Is the Nat’Curric’ doomed?

Attempts to unify the multiple state and territory based curricula into a single Australian National Curriculum (NC) have been growing in scope, determination and urgency. Previous attempts have failed, although with small concessions to agreement of a requirement for a unified approach. There have been a number of points of failure, including; no clearly articulated rationale, purpose or philosophical reference point and no rationale or articulated view of curriculum. The current Rudd government was elected to power with promise of revolution within education, notably digital education revolution (DER). At the time of writing, both the DER and the NC are funded and progressing.  It is the contention in this paper that the current NC bid will fail once again through a lack of consideration for past failures, but the DER could and should be informing the NC process at the level of revolutionising its structure and focus. The present attempt at a national curriculum is a watered down conciliatory effort, but with acknowledgment of the position of Australia in the global context and acceptance of the importance and rapid rise of digital connectivity it could be a genuine revolution and major win for Australian school children.

Production of a National Curriculum
In 1900 when the constitution was ratified by the British parliament, Australia was both nationally and physically different from Australia today; it even sits within a world completely different. Back then, geographical and political conditions effectively made each colony a separate country. The ratification of the Australian Constitution and the existing situation of each ‘state’ having its own educational control, which merely ratified what had been happening since the 1870s, meant that state controlled education was appropriate; then. Increasing population, greater countrywide coverage, quick convenient and inexpensive transportation systems, instantaneous communication systems and the breaking down of temporal and physical barriers render present Australia a completely different situation. Constitutionally each state is still not required nor compelled to consider itself part of a ‘United states of Australia’ proposition, but nationally, a need to promote Australia and its global position means, more than ever, cooperation, and collaboration is needed.

Australia currently has eight different educational bodies, eight unconnected assessment systems, thousands of employees effectively reproducing very similar material and collectively they cost over $100 million dollars annually.  Students start and finish at different ages in different states, transfer from junior school, into secondary education at different points, use or do not use middle school, sit different exams to qualify for equal university attendance and receive different certificates of completion.

In the same manner that brought disparate rail gauges to a single standard so must we now have a unified education system.  It will be vital that construction of a national curriculum does not follow the rail methodology.  While there were technical and financial improvements and removal of duplication of work, after the rail system became a single gauge, it still only supported trains. Trains before, trains after, trains still.

Reducing the national curriculum project to a single lowest common denominator as a means to reduce duplication and costs is the least important consideration.  The individual systems must not be cobbled together into a single unit, via carrot and stick politics, but need to unite in a genuine effort to offer a 21st century opportunity to the current generation.  It must remain sufficiently flexible and dynamic to accommodate the rapid changes now occurring as a result of technological advances.

“Undoubtedly, knowledge intensive economies will be the most prosperous of the future. Australia must therefore invest more in human capital and achieve better educational outcomes… and remain competitive in the global economy.” (Gillard, 2008b)

Global issues make individual state based structures more and more colonial and if Australia is to become a knowledge society, a whole of Australia approach is required.

At this point it is worth examining the concept of curriculum. It is more than the current discussion gives allowance for.  In spite of the notion that “Teachers should not seek a definition of curriculum, because there is no such ‘elixir’”, (Sockett, 1976), a working definition will support the remainder of the discussions. Curriculum is a multifaceted consideration, including at least;

Pedagogy – the actual teaching and learning activities within each individual setting, be that classroom, department, or whole school.
Assessment – the current systems for measuring the success of the pedagogical approach when covering…
Syllabus – content and subject matter; the actual knowledge, skills and attitudes stipulated for study.

The pedagogy element is each school’s ‘out’ to design everyday tasks within individual classrooms so as to cater for situational considerations. There is no expectation that an inner city classroom will be sufficiently like a remote outback classroom that the same approach is suitable, but the common core of knowledge and the common expectation of capability upon graduation is, and should be.  All players now operate within a global economy that is an increasingly Flat-Earth.

Syllabus construction is the current focus of the National Curriculum Board (NCB). Their approach is to develop frameworks around which content can be written. And it’s being done in the traditional teaching systems of the past, and sadly the current. This traditional approach; as adopted by similar national curriculum developments overseas will see the maintaining of the current subject hierarchy; Mathematics and Science at the top, followed by Languages and Humanities then anything artistic. Children are educated progressively towards the head and slightly to the left, (Robinson, 2006).  Siloed, delimited, senior school focussed and very much a maintenance of school structure developed for an industrial era.

Problems with the driving forces behind the National Curriculum
Improved learning outcomes – A National Curriculum won’t necessarily achieve this, particularly if the resultant amalgamation is nothing more than a cherry pick of the existing syllabus documents. The inherent flexibility within pedagogy would leave room for teaching towards the test, resulting in no major educational revolution.  It is suggested (Reid, 2005) that a failure to articulate a view of curriculum, one of the fundamental driving forces in curriculum development, is responsible for past failures and it appears to be a likely determinant in the failure of this initiative. This is despite being offered just such an opportunity by the parallel development of the Digital Education Revolution (DER).

Past attempts at National Curriculum development.
Late in the 1960s Australia saw an increase in the Commonwealth Government’s level of interest in curriculum issues, and in 1973 established the Commonwealth School Commission, initially focusing on facilities building, but by 1974 had projects running in many subject areas via the Curriculum Development Council and Center. Resource material was produced by both the Social Education Materials Project (SEMP) and Australian Science Education Project (ASEP), but this was more about removing duplication of resources rather than any challenge to the State’s authority.  Less a curriculum initiative more a resource and syllabus initiative.

In January 1986 the labour Government (under Robert Hawke) established the Australian Education Council. This was a body comprising all the state education ministers.  One of their key discussion issues was to maximise national curriculum resources and reduce curricula differences. The notion of a national curriculum, by concept, was thus proposed.  Further work was carried out from 1989 – 1993 resulting in “The Hobart Declaration of Schooling” during 1998 by the AEC. This was a set of goals (ten) moving beyond simple syllabus sharing into “commitment to improving Australian Schooling within a framework of national collaboration” (Ministerial Council on Education, 1989)

Not this declaration, nor its successors, the Melbourne and Adelaide declarations, were a nationally agreed to curriculum and nor did they lead to one. Constitutionally no state is obliged to adopt a single approach, and collectively the resultant product would, at the time, have been little more than a dumbed down set of standards, being the “lowest common denominator…” which would “not serve Australia well in the 21st century” (Reid, 2005).

Current state of play
Efforts to speed the development and ratification of a true national curriculum were accelerated in 2008 by the newly elected Rudd Government, under the Education Minister, Julia Gillard. February 2008 saw 13 members of the new National Curriculum Board appointed and set the task of producing “a rigorous, world-class national curriculum for all Australian students from kindergarten to Year 12”.  Contrary to the Reid assertion that to cherry pick syllabus documents results only in a lowest common denominator, their task appears to be to “draw together the best programs from each State and Territory into a single curriculum” (Gillard, 2008a).

While the endeavours and intentions might be considered earnest and right, the value and importance of the proposed National Curriculum is impossible to overstate.  Yet early indications are that it is to be another failed attempt, by not considering the failures of past attempts. On a merely practical level the implementation time line seems set to obstruct rather than support a development, from framework construction in late 2008 with intention to pilot in 2010 for implementation in 2011.  Clearly there is insufficient time to appropriately test across all stipulated academic years for K-10, or even starting with K-1.  To write with sufficient consultation and re-write as a result of discovered anomalies and delivery issues is next to impossible.

The current ‘old’ factors of development have simply been put back in place – the focus is on educating only for producing tertiary students – and only in the traditionally segmented subject areas, and only for those in the upper end of the hierarchy (Maths Science, Languages). There is barely consideration for alternative subjects and none for branching into artisans’ territory, nor any merit given to more desperately needed updated subjects.

The process has been poorly (deliberately(?)) funded, kept only to a small inner group and each of the inner group can be considered to have agendas focussed on keeping the status quo, rather than make leaps of faith required for major progress. This focus seems to be in spite of today’s student requiring a completely different educational experience from those in place and those of the past (Eisner, 2000; Reid, 2005).

“Today’s students are no longer the people our educational system was designed to teach.” (Prensky, 2001).

No overriding rationale for development has been proposed. Apart from general motherhood statements about being future flexible, there isn’t a compelling and purposeful consideration of the current and future generations of students’ requirements. Additionally there is no recognition of the equally developing Digital Education Revolution or the requirements of students to compete on a communication rich global platform.  The Digital Education Revolution is barely paid lip service with a generic statement;

“Rapid and continuing advances in information and communication technologies (ICT) are changing the way we share, use, develop and process information and technology” and the “need to make a quantum leap in this effectiveness over the next decade”.

This is vital for a number of reasons.
Nationally, education is the number one services export. Growth in this sector is over 23% per annum making it larger than tourism in a combined services export value that is a contributor to GDP to the tune of over 4% ($14.2 billion), (AEI, 2008). The offshoot of this export is a retaining of skilled and highly motivated workers as part of the Australian population; employment within the education sector; and an international reputation as a provider of educational services, perhaps a return to the status of “the clever country”.

The time is ripe for a change. The capability of the existing educational system is at capacity. Teaching staff are constantly being bombarded with more and more things to teach in no additional time and with the same old support. The paradigm of classrooms with allotted time slots of sharply delineated subject matter and printed materials for learning is at saturation point. The finished product – a student prepared for further tertiary education is no longer a sufficiently viable proposition. The challenge will be to develop a capacity (in the same concept of Web 2.0) within schools to be a School 2.0; more interactive, more customer pertinent and participatory, more focussed on development of creativity in using fundamental knowledge and learning.

What can be done?
As stated earlier, curriculum is a synergy of three elements, and the learning experience of each student is shaped by all three.  A national curriculum focussed only on the development of syllabus documents, no matter how successful and nationally ratified is only going to see the effectiveness eroded by the subtleties of pedagogic freedom. After all “The school as an institution is more likely to change the incoming message than the message the institution” (Eisner, 2000).  This renders the efforts even less than the lowest common denominator and ranks it among the considered but ignored. The individual elements will be driven by the final assessment as schools continue to teach towards the test in a market driven desire to remain valid to their customers. The Australian public (parents) are increasingly seeing schools as a service provider rather than a partnership in the education of children. Results and return on investment have become an uppermost consideration.

A potential solution is to return to the Reid stipulations that for a success, the NCB must consider:
• a clearly articulated rationale, purposes and philosophical reference points
• a theorized and articulated view of curriculum
• a strong research and conceptual base
• a recognition of the political realities produced by the Australian Federal system

Can this be done in the current climate? A Government sponsored project is already underway to address almost all the issues, make genuine educational reform, and meet all the requirements to unite and singly focus every state system into a unified whole.

The Digital Education Revolution.
This initiative is currently far better funded than the NC project. These are not necessarily articulated by political ministers, but by practitioners in the fields of ICT education. It supports articulated and theorized curriculum views philosophical reference points and supports major changes and advances regardless of subject, for both the academic stream and artisan stream.
Considerable research has been conducted and continues to be conducted in this field, and it has support from grass roots academia through to populist consumer opinions.
Education through technology has been in place for over 20 years with a growing professional community, has a constituency of support among teachers and in light of the massive funding and policy support from Federal Government meets increasingly with political and practical reality.

Time to change.
The Australian constitution, as ratified by parliament in 1900 granting the States educational autonomy was appropriate back then. The current climate of globalisation, constant connection, and flat-earth thinking makes this no longer viable as an overall approach. Many functional areas in the management of education systems can remain with local authorities, where speed of delivery and flexibility and responsiveness to cater to local requirements should remain. Major areas of, certification, assessment and syllabus construction should be consolidated. The new curriculum must be less a reconciliation of current curriculum statements and much more a profound shift in thinking and acknowledgement that the education we are familiar with is outmoded and inadequate for the students now entering compulsory education.

What might serve as a unifying factor to progress the National Curriculum?
The affordances of the digital education revolution and the associated ICTs permit a common focus for curriculum restructure. This section will present potential solutions to the shortcomings as noted by Reid (2005), showing they can be successfully overcome and dealt with by adopting a “Nouvelle Comprehension” (Treadwell, 2008) approach when developing a National Curriculum.

Production of a Digital Education Revolution
“An education revolution in this country will only be possible if we are able to harness the transformative power of information and communication technology (ICT) in our schools.” (Gillard, 2008b)

The national curriculum initiative and the digital education revolution are proceeding with full government support; in parallel. Apart from a tenuous link in the guidelines for the national curriculum development about consideration for ICT initiatives, the two processes are poorly informing the other. For example, scant reference within the “Construction of the National Curriculum” is paid in acknowledgement of the changes of the past 20 years:

“Rapid and continuing advances in information and communications technologies are changing the way we share, use, develop and process information and technology, and there has to be a massive shift in power…” (Ministerial Council on Education, September, 2008)

Clearly articulated rationale, purposes and philosophical reference points
The purpose of school?
“…it is blandness; that’s right, the purpose of education appears to be to take a totally unique individual and turn them in an androgynous global citizen … who will contribute to the ongoing status quo and respond to almost anything with the one word summary of their frustrations “whatever!”” (Treadwell, 2008).

Without doubt, good individual teachers have found ways around such blandness and are performing wonders within their own classrooms. Nationally speaking, the Australian education system is very similar to New Zealand’s, described here by Treadwell. In fact it is put a little more strongly by Gilbert (2005) and Toffler (2007),

“Our schools as industrial-aged institutions, are set up to produce clones-conformist rule-following copies, who faithfully reproduce what is given to them. However we are not at a point in history where the balance of nature of our past is being seriously disrupted.” (Gilbert, 2005).

“Teachers are wonderful, and there are hundreds of thousands of them who are creative and terrific, but they are operating in a system that is completely out of time. It is a system designed to produce industrial workers.” (Toffler, 2007)

This is happening in an era where the world is now, for communications and easy travel sake, considerable as being flat (Friedman, 2005). Disparate independent systems are no longer applicable. Certainly the knowledge economy of the near future requires a more determined approach in order to meet the demand that will be placed on workers competing in a global situation.

“Undoubtedly, knowledge intensive economies will be the most prosperous economies of the future. Australia must therefore invest more in human capital and achieve better educational outcomes if we are to maintain our prosperity and remain competitive in the global economy.” (Gillard, J. 2008)

It is time to make change, our current educational system has reached capability saturation point, and outlived the intentions of those who, in good faith, constructed it. The current printed book based paradigm can be expanded no further, a new internet/intranet connected system is needed (Diagram 1).  The capacity of students to learn sufficiently within the existing infrastructures is at limit.  The capacity of teaching staff to take on more and teach with less is also at a limit. The current methods of assessment are sufficient for separation of students ongoing to tertiary education and those not, but not much else.

Diagram 1: Summary of limitation of existing education structure and alternative paradigm for digital age, after (Treadwell, 2008)

The current structure of schooling and the limitations of Australia’s multiple curriculum structures are ripe to make way for a new paradigm; online connectivism. The internet has the capacity to provide almost unlimited information and resources in equally unlimited media formats with few temporal or physical barriers, particularly allowing for the vision of internet access planned for Australia:

“A Rudd Labor Government will revolutionise classroom education… providing Australian schools with fibre to the premises connections, which will deliver broadband speeds of up to 100 megabits per second.” (Rudd, Smith, & Conroy, 2007)

Australian education is in a position to re-shape from the printed book didactic paradigm, suited to the last 200 years, to a new constantly connected, student focussed, networked, teacher/mentor system. Historically speaking, subject specific work units are strung together, making some semblance of continuity, but maintained delineated focus entirely within subject.  Once each unit was ‘completed’ the next was brought on. Finish the unit on World War 1; move along to poetry; then into surds and fractions. Generally in 40 minute lots.

Any residual feeling of ICT inadequacy or frustration with ICT use in classrooms is the historical remainder of a situation where using computers were expensive, not connected, inefficient, geeky or simply an electronic alternative of existing methods. Now technology has moved on from this status, the capacity of students to utilise it has grown exponentially and teacher confidence is sufficiently high to exploit its use.

The affordances of the DER must be considered and inform the development of a national curriculum.

A theorized and articulated view of curriculum
Learning is increasingly conducted through Personal Learning Networks (PLNs), or Personal Learning Environments (PLEs) often referred to as social networks. While they are still in their infancy and currently the domain of early adopters, strong social networkers and computing ‘experts’, they are increasingly important to all learners (Attwell, 2006; Harmelen, 2006; Warlick, 2008). Such connections empower individual learners to evolve their connectedness to be personally specific; even within the construction of a collective situation as per classroom or subject.  Each learner constructs and adjusts their interactions and support based on their personal learning preferences – both consciously and subconsciously.

This premise is founded on the idea that no single person (teacher) can know everything and that knowledge can come from a broad range of sources and locations – other people – peers – internet sources – databases or libraries. This allows a new approach to the way students interact with and process knowledge (George Siemens, 2006). This capacity to gather and assemble knowledge is the basis of the learning theory for the digital age, Connectivism (Downes, 2008; George  Siemens, 2005).

Connectivism is the thesis that knowledge literally is distributed across connections; it is whatever is created when information is sent from one entity to another; whereby the entities change one another. It explains how knowledge is built on ever increasingly sophisticated understanding though network development.  Network nodes are established or removed as required, the connections between them can be strong or weak to suit the situation and current demand.

Connectivism requires the capacity to form networks, mechanisms and constructs that students use to engage with knowledge. Connectivism allows for the dynamism of a digital age learner, assumes a rapidly changing and growing information foundation and permits flexibility in connections to support learners, be they branching to academia, or artisanship or even a combination of both.  Communities of Practice have supported learning across social groupings for generations (Barab & Duffy, 1998; Reimann, 2006; Wenger, 1998), Connectivism brings the notion into the digital era, allowing students to cross boundaries and interact without physical or temporal constrictions.

“While networks are old forms of social organization, they are now empowered by new information/communication technologies, so that they become able to cope at the same time with flexible decentralization, and with focused decision-making.(Castells, 2000)

ICT supports new and more dynamic interactions between working and living, in that learning is a lifelong process of acquiring, understanding and generating knowledge. Connectivism supports the requirements of lifelong learners to understand how one learns most effectively, leading to greater success in the workplace. If predictions are accurate that the students of today are being educated for jobs that do not yet exist, and that they will change career path multiple times, staying in one place for very few years, the capacity to negotiate such change and dynamism is the responsibility of today’s teachers.

This situation is not unique to Australia, successful use and understanding of the capacity of ICT as an enabler of learning and working in a digital world is a global imperative (DETA, 2006; Ministerial Council on Education, September, 2008)

Using ICT as the core driver behind an education revolution presents an opportunity to rethink the purpose of teaching in the knowledge economy. ICT offers an opportunity to move beyond a focus on knowledge and content and subject delineated boundaries towards building and deepening new knowledge through collaboration (PLNs), communication (PLEs), creativity, innovation, and critical thinking (Kember, O’Neill, & Heffernan, 2008).

The DER is well funded, progressing rapidly and brings ICT equality to the majority of Australian students. The intention being “…that Australian schools are able to provide students with the tools they will need to live and work in a world shaped by technological change … have the potential to transform the way our schools operate in the future for the better.”(Rudd, et al., 2007).

The development of a National Curriculum would be served by adopting a unified digital age education theory, taking Australia from feudal constructs to current and future possibilities, ICT and Connectivism is the articulated and suitable theory for development.

A strong research and conceptual base
A concept based curriculum, supported by technology, is inevitable. As humans we have the advantage of being able to form and construct new frameworks around developing and existing concepts. This gives us the capacity to be creative and adaptable. In a workplace increasingly requiring creativity and adaptability, constructing a curriculum around concepts is sensible. The 1999 TIMMS report on Science teaching highlighted the need to move from teaching disaggregated content with little connection over to focussing on building conceptual frameworks, based on knowledge bases (content), (TIMMS, 2007).

There is a growing body of research on the effect of ICT use in education – from kinder through to tertiary education. Not all positive, but all providing progress, assessing opportunities and leading to new insights to the value of restructuring education based around ICT.

In the past, school systems had less difficulty in guessing what the future needs of its students would be; agrarian, basic three Rs, industrial, simple mechanical. The only thing known for sure right now is that it will be different tomorrow from what we know today. We are planning for occupations that currently do not exist. We must be educating for transferable skill development. Constructing a curriculum based on key competencies.  These will cut across multiple disciplines and not fit neatly into a single subject heading. Students will need to foster the capacity for lifelong learning and an inherent expectation of constant growth and change. ICT and ICT skills will be useful for them (Students) in their future academic and professional lives, (OECD, 2005).
Use of technology is the single most profound consideration for changing curricula.

“Technology can instantly provide information out of context to enable students to make all kinds of comparisons of a kind that in the past weren’t possible.” (Goodyer, 1999)

A recognition of the political realities produced by the Australian Federal system.
Australia is completely different from the prison colony of over 200 years ago.  The need to have a national identity separate from the British system is increasingly important. Until the time of republicanism and the subsequent opportunity to rewrite the constitution, the federal government can only wave both carrot and stick at the eight individual education infrastructures. Neither is sufficient to overcome inherent political will and self preservation; only a genuine united desire to prosper the future and Australia’s place in the global economy through our continued development into the smart country will suffice. We cannot wait too long “our young people are already living in the new education paradigm and they are impatiently waiting for us, their educators to join them” (Treadwell, 2008).

The simple fact that use of ICT opens up such opportunity for change that was never available before, makes it vital as a major determinant to any progression or re-construction of curriculum. The increasingly ready access to internet connectivity, the well resourced and rapidly progressing digital education revolution, the narrowing gap between the have-access and have nots, all point to the importance of ICT as a determinant factor in curriculum change.

Education is the number one services export and, to an extent, this determines the image of Australia in the global marketplace. Multiple disparate systems, complex qualification structures, reinventing educational wheels in multiple siloed infrastructures are no longer tenable. The small Australian population cannot sustain so much over-management. A national curriculum is long overdue and important to maintain Australia’s standing and educational status. A cobbled, lowest common denominator is insufficient, it is time to make radical change, to step more boldly into a future with no baggage of past requirements.

Innovation may be in the use of a new technology, using technology in a new way… or using technology to create a whole new learning environment, (Way & Webb, 2006);  innovation may cause the creation of a whole new curriculum. ICT and connectivism are sensible, suitable determinants for curriculum restructure.  The current desire for digital education reform must be the driving factor for curriculum change. ICT addresses the pedagogy, assessment and syllabus issues.  The current attempt at a national Curriculum is on a precipice of failure and can only be rescued by a collective acceptance of nouvelle comprehension. Our digital immigrant instructors need to reconstruct a language around the digital natives’ expectations and more importantly our expectation of them and the future’s demands of them.

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