Core Curriculum/National Curriculum—Educational Fences

Robert Frost writes ‘Good fences make good neighbours’. They set out rules, telling us where we can and can’t go; what we can and can’t do.

Figuratively speaking, fences would have been helpful for me when, as a boy, I stood up in the middle of a French lesson and challenged the teacher, Mr R.—.

Fences would have been useful, too, that day for him.

Either way, I think I was the first head boy to be caned for being disgracefully disrespectful to a member of staff.

I don’t remember much about the scene. But I can still clearly see its antagonist.

As a teacher, he was young, insecure (a bully in the classroom) and incompetent. He continually made us feel small and stupid.

On this particular occasion, he had ground down a friend of mine, Jonathan, humiliating him. The boy was a crushed mess of tears, unable to look anywhere out of embarrassment. Sobbing, cowed.

I think everyone enduring the lesson felt indignation.

I didn’t have the self-control of my friends. I simply stood up, told the teacher he was a bully and swore at him, telling him to ‘_____ off’.

It was a bad day for me, and for my mother, who in the late and gentle summer afternoon picked me up from school. I was still in a state of shock at being caned, and now I was grappling with a sense of shame, worrying how Dad would receive the news.

Amid the anxiety, however, was a certainty that the French language and I would never do a tango. For several more years we toiled together in partnership, treading on each other’s toes, but as soon as I could, I dumped the subject having achieved the lowest pass possible: a C grade. As far as I was concerned I just didn’t have what it took to learn French.

Repeatedly in class and in reports I was told I was no good, dumb and slow in French. And so I reached the unsurprising conclusion that languages and me didn’t go together.

The thing is I was wrong. And I should have seen it earlier. In my school entrance examinations I had topped out in Latin, as I would do so later in Greek, but for some reason the fact that I was skilled in English and ancient languages didn’t suggest to me that struggles I had with French might have something to do with the teacher or the way I was being taught rather than my inability. Fenced in by a wrong perception. A perception fuelled by a teacher’s incompetency.

During the last 20 years both at work and at home among friends, I have repeatedly had friends, mums and dads saying to me ‘I’m not academic’; ‘I can’t do math’; ‘I’m a poor reader’; ‘she’s like me—can’t do English’ etc.—.

Who told them that?

When will we start telling a different story about ourselves, rather than repeating those we have accepted from the likes of Mr R.—? When will we challenge the fences others have placed around us?

You see, over the same 20 years, an overwhelming amount of research has been released that shows most of us can achieve reasonable results in most learning areas.

The key to such success lies in who teaches us, and the quality of learning we experience.

So if you’re reading this and saying to yourself ‘I can’t do algebra’ (for example), you might want to change your words to ‘I had a useless math teacher—no, series of math teachers!’ (What a poor school!). That is of course assuming you weren’t lazy.

What’s the relevance of all this?

Firstly, to emphasise the need for parents and schools to identify, support and magnify the effect of good teachers and good learning (something technology can help with very effectively, through outstanding videos and apps).

Secondly, to continue to explain why we have Core Curricula (whatever we might feel about them).

Governments around the globe have created educational fences of their own: core curricula and/or national curricula have been introduced over the last two decades. Why? Essentially to direct content, mitigate teacher incompetence, and to create some transparency regarding tax dollar spend. Some things are in; others are out. This is what you must teach.

Broadly speaking, core curricula operate out of (1) an Outcome-Based Education (OBE) model, sometimes called an Essential Learning Based model, or (2) a Standards model. Current Core Curricula are usually a blend of each.

I want to spend a moment unpacking all this, initially focusing on outcome-based education.

Throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s educators became increasingly concerned about variations in quality and content of what was being taught in schools and at home. Measures in educational performance had tended to focus on, for instance, the amount of money being spent on education, the physical quality of institutions, the number of teachers in a school, and hours of contact time. Now attention focused on what was being taught. Or more accurately, what ‘should’ be taught. In response to ‘A Nation at Risk’ the Reagan administration in the US turned to educational theories which when gathered together formed what we now label ‘outcome-based education’. Other nations quickly followed suit.

The rationale behind all this was (and still is) that governments fund compulsory education and therefore it is not unreasonable that they should pay close attention to how money is being used.

Government departments want to make sure money is not being wasted teaching students subjects that don’t contribute to their well being and to the common good.

Behind this anxiety is a deep concern that the subjects being taught to students are relevant to life, preparing people for citizenship and the workforce. Additionally, as I mentioned a moment ago, there is a real concern over the unevenness of teaching quality.

Negatively stated, educators advising governments worry rightly about teacher performance. They simply don’t trust everyone who teaches in a classroom to do the best for our kids. Or put more positively, educators want to define what it is every student needs to be able to do when he or she leaves compulsory education.

This brings us to (1) outcome-based, and (2) standards education. Both reflect a top-down approach to education with light consultation with parents, schools, employers and communities making up civil society. More often than not ‘experts’ decided on an educational destination.

Staying with the first, outcome-based curricula are simple statements of what students are expected to know or will be able to do at the end or at particular points on an educational journey. Such curricula outline learning objectives but provide no road map for getting there. They have a degree of clarity, but not the tight definitions and wording of their cousin—standards curricula (2).

Four things follow from this: firstly, outcome-based curricula are thin on teaching method, and deliberately so. They do not recommend any particular style of teaching. Nor do they give guidelines for tests and assessments. All this is left to the teacher.

Secondly, outcome-based curricula only determine what competencies students should have when they leave school. They leave schools or teachers to backfill, designing their own curricula or syllabi for antecedent years.

The upside of this is teachers are trusted to develop their own content, exercising their own creativity and genius in delivering education (something that generally they love doing).

But the downside to this liberty for many educators and policymakers is it still leaves teachers with too much flexibility. Hence the push for standards in core curricula, which carry far more specific year-based detail than outcome-based curricula.

Outcome-based curricula (who knows why?) tend to focus on student ‘dispositions’ and ‘capabilities’. This leads to a classroom atmosphere characterised by enquiry and collaboration—with a teacher acting more as a prompt than an expert solely focused on transmitting particular forms of knowledge.

A fourth phenomenon of outcome-based curricula is a strong emphasis on formative assessment.

I will write separately on formative assessment (and on standards), but in a nutshell, it is a type of assessment that regularly ‘assesses’ how much progress a student has made.

The beauty of formative assessment is while it gives an accurate reading of our kids’ performance, it also clearly illustrates gaps in their learning. These gaps either highlight their failure to grasp good teaching, or just as likely, the failure of their teacher to teach well (formative evaluation).

Moreover, formative assessment allows for further teaching into those gaps and repeated assessment until a specific leaning outcome has been mastered.

Critics of formative assessment, with some justification, argue it undermines character by weakening our desire to struggle for success. Just being allowed to study, sit a test, fail, re-study, sit the test again, fail, re-study, sit the test again… pass, kills determination. It creates in us an unrealistic expectation of endless opportunity and perpetual success.

Critics also argue that the need for constant assessment and the development of new strategies for teaching something until a student has grasped it demoralises and burns out teachers. Witness the enormous numbers of teachers leaving the profession after only three years.

So what’s the general consensus with regard to outcome-based education, and how do I feel about it?

I like outcome-based education because it leaves teachers a great degree of freedom to develop material as they see fit. I like the personalisation that comes with this. It seems to me every class is different, and the best teachers take account of their students’ interests and communities when preparing their lessons. But like every parent and many policymakers, I fret over the competence of individual teachers, and concede the need for tighter definitions on what it is that the next generation should learn. The consensus is outcome-based education does not go far enough; there is a need for tighter control and ‘standards’.

I dislike the woolly language and edu-speak (edu-babble) that surrounds words like ‘dispositions’, ‘capabilities’ and ‘diversity’, but in an effort of patience try to understand what it is they point to and why educators believe they are valid.

I like collaboration and enquiry in the classroom, but also feel there is a very strong need for direct teaching. I think there are some things that need to be taught without wasting time. Consensus is not clear on this one; the debate on direct teaching over student-centred learning still rages.

I like formative assessment, but acknowledge the criticisms levelled at it and recognise the value of other forms of assessment, and the need for realism when it comes to time and learning. Consensus favours formative assessment.

Finally, I’m slightly sceptical with regard to the implementation of outcome-based learning and core curricula. Four questions in general haunt policymakers: (1) Is the thing we are thinking of introducing best-research informed? (2) Will it better the status quo? (3) Is its implementation achievable? (4) Does it fit or relate to present conditions? Of course, there are many other questions to ask, too. But the jury is out on whether policy implementation around out-comes based education and core curricula was duly diligent in relation to (1), (2) and (4).

Take away points: Core curricula and/or national curricula have been around for more than two decades. They were introduced in an effort to ensure all students in a given country learnt specific skills, knowledge and values. The first wave of core curricula adopted outcome-based education that described an educational destination, but did not provide a map for getting there. They gave parents and teachers latitude. More recent core curricula have adopted standards that are much more prescriptive. Both outcome-based education and standards favour collaborative work and enquiry, and formative assessment. Core curricula tend to reflect a top-down approach to education. Such prescription is not without thought, but it is risky.

Research: A first mover in outcome-based education: William G Spady. Outcome-Based Education: Critical Issues and Answers. Arlington, Va.: American Association of School Administrators, 1994.

A review of the Australian Curriculum, Final Report (October 2014)—a recent commissioned report on the Australian curriculum with an excellent summary of the educational thought and processes involved in developing the curriculum: http://docs.education.gov.au/system/files/doc/other/review_of_the_national_curriculum_final_report.pdf

Something that should just be taught: J S Bach, Cantata for 27th Sunday after Trinity (BWV140):

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