Opinion: Curriculum a juggling act in the classroom

By far the educational issue that gets most public and political attention is funding for schools — which schools are getting more or less than other schools, whether we spend more or less than other countries, and so on. 

Unfortunately this means that other critically important aspects of education are side-lined. And the most important of those is the school curriculum – what children will be taught at each stage in their schooling. 

Happily, the NSW government has commenced a review of its curriculum and the Victorian opposition is planning to do the same if elected later this month. Other states and territories would do well to consider the same path and take a careful look at theirs.

Curriculum development is a balancing act and involves compromises and trade-offs.

Children spend a limited number of hours in class each year, and there are many competing demands for this time: from foundational skills in literacy and numeracy, to general knowledge of the world and its history, health and physical activity, using technology, and now so-called “general capabilities” such as collaboration and creativity. 

A curriculum should also be responsive to the needs of school communities, as noted in the Halsey report on regional, rural and remote education.

This balancing act is growing problematic. There is strong advocacy to add to an already crowded curriculum in significant ways. Decisions have to be made about what to keep and what to jettison. 

These decisions must be made with advice from subject matter experts, without recourse to superficial and dangerous propositions such as that from “21st Century skills pioneer” Charles Fadel, who recently suggested that trigonometry should be dropped and “mindfulness” should be taught.

Care must be taken that curriculum does not implicitly or explicitly prescribe teaching methods. In theory, it specifies the content students should learn and the skills they should master, but does not state how these things should be taught. 

The Australian curriculum says children should begin learning about percentages in Year 4, but has nothing to say about whether this should be learned sitting at a desk or playing in a sandpit. Schools make judgements about which teaching strategies are most likely to be effective.

However, in reality, a curriculum can and often does encourage certain teaching practices. An example is the recommendation in the second Gonski report to “strengthen the development of the general capabilities, and raise their status within curriculum delivery, by using learning progressions to support clear and structured approaches to their teaching, assessment, reporting and integration with learning areas.” 

There are two risks in this. One is that it will authorise and promulgate the misguided notion that general capabilities are independent of knowledge of facts and concepts. The other is that the proposed policies and practices in the Gonski report overshoot the existing evidence base, and therefore risk wasting valuable time and resources — not least the time of teachers who generally already have a heavy administrative workload, and that of students whose education is at stake.

The general capabilities listed in the Australian curriculum — digital capability, critical and creative thinking, personal and social capability, intercultural understanding, and ethical understanding — are certainly valuable for the world of work and for life more broadly.

The crucial questions are whether they can be properly structured into learning progressions, and if they can be taught and assessed separate from content knowledge. The evidence at the moment suggests the answer to both questions is no. 

Cognitive science research has shown that the development of creativity, critical thinking and communication depends on the strength of a student’s knowledge of a subject. 

As the highly-respected assessment expert Dylan William puts it: “for all the apparent similarities, critical thinking in history and critical thinking in mathematics are different, and are developed in different ways.” 

It seems there is no generic skill of critical thinking – in order to think critically about something in a productive way, you have to have some knowledge. You only have to spend five minutes on social media to see the results of ignoring this principle.

Educators and curriculum developers need to find a way to integrate the development of important capabilities while at the same time advancing the essential knowledge children need to acquire during their school years, in order for them to thrive in the years beyond. 

Dr Jennifer Buckingham is a senior research fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies and co-author of What the Gonski 2 review got wrong with Blaise Joseph.