The curriculum for public confidence
Published Thursday, 14th December, 2006
by Bruce Wilson
I was the first person in my family to finish secondary school. My father had left school at 12, because he was needed on the farm. My mother left formal school even earlier because of a death and disruption in the family. In neither case were the decisions made about their education considered odd or unsympathetic. Education, at the time when my parents were doing it, was not the answer to the future.
However, increasingly throughout that period, the terms of the educational offer changed. There was a sharp divergence, starting during the 70s, between professional and public understanding of the educational offer. When educators spoke, the public's eyes glazed over. Our rhetoric was full of arcane language and secret business. It was during that period that the profession came to believe that education was no longer about filling up people's minds with a lot of stuff.
I remember from my Diploma in Education, and subsequently, lots of analogies based loosely on the jug and the mug, which is the most pervasive image of traditional education in the professional mind. The analogy sees the teacher as the wielder of the jug, and the student as the mug, the recipient of the contents. In this bad old model of education, the teacher stood over the student pouring knowledge into the student's head, and occasionally splashing it over the student's shoulders. This was taken to be an extremely bad thing, and shortly before my Dip Ed year at La Trobe University had apparently been replaced with a greatly improved new model in which the teacher and the student sat around the jug and discussed it, or wrestled for control of it, or kicked it over in a display of class solidarity. Everyone was very excited about this new model and we students of teaching spent most of the year chatting about it, when we weren't drawing up manifestos for a democratic revolution or going to the football.
This challenge to the control of the teacher was closely related to other changes in the status of authority figures. At about the same time, Roland Barthes was gloating over the dying body of the author, while a number of theologians had a little earlier disposed of God in a bloodless coup. The fuss was about knowledge. That was what filled the jug wielded by the teacher. That was what the author had, and had to be dispossessed of. That was what God represented. Somehow, while we weren't watching, knowledge became a bad thing. It was erased from the educational offer, or at least reduced substantially in importance. Knowledge became identified among the leaders of the the teaching profession as a badge of privilege, a way of reinforcing social inequality. Knowledge was the carrier of power relationships. In the place of knowledge we substituted process. What mattered was that students investigated, explored, constructed their own understanding of the world. The content of those investigations was not what counted.
But the users of education, parents and students, were unaware that the fine print had changed. They were still expecting, and still expect today, that education should result in greater knowledge, while the providers of education hold a rather different view about the outcomes of education. (If not knowledge, then what?)
There are many reasons why we have seen a decline in public confidence in schooling, and notably in public schooling. This article will not address most of them. But in the area of curriculum, we lost the public when we decided that something other than knowledge was the purpose of education.
There are four changes which would probably make a significant difference to public confidence.
Firstly, we should have one curriculum in Australia rather than some indeterminate number. A curriculum which was developed nationally would not in itself dramatically change public understanding: many people think we already have a national curriculum....The work should be undertaken by an agency independent of, but responsive to, those who presently manage education systems. This will help ensure that the work is designed to meet educational needs rather than political exigencies, and avoids the cluttered and opaque theoretical foundations which afflict many current curriculum documents.
Secondly, we should write our curriculum in English. No Australian curriculum document at present is comprehensible to a lay reader. We should aim for documents which are simple, explicit, and designed to be read and understood by interested parents. This approach has a number of advantages, beyond making our intentions clear to the users of education. It would assist teachers, who are mostly obliged to use official curriculum documents, to understand what we expect of them. It would enable the documents to be used in support of education rather than, as at present, as evidence of our failure. Finally, it would provide a practical illustration of the benefits of education, demonstrating that as educated individuals we can write something which is accessible to a non-expert reader.
Thirdly, we should fill those documents with explicit statements of the knowledge which we intend to impart to young people. We should base these statements on the disciplines, which represent the most powerful ways yet devised of understanding the world. Our purpose should be to teach young Australians their history and geography, introducing them to the artistic, scientific, cultural, moral and linguistic traditions which should sustain them. Our aim should be to guarantee every child a framework of knowledge which can provide a foundation point from which to comprehend and gain power over the world. Most Australian curriculum at present offers a mass of ill-digested competing frameworks, which complicate the documents and bury the really important things beneath a heap of someone's good ideas.
And fourthly, we should make the documents brief. We can do this by avoiding turgid and impenetrable introductions, lengthy lectures about teaching and extended riffs on a range of overlapping frameworks. Most obviously, we can do it by including less stuff.
I do not claim that these changes would restore public confidence in schooling. They would, however, make the curriculum a tool for restoring confidence rather than a club to beat it to death.
We should base these statements on the disciplines, which represent the most powerful ways yet devised of understanding the world.