So Many Dates, So Little Time

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Today the Federal Government has released a key part of its "Education revolution": the draft Australian Curriculum for students from Kindergarten to Year 10.

But while there’s a lot to like in the document, it also raises some serious concerns about how achievable a curriculum like this will be in a real-world setting, where what can be taught is limited by class time and by teachers’ professional learning.

The first thing the curriculum does is lay a few ghosts to rest. In its dying months, the Howard government launched a plan to make Australian History compulsory for Years 9 and 10. The Howard plan presented its "Guide to Teaching Australian History in Years 9 and 10" as the definitive framework for teaching no fewer than 70 milestones in Australian History. The "guide" was inextricably linked to Howard’s well-known views on what should be taught in Australian History courses and in many ways completed the educational trifecta of the Howard administration with the "Civics and Citizenship Education" and "Values Education".

After its scrapping, Professor Tony Taylor described the guide as "too close to a nationalist view of Australia’s past". It had been clear that such a parochial view of Australian History would not fit into the new government’s "Education Revolution". It was also clear that Gillard and Rudd’s "National Curriculum" would ensure that the common history curriculum being developed for Kindergarten to Year 12 would teach a wider-ranging history than the narrow focus on Australia contained in Howard’s guide.

The draft national curriculum released today (now called the "Australian Curriculum") aims to present "the nation’s history within a regional and world history context, as well as presenting regional and world history from the national perspective".

This draft is the culmination of the work that the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA — the former National Curriculum Board) has undertaken over the last 18 months. In terms of the History document, the concerns raised will be reasonably predictable. The one that will be asked most in the media will be whether Australian students will learn particular facts in Australian History, a concern that has almost reached the point of fetishisation for the popular press. (How many times have you seen an unsuspecting public bombarded with probing questions such as "What was the name of Australia’s first prime minister?")

A look at today’s draft should reassure "concerned parties" that students from Kindergarten to Year 10 will get a chance to learn plenty of history. Anzac Day, exploration, Federation, Indigenous history, Industrial Revolution, World Wars, the Holocaust, South Pacific history are all there — in fact it is difficult to find something that is not included.

This sheer scope is the first of many elements in this draft curriculum that will have to be revised over the next few months until it is a workable document that can be implemented in schools by the beginning of 2011.

In the primary years, for example, it is proposed that students, particularly from Years 3–6, will cover what seems a very comprehensive history of Australia. This includes the histories of First Australians, colonisation of Australia and its subsequent effects upon all groups of people, Australian government, Australia’s place within the British Empire, Australia’s place within the Asia-Pacific region and immigration to Australia — all before the student has reached high school.

This is not to say that students at this stage of learning are incapable of acquiring such knowledge relevant to each of these topics, however it does raise a question of whether such an ambitiously sweeping coverage of historical content may hinder the delivery of what the Government refers to as this "world-class" curriculum. There is not much use in aiming to cover vast amounts of historical knowledge if there isn’t enough time to develop the skills which are inherent to the discipline and which are highlighted in the Rationale and Aims of the History curriculum draft document.

A similar problem, and one which is more likely to alarm teachers, is the vast amount of content that is supposed to be covered in secondary school (Years 7—10). While ACARA should be applauded for wanting to implement a "world history" approach which will enable students to engage in a rich study of world history, the workload, particularly in Years 9 and 10, will be closely scrutinised. In its very inclusive consultative process ACARA had clear feedback that this workload was untenable. It’s feedback that they now need to pay attention to.

It seems unlikely that this content can be covered in a way which preserves the integrity of a "world class" curriculum, with states and territories yet to commit to its adoption or to the amount of time it will be allocated within an already hectic curriculum.

Another factor that will be crucial to the delivery of this Australian curriculum is the skills, interest and expertise of teachers themselves. The History Teachers’ Association of Australia has consistently argued that teachers need the academic background and/or recreational interest in the discipline in order to deliver such rich courses. There is no use having a curriculum that endeavours to instil complex knowledge and skills without teachers possessing the expertise to teach it.

It was originally promised that today’s draft would include "some annotated work samples", but that has not happened. As well, there were reassurances that the draft would be the kind of document that could be easily interpreted by "early career" teachers, yet that is apparently not the case. A full curriculum document, it is fair to expect, would assist in showing how teachers can teach the curriculum.

This is a draft document and therefore — in theory — it has the capacity to be improved upon. Hopefully, by the time the final draft is released, the support that classroom practitioners will need to deliver this program will also be more fully developed.

The public are invited to provide feedback on all of the curriculum documents until May, which leaves plenty of time for them to express the concerns that they may well feel.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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