Time to slaughter the Sacred Cows: A response to the NSW Curriculum Review

June 26, 2020 12 MIN READ Eddie Blass

I looked forward to the report on the NSW curriculum review of education with some optimism as I’d heard on the grapevine that it was making recommendations that align with the work I do. While they recognise that kids are disengaging from the current offering, the recommendations for implementation fall far short of the mark. Not only that, but they will take seven years to implement if they run to schedule, despite the acknowledged need for ‘rapid change’.

In the beginning……

The preface to the NSW Review led by Geoff Masters identifies the following key issues:

‘The Review has identified several key concerns that must be addressed in any new curriculum. First, the crowded nature of the current curriculum, including the amount of content some syllabuses expect teachers to cover, is not conducive to teaching in depth or helping students see the relevance of what they are learning. Second, the frequent separation of knowledge and skills, theory and application, and academic and vocational learning in the current curriculum, and the associated undervaluing of skills, do little to support students’ understandings of how knowledge can be put to use or their development of skills in applying knowledge. Third, the timed nature of syllabuses that specify not only what should be taught, but also when it should be taught and how long should be spent teaching it, means some students are being required to move to the next year-level syllabus before mastering the content of the prior syllabus and so are falling increasingly behind in their learning over time. Other students are being required to mark time rather than advance to the more challenging material for which they are ready. Teachers require a more flexible curriculum to ensure every student is provided with well-targeted stretch challenges and so makes excellent ongoing progress.’

There is much to commend in the report: the need to get rid of the separation of VET and academic studies, the introduction of a research project (which SACE has had for many years), and the call to differentiate the pace of learning, to allow each student to achieve at their own speed. In short, the issues identified are 1) depth and relevance of learning, 2) covering both knowledge acquisition and application, and 3) differentiating the pace of learning.

Achieving Depth and Relevance

In order to provide both depth and relevance of learning, students need to find the curriculum directly applicable to their own situation and interests. To this end, students need to select the issues they want to study. The role of the teacher is then to facilitate learning to ensure students achieve the depth required. This ensures relevance as students will only pick issues that they are interested in pursuing.

In order to have a truly adaptive curriculum with regards to pace, you cannot have pre-determined annual outcomes. When you read further into the report, it states in the middle years section that: ‘The new curriculum is designed to address this challenge. It does this by setting clear standards that every student is expected to achieve in mandated subjects by the completion of their schooling’. It is not clear how this works with the pace of learning goal outlined above.

In order for knowledge to be truly applicable, it needs to be applied to real-world problems, and these do not occur in silos. So it misses the point to continue to focus on single subjects rather than an interdisciplinary curriculum. I’ve never solved a problem in my life by applying one subject area alone – I’ve always combined knowledge, ideas and skills from a variety of disciplines to get an overview and implement a range of approaches.

The report notes in the preface that kids are disengaging from schools, pointing to a need for rapid change. The seven-year timeframe is worrying, as the pace of change globally might result in the new curriculum becoming out-of-date prior to its implementation. In fact, the core message of ‘back to basics’ is already keenly disputed. While the report may recognise some of the causes of disengagement, its recommendations are unlikely to be implemented in a way in which they can be achieved. I learnt this over the four years I spent researching, developing and testing the Inventorium, a fully online alternative high school curriculum that maps to ACARA, SACE, and VCAL. Inventorium has a 100% retention rate with its fully online cohort of students, all of whom would not go to school.

Learnings from the Inventorium

We have found that disengaged students re-engage if they are allowed to choose the subject areas they study. For most, core subjects need to be woven into the subjects students choose. Instead of writing an essay for the sake of it, for example, a student might evidence English outcomes with reference to a piece written for a purpose of personal interest. They might read and engage with a range of evidence when seeking to answer a question of personal interest rather than reading a novel they are told to read. They might write a story about a future they want to see rather than a story with stricter parameters. To evidence Maths outcomes, students will do the maths they need to understand their world and solve the problems they want to solve. They will not, however, sit and work through a worksheet of abstract problems that are devoid of personal interest or meaning.

Like adults, children and teenagers think in an interdisciplinary manner – the breakdown of subjects at school is false. Inventorium students complete more integrated learning projects, community projects, and workplace experiences than any other optional subjects. Teachers create a separate learning and assessment plan for each subject for each student, so they have their own programme of learning which they can complete in two or three years as they wish. Students work with parents and teachers to determine what to do when and in what order, because the standard school timetable just doesn’t work for many young people. Putting theory into practice means you need to let students start and finish something, and this cannot be broken down and ordered into fixed timeframes.

The only way to implement these fundamental design changes is to abandon subject specialisms, asking teachers to teach across the whole curriculum. For high school teachers this requires a massive paradigm shift and those who are wedded to their content will not adapt easily. Of course there are times when you need to call on a content specialist to provide support, but these situations are rare, and schools should still employ everyone, so a little give and take is necessary.

The Inventorium works on the basis of one teacher to 20 students, and that’s all one teacher does – they teach the same 20 students all week. They personalise their curriculum and assessment tasks, get to know them, explore their interests with them, and develop connections with them. That is the final ingredient required to re-engage disengaged students. When you have eight different teachers in school, it is easy to fall through the gaps, particularly if you are not performing well in any of your subjects.

The Inventorium is a new system for high school education that meets the recommendations outlined in the NSW report already, and takes many of those ideas further – so it doesn’t need to take seven years. Any subject area can be taught within the Inventorium, and many are already available. Anything else can be added, but it needs to be written to address real world issues in multi-disciplinary ways. In order for such change to be realised, schools need to be ready to challenge some of the sacred cows that underpin their identities: firstly, teachers need to identify as teachers, not subject specialists. Secondly, the school bell should not determine when learning starts and stops. Thirdly, students need to be at the centre of all that they do.

In the average school, learning is organised around classes not students, teachers are allocated to subjects not students, and the day is organised around a timetable and not the needs of the students. These sacred cows need to be slaughtered for schools to be able to respond to this curriculum review.

The Inventorium will continue to offer fully online education next year, but it will also be available through in-person ‘learning hubs’ to allow for greater social interaction for those students who want it. If you would like to learn more, please contact me at eddie@inventorium.com.au, as hubs will be located where there is demand for them.