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Bluyonder Greg Whitby
Updated: 3 hours 53 min ago
You may be old enough to remember when Pepsi launched a campaign in the 1980s claiming that its cola was ‘the choice of a new generation’. In the context of education, it seems obvious that ‘choice’ should be synonymous with a new generation of schooling. Choice marks a shift in the ownership of learning. In the past, the learning agenda has been driven predominantly by the system or by government policy. Students haven’t been expected to ‘own’ their learning. This probably accounts for generations of disengaged learners who felt like they had little involvement in what they learned, how they learned and at what pace. Too often, learning has been a process of doing to rather than doing with. The irony today is that we want all young people to become independent learners but too many of the learning environments are still set up towards dependency and control.
This has been made more obvious with the roll-out of the Australian Curriculum (AC). The AC defines very specific ‘learning entitlements’ or content. In NSW for instance, the ‘stronger’ HSC has reduced student choice within some subjects around topics as well as imposing a minimum benchmark for literacy and numeracy.
When learning is largely content or syllabus-driven rather than student-interest driven, we deny students the right to agency and autonomy. We know from research that this is an integral part of effective learning and teaching. As Will Richardson noted, real learning happens when there is the ‘power to choose, and we facilitate that in schools by creating the conditions and space for that to happen at a student (and a teacher) level.’
I recently spent some time with Lyn Sharratt and two of our secondary schools who were sharing their experiences on encouraging learners to read. One of the simplest strategies on the road towards agency was giving students a choice of text instead of mandating a single text to read. Teachers noticed more students were willing to step up and challenge themselves when the purpose of why and what was clearly articulated and understood. The outcome was higher levels of student (and teacher) engagement and, unsurprisingly, improved attendance in class. These teachers are now looking at how they can extend student choice to other subject areas.
Disappointingly, schooling has been largely driven by the system instead of by students, supported by their teachers. Schooling today can and should be a ‘win-win’ proposition by giving all students greater ownership over their learning , greater input into the curriculum and greater choice in pursuing passions.
Chocolate Wheel 1920s (State Library of NSW)
I think I’ve been in education too long because I’m becoming more frustrated with changes continually being made to the ‘curriculum’. Recently we read that the Year 12 Higher School Certificate syllabus will be overhauled following concerns that subjects were being dumbed down and we continue to fall behind globally. It is interesting to see that everything announced has been done before. It didn’t work then so why do we think it will today? The only impact seems to silence the critics seeking recognition of their ideological or cultural bias of what young people need to know or should be taught. Let’s just spin the [school] chocolate wheel again and end up with the same old prizes.
If the history of curriculum design, development and implementation tells us anything it’s that we are in a slow moving cycle of repeating the same curriculum constructs with a different emphasis every decade or so. Where is the new thinking, new constructs, the innovation that is demanded in today’s world?
Successive state governments have been tweaking the curriculum largely along ideological lines and we see now that history is repeating itself with the next iteration on depth and rigour, maths and phonics. In the midst of this tweaking cycle, other forces of change emerged. The first and most important in my view was the increase in educational research, which has helped shape a better understanding of what works in schools and classrooms and what doesn’t. The work of researchers like Patrick Griffin, Dylan Wiliam, Viviane Robinson and Helen Timperley etc is internationally recognised. Yet is difficult to find similar influencers in curriculum design.
Secondly, the rise of international testing and the development of national league tables has had a profound effect on education ministers who are continually being asked to explain why their education systems are ‘failing’ compared to high performing nations. These comparisons do nothing more than distract our attention and dilute the work of teachers.
Thirdly, the emergence of the over-crowded curriculum. Schools are being asked to teach across a broad range of social issues. It started with driver education programs to now include de-radicalisation and everything in between. Where are the enlightened discussions on these curriculum intrusions?
Finally, the federal government has introduced a national curriculum to which all states have signed onto in various degrees. However, the hidden curriculum has been ignored or is at least implied. The justification is that any change made will somehow fix the system and improve schooling. The curriculum isn’t the issue here – it’s only a tool and no improving the tool will ever improve teacher practice. The curriculum doesn’t teach. Unless we change the way teachers do their work we are condemning another two generations of past practice with past outcomes.
Can we not imagine a curriculum that is designed around the needs and interests of every single learner? Can’t we aim for a vibrant community of collaborative learners who have responsibility and choice when it comes to their learning? The bottom line is that schools have to transform themselves from the one size fits all structures, mindsets and processes that have dominated for a century. It calls for re-imagining not improving.