Getting on top of the 07 Draft Curriculum (2)
By Kelvin Smythe
Some things I had to say about the old curriculum
In Network Magazine (No. 2, 1994) I had a fair amount to say about the impending official curriculum, which is now the old official curriculum. In this look back at the old curriculum, I will concentrate on five matters: The way primary teachers cope with official curricula by more-or-less politely ignoring them; the way the curriculum is out of kilter with New Zealand primary school traditions; the farcical attempts at achievement objective progressions; the misplaced emphasis on skills and the lack of attention to aims, knowledge, and attitudes within curriculum areas; and the technocratic nature of the document.
Curriculum statements, for primary teachers, I said, was about perusing documents when they arrive; giving them due and respectful thought; seeing in them what they want to see; allowing a manageable amount of change through; catching the spirit of the document if there is any worth catching; listening to advisory support in the same way; looking forward to any accompanying documents; then putting the statements in the drawer and getting on with their work.
The 90’s curriculum claimed to provide clear learning outcomes against which students’ progress could be measured, with the primary purpose to improve students’ learning and the quality of the learning programmes. (The 07 curriculum makes similar claims.) However, I wrote, if the actual purpose of the curriculum was to improve students’ learning, then the question should have been asked of teachers, ‘How can we evaluate children’s learning to help them learn better?’ This would have required careful attention to the views of teachers; but the views of teachers were not listened to, they were, as has been the practice, mainly ignored. Teachers do not agree with measurement against nationally set lists of graded objectives. They know children’s learning does not occur in neat progressions, it occurs in high uncertainty. Measurement against nationally set lists of graded objectives delivers control of schools to central officials, particularly the review office.
To insist on the measurement of learning outcomes, I wrote, was to insist on a particular form of teaching and learning. Measurement of teaching and learning demands its own form of teaching and learning – it demands behaviourism and an atomization of the curriculum. The authors of the curriculum seemed unaware of primary teachers’ pragmatist philosophy and constructivist learning theory. An unfortunate outcome of the education reforms was the institutional amnesia that resulted. It threw up a new elite, sometimes very able, but often only lightly imbued with primary school traditions, and rather wet behind the ears in educational experience. An outcome was a resorting to overseas models rather than drawing on the best of the New Zealand primary school experience.
I wrote that to establish the achievement objective gradings, ridiculous progressions have been developed. They became exercises in jargon accretion. The developers of these progressions usually began with a fairly straightforward description at Level 1 and, at each stage, while the process described remained basically the same, further words were added to try to establish the idea of a learning progression. All that is added, I said, was jargon overdrive, and teaching and learning confusion. In the English curriculum statement, for instance, both senior and junior children, in their own way, should be described as able to gather information from a variety of sources, and retrieve, select, analyse, interpret, and synthesise information. This could be said once (if it needs to be said in this technocratic way at all), and left to teachers apply to the children in their class.
A well-based curriculum, I wrote, would have had teachers working to aims, resulting in more room for teaching manoeuvre and making learning more holistic and cohesive. I also wrote of the relationship amongst skills, knowledge, and attitudes. Attitudes and knowledge, I suggested, were placed at a disadvantage by the emphasis on skills. Skills and the attempt to make them generic (that is across curriculum areas) have seen them being given undue centrality. A skill, properly understood, implies a specific capacity which can be perfected through practice and exercise such as handwriting, dribbling a ball. Skills of this type need to be differentiated from higher level abilities, which are really a mixture of values, attitudes, and knowledge. The achievement objectives in some curriculum statements, I wrote, do encompass knowledge but, in being atomised in the way they are, serve to trivialise knowledge.
Then, in my typically understated way, I went on to say that the new curriculum was not a document set to take new Zealand schools into the twenty-first century, rather it was set to take schools on a tangent to failing ideas characteristic of the UK and USA. The one saving grace, I said, would be the way primary schools put their own very special interpretation on the curriculum and related documents. But why should they have to? Why shouldn’t the tone, imagery, style, and substance have been such that it spoke directly and appropriately to primary teachers? It is, I said, underneath its smooth technocratic exterior, really about behaviourism, measurement of learning, economic individualism, consumerism, and bureaucratic control.