Friday, 20 October 2006

The National Curriculum debate: A call from the Boomer generation

The wailing and gnashing of teeth by labor state governments and their education departments belies the historical fact that previous governments of such persuasions and their respective departments, have struggled to achieve a national curriculum themselves.

The present clarion call against Federal Education Minister Bishop’s national curriculum push is shallow politicizing and is in no way grounded in rational education debate.

In June 1986 the Australian Education Council (AEC) called for a national collaborative effort in curriculum development in order to:
(a) maximise the positive effects of the nation's scarce curriculum development resources and
(b) minimise unnecessary differences in curricula from State to State.

After all, through what logic do we accommodate eight different curricula. If the case were Singapore, not a person would believe it otherwise than ludicrous.

But the AEC's 1993 decision not to endorse a national curriculum framework which it had developed over the period 1989-1993 left the impression, in some quarters, that a major education opportunity had been lost purely on political, as opposed to educational, grounds.

Regarding that decision, the Prime Minister of Australia at the time, Paul Keating, was reported as saying that the move to abandon work on a national curriculum ‘was one of the most depressing outcomes ever of Commonwealth State meetings .... If we can't even give our kids a national curriculum after five years of work on this by the Commonwealth and States ... then you do wonder if we can get to anywhere cooperatively' (The Australian, July 6, 1993).

In Darwin in July 1989 South Australia's Associate-Director General of Education, Curriculum Garth Boomer, who has been described as ‘perhaps Australia's most creative curriculum expert', gave a remarkably frank keynote address to a national joint conference of the Australian Reading Association and the Australian Association for the Teaching of English. [Before his SA appointment he had been based in Canberra as Director of the Curriculum Development Centre and Chair of the Commonwealth Schools Commission].

Boomer became an unlikely, but extremely articulate, spokesperson for a national curriculum. Boomer experienced a personal struggle over the period 1989-1992 to balance his ‘progressive’ education tendencies, developed over many years, with his uncomfortable feeling that the rhetoric and practices of ‘progressivism’ had not delivered the goods. He became concerned that classroom teaching had not changed enough, and that needed gains with respect to equity considerations in education had not been achieved.

He admitted that although he was unhappy with what he found himself accepting, he had a growing belief that ‘such progressives, admirable though they may be in many respects, may be holding back the powerful growth of literacy in an increasingly harsh world', that they might be like the philosopher/astronomer who, with his eyes fixed on the stars, ‘seduced himself into a ditch'.

He admitted to having to confront the depressing evidence that despite the rhetoric and courses and good intentions, no substantial gains in teaching literacy to children from a range of circumstances, if one key indicator of success was completion of a full 12 years of schooling, had been made.

Immediately following this statement, Boomer, who would become Chair of the Australasian Cooperative Assessment Program, indicated that he had come to believe that what was needed was a ‘standards-referenced' approach, which would require the development of books of examples of performance ‘set in context, arranged according to adjudged levels of performance'.

Boomer admitted that it was not enough for teachers to merely affirm uncritically their students' histories, experiences and stories, and that to take student voices at face value was to run the risk of idealising and romanticising them.

So, Boomer said that it was for reasons of equity and social justice, for economic/political reasons and for educational reasons that he had been gradually developing a critique of the progressivism which many had worked to promote.

In 1989 Boomer admitted to having modified his views, justifying his change to his capacity ‘to be self-critical'. ‘To learn is to move on', he said, ‘to change, to overthrow what once we believed'.

Similarly, it is time for much lesser lights in the curriculum arena to move on and be self critical, sufficient to ensure an objective debate on the merits of, and possible framing of, a national curriculum. And that debate must now include the community. The development of curricula that intones what our children will learn, and how it shall be taught, is far too important to be left solely in the hands of teachers.

Wendy Engliss, Senior Years Curriculum Superintendent in South Australia’s Education Department, said that the current SA curriculum framework was designed ‘by teachers for teachers’ (“Curriculum chiefs hit back at ‘misinformed’ Bishop”, The Advertiser October 7 2006). That is indeed the problem. It should be designed by curriculum designers, based on community input and aspiration, for teachers to teach to our children.

The teacher’s unions of course sway in the political breeze like reeds on the river bank. While signaling abhorrence to a national curriculum in recent times, in 1993 they and the Federal Labor Government agreed to build support for the national curriculum concept into enterprise agreements. The Government at that time also moved to provide funding to professional associations which would support the national curriculum thrust. Some unions and professional associations accepted the Federal Labor offer of substantial additional funding in return for their advocacy of the nationally-developed curriculum.

Boomer insisted that it was in the interests of children that Australian society debated what constituted essential knowledge to which all Australian children were entitled and he deplored the idea that what children learned at school should be decided by a ‘Russian Roulette kind of offering of content'.

Boomer was right, and we should take heed of the advice of the last genuine curriculum guru, certainly in South Australia if not nationally.