I have a confession. I have been in education for a long time now. I started my teaching journey in Western Australia, in 1987 as a career change teacher. Over that time, I have seen several curricula come and go. In WA, at the start of my teaching career we had the Achievement Certificate. This was followed by the Unit curriculum in 1988 and then in 1998 the Curriculum Framework. The documents still sit on my book shelf, placeholders of historical interest, more than any other reason!
So, when I read the freshly released Gonski 2.0, my head started buzzing, ‘but we’ve done this, we’ve been here before!’
Let me give you just a couple of examples.
Individualized instruction, one of the first recommendations of Gonski 2.0, was part of the mantra of both the Unit Curriculum (1988), and the Curriculum Framework (1998). I particularly liked this focus in the Curriculum Framework, which was all about establishing the “learning outcome for all students, regardless of who they are, which school they attend, where they are from, or what approach their school takes to help them achieve those outcomes.” (p. 6). It was about inclusivity, diversity, and developing a learning environment that recognized that all students learn differently and in a different time frame. Wait, what? You mean it might take some students longer to learn than others?
The 7 key principles of the Curriculum Framework, reflect many of the recommendations in Gonski 2.0, including the need for developing Collaboration and Partnerships, with fellow teachers, parents and the broader community.
Individualized instruction was also at the heart of the Unit Curriculum. I have written about the history of the Unit Curriculum elsewhere — but again, this was a curriculum developed along many of the same Gonski 2.0 principles, including school control over curriculum (sound familiar), opportunities to match curriculum to the breadth and depth of the needs of the students, their diversity, and staff flexibility, so students could progress at their own rate. As a first year out teacher, I was not alone in facing a year 8 class that had students completing a breadth of general English units, 2.1, 3.1 and 4.1 — depending on their ability and needs.
Depth opportunities encouraged students with a strong interest in a subject to explore the world around them. This meant that students who needed longer at Stage 2, could complete up to 4 units, or more, whilst those who were more able, for example in English, could start at Stage 3 or 4 and quickly whizz through to go to the depth units, studying short stories, magazine writing or writing for radio.
School-based Curriculum development
The Unit Curriculum also gave the opportunity for school principals to cater specifically for the needs of individual or groups of students. Innovative teachers were often given the chance to write school-based units of study . I myself had my first go at writing curriculum in those heady days, as I wrote a unit at Stage 4 for a group of 9s and 10s, struggling at school, marking time before heading into an apprenticeship. We called it Writing for Work and it became a very popular ‘depth’ unit for those heading into the workforce.
Even the first round of the Australian Curriculum was more focused on students’ individual progress, with teachers having the opportunity to develop new units, create resources, and choose how and what to teach. But as government policy has developed, often in response to parental demand (A to E reporting), and regressive assessment policies (NAPLAN), the flexibility has left the system. Today teachers are teaching very much according to a proscribed plan. I was struck by this in my recent foray into teaching, where I observed that all English classes in a year level were teaching the same thing, at the same time, with the same assessments. In taking on a high school English class, I was given a week by week plan for what to teach and the resources required. It also included a copy of the task and rubric, and a plan for pilot marking for moderation purposes.
Maybe I have been in this teaching game too long. But I must agree with Glenn Savage, in his response to Gonski 2.0, the idea that our education “problems” (declining student achievement, blah, blah, blah) are going to be solved by yet another radical national overhaul of curriculum, feels a bit like Groundhog Day. I am also reminded of Seymour Sarason’s 1971 quote about reforming education, when he wrote “the more things change, the more they stay the same”.
In my own review of Western Australian curriculum history, conducted in 1999, I found that there is no education system which can cater successfully for all its students. And so, we have another Government Report, and another suggestion for radical significant change. But I would conclude today, as I have done there, on the basis of historical evidence, this too will not completely meet the needs of all students.