Spinning the chocolate wheel

Chocolate Wheel 1920s (State Library of NSW)

I think I’ve been in education too long because I’m becoming more frustrated with changes continually being made to the ‘curriculum’. Recently we read that the Year 12 Higher School Certificate syllabus will be overhauled following concerns that subjects were being dumbed down and we continue to fall behind globally. It is interesting to see that everything announced has been done before. It didn’t work then so why do we think it will today? The only impact seems to silence the critics seeking recognition of their ideological or cultural bias of what young people need to know or should be taught. Let’s just spin the [school] chocolate wheel again and end up with the same old prizes.

If the history of curriculum design, development and implementation tells us anything it’s that we are in a slow moving cycle of repeating the same curriculum constructs with a different emphasis every decade or so. Where is the new thinking, new constructs, the innovation that is demanded in today’s world?

Successive state governments have been tweaking the curriculum largely along ideological lines and we see now that history is repeating itself with the next iteration on depth and rigour, maths and phonics. In the midst of this tweaking cycle, other forces of change emerged. The first and most important in my view was the increase in educational research, which has helped shape a better understanding of what works in schools and classrooms and what doesn’t. The work of researchers like Patrick Griffin, Dylan Wiliam, Viviane Robinson and Helen Timperley etc is internationally recognised.  Yet is difficult to find similar influencers in curriculum design.

Secondly, the rise of international testing and the development of national league tables has had a profound effect on education ministers who are continually being asked to explain why their education systems are ‘failing’ compared to high performing nations. These comparisons do nothing more than distract our attention and dilute the work of teachers.

Thirdly, the emergence of the over-crowded curriculum. Schools are being asked to teach across a broad range of social issues. It started with driver education programs to now include de-radicalisation and everything in between. Where are the enlightened discussions on these curriculum intrusions?

Finally, the federal government has introduced a national curriculum to which all states have signed onto in various degrees. However, the hidden curriculum has been ignored or is at least implied. The justification is that any change made will somehow fix the system and improve schooling. The curriculum isn’t the issue here – it’s only a tool and no improving the tool will ever improve teacher practice. The curriculum doesn’t teach. Unless we change the way teachers do their work we are condemning another two generations of past practice with past outcomes.

Can we not imagine a curriculum that is designed around the needs and interests of every single learner? Can’t we aim for a vibrant community of collaborative learners who have responsibility and choice when it comes to their learning? The bottom line is that schools have to transform themselves from the one size fits all structures, mindsets and processes that have dominated for a century.  It calls for re-imagining not improving.


2 thoughts on “Spinning the chocolate wheel

  1. For me the primary goal of teaching is to equip the person for the “world of work of his or her choice”. That can start off from a common basis of education for all (obviously reading and writing at the start) but needs to branch out in several streams related to the likely ultimate “professional” destination for the student: their trade/job/profession at about the age of ten to twelve. School remains far too ‘academic’ for all for far too long – causing misery for those who might later prosper in the less cerebral professions. Their contribution to society is just as vital as the ‘academic’ and yet they have to wait for several more years to access the appropriate education which suits their latent skills.

  2. So good to hear a leader challenge the “Improvement” language that has become structurally embedded in education administration Greg! A personal gripe having watched the CI wave come & morph into Business As Usual a good decade or two ago in all other sectors. It’s well past time for imagination, ideation, experimentation, rapid “failure” and iterative development …. ahem … learning …. to be central if we want to deliberately accelerate the evolution of education & the organisations we deliver it through.

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