OPINION: NSW Curriculum Review – ‘Nurturing wonder’ and ‘igniting passion’?

July 22, 2020

By Sophie Poisel – Innovation Leader K-6 (on leave) | spoisel@emanuelschool.nsw.edu.au

It is exciting that we are thinking about reforming education to prepare our students for their futures. It is exciting that the vision behind the proposed changes to NSW Curriculum includes to ‘nurture wonder and ignite passion’. And it is exciting that the important voices of students and teachers were engaged in the Review process. However, the NSW Curriculum Review lacks proposed action to turn this vision into reality. It also assumes that curriculum change is the solution we need to address the problems of a 19th century education model as we move through the 21st century.


I’ve been grappling with this document for a week and reading commentary from educators and the response from the government. There are some things to be positive about, some things which are disappointing, and some things educators will want to watch closely.


The best feature of the Review is its Vision, which could inspire all educators with hope for the future, citing ‘wonder’, ‘passion’, ‘lifetime of learning’ and ‘effective future citizenship’. While it sounds great, it isn’t a far cry from the goals of the Melbourne Declaration from 2008. Twelve years later, it is certainly a good thing that we are thinking boldly about reforming education, but the Review lacks proposed action to turn this vision into reality. 


It is great that the Review acknowledges that teacher autonomy and student interest improve educational outcomes. Significant consultation with educators highlights the need for greater flexibility in the curriculum, along with what, when and how they teach. This would allow for greater personalisation, student agency and interest. Educators also called for more time for students to apply their knowledge and skills to meaningful projects. And they called for release from the heavy demands of administration and compliance paperwork which takes them away from teaching and learning. The research on global education reform, contained in the Review, offered similar directions towards teacher autonomy and flexibility in the curriculum.


The proposed changes to the curriculum document fall short of turning the vision of ‘nurturing wonder and igniting passion’ into a reality. In a student’s early years, this comes down to a priority of oral language development, early reading, writing and mathematics knowledge and skills. It is not until the middle years that every student is met with “appropriately challenging learning material”. And not until the senior years where students are offered opportunities to “pursue personal interests and strengths”. 


It has been disheartening to read the NSW Government’s response and to hear the old phrase “back to basics” chanted by our Premier and across the media. The report clearly states the problems with rote learning – including student disengagement, often associated with a back-to-basics approach. It also includes an ambiguous statement that ‘students should not spend inordinate amounts of time on reading and mathematics to the exclusion of other disciplines’, but that they must be ‘prioritised’. It will be interesting to see what this looks like in practice.


There is however a focus on the flexible progression through new syllabus documents that is not restricted to age. While this is not a new concept (it was posed in 2018 in the Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools) it is one of the most interesting elements. This will also pose an interesting logistical challenge for teachers managing a new set of curricula and working across different levels of the same document for each set of students they teach.


Even if this Curriculum Review was everything we needed it to be, it would not resolve the systemic problems in education in Australia. What this Review does not address are issues of equity, including achievement gaps and the impact of the first 1000 days of a child’s life on learning or the 19th century model of education or the status of teaching as a profession. Solving these problems is expensive and disruptive, but it is where governments should focus their attention, not pretending more reviews are a panacea. While the Review does pose some interesting ideas, curriculum change is not enough to fix our education system. Addressing inequity should start at birth. We should work to create a more flexible system for students and teachers. Student agency and interest should be prioritised, as we know these improve student engagement and educational outcomes. This review has a great title and lists these problems but it falls short in speaking to the problems highlighted by teachers, or addressing the need to nurture wonder or ignite passion in students.


The case for reforming our education system is not new, or location specific. The current industrial model of schooling is not designed to produce the citizens we need now and in the future. A number of recent reviews have called for transformation, from 2008 with the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians, to 2018 with the Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools, to 2020 with the NSW Curriculum Review. Despite goals and recommendations from these documents, such as for equity and raising literacy and numeracy, forming the highest educational policy priorities of the Commonwealth over the past thirty years, we are yet to see the envisioned results.


Why do we keep publishing educational reviews, setting goals which we’re clearly falling short of? Einstein supposedly said that repeatedly doing the same thing and expecting different results was the definition of insanity. Only time will tell whether this Review will achieve its ambitions.

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