National curriculum review for ploy more than policy

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The old, industrial ''stand and deliver'' model of education is long gone. That line's not mine. I pinched it from a national curriculum review that was completed last year. Yep. Just 12 months ago.

The report of the Digital Education Advisory Group was delivered in the middle of last year - and its recommendations make sobering reading for anyone who thinks students can be told what to read or what to think any more.

The idea that teachers are in charge and that they just download their solid wisdom into students' minds may still exist in the consciousness of Christopher Pyne and company, but they do not exist in the real world.

Students are wild online - they hunt and scavenge where they find fresh meat. Or tofu. Any guidance we educators can give them is only that - ideas, a practice of verification, the discipline of research. That's all. We don't get to tell them what to think any more.

A great relief.

That introductory line was written by the woman who, in a hands-off way, is my boss: Shirley Alexander, the deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Technology, Sydney, who focused on teaching, learning and equity. She was chairwoman of the digital advisory group - and its report lies unloved and unattended on a government website.


I'm pinching that line to focus your attention on the newly announced national curriculum review. Education Minister Pyne revealed on Friday that former Coalition adviser, consultant to the tobacco industry and all-round culture warrior Kevin Donnelly and serious academic Ken Wiltshire would lead the review, to report back by midyear.

The bagging of Donnelly has been prolific. The scathing assessment of him by education elder statesman Ken Boston on ABC NewsRadio last week was just one example.

Boston told Steve Chase (ABC journalist and a former Boston colleague): ''He doesn't engage with reasoned argument or evidence … [his] publications are regarded as specious nonsense.''

When he spoke to me on Monday, Boston said Donnelly's only role in such a review should be to write a submission. That's an option open to all of us. If we have views about what our children are taught, we can contribute in this way. But Boston said Donnelly could do damage because he has been so partisan - so highly and unfairly critical of those who have worked earnestly to develop a national curriculum.

''The review should be completely independent,'' he said. ''[Donnelly] could well be making submissions to it and those submissions would be analysed on the basis of evidence and conclusions drawn.''

What has shocked Boston more is Donnelly's hubristic declaration of the changes which should be made - before a single submission arrives. ''The situation is most unsatisfactory,'' he said.

Why have a review of the curriculum?

Educators across Australia agree on this - it's a way of deflecting attention from the real problem, that school funding is in crisis. We have the Gonski funding model sorted on an ad hoc basis and for a short period of time.

And why is funding more important than content?

It's because funding matters more. In Australia, there is a direct and solid correlation between educational outcomes and social advantage. You can practically track year 12 success by looking at the home postcodes of the students who sit the exam.

Do we think the socially disadvantaged are stupid? Do you think it is a freaking coincidence that kids in Red Hill do better than kids in Mount Druitt?

Doesn't it concern you that we are worrying whether students learn about small business and our allegedly Christian roots rather than making sure the schools are funded sufficiently to have permanent teachers and the ability to pay for student education - and that means digital equipment and educators who know about the digital environment.

As Boston said, we can change the curriculum. But it won't do a single thing to raise national performance. Only decent funding of schools will do that.

A decent broad curriculum is important - but so is the opportunity to learn to work in groups. Or as Shirley Alexander said: ''We've got to rethink how students learn - we need to emphasise the need to develop 21st-century skills.''

And education is not a sheet of paper with a list that conservatives love. It's not Anglicanism and small business and white, Western morality.

I don't want my grandchildren to return to a time when the only indigenous Australian they will come across as they study is Bennelong. That's what happened to me. At one stage I could recite all the kings and queens of England and their unreigning progeny - but the only Aborigine I could name was the man whose name is on the land where the Sydney Opera House sits.

Fat lot of good Henry did me. Divorced, beheaded, died. Would have done better getting a history of Catholicism since that seems to be the dominant religion around here and it has certainly been in the news.

And students these days don't need the giant canonical download - they need to have content, most definitely, but they also need to get the itch to learn and to understand how to scratch it.