Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Australian School English Curriculum

Non-Australian readers of this blog won't be aware of the move in recent times to institute a National School Curriculum in our country for the first time. Australia's parliamentary system consists of has 6 states and 2 territories, all of which have their own separate curricula in all subjects. Many Australians, especially business groups and some parents, have seen this as a problem. While it would seem to make sense to have a national curriculum the existing system of State curriculum and syllabus documents has served Australia well so teachers have been resistant to change. While there are things that could be improved in Australian schooling, such as the results achieved by Indigenous students, overall we have an enviable record in school education.

Results from the Program for International Assessment (PISA) show that the performance of Australia's secondary students in mathematics, literacy and science is outstanding.  The program is an initiative of the OECD and the 2009 program assessed 15 year old students across 68 OECD and non OECD countries in the three key curriculum areas. The PISA program assesses all three areas every 3 years and focuses on one in depth as well as assessing functional skills across the curriculum such as learning strategies, computing and problem solving. The program commenced in 2000.  Australia has ranked in the top 10 nations in all subject areas since the program commenced (here). In the last reported year (2006) we ranked 6th in Reading, 8th in Science and equal 9th in Mathematics. This places our school performance above many developed nations like the USA, UK, France, Germany,

The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) has released a draft curriculum that covers English, Mathematics, Science and History.  Draft material for other curriculum areas will follow in 2011. ACARA is seeking public and professional comments on the draft materials by 23rd May 2010.

1. What does the National Draft English Curriculum look like?

The Draft Consultation Document for English K-10 curriculum is organised around three interrelated strands. The draft document describes them as follows:

Language: The Language strand involves the development of a coherent, dynamic and evolving body of knowledge about the English language and how it works.

Literature: Students learn to interpret, appreciate, evaluate and create literary texts such as narrative, poetry, prose, plays, film and multimodal texts, in spoken, print and digital/online contexts,

Literacy: Students apply their English skills and knowledge to read, view, speak, listen to, write and create a growing repertoire of texts.

The document commences with a brief half-page rationale and then an even smaller section on aims preface the content descriptions. This is then followed by a brief paragraph description of the three strands and short statements and introductions to the achievement standards, what is meant by texts, grammar, spelling, handwriting, English as an additional language dialect, general capabilities expected, and cross curricula activities.

The major part of the document consists of the Content Descriptions organised by grade (Kindergarten to Grade 10) and within the three strands (language, literature, literacy) and the Achievement Standards.

2. Some Things I like about the Draft

a) The place of literature - One of the best things about the draft curriculum is that it has identified literature as worthy of its own strand. Readers of this blog will appreciate why I see this as so important. While literacy is very much a multimodal activity today, with varied online forms of literacy and increased emphasis on images on video and film, literature is still vital. As I have outlined previously (here) narrative has special significance and literature is a key way for children to learn about language and the world (here & here).

b) An emphasis on language - Having a special strand for language is good, although as I will comment below the current language section is a little limited (see below). Language must never become just an object of study (although close study of language is important). As Michael Halliday taught us, we need to recognise that children need to learn language, learn through language and learn about language. It's good, for example, to see greater emphasis on grammar (as one aspect of language), but the way it is included in the content descriptions is problematic (see below).

c) Content descriptions are generally good  - They are reflective of what teachers do in classrooms, and seem overall to be age appropriate, although there are issues with sequencing across the grades (see below). The Achievement Standards are also generally consistent with common practice. Some teachers will struggle to apply grade rather than stage standards but parents want grade level standards.

d) Elaborations - I liked the elaborations that gave added depth to the curriculum and enabled the content descriptions to be understandable, frankly without them some content is less meaningful. For example, in the Literature strand of the Kindergarten content descriptions we read under the heading 'Recognise and Responding' that our programs might encourage children to "Recognise and respond to familiar literary texts". This doesn't mean much until the 'Elaborations' are added:
  • accessing a range of texts to listen to, read, view and browse independently
  • choosing and revisiting texts
  • explaining preferences for texts
  • bringing favourite texts from home to share and discuss, including texts from their own culture
  • recognising familiar texts. This may include oral traditions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples represented in art forms (eg dot paintings).
3. Things that are problematic

I have a variety of concerns with the draft curriculum but these are the most significant ones:

a) An inadequate rationale - While the Curriculum has a rationale and assumes that various State syllabus documents will sit beneath it and will offer much practical guidance and direction, the curriculum lacks an adequate description of teaching and learning. This is imperative to ensure that the implementation of the curriculum is done well. As the document stands it has an implied pedagogy that might well be misinterpreted as a fragmented curriculum based on 3 separate strands, each with many separate elements to be taught. This is in contrast to what we should be communicating; that is, while English has three strands, we must not lose sight of its integrated nature. The elaborations do not have this same implied pedagogy and are much richer in their interpretation of what English is. I'd like to see a simple (and strong) introduction to the curriculum that stresses that language is not simply a set of discrete strands that can be taught in decontextualised ways. Grammar, for example is not taught well as a series of isolated activities. Rather, grammar is best acquired as children use language in all its forms and as teachers give direction and content that helps them to understand how the English language works.

b) Lack of attention to creativity - While there is brief mention in the 'General Capabilities' section at the introduction to the Curriculum, and the non-mandatory elaborations show evidence of the importance of creativity and imagination, it is lacking in the content descriptions and the rationale.

c) Lack of recognition of first-hand experience - The curriculum content also fails to recognise that first-hand experience has significant power to stimulate learning, especially with the young. Experience stimulates language use and at the same time provides real purposes for learning.

d) Emphasis on enjoyment and love of language - Children need to love learning and see English language as more than just a tool. There is a lack of emphasis in the content descriptions on enjoyment, loving literature, playing with language, experimentation etc.   While it is more evident in the elaborations these are not a mandated part of the curriculum.

e) A lack of evidence of purpose and audience - Literacy has a number of important purposes (e.g. learning, communication, enjoyment and expression) and is used with varied audiences in mind (e.g. self, teachers, examiners, friends, employers etc). All these need to be seen and stressed in the curriculum content. To allow purpose and audience to be submerged in a curriculum is to run the risk that English will be used and taught as an isolated school subject disconnected from wider learning. If this happens, children end up simply 'learning about language', rather than being active language users 'learning through language' and applying it for varied real life purposes.

f) There is a lack of sequence across the grades - The curriculum content lacks a consistent sequence across the grades. The writers need to trace every content description across the grades to make sure that the progression is logical and consistent with what we know about children's development. As a simple test, readers might try to track (for example) 'listening and talking', 'Writing' and 'Reading' in the respective strands of Language, Literature and Literacy across the grades. You will find that at times these disappear in specific grades, or that there is inappropriate progression. This aspect of the curriculum needs a lot of work.

g) The language section is very passive and fragmented - There are at least two problems in the language section. First, in listing all elements of grammar in this section it might well imply that it needs to be taught as a series of lessons rather than in the context of language use. Second, the description of language elements fails to tap the important integration of language and its power to amuse, challenge. rebuke, hurt, express love, ridicule and so on. Language teaching should be more than simply isolated elements of instruction in grammar, vocabulary, phonics and word knowledge and text structure as the content descriptions suggest.  While I'm not suggesting that the writers of the Curriculum are suggesting this, the way the content is described could well be interpreted in this way. Once again, the 'elaborations' help but they aren't mandatory!

h) Cultural Diversity - The Curriculum Rationale makes the statement that it "places an emphasis on understanding the cultures of Asia". This seems muddle-headed to me. While Asia is important to Australia and many immigrants have become citizens after arriving from Asia, surely our aim should be to encourage our children to have a broad understanding of the whole world and its people and cultures. They also need to have tolerance and understanding of all the ethnic groups who have joined us and a special understanding of our British and Indigenous foundations of Australian culture.

4. In Conclusion

Overall, I feel that the curriculum writers have done a reasonable job within the constraints that they have been given. With further revision and the linking of existing state syllabi, teachers will find the curriculum to be workable.

5. How can you comment on the Curriculum?

If you'd like to comment on the curriculum you need to go to the ACARA website (before the 23rd May 2010), register, explore the curriculum and then respond.

No comments: