Friday Filing: Teaching Young Australians

Along with ‘law and order’ issues, one of the consistently raised set of issues in election campaigns in Australia, particularly at a state level, focuses on education. All sides of the political spectrum will have their say on the wide array of issues that fall within the education portfolio, some with ideas that are completely whacky, some with ideas that are worthy of embracing, and some with ideas that are just, well, predictable. Often one of the most conspicuous educational issues that get raised during election campaigns has to do with what is taught in our schools, the question of curriculum.

And it would seem that the Victorian state election, due at the end of 2018, will be no exception, at least not according to reports in the media this week. The Coalition in Victoria, the political partnership between the Liberal Party and the National Party, released its ‘school education values statement’ this week, promising (yet) another review of the school curriculum, along with a renewed focus on educational basics, which I have no real objection to, and an encouragement to teach ‘Western history’ and ‘national pride’, which phrasing causes a great deal of concern.

It should be noted for the sake of any overseas reader that the Liberal and National political parties fall towards the conservative end of politics, yet I would have the same concern were such suggestions come from a political party that falls towards the other end of the spectrum.

Another review into the school curriculum will inevitably lead to changes to the contents of the curriculum, as all such reviews tend to do. There is nothing wrong with reviewing and changing the contents of the curriculum per se, unless the curriculum is constantly being changed, with those responsible for the delivery of the curriculum, i.e. teachers, having to constantly change their teaching content rather than mastering the content and focussing their teaching practice on the delivery of the content they know inside out.

When the change in curriculum comes from a review instituted for partisan political purposes, as the proposed Victorian review appears to be, then not only are the teachers going to have to relearn their content over and over again, but they will also wear the political blame when school results do not match the political expectations that are the supposed reason for the review in the first place. It is the classic lose-lose situation for teachers, those who are the ones directly involved in the delivery of any school curriculum and who, in the overwhelming majority of cases, enter the teaching profession for the most noble of reasons.

At the heart of the apparent desire for politicians to interfere in the content of school curriculum is a desire to ‘play to their base’, to appeal to those people who will respond to the kind of message that underpins the political strategy involved. It is part of a developing ‘culture war’ mentality in Australia, following the example of such places as the United States, where the contents of educational curricula, along with so many other aspects of public discourse and public life, are held ransom to the power of ideology, often partisan in nature, rather than any understanding of the purpose of the curricula, which is the provision of an education to those who are students, be they primary, secondary or tertiary. And as I have already mentioned, the brand of partisan ideology does not seem to matter; culture warriors of left and right seem to embrace the desire to interfere in and micro-manage the contents of the content of the educational curriculum.

I have no problem with regular reviews of the contents of the educational curriculum per se. To not review such on a regular basis would be to suggest that human knowledge stagnated at a particular time and nothing new would be learnt after that point. Such a belief is patently wrong, and will ultimately contribute to the weakening of education, educational outcomes, and an entire society. I do, however, wish to insist that reviews of the educational curriculum, and its content, not be subject to the whims of this or that political entity; regular reviews should be an expected, planned, and non-partisan undertaking, fixed to a known timetable, every ten years for example, and be undertaken by experts in the respective fields, experts who are not pushing some partisan ideological agenda, but are committed to ensuring that those who are the ‘consumers’ of the educational curriculum, i.e. students, have access to the very best content that will enable them to make positive contributions to the broader society into the future.

One way of strengthening the educational curriculum, in my estimation, would be to ensure that the content of the educational curriculum focuses on two fundamental areas, i.e. the teaching of facts and knowledge, along with the ability to find new sources of facts and knowledges, and the inculcating of the theory and practice of critical thinking, which would enable students to be able to assess, analyse and critique information that is placed before them. This latter skill would, I suggest, greatly contribute to the identification and overcoming of what is now known as ‘fake news’, a phenomenon that is increasingly part of the developing ‘culture wars’, of which the constant ideological attack on the contents of the educational curriculum is but one example. I would further strongly argue that the teaching of ‘values’ does not belong in the educational curriculum, and its presence represents a danger that can be too easily hijacked for partisan ideological purposes, as evidenced by the announcement of the current Victorian Coalition Opposition.

The value of education to a society cannot be underestimated. From the basics to more specialised knowledge, education has the ability to transform a society, and all its members. To tamper with the contents of an educational curriculum for partisan ideological reasons is to risk the future of a society, and pose a danger to the ability of a society to know and to learn.