Home >  Blog >  A Life Member's view of the review of the Australian Curriculum

A Life Member's view of the review of the Australian Curriculum

Posted by Garry Collins, ETAQ Immediate Past President on 20 March 2014
  • John Carr is a former President of ETAQ and one of its Life Members. He has generously agreed to the publication of his submission to the current review of the Australian Curriculum which I felt sure many members would be interested in reading.

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.

Garry Collins, ETAQ Immediate Past PresidentAuthor: Garry Collins, ETAQ Immediate Past President
About: Garry Collins was ETAQ President from mid July 2005 to 15 March 2014. He taught English in state high schools for around 35 years and now tutors in English curriculum courses in the School of Education at the University of Queensland.
Tags: Curriculum matters

Post comment

Upcoming Events

An Afternoon with Lindsay Williams

An Afternoon with Lindsay Williams and the Analytical Essay will be held at Centenary Heights State High School, Performing Arts Complex on Wednesday 16th October  2019 from 3:15 to 5:45 pm. A Certificate of Participation for 2 hours CPD will be issued to participants. Afternoon tea will be served from 3:15 to 3:45. For furt...

Category:   Seminar
Start Time:   3:15 PM
Date:   Wednesday 16th October 2019
Venue:   Centenary Hts SHS
Email Enquiries:   adminofficer@etaq.org.au


Thou wouldst be great

Charlie Thomson, Amy Proud and Rosie Maguire  present their findings from the Bell Shakespeare Regional Teacher Mentorship on Saturday 19 October, 2019 from 9:00 till 11:30.

For all the details, download the flyer

Category:   Seminar
Start Time:   9:00 AM
Date:   Saturday 19th October 2019
Venue:   St Paricks College on the Strand
Email Enquiries:   adminofficer@etaq.org.au


Early Career Conference

The Early Career Conference will be held at the University of Southern Queensland, Springfield Campus.  The program is now available here and will be mailed to members later this week. Registrations are now open and will close on Friday 18th October, 2019. You may register online or by completing the registration form and mailing it ...

Category:   Seminar
Start Time:   9:00 AM
Date:   Saturday 26th October 2019
Venue:   Springfield Campus of USQ
Venue Address:   USQ Springfield Campus, 37 Sinnathamby Blvd, Springfield Central 4300
Email Enquiries:   adminofficer@etaq.org.au


An Afternoon of Moderation

The Darling Downs Branch will present an afternoon of moderation on Wednesday 30 October from 3:30 - 5:30. This will allow members and teachers to participate in an afternoon of moderation.  These professional conversations will be conducted in a collegial manner, and allow teachers to read responses to FIA4 written by a range of stu...

Category:   Workshop
Start Time:   3:30 PM
Date:   Wednesday 30th October 2019
Venue:   Fairholme College
Email Enquiries:   adminofficer@etaq.org.au


Grammar Day 2019

ETAQ will be condudcting another of the very successful grammar days on Saturday 9th November  at Iona College, Wynnum. Download the flyer for further information. Registrations will open on Monday 30 September and close on Monday 28 October 2019.   ...

Category:   Seminar
Start Time:   9:00 AM
Date:   Saturday 9th November 2019
Venue:   Iona College


< Previous | 1 | 2 | Next >
View all

Latest News

 

Meet Boori at UQ on Monday 23rd September from 8:30 am

Details available here

View all

Blog Feed

Editor of Words'Worth - Expression of interest

Oct 04 2017
Words'Worth is the journal of The Englis...

Grammar myths

Sep 12 2017
An edited version of the letter below was pu...
Read all

Testimonials

Read All

This is the first time I have been to an ETAQ conference and it was really sensational to get so much at all of the sessions.

ETAQ conferences always have sessions that make me excited to be a teacher.

I know that ETAQ conferences in the past have never disappointed - valuable, relevant, practical, inspiring so I came again.

Read All

Newsletter

Receive updates
from ETAQ

PO Box 3375, STAFFORD,
Queensland, Australia, 4053
(07) 3284 3718
ABN: 17 689 278 512

Connect to a great range of people who are passionate about English and have their finger on the pulse.

Be Connected