Teaching and Following the Curriculum

“Alice felt dreadfully puzzled. The Hatter’s remark seemed to have no sort of meaning in it, and yet it was certainly English.”

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter VII. A Mad Tea-Party

As I’ve observed before, education isn’t a common topic here though I have been a teacher for more than sixteen years. The last time I wrote directly on the topic was almost two years ago. The post today will be somewhat related to one I have written previously. Before getting to it, I just thought I’d add that I have had an interesting (though not financially lucrative) career in education. Unlike many teachers, I’ve done almost every type of job there is to do at a school because I’ve worked at two small schools where everyone needs to put in a bit extra to keep things working. So I’ve not just focused on one area of teaching and have experience teaching toddlers, adults and all years in-between. I’ve also taught in multiple subject areas including ones I don’t really have the specialty to be teaching. As well as this, I’ve done all sorts of other jobs in schools including leadership, administration, disability support, IT, event management and even smaller jobs like fixing the photocopier and changing light bulbs. I think this experience gives me a somewhat unique understanding of how schools function.

And as I understand how they function, I can see that with competent staff, they work quite well without external bureaucracies, standards and other forms of outside interference. That is outside of the parents themselves which is the one group the education establishment around the world seems to believe should be mostly excluded. However, compliance with government standards in many areas is now a condition of running a school in Australia even if they could do without the tax dollars every Australian child is entitled to. One of these areas of compliance is Australia’s National Curriculum.

Australia didn’t have a national curriculum when I became a teacher as education was a domain of the states as it really is supposed to be as set out in arrangements going back to when the states were still separate colonies and formally set out this way in Federation. This reality aside, Australians rightly or wrongly now look to the Federal government as the main authority for everything and there had been calls for a national curriculum for a while though how far back, I don’t care to check. I do distinctly remember it being brought up while studying and the professor who mentioned it, did not seem keen on the idea and quite liked their state curriculum. I vaguely remember the state curriculum I started working under which had a terrible acronym and was full of ambiguous gobbledygook in each subject and that they had to create additional written supplements for each subject to make it clearer for teachers. I also remember the same professor stating that the good thing about it was the ambiguity allowed you to fit  it to subjects  in any way you wanted. I recall them even going so far as to suggest you could draw out Mathematics outcomes in English. Taking my learned professor seriously, I began my career ignoring the curriculum as I could be confident my efforts in the classroom fit with the curriculum somehow. Even if they did not, I don’t remember having any oversight with my planning early on to verify whether I was doing the right thing or not.

This all changed when I moved back to Australia after the National Curriculum had been introduced and was in use around the nation. I was in a different state to my home one but this now didn’t much matter from a professional standpoint. Though there was certainly more compliance behind planning which I experienced immediately on starting my new job. Even with this, I didn’t find it necessary to actually read the curriculum as I worked with a group of teachers teaching the same year level who were already old hands at getting the required planning done. All I remember of these documents was that they were bloated, unreadable messes made to follow bureaucratic checklists and had the layout and visual aesthetic of a fifteen year old girl’s MySpace page circa 2005.

It was not until I began working at a smaller school that it became necessary for me to really pay attention to the curriculum and by this time, I had been a teacher for over a decade. I don’t consider this in any way shameful as I’d already made my own curriculum, modified others and changed or developed school reporting to match them as well. When I finally did have to pay attention to the Australian Curriculum, I found it was quite similar to the state curriculum at the outset of my career. It is full of ambiguous gobbledygook and has a terrible acronym (ACARA). Bureaucrats seem to love acronyms in general but this is especially so in education.

ACARA is more precisely is the name of the government agency that develops and manages the national curriculum. It is also independent enough that politicians apparently can’t interfere with it — or at least claim they can’t. In practical terms, this means it is a law onto itself in many ways and schools are all bound by its decisions however absurd they may be. And absurd they increasingly are as I have seen in the most recent revision of the curriculum which is now coming in.

What inspired this post was my recently taking up language education (LOTE is the terrible acronym) from late last year. When looking into the LOTE program for Japanese, I found that unlike the rest of the curriculum that the achievement starts had concrete expectations for each year level. In LOTE and some other subjects, this is done over a two year level rather than yearly as is the norm especially with subjects like English and Mathematics. Here is the Achievement Standard for Years 3-4 as an example:

By the end of Year 4, students interact with the teacher and peers in regular classroom routines and structured interactions. They understand and respond to instructions related to classroom organisation and activities, for example, ペア に なって ください。大きい こえ で いって ください。. They use formulaic and rehearsed language to exchange information about their personal worlds and in familiar interactions such as praising or encouraging one another, for example, がんばって. They use language spontaneously in simple familiar communicative exchanges, for example, やったー!だいじょうぶ?. They respond to simple questions using short spoken statements, for example, いつ です か。なに が すき です か。. They use counter classifiers in response to questions such as なん人にん、なん月がつ、なんじ、なんさい. Students identify specific items of information, such as facts about or key characteristics of people, when listening to or viewing texts such as short stories, weather reports or video clips. They use cues such as context, visual images and familiar vocabulary to assist comprehension. They create short spoken informative and descriptive texts related to their personal world with the support of modelled language, scaffolded examples and resources such as word lists. They describe people and events using adjectives, time-related vocabulary and appropriate verb forms, such as ます、ましょう、ました and ません. They read and write the 46 hiragana, including long vowels (for example, おとうさん、おおきい), voiced sounds (for example, かぞく、たべます), and blended sounds as formulaic language (for example, きょう、でしょう), as well as high-frequency kanji such as 月、日、先生. They apply word order (subject–object–verb) in simple sentences. They comprehend short written texts such as captions, labels, signs and stories that use familiar and repetitive language. They translate simple texts using classroom resources such as charts or word lists, noticing that some words and expressions do not translate easily. Students identify examples of cultural differences between ways of communicating in Japanese and in their own language(s).

Students identify both vowel and vowel–consonant sounds of hiragana, recognising that vowel sounds can be elongated and that this can change meaning. They identify ways in which rhythm is used to chunk phrases within a sentence. Students use the hiragana chart to support their reading and writing, recognising its systematic nature. They demonstrate awareness of the predictable nature of pronunciation. They know the role of particles, for example, は、を、と、も、に; the rules for simple verb tense conjugations; and how to create questions using the sentence-ending particle か. They understand and use the rules and phonetic changes that apply to counter classifiers, for example, はっさい、ひとり、ふたり. They identify language variations that occur according to the age and relationship of participants, and according to the situation, for example, なまえ/ おなまえ、はし/ おはし. They demonstrate their understanding of the importance in Japanese of non-verbal communication such as the use of gestures, for example, bowing to replace words and to communicate meaning. Students identify ways in which Japanese language reflects ways of behaving and thinking.

That is a rather large chunk of information but I want to preserve it here in case it becomes unavailable later. Even if you can’t understand all, there is a lot of concrete expectations and examples. The format isn’t ideal but that is ACARA’s fault and that quibble aside, it seems to have been written by someone who has taught or at least understands what is necessary for learning the language.

The other problem (which again is not related to the content itself), is that it is unrealistic to expect most students to achieve this. This is not because it is too difficult but because of the fractured nature of language education in Australia which is really a long-running problem. Schools do not have any uniformity with second-language programs as for example in Japan where almost every school uses English. It is quite easy and possible to go through multiple languages during your schooling in Australia without getting the most basic grasp of any of them. I went through French, Italian and Japanese and I’ve taught at schools doing multiple others and even got stuck trying to teach Indonesian one day as a relief teacher. If Japanese was the language chosen and  students had consistent lessons from the beginning years onwards, the above is not an unreasonable expectation for the age group at all. 

As a related aside, I once cost myself a part-time job when asked in the interview whether I was familiar with the Japanese curriculum and I said quite honestly that I hadn’t even read it. The leadership were apparently shocked by this admission as I was told later when they called to not offer me the job. It all worked out in the end as I soon found a better job and wasn’t keen to teach Japanese anyway. To this day I don’t really regret not knowing the curriculum or saying so in the interview because I was already too familiar with the frequent changes being made and didn’t see much point in looking at it until I had the job.

And change has indeed come because what was quoted above is from the 8.4 curriculum and the new one is version 9. Those numbers should also serve well to indicate how frequent changes are made. This is the same achievement standard for the new version:

By the end of Year 4, students use Japanese language to initiate structured interactions to share information related to the classroom and their personal world. They use modelled language to participate in spoken and written activities that involve planning. They locate and respond to key items of information in texts using strategies to help interpret and convey meaning in familiar contexts. They use modelled language and basic syntax to create texts. They use hiragana with support, and familiar kanji appropriate to context.

Students imitate hiragana sounds, pronunciation and intonation patterns of Japanese language. They demonstrate understanding that Japanese has non-verbal, spoken and written language conventions and rules to create and make meaning. They recognise that some terms have cultural meanings. They identify patterns in Japanese and make comparisons between Japanese and English. They understand that the Japanese language is connected with culture, and identify how this is reflected in their own language(s) and culture(s).

This is still less full of gobbledygook than the average standard but as you can see in the change, there are no real concrete expectations. There are no actual examples of the Japanese language as above and it is very easy to interpret this as you like. To find out what specifically is wanted you need to dig into what are called the “Elaborations” (which were also present in the previous version). These do give more specific examples but it takes an extra step to get to them. Still, when you read the above, the curriculum really doesn’t help at all. By simply teaching the language in a way that works and following a textbook of some kind, you will find you’re working students towards the standard. This would be all fine but teacher’s all have to tie their work to the curriculum. As a guide, I consider the curriculum worse than useless but I still have to prove I am following it which means directly tying my planning to it. This is tedious at best and often accounts for hours of work that serves no practical purpose.

I mentioned earlier that the planning documents when I first got back were ugly, bloated documents. Mine are much more aesthetically pleasing but they’re not much use to me for my actual teaching. I create them mostly to make sure I have evidence of my compliance with the curriculum. This involves a lot of useless copying and pasting, highlighting and extra documentation that I simply don’t need for my actual planning. The only good I can find in it is the motivation I have to plan ahead of time but this is good practice in any case. 

I will briefly touch on English as well because this is where the ambiguity really gets to me. Let’s start with the word ‘text’ which comes up a lot in the documents and is defined this way:

A means for communication. Their forms and conventions have developed to help us communicate effectively with a variety of audiences for a range of purposes. Texts can be written, spoken or multimodal and in print or digital/online forms. Multimodal texts combine language with other systems for communication, such as print text, visual images, soundtrack and spoken word as in film or computer presentation media.

So whenever ‘text’ is brought up it could mean almost anything whether it be a Tom and Jerry cartoon, a website full of amusing cat pictures, a recipe for brownies or a Shakespearean sonnet. It is important to realise that no value is placed on any of these over another. Though it is still at least explicitly stated that students should learn to read and write, you could still be teaching to the curriculum without offering students any genuinely good literature. I don’t avoid what they call “multimodal” forms but I definitely like to keep that to a minimum and expose them to a higher quality of literature than what is generally found in schools. I could keep going on at length about this but I just wanted to use this to point out the one could follow the curriculum properly while giving students a decidedly subpar education.

On another related tangent, I my early years of teaching a teacher commenting negatively on the fact that I was reading a book during my break in the staff room. This same teacher proudly claimed they almost never read anything and there was no disagreement from any teacher in earshot. I don’t consider myself a great teacher but I do like most of the subjects I teach. I love reading and writing and I am enthusiastic about the English language. I love reading about history and I take an active interest in learning more and regularly buy or borrow history books. Children can understand very well when their teacher isn’t interested and most people can relate to learning more easily from someone enthusiastically sharing a subject they love. I think it is an important and often forgotten aspect of teaching and the curriculum can actively sap the enthusiasm I have at times.

To finish off, would anyone involved in ACARA actually agree with any of this? Of course not. They’re unlikely to ever see this but even if they did, I would bet they’d respond with the same bafflegarble they used to write the curriculum in the first place. They would say that it was put together by a team of highly trained experts with outstanding qualification and years of collective experience in the profession. They would tell you that they’ve included plenty of support and supplements for teachers to use with their planning. They’d claim it promotes excellence across all curriculum areas whilst also balancing for the diverse needs of the Australian population in a changing world. I could almost write the response for them.

The reality is that there is nothing to do but to work with it as best I can and hope for better times. The curriculum will continue to be changed or modified and mostly for the worse. Even if politicians were to force something resembling consistency with concrete expectations and clear examples — it would not be followed by the people working for ACARA. Much like how following the “Spirit of Vatican II” had little to do with the contents of the actual documents of the actual council. I will continue to work with the knowledge I have while trying to square the circle with the curriculum as plausibly as I can.

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