The curriculum for public confidence

I was the first person in my family to finish secondary school. My father had left school at 12, because he was needed on the farm. My mother left formal school even earlier because of a death and disruption in the family. In neither case were the decisions made about their education considered odd or unsympathetic. Education, at the time when my parents were doing it, was not the answer to the future.

By the time I started school in 1952, all that had changed. I was part of the first period in which Australians almost universally believed that education held the future. Despite the family's educational history, there was never a question about my future: I would finish school and go on to university. My experience demonstrates the great faith of Australians after the war, that education is the answer to most of our questions. My parents were part of the first generation to feel that their children would stand or fall by the quality of the education they received. They saw my education as an investment in the future. Children with an education would have access to jobs and to a full and rewarding life. They would be safe and protected. They would be winners. Education was the new means by which the common people could expect to change their circumstances.

However, increasingly throughout that period, the terms of the educational offer changed. There was a sharp divergence, starting during the 70s, between professional and public understanding of the educational offer. When educators spoke, the public's eyes glazed over. Our rhetoric was full of arcane language and secret business. It was during that period that the profession came to believe that education was no longer about filling up people's minds with a lot of stuff.


I remember from my Diploma in Education, and subsequently, lots of analogies based loosely on the jug and the mug, which is the most pervasive image of traditional education in the professional mind. The analogy sees the teacher as the wielder of the jug, and the student as the mug, the recipient of the contents. In this bad old model of education, the teacher stood over the student pouring knowledge into the student's head, and occasionally splashing it over the student's shoulders. This was taken to be an extremely bad thing, and shortly before my Dip Ed year at La Trobe University had apparently been replaced with a greatly improved new model in which the teacher and the student sat around the jug and discussed it, or wrestled for control of it, or kicked it over in a display of class solidarity. Everyone was very excited about this new model and we students of teaching spent most of the year chatting about it, when we weren't drawing up manifestos for a democratic revolution or going to the football.

This challenge to the control of the teacher was closely related to other changes in the status of authority figures. At about the same time, Roland Barthes was gloating over the dying body of the author, while a number of theologians had a little earlier disposed of God in a bloodless coup. The fuss was about knowledge. That was what filled the jug wielded by the teacher. That was what the author had, and had to be dispossessed of. That was what God represented. Somehow, whie we weren't watching, knowledge became a bad thing. It was erased from the educational offer, or at least reduced substantially in importance. Knowledge became identified among the leaders of the the teaching profession as a badge of privilege, a way of reinforcing social inequality. Knowledge was the carrier of power relationships. In the place of knowledge we substituted process. What mattered was that students investigated, explored, constructed their own understanding of the world. The content of those investigations was not what counted.

But the users of education, parents and students, were unaware that the fine print had changed. They were still expecting, and still expect today, that education should result in greater knowledge, while the providers of education hold a rather different view about the outcomes of education. (If not knowledge, then what?)

Thanks to Sharyn Raggett

There are many reasons why we have seen a decline in public confidence in schooling, and notably in public schooling. This article will not address most of them. But in the area of curriculum, we lost the public when we decided that something other than knowledge was the purpose of education.

This is not to suggest that ‘knowledge' is an unproblematic category. It is almost as contested, uncertain and various as its most vehement critics think. It needs rescuing from a conception best exemplified in Thomas Gradgrind, the evil philistine teacher in Dickens' Hard Times. It has been used as a rallying cry by educationally conservative commentators to propose a return to an imagined golden age, when everyone who mattered knew Latin.

What is needed is an educationally sophisticated conception of knowledge , one which recognises the complex nature of the idea, but does not bury it so deeply in the arcane dialect spoken by curriculum people that ordinary punters lose their way. We need a curriculum which is explicit about what we want students to learn, but which does not pretend that knowledge is inert. The study of history is, as its critics in education argue, largely the study of how contemporary power and social relationships came to be. This is not a reason to be squeamish about studying it, but nor is it an argument for treating the writings of historians as simple truth. If the curriculum is to play its part in regenerating public confidence in education, and especially in public education, then we need to change the way it is developed, presented and promoted. Curriculum should be the means by which we explain the purposes of education to its users.

There are four changes which would probably make a significant difference to public confidence.

Firstly, we should have one curriculum in Australia rather than some indeterminate number. A curriculum which was developed nationally would not in itself dramatically change public understanding: many people think we already have a national curriculum. It would, however, give us the chance to put an appropriate level of resources into developing the best curriculum we can, rather than scattering our efforts. The work should be undertaken by an agency independent of, but responsive to, those who presently manage education systems. This will help ensure that the work is designed to meet educational needs rather than political exigencies, and avoids the cluttered and opaque theoretical foundations which afflict many current curriculum documents.

Secondly, we should write our curriculum in English. No Australian curriculum document at present is comprehensible to a lay reader. We should aim for documents which are simple, explicit, and designed to be read and understood by interested parents. This approach has a number of advantages, beyond making our intentions clear to the users of education. It would assist teachers, who are mostly obliged to use official curriculum documents, to understand what we expect of them. It would enable the documents to be used in support of education rather than, as at present, as evidence of our failure. Finally, it would provide a practical illustration of the benefits of education, demonstrating that as educated individuals we can write something which is accessible to a non-expert reader.

Thirdly, we should fill those documents with explicit statements of the knowledge which we intend to impart to young people. We should base these statements on the disciplines, which represent the most powerful ways yet devised of understanding the world. Our purpose should be to teach young Australians their history and geography, introducing them to the artistic, scientific, cultural, moral and linguistic traditions which should sustain them. Our aim should be to guarantee every child a framework of knowledge which can provide a foundation point from which to comprehend and gain power over the world. Most Australian curriculum at present offers a mass of ill-digested competing frameworks, which complicate the documents and bury the really important things beneath a heap of someone's good ideas.

And fourthly, we should make the documents brief. We can do this by avoiding turgid and impenetrable introductions, lengthy lectures about teaching and extended riffs on a range of overlapping frameworks. Most obviously, we can do it by including less stuff. Australian curriculum documents characteristically cover a stupendous amount of content, because they are written not from the perspective of a user (teacher, parent, student) but of a provider. The curriculum cabbala has gained such a monopoly of its black art that no-one is prepared to admit that we can say all we need to say about English in a dozen pages, leaving nothing much for a lot of curriculum developers to do with their time. The formal curriculum could usefully cover about 20% of what is usually covered in existing curriculum documents. This would have the valuable side-benefit of enabling teachers to teach that content in depth. It would also allow schools to add a limited amount of additional material to cater for local differences.

I do not claim that these changes would restore public confidence in schooling. They would, however, make the curriculum a tool for restoring confidence rather than a club to beat it to death.

The Centre for Policy Development welcomes your thoughts, criticisms and suggestions on the following policy proposals:

  • Engage an independent agency to compose a single national curriculum.
  • Ensure that the national curriculum is written in clear and concise terms so that all users can understand it and includes explicit statements of the knowledge which we intend to impart to young people .
  • Condense curriculum documents to approximately 20 per cent of their current size.
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