In defence of the curriculum

Many teachers and school leaders have a mindset that ‘curriculum’ is a dirty word. These educators may believe that curriculum, in a state or national-mandated form such as the Victorian or Australian versions, ‘gets in the way’ of teaching kids (leaving the obvious question: if what you teach doesn’t come from the curriculum then where does it come from…?). They buy into the often shouted claims of politicians that our prescribed syllabus is ‘overcrowded’ or poorly prioritised. This claim is one we should definitely be sceptical of, as it is usually a very politically-loaded one.

When educators take this attitude, they are demonstrating an all too common misunderstanding of the intent and utility of a curriculum framework. This is very rarely an ignorance born from malice. Rather, it is an indictment of pre-service training of teachers and of the support provided to classroom teachers from those further up the hierarchy in schools and education departments. Education departments have a tendency to focus on pedagogical strategies, such as the HITS in Victoria, which while also definitely necessary for high quality teaching is by no means sufficient. At the same time, communication from curriculum authorities is haphazard. It tends to focus on the senior secondary certificates and opportunities for professional development tend to be missed or not taken up by those on the frontline of teaching.

Given the incredible workload and myriad commitments teachers carry everyday, support to develop their understanding and capacity to use the curriculum needs to come from leaders in their own school and further up the system. So here is my contribution: some key ideas for using the curriculum in the way it was intended: to create high-quality teaching and learning that provides all students with the chance to develop key knowledge and skills they need for success:

The ‘big picture’ is more important than any one content description (the curriculum is not a checklist)

Many educators can become hung up on the idea of ‘covering’ all descriptions within the curriculum. To this I would ask: why is that important? What do students really gain from this? A fixation with ‘covering all the curriculum’ belies a misunderstanding about both the intent of the framework and also what provides students with the best chance of success both in senior secondary and tertiary studies.

No curriculum is written as a checklist of content that must be ticked off step-by-step across a year or years of schooling. Rather, each learning area and capability is structured around big ideas or key concepts that guide all elements within it. For example, in science six key concepts provide a guiding framework for learning across the whole learning area and each sub-strand has two or three ideas that are defined as the key things that are developed in that sub-strand.

Understanding these ideas for your learning area, in combination with the specific achievement standards at each level, is more important than fretting about covering every content description in a learning program. When you understand the big picture of what students are meant to develop and understand in a subject or learning area, the details and the nitty gritty will fall into place easily.

Boy doing maths at laptop

The capabilities are an integral part of the curriculum, not an add-on

What we now call capabilities have been present in curriculum frameworks in some form or another for many years. In Victoria, we have taken the extra step of mapping out achievement standards and explicit descriptions of knowledge and skills that need to be directly taught, learned and assessed. This has been simultaneously an excellent and a terrible idea. Excellent, in that it has made explicit the normally implicit development of these skills, yet terrible in the sense that it has allowed these critical skills to be seen as separate to the learning areas. By being split off, they can be seen as not being a part of the curriculum that individual teachers of subjects are responsible for and easily ignored when planning for subjects or programs.

I cannot emphasise enough that this is the wrong way to think about the capabilities. They need to be used and incorporated in all subjects. They provide the authentic and ‘real world’ contexts that we need students to experience and explore.

The capabilities are an integral part of the curriculum and actually provide the outcomes that are almost universally agreed upon as those desired from a successful education: fulfilled, active, informed, compassionate and discerning citizens (I should point out at this point that I am somewhat on The Learner First bandwagon in terms of how learning programs can and should function).

Student outcomes (big or small) can always map back to the curriculum

This point really aims to address the misguided assertion that any mandated curriculum somehow ‘gets in the way’ of student learning. If you’re not using the curriculum to define learning outcomes, then chances are you’re just picking out outcomes on the run or (cue my internal scream as a curriculum person) not defining them at all.

As teachers, everything we do needs to be delivering outcomes for our students. As we saw just above, these outcomes can come not just from the traditional learning area content, but also from key skills and the capabilities. These are all the curriculum! And as teachers we have a significant obligation to be providing all our students the opportunity to learn from all aspects of the curriculum. And we can only guarantee that students have had the opportunity to learn when we know in advance what it is the outcomes for them are.

By using the curriculum framework of achievement standards and content descriptions, every outcome for students can be identified and mapped in advance. The teaching and learning program can then be created to ensure that those outcomes are met, whether learning area or capability. The Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority clearly articulates the importance of curriculum-linked outcomes in their curriculum planning guidelines:

[A curriculum] …ensure[s] that every young person is able to develop the foundational knowledge, skills and dispositions that enable future self-directed learning, social development and active and engaged citizenship.

The curriculum maps out a progression of learning (most of the time, if you focus on the right things)

No single level of the curriculum should be taken in isolation from those that come before or after it. In any learning area, we can see a clear development of skill and understanding as we move up the levels of learning. These are most obvious in the achievement standards for each level, but in most areas can also be clearly seen in the content descriptions that flesh out that standard.

For each learning area and capability, key skills can be developmentally tracked along a progression. Some elements of content knowledge can seem arbitrary in terms of when they are introduced (there is little developmental reason for aligning ‘Australian Colonies’ to level five/six and ‘Ancient world and early civilisations’ to level seven/eight for example). But the ‘Historical Concepts and Skills’ map from pre-foundation to level 10 and allow us to clearly track and develop student abilities throughout schooling.

So the lesson is to focus on the skills and practices of the learning area, rather than the content knowledge. When your skills develop in a learning area (provided they’re developing in a rich and relevant context), the content and factual knowledge will follow. Authentic practice is a vehicle for knowledge development.

So hopefully, I’ve convinced you at least a little of the importance of a curriculum. Curriculum can be the foundation of purposeful, engaging and relevant learning for all students. The hedge regarding this very forward declaration is that it is entirely dependent on a thorough and ‘big picture’ understanding by teachers. A curriculum framework provides a rich tool for planning purposeful and genuinely meaningful learning for students across the breadth of schooling. Teachers need to develop both pedagogical and curriculum expertise if our students are to be successful. Those who support and lead them need to move away from the focus solely on pedagogy and to include planning and curriculum in teacher development.

I’ll give the final word to the curriculum guidelines again to succinctly illustrate why the interplay between these two is critical:

…without an effective ‘how’ of learning, the ‘what’ of learning becomes irrelevant. Without, however, a clear and considered specification of what students should learn, the how is a process without purpose.

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