There is no doubt that globalisation has created a greater demand for quality education and there are pressures to rethink the nature and rationale of our curriculum. It leads us to ask questions such as how can we continue to confine knowledge within old frameworks? What possibilities are opened up by the availability of new tools for learning? What and how can we teach in a way that offers students a variety of new and challenging experiences?
Earlier this month I was invited to speak at a workshop hosted by the Association of Independent Schools South Australia (AISSA) on how the Australian curriculum could create the capacity for transformation. Also speaking was Rob Randall, CEO of ACARA who provided an update on the national curriculum.
While the national curriculum signals a shift from text book to e-resources and from prescriptive to a more flexible delivery, my point is that it is the teacher and not the curriculum that creates the capacity for transformation. If we perceive the purpose of teaching as simply delivering a curriculum, then we not only perceive students as passive recipients but we diminish the purpose of education. Our role is to teach students how to think not what to think.
When I was at University I majored in European and Australian history with a minor in English Literature. I trained as a History teacher but my first job was as a full-time English teacher at a secondary school. As you would expect, I was concerned because I was not a ‘trained English teacher.’ On the first day, I met with the English master who told me it didn’t matter because all I needed to know was contained in the English syllabus. The document listed the content, the prescribed hours and the specific texts I was to follow. The syllabus became ‘the bible’ and I wasn’t to deviate from it. These approaches were ill conceived even as we used them.
Dewey said ‘the notion that some subjects and methods and that acquaintance with certain facts and truths possess educational value in and of themselves is the reason why traditional education reduced the material of education so largely to a diet of pre-digested materials.’
When we change the construct of the curriculum from content to learning, we change the nature of teachers’ work. Teachers move from being deliverers to creators, from sages to learners and from cogs to critical thinkers. If we think about the relevance of a curriculum in today’s world as everything intended to promote wisdom and learning then we give teachers freedom to be creative and responsive to helping students make connections between their lives and the world.
The less prescriptive a curriculum is, the more opportunity there is for experiential learning; giving students space to discern information and construct their own knowledge. Personalising learning means finding out what matters to students and then designing a curriculum that invites them to deepen their understanding, ask questions and importantly fail. Diane Laufenberg, an American History teacher at the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia discusses this in her TED talk.
I know I’ve written about Singapore’s skinny curriculum before but we should all be working towards a goal of ‘teaching less, learning more’. When the curriculum is centred on learning, students become active participants rather than passive recipients. Their focus shifts from why do I need to learn this to how can what I have learned make a difference. What better way of empowering students to become active citizens then giving them a voice in their own learning.
Albert Einstein said: “I never teach my pupils; I just provide the conditions in which they can learn.” I hope the national curriculum is an opportunity for teachers to see themselves as designers and therefore critical to the process of improving education for all students.