This is a response to the #onsci twitter chat on the 9th of August about the Australian Curriculum (AC) that I think might be useful generally. Judging from the chat there seem to be a few broad themes of concerns, some of which I’m placed to explain or discuss. This seems the appropriate time to put in the obligatory disclaimer – this is all my personal understanding and opinion, and is in no way official.
I work in a state curriculum area, so the short answer to ‘who determines how science is taught now’ is ‘Me.’ And of course my colleagues, within the constraints of policy and working together with all the other teams including other learning areas and assessment and reporting, differentiated learners, English as Another Language/Dialect (EAL/D) learners, student services, technology, the list goes on. And determines is rather a strong word – we can suggest and provide advice, interpretations, templates, professional learning and examples. We may even get to contribute to policy. But in the end it all comes down to schools, resources and teachers. And teachers already have a full time job.
My colleagues and I have the time that teachers don’t to grapple with the curriculum and consider the wider implications, then hopefully come up with frameworks and tools and explain them to teachers so they can successfully use it. I currently have a happy little group of guinea pigs who have volunteered to use the AC in their classes, so they tell us what problems they are having, what we aren’t explaining clearly and what tools they need, and from that we modify our message or try to get it for them. Eventually it will go out to all staff, and believe me I know how frustrating the vacuum is because I’ve been on the other side, but getting the wrong message or unclear and conflicting advice out there would be even worse.
So what and how curriculum is applied is an extremely complicated and specialised question with a myriad of influences, and I apologise to non-teachers if I don’t explain something clearly. But I would like people to understand that curriculum development and implementation involves specialists just as much as something like immunology, and many newspaper stories about education resemble reality about as much as vaccination debates on Facebook. I’m definitely not complaining that other people want to be involved and have opinions – passion and engagement is good and even a responsibility for an informed populace. I just want to provide a bit more context than is possible in chats broken into 140 characters.
Firstly, there seems to be some confusion about the different levels and responsibilities in getting to the classroom.
On top is ACARA, which developed the AC. This involved several versions over many years, with contributions from states, teachers, universities, scientists, industry and lay people. This includes the Australian Academy of Science, it doesn’t get much more expert than that. I wasn’t involved in any of this because I was employed later, but it is still on-going with feedback now it is being used, further developments for senior years and assessment trials.
There was public consultation that may or may not have been advertised effectively – I knew it was happening even though I wasn’t employed with an education department, I know of at least one group that should have put in a submission and didn’t, I’d be shocked if industry and professional or interest groups hadn’t got their act together and submitted their concerns or opinions – the opportunity was there. How that process was done and whether it was fair is a legitimate question and area for creative solutions because other curriculum areas are still being developed.
ACARA runs a limited amount of professional learning but it’s mostly aimed at people like me rather than teachers themselves – they don’t have enough people to do that as well.
At the next level, when, where and how the AC is implemented is a question for the state education departments and there are many different solutions. NSW has opted out, Queensland has mandated a set of units for all students (C2C), I have my happy little guinea pigs (who, by the way, are an awesome bunch). States still put in place the policies on things like assessment, mandatory hours and subjects, and run most of the professional learning. Two states following the AC can still come up with very different looking science classes.
In addition, states all have their own forms of registration for teachers which sets out their ongoing learning and performance management requirements. The registration boards include several stakeholders and accredit professional learning, including learning put on by outside organisations such as national parks or even mining companies (if they wanted to, I have no idea if they do or not).
Finally the schools and individual teachers make decisions about resources such as text-books or programs. In most states teachers write their own programs to cater for their individual class, context and interests, taking into account all the other organisational limitations in a school.
In reality it’s far more complicated with other levels and influences going back and forth but that’s the overview. If you have a particular problem with the general way the curriculum is set up or don’t think year 3s should be learning about heat*, for example, that’s ACARA. If you don’t like the way your kids are being assessed and reported on (including common or mandated assessments), the way units are put together, or feel you aren’t getting enough support to teach it, talk to the states. And if you don’t like the textbook or emphasis the teacher is putting on the uses of heat, start with your school. From what I understood about the #onsci chat, most people’s concerns are actually with their state departments’ implementation and schools, not the AC itself.
Part 2 will be about the parts of the curriculum and how it works, especially the popular ‘science as a part of life!’
* The Year 3 achievement standard, which is the important bit, reads in part:
“students use their understanding of the movement of the Earth, materials and the behaviour of heat to suggest explanations for everyday observations.”
That’s 3 of the 4 ‘traditional subjects’ dealt with, the next few words are about biology. There is just not that much scope for bias at the generalised level of the AC.