Ben Jensen Damns ACARA with Faint Damning

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.

Ben, you’ve got some reading to do for homework.

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.



30 Replies to “Ben Jensen Damns ACARA with Faint Damning”

  1. Marty, your one sentence says it all:

    “the takeover of education by bureaucrats and snake-oil education theorists, and the deliberate disenfranchising of discipline experts.”

    The take-over and disenfranchising has been subtle and insidious (*) over a long period of time, assisted by an apathetic teacher cohort (and, let’s be honest, progressively apathetic discipline experts) and ignorant, gullible Ministers. What we have now has been a long time in the making.

    * Although there have been some very clear and obvious events. For example, in Victoria the era of curricular reform and experimentation with school-based assessment that began with the removal of the VUSEB and the establishment of the Victorian Institute of Education (VISE) in 1976, followed by the introduction in 1992 of the VCE by yet another body (the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Board (VCAB)) and the infiltration of VCAA by incompetent dicks with delusions of grandeur. Not to forget the event of mathematics getting CAS-ified (speaking of dicks). And the 2023 Study Design, with all its algorithmic and computational thinking – another clear event that will be pointed to in understanding the dismantling and destruction of mathematics education.

    1. “apathetic teacher cohort” ? Apathetic or overworked? I think Jenson has picked it when he points out that teachers have a lot of work to do to implement a fuzzy curriculum.
      I’ve not been in this game of teaching long. The Australian Curriculum has always been a bit fuzzy. V9 takes its fuzziness to a whole new level. I reckon I could teach the whole of year 10 and the only algebra I’d HAVE to do would involve solving 1step equations.
      Was there ever a time when teachers WERE told what to teach?

      1. Thanks, MW. They’re not mutually exclusive: teachers might be both apathetic and overworked.

        I don’t think teachers are apathetic towards concern for their students; they are generally as caring as ever, or more. But I do think teachers are commonly apathetic towards the meaning(lessness) of what they are trying to teach, and the manner in which they are trying to teach it. I think they are generally way, way, way too accepting of the absurd status quo. The extent to which this is tired acquiescence or more active agreement seems to vary a lot. But the effective acceptance of modern educational absurdity is suffocating.

        Your ending question is interesting. I have some experience and have read about Victorian mathematics education, and there clearly has been less or more explicit instruction at different times. I’ll try to gather my thoughts and reply with something coherent soon.

        But I’ll make one obvious and general point, about anything in our society: the more we have a healthy and agreed upon culture, the less we require explicit instruction and mandates. It doesn’t mean that such instructions won’t be very helpful, and it doesn’t mean mandates are not needed whatsoever. But the more people know and agree upon what they are doing, the less they require to be instructed or commanded.

        In brief, if teachers had been taught better as children they would now need less instruction as teachers. We are losing even the memory of a proper culture of attention and discipline.

        1. Explicit instruction got lost once VCAB was replaced by VBOS (early 1990’s), followed by BOS and then the coup de grâce, that paragon of educational mediocrity (*) – VCAA. You look at the old syllabus books published by VCAB for teachers to follow. They were extremely detailed (a two page glossary of nomenclature, examples, references etc.) Most of the book contained the curriculum, very little of it was devoted to administrative matters. Compare this to its modern day equivalent – the Study Design. It’s like comparing the Mona Lisa to a kindergarten finger painting.

          I’ve attached a couple of typical pages from the VCAB book to give a taste of what used to be and what VCAA refuses to give in its Study Design.

          * And the word mediocrity is flattering.

          Sample pages-VCAB Mathematics A and B-Accrediation 1986-1990

      2. Hi M Ware.

        I do agree with overworked. Even then, overworked wouldn’t be so bad except that most of it is due to excessive administrivia and bureacracy, schools (and the DET) imposing the latest snake-oil from education theorists etc.

        Nevertheless, I’m sick of the “overworked” excuse for this apathy. It is this apathy and collective sheep mentality that has enabled the causes of the overwork! The fact is, teachers bleat and mewl but do absolutely nothing to help themselves. For nearly 30 years I’ve watched teachers remain silent when they had a chance to support their one or two of colleagues who voiced what they were all thinking. That’s not overwork. That’s lily-livered, strategic apathy. And now we’re all reaping the ‘rewards’ of this apathy. Apathy – the gift that keeps on giving.

      3. There are also teachers who are not apathetic at all, but rather actively and enthusiastically want this kind of curriculum. They name-drop Jo Boaler as an argument (“well Jo Boaler says inquiry-based learning works better, so…”) and judge how successful lessons are by the number of “rich conversations” that they observed. If I disagree, they interpret that as my ignorance of these educational experts.

        1. You’re right, wst. I should have said “lily-livered, strategic, [ignorant] apathy”.

          I’ll guarantee none of those idiots who name-drop Boaler have actually critically evaluated her claims (or the claims made by any of these snake-oil education theorists), or even read any research that debunks the claims. Much easier to be a sheep.

  2. Jensen and Ross advocate that the curriculum should “make it clear what knowledge and skills students have the right to learn in order to participate productively in life.” This sounds good, but what does it mean in detail?

      1. I did not read the whole article, and I did not expect Jensen and Ross to provide a detailed curriculum in the article. However, I thought that “what knowledge and skills students have the right to learn in order to participate productively in life” was too vague, even for op-ed.

      2. The words “to participate productively in life” are loaded with unstated assumptions. What does it mean to participate? What does it mean to participate productively? The assumptions probably reflect a view of society as imagined by the authors.

        1. Christ, Terry. It’s not the damn point of the article. It doesn’t matter. Have the expression mean whatever the Hell you want it to mean, the criticisms of the Australian Curriculum are just as valid.

    1. Do you think it would be reasonable for the curriculum to include “students should be able to solve problems such as…” and then actually include specific problems that indicate the expected level? I think that would make it clear what is expected.

      I suspect it could also be quite revealing – for example, if the curriculum writers explain in detail when they think that using digital tools is “appropriate”, then everyone could see how little is expected (perhaps?). I’m guessing. I don’t understand what they want. Right now, I guess it’s up to schools to decide?

      ETA: actually, I see now they do include some sample problems. I think perhaps they give the best sense of what’s expected, but they are very prescriptive about the methods to be used. For example, when they need to compare fractions by hanging on string, why the hanging on string? When multiplying 253 by 4, they’re supposed to use a doubling strategy (why not just the standard algorithm – it works!). In Year 7, they are supposed to solve equations by backtracking and using concrete materials: why? On the other hand, all the examples are in the elaborations, so completely optional. What does that mean? Is the method optional or the ability to solve a certain kind of problem? I think perhaps, personally, I get a bit anxious reading the curriculum because I don’t trust their judgement.

        1. Thanks. Of course I prefer that. The goals are specific, comprehensive and mathematical: “multiplying within 40, dividing within 20” and so on. I know exactly what that means.

          ACARA has “applying knowledge of factors and multiples”, “recognise situations, including financial contexts, that use integers”, etc., instead. The verbs aren’t mathematical verbs. They’re education-theory verbs.

          1. I’m not sure “recognise situations” et al even gets to the on-the-ground level of Education Theory. It’s more like I Can’t Be Stuffed Thinking Up Precise Phrasing Theory.

            1. In my MTeach, I had to do assignments where we had to use only the appropriate verbs for a particular level of learning. People make tables of verbs (you’ll see if you image-search “Bloom’s taxonomy verbs” or “SOLO taxonomy verbs”). So, when I read the curriculum, it reeks of that to me. It doesn’t work for maths though! People don’t “recognise” addition, and then “classify” sums, then “understand” them, then “apply” them. The progression is in which numbers they can add. I think so anyway.

              1. I have decided this is a day to be kind to myself, which means there is not a snowflake’s chance in hell that I will image-search “Bloom’s taxonomy verbs” or “SOLO taxonomy verbs”.

                1. To be fair, I think if you did google it, you would probably still consider them to be mostly meaningless.

                  I think they may be meaningless in more areas than just math. I’ve always found it necessary to quantify them with something else that people know the meaning of (in which case “recognise”, “evaluate”, “synthesise” etc are all the same).

                  1. I suggested googling it just to confirm how pervasive it is. This is part of my attempt to understand why the wording of the curriculum is so waffly and convoluted. People would end up writing sentences like that in an attempt to phrase everything with verbs in the correct sequence.

                    Imagine that you think the verbs in our curriculum need to follow some alleged cognitive sequence. It might end up like that. It’d also mean you’d need to hire an education theory expert rather than a mathematician to write it.

                    1. Interesting. I figured the writers were merely illiterate. But yes, it’s well possible that they are illiterate zombie cultists.

                    2. I actually think that these days plenty of mathematicians have to write their subject learning outcomes using this kind of language, so it is probably some other reason to not hire the mathematician!

                      I used to think that it was an efficiency argument. If they hire a mathematician, then they should also hire experts from other disciplines in the curriculum. That could be a lot of bodies and a lot of money. Now, I’m more cynical.

                    3. Yeah but mathematicians who have to write that garbage for university subjects are in absolutely no doubt that it’s garbage. It’s only the second rate mathematicians who fail upwards to be deans etc. that believe (or pretend) otherwise.

  3. “the takeover of education by bureaucrats and snake-oil education theorists, and the deliberate disenfranchising of discipline experts.”

    I was a student when these snake-oil salespeople were openly derided by my teachers as lunatics who would oversee an empire of mediocrity. They were rejected time and again. But they persisted until they were appointed to be in charge of the asylum. We now have a mixture of ill- informed good intentions, apathy, entropy, fear (of being fired),overwork, faddists, active debasement of quality and a mindless focus on computation. Every deleterious effect that was foretold has come to pass. We get no joy from saying “We told you so”
    Given that the lunatic asylum is now the only educational institution in town is it time to rebel and begin an alternate system amongst likeminded educators? Can this be done without being stepped on and squashed by ACARA?

    1. Sounds like you’re showing your age, Simon T!

      There is an alternative system. It’s called the International Baccalaureate (IB). Unfortunately it costs money so most schools don’t offer it. If it became cheap enough, I think it would become the system of choice, given time (*)

      * You’d have to overcome school inertia and apathy, and the snake oil sellers and education theorists who are all riding the gravy train and who would fight-to-the-death for relevance and survival.

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