October 20th 2018

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Internal strife at Fortress ABC by Peter Westmore

EDITORIAL The state is separating children from families

CANBERRA OBSERVED Liberals are bare favourites for Wentworth

DEREGULATION Sugar growers are getting burned on churned-up playing field

EUROPE Attempt to discipline Hungary divides the EU

CHINA Social Credit System gives complete control of every citizen

EDUCATION Curriculum refinements will not fix schools

BANKING ROYAL COMMISSION Banks' failures are a symptom of social malaise

HISTORY Moby Dick and American exceptionalism

SHAKESPEARE Tick-tock: clues to the timeless appear of the Bard

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Trump to UN: we'll do it our way; you do it yours

MUSIC Well-tempered scale: might put an alien in a bad temper

CINEMA Alpha: Beautiful beginnings

BOOK REVIEW Essays towards reconstruction

BOOK REVIEW Can society survive the decay of religion?


CLIMATE CHANGE Hockey 1, hockey 2: Good science contradicts IPCC's two-degree alarmism

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Curriculum refinements will not fix schools

by Christopher Murray

News Weekly, October 20, 2018

The Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) announced in mid-September that there would be “refinements” made to the Australian curriculum. The updated national curriculum will bring general capabilities to the fore in classrooms, teaching children skills such as critical thinking, empathy and resilience.

The curriculum is already overstuffed with fluff.

These so-called “soft skills” are not central to the role of schools and take up valuable time that could otherwise be used to fix falling standards in Australia’s education system.

General capabilities (often referred to as “21st-century skills”) already exist in the national curriculum. Alongside literacy and numeracy, all schools in Australia are required to deliver an education in communication and technology, critical and creative thinking, personal and social skills, ethics and intercultural understanding.

As part of the monitoring of the effectiveness of the Australian curriculum, ACARA has deemed it necessary to give teachers more assistance in teaching and assessing these general capabilities. The fear is, of course, that by prioritising these capabilities, students will receive a poorer education in academic subjects and less training in basic skills.

These refinements come at a time when Australia is falling behind the rest of the developed world in basic literacy and numeracy. In the last three years, Australia has dropped from fourth in literacy to 16th, and from seventh in mathematics to 25th. UNICEF has put Australia 39th out of 41 high-to-middle-income countries delivering a quality education program.

Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings have consistently trended downwards for years. Although these ranking systems are imperfect for measuring success, it appears that by any measure Australian schools are underachieving. A shift in focus to “soft skills” is not the answer.

It is a good sign that newly appointed Education Minister Dan Tehan opposes these moves. As reported in The Weekend Australian, Tehan said: “Parents don’t send their kids to school to be taught the latest fashionable trends in education … Parents would be rightly concerned if they thought schools were moving away from the essentials and focusing on topics like ‘mindfulness’ and ‘resilience’. Such a move would be a big mistake.”

Indeed, it would be a mistake. Unfortunately schools have already made such moves and ACARA’s plan to refine the curriculum in this way makes it likely that the trend will continue.

A further problem with the move to bring general capabilities to the fore in Australian classrooms is that it defies common sense. To be a critical thinker, a student must first have something to think about. And the move away from giving a traditional, fact-based education necessarily has a consequence that children will not have facts, either to accept or about which to be critical.

In a number of disciplines, the critical and creative thinking capa­bility fails the common-sense test. In history, a student may be encouraged to think critically about a person, period or event, but to do so in the first place they must have knowledge about that person, period or event. Similarly, in English, a student may be asked to think creatively about and construct a piece of writing, but without the essential skills learned in grammar lessons, these creative thoughts will be poorly expressed, if not unintelligible to a reader.

No amount of mindfulness, intercultural understanding, resilience or gratitude can replace a solid education in the basic truths and essential skills that schools ought to be passing on to the next generation.

Teachers already complain of an overcrowded curriculum and the proposed refinements will only make the role of an educator more difficult. By focusing on core content knowledge and the teaching of basic skills in academic subjects, standards will begin to rise.

These are not the only ways to improve the Australian education system, but they are a necessary start. Moreover, removing such superfluous content from schools will allow them to focus on a particular type of education: academic education. This shifts the onus of teaching and modelling capabilities such as empathy, resilience, gratitude and ethical conduct back to where it truly belongs: the family. We ask too much of schools when we require them not only to teach academic skills but life skills as well.

Undoubtedly good teachers will influence their pupils in developing admirable characteristics and responsible ways of conducting themselves, but the primary responsibility for this type of learning falls to parents.

The latest ACARA push is just another educational fad. Using the trendy language of educationalists (“soft skills”, “21st-century skills”) it is promoting a watered-down version of an already poor national curriculum.

Teachers cannot welcome this move as it makes their difficult job even harder. Families should be alarmed because it arrogates to schools the right of parents to educate their children in their own values and beliefs, and because it means that their children may well graduate after 13 years of expensive education with little to no knowledge in the basic subjects required to succeed in life.

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April 4, 2018, 6:45 pm