National Curriculum – where are we headed?

I went to a briefing last night regarding the National Curriculum and progress that is being made in relation to the major curriculum changes that will be changing the face of education in Australia. It was delivered by Tony Mackay, who is the Deputy Chair of the National Curriculum Board. I’d read the recent ‘Shape of the  Australian Curriculum’ report and felt quite positive about the direction it was taking.

I’m OK with the idea of a National Curriculum. I think the idea of it reflects the kind of country we are. We occupy a vast landscape, but I feel that most people are unified and take pride in calling themselves Australians. (That, of course, is my take and my take only.)  I, for one, don’t mind the fact that they are proposing quite a bit of focus on understanding the history of our country and our Asian counterparts. I do think it important to have a grounding in the history of our country and the region we inhabit.

What was troublesome for me after last night’s meeting was the apparent increase in testing, similar to Naplan testing that exists now,  that is going to result from a shift to a National Curriculum. The message I was receiving suggests that our students are going to be tested in quite a few areas, possibly four, on a regular basis. As a mother of a 10 year old,  who was quite stressed about the recent round of  Naplan testing, I’m not relishing the idea of putting our kids through more of it. Nor am I liking the idea from a teacher’s perspective. The suggestion made by Tony Mackay was that the tests would be cyclical. My reading of that was that we would test kids on differing subjects every second year, effectively meaning that our kids are going to face rounds of Naplan tests every year of their school lives from at least Grade three up. Maybe I’m wrong about that and I’m happy to stand corrected.  

My other concern is just what is going to be done with the data. Will schools be compared regardless of their socioeconomic locale? Will funding be tied to making sure the testing is done? Will schools be economically disadvantaged if they aren’t performing? Will our curriculum lack innovation if we find schools teaching to the tests because they are fearful of underperforming and having the data used against them? 

I used my Livescribe pen last night to record the session. I am seriously impressed with the pen. You need to use special paper to write your notes on and the pen records the audio. You then upload the data from the pen to your computer, both notes and audio. You can then pinpoint any part of the text and the audio will replay from that part of the session. You can do this just using the pen and notebook too. If you upload your recording to Livescribe online you can share the session with friends or share the link. I’m going to link to it below so you can get a feel for what it is. Excuse my messy handwriting and packed page of notes. I wasn’t sure if you needed to stop recording when you started a new page so I stuck to the one. I’ve since found out you don’t have to. (You can get one from IT made simple if you’re interested. And no, I’m not taking commission for that plug!)  

The session was being videoed for upload to a website, so I’m not concerned about linking to it here. If I were at a PD where it wasn’t already being recorded I would think it only fitting that you seek the permission of the speaker before you did so.

Take a listen and see what you think.

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18 Replies to “National Curriculum – where are we headed?”

  1. Hi Jenny

    A couple of anecdotes from the recent bout of Naplan testing with my ‘academically weak’ Year 9 class (“oh no, we don’t do streaming…no, no” ):

    Story 1.
    “Sir, can you read this question for me, I don’t understand it.”

    “Sorry ‘Peter’, I am not allowed.”

    “Well that sucks then, how are supposed to learn stuff if you can’t even help us.”

    Story 2.
    “I’m done!” (‘Sam’, 3 minutes into the 70 minute test).

    “‘Sam’, sure you want to check your answers at least, give it more of a go.”

    “Nah, it’s not for grades anyway.”

    “Oh, so you do care about grades.”

    “Nah, not really Sir, I just like the stories and stuff, my mum doesn’t really give a shit about it anyway.”

    Story 3
    “Ah, this is the test that shows us how stupid we are. I am not doing it.”

    Story 4
    “Sir, but I don’t understand some words because my English is not so good.”

    “OK, ‘Eliza” just do your best, it’s OK.”

    😦 (student face, blushed)

    Story 5
    “So if I don’t do well in test, does this mean I won’t go to better class?”

    I have more… maybe next time.
    Measuring the cow does not make it fatter.

    Sorry, haven’t listened to your magic pen 😀

    Take care. Tomaz

    1. Thanks so much for sharing these experiences Tomas. This is what worries me; the heavies at the top making decisions about schools, when they don’t experience at the coalface the difficulties some students have with understanding. How does a test like Naplan make kids feel good about themselves and instill confidence? It does the exact opposite for many. Is that what education is supposed to be about?

  2. Thanks for the link Jenny; I enjoyed the audio and I’m pleased that you’ve posted it since I was meant to be there and didn’t make it. The fancy little magic pen looks pretty good, a bit like the record feature in OneNote using the tablet.

    On the national curriculum agenda, Tony Mckay is an unashamed fan-boy of the whole thing. I’ve got serious doubts, and the assessment is an important part of my reservation.

    1. Glad you got to hear it Warrick. I’m with you; the assessment component will be the complex part of the equation. We don’t want to get the formula wrong.

  3. I agree Jenny! I hope this doesn’t mean we go back to a ‘spoon fed’ curriculum, where we spend our time teaching children to pass teats. Have you read Hooray for Diffendoofer Day! by Dr. Seuss ? It’s a great read! Cheers Nina

    1. Actually heard it for the first time at The Australian College of Educators Digital Fair when it was read at the introduction to the conference. don’t know how I’d missed it – thought I had Dr.Suess covered!

  4. Its easy to make orbital statements about 21C skills. I worry that it has called itself an ‘authority’. Authority is not demanded anymore it’s earned. They seem to have no details and no implimentation plan. I assume they will just throw it at teachers and tell them they need to ‘rise’ to the challenge again. They got $16m in NSW to figure this out – stop orbiting the problem and tell us what how they are going to do it.

    Any idiot can put motherhood statements in a policy; very few can bring it to scale and earn their Authority though personal reputation and capital. I’d love to show ’em, but not for free. Time to change the terms of reference; learn from General Motors; it’s not the product – it’s decades of poor management.

    Nice idea – not workable (yet) unless they get very real, very fast. You know this Jenny, you’re doing it already. Love the pen demo by the way.

    1. They are saying they are going to be using collaborative documents/tools to shape this curriculum. What is needed is educators getting involved right now to have their voice heard. It requires action on the part of people in education. I wonder how many teachers are fully aware of the developments and how many of them have the energy and drive to get involved.

  5. Thanks for this article. The official line is that the actual implementation of the National Curriculum is a State decision and this includes the assessment component. The potential conflict is that NSW and VIc have external year 12 exams while some other states do not. It is hard to see both systems continuing.

    1. Tony Mackay had trouble addressing this issue and it was apparant that a lot more work needs to be done in relation to the Senior years end of a National Curriculum framework. Just how long this process will take and whether or not a common model can be adopted will be the interesting part.

  6. Hi Jenny,
    Have you been following the discussion on the English Companion Ning about what’s happening with all the testing in the US? (Here’s a link. It’s frightening, and it seems from what you’re saying that we’re in danger of falling into the same nightmare.

    1. I haven’t seen it so I will check it out Steve. It is worrying; we as teachers working in schools need to keep abreast of developments and ensure we have a voice in the process.

  7. Hi Jenny, I think you are right to be worried. I wrote a post on some thoughts about this a while ago. (Video – not on the test) Even if some really worthwhile testing options were to occur, I am worried that things will get hijacked by those with particular/vested interests.
    “We often have politicians and those in the media discussing testing students. We now have national tests in literacy and numeracy, NAPLAN. Whilst this has been common place in America, England and other countries 2008 was the first time we had the same test Australia-wide.

    There seems to be a requirement to take the results and then to rank schools and students. These league tables, for example, do not show entry skill levels and can be quite misleading. Schools are still expected to report on student achievement in national tests in their annual reports which, at least in Victoria, are published on the schools website. The socio-economic background of the students, the wealth of the school and the the opportunities the school can offer its students is not a consideration.

    To help the student perform better will teachers spend some time or a lot of time teaching the students how to do well in the test, preparing them as well as they can, by teaching about the test language? In other words, will they be teaching to the test? What are they then teaching about things that are less easily put onto a test? Wider, broader concepts or more local priorities?

    There is a case for teaching kids how to approach tests/exams. The test language and the unfamiliar test conditions can be off-putting and difficult for students. The best tests provide some data to teachers/educators that enable them to better target resources to those students most in need of additional support and point to areas for extension for those that do well. They therefore can be instrumental in adding the curriculum development in schools. They are just another means to help teachers best prepare their students for life. The poor tests will result in unfair targeting, finger pointing and lead to the subject of the song in the video. They will not provide a good basis for the education of our young people.” There was a humorous video (US) about testing you might like to have a look at.

    1. Thanks Rhonda for adding to the conversation. I appreciate you incorporating your post here for others to read. You mention league tables; these were mentioned frequently with disdain on the night of the briefing. It does seem that many of us at the grassroots level hold grave concerns.

  8. Almost the same day you wrote the post, I wrote a post about what has been happening in the US.

    In fact, we are trying to change the system as it: 1)pits teachers against parents
    2)creates an atmosphere of high pressure testing for the students, making it particularly difficult for students of low income, with disabilities, children of immigrants or first generation schooling, or test anxiety
    3) develops students that will only do what is needed for the test (at the university level, my students will only do work that will be graded, with the focus on performance, not on learning)
    4) destroys creativity in the classroom as all are expected to learn the same way
    5) creates a sense of competition

    You should look at the data on the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation in the US. After 10 years of data, the standardization movement has made things worse rather than better. A better model to look at is the Brazillian model in which there is a community based development of curriculum (bottom up rather than top down) and learning standards. If I were you, I would fight as hard as possible, getting parent groups involved NOW to come up with a system that fits Australia rather than taking a system that France threw out in the 1960’s and the US is fighting to change after 8 years of a system that has made schooling worse rather than better.

    The biggest problem with this system is that it is hard to reconcile the different contexts to come up with a common standard. In New York state, for example, we have a real divide between the contexts of New York City (urban with large immigrant populations), the wealthier suburbs of NY City, the poor rural areas of the Mountain areas in New York state (where there is a high drop out rate and a small gene pool where many never leave the area over many generations), central NY state which has undergone a huge loss of population and jobs, and the massive farm lands (many time small family owned farms) throughout the state. Usually, the curriculum is dictated by those in NY City and its suburbs and are not significant for the rest of the state.

    You can see how these tests are used in NY state at We had the same promises you had in terms of tests not being used for individual assessments or teachers, and yet, my daughter’s placement in advanced classes was based on her performance on the New State tests. Finally, a lot of the money that would have gone into instruction or instructional resources now go into “measuring learning.” Those financial resources include having to hire (usually at a salary at twice an average teachers) statistics experts, implementing data collection software and systems, training teachers on the “test”, developing new texts that fit the new curriculum, and requiring new content knowledge for teachers rather than focusing on new teaching methods.

    1. Thank you so much for your informed reply Virginia. These are my exact concerns. Your final paragraph encompasses much that is wrong with the introduction of such a system. Money being pumped into maintaining a testing culture rather than the fostering of an innovative learning culture that will truly benefit students. I’ll follow the links and read your post.

  9. Jenny, as my previous post was a bit long, one point which might have been lost is to make sure you start working with parent groups NOW. Standardized testing tends to pit one group against the other, and with parental input (thus voter input) at this stage, parents can’t be mislead by politicians and the media about the real impact on their children. Make sure you educate parents on the impact this has had on parents and students in other countries and that you all have the same outcome in mind: educating the children to give them opportunities in life. Advocate parents get involved in the discussions WITH the teachers now to ensure there is less finger pointing in the future when things go wrong (i.e. teachers saying parents aren’t supporting them in children’s learning while parents are saying teachers aren’t doing their job).

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