Ben Jensen is a think tank guy. Ben is CEO or King or whatever of something called Learning First. We’re not a fan of think tanks, but Ben appears to be pretty smart. Ben writes clearly and for a purpose, and demonstrably Ben is playing for The Good Team. He can play better.
We first came across Jensen a month or so ago, when ACARA CEO David de Carvalho responded to an OK opinion piece by Learning First and to a very bad puff piece about PISA baron, Andreas Schleicher (Murdochs, paywalls). De Carvalho’s response was typically smug and typically clueless. A particularly important stick that De Carvalho grabbed by the wrong end was on the “potential variability” in the Australian Curriculum, which De Carvalho suggested was both a necessity and a positive:
“What Jensen and [co-author Mailie] 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.”
Yes, it is “arguable” that the potential – more accurately, inevitable – variability is a strength of the Australian Curriculum. It is also arguable that the Australian Curriculum is the great lost work of Plato. Just don’t expect rational people to buy the argument. Evidently, Jensen did not.
In their article, Jensen and Ross proposed four reforms to address inequality in Australian education, the second of which was a plea for a clear and coherent curriculum:
“… 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.”
Last week, Jensen expanded on this theme with a second opinion piece: To lift standards, we must reclaim the curriculum (Murdoch, paywalled). Jensen begins this piece by noting the obvious, that a successful education system requires a high-level and specific curriculum, backed by high quality resources. Jensen then notes the second obvious, that the Australian Curriculum offers nothing of the sort, and is supported by nothing of the sort:
… education policymakers in Australia … develop and discuss curriculum in a very high-level way. … Teachers must then … turn high-level content descriptions, optional content elaborations and achievement standards into precise learning objectives for students, the knowledge to be taught within and across subjects, the sequence in which it is taught and what that means for the knowledge that students develop across the entire curriculum. … They must choose instructional materials, texts and activities, along with the learning tasks that students will complete. … we place a huge burden on teachers’ time to develop lesson plans and find or create high-quality instructional resources.
In other words, the Australian Curriculum is a load of high-minded but directionless twaddle, backed by nothing, leaving each school and each teacher to make what beleaguered sense they can of this nothingness and to dig up whatever they can to teach whatever sense they’ve made of it, if any.
Jensen then suggests what is needed to correct this:
No one has ever produced a high-quality, knowledge-rich curriculum anywhere in the world that everyone agrees is perfect. But making the call on the detail of what is taught in classrooms is fundamental to the development of a world-class curriculum. The detail is what matters.
Jensen then discusses why Australia has been incapable of this, which is where he goes off the rails:
Unfortunately, this goes against the grain of developing Australian curriculum, where consensus and compromise are considered vital.
Yes, sort of, …
In recent decades, the main way we have achieved consensus between those who disagree is to have bits of both perspectives, to compromise on key issues, or to simply make the curriculum so high-level that anyone holding any perspective can see themselves in the curriculum.
And, no. There is no “both perspectives” whatsoever. No one with an ounce of mathematical sense can see themselves one iota in Australia’s absurd curriculum.
The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, the body that develops our national curriculum, was deliberately set up with a consensus-style approach and structures to gain consensus from all states and territories for a national curriculum.
A consensus of mathematically illiterate apparatchiks from the various states is completely beside the point. That is not the either-or that matters here.
This has many political advantages but it means that ACARA cannot make the call about the detail of what should be taught.
It is easy to point the finger at the national government, at ACARA or at the states. But more often than not, people are just doing the job they are supposed to do.
Sure, and these might be competent people doing their job competently. Or, they might be members of an incestuous cabal of arrogant and incompetent ideologues.
Ben Jensen captures well a fundamental reason for the absurdity of the Australian Curriculum (which was inevitable). But it is laughable for Jensen to portray ACARA as simply a group of “they just work there” innocents. It is simply not true. And Jensen misses entirely a much greater reason for the awfulness of the curriculum: the takeover of education by bureaucrats and snake-oil education theorists, and the deliberate disenfranchising of discipline experts.
Ben Jensen is trying to do good, and probably he is doing good. But he can do better. Despite Jensen’s own warnings of the drawbacks of consensus, he is trying too hard to be consensual. He is being too nice. Jensen should realise which team he is on, watch some old Carl Ditterich videos, and try again.