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Education in a post-WikiLeaks world


Student, eyes on the skyLast week, Federal, State and Territory Education Ministers endorsed the new Australian Curriculum for English, mathematics, science and history up to Year 10. Achievement standards are to be 'validated and adjusted' by October 2011, with the Curriculum 'substantially implemented' by 2013. 

The process has stirred passionate debate among educators, academics and politicians. The education ministers' endorsement is not without dissent, with Verity Firth (NSW) and Liz Constable (Western Australia) articulating reservations about the Curriculum in its current form. The Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority has received over 26,000 submissions which mostly argue that it is 'overcrowded.'  

The school curriculum is a highly contested area of education and has always been. Everybody has an opinion on what should be taught and how much of it should be covered. The opinion varies according to conceptions of the purpose of schooling. 

To put it simplistically, there are two broad camps. The first camp prioritises post-school employability and national competitiveness in a global economy. It is concerned with both fundamental and high-order skills in areas such as reading, writing, problem-solving and the use of technology. These primarily involve English, mathematics and science.  

The second camp favours a holistic, liberal and formative approach to education. It gives weight to subjects that develop a sense of identity, community and citizenship such as visual arts, drama, music, religious education and history.  

In the end, the ideal lies in the confluence of both. After all, it is not enough to be literate and numerate if one has no sense of justice. Nor is it enough to be creative if one is unable to articulate the choices made in creating. More importantly, an enlightened society upholds that its young people are more than just future workers; they are human beings first. 

Unfortunately, it is easier to generate data for the knowledge and skills that we expect of future workers. This leads to inordinate attention being paid to literacy and numeracy, and partly explains why NAPLAN and MySchool have taken hostage of the discourse on education. While no one disagrees that being able to read, write and calculate is important, there is nothing visionary about data-gathering. 

This is at the heart of the failure in the Rudd-Gillard 'education revolution'. It does not inspire. Even supporters of a national curriculum have been disappointed that, rather than presenting a coherent picture of the ideal 21st century citizen, it mostly prescribes an inordinate, unwieldy volume of knowledge for young people to imbibe.

Instead of overhauling what it means to be an educated person in a post-WikiLeaks world, the curriculum discourse remains predisposed towards consuming content rather than investigating or critiquing it.  

This is highlighted by the proposed history curriculum, which proposes a sequence of units for years 7 to 10 that encompasses history from the time of the earliest human communities to the end of the Ancient period, to the beginning of the Modern period, up to the present. That is, from 60,000 BC onwards. 

In itself, there is nothing wrong with such a syllabus — we accept that world history is our common heritage and that learning the past broadens our perspective. However, the 'back to front' approach often invites questions from students about relevance, and they are entitled to ask those pesky questions. As cohort after cohort forgets the names of ancient gods by the time summer rolls in, curriculum designers insist on ignoring the challenge of enabling students to connect the present to the past.  

With the 24-hour news cycle and 140-character bulletins reducing reality to the most context-free, background-weak understanding of events, would it not be more empowering for future adults to be able to trace back to historical roots of conflict? Would this not insulate them from media spin and ultimately enable them to treat history as a living, breathing thing that they can actively shape?  

Whose truth prevails, to what extent it is true, who gets to tell it, and what the telling of it implies — these are questions that young people should learn to ask. They are inherently provocative because they are political. The answers expose the prevailing political agenda and social mood, which facilitate the inclusion and omission of parts of the truth.   

Some would argue, for example, that the teaching of Australian history has largely ignored the role of religious orders in pioneering the Australian bush and shaping its regional areas. The role of Christians in protecting Jews and resisting the Nazis during World War II has been similarly undervalued.  

While secularists might point out that spending class time on these aspects is tantamount to proselytising, such facets of human struggle should not be treated as dispensable sub-plots to the main narrative. When they are, we fail to uphold examples of our better nature. It is important for the average teenager, overwhelmed by her first encounter with the horrors of the Holocaust, to feel encouraged that there were good people who risked and sacrificed their lives to do the right thing. 

This is where teaching moments truly lie, when young people make that internal shift from learning for the sake of it, as if one were a vessel to be filled, toward learning in order to better engage with the world — as a human being, not just a worker. Curriculum design that hampers this movement is not only inadequate but lacks soul.  


Fatima MeashamFatima Measham is a state school teacher in Victoria. 

Topic tags: Fatima Measham, National Curriculum, WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, history written by the winners



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Existing comments

Thank you Fatima. You demonstrate how valuable our humane school teachers are and what great responsibility they bear for inculcating the highest values in our society. With more teachers with your ideals, Australia can be a leader in global education

Ray O'Donoghue | 15 December 2010  

Fatima, the history curriculum actually does what you say it does not - it does not just encourage knowledge, it also quite explicitly requires students to critically analyse information and evidence and achieve what you say it should. Why are you misrepresenting the curriculum in this way to make this point? Whether it achieves its aims or not is not really up to the curriculum - it is up to teachers and how they implement it.

Robert Lewis | 15 December 2010  

Thank you, Fatima, for bringing up for discussion the two main approaches to school education ie employability versus holistic and formative. In the last fifty years, Western Society schooling has been more and more heavily weighted in favour of the former. I have been waiting for a long time to see a better balance emerge for our children. No wonder young people are disillusioned - nothing to aim for but 'good money in a good job.' Not enough for the idealism that characterises youth. To be able to contribute to and change society for the better - now there is a high goal to aim for, especially if we have been formed in values that promote justice for all, as well as being trained in the skills necessary to become involved.

Helga Jones | 15 December 2010  

In response to Robert Lewis and in defence of Fatima, as someone who has children in our state school system (private fares no better I suspect), I have noticed that the best teachers encourage those questions about the 'facts' but these teachers are not a reflection of the system but rather an exception. The adoption of a largely substandard US approach and the mere presence of NAPLAN and MySchool are enough to support Fatima's claims. Fatima is also correct to link the productive emphasis on mathematics science and English with the apparently non-productive arts, because it is the creative deployment and critique of the 'hard facts', and not their mindless consumption that drives this speeding car called capitalism. The leaking of 'classified' documents is a way the ordinary citizen can get access to a critique of the clean and convenient historical narrative dished up to those who have apparently been 'educated' by our 'revolutionary' system. How clever of Rudd and Gillard to use the language of revolution to support the entrenchment of conformity to the law of capital. Three cheers! Good analysis Fatima.

david akenson | 15 December 2010  

Thanks, Robert. I take your point that the curriculum is inquiry-based in language, but if one looks, for instance, at the Year 8 structure, the coverage is both so expansive and discrete that it could actually inhibit meaningful investigation. It expects a 13/14-year old to learn in a year "the transformation of the Roman world and the spread of Christianity and Islam, key features of the medieval world (feudalism, trade routes, voyages of discovery, contact and conflict), and the emergence of ideas about the world and the place of people in it by the end of the period (such as the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment)". These by the way are "not intended to be taught in depth", but can be integrated with one elective each under three "depth studies": "The Western and Islamic World", "The Asia-Pacific World" and "Expanding Contacts". I also take your point that it is up to the teachers to devise ways to implement the curriculum, and as David says, good teachers do so imaginatively. But if curriculum design does not lead to wholesale changes in teaching practice (for the better), then why pour resources into nationalising it?

Fatima Measham | 15 December 2010  

Thank you Fatima. You have pinpointed an important lack in the new curriculum, and probably in the ideas that are guiding our country through our parliamentarians. For many years our universities have ceased to be what they purport to be institutions which encourage and understanding of life as a whole and become the tools of business. As a country we need our people to be inspired afresh with a vision of what it means to be human

jean Sietzema-Dickson | 16 December 2010