Paige Taylor and Mark Coultan, The Australian, January 11, 2014
For many years, Perth chemistry and physics teacher Marko Vojkovic has been at the front of the fight against what he describes as sociology in the teaching of sciences.
He led opposition to Western Australia’s ill-fated outcomes-based education curriculum in 2007 and says he recognised some of its telltale signs when teachers got their first glimpses of the national curriculum in 2010.
For example, the edict that sustainability, the Asian century and indigenous perspective should be taught as part of physics and chemistry did not sit well with Mr Vojkovic. “I don’t think there’s a particularly Asian way of looking at physics–these are nature’s laws,” he said.
The Coalition’s plans to shift back to a curriculum it describes as “orthodox” is the latest chapter in what has been a deeply divisive issue within the sector in recent years.
In March 2010, the then prime minister Kevin Rudd and his education minister Julia Gillard announced plans to rework the national curriculum to incorporate themes of Aboriginal histories and culture, sustainability, and Australia’s engagement with Asia across the key subject areas of English, mathematics, science and history.
The plan was based on the Melbourne Declaration, which was, in the words of its preamble, about building “a democratic, equitable and just society–a society that is prosperous, cohesive and culturally diverse”. It called for a sense of global citizenship, and said Australian children had to become “Asia literate”. It sought to emphasise Australia’s indigenous cultures “as a key part of the nation’s history, present and future”.
Now the national curriculum, as developed by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority has incorporated those ideas in each subject outline. For example, as part of the “cross-curriculum priorities” of mathematics, students would “explore connections between representations of number and pattern and how they relate to aspects of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures”.
Since the Rudd/Gillard initiative, tens of millions of dollars and four years of work by an army of education bureaucrats and consultants have been developing national English, maths, science and history curriculums, with the threads of Aboriginal culture, sustainability and our links to Asia woven through them.
Most states have already introduced it. NSW, the last and the most recalcitrant state, is due to introduce most of the curriculum in a few weeks. All the while, the performance of Australian school students compared to those in other OECD nations continues to fall.
In announcing the recalibration of the curriculum, Education Minister Christopher Pyne has once again changed the education landscape. And for many in the sector, it’s a timely move.
Peter Ridd, the acting head of the School of Engineering and Physical Science at Townsville’s James Cook University, who was previously a schoolteacher, is scathing about the curriculum’s emphasis on infusing areas such as indigenous and Asian studies as well as sustainability in science and maths teaching. “Maths is the most multicultural of subjects. I often tell my students that it was the Arabs who invented algebra,” he said. “But there’s no correct answer for English-speaking people in maths which is different from a correct answer for an Asian or European person . . . Should we tell students that algebra was invented by Arabs? Yes. But to embed this sort of stuff in the curriculum so it’s part of everything we teach is nonsense.”
Catherine Attard, president of the Mathematical Association of NSW, predicted the review would provide an opportunity to arrest the chronic decline in students studying higher levels of mathematics. “Any review is a positive thing. The national curriculum was meant to be a dynamic document and that the government wants to review it is absolutely fine,” said Dr Attard, a former primary teacher and now University of Western Sydney senior lecturer in mathematics pedagogy.
Australian Science Teachers Association president Robyn Aitken said if the government kept tinkering with the curriculum, teachers could become increasingly frustrated and simply throw the book away. “The worst thing about all this is the uncertainty about it. We’re only two years into implementation, so we’re not really up to reviewing it yet. It was a really big step that we actually got a national curriculum in place. It took a whole lot of steps . . . and it’s never easy to get agreement from all the states.”
She said it was “not a big or onerous issue” for teachers to incorporate the cross-curriculum priorities. A lesson on space could include references to the sustainability of space junk, and traditional Aboriginal beliefs about star patterns.