• Kathleen Donohoe

Growth mindset for curriculum in the age of innovation

A key intention of our education system is to prepare them to be successful, engaged members of society we need to start by considering the applicability of our curriculum and it’s delivery to both society and workplaces.  

With this in mind, consider: 

  • Do you enter your workplace with the intention of spending one hour on mathematics, one hour on English one hour on history etc? or do you bring all of these skills, knowledge and capabilities together to apply where relevant?

  • Do you schedule breaks and only access food or bathroom facilities at scheduled times during the day?

  • Do you collaborate with others to build innovate, solutions, and bring the power of all to solving problems?

Yet, our curriculum, and those privileged to deliver it, are shaped and trained to prepare students for a world shaped this way!

Is our current curriculum content and methodology distracting us from real issues?

In an earlier piece, we posed the question “Does Teaching = Learning”, the answer is a resounding NO.

Teaching may lead to learning, but teaching is not the only instigator of learning, nor is it guaranteed that teaching equates to any learning! Is this reflected in our current curriculum design, implementation, and content?

Addressing these questions together is key, but at the same time, it will be irrelevant, unless we address our unwillingness to change our expectations for how and what students learn.

In reviewing the curriculum, it is important to consider the wealth of national and international research and evidence that is available to inform the shape and evolution of an effective Australian Curriculum, that will prepare students for the 21st century.

A relevant curriculum – now and into the future

Phil Lambert (2016) in ‘A Hard Focus on Soft Skills’ stressed that we are already living through an era of unprecedented change and the pace is accelerating. Many are focussed on what the ‘new normal’ will or should look like, neglecting the fact that the concept of normal was never agreed or consistent. We need to reflect and understand what was the norm? And for whom? This thinking belies the concept of personalisation and therefore universal design, where we meet the needs of each where possible, rather than trying to focus on the needs of all.

There will not be a new ‘normal’

There is clear recognition across the globe that the acquisition of technical knowledge and know-how (mastery and techniques), though important, is not sufficient for young people to successfully navigate life and work in a world that is increasingly complex, characterised by ambiguity and uncertainty. Many countries are taking steps in response to this reality as part of broader reforms and initiatives, with a focus on curriculum and policy. While there is a degree of commonality in the competencies being foregrounded, there are variances in terminology and local contextual factors that drive the prioritisation of particular skills, attitudes, dispositions, and knowledge within each country or jurisdiction.

No-one is questioning the need for students to acquire the basics in literacy and numeracy. Consistently, the importance of reading, national language(s), and mathematics is reflected in curricula frameworks and international assessment programs such as PISA.

Standards should not be attached to distinct school subjects as siloes, rather, to the characteristics and the qualities of thinking and positive action across the syllabi they are designed to foster. Syllabi are artifacts of the ‘teaching’ profession, similar to the support afforded by learning space, technology, etc. Similar to the integration of technology, if we only focus on the curriculum rather than on creating powerful learning experiences that support the development of the capabilities, skills, dispositions and character traits we want students to develop, we will continue to perpetuate the same norms in education with the same inequities and inequalities. Without a focus on how learners learn, we lose sight of the learning experiences that form part of the lifelong learning journey. Teachers should be held accountable for the quality of what they create, and how they create it.

As technological capabilities grow exponentially (e.g. artificial intelligence, robotics and machine learning) tasks previously undertaken by humans are becoming redundant, we need to shift our focus to the aptitudes that we as humans excel in, those capabilities that technologies do not have. For example, technological capabilities do not include empathy, they cannot make ethical decisions for the common good, they do not have morals, but more importantly, they cannot think critically, develop or use their values, they cannot innovate, create, or inspire others to imagine something that does not yet exist.

Overcrowded Curriculum

As society’s institutions evolve or dissolve, schools have continued to absorb the vacuum created. Curriculum requirements have increased because of government, community, educational, technological, employer, and political expectations. We have a long history of adding curriculum elements that students should ‘know’, rather than focusing on supporting learners to create this knowledge themselves. We teach and assess facts and knowledge, rather than developing the skills to gain an understanding of and reasoning behind historical events. We teach long and short division – but do we support learners to determine for themselves when each is most applicable.

Our students are propelled forward as consumers, rather than as creators of knowledge

Historically, curriculum reviews have led to an increase in content, continual additions of what students should know, with little consideration of any elements that should be removed, to enable new elements, or if they were no longer relevant, current or prioritised. Noting this, few if any community leaders, ever agree on what is not important, so consensus is not easy.

With every social problem that emerges, schools become the mechanism for societal change. There has not been one statement suggesting the removal, or de-emphasis of any of the myriad areas which have become school responsibilities. As society has evolved to reflect greater female participation in industry, workdays have extended, as have commutes, as fee paying schools have become more prominent, our expectation on our education systems have also evolved – again, not in consensus.

Taken in isolation, specific changes to the school curriculum may be readily explained and / or popular with certain sectors of the community. But, when all these changes are aggregated and shared, we have a considerable level of discontinuity and disparity of the suitability and priority of elements. The continual changes and iterations of the curriculum may provide governments with some favourable short-term press coverage and community support, but the delay in implementation and the side effects for updating resources and alignment for compliance mean this may all come at the expense of quality learning, oversight of their learning journey and the relevance of specific elements in relation to their context and improvement.

Add to this the consideration that schools are the first, and sometimes, the last port of call for many students and families in crisis. In some schools the welfare role that the teacher takes on engulfs their primary function, that is, to enable learning and guide students to learn and improve. Any curriculum review needs to embrace, but not be led by political, social and cultural perspectives, both in what has gone before and what is needed for the future of individuals as lifelong learners and as successful citizens.

How much of this is the responsibility of curriculum or in fact, of schools?

As existing societal pressures unfold and additional pressures emerge, any curriculum reform will require flexibility and adaptability to remain relevant, whilst accommodating current and emerging demands, from the perception of society and educators. Any curriculum review (or overhaul) needs to explore and address the tensions between syllabus demands, political pressures, jurisdictional initiatives, and individual school initiatives. This cannot be a long term discussion, nor a process that takes years to implement.

One approach may be the reframing of the concepts of literacy and numeracy to ensure currency, with a focus on the demands of today and into the future. The requirements and skills underpinning basic literacy competencies in the last century are still relevant in many cases, yet they only a small part of the literacies required to be successful in today and tomorrow’s society.

Curriculum is only one of many reforms that may impact on teachers at any given time. Interestingly, the ‘overcrowded curriculum’ is one of the factors teachers identified as contributing to excessive workload OECD, (2018), McGrath-Champ, Stacey, Wilson, Fitzgerald (2018) and School Stream (2018). Many teachers perceive their capacity to support learners as compromised, because of the lack of time for preparation, reflection, and collaboration. The requirements to adapt to new curriculum and new content with inadequate training, advice, examples of best practice and resources are a cause for anxiety.

There is vast debate on capabilities ‘or’ content knowledge, when in fact, this needs to be a balance – the capabilities cannot be developed without content and knowledge.

In Australia, there are ten themes that cut across all the key learning areas and stages. This includes seven general capabilities – Literacy, Numeracy, ICT capability, Critical and Creative Thinking, Personal and Social Capability, Ethical Understanding and Intercultural Understanding, and three cross-curriculum priorities – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures, Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia and Sustainability. More information on these is available at ACARA.