As part of high school history I remember learning about Woodrow Wilson, the US President a century ago. Woodrow’s 14-point plan, the Treaty of Versailles and League of Nations. These are some of the headlines you keep with you from school as you trundle through life.
Recently though, I discovered a statement widely attributed to Wilson that resonates today: “It is easier to move a cemetery than to change a curriculum.”
School curriculum rightly changes slowly. It can be argued that the foundations of knowledge in many key subjects have been with us for hundreds or thousands of years. No need then to be cavalier in pulling the school curriculum apart to cater for the latest transient enthusiasm in education.
In NSW, the landmark Wyndham Report of 1957 reshaped secondary education in a highly significant way, creating the Higher School Certificate. A review in 1989, Excellence and Equity, looked at the structure and content of the curriculum. And attempts to develop a national curriculum over the past decade have also had some impact on what is taught in NSW schools. Some subjects have had regular syllabus changes, others have moved at a more glacial pace.
Many would argue our curriculum has remained largely static while the world outside is being transformed. The world young people will enter is transforming at blinding speed. A combination of globalisation and technological innovation means many jobs will disappear while new jobs will be created. The only thing we can confidently predict is that citizens of the future will experience constant and ongoing change throughout their working lives.
The old model of education where you learned and then you worked has long gone. Work will be a place of lifelong learning. School is where we set the foundation for that continuous learning journey.
In some ways we can see clearly into the future. Literary and numeracy skills will remain vital, for they are the foundations of learning. So too will the ability to acquire deep knowledge and mastery of areas of knowledge. Most would add there are general capabilities vital in a workplace and communities of the future: creativity, critical thinking, collaboration and communication skills among others.
And because it will be a future filled with challenge and change, a growth mindset will be important – ensuring young people have the strength and resilience to take on the unknown, master the new, fail and try again.
But how do we structure a curriculum to do all this? How much should be dictated by the NSW Education Standards Authority and how much should be left to schools and teachers in classrooms? And how would we know students are improving every year in school?
These are all issues for exploration under the review into the NSW curriculum which is now underway. Led by Australian Council for Education Research CEO Geoff Masters, this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to think through what we should be teaching and for teachers to consider how they may best teach it.
Many of the debates triggered by curriculum reform are false dichotomies. Our students will need deep knowledge and to develop soft skills using that knowledge base. They will need to work intently on their own and collaborate in teams. They should cultivate a confidence in the classics and the creative opportunities of the latest technology.
This being education, there will be different points of view and Dr Masters does not have an easy task. Education never suffers from lack of dogmatic commentary.
In doing this work, it is vital that most weight is given to the voices of experts. This means listening to researchers studying how best to improve teaching and learning outcomes. And those thinking deeply about how the demands of society are changing.
But importantly, we need to listen to those experts working with children every day. Those teaching and creating learning experiences in schools will have great insights into how to best engage students and lift student performance. There will be much to learn from the field.
It is a view well expressed by leading educational researcher, Professor Dylan Wiliam, who said: “Our world is becoming more and more complex, and so higher and higher levels of educational achievement will be needed to be in control of one’s own life, to understand one’s culture, to participate meaningfully in democracy and to find fulfilling work.”
So how best do we prepare these future citizens in the face of greater complexity and a more demanding world? What a timely and important conversation to be having now.