The One Curriculum Priority

Hint: it’s not about aborigines, Asia, or saving the planet

Kevin Donnelly has an unenviable job as he finalises Education Minister Christopher Pyne’s review of the national Curriculum. The worst part would be knowing where to start. Personally I would start with the existential question and I’d come to the obvious conclusion that the whole package should be dismantled without further ado. Donnelly, however, is more ideologically flexible than I am, or at least more politically astute. He knows that his master will hear none of that, and that the real point of the exercise is a more traditional, conservative curriculum than the present one, which is progressive, pagan, and Marxist in varying amounts.

And so with abolishing the whole curriculum seemingly off the table, the next imperative must surely be dealing with the so-called cross-curriculum priorities (CCPs). These trademarks of the curriculum elicit sarcastic giggles and eye-rolling when mentioned outside the cloistered fantasylands of education faculties and the Orwellian-named Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA).

Even within the unionised common rooms of the nation’s public schools, where the virtues of “all must have prizes” pedagogy and the evils of rote learning are routinely celebrated, the CCPs are seen as evidence that modern educational methods have this time gone too far. As one teachers’ union shop steward confided to me, “if teachers were actually required to take them seriously, the union would have to get involved and out a stop to it; it would increase the workload of our members.” Sadly, however, some of his members do take the CCPs seriously, and they will be treated with increasing seriousness in the future, unless they are stopped under Christopher Pyne.

The next federal election is the point of no return for these ridiculous appendages to our children’s education. And their continuation will mean more than just extra work for teachers. It will further mock the profession’s attempts at…well…professionalism, and it will give school education a push it hardly needs in its current race to the bottom.

“Cross-Curriculum Priorities” denotes the set of arbitrary agendas overarching the entire syllabus. The agendas are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures, Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia, and Sustainability. Frankly, their very names should have been harbingers of the curriculum content problems they bring. Where the priorities of the history curriculum are to do with aborigines, Asians, and environmental movements, is it any wonder that the specifics are regarded by many as too Left-leaning? Or that American history, Australian history since 1788, and the traditions of western civilisation, are largely neglected?

Australians realise the vast majority of teachers not only work hard, but work hard to help their pupils. Likewise, even as most teachers graduate from university believing facts to be a nefarious enemy of both creativity and understanding, deep down they all recognise one important and undeniable fact: they would not be where they are without basic standards of literacy. Many teachers, however, are ill-equipped to assist in these areas, and even those that are competent are hampered by the constant distraction of CCPs. A primary teacher said to me recently, “most of my [year six] class is functionally illiterate. It would be impolitic to recommend holding any of them back so my only objective for this year is to try and improve numeracy and especially literacy before they hit high school. Why should I have to waste time on telling them about Aboriginal language systems when they haven’t even the most basic grasp of their own?” Why indeed?

The situation is even worse once students do hit high schools where the teaching is conducted by a plurality of teachers, each of whom will now become a de facto expert in aboriginal anthropology, Asian affairs, and matters environmental. Furthermore, they will be ever looking for ways to impose the requisite orthodoxies on otherwise unconnected subjects, or in any case, to tick the bureaucratic boxes.

The only priority should be to genuinely and honestly learn the subject at hand. Instead, teachers are expected to trivialise the very discipline they spent three years at university studying. The English teacher, therefore, is expected to teach – as a priority – that “that there are many languages and dialects spoken in Australia including Aboriginal English and Yumplatok and that these languages may have different writing systems and oral traditions.” Duly noted! But the curriculum document goes on, “These languages can be used to enhance enquiry and understanding of English literacy.” Perhaps that’s what’s been missing! I’ll mention the miraculous powers of Yumplatok to my friend the year six teacher, and brace myself for glowing reports.

Recently one of the umbrella bodies for Christian schools pontificated that the National Curriculum was due for a content “rebalance” along the lines to be recommended by Donnelly. Good, culturally-relevant Christians that they are, they have genuflected at the altar of cross-curriculum pedagogy and even proposed an fourth CCP. Now admittedly, “Australia’s Judaeo-Christian heritage and western civilization” sounds a lot more worthwhile than the existing priorities, but Christian schools should think carefully about asking for the state’s imprimatur on their particular religio-historical worldview, especially given the relatively short time between Federal elections. I also have my doubts about the enthusiasm with which the maths teachers at the Malek Fahd Islamic School might incorporate the Protestant reformation, the rule of law, or the Reverend Richard Johnson into their calculus.

But if we must have CCPs, allow me to propose a single priority to replace all the others. It’s called “literacy,” which I acknowledge is less sexy-sounding than “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures.” With it, the minds of children and adults – those of a Western tradition, and those of Aboriginal descent – are opened up to whole new galaxies of fantasy and wonder and knowledge. They can have the world’s greatest poets write for them, and they can write back. The language of Shakespeare – and perhaps later, the language of Yumplatok – can become their own. They can realise and embrace or exclude a diversity of opinion on economics, history, religion, and even Sustainability. And they can engage sensibly and profitably with not only Asia, but the whole world, which should be the ultimate priority – and the one ultimate end – of any curriculum.

This article first published as “The one curriculum priority above all” at On Line Opinion on 9 September 2014.