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Education reform: Curriculum content and deep learning

Long reads
Authors: Jo Earp
Education reform: Curriculum content and deep learning

New South Wales educators are now being invited to have their say on the NSW Curriculum Review Interim Report – ‘Nurturing Wonder and Igniting Passion: Designs for a future school curriculum’. It highlights the ‘strong and consistent message’ received during the initial consultation period that change is required.

The independent review – led by Australian Council for Education Research CEO Professor Geoff Masters – is proposing 15 broad directions for reform. In a two-part series, Teacher is taking a closer look at some of the proposals. This first article focuses on curriculum content and deep learning.

A crowded curriculum

‘Overcrowded’, ‘overloaded’, ‘cluttered’, ‘pressure to cover large numbers of dot-points’, and ‘promoting a tick-box approach to teaching’ – these are just some of the responses to the Review from teachers, leaders and professional associations when asked for feedback on the current NSW syllabuses. Not all were seen as a problem, but many teachers said they were struggling to teach the sheer volume of mandated content in most subject areas. It was a concern for teachers across K-12, but particularly in the primary years. There was also confusion over what was mandated and what wasn’t, sometimes leading to teaching of material that wasn’t essential.

Content crossover (duplication in different subjects) was highlighted by some as unnecessarily adding to the volume, and there were concerns about extra requirements being imposed on schools as teachers were increasingly being asked to cover a range of topics that were not being addressed in wider society – such as specific health, safety and social concerns.

'The crowded nature of the curriculum, including the amount of content that some syllabuses expect teachers to cover, is not conducive to teaching in depth or helping students see the relevance of what they are learning,’ the interim report says.

Reform Direction 1: Address concerns about the ‘overcrowding’ of the curriculum and the resulting pressures on schools and teachers.

The Review proposal adds, in particular:

  • commence a review of syllabuses with the intention of reducing the volume of mandated content in most syllabuses (an appropriate objective might be to reduce mandated content by 15 to 20 per cent, on average);
  • as part of this review, check syllabuses for clarity about what is mandatory and what is not;
  • review recent (past five years) requests that schools address extra-curricular topics to determine whether all are still required, and review protocols for adding such topics in the future; and,
  • ask the New South Wales Education Standards Authority to investigate options for reducing the time teachers and school leaders currently spend on compliance activities.

In its submission to the Review, the Mathematical Association of New South Wales (MANSW) said the overwhelming feeling from members was that there are too many dot points to cover in the Mathematics curriculum, which is ‘detrimental to mastery of concepts, and rewards “book-learners and test takers at the expense of critical and creative thinking and problem solving”’. The History Teachers Association reported similar concerns, adding the overcrowded curriculum ‘affects everything from teacher workload to the ability of students to pursue their learning in depth’.

One major theme running throughout the interim report is teachers’ lack of time. On the topic of the crowded curriculum, teachers in consultation meetings spoke of having to skim content and constantly bounce between one thing and another, leading to disengagement of students. ‘In trying to cover more and more content’, it was claimed, ‘we are overloading the students and the teachers and compromising the overall outcome’.

Other knock-on effects were identified. These included less time for teacher planning and reflection on appropriate pedagogies, and not enough time to provide student feedback in class or have discussions with colleagues. One teacher said, ’Ultimately, the issue is that we don’t have time to do anything very well’.

Exactly how to create a less crowded curriculum (and, in turn, free up time for both teachers and students) is a topic for further consultation, and the Review includes eight questions for exploration in this area. However, it suggests the starting point should be to identify what’s at the heart of each discipline – the core knowledge, concepts and principles.  ‘These include disciplinary ways of thinking and working and the “big ideas” around which less central detail can be organised and understood. There may be relatively few of these,’ it says.

‘ … A useful general guide to deciding on core syllabus content will be the extent to which a fact, idea or skill is important to learning across the years of school. … In general, core knowledge, skills and understandings will not appear in isolation, but will be crucial components of a sequence or progression of long-term development in an area of learning.’

Reform Direction 2: As part of the process of reducing the amount of mandated content in syllabuses, identify and prioritise key knowledge and understandings that are central to a subject, are developed in increasing depth across the years of school, and against which less central (factual and procedural) information can be understood and organised.

The proposal is for deeper conceptual understanding to take precedence over masses of factual detail. ‘The intended outcome is not quantitatively less teaching or learning, but teaching and learning refocused to develop deeper understandings and higher levels of skill,’ the report explains.

A common entitlement?

Reform Direction 4 outlines the concept of a ‘common entitlement’ – what every student is entitled and expected to learn at school. Zeroing in on the different stages of school, the Review says every student in the early years should establish solid foundations in Literacy, Numeracy and social and emotional development, and that these learning areas should be resourced and given priority in the curriculum.

For students in the middle years, alongside studying a range of subjects (and, for the majority of students, achieving at least minimally acceptable standards) the proposed common entitlement includes developing at least basic knowledge and appreciation of Aboriginal languages, cultures and histories, and studying a language from primary school.

‘In the senior years of school, every student should be provided with rigorous, high quality learning in areas of personal strength and interest,’ the report says. ‘The curriculum in these years should provide opportunities to develop deeper understanding of content, including through problem-based and project-based applications of learning in real-world contexts.’

Depth not breadth

Why is developing deeper understanding important? The report includes a summary of research findings into the conditions promoting successful learning, and implications for schools.

It says studies exploring the characteristics of ‘experts’ have found that having extensive factual and procedural knowledge is important but, unlike novices, this knowledge isn’t disconnected. ‘[It is] interrelated and organised around deep understandings of important concepts and principles of the field’. Researchers say this, in turn, makes the knowledge more usable – they can transfer and apply it to new situations, identify patterns in information, and learn related information more rapidly.

The transfer of expertise, however, is another matter. The report says studies show expert problem solving, for example, ‘appears to depend on understandings that are largely field-specific’. It concludes: ‘These findings have obvious implications for the school curriculum. Students’ abilities to transfer and apply their factual and procedural knowledge to new contexts and problems depend on their grasp of underpinning concepts and principles in an area of learning, opportunities to apply their learning to a wide range of contexts and problem types, and extended time frames in which to do this.’

Applying learning in different contexts

The interim report argues that simply acquiring knowledge and skills is insufficient; all students, throughout their school years, need to have opportunities to transfer and apply their learning.

Many submissions to the Review pointed out that life beyond school regularly requires the ability to use and apply knowledge, rather than just reproduce it. ‘A wide range of cognitive, creative and interpersonal skills were identified as essential to effective knowledge application. There was very strong support for giving greater attention to enabling skills of these kinds.’

Reform Direction 3: Include in the expected learning outcomes of every syllabus, throughout the years of school, students’ abilities to transfer and apply knowledge to meaningful contexts, as well as relevant skills in knowledge application (such skills might include critical and creative thinking, collaborating, interpreting information/data, communicating and using technologies).

The report lists the skills most commonly identified in submissions and notes these were consistent with those already identified in the Australian Curriculum: Literacy and Numeracy; digital literacy; problem solving; teamwork; critical thinking; research skills; creative thinking; interpreting information/data; and communication skills.

Where to from here?

Head to the NSW Curriculum Review website to access a copy of the Interim Report, which has been based on conversations in forums and meetings held across the state, and more than 2100 Review submissions. The next stage of consultation is on the Interim Report. A series of consultation resources have been produced, including four short videos, a workbook and conversation cards. To access all the resources and have your say on the proposals, visit www.nswcurriculumreview.nesa.nsw.edu.au. Consultation closes on Friday, 13 December 2019.

Stay tuned: The second article will explore Review proposals related to flexibility in the curriculum and integrated learning in the senior years.

Visit www.nswcurriculumreview.nesa.nsw.edu.au to download a copy of the NSW Curriculum Review Interim Report, and find out more details about how to give your feedback on the proposed directions for reform.

Elizabeth (Liz) Hutchison 19 November 2019

NSW, you are not alone. School systems throughout the world are dealing with the same issue of an overcrowded curriculum. Finding ways to help students nail the knowledge and skills of the standards, access relevant developmentally appropriate engaging curriculum, and find ways to develop their curiosity and gifts (not just in high school), is important. I’m so pleased you are responding to the need in a systematic way. We all need to take things ‘out of the wardrobe’ to make way for a coherent,  relevant personalized learning journey for our students.

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