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Spring 2007

Curriculum for the 21st century

It's about unification of knowledge

Every year, across Australia, seven different government authorities issue nine different senior certificates to students in year 12 who meet eligibility requirements—in a country with a population of 21 million. Gabrielle Matters dreams of a different future.

It is harder to obtain a certificate in some jurisdictions than in others because the States/ Territories have different minimum requirements for the award of the senior certificate. There are differences in assessment regimes: for example, Queensland and the ACT are the only two jurisdictions that have no external subject-specific examinations. There are differences in the way results are reported on certificates (see below) and, with proposed changes in at least three States, there is likely to be even further divergence.

A recent Australian Government-funded project, Year 12 Curriculum Content and Achievement Standards (‘CAS study’), looked at five senior subjects: English, advanced mathematics, chemistry, physics and Australian history. It described and analysed similarities and differences in senior curricula, assessment arrangements, and achievement standards across Australia.

It was found that there is at least 85 per cent commonality in topics studied in chemistry, physics and advanced mathematics across States/ Territories. For Australian history, it was found that there is a high level of agreement about skills of inquiry but not on history topics to be studied in various contexts. Similarly for English it was found that there is a high level of agreement on the sorts of skills to be developed in students but not on the kinds of texts to be studied.

Thus we are now able to envisage a core curriculum in which the core is expressed as subject matter (e.g. topics, text types, big ideas and concepts) and skills (both subject-specific and generic) that all students taking a subject would be expected to learn, regardless of where they live in Australia. We are unable to ascertain, however, whether senior secondary students living in different parts of Australia are able to engage in a subject that has the same name across the country (e.g. physics, economics) with similar conceptual depth and academic rigour.

The 2007–08 Federal Budget foreshadowed that core curriculum content in years 11 and 12 English, mathematics, chemistry, physics, biology and Australian history would be identified for incorporation into all State curricula from 2009. Although not recommended in the CAS study, the Federal Budget also indicated a requirement for the inclusion of an external component of assessment (such as written examination) in nominated year 12 subjects from 2009. (Assessment regimes and achievement standards are not discussed in this article.)

Of the many challenges associated with the notion of curriculum consistency, one challenge is to do more than simply align what already exists. The other then follows—to re-imagine the senior school curriculum in the 21st century. Deliberately selective, this short article does not attempt to document all the possibilities. It merely sets itself up as a basis for reflection and target for critique in place of a ‘blank canvas’ so that we can move forward—after all, the 21st century is already upon us.

Curriculum building

The task of curriculum building has always required hard decisions about including and excluding knowledges, skills and practices from a potentially infinite range of possible selections. The task of curriculum building in the 21st century requires the same hard decisions … and then some. Many countries and educational authorities continue in their struggle to answer hard curriculum questions in new economic, cultural and social conditions.

Taking a position on 21st century curriculum

Seven principles for building curriculum are suggested below for consideration.

Twenty-first curriculum should be:

  1. of its time yet moderately futuristic
  2. relevant yet rigorous (and we must be clear about the meanings assigned to these words)
  3. comprehensive yet appropriately demanding for individuals (i.e. all students can learn something while at the same time being ‘stretched’— this is the art of good teaching)
  4. uncluttered yet specifying core content (of which 10 per cent at least should be linked to factual knowledge), prioritising universal concepts, and including multidisciplinary learnings
  5. of appropriate range and balance (i.e. trading off depth of understanding against diversity of choice) yet allowing relative emphases to change over time according to differing priorities
  6. with clearly articulated curriculum intent (defining student learning outcomes or objectives) yet developed electronically and ‘on the run’ (as opposed to hard copy and involving a committee with a traditionally long developmental cycle)
  7. able to be assessed with validity and reliability yet effectively linked to pedagogy, and ways of talking about, and attending to, equity and student diversity.

In my opinion…

I would like to see all young Australians experiencing a curriculum that enables them to acquire higher-order skills, transferable skills, generic skills, repertoires of practice, key competencies, or whatever else we want to call the knowledges, skills and discourses that are required. Such skills are transferable beyond the classroom and lead to better employment outcomes and better life opportunities.

I would like to see a student’s intellectual world framed by the ‘Ionian Enchantment’, whose central tenet is the unification of knowledge. The spell of the Enchantment reaches beyond science, to touch the humanities, and into the creative arts. A love of learning is not only important for work and survival but also for sustaining a person throughout life.

At the end of their schooling, I would like to see every student able to understand the relation between science and humanities and how that relationship is important for human welfare; because the complex challenges we face as a society (such as maintaining water supplies to all parts of this vast country, managing transport in our cities, or introducing nuclear power) are problems that do not separate along the boundaries of individual traditional disciplines. They are inherently multidisciplinary. In the same way the key challenges that students face every day cannot be dealt with by studying subjects in pieces, but rather through the pursuit of the consilience between them. ‘Consilience’ is a term coined by the Harvard biologist Edward Wilson, who maintains that if the gaps between the great branches of learning can be narrowed, diversity and depth of knowledge will increase because of the underlying cohesion achieved. (The fundamental challenges that students face have been well documented and are not repeated here.)

In conclusion

The line that marks the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century is an arbitrary one for defining a new curriculum era. Nevertheless, it gives us the opportunity to take stock, to note what the futurists are telling us, to dream some dreams, and—as in my list of seven principles above—to be discerning rather than all-inclusive.

One thing that is unlikely to change is the human brain, although our understanding of how the brain works continues to change. This will influence curriculum. Another thing that is unlikely to change is the existence of problems to be solved, although problem-solving approaches might change. This will influence curriculum. The centrality of the teaching professional will change if the nature of the teaching profession continues to change. This will influence curriculum. We will continue to debate the nature of the building blocks of the curriculum (e.g. the disciplines) but the serious debate will be about how we package the disciplines. As the Human Genome Project continues to reveal information about our genetic make-up, we will gain a better understanding of innate ability while at the same time further exploring student engagement, motivation and effort. And this will redefine the curriculum.

For now, at the beginning of the 21st century, we would do well to ensure that all students have a command of language(s), understand systems theory and how things ‘hang together’, and are able to cope with ambiguity. The richness of students’ experience at school (how ever the school-yard comes to be defined in time and space) depends upon the imagination, intellect and expertise of teachers. So where do you find yourselves in the story of curriculum in the 21st century?

author picture Gabrielle Matters is principal research fellow at Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER).