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Spring 2007

Curriculum for the 21st century

Doing the hard yards!

Deep thinking and principled action is required to develop a national curriculum in mathematics. Will Morony believes that sustained effort to improve the quality of teaching is what will really make a difference.

Have you ever been amazed (or infuriated!) when politicians are being interviewed and they simply don’t answer the questions they are being asked? It happens all the time and is no accident — it is part of the media training that politicians and others receive. They are taught to ‘stay on the message’. Don’t worry about the topic, just say what you were going to say all along.

Well, the Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers (AAMT) has taken a leaf out of their book. Watch for this on a current affairs TV show coming to your lounge room soon…

Interviewer: ‘What do you think about performance pay for teachers?’ AAMT: ‘The most important thing to work on is supporting teachers of mathematics to do their work better.’ Interviewer: ‘Is mathematics the same as numeracy?’ AAMT: ‘Improving the quality of teaching of mathematics in our schools and universities is what is most important; so let’s make sure that any consideration of that question results in better support for quality teaching of mathematics.’ Interviewer: ‘Should kids use calculators in primary school?’ AAMT: ‘The key thing for governments, school systems and schools to provide is support for teachers to assist them to improve teaching and learning in classrooms, whatever technologies they are using. As for calculators…’

You get the picture… Of course as Australia’s premier professional organisation supporting the teaching and learning of school mathematics, and representing the views and aspirations of the country’s teachers of mathematics, the AAMT does have views on these critical issues in the teaching of mathematics in schools. Go to to find out more about the association’s views.

And what about national curriculum? Federal Minister for Education, Science and Training, Julie Bishop, recently commented on the moves towards a national curriculum in some selected subjects, including mathematics. She said this ‘will ensure that we can achieve high quality curriculum in every classroom across the country and is a major step forward in raising standards in every school’. It might be a step, but it is not the only step. The AAMT is convinced that common national curriculum documents will not, on their own, achieve a ‘high quality curriculum’. These documents outline the intended curriculum only; it is the delivered or enacted curriculum that will deliver the high quality learning and standards that the Minister desires.

A national curriculum in mathematics is also not the most important step—the only way to get high quality learning and to raise standards is through sustained and concerted efforts to improve the quality of the teaching of mathematics. This will involve:

  • serious and intelligent efforts to attract and retain well-prepared teachers
  • substantial support for the ongoing professional development of all teachers of mathematics in the face of profound changes in the discipline and the developments in our knowledge of how mathematics is learnt
  • providing access to high quality teaching and learning resources and technologies
  • ensuring there is adequate time in the school week for students to learn the mathematics necessary for them as citizens and workers in the 21st century.

These are ‘hard yards’, but we in the AAMT would argue that they are critical and that it is urgent that we get on with the job. Now.

So, while the AAMT is clear on where the emphases need to be and will continue to argue for the funding to help improve the quality of teaching, we are realistic enough to recognise that there will be a national curriculum in mathematics and some other subjects. Without knowing the detail, what the AAMT says is that it expects forthcoming national mathematics curriculum documents — indeed any mathematics curriculum documents — to help teachers to teach well, and so indirectly, to help students to learn. The AAMT will analyse proposals for a national curriculum in mathematics according to the extent that they:

  • focus on deep learning of the key mathematical ideas, processes and thinking appropriate for preparing students for their lives as citizens in the 21st century, and promote relevant and effective teaching practices (rigorous and forward looking)
  • provide pathways that enable all students to fulfil their mathematical potential (equitable)
  • are realistic in terms of expectations on teachers and students (feasible)
  • assist teachers to meet the diverse learning needs and aspirations of their students (flexible)
  • provide a sense of scope and sequence so that teachers can clearly see where they are heading while at the same time can determine the foundations their students need for further learning (provide direction)
  • draw on relevant research and be developed through extensive consultation and involvement of practising teachers that respects and responds to their expertise (well grounded)
  • are clear and easily understood in order to ensure some comparability between classrooms and provide sufficient direction for teachers so that they can determine what must be taught (articulate).

While all of these principles are essential, perhaps the most challenging will be the first. What should school mathematics be about in order to be both rigorous and forward looking?

There are several key reasons for this to be forward looking. Firstly, mathematics itself (i.e. what is done in the world and named ‘mathematics’) has changed radically over the last 30 years. Secondly, the knowledge era in which we live is making very different — and arguably greater — mathematical demands on individuals as citizens, workers and consumers. Lastly advances in our understanding of learning such as the findings from brain research, formulations such as the ‘multiple intelligences’, and developments of theories of learning such as social constructivism, question the validity of what is taught and how it is taught. The mathematics curriculum in schools must respond to all these factors if it is to support the quality teaching of mathematics that is required to equip young people for their lives as socially responsible, productive citizens of the 21st century.

There is no quick fix available to respond to these influences. In particular, it is simply not sensible to identify what is common in the current curriculums in the States and Territories and make this the core of a national curriculum for the future. Such an approach will result in a curriculum that is inevitably rooted in the past and unsuited to current needs.

As a matter of urgency we need to take a couple of steps. One is to have a vigorous and inclusive debate about curriculum and the 21st century as proposed by Geoff Masters in his article in the May edition of the Education Review. The other is a commitment to what a long-term, careful and inclusive approach to curriculum development will be able to deliver on the principles outlined above.

The AAMT would argue strongly that as we move forward on both these fronts we need to build on the great work being done by experienced teachers of mathematics now. Using their knowledge, insights and practical expertise to create a truly forward-looking curriculum, and add to that their advice about how best to support them in their implementation of the curriculum, would be something worth the effort.

Note: This paper draws on some material in the paper ‘National Curriculum: A Note to Members of the AAMT’.

author picture Will Morony is executive officer of the Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers Inc.