Education, Top Stories

What’s Wrong With the New Australian Curriculum?

In education, we have lots of wars. There are the math wars, the reading wars, and the ongoing culture wars. What is less common is for all of these wars to ignite at once along with the declaration of a new war or two, just for the heck of it. That happened in Australia last week when the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority released its draft version of a new Australian Curriculum.

The Australian Curriculum is a strange beast. Australia is a federation of states and territories. Responsibility for education largely lies with these states and territories and so some choose to issue their own curriculum documents that are supposed to align with the national version, whereas others adopt the Australian Curriculum straight. It’s one of those messy compromises that is a feature of evolved systems of government but that you would never design if you had a blank sheet of paper.

Let’s be clear—curriculums should be contentious. The US does not have a national curriculum and it is easy to imagine the scale of the fight that would erupt as a result of any attempt to create one. Recently, there has been uproar over a new draft curriculum in Alberta, Canada, that I weighed in on with predictable results. Contention is a necessary part of the process of curriculum design, and democracy is the best tool for resolving these disputes. As I have argued before, the ideal curriculum should satisfy no-one in its entirety.

And yet, with all appropriate caveats expressed, the draft Australian Curriculum is really quite out there. This is not entirely the fault of those who drafted it. They were given the remit by government to “declutter” the previous version, when a root-and-branch review would probably have been better.

Decluttering has led to some of the problems. There is a widely shared view that there is simply too much stuff in the primary school humanities and social science curriculum, given the time allocated to teaching it, and this has seen the draft cut content on European and North African ancient history as well as world navigators. However, this is not a straight cut because new content on first nations Australian ancient history and trade has been added. Cue a culture war. However, even the Liberal (which in Australia means conservative) federal education minister, Alan Tudge, acknowledged the need for more Indigenous history, just perhaps not at this cost. The reviewers may therefore reasonably ask: exactly what do you want decluttered then?

The unanswered question is why we decided to allocate such little time to teaching history in the first place. The Australian Curriculum is based on the outdated model of an “expanding horizons” approach to social studies where children must begin by learning about their family, their local area and perhaps complete a project on an old object from the home, with actual history put off as long as possible because this is seen as “developmentally inappropriate” for young children. Popularized by the philosopher John Dewey over a hundred years ago, the expanding horizons model was debunked by Kieran Egan, a more recent philosopher of education, as far back as 1980 and the concept of developmental appropriateness fails the test of modern cognitive science. Couple this approach with a swollen literacy block focusing on decontextualized skills such as reading comprehension that probably don’t need as much time as they are allocated, and you are left with the invidious choice between ancient Egypt and ancient Australia.

In contrast, the reviewers missed an obvious point where decluttering would have been entirely welcomed by the reading science community, thus reigniting the reading wars that the New South Wales education minster recently declared over. The new draft still contains references to the use of predictable texts—books designed so that children can guess a word from the text’s repetitive nature or from a picture clue—along with references to using contexts to figure out words. These strategies are an alternative to decoding words from the relationships between letters and the sounds they represent—phonics—and are drawn from the debunked “whole language” approach to teaching reading and its successor, “balanced literacy.” The states of South Australia and New South Wales have definitively moved away from balanced literacy in recent times and so an opportunity to do so at the federal level has been missed.

When it comes to mathematics, the reviewers have made some odd choices. Frankly, the current curriculum does not set a particularly high bar and main content changes have largely resulted in moving stuff around. With the suggestion that it apparently makes the curriculum more coherent, a greater number of key objectives seem to have been shifted to later years than the other way around. Linear equations, for instance, have moved from Year 7 to Year 8. The result is disappointing.

However, by far the most radical change to math is that the curriculum now backs one side in the ongoing math wars. Mirroring other subject areas, there are two main approaches to teaching mathematics and they each have their advocates. The first is to explicitly teach students mathematical content and how to solve specific kinds of problems, with lots of practice. Over time, the teacher introduces new classes of problem, more complexity and new contexts as students become more independent. The alternative is to focus on problem-solving and investigations, with the idea that exposing students to non-routine problems will help them develop mathematical problem-solving skills of some kind. In this case, the teacher’s role is to be a guide-at-the-side (rather than the sage-on-the-stage). The empirical evidence is overwhelming—novices benefit far more from explicit teaching, with learning through problem-solving tending to overwhelm them.

What does this have to do with the curriculum? The answer is that it should have nothing to do with the curriculum because the curriculum should be neutral on teaching methods. However, the draft math curriculum document backs the problem-solving approach. It waxes lyrical about problem-solving in the lengthy blurb at the start of the document and many of the content strands require problem-based learning methods which becomes more explicit in the elaborations. For instance, Year 7 students have to “investigate exponent notation” rather than simply learn about it by whatever approach the teacher and school decide.

David de Carvalho, the guy in charge of the review, defended the new focus on problem-solving, saying, “Problem-solving is at the core of the Singapore mathematics curriculum, and it is no coincidence that they are among the top performers when it comes to mathematics performance.”

This is an interesting argument. Singapore does indeed claim to focus on problem-solving in math. It also happens to teach its students a lot more actual mathematics than is described in the Australian curriculum. The idea that Australia should look to an education system that performs better than us in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), identify one aspect of what it writes in its curriculum, and assume cause and effect is clearly fallacious. If nothing else, we can point to both New Zealand and Scotland, education systems that also profess to focus on problem-solving but where PISA math results have been in a precipitous decline in recent years and are now pretty much the same as Australia’s.

And yet, perhaps, the changes to the math curriculum pale in significance compared with the declaration of a new science war.

The draft curriculum has doubled-down on a focus on so-called science inquiry skills. Similar to math, this involves specifying a particular style of teaching. Pretty much every content objective in Kindergarten to Year 3 begins with “explore” and for Years 4–10, the verb is “investigate.” This kind of science teaching confuses the practices of professional scientists with the best method for teaching science novices who lack scientific knowledge to draw upon.

The irony is that this is being proposed at a time when Alan Tudge has been pushing a 10-year plan to turn around PISA results. In 2015, PISA asked students about the different science teaching methods they were exposed to and found that, “After accounting for students’ and schools’ socio-economic profile, in 56 countries and economies, greater exposure to enquiry-based instruction is associated with lower scores in science,” a finding that triangulates with all the other evidence we have for guide-at-the-side teaching methods. PISA is obviously not the final word on the quality of an education system, but exactly what evidence is being drawn upon to back this new approach?

It was probably wrong to ask for a decluttering of an already thin curriculum. This was never going to lead to the removal of the 24 pages of waffle that sit at the start of the math curriculum, including listing bizarre and sardonically humorous nouns such as “mathematising” that involve students in “making choices” or “visualising,” as if those processes have any meaning in the abstract. It was never going to lead to the removal of the two-thirds of science objectives that are not about science content but are instead about “science inquiry” and “science as a human endeavour,” the second of which asks students to do thing like “investigate why advances in science are often the result of collaboration of many different scientists” and seems to be about turning science into one of the humanities. It was never going to rip out the flawed “expanding horizons” approach to history, and even the “whole language” approach to learning to read appears to have survived unscathed. Instead, the direction to declutter was always going to water down what little solid content was already there.

What was less predictable, perhaps, was the renewed vigor with which the curriculum would pursue outdated, failed ideas.


Greg Ashman is a teacher and head of research at an independent school in Victoria, Australia and a PhD candidate. He is a podcaster and a prolific blogger and has written two books on teaching: The Truth about Teaching and The Power of Explicit Teaching and Direct Instruction. You can follow Greg on Twitter @greg_ashman.