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The School Curriculum and Other Interventions: Moving Deck Chairs on the Wrong Ship

Education Minister Christopher Pyne announced 10 January 2014 that the recently developed National Curriculum was to be reviewed by Dr Kevin Donnelly, former school teacher and ministerial advisor and Professor Ken Wiltshire, Professor of Public Administration at the University of Queensland. Both are known critics of the existing curriculum. Donnelly denies the influence of socioeconomic status (SES) on educational achievement and recently sought to link educational inequalities to genetic differences in cognitive ability, a discredited argument.

Mr Pyne has expressed confidence that the review would be “robust”. For him the content of the new curriculum may be too one-sided; he made the astonishing assertions that “the very fact that some states have not implemented the curriculum after five years suggests there are concerns that need to be investigated” and because of “Australia’s declining education results”! In defending the review he said, “the Abbott government has a firm mandate to initiate a review of the national curriculum. The electorate endorsed it, parents want it, many education experts and teachers desire it, and for the sake of our students and the desire to develop a quality education system this government is doing it as promised… This nation’s curriculum policy must not be captured by any fad, by any vested interest group, or by those pursuing political or narrow agendas.” Recommendations from the review are expected mid 2014 with implementation of them to commence 2015.

When he made the announcement of the review, Mr Pyne was fresh from unconditional handouts to Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory: they had not signed up to the National School Improvement Program derived from the Gonski Panel’s recommendations on school funding before the September 2013 election.

Up to 2014,  the school system continued to be that developed by the Howard government in the years 1999 to 2007. It remained unchanged through the Rudd and Gillard governments, substantially funded independent schools, bleeding the public school system and reducing school enrolment diversity. Criticisms by Mr Pyne of student performance during the preceding Labor government, declines since 2000 in reading and mathematical literacy documented in research by Chris Ryan of the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research. Very importantly, “while the decline in mathematical literacy was more pronounced at the top of the distribution … falls in school performance were more apparent in private schools.” In other words, the very schools benefiting from the Howard Government’s policies were those where performance was worst!

And there is no evidence that curriculum content has any impact on achievement in international tests. The Plan developed from the Gonski Panel’s recommendations pays special attention in giving loadings to various forms of disadvantage. Mr Pyne called it “unimplementable”: he claimed the previous system to be not broken. The Gonski Panel, however, found it to be incoherent.

The Minister’s decision to review the curriculum was robustly criticised, especially because of the extensive process and consultation which had already taken place. A week after the Minister’s announcement an open letter signed by over 150 academics, teachers and principals including Emeritus Professor Alan Reid of the University of South Australia, Professor Russell Tytler of Deakin University and Jo Padgham, Principal and Australian Literacy Education of Australia Vice-President, was sent to the Minister protesting the decision. That hardly reflected the claimed demand for review!

My criticisms, besides those already made, are principally that Minister Pyne’s attention to the curriculum reflects a number of invalid assumptions: that the contents of the curriculum are critically important in improving learning, and more importantly, that what happens at school is critically important also. Curriculum content and schools are not unimportant but they are far from being the most important issues; many others are ignored. Above all this focus is reminiscent of a wish to control how people think, that which New York priest Ivan Illich criticised 62 years ago. I want to explore those areas which are critically important and point to what would advance improvement.

Amongst the first things to remember is that in learning, what is absorbed into memory is strongly influenced by previous understandings: the “facts” learned cannot be dictated simply by their inclusion in the teacher’s instruction. Learning is constructivist, developed over time.

The argument about the detail of the curriculum content misunderstands the nature of knowledge. What we think we know changes over time through research. Generally accepted understandings of Indigenous history, Australia’s participation in the First and Second World Wars and the Vietnam war, even the recent political history of the Americas, the progress of human rights, the nature of the physical universe and the structure of matter, the understanding of diseases, the intelligence of non-human primates and other animals and the interactions of processes ultimately determining the climate are amongst the thousands of areas of knowledge which have seen huge changes in the last 50, even the last 20 years. Often those advocating certain curriculum content seem to be utterly unaware of this. Surely they don’t support teaching out of date information!

The National Curriculum, about to be implemented in 2014, was initiated through the specially established Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority ACARA. It was more than five years in development and involved knowledge experts who took notice of thousands of submissions from the community. Its development was in accordance with intergovernmental agreements.

The ACARA website tells us, “The development of the Australian Curriculum is guided by the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians, adopted by the Ministerial Council in December 2008. The Melbourne Declaration emphasises the importance of knowledge, skills and understandings of learning areas, general capabilities and cross-curriculum priorities as the basis for a curriculum designed to support 21st century learning.

Schools are not where the most important learning takes place. The most important time in children’s learning is before they reach school. Even when they start school there are so many other influences on the child that what happens in the classroom may have less influence even than what happens in the school yard. As leading researcher Professor David Berliner of Arizona State University has pointed out recently, when the variance in student scores on achievement tests is examined along with the many potential factors that may have contributed to those test scores, school effects account for about 20% of the variance in achievement test scores. Peers, school principal leadership and teacher turnover are amongst the many factors also playing a part in student achievement.

Research in education and related subjects, especially concerning the brain – neurophysiology, psychology and behaviour – and the nature of learning has burgeoned in the last 30 years. The dramatic advances in  brain research is comparable with those in fields such as quantum physics, genetics including genomics, epigenetics and gene therapy, and communication technology in the rapidity of its developing contribution to our knowledge and understanding.

The factors influencing learning and educational achievement have been subject to analysis as never before. But in Australia too much attention has been paid to the kinds of issues involved in the failed American system, ’No Child Left Behind’, inconsequential because it failed to pay attention to poverty, and ‘Teach for America’ which sends graduates with minimal pedagogical training into schools, for what turns out to be generally only a couple of years. Now politicians and columnists in the US are arguing over the responsibility parents should take to demand high standards but doing nothing to put in place reforms to teaching methods, teacher recruitment and conditions. Instead they insist on new common core standards so that teachers and schools can be rated, a feature demanded by the blind adherence to the market economic paradigm and its alleged insistence on the benefits of that much maligned concept, accountability.

By the time the child enters school they will have already gained some fifty percent of the contribution they will make to their eventual educational achievement. It is those early years where substantial development of the brain, its architecture and of cognition occurs. The cells in those areas of the brain which are not exploited in early years start their decline in the first few years. Stimulation of the child through visual, auditory and a variety of experiences, opportunities for self expression and involvement in creative activities, contact with other children, the nature of relationship with carers and so on, all are critical. Far more cognitive development takes place in very young children than had been thought: their tolerance of ambiguity and involvement in learning through experimentation is extraordinary.

The correlation with the family’s SES derives from the fact that in advantaged families there is a lot of stimulation, within the home environment, from the time the child is born. Not the least important outcome is the development by advantaged children of a high level of self-discipline, more important as a predictor of future life than socioeconomic status by itself! Of course heritable factors play a role but the nature-nurture argument continues on.

Children from disadvantaged backgrounds have no such opportunities. But they gain greatly from preschool staffed by well qualified teachers but little from care by untrained relatives or friends. That is why many countries, including those whose students do well in international tests, strongly support early childhood intervention such as preschool. It is why New York Mayor Bill de Blasio stated at the beginning of his term that he wanted to have all young children attend preschool. It is why Australian states and territories support the Early Childhood Development Strategy to achieve access to pre-school delivered by a university qualified early childhood teacher for 15 hours a week, 40 weeks a year for all children in the year before they enter school.

So the child enters school around the ages of five to seven years. Though the advantaged child already has some level of confidence and interest in things around them, parents will continue to provide many opportunities in the home and outside. The disadvantaged child, on the other hand, may not have a place to do their homework or a safe place to play when not at school, is unlikely to be exposed to a variety of cultural opportunities or taken to visit museums or parks.

Almost everyone agrees that the quality of teaching is critical, But! Important though content is, the most important issue in learning is the quality of the interaction between teacher and student. It is just like our own conversations.

Instruction which involves meaningful discussion of ideas leads to significantly better learning outcomes as shown by, amongst others, Stanford University’s Jonathan Osborne together with Deakin University’s Russell Tytler and separately by Lauren Resnick of the University of Pittsburgh: the child is engaged and able to focus on specific issues of interest and understand their meanings and relevance. In other words, there is a high degree of focus on the student and by the student on their own learning. Again it is clearly established, by John Hattie of Melbourne University and others, that carefully managed and specific feedback is critical to learning: those ideas and concepts which relate to existing understanding are taken on board and if reinforced likely join permanent memory as individual understandings are constructed. Minister Pyne advocacated more didactic teaching: he is wrong! The student in charge of their own learning journey, who can relate content to their own experience, for instance through stories, and who find learning fun will advance.

In the classroom the child is faced by teachers who may or may not be experienced and supplied with resources or not. Effective teaching is not simply repeating facts, especially if most of the time is spent on a few subjects such as numeracy and literacy, even if joined by science. One study published 2009, by the US group Common Core, identified a rich curriculum as the principal feature distinguishing the schooling in countries whose students performed well in international tests. An extremely disturbing outcome of standardised tests in a few subjects is the assumption that proficiency in those subjects is what matters most and that schools where average student scores are highest are the best schools. Whether public or private, parents persuaded that these scores in a few subjects make the difference to whether or not their child goes on to better things, including a well-paid job, in later life, rush to enrol their child in those schools, even shifting home to do so. It is a demonstration of one of the major flaws in the basis of market economics: parents make decisions based on the minimum of understandings, not with complete understanding of the total situation of the relative importance of abilities and knowledge in later life!

Research just a few years ago by Murdoch University’s Laura Perry and Andrew McConney analysed international test scores and SES levels of the student’s family. They found the average student from a low SES family enrolled in a low SES school ends up about two years behind a similar student enrolled in a high SES school. Diversity of the class, the background of the other children mostly has a vast impact. A class of children of uniform background will produce poorer results, especially if, in the case of less advantaged children or children judged less capable, the standards are lowered. This is critical research bearing on government funding of schools. Trevor Cobbold of Save Our Schools has drawn attention to this and many other issues!

The effectiveness of teaching is influenced by the quality of the principal’s leadership in encouraging teachers to engage the students, in setting high standards, encouraging cooperation, ensuring professional development and encouraging relations with the community. That is to say, it is the leadership in the educational area which is critical, not the instrumental issues of budgeting and administrational trivia. Longitudinal studies in South Chicago described by Anthony Bryk, President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and others in Organizing Schools for Improvement, concluded school leadership to be the most important feature.

The student, no matter their background, who perceives they are valued by the teachers and their learning to be considered important, will likely achieve. Such a school will have paid attention to teacher recruitment and support. The processes for teacher promotion will have salience and credibility.

If the school has high a turnover of teachers, if the students lack access to appropriate resources and if they are engaged in a teacher-driven narrow curriculum which does no more than provide opportunities to practice answering test questions, and especially if the coursework is only what the teacher considers important without regard to the student’s interest, the outcomes will be poor. Few students are likely to get much out of a narrow curriculum which involves little more than a recitation of dates and names and relationships which they cannot perceive as relevant to them and the teaching of which is divorced from personal stories.

Focusing on dismissing teachers who are perceived to be not doing well, advocated by those same people who bluster about the importance of school administrative autonomy, standardised tests and union interference, is not a feature of successful systems. Nor is competition between schools, providing choice of school or merit pay for teachers.

Schools in remote regions of Australia and those with high Indigenous enrolments often are poorly resourced and typically suffer high teacher turnover. In successful school systems such as those of Canada and Finland and many other countries disadvantage is recognised as a key issue and special attention and support is given to students having difficulty, for whatever reason.

In all of this argument too little consideration is given to development of creativity which in many cases declines over time from the earliest years when games of make-believe enrich the imagination, making mistakes don’t matter and life within the family is relatively secure, for many. It is creativity which is most important and that flourishes where there is tolerance, even encouragement, of mistakes because it is from mistakes that knowledge and understanding eventually emerges. We give too little attention to the innate creativity of young people and their ability. And we give far too little attention to the conditions which encourage creativity in the early years and which are absent from the discipline of later life.

The curriculum must have a human dimension which relates development of knowledge to people and how we have come to what we now understand to appropriately explain what we think we know. For all of these reasons detailed content requires reasoned and intelligent consideration.

Performance at school does not inherently determine a person’s future life trajectory. Fundamentally we have little idea of what the world will be like in 10 years’ time let alone 30 years on. John Lennon was disruptive even at college and once sat on the nude model’s lap. Richard Branson was pretty hopeless at school and is dyslexic. Joint winner of the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 2012, John Gurdon, came last in a class over some 250 at high school and his wish to become a scientist was ridiculed by his teacher. There are heaps of examples like this including scientists, writers, artists, business people and even school teachers! Persistence is important and so is support by a respected person, something recalled by many who have become successful in later life: composer Antonín Dvorák was recognised as special when he competed for a composition prize judged by a panel including Johannes Brahms who referred the young Dvorák to his own publisher.

So Minister Pyne’s review faced many problems. There was no evidence that the reviewers chosen by the Minister had any knowledge whatsoever of curriculum development or the numerous fields involved. Some commentators justified the review because it was the call of the government in power. That assertion is grossly irresponsible: this is not an issue like the design of the flag. The outcomes will affect the lives of future generations of Australians.

Or perhaps they won’t. Because, as already emphasised, it is the discussion in the classroom and elsewhere and the enthusiasm engendered in their early lives and whether students have been fortunate to learn the self-confidence and self-control which are so essential to venture into world which requires an ability to deal with uncertainty, with ambiguity, some level of antifragility, being able to exploit the unexpected. It seems necessary to recall that the ultimate goal of education is not the ability to recall, in isolation and in parrot fashion, a list of facts but an ability to critically analyse information and work with others to achieve mutually desired goals.

Many business people will tell us these are critical requirements for staff they recruit and retain. Too many of those with influence unfortunately seem to lack these skills and are too ready to apply their pre-existing beliefs, often based on no more than their own personal experience. Which is why some issues of major importance seem to never get the traction they need, especially in the absence of committed leadership that recognises what is needed rather than what is wanted! It isn’t enough to just say that the public can have their say. Democracy is more than that surely!

Professor James Wilkinson, Director of the Derek Bok Centre for Teaching and Learning at Harvard University commenced his “Menzies Oration” at the University of Melbourne in July 2006 by stressing that the most important thing students can learn is “the process of inquiry itself, modeled by the faculty in the course of their teaching. Thus how a subject is taught is crucial.  Yet it is a curious fact that most discussions about undergraduate curricula focus almost exclusively on content. The assumption seems to be that if we can just get the content right, the teaching and learning will take care of themselves. That is an assumption with which I could not possibly disagree more strongly.”

Observing that 21 of 24 students graduating at Harvard University could not correctly answer the deceptively simple question ‘What causes the seasons’, Wilkinson quipped cynically of students “they pretend to teach us, and we pretend to learn…” He continued, “Choosing an appropriate content is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for getting anyone to learn anything.  The sufficient condition is for it to be taught well.  And by “taught well” I do not mean taught so that students receive high marks. Rather, I mean taught so that they are capable of understanding and applying what they claim to know.”

Forcing children to attend a poorly resourced, inadequately staffed school teaching a narrow curriculum full of facts which don’t resonate with them in the belief that they must have an education to get a job only to see others emerge from that school to a life of casual work or no work at all is a travesty. To focus strongly on demanding kids go to school without considering the many issues leading to effective educational outcomes achieves little.

And that is the nub of the issue. Too much of the strategy, if it can be so dignified, treats schooling as just a journey along the track to eventual work. If the young adult is lucky. Foundation Professor of Curriculum at Melbourne University Lyn Yates, in her inaugural lecture in 2005, pointed to the impossible expectations about schools: “we blame them for not fulfilling impossible … and conflicting hopes”. She and colleagues point to the emergence of a strong utilitarian vision of education, a focus on ‘observable competencies’, the outcome sought being the individual able to do things in the world.

No connections are made between education and other aspects of life including health, urban planning, transport, cultural development and in remote regions, access to libraries or even to writing materials, let alone prevailing economic orthodoxy. Early childhood care is treated principally as child-minding or as a way for women to join the workforce. Is this acknowledging the critical relationship between child and mother?

Advancing education reform in Australia requires supporting the full implementation of the Plan for School Improvement together with the agreements made by COAG for teacher improvement and related matters. It requires support of genuine school leadership focusing on teacher support, engendering trust and respect for teachers, a strong focus on high standards of instruction which engage the student in a wide and challenging curriculum in a situation where the student participates actively in learning and is considered capable of achieving their full potential.

Most importantly education reform must recognise the critical importance of early childhood and of supporting those who are less advantaged before they enter school and during the school years. Lives are being wasted by too great a focus on those already advantaged who are quite capable of looking after themselves and too much of the rationale for education is justified in the name of economic growth.

If the recommendations from the review don’t have credibility – and that will be influenced by the regard in which the reviewers are held – it will likely be near impossible for them to be implemented. This isn’t a business corporation or the invasion of Iraq after all where leaders are followed because they are leaders. All we will get will be interminable argument!

Hundreds, if not thousands, of citizens made it clear that they didn’t approve of Mr Pyne’s agenda. But thousands of hours were spent anyway and a lot of mostly unconstructive debate and assertions about power and authority rather than long term gains for society at large. Six years of at least some genuine progress in education reform lost.

The reforms of the last six years – the term of the Rudd and Gillard governments – are reminiscent of the reforms introduced by the Whitlam Government in the early 1970s. They didn’t get carried through either.

When all is said and done, content is not irrelevant though, any more than is teacher knowledge and financial resources. Consider this item which relates to a part of the curriculum – Australia’s history of Indigenous and white conflict – which attracts criticism.

In 2013, a play The Secret River, based on the novel of the same name by Kate Grenville and adapted for the stage by Andrew Bovell, opened at the Sydney Theatre Company. It tells the story of William Thornhill and his wife, transported to Sydney from England as convicts, early settlers with their children on the Hawkesbury River north of Sydney. Thornhill’s early fears of Aboriginal people progress to appreciation of them but end in appalling tragedy as, egged on by villainous settlers, he participates in the massacre of the local people.

Distinguished Director Neil Armfield wrote in the introduction to the program notes, “The Secret River is a difficult story to tell. For all the beauty, dignity and depth of this tale, it keeps leading into dark places. Four weeks into rehearsal it is hard to direct with your eyes stinging with tears. It takes us back to a moment in our country’s narrative when a different outcome, a different history, was possible. Or at least imaginable, where those who came might have listened and learnt from those who were here, might have found a way of living here on this land with respect and humility. Instead, enabled by gunpowder and fed by ignorance, greed and fear, a terrible choice was made. It is a choice that has formed the present. Nine generations later, we are all living with its consequences. The lucky country is blighted by an inheritance of rage and of guilt, denial and silence.”