Massing Evidence

A week ago we wrote on ACARA’s “Literature Review“. We tried to make clear why the document is fundamentally useless, while nonetheless giving clear sign that ACARA is hell-bent upon making the Australian Curriculum worse. We indicated our plan to get on with critiquing ACARA’s other curriculum review documents,  a Comparative Review of the Australian and Singaporean curricula, and the Key Findings from four such comparative reviews. That is still the plan but, first, there remains an irritant from the Literature Review which simply has to be addressed. We have to consider the full significance of the Review’s final sentence:

“A critical consideration is the fact that curriculum is only one part of the educational equation.”

Our previous post indicated why ACARA’s Literature Review was useless as a basis for comparative education, while also demonstrating that ACARA had no sense of the limited benefits and genuine drawbacks of such comparisons. Apart from this pointlessness and cluelessness, the Literature Review suffers from two major problems. The first problem is that the Literature Review repeatedly conflates the difficulties of comparative education analysis with the difficulties of creating a coherent and useful curriculum. This conflation makes the document confusing to read, and makes any intended conclusion of the document difficult to discern. The second, and much more important problem is the manner in which the Literature Review treats those difficulties in creating a curriculum.

Of course, a national curriculum will be embedded in and will reflect the culture of that nation. This obvious truth, however, can quickly slide into a warped view of the proper role of a curriculum:

A curriculum necessarily originates in a specific society. Conceptualising the curriculum using a systemic and holistic view ‘opens up’ the curriculum, rather than constricting it to a rigid model (Jonnaert & Therriault, 2013). Coming from a constructivist and Piagetian perspective, that is, including curricular achievements that are being implemented in relation to trends in society and training needs, the curriculum may be construed as a ‘tool for regulating and adapting education systems to social trends’ (p. 400) [emphasis added].

And, again:

A curriculum is generally constructed on a set of compromises that are foisted upon it by societal needs, and through which it serves its education system (Jonnaert & Therriault, 2013, p, 413). Adopting a more holistic perspective engenders a view of curriculum that is grounded in societal realities and detached from a ‘technocratic vision, embedded in a rational curricular system and focused exclusively on the delivery of knowledge’ (Jonnaert & Therriault, 2013, p. 413; Keitel & Kilpatrick, 1999). Essentially, a holistic perspective of curriculum seeks to optimize students’ integration into their environment and the contemporary world. [emphasis added]

ACARA loves “holistic”; it’s their second favourite word. God forbid that one deal instead with the parts, with the details. And, what could possibly be the use of a “technocratic vision”, of a “rational curricular system”? What could we be thinking?

This “holistic perspective” places schooling as just one part of students’ socialisation, with the curriculum being the link between the two. In effect, ACARA is declaring that school education is powerless, that it is at the mercy of “societal realities”. Society is what it is, and ACARA will “regulate” and “adapt” the curriculum accordingly.

ACARA fails to consider that not all societal forces are forces for good, and that forces are not a given. ACARA does not appear to even contemplate that a national curriculum may act as a necessary and powerful countervailing force. Indeed, ACARA seems to fundamentally oppose the notion that they might have the power, and the responsibility, to tell people what to do:

“To understand a curriculum, researchers place it in its social and cultural environment, with the implications that emerge in any given society. In the current standards-driven climate, in which alignment of classroom teaching and learning to the national curriculum may be viewed by teachers as a compliance activity …” [emphasis added]

“Compliance activity”. As if that is a bad thing.

The next logical step is for ACARA  to give up on the very notion of a curriculum. Which they do:

“As Nieto et al (2008, p. 179) assert,

We view curriculum as including not only texts, but also other instructional materials, programs, projects, physical environments for learning, interactions among teachers and students, and all the intended and unintended messages about expectations, hopes and dreams that students, their communities, and schools have about student learning and the very purpose of schools.’ ” [emphasis added]

And, again:

Henchey (2007, pp. 446-447) explains:

Curriculum is more than a body of legislation, a régime pédagogique, a set of documents with exhortations, tables, diagrams and lists, a compilation of approved textbooks and learning materials, or a series of official examinations. It is the script for a dialogue between a society and its young people, a narrative about what we think is important, an idealization of what is significant in our past, a selection of what we know and believe in the present, and a vision of what we would wish for the future.’ ” [emphasis added]

Some of us would love nothing more than a régime pédagogique. We would really love a curriculum to declare simply and dirctly that students must learn their multiplication tables by heart, and we would really love teachers to be instructed, as an unambiguous, on-pain-of-death compliance activity, when to teach this. We are doomed to disappointment. 

Notice in the last two quotes the use of ACARA’s favourite word, “curriculum”. We no longer have a curriculum, a document prescribing what is to be learned and when; instead, we have the mass noun “curriculum”, as the meaningless medium in which one learns. The notion of a curriculum has been vaporised from a solid to a gas.

The Literature Review uses or quotes the use of “curriculum” as a mass term over a dozen times, including in the concluding sentence:

“A critical consideration is the fact that curriculum is only one part of the educational equation.”

And that is the import. ACARA is either uncaring or actively dismissive of a curriculum, of a prescriptive document as specific guidance for a discipline. Which is unfortunate, since it’s their damn job to deliver one.

ACARA doesn’t want a curriculum, it wants “curriculum”, of which it has way too much already. If ACARA really gets its way – and who is there to stop them – we’re all screwed.

23 Replies to “Massing Evidence”

  1. “régime pédagogique”… hmmm, I might incorporate that into one of the myriad of pointless assignments for the Master of Bullshittery. Thanks ACARA (and Marty for highlighting it)! Perhaps ACARA should be referred to as the “Régime Diabolique”? Apologies: up at 2:30am dealing with squealing pressure relief valve on hot water system…

  2. In other words, it’s not our (teachers’) jobs to impart the accumulated intellectual achievements of our culture to our students, it’s to groom them for our neo-liberal overlords.

  3. Well this is a case of navel gazing gone mad. I think if we were in the universe of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy we can assume that ACARA will be all on the “B” ark (there’s actually a chance that all of us may belong there too, but with ACARA it’s a gimme).

    As you have pointed out before, China believes none of this edubabble. The Chinese system produces a prodigious number of well-prepared, bright students in mathematics.

    We produce too few good students and bad curriculum reviews

    1. Navel gazing? I was thinking of a different metaphor.

      But yes, Douglas Adams had exactly these people in mind.

    2. I visited China for a while once and on my first night I was taken to dinner by my host and his family. He had a 12-year old daughter who was learning English and clearly wanted to practise on me. The conversation went like this.

      “Our English teacher is not very good.”

      “Why not?”

      “She does not even understand the subjunctive mood.”

        1. No. I saw a document by a teacher today that talked about the works of “the artist’s Joe Blogs and Fred Smith”.

  4. In reviewing the curriculum, one may argue that statistics should be taught separately from mathematics. This is the practice in New Zealand.

      1. When it comes to statistics I cannot decide between two possible options:

        1. Teach no statistics at all in secondary school, give students a really good grounding in algebra, calculus and probability and then let the universities teach the statistics properly from around second year level.

        2. Just let the universities set the VCE curriculum for mathematics in its entirety (which will probably not produce a different result to option 1, but it might appeal a bit more to certain organizations/associations)

        I don’t mid statistics as a topic. With all the data being collected in the information age it does require people who know how to analyze it. But pretending anything more than really basic ideas can be successfully covered in a VCE course that is already suffering more than one identity crisis and examined by exam setters that are either under pressure to make the statistics questions really easy or do not understand the topic enough to do any different…

        …but why bother – VCAA/ACARA will just do what they want regardless of what I’ve written in the feedback surveys.

        1. The statistics that self-serving pressure groups have successfully imposed onto secondary school mathematics curricula is very different to mathematical statistics.

          What these pressure groups want is data collection and analysis. This is a huge subject in its own right and only a complete idiot could possibly think it can be taught in 2 weeks as a patchwork of curricula add-ons. (Which explains why it was imposed).

          I would welcome mathematical statistics as part of a VCE mathematics syllabus. It would include discrete and continuous random variables, probability mass and probability density functions, the normal distribution, cumulative distribution functions, moment generating functions, the algebra of random variables (eg. if X has a pdf … then find the pdf of X1 + X2 etc.), maybe the Central Limit Theorem etc.

          Ideally VCE mathematics would consist of a number of single semester subjects, and students would choose subjects within the constraints of prerequisite requirements. You would have a single 90 minute exam (midyear and end of year) in each subject. There would be no CAS-calculators. It would follow a structure very similar to what most universities have.

          One of these subjects (2nd semester and concurrent with a Calculus subject) would be mathematical statistics. I’m certain a decent structure and syllabi could be constructed by a group of intelligent people within one month.

          1. I was just thinking today that instead of Foundation Mathematics being the fourth subject in VCE mathematics, it could be Statistics. Obviously this would not be mathematical statistics.

            1. Since I wrote the above suggestion, I have passed it on to VCAA; “Too late but maybe next time” was the reply.

            2. There is a course called Data Analytics, which is definitely not maths. It’s about data visualisation (charts and stuff). Maybe they could put some statistics in that? I don’t think it is a very popular subject though. There are just so many VCE subjects.

              1. Thanks wst; I did not know about this; as you say it’s not about mathematics; indeed it’s not about statistics although it deals with many IT issues that are important in a statistician’s toolbox; BTW, I was not suggesting introducing a new subject; I was proposing that Statistics 1-4 might be better than Foundation Mathematics 1-4; I agree that there are too many VCE subjects; it makes me wonder how do subjects such as Data Analytics get on the curriculum? (I’m not being critical of the subject, I just wonder what is the process?); if you have not noticed, declutter is the in-phrase; trivium in Year 11, quadrivium in Year 12 will suffice.

  5. I noted that “ACARA is not calling for public submissions to this review” although the public will be invited to comment “on proposed content changes” between the end of April and July.

    1. Does it matter either way? Is there any reason to believe that they give a flying fuck what anybody else thinks?

      1. Public submissions. What a joke. It is simply to tick the ‘Public Consultation’ box (just like the so-called VCAA Mathematics draft consultation).

        You are correct, Marty. Unless every Mathematics Teacher in the country attends mass rallies and demonstrations (what are the chances?), these self-serving, attention-seeking, schmoozing, corporate imbeciles won’t give a flying Philadelphia fuck what anyone thinks.

        I know first-hand some of the members of the panel – carefully cultivated appearances are very different to reality.

          1. The teacher training review panel. I’m not impressed. Self-serving, attention-seeking suits are NOT what such a panel needs.

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