Following further feedback and amendments from many people, this discussion paper was last updated on 10 April 2012. We also invite you to provide your feedback about this latest draft. We wish to thank the many principals, teachers, parents, students, community members, researchers, policy makers and personnel in Victoria's DEECD for commenting on earlier drafts of this paper.
There is broad acceptance of the need for a national curriculum. Centrally mandated curricula can reduce duplication, remove unnecessary differences, make subject results comparable across Australia and result in greater consistency and higher standards. This can still beg a question: what is a truly 21st century curriculum? As is discussed (and notwithstanding the key issue of adequate resources and support), a curriculum for our times may be:
Such a curriculum would add further value to the quality of all students’ learning. Old curriculum models can have the effect of sorting and selecting students rather than adding significant value. Teese and Polesel (2003), for example, show how the intersection of students’ social background and the type of curriculum strongly impacts on who succeeds and who under-performs at school. The educational value a school adds to student achievement, via a truly 21st century curriculum and the investment of adequate resources in schooling, should be beyond that which could be predicted given the backgrounds and prior attainments of students.
In seeking to respond to the challenges of improving educational performance and reducing the achievement gap, there are two different approaches to the development of a national curriculum:
It is difficult to identify a single, coherent way forward that may command a large degree of consensus. A tried-and-true pragmatic approach has much merit, i.e., besides being less risky, it would bring to the fore the common content in state-based curricula as a practical basis for tangible reform. For example, analyses by the Australian Council for Educational Research have shown that 95 per cent of senior secondary chemistry content, 90 per cent of advanced mathematics content, and 85 per cent of physics content is common to all states and territories. But as Masters points out,
“Presumably, it would be a relatively straightforward matter to reach agreement on national curriculum consistency in senior subjects such as these. It may even be possible to achieve national agreement on common standards and methods of reporting student results, and agreement on some common assessments and examinations. But would this alone produce more positive student attitudes, larger numbers of students studying science, or higher levels of science attainment? It seems unlikely” (2007).
Given that education is a ‘whole-of-life experience’, in light of the need to build higher-quality, higher-equity education systems and schools and cognisant of the continuous acceleration in the pace of technological and social change, there is much that inclines toward the direction of a more strategic approach. Such an approach, as seems to be emerging in various ways, deals with more immediate challenges (the pragmatic approach), but also pushes the change agenda further to address a myriad of unresolved issues. This approach asks: what kind of 21st century curriculum serves to inspire and challenge all learners and prepare them for a future of profound change and lifelong learning?
Based on the good practices of educators, educational research and inquiries and forums such as the Cambridge Primary Review and the National Curriculum Symposium, arguably a 21st century curriculum comprises on-going progress with the following.
Resources and support permitting, a 21st century curriculum, above all else, brings together two fundamental developments:
The second is intimately related with - and, indeed, incomplete without - the first, and vice versa. These two factors comprise a powerful synergy. Research is yet to unpack this nexus.
A 21st century curriculum would serve to guarantee students' entitlement to breadth, depth and balance, and to high standards in all learning areas, not only the 3Rs. This is the main message of the UK Cambridge Primary Review. A comprehensive and content-rich education is obviously the optimum strategy for raising student performance. This recognises the equal importance of the arts, history, literature, music, science, geography and languages other than English.
A major issue is that the right of all students to a rich, broad and balanced education can be needlessly undermined by a narrow focus on literacy and numeracy, creating a dangerously divided curriculum between the so-called ‘basics’ and other learning areas such as science, the arts and languages. Yet these key learning areas can have a very significant, positive impact on improving literacy and numeracy outcomes for all students. Unfortunately, the reality in many countries and education systems is that students' entitlement to curriculum breadth, depth and balance can be compromised by the distorting impact of top-down prescription and central targets and standardised testing.
A national curriculum imperative is also the development of a more unified, K-12 learning process and, longer-term, a more unified system of education from age 0-18. A 21st century curriculum is thus associated with steps towards a learning continuum. Research in Victoria explored the idea of a unified P-12 curriculum. Initiated by the Country Education Project and sponsored by the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, among the key findings of this research project (2007) are:
A challenge at both the national and local school levels is to plan and integrate the curriculum from a P-12 perspective, using to this end throughlines, spiral learning and increased in-depth coverage of fewer topics, ideas and concepts in the curriculum (to also enable the development of deeper understandings of concepts and principles across the early, middle and later years).
A coherent curriculum would include specific goals and statements as to where best to pitch the learning activities and tasks presented to students. Such goals and statements would indicate the areas of knowledge that are critical for a student to progress along the P-12 learning process as seamlessly as possible. One indicator of a P-12 curriculum would be how well each year level builds on the learning of the previous level without major gaps in learning and duplication. A coherent P-12 curriculum would also require a more unified, P-12 approach to teaching and learning. As Stringer notes:
“Two cultures dominate schooling: a primary culture and a secondary culture. Both have sound ideas about the ways for thinking about curriculum and learning in their schools but, when placed together, they make nonsense of the learning continuum with which each of their students is involved.” (1998: 6)
While this is not true with many schools (that have long worked to blend primary and secondary school cultures and teaching methods), a continuum of learning and development from kindergarten through to university and college is the next big thing.
The old educational, cultural and social divides such as the academic-vocational divide that characterised curricula in the 20th century do not belong to the 21st century. To improve learning outcomes for all students and to reduce the achievement gap, there are several such divides that should be gradually addressed. A 21st century curriculum would support all educators in their efforts to more systematically link:
The quality of learning for all students and access to ‘academic’ learning (especially for students of ‘disadvantaged’ background) can be markedly improved if these links are embedded in a curriculum rather than being Mickey-Mouse add-ons. This is consistent with teachers' good practice, although many teachers are unable to routinely work in this broader way because of constraints in curricula and a lack of time and resources. Such teachers do not teach key concepts only at the theoretical level, but are always moving backwards and forwards between deep theory, principles and concepts, on the one side, and practical application and real-world problem-solving, on the other.
This is all the more important for, as Masters observes in the case of science, at a time when the need for science literacy has never been greater due to the need for problem-solving around pressing global issues such as climate change and water conservation, it is difficult to attract students to study science.
Surveys of students show that they cannot see the relevance of school science to their lives and find science uninteresting and difficult to learn. Attitudes to science become less positive between Year 4 and Year 8, and by Year 10 students generally have negative attitudes to science and no interest in pursuing science as a career (Masters, 2007). A new curriculum can open up more opportunities for students to more readily make the links between scientific theory and real-world relevance.
For all of this to happen there would need to be a lifelong learning policy that considered school, VET and higher education as part of a more coherent curriculum framework. As well, a new curriculum would go beyond the formal institutions of education to better embrace the myriad of rich learning experiences in workplace, community and sporting and recreational settings.
With students spending only 14 percent or so of their time at school (Bransford et al., 1999), learning experiences at home, in the community and during leisure time, posing learning activities and challenges to be solved (Marsick & Watkins, 2001), mean that formal education will continue as a central site but also as one site of learning among many, and that there is likely to be an exponential increase in forms of informal learning. As Wyn writes:
"Young people take what they need from a wide variety of sources, of which formal education is only one element. Formal education is only one part of young people’s learning repertoire, and if it remains in its current form, it may become increasingly marginal to learning and ossify as a credentialling mechanism for university, further education and employment" (2009: 35).
Schools will need new curriculum supports and resources to make learning more relevant to, and rooted in, the community contexts and learning experiences outside the classroom.
Curriculum reform can also be constrained by the old dichotomy of depth versus breadth. What is required is not a choice between disciplinary ‘depth’ and interdisciplinary ‘breadth’, but rather curriculum strategies to enable more students to experience deeper learning in two ways:
There is obviously a long history of personalisation both as an ideal and as a practice in schools, colleges and universities. Educators already have a rich repertoire of ways to assess students’ respective strengths, weaknesses and learning needs, and tailor teaching methods and the curriculum in response. Certainly parents favour an education that supports their children to become well-rounded individuals and caters to their individual needs (Saulwick Muller Social Research, 2006: 31). Personalised learning builds on these practices and aspirations.
Given what we know by way of research findings and the ideas and creative work of teachers over decades - notwithstanding the resource, time, curricular and system constraints on what schools and educators can provide - four key dimensions of a 21st century curriculum for personalised learning are as follows.
The first dimension is co-creation and control: the extent to which all students can lead, manage and co-create (Leadbeater, 2004) their own learning, participate in significant decisions affecting student learning, and progressively (as is age-appropriate) take control of their own learning journey. The journey is for the individual, not a narrowly defined, institutionally prescribed academic, vocational or other ‘pathway’, and supports his or her right to all-round personal development.
Student voice drives this personalisation (Hargreaves, 2004). Student talk via the power of dialogic teaching (Alexander, 2008) is pivotal. Alexander places emphasis on rethinking and adjusting the balance of writing and talk in the curriculum; redressing the balance of written and oral tasks and activities; and shifting from random, brief interactions to sustained and longer ones. Dialogic teaching serves to develop student learning and understanding and mainstream student voice, participation and leadership. Students’ skills in time management are also critical.
The second is deeper and more powerful learning: the extent to which students’ personal everyday experiences, ideas and insights and formal school instruction are combined to engender deeper student learning, knowledge and understanding.
As per Vygotsky’s insights, which inform the best ways to challenge deficit views of students’ backgrounds, when students’ personal experiences and ideas and an educator’s scientific concepts (which are not limited to science subjects) merge, learning is deeper. Teachers often use classroom talk (such as paraphrasing strategies to extend students’ vocabulary and inviting students to converse about their concrete, empirical and personal experiences and interpretations) to merge the two.
By contrast, concepts abstractly presented to students (as with an old-style academic curriculum) with little or no connection to their concrete, empirical and personal experiences may amount to empty formalism (Renshaw & Brown, 2007). On the other hand, concrete, empirical and personal experiences remain limited in their depth and generality if not connected to more scientific ideas, concepts and understandings. The curriculum can obviously be a powerful enabler of getting the balance right between what Vygotsky termed 'spontaneous' and 'scientific' ideas and understanding. Both of the extremes make it more difficult for students of diverse backgrounds to develop their own personal and empowering blend of both deep academic knowledge and understanding and practical and applied learning and real world problem-solving.
The third dimension is whole life learning: the extent to which students’ learning can draw upon, and make robust connections between, the multiple areas of their life (e.g., Abbot et al., 2009; West-Burnham, 2010). These include the school, extra-curricular settings, home, workplaces, community and community organisations, sport and recreation, and culture and ethnicity.
Challenges in assessment for a 21st century curriculum are how best to monitor the development of the whole student as distinct from only assessing progress in specific subjects (Johnson, 2004), and to empower students, parents and the community (Banks, 2004) as real learning partners. The Harvard Family Research Project (2008) uses the term ‘complementary learning’ for integrating school and non-school learning.
The fourth is personal futures planning: the extent to which students are able to make use of planning to target individual and common life and learning goals and to specify activities that may enable the attainment of these goals (e.g., Duckett and Jones, 2006). This should be integral to the curriculum. Some schools are, through the joint work of teachers, students, parents and others as well as the optimum use of new technologies, reworking personal learning plans for students to better support the needs and aspirations of learners as well as longer-term goal-setting for learning and personal well-being.
All four of the above dimensions of a curriculum for personalised learning are interlinked. If one is diminished, the other three are weakened. Together, the dimensions comprise a coherent model of personalised learning. New curricula should powerfully support teachers' creative work around personalisation.
A 21st century curriculum involves three overlapping areas - content knowledge, pedagogy and technology. Real educational reform goes beyond disciplines or a description of content knowledge per se to also embrace interrelated changes and improvements in pedagogy and technology. Thus, a major goal should be a balanced approach to developing curricula as part of a broad framework for 21st century education. As is being creatively developed by educators, 21st century education combines three things:
Supported by the right resources, it is the mix of advances in P, T and C that puts the ‘power’ into powerful learning experiences for all students and reduces the achievement gap.
For curriculum reform to be successful, technological supports (e.g., interactive Internet programs and Web tools such as Wikis) should be developed and released along with proposed new curriculum documents. This will improve consistency, quality of delivery and provide more time for teachers to plan and teach instead of having to reinvent the wheel.
In this respect, two US researchers, Punya Mishra and Matthew Koehler, have designed a more holistic model. They use the term ‘technological pedagogical content knowledge’ (TPACK) to refer to the interplay of these key components of learning - content knowledge, pedagogy and technology. TPACK can enable pedagogy to drive rather than follow curriculum, assessment and policy. TPACK is a strategic framework for a new curriculum.
TPACK also reminds us that teaching is a complex activity needing increasingly deeper specialisation and teamwork. The very practice of effective teaching and learning is obviously broader than the singular knowledge of a content or disciplinary knowledge expert, a learning technology expert and a pedagogical expert.
A broad TPACK perspective can also assist educators with addressing two major challenges. The first is to understand more about how students are changing (and also are becoming change agents) through their use of ICT - how they think, learn, find, play, make judgments, interact with others and become engaged in the life of their families, schools, communities and societies. The second is, given that young people are inundated by enormous amounts of data that they must access, manage, integrate, and evaluate, TPACK provides a model for how educators can best support students to separate substance and signals from noise, and deeper learning and knowledge from superficial fact-gathering.
In the twenty-first century, no one's education should be adequate without a clear future studies component. We desperately need a future-orientated curriculum at all levels of education. Professor Emeritus Wendell Bell
Young people desire to be part of decision-making that encourages and welcomes their efforts. Schools have long developed this in new, creative ways. But schools know that they quickly lose the enthusiasm, commitment and engagement of students - if a narrow, 1950s, academic elite selection curriculum fails to involve them in empowered decision-making that enables students to make a real difference in their own lives, for others, and in their communities.
Young people and students obviously facing a myriad of issues - global warming, economic crises, poverty, health issues, the need to reinvent education, a global population explosion and other social and environmental challenges. There are also unprecedented opportunities to achieve positive personal, community and societal changes. These issues drive the need for students to:
Student participation is a major way to build opportunities for all students to become successful learners, confident and creative individuals and active and informed citizens (as per the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians).
A 21st century curriculum brings together two key areas which, when combined, can significantly improve learning outcomes for all students and reduce the achievement gap based on students' background. These fundamental areas are:
The success of all educational experiences - in creating powerful learning - obviously depends on the quality of teachers’ and students’ talk. As Professor Robin Alexander suggests:
“We need to move from a view of talk as about ‘communication skills’ ... to a recognition of the neuroscientific and psychological evidence of its unique status as a sine qua non for all learning, especially during the first 10-12 years of life” (2004).
While modern classrooms are obviously places where a great deal of talking goes on, talk that in an effective, research-informed, sustained way engages all students and scaffolds their deep understanding and learning varies greatly. Not all countries have the same strong tradition of oral pedagogy that is characteristic of public education in many European countries.
Dialogic teaching focuses on using talk and fertile questions to develop all students' understanding in a consistently sustained, structured, profound, conceptually rich and collaborative way. Because it focuses on how students deeply understand what is presented to them, it has the potential to overcome the barriers between curriculum intent and the way it is received by students.
Through structured talk and a curriculum that is supportive of this, a school is able to ensure that all students, regardless of social background, acquire a highly-developed capacity to speak clearly, publicly, competently and confidently, and at length and in depth, about key themes and topics in all learning areas.
Likewise, when students feel responsible for important matters and can be actively involved in their school and community to make a difference, their learning and motivation are strengthened. But for many young people, deferred outcomes (e.g., distant goals of work, citizenship and acknowledged community roles) are not sufficient to sustain their motivation and commitment to learning.
With implications for their motivation and school 'success', students are unsettled by their deep-felt sense that their 'only value' is what they will become, not what they can do today. (For an excellent discussion of this, see Holdsworth's Engaging students in purposeful learning through community action paper). But as has long been demonstrated through the creative work of many teachers when students' talk and school and community actions are combined, students are empowered and the educational results can be phenomenal. This happens when a curriculum enables students to select specific topics that are the focus of both structured talk in the classroom and their problem-solving work in the school, workplace or wider community.
Since 1999, schools in Victoria have been developing student action teams. The program began as a joint initiative of the Department of Justice and the (then) Department of Education. A student action team consists of a group of students, their support teacher or teachers, and, where appropriate, other adults, including parents and community- and business-based workers. A team enables and supports students to:
Countless school initiatives such as the Gresswell Cluster have provided many insights into how schools and their communities:
Based on schools' good practices, a 21st century curriculum strongly privileges both structured classroom talk and dialogic teaching and community-based problem-solving and action.
Internationalisation of the curriculum is, of course, a continuing challenge for policy makers, teachers and students. As well, broad and in-depth knowledge of the cultures, histories, geographies and languages of countries in the Asia-Pacific region will continue to increase in importance for Australia’s teachers and students (Kirby, 2007). All of this is reinforced by Australia’s almost unmatched cultural and linguistic diversity. With implications for the very notion of a ‘national’ curriculum, among these critical curriculum issues to be explored (Tudball, 2003: 4) are:
To be effective in an interdependent world, all learners need to be empowered with deeper knowledge and understandings of globalisation and global issues and challenges. Curriculum reform will be pivotal in this. As the Curriculum Corporation long ago noted:
“In Australia and worldwide, it [is] ever more widely accepted that issues of global poverty and development, human rights and social justice, environmental challenges, peace and conflict, and thinking about and creating better futures, are inextricably linked. A future-focused curriculum demands approaches which see these interconnections, and fosters knowledge, skills, and values that equip young people to involve themselves in building solutions” (2002).
There is another angle to this. It is increasingly recognised, in part prompted by the greater awareness of OECD data and the educational achievements of countries such as Finland, that educational reform should be informed by global experiences of effective teaching and learning, not confined to good practices in certain countries such as those with an Anglo heritage. This also means working out the relationship between pedagogy and curriculum. As Alexander points out:
“In the Anglo-American tradition, pedagogy is subsidiary to curriculum, sometimes inferring little more than ‘teaching method’. … In the central European tradition, it is the other way round: pedagogy moves centre stage and frames everything else, including curriculum (2001: 512-513).
It will be crucial that curricula are not developed by policy makers working too narrowly within the Anglo tradition, but rather emerge and evolve over time from broader curriculum conversations inclusive of global professional communities and local school community stakeholders of diverse backgrounds.
The very best curriculum development is obviously a mix of local, national and global ideas and initiatives. The Cambridge Primary Review suggests that a 'community curriculum', taking up to 30 per cent of time, should be planned by local school community partnerships. There is a need to rebalance the roles of governments, education departments, stakeholders, schools and communities in curriculum development.
Not only should the local, national and global levels be developed together, but people at all three levels should have more opportunities to interact. What is needed is co-ordinated tri-level curriculum development. This may have the following elements:
A major challenge will be on-going national and local school conversations about the rationale, purposes and content of curricula. It would be of the utmost importance to facilitate as many of these conversations as possible as the basis for identifying fresh perspectives and carefully probing areas of agreement among diverse stakeholders. As Reid has suggested:
“Australian educators are aware of the limitations of traditional approaches to the official curriculum. However, it is clear that there is not yet a well-theorised alternative. It will require a substantial curriculum conversation across the profession, informed by the results of research into the various approaches currently being trialled across Australia, before the dominant grammars of the curriculum can be challenged in more than superficial ways (2005: 60).
Besides more conversations at all levels, that must include school councils, parents, students and community members, it will also be imperative that the research, policy and practice interface is strengthened and provided with adequate resources. Indeed, a national curriculum represents a major opportunity to consider how to institutionalise educational research, policy and practice partnerships and develop a critical mass of curriculum change agents who can traverse all three terrains.
Development of new curricula should take into account what is already being done successfully in schools. Above all, teachers and schools need to be given the autonomy, time for planning and the professional support to develop innovative approaches. As Waters puts it:
“One of the big challenges [is] to design the curriculum so that you get a local curriculum within national parameters” (2007).
One of the great achievements in education in Australia is the accreditation of so many languages as Year 12 subjects. Besides being important in its own right, languages learning is at the leading edge of the revolution in education and pedagogy. If mainstreamed over time, it has the potential to improve, if not transform, learning experiences and outcomes for all students. Despite the imperative of mainstreaming languages education, Australian students spend less time learning a second language than their counterparts in other OECD countries.
Likewise, most students do not study a language through to Years 11 and 12. In Victoria's public schools, for example, although 92% of students study a language in Year 7, only 17% are still doing so in Year 10 and only 8% in both Years 11 and 12.
To work in a practical way toward realising the vision of quality languages education for all students and in all schools (at a time, however, when the decades-old impetus behind mainstreaming languages learning has lost its momentum), what is to be done?
There are four fundamental challenges:
Each of these big-picture, strategic challenges can be converted into manageable, 'bite-size' pieces. Factors in favour of a more strategic approach to languages education include globalisation, increased international mobility and the cross-cultural impact of ever-evolving communications technology, all of which compel governments and communities to make languages education a core part of a world-class curriculum.
In this respect, the Victorian Government is developing a languages education strategy. It has created a Ministerial Advisory Council for a Multilingual and Multicultural Victoria, chaired by the Minister for Multicultural Affairs and Citizenship, Nicholas Kotsiras.
Capitalising on the interplay of its diverse linguistic and cultural environment and rich educational experiences, Australia has the potential to be a world leader in culturally inclusive pedagogy and curricula. Language teachers covering scores of languages up to Year 12 level are at the forefront of a nation’s educational and cultural development. This is the case for two reasons:
A 21st century curriculum would serve to propel this pedagogical renewal. Why and how? A monolingual mindset along with a monocultural mindset obviously holds back the development of good pedagogy, which would, ultimately, be an international cross-cultural synthesis. Such a synthesis may well emerge in Australia due to its deep tradition of multiculturalism. In turn, language educators can be among the lead architects of this renewal.
These seven features of a 21st century curriculum all obviously interrelate and depend upon one another. As well, schools and education systems will require additional resources and support together with greater professional autonomy to continue their on-going pioneering work and progress with curricula that are: