Last week I spent three days thinking about curriculum and all that it means to teaching and learning thanks to the Australian Curriculum Studies Association’s biannual conference. It was three days of deeply thoughtful conversation and learning with just the right mix of academic research and ideas for grounded practice straight out of innovative classrooms and schools. With keynotes by Alan Reid, Dan Haesler, Bob Lingard, Robert Randall and Jan Owen combined with Masterclasses from some of Australia’s leading educators there was much on offer. The biggest challenge was deciding which workshop you would attend when every session offered such outstanding opportunities.
One of the very clear take-aways from the three days is that there is a great pool of talent and wisdom within the Australia’s education profession. Our educators are passionate, informed, thoughtful and knowledgeable, they are enthusiastic and driven to meet the challenges of these times of chaos, complexity and change head on and they always put the needs of their learners first. With so much professional wisdom to draw upon Australia should be leading the world. Unfortunately too often the key decisions are made in isolation from the professionals who know best, by politicians and policy makers without adequate consultation with the expertise within the profession.
It is also apparent that Australia has an equity issue when it comes to education. This is the conversation that is lacking from the national agenda of education reform with its focus on blaming teachers and schools for a supposed decline in Australia’s ranking on international assessments. What is also shown by this data is that more interesting questions about the distribution of academic achievement are revealed. Socio-economic status has in Australia a significant impact on educational achievement and the achievement gap between those with low and high SES is greater in Australia than in many other countries. We need to engage in conversations about why this is so what might be done about it.
Innovation is happening in Australian schools and it is happening across sectors, sections and locations. Greg Miller is the founding Principal of St Luke’s Catholic College in Marsden Park a school with a clear vision and a desire to explore what is achievable when building a school from the ground up. Their vision statement reveals a thoughtful imagining of what is possible; "With a commitment to ‘Live the Good News’, St Luke’s nurtures faith-filled, curious children to become creative contributors and innovative problem solvers for a changing world.” With his team of educators Greg is creating a culture for learning backed by the structures and spaces which best serve their collaboratively set goals. This is a team of educators who will not be held back by ideas of what education should be like.
Kurri Kurri High School realised that their Year Seven students were not engaged with their education so they made changes, big changes. They engaged with an expert, listened to their teams, noticed what was happening and implemented a new model that disrupted the norms. In place of the traditional timetable and typical class structure they moved to a model that integrates interdisciplinary learning, collaborative teaching and matches the structure of the class to the learning intentions. Students spend their time in Hubs, Pods and Huddles. A Hub involves up to sixty students learning with three teachers and this allows for the teacher with the most expertise in the learning at hand to lead while the other two move into the role of expert learners with the students. From Hubs, students move to Pods with up to 20 students and one teacher and here learning becomes increasingly targeted on the individual. Huddles are a group of three students with an emphasis on metacognition and reflective practice. With learning spaces adjusted to suit and aspects of consistent pedagogy and identification of non-negotiable learning across disciplines students benefit from a learning platform that drives their learning forward. The best indicator of their success is the manner in which students are able to describe where they are with their learning journey, what got them there and where they need to go next.
There are schools building communities of practice to identify and target goals that matter to them. Hilltop Road Public school identified a need to target how their students articulated their learning. This resulted in an action research project which targeted metacognition and was led by the school’s executive team functioning as a community of practice rather than a more traditional leadership team; a team of learners exploring what was most needed and what would suit their context. Lakemba Public school implemented observational rounds to develop and evolve collaboratively constructed lessons. A team of teachers plan a lesson together; one member of the team delivers it to a class with the other team members observing. At the end of the lesson everyone involved in planning the lessons discusses what worked and what can be improved. Critique of the lesson is open as it comes from those responsible for planning it.
Strategies for leadership and change management were shared. Dan Haesler challenged us with questions from Appreciative Inquiry, questions we do not normally ask but ones which encourage real reflection on our practice. “When are we at our best?”, "Now wouldn’t it be great if . . “, “What’s stopping us . . “ and “What do you want to do?”. By beginning with a reflection of what we like most about our current context and exploring ideas that evolve from that with a clear expectation that we do dwell on obstacles early in the process, we arrived at a set of actionable possibilities stated in language that would assist with implementation. Cameron Paterson had us engage in five minutes of free writing as a way of exploring a problem related to leadership, curriculum or innovation. This is a strategy Cameron uses with his students when he wants them to think deeply about a topic before exploring it in a more collaborative setting. Five minutes of focused writing without the option to stop or pause brings a new dimension to the task of writing and encourages ideas to flow and take charge unhindered by the usual demands of accurate spelling and grammar; this is pure ideation. With a paragraph of ideas we moved into small groups and utilised the Brainstorming Possibilities Protocol to share a puzzle and gather potential solutions.
A highlight was Professor Alan Reid sharing his ideas for the evolution of the Australian Curriculum. One of his recommendations cut to the core of much of the current debate in education around which pedagogical methods supposedly have the most effect. Professor Reid recommends ACARA works to minimise the negative effects of the artificial split between curriculum and pedagogy. This split ensures that a content heavy curriculum and its associated assessments will dictate a mode of pedagogy which best serves learning of this content. A curriculum with greater emphasis on dispositions of learning, problem finding, solving and inquiry would be better served by a pedagogy that facilitates these modes of learning. Until the curriculum aligns with pedagogies which target dispositions for learning we are likely to be confronted by research that favours pedagogies that best serve knowledge building. Bob Lingard described the binary of contemporary curriculum concerns which must balance what knowledge students ought to know and what sort of people they ought to become. This all points to the heart of the question that seems to have always confronted education: What and whose purposes does education serve?
Other voices rounded out the conference. We heard the story of a refugee from Deena Yako and were challenged to seek a richer understanding of the backgrounds of the students we teach. Deena encouraged us to acknowledge the culture of our students and to not shy away from conversations about the culture and the worlds that refugees have left behind them; to allow them to share their past and their memories of their home. Omar Musa challenged our thinking with his poetry. Confronting and gritty, Omar’s poetry shines a light on Australian life that many of us turn a blind eye to; the lives of the disaffected and marginalised youth living in our suburbs away from the privileged, romanticised ideals of Australia as a land of opportunity and yet through his words he shares a deep patriotism and desire to make his home a better place for all.
And finally, the conference was a great opportunity to connect with other educators and share stories. We are a community of learners with a passion to share our practice and in doing so we make the profession stronger. The future of the Australian Curriculum matters and needs to be high on the list of priorities for all educators. We can either sit by and let it along with assessment and teacher accreditation be things that happen to us, or we can unite and shape these things in the way that we know will best serve the needs of our learners. Bob Lingard's call to action is profound, “You don’t want to be the one who knew change was needed but didn’t do anything about it”.
By Nigel Coutts