It could have been worse, I suppose
The new Australian Curriculum has been unveiled
These past few months, the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) have been keeping a secret, enforceable by a solemn ‘deed of confidentiality’. That secret was yesterday revealed when ACARA finally published Version 9 of the Australian Curriculum.
Yesterday’s release follows the publication of a heavily criticised draft version early last year and a subsequent consultation period.
I have let others fight for phonics and structured literacy in the English curriculum and although of interest to me, I have not been able to pay much attention to the emotive arguments about the history curriculum (technically, “Humanities and Social Sciences”). Instead, I have restricted myself to one big issue with the science curriculum and a few more with the mathematics document.
How does the final version measure up?
The Australian Science Curriculum is fundamentally flawed because it splits science up into science content, inquiry skills and something called, “Science as a Human Endeavour”. Clearly, knowing science involves, well, knowing science, and so the content strand is by far the most important (although those already in possession of vast amounts of scientific knowledge are inclined to pull up the ladder and luxuriate in the idea that it is not).
The process of scientific inquiry is significant and needs to be explicitly taught, but it can be grasped relatively quickly and so does not require one third of curriculum time. The tricky part is applying the scientific method with validity in a diverse range of contexts and this is where content knowledge is essential. It is also helpful if students develop the practical skills needed to conduct scientific investigations, although the Australian Curriculum largely omits these in its discussion of ‘inquiry’.
Instead, the Australian Curriculum inflates inquiry to grandiose, verbose levels and conflates knowledge of the scientific method with learning science by conducting lots of investigations. This is deeply flawed.
Worse still, Science as a Human Endeavour is an invented thing of no value that can be viewed as either a basement-low-level attempt to replicate university-level courses in the history and philosophy of science, or as a move to make science more of a humanities subject.
A simple example from Version 9 demonstrates the obvious inanities in Science as a Human Endeavour:
examine why advances in science are often the result of collaboration or build on the work of others
What would that class look like? Case closed.
The draft version of the new science curriculum doubled-down on even more inquiry, insisting that every content statement should begin with ‘explore’ or ‘investigate’. I criticised this in my submission to the consultation, giving the example of a Year 3 chemistry objective:
investigate the observable properties of solids, liquids and gases and how adding or removing heat energy changes the state of water
Oddly, in the finalised Version 9, this objective has been dumbed-down, with the removal of gases (a concept now punted to Year 5):
investigate the observable properties of solids and liquids and how adding or removing heat energy leads to a change of state
Nevertheless, it is now one of fewer such statements beginning with ‘investigate’ so that’s a limited improvement of sorts.
Overall, the resulting curriculum is underwhelming and will do nothing at all to address our precipitous decline in science achievement as assessed by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).
The draft curriculum delayed the teaching of multiplication facts (times-tables), linear equations and other key content. This appears to have been reversed in Version 9.
And I welcome the fact that Version 9 now specifies operations that students need to be able to do without a calculator:
add and subtract two- and three-digit numbers using place value to partition, rearrange and regroup numbers to assist in calculations without a calculator
recall and demonstrate proficiency with multiplication facts up to 10 x 10 and related division facts; extend and apply facts to develop efficient mental strategies for computation with larger numbers without a calculator
The ability to perform operations without a calculator is a feature of the Singaporean curriculum that I have noted previously. However, the Australian framing is suggestive of the kind of constructivist mental arithmetic strategies that students are supposed to invent for themselves (but rarely do). For example, a quick search for ‘standard algorithm’ or ‘long division’ — the most powerful pen-and-paper tools ever developed for computations of this kind — yields nothing. You have to wonder how these students will later be able to tackle the long division of polynomials in senior maths courses.
What else? The pre-amble seems to have calmed-down on its evangelical push to promote problem-based learning. Which is good.
Nevertheless, the whole thing is flabby with imprecise and vague language. The elaborations are particularly unhelpful, with their tendency to describe pointless activities:
comparing the capacity of several containers using sand and units such as a spoon or cup, to say which container will hold the most and how much more it will hold; recording the results, writing an explanation of their measurement process, including using smaller units to be more accurate, and justifying the result
What do we intend the students to learn from this? It’s not clear but it could eat up an hour of busywork. I suppose the students would at least have a great time chatting, as they ladle sand into plastic tubs. And how is this not specifying a teaching style?
The Australian Curriculum is not, and probably never could have been, the solution to Australia’s educational malaise. But it does send a signal about what state bureaucracies, textbook publishers and teacher training faculties should pay attention to. The best we can say is that it is a missed opportunity that could have been far worse.
Instead, the solution to educational malaise lies with you and me. It lies in the decisions we make in our schools and classrooms. It lies in what we choose to pay attention to and what we strategically ignore. It lies in a profession committed to educating ourselves, not least because those who have appointed themselves to the role of telling us what to do are hopelessly confused and incoherent.