Perennial Curriculum Problems: Instability and Polarisation
John Carr MA
I am a retired educator, with almost 60 years’ experience, ‘man and boy’, in educational institutions. After four years as a teacher in primary schools, I spent almost 20 years as a high school teacher and subject master, followed by 14 years as a curriculum developer and ten years in teacher education. My career involved all three ‘systems’ – state, catholic and independent, and I also had some experience in England and the Pacific. I was heavily involved in relevant professional organisations, including some years as an office bearer at state and national levels. My main areas of curriculum expertise were in language education, particularly in teaching English as a mother tongue.
As I retired from full-time employment some years ago, I shall not attempt to provide detailed comments on any of the current issues that dominate professional, media and political discussion. Those educators now working in the field are far better qualified than I to provide advice on these. However, my lifetime’s work in a range of educational settings has given me deep insight into some of the major factors that continually impact negatively on the education of pupils in primary and secondary schools. It is a scandal that these factors never seem to get acknowledged, let alone addressed. Any teachers with long experience will confirm that they repeatedly suffer a sense of dejà vu when hearing about the latest educational proposals or controversies. The ignorance and naivety of those in powerful positions and the fatuousness of the commentaries are sometimes hard to bear.
There are two overlapping factors that usually stand outside the specific terms of debate: (1) the lack of stability of curriculum and pedagogy in the classroom caused by the constant conflict between rival parties and ideologies; and (2) the over-simplification and polarisation of debate, sometimes to the point where it is mere sloganeering.
1. The lack of stability and continuity This, in turn, has two causes, one potentially constructive, the other almost always destructive. (a) Instability can arise from the legitimate changes to school organisation, curriculum content and recommended approaches to classroom practice that arise from evidence-based research. Such changes are often incremental and cumulative, and may take many years to be implemented and even more years to achieve their intended outcomes. The benefits of these kinds of changes are best seen by taking a long term view of schooling. No one would want to go back to the huge class sizes; narrow, rigid curriculum; rote learning; arid exercises; abysmal retention rates; and corporal punishment common in schools in the distant past. (In my early years as a teacher during the Baby-boom Fifties, I had classes with up to 65 pupils, most of whom left school with less than 10 years’ schooling; only two kinds of writing were taught, the story and the literary essay; many children left school without ever reading a novel on their own; and there was virtually no time for the development of children’s spoken language.) In English, as in other subject areas, thanks to decades of massive, worldwide research and development, we now have a much wider, more functional curriculum and have a much better understanding of how learners learn.
(b) The second cause cannot be justified and has often been extremely deleterious to good classroom practice. This is the continual interruption of whole education systems by politically-driven campaigns, often supported by the media, to ‘reform’ schooling in some way. These are sometimes driven by the need of new governments and ministers to be seen to be doing something and ‘get their name’ on a project. Some campaigns are perennial, conducted by inveterate activists and lobby-groups who reappear again and again with the same, often simplistic one-note ‘solution’ to a perceived problem. The impact of the frequency of such reviewing and reforming is that few of the ‘reforms’ ever have a chance to achieve their goals, even if the measures are well-conceived. At some time in the late 1980s, a scan of curriculum and professional development projects in the language area being conducted in the Queensland Department of Education showed that there were hundreds ‘on the books’, most potentially constructive, but some probably not. Many of them were in fact dead or dormant, because either they had been overtaken by new, ‘more urgent’ projects or they had failed to obtain on-going funding. Few education projects and programs, however good, are ever carried to full implementation. Fewer still are implemented long enough to allow legitimate evaluation. The waste of money and teachers’ and administrators’ time by the continual addition and premature abandonment of curriculum development projects is enormous. The resulting confusion and alienation of long-suffering classroom teachers and principals are a major source of professional dissatisfaction.
2. Oversimplification and polarisation of debate I now come to the second factor common to most debates on education – the over-simplification of what are quite complex issues. Most of the commentators with access to the media – politicians, journalists, selected academics and lobby-group spokespersons – adopt an adversarial stance in support of what is often an extreme position. In language education, as in other curriculum areas, the two extreme positions can often be characterised as ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ or as ‘back to basics’ and ‘child-centred’. In the primary school sector, the sole options are usually presented as either ‘phonics’ or ‘whole language’; in secondary schooling, the equivalent oppositions are, on the one hand, ‘grammar’ and ‘classic literature’, and, on the other, ‘creativity’ and ‘wider critical reading’. In the end, no English curriculum in Australia has ever put all its eggs in one of these baskets; curricula may lean towards one end of the spectrum, but all have sensibly promoted at least some semblance of compromise and balance. It should never be a matter of ‘either/or’, but of ‘not only/but also’. Over the last 40 years, State English syllabuses have generally become much richer and more balanced. The range of speaking, reading and writing activities that I experienced as a pupil in the 40s and 50s, and as a teacher in the 50s and 60s, was impoverished by today’s standards. Furthermore, in terms of outcomes, those were not halcyon days; in my early years as a teacher, I inherited upper primary and junior secondary classes in which many pupils were barely literate.
Fortunately, a degree of balance eventually ensues after the campaigns have run their course. However, the simplistic, polarised debate; the hasty legislation; the hasty documentation; the inadequate professional development; and the premature abandonment of programs leave a legacy of further confusion and despair in the teaching community. I submit that the current ‘Students First Review of the Australian Curriculum’ is itself a case in point. It is yet another politically-motivated, high profile but superficial review of curriculum set up with apparently little regard for the countless earlier reviews, studies, programs and projects languishing unfinished, unimplemented and unevaluated. It comes at a time when two other major high profile education initiatives, ‘Gonski’ and the National Curriculum, are yet to reach completion. I predict that this review, too, will never be fully completed, its findings will never be fully implemented and it, too, will eventually fade from memory. It will, however, have added another layer of misinformation and confusion in the minds of teachers and the public.
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