David de Carvalho and the Annoying Taco Kids

Last week we wrote about the mushy Australian puff piece on PISA clown, Andreas Schleicher. Readers may recall that Schleicher was critical of “Australia’s shallow Curriculum”. Schleicher says nothing of substance, simply advocating, ad nauseam,

“teaching fewer things at greater depth”.

The Australian piece also briefly quoted Ben Jensen and Mailie Ross, from some consultancy group called Learning First. In the same issue of The Australian, Jensen and Ross had an opinion piece strongly criticising the Australian Curriculum in the opposite direction:

“The Australian curriculum, however, is not a high-quality, knowledge-rich curriculum. It doesn’t guarantee the knowledge students are supposed to learn … Instead, it is a skills-based curriculum; the standards for students to achieve are skills-based. A skills-based curriculum includes knowledge but isn’t specific about what knowledge should be taught, so there is no guarantee of what will be taught in each year level, let alone across the curriculum.

[The Curriculum should] make it clear what knowledge and skills students have the right to learn in order to participate productively in life. Be honest and acknowledge that the Australian curriculum does not offer this clarity.”

Jensen and Ross’s piece is not great, in particular arguing too loosely on the basis of vague generalities. But, notwithstanding the vagueness of both pieces, there is a clear conflict about what the Australian Curriculum is, and what it should be. Luckily, we have ACARA’s CEO, the all-wise David de Carvalho, to resolve the conflict.

A few days ago, De Carvalho had an opinion piece in The Australian, reproduced on ACARA’s website, titled

‘Skills v knowledge’ debate misses the crux of education

De Carvalho opens by welcoming the debate on education but claiming it was “needlessly polarised”, as evidenced by the Schleicer and Jensen-Ross pieces:

“Andreas Schleicher … claimed we needed more focus on capabilities such as critical and creative thinking in the Australian Curriculum. Ben Jensen [and] Mailie Ross …, contrary to Schleicher, suggested the curriculum has too much focus on skills and not enough on specific knowledge content.”

De Carvalho substantially rejects Jensen and Ross’s specific charge that the knowledge content in the Curriculum is as clear as mud:

“There are multiple counter-examples that specify in concrete detail what needs to be taught when, and to what standard.”

It is not clear that De Carvalho knows how counterexamples and quantifiers are supposed to work. Anyway, to the extent there is “potential variability” in the Curriculum, De Carvalho argues that this a good thing:

“What Jensen and Ross perceive as a lamentable degree of potential variability in what content is taught is, arguably, really a reflection of one of the strengths of the Australian Curriculum: that it needs to be approved by all nine ministers and is developed through a process of consultation with educators as well as the broader community.”

It is not clear that De Carvalho understands the distinction between strengths and hobbling constraints.

More generally, De Carvalho adopts the position of the above-it-all Wise Man. He criticises both Schleicher and Jensen-Ross for not appreciating the value of the other side’s emphasis:

“This argument about the relative balance between knowledge and skills in the curriculum risks perpetuating a false dichotomy.

Knowledge expands through the development of skills such as critical and creative thinking, and such skills cannot be developed in a content-free zone.

The effective teaching of content knowledge so that it is properly understood involves the development of discipline-specific skills. The Australian Curriculum states what these skills are – but not at the expense of knowledge.

De Carvalho mischaracterises Jensen and Ross, who are critical of the Curriculum for a lack of clarity on both knowledge and skills. More generally, the problem with De Carvalho’s piece is that it has no connection to reality. Any suggestion that the new Curriculum is a usable guide to either the attainment of fundamental knowledge or the mastery of fundamental skills is pure fantasy.

The Australian Curriculum feels like a perverted version of that ad with the Mexican kids, arguing over whether to have hard or soft tacos, and realising they can have both. Knowledge? Skills? Why don’t we have neither?

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