Classroom focus shifts to life skills

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Original article by Stefanie Balogh in The Australian:

Senior students will be better prepared for work and further study under curriculum changes in NSW that lead the nation by ­improving writing skills, financial literacy, teaching how Western civilisation was shaped, and highlighting Robert Menzies’ place in Australia’s history.

The curriculum overhaul, the first in two decades, will “correct’’ the existing emphasis on studying a breadth of subjects to ensure students leave high school with deeper knowledge and the skills to navigate a changing world.

Maths will look at statistics and the algorithms used by Google for search engines, while English will include explicit references to structure, grammar, spelling, ­vocabulary and punctuation. Students taking history extension will better understand the nation-shaping role of the Anzacs in politics and culture.

NSW Education Standards Authority chairman Tom Alegounarias said: “This is our ­addressing of what we feel were shortcomings or corrections required to previous eras of curriculum development, particularly at the senior secondary level.’’

The changes address complaints about a lack of rigour in science studies. The physics curriculum was ripped to shreds as a “disaster’’ last month when one of the nation’s leading scientists, ­renowned quantum physicist Michelle Simmons, expressed horror that it had been “feminised’’ to make the discipline more appealing to girls by substituting mathematical formulae with essays.

The new maths, science, ­English and history syllabuses for the higher school certificate are released today after an extensive consultation process. Year 11 classes will adopt the reworked curriculum from next year.

The changes not only reflect the new national curriculum adopted by the other states but NSW has gone one step further by introducing a cross-curriculum emphasis on work and enterprise to future-proof its HSC students. More than 77,000 students sit the exam each year. The NSW syllabuses were miles ahead of the other states, Mr Alegounarias said, because the state had shifted its thinking to prepare students better for the ­demands of the workforce and further study.

“We’re not backing off indigenous perspectives or diversity; that’s our world. But we’ve faced up to issues such as where does work and enterprise fit in,’’ he said.

Kevin Donnelly, a senior ­research fellow at the Australian Catholic University, said many of the recommendations of the ­National Curriculum Review that he co-chaired had been adopted. “We recommended greater focus on essential content and more academic rigour, plus more about the history underpinning ­Western culture; the new NSW syllabuses reflect those recommendations,’’ Dr Donnelly said.

The underlying thrust of the NSW changes is to ensure students have a depth of understanding of topic, which means their skills are transferable.

“Depth in content is something that was previously, I would say, diluted, in order to achieve choice and diversity,’’ Mr Alegounarias said. “The point of the learning is to get to the depth of content and the rigour of understanding, and the confidence and mastery over the content.’’

The internationally recognised HSC sets the standard for school assessments in other states and the NSW changes are likely to influence other curriculums.

The NSW Education Standards Authority, which replaces the Board of Studies Teaching and Education Standards, has also tackled criticisms that previous history topics lacked an emphasis on the movements and events that had shaped Western civilisation.

“We have something called Shaping the Modern World,’’ Mr Alegounarias said. “Now that ­begins with the Enlightenment, it goes through the development of liberal democracy, the French Revolution, it studies the concepts of liberty, inalienable rights, the Age of Imperialism, capitalism, the Industrial Age, and manufacturing. So, there’s no shying away from the sort of comments that conservative commentators might accuse us of.”

He stressed those additions to the curriculum did not mean NSW had dropped indigenous perspectives. History retains World War I studies but they are shifted into Year 11 and World War II studies remain. History extension will include a look at the leadership and legacy of Australia’s longest-­serving prime minister, conservative Robert Menzies.

“You can’t study post-World War II Australia without studying Menzies and he’s mentioned explicitly on a number of occasions, but (former Labor prime minister) Gough (Whitlam) also gets a mention,’’ Mr Alegounarias said.

The curriculum also underscores Australia’s role in the Asian century. “We are a nation with a strong Western tradition that is situated in Asia at a time when the economic and social dynamic is centring on Asia,’’ Mr Alegounarias said. “We will not back away from diversity as an important perspective in content but we don’t see that in competition with work and enterprise.’’

The science curriculum will have increased mathematical content, especially in physics and chemistry, and a focus on learning scientific principles, theories and laws and contemporary applications.

In English, a new topic called the craft of writing has been introduced to tackle language structure and the power of ­expression. Maths courses will be assessed on a common scale, which means students doing harder courses will be rewarded.



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