Cross-curriculum priorities are options, not orders

The creation and implementation of the Australian Curriculum in schools across the country is a significant moment in Australian education history. Discussion on curriculum is always lively and stirs the passions.

Recently much of the discussion on the Australian Curriculum has focused on the three cross-curriculum priorities and how they are embedded in the learning areas. There is no requirement in the Australian Curriculum that subjects be taught through the three cross-curriculum priorities: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island histories and cultures, Asia and Australia's engagement with Asia, and sustainability.

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The cross-curriculum priorities were nominated by the council of education ministers in its Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians, drafted in 2007-08 and adopted in December 2008 as work on the Australian Curriculum was commencing. In developing the curriculum, we did not want to give them the status of separate ''subjects'', just as we did not give the ''general capabilities'' the status of separate subjects. We believe they are important but judged that we should focus on the disciplines and deal with both the cross-curriculum priorities and the general capabilities through the disciplines, where relevant.

The curriculum consists of content descriptions that set out what students are entitled to learn and achievement standards that set out what successful students would know and be able to do. The Australian Curriculum does not prescribe how the content should be taught. That is a matter for schools and their jurisdictions.

During the development of the curriculum some respondents asked for more detail to be provided. We did not add more content but instead added content elaborations that offer some ideas about how content might be covered.

The most extreme claim about the cross-curriculum priorities is that mathematics is somehow to be taught through Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures. That is not the case.


Not only does it miss the point that the relationship is the other way round, with the priorities to be taught through the subjects disciplines, it also misses the fact that there are no content descriptions in mathematics connected with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures.

There are, however, 12 content elaborations in mathematics over the 11 years from foundation to year 10 that propose ways in which attention might be given to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures.

In geometry in year 3, when the content is symmetry, there is an elaboration that suggests that symmetry in Aboriginal art might be considered. In statistics in year 10, when the task is to construct plots with which to compare data sets, there is an elaboration that suggests comparing the age distribution of the Australian population as a whole with that of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

Teachers can choose whether or not to take up any of the elaborations or to choose other applications. Those with Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander students might well choose these suggestions to help those students find themselves and not only others represented in their curriculum. Other teachers might also choose to do so.

Anyone who wants to see where the cross-curriculum priorities and the general capabilities fit in the curriculum can readily do so at Individual subjects such as mathematics, science, history and so on can be selected and the content descriptions and elaborations then filtered to show only one or more of the priorities or the capabilities.

Such filtering allows one to be clear where it is suggested they be covered, and where the link is to a content description that is part of the curriculum, or to a content elaboration that is a suggestion that teachers might or might not take up.

Viewing the curriculum in this way also allows one to focus on what it is that we expect young people to be taught and to see that the content descriptions are clearly about the disciplines of English, mathematics, science and so on while addressing, in addition, the cross-curriculum priorities and the general capabilities.

Professor Barry McGaw is chairman of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority.