at present. Will post this later.

Jim Belshaw said...

LE and Jayne, just a PS linked to what I am writing.

In 1960, Isabel McBryde came to the University of New England as the first designated lecturer in Australian prehistory in any Australian university. Isabel believed that you had to focus on regional life to properly understand the diversity of Aboriginal prehistory and history.

Over the next 18 years, her students including me, completed 22 theses on the Aborigines, plus her own. There was also one major book plus multiple pioneering articles and monographs. All this in a university whose total student numbers were quite small compared to Sydney or Melbourne.

Without getting caught in current debates, there was actually a joy in this work because we were rolling back the frontiers of knowledge. There is such a huge overlay of other things now that Aboriginal history itself gets lost.