Table of contents:
Description of the background and context of the Australian Curriculum
Critical analysis of the Australian curriculum
Conclusion and recommendations
Curriculum is one of the most important elements of education system. A curriculum is essential in planning the education process and procedures such as terms, sessions and lesion periods over a given period of time (Lingard, 2010). In general, a curriculum encompasses a continuous chain of activities required to translate the goals of an education system into specific activities, materials and observable behavior changes. In other words, curriculum is a set of interrelated plans and experiences that students must complete under the guidance of the school or early childhood settings. Some studies defined a curriculum as the sum of all student experiences within the education process (Shewbridge, Santiago, Donaldson, & Herman, 2011). In this regard, curriculum consists of the interaction between students and the instructional content, materials, resources and processes in a manner that can assist in evaluation of education goals. In most cases, curricula are standardized and incorporate high level of autonomy of the learner and instructor. Most countries around the world including Australia have a curriculum that is used to act as a guide in primary and secondary education (Lupton, 2014).
Specifically, Australian curriculum can be described as a national curriculum used by all primary and secondary schools to realise progressive development, review and implementation of education activities and processes in Australia. Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) is an independent body tasked with the development and review of the Australian curriculum (ACARA, 2014). Currently, states and territories of Australia are engaged in implementation of various aspects of Foundation to Year 10 part of the curriculum. The curriculum contains expected performance outcomes and content for all Australian teachers and students. It also provides various strategies and tactics that can assist in delivering the objectives of education as well as behavioral changes which are necessary in acceleration of student learning. However, effective implementation of the curriculum can face numerous opportunities and challenges which significantly impact on the expected outcomes (Sharp, 2012).
For instance, in some cases the curriculum can be viewed to lack inclusiveness especially in a diverse country like Australia. In this regard, the author critically evaluated the history and implementation of Australian syllabus so as to determine its successes, opportunities and challenges it faces.
Description of the background and context of the Australian Curriculum
Australian curriculum was discussed for several decades before the 1980s when the Hawke federal government significantly pushed for a national curriculum. This government developed a draft document but was rejected by various state governments leading to dropping of the initiative in 1991 (Lingard, 2010). The discussion was revived under Prime Minister John Howard administration. Howard vouched for what he called ‘root and renewal’ of the teaching of Australian history at school level as most of the students were found to lack awareness of various historical events. In August 2006, the process of drafting a national history curriculum started where it was recommended that Australian History should form compulsory part of the curriculum in all Australian schools in years 9 and 10 (Preston, Harvie, & Wallace, 2015). However, the curriculum’s implementation failed to commence after Howard’s government was defeated in November 2007 elections. The new Rudd government revived the curriculum debate by establishing an independent National Curriculum Board in April 2008. In May 2009, the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) was formed to oversee the implementation of the proposed national curriculum initiative (ACARA, 2014).
The proposed curriculum was act as a guideline for teachers and educators on what they needed to teach their students. The curriculum outlined the subjects that need to be taught and methods that would ensure that all students have learnt the necessary materials (Lambert, 2016). After consultations, Rudd government committed to the development and implementation of the Foundation to Year 12 national curriculum in English, Mathematics, Science and History (Australian Government, 2018). After 2010, ACARA developed curriculum in other disciplines such as Geography, Arts and Languages, Information and Communication Technology, and Design and Technology, Health and Physical Education, Economics and Business, and Civics and Citizenship (ACARA, 2014). Australian curriculum is built on three pillars of learning areas, general capabilities and cross-curriculum priorities. For each learning area, the Australian Curriculum consists of content descriptions and achievement standards. That is, the curriculum outlines what teachers should teach at every level and methods and tactics that can be used to attain their goals. On the other hand, general capabilities include literacy, numeracy, information and communication technology competence, creative and critical thinking, ethical behavior, intercultural competence and personal and social competence (ACARA, 2014).
Critical analysis of the Australian curriculum
The Australian Curriculum priorities focus on the issues of reconciliation efforts with the Australia’s indigenous peoples, current and future economic and cultural ties with Asian countries and the role of Australia both locally and globally regarding sustainability (Australian Government, 2018). The interrelationships of three dimensions of Australian Curriculum acknowledges the traditional disciplinary knowledge and skills and also enable students to develop skills, values and dispositions which are essential for success in the modern world (ACARA, 2014). The curriculum has also been aligned with testing items outlined by the National Assessment Program. While the need to align curriculum content to assessment program is evident, studies showed that in many cases the expected outcomes are not realised. Some studies have attributed this disconnect to the many different agencies which are responsible for development of testing programs and those that engages in development of the curriculum. Other factors include the differences in curriculum reform initiatives and test item development as well the influence of international assessment programs such as Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) (Kadir, 2018).
Literacy and numeracy are two of the general capabilities highlighted in the Australian curriculum. Literacy is simply defined as the ability to read and write (Lingard, 2010). However, Kadir (2018) specifically focused on its broader interpretations especially in relation to areas such as functional literacy, digital literacy, legal literacy and information literacy among others. In all these interpretations, we find that the key to literacy is a progressive development of the ability to understand spoken words and decode written words culminating in a deeper understanding of the text. Critical analysis of the Australian Curriculum, however, indicate that there is a disproportionate messages focusing on the basic literacy approach with an orientation towards standardized assessments which relies on the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) (Preston, Harvie, & Wallace, 2015). The primary objectives of NASPLAN are to evaluate students’ literacy development progress based on the three domains of reading, writing and language conventions (ACARA, 2014). This assessment method endorses the universal perspectives of measuring literacy skills as administered in a range of education systems and settings.
From an interview I conducted on two students, it was clear that the interviewees had some concerns regarding the classroom assessment approaches. On of the student mentioned that, “the main obstacle in conducting classroom assessment is teachers’ limited time. In this limited time, teachers can just present their teaching content” (Student # 1). Student #2 expressed his agreement with the concern and explained that the limited time available to teachers could lead to slow learners being discriminated in assessments. In this regard, Student #2 proposed that, ‘Australia education system should implement standardized tests which integrates other techniques which the teacher considers to be appropriate for a particular classroom’. Lambert (2016) suggested that every class is unique and has students with different learning capabilities and thus assessments should not be universal but customised for every situation. The two interviewees also noted that universal, standardized assessments cause anxiety among learners as these tests are easily perceived as competition among classmates. Student #1 stated that, ‘as students we fight for the highest grade instead of fight for increasing our knowledge and understanding’. Student #2 touched on the same concept though using different words.
Qualitative dimensions of general capabilities within the Australian Curriculum have also drawn many criticisms on several occasions. For instance, critics claim that standardization of literacy assessments has compromised on critical literacy (Australian Government, 2018). Though the use of NAPLAN results to evaluate school quality is justified, there is need for every school to develop decontextualised basic skills approach to literacy. For example, literacy data used by various schools should reflect on students’ ability and the relationship between performance and socio-economic status of students. These school-specific factors should also reflect on the assessments of students. According to one of the interviewees, “educational content proposed by the curriculum does not reflect the learners’ needs; therefore, learners’ involvement in classroom tasks is very limited. As a result, teachers waste valuable resources in attempts to motivate learners to participate in classroom activities leading to anxieties for both teachers and students during assessments” (Student #2). Student #1 indicated that the anxiety among teachers can also arise from the confusion regarding the objectives and expected outcomes from these assessments.
Australia Curriculum also aims at ensuring that the students become numerate. That is, the curriculum should facilitate development of knowledge and skills which enable students to confidently use mathematics across different learning areas and in their lives in general (Kadir, 2018). In this regard, ACARA defines numeracy as set of knowledge, skills, behaviors and dispositions that students should use in a wide range of situations and should encompass recognition and understanding the role of mathematics in the contemporary world thus apply mathematics skills purposefully (ACARA, 2014). In the F-10 Australian Curriculum, elements of numeracy include use of spatial reasoning, interpretation of statistical information, use of measurements, estimation and calculation of numbers, recognition and application of patterns and relationships and use of fractions, decimals, percentages, ratios and rates. However, among students, I found that the understanding of numeracy and its purpose was relatively different to what the curriculum purports. For instance, the interviewees did not understand that numeracy was a broader concept than mathematics. Student #1 described the difference between numeracy and mathematics as, “both are the use of numbers. There is little, if any, difference, except terminology and where it is used”. Student #2 could not decipher any difference and simply stated, “I'd never really given it much thought before now. Both scare me!!! I genuinely have no idea. I would guess that numeracy is the language that allows us to engage in mathematics”. From this interview, I conclude that though the curriculum intends to develop numeracy skills, there is still a lot to be done to ensure that all students understand what these skills really entails.
From the interview data, it is my view that term numeracy as used in the NAPLAN or Australian Curriculum context is not appropriate and is adding confusion to the students and even the teaching community. NAPLAN assessment approach simply views numeracy as a measure of the students’ mathematics achievement and the progress in the implementation of the mathematics curriculum (ACARA, 2014). Compared to various international testing regimes, we find that there are opportunities for numeracy development in the Australian Curriculum. OECD defines numeracy as the capacity of an individual to formulate, apply and interpret mathematics in multiple contexts. It consists of reasoning from a mathematical perspective and applying various mathematical concepts, procedures, facts and tools to describe and explain and predict different phenomena. Numeracy skills should assist the learners to acknowledge the role of mathematics in the contemporary world and make well-founded judgments and decisions which are necessary for one to be constructive, engaging and reflective (Scarino et al., 2018). On the other hand, PISA defines numeracy as quantitative reasoning. Similarly, OECD’s Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) defined numeracy as “the ability to access, use, interpret and communicate mathematical information and ideas in order to engage in and manage the mathematical demands of a range of situations in adult life” (Hipwell & Klenowski, 2011, p. 140). From these definitions, we can conclude that numeracy should be about management of a situation and solving a problem in real content by relying on mathematical ideas as presented in several ways. In the Australian Curriculum context, mathematics still remains the basic reference for numeracy assessments and skills with tests focusing on proficiency of students on strands such as number and algebra, measurements and geometry and statistics and probability instead of their application in real life.
Acknowledging the need to align the curriculum and the national testing programs, Australia is currently engaged in debate on how to change its national tests and the nature of the data to be gathered from the tests. Australia intends to move away from standardized testing platform has received numerous criticisms and is considered to be incapable of helping the country to achieve its curriculum goals (Scarino et al., 2018). Currently, Australia Curriculum is faced with numerous challenges such as lack of access to computer networks which are capable of handling technological and bandwidth requirements, lack of a collaborative platform for storage and management of assessment programmes, inequality in access to appropriate education tools especially among students with various forms of disability and insufficient number if test items that can ensure that student capabilities are evaluated independently (Scarino et al., 2018). These challenges differ from location, cultures, schools and students. In some cases, the challenges were found to be insignificant. However, implementing curriculum initiative that addresses these challenges would lead to significant gains. For instance, such an initiative will ensure more precise information on students’ capabilities are provided, student performance results are interpreted based on individual learning and development needs and increased engagement of students in the testing process (Hipwell & Klenowski, 2011). It can also lead to making testing program more individualized thus reducing marginalization within the education sector.