‘Incredibly loose’: The real problem with Australia’s school curriculum – Sydney Morning Herald

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Australia loves a curriculum culture war. Debates rage over whether students learn too much about sustainability, for example, and not enough about timetables. It’s no wonder; a school curriculum is an expression of what a community believes its children should know, and there will never be a consensus.
But when other countries raise their eyebrows at Australia’s approach to curricula, it’s not about the debates.
“They say, ‘that’s not a curriculum’,” said Ben Jensen, head of Learning First, an education consultancy that does policy work for governments across the country. They think it is more of a vision statement, “a high-level description of what kids should learn,” he said.
Teacher Matt Garrett with his year 4 students at Northholm Grammar SchoolCredit:Nick Moir
Beyond the curriculum and syllabus document, which outlines what kids should know at a particular point in their schooling, there’s little support.
Australian authorities leave it up to teachers and school leaders to decide how curricula should be translated in the classroom. Often, they leave it up to teachers to choose what to teach from a set of dot points, which can mean some students learn things in a particular school year that others don’t. That’s not the case overseas.
“Every high-performing system that has kids learning more than Australian students, that has greater equity … has more specific requirements around what’s taught in [classrooms],” Jensen said.
“In Australia, we are incredibly loose. What that does is create an incredible workload for teachers, it creates more variation in what’s taught across our system, it creates huge confusion, and creates this huge demand for resources to fill the gap.”
Mostly, teachers create their own resources, or share with colleagues. Often they will use Google, Pinterest, or Teachers Pay Teachers, a resource marketplace. Jensen said this creates a few problems: inconsistency between what’s taught in schools, an unnecessary workload and, when it comes to resources found online, a quality control problem.
Australian authorities are beginning to talk about providing more curriculum support. They include the NSW Education Standards Authority as part of its development of new syllabuses. The resources could include learning tasks, potential assignments, or classroom assessments. It could be as simple as lists of novels that are suitable for different grades.
But this is controversial. Many teachers argue that, as kids are so different, there is no one-size-fits-all approach; textbooks are widely frowned upon. They also say that the idea of supplied resources impinges on their professional freedom; it’s like being told how to teach.
“Of the 5000 teachers we surveyed last year, 92 per cent said they don’t have enough time to prepare for effective classroom teaching.”
Jensen said that view was held by a vocal minority. The resources would not be compulsory, and many teachers are crying out for advice. “They’re confused about what to do, and they have to work it out in a timeframe that makes it difficult to make good decisions,” he said. “[The issue] is not controversial outside Australia,” said Jensen. “It’s got mixed up with the autonomy debate.”
Jordana Hunter, the education program director at the Grattan Institute, a think tank, has also called for greater investment in high-quality curriculum resources to help teachers who are floundering under unsustainable workloads.
“Of the 5000 teachers we surveyed last year, 92 per cent said they don’t have enough time to prepare for effective classroom teaching and 86 per cent said they didn’t have enough time to plan high-quality lessons,” she said.
“Videos of high-quality lessons would be particularly helpful for new teachers, and those teaching a subject in which they do not have qualifications. Planning lessons on your own is incredibly complex and time-consuming.”
Crippling workloads are a key flashpoint in an industrial relations battle between teachers and the government in NSW. Teachers went on strike on Wednesday, calling for a pay rise and two extra hours of planning time a week.
Some teachers have taken matters into their own hands. During the pandemic, the head of staffing at Ballarat Clarendon College, Reid Smith, watched as British teachers – conscious of the huge variety of remote learning – developed a platform onto which they could download quality-assured videos and resources.
The Oak National Academy attracted support from a charity, and then from the British government. The resources have been viewed more than 150 million times.
Smith and a colleague decided to launch something similar in Australia. It’s called OCHRE, and has pilot funding from the Australian Education Research Organisation, as well as sponsorship from tech company Atlassian.
Smith has no intention of forcing anything onto teachers. They can choose to use bits and pieces, or nothing at all. “But if you’re starting to teach, you don’t have a social or professional network, or if you don’t have the expertise others have access to … we’re trying to provide that sharing,” he said.
“The element that’s different from Twinkl[an online resource marketplace], or Teachers Pay Teachers, is that it’s checked.”
Hunter said families and teachers would have benefited from Ochre’s resources during the pandemic.
“Investing in a comprehensive bank of high-quality lesson videos across key learning areas is one of the most straightforward things governments can do to build the resilience of our education system to withstand future disruptions,” she said.
Matt Garrett, a primary school teacher at Northholm Grammar in Sydney, uses the OCHRE resources. “I think all teachers appreciate resources that assist them,” he said. “The more tools we’re given to help our job, the better we can help build our children up.”
A spokeswoman for the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, which manages the national curriculum, said states and territories were responsible for the document’s implementation in their schools.
Resources available to teachers included videos of effective teaching practices.
“There are also work samples, which are examples of student work that provide assessment guidance to teachers, connections to the curriculum, teaching and learning tools, as well as links to reports and relevant research available on our website. Over time ACARA will be updating these resources to support the new curriculum.”
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