Introduction by RM: After this rather brief post touching on the introduction of a national curriculum for Australian schools, Susan Zivcec has kindly contributed a piece on some important aspects of that curriculum. Susan is an environmental health and safety consultant, student teacher, and mother of two.
Leading education consultant Brian Caldwell has published an education scorecard based on a five-year study of school reforms from around the world. In this study, the Government’s education revolution scored well on only one criteria – the national curriculum for students in kindergarten to year 12. Whilst there are clearly a range of aspects impacting on education, this article explores the national curriculum and what is it aiming to achieve.
The national curriculum represents a shift in thinking from a “cram it all in & test” model of teaching to one which recognises that it is better to build a deep and comprehensive knowledge of fewer things. The idea is that by focusing on these few well selected “big ideas” we can teach kids how to think critically and make them self-reliant learners…people who will be able to apply their thinking and communication skills in the real world of work, home and university.
For example in science, the reform recognises that there is a need to refashion science education so that people can make informed judgments about issues such as their own health, or climate change. To do that, people need to understand how science works, the “language” of science – or even the history of scientific thought as opposed to being able to memorise a few generic facts.
If you want to judge the relevance of these ideas, there is no more powerful test than how well students understand Darwin. For all its importance and wide popularisation, various studies [* # ^] indicate there remains a surprisingly low level of understanding of natural selection amongst those who have taken secondary studies in biology. One particular study by Ferrari and Chi [^] suggests that after instruction, less than 10% of secondary students have a complete understanding of the five key principles of natural selection. The reasons why are that not only is there little time in the curriculum for these important ideas, but that foundational concepts such as equilibrium theory have not been taught effectively prior, and so students are likely to misinterpret what they are being taught. Spending longer on the few “big ideas” would allow students to fully explore and understand the necessary theories, testing them in practicals… rather than memorising a few facts and never understanding the fabric of the argument those facts rest in. Charles Darwin needed a whole book to spell out his argument- how can a teacher do it justice in 2 lessons?
Let’s not forget climate change…anyone who has heard the way that climate change skeptics such as Tony Abbott misrepresent the science would understand the need to ensure our future generations know how science works so they are not taken in by the cherry picking of facts out of context.
All this is not news to teachers. Spend any time in a staff room and you will hear the same lament- teachers are resigned to having to cram a large amount of content, and struggle to engage students interest. The two are connected- for we are interested in what we have a chance to understand and make our own opinions about. Last June I sat in on a history lesson lasting 90 minutes in which a teacher attempted to cover the entire Vietnam War in preparation for a test 1 week away. Suffice to say the teacher tried her best to engage the students, but could achieve nothing more than spoon feeding key facts for students to mindlessly wrote learn. The teacher of that class remarked to me that she would rather have spent a whole term on the Vietnam war, allowing students the opportunity to become immersed in it, using popular culture as a hook to inspire interest so they could form opinions that would enrich their ability both to interpret historical events shaping our times and make sense of the present.
The best aspects of the national curriculum are the ideas of taking the time to get the most out of learning using a few well chosen topics, and giving teachers the flexibility to chose how they teach and assess. However, Caldwell talks of a tension between the well respected education specialists (architects of the national curriculum) who advocate fewer topics and professional freedoms; and an existing education bureaucracy. Caldwell fears that against the will of the architects, bureaucratic processes may lead to the curriculum being too tightly prescribed to be of any use.
Caldwell also expresses concern about the Government’s national literacy and numeracy tests which will be taken each year by students in years 3, 5, 7 and 9. This is tricky, because it is obvious that if we want to improve the education of our young, then we need to measure our progress, and we can all see the importance of literacy and numeracy. The trick is that what you measure will have an impact on how teachers teach. Implementing these types of tests coupled with school league tables can force teachers to ”teach to the test”, neglecting the other aspects of the curriculum that build critical thinking and communication skills ( just think about our history teacher). If you are interested in fostering a generation of kids who have the life skills to be the next leaders, academics and good citizens, then this type of testing is not going to cut it.
Another interesting idea in the national curriculum is the move away from different classes for students with different rates of development. Whilst clearly we could all support the aim of giving all students an equal quality of education, there is no doubt there will be increased burden on teachers who are trying to accommodate both kids who struggle with the basics and those who are advanced learners. Anyone who has taught a classroom where students are doing a number of different activities will agree these classes are more time consuming to prepare, more demanding of teachers time for individual student attention, and require more access to resources such as IT. To this, the Shape of Australian Curriculum poses that tools and professional development will be made available to teachers.
As I watch with interest, I can’t help but wonder if the national curriculum intentions will really translate into a classroom where teachers are empowered and resourced to enhance the thinking skills of students. Will these intentions be undermined by the Government’s over-simplistic testing? Or will teachers revert to what is easier as they are over-whelmed by the complex competing demands of a mixed classroom? What will be done to ensure this national curriculum is more than an aspiration document?
Bishop, B. and Anderson, C. (1990). Student conceptions of natural selection and its role in evolution. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 27 (5) 415-427
Demastes, S; Settlage, J and Good, R. (1995). Students’ conceptions of natural selection and its role in evolution: Cases of replication and comparison. Journal of Research in Science Teaching,32 (5) 535-550
Ferrari, M. and Chi, M. (1998). The nature of naïve explanations of natural selection. International Journal of Science and Education.