Thursday, February 15, 2007

A national curriculum for Australia?

A debate is currently raging around whether or not Australia should have a national curriculum. At the moment, each state and territory has its own curriculum, starting age for students, assessment and reporting procedures.

Is the debate about politics or pedagogy? This was the question asked by Australia Talks, a Radio National program. As guests, they had Kevin Donnelly, the voice of the "back to basics" movement, an articulate professor, and Andrew Blair, the president of the Australian Secondary Principals Association. It is just as well that I cannot remember the name of the professor, as he was so un-Australian as to dare argue about semantics. It should have been enough for this voice of the intellectual elite (two words which combine to form an insult in our society) to appear on a program which uses a pompous word like pedagogy in its title. Is there an emoticon that shows I am speaking with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek?

What is clear is that the debate is mainly political. The federal government blames the states for the fact that so many of our graduates have poor literacy skills. The federal minister for education decries the Maoist ideologies of the teacher unions and, by extension, the teachers themselves. The state governments blame Canberra for its poor financial support of schools and universities. The absent voices in the debate are those of the teachers.

On the level of pedagogy (it's my blog and I will use the word if I want to), the program guests were polarised. Andrew Blair wanted us to compete with the graduates of Chinese and Indian Colleges and so, he argued, the "basics" were not enough. Kevin Donnelly wanted us to look at Singapore for inspiration. He often reminds people that Singapore topped the TIMMS results and plays down Australia's performance in PISA, where "problem solving" was valued over computation. His articles always have double quotes around expressions like "problem solving" and "lifelong learning". The articulate professor referred to Finland, France and Sweden as countries we should study and emulate when it comes to pre-school education.

I must confess that in the past few months I have been having some "back to basics" tendencies. I have considered lying on the couch of a therapist and confessing this. Can you see the teacher in a psychiatric clinic saying: "Doctor, I am being haunted by back-to-basics tendencies, can you make them go away"? Kevin Donnelly's statements irritate me in the extreme. The last two federal ministers for education strike me as dishonest and unjust. So, what is pushing me in this direction?

It is hard for me to see how a "curriculum for the 21st century" could be of any benefit if our graduates have no command over the English language. As long as "you plus it" replaces "you add a to b" and "ask the teachers, that's what there there for" appears for a whole year in the Year 10 corridor of an excellent school, what is the use of "critical skills"? If we want them to be independent thinkers, then surely we should want them to be able to express themselves accurately and read serious material.

I was training a choir of young people in my parish and asked them the meaning of the words "condescend" and "incarnate". None of them, including two university students, could explain either term. Prior to becoming a teacher, I would have been scandalised. Now I know that they are, unfortunately, typical.

Is the answer a return to the basics? To some extent, I believe, the answer is yes. I would not want to throw the baby out with the bath water. Here's schooling according to Elias (please excuse my arrogance):

Primary school children must be taught grammar, spelling and multiplication tables. They must also have time to play, explore and think freely. I do not think that a syllabus with these combined aims is impossible. It needn't even be crowded.

English should not be taught to senior secondary students. By year 11, surely people should be able to read serious books and discuss their meaning and structure. It is, after all, their first (and usually only) language.

Bring back differentiation at the end of Year 9 or 10. Please dump this idea that education should equalise everybody. No-one I know has a problem with the sporting elite having their own -elite- institutions. Yet, we are so afraid of educational advantage that we have high school certificates that are free for all. Everyone has the right to a Victorian Certificate of Education after 13 years of schooling. They simply have to turn up.

I Thank you for reading and wish you a good weekend.

Elias, proud father, grumpy pedagogue :-)

2 comments:

TB

said...

Hmmmm....i dont know about all this....but your thoughts are certainly unique, Mr E!

M English is not great and I rarely read books as a child (i was too busy playing sport outside!), but my spelling skills have always been good, because of the repetitive rigour i was given in primary school.

Seeing such common spelling errors such as SEPERATE,DEFINATELY, LOSE(when they mean "loose"), SHAREING, PEICE, RECIEVE,COULD OF" etc...they drive me bananas!

thks again.
TB

Marcia

said...

Thanks for writing this.