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The role of the curriculum in creating the future

The role of the curriculum in creating the future

The school curriculum should embody a society’s vision for its future and play a vital role in achieving that vision.

I was prompted to reflect on this during my review of the New South Wales curriculum and in a study visit to Estonia.

When Estonia regained its independence in 1991, it immediately set to work on a new curriculum driven by a vision of an Estonia that would be more democratic, based on a market economy, more closely aligned with Western Europe, continually evolving, and strongly information-based. For much of its history, this small Baltic state had been occupied by Sweden, Tsarist Russia, Germany, and had been part of the Soviet Union. It had no world-class industries and few natural resources. It looked to education to bolster its economy, enhance national identity and productivity, build and preserve its democratic institutions and processes, and create a better future for all its citizens.

The new Estonian curriculum would build on the traditional, discipline-based curriculum of the Soviet era, but would be designed with the future Estonia clearly in mind. It would eschew ideology. It would not enforce uniformity across schools. It would not specify precisely what every teacher should teach. It would be less crowded with factual content to be memorised. It would be less focused on routines that all students were to learn and follow. And it would be less teacher-centred and delivery focused. And, drawing directly on the example of the neighbouring Finnish National Curriculum, schools would be given freedom and trusted to design their own curricula based on a national curriculum framework.

The new curriculum was introduced in 1996 following nation-wide discussions of the kinds of knowledge, skills and personal attributes required to achieve this national vision. These included skills in problem solving, democratic decision making, critical thinking, communicating, sourcing and using information, creating and innovating, and taking responsibility for one’s own learning. The curriculum made provision for more hands-on activities, more project work and inquiry-based learning, and more out-of-school learning in museums, nature centres and ‘hobby schools’. And teachers were encouraged to look beyond textbooks for contexts and examples that would make learning more relevant and meaningful to students.

Underlying these new curriculum priorities was a strong belief in the development of the individual, a commitment to equity and social inclusion, and a deep belief that every Estonian student was capable of learning successfully and reaching high levels of attainment given the requisite time, effort and support.

In the years since 1996, the priorities of the Estonian curriculum have remained largely unchanged. Over time, increasing priority has been given to entrepreneurship and to students’ skills in working with technologies (Estonia created the Skype software). And the country has made steady progress in integrating the attributes and skills it is seeking in its school graduates into traditional school subjects. This integration has required work over almost quarter of a century to provide teachers with advice, strategies and tools for doing this. It has also required a ‘less is more’ approach to school subjects through a greater focus on deep conceptual understanding and problem solving.

Estonia joined the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2006 and was revealed to be one of the highest performing countries in the world. Its international standing has continued to improve. In 2018, Estonian 15 year olds ranked first or equal first among students from 37 OECD countries in reading, mathematics and science. They also ranked exceptionally highly in their ‘growth mindset’— that is, the extent to which they believe success is possible with effort.

In my review of the New South Wales curriculum, I began by asking a broad cross-section of the NSW community about their aspirations for school education. What emerged was a vision for the kind of society people want to see. Most see the curriculum as crucial to realising that vision.

Foremost among people’s aspirations is a society ready to address whatever challenges the future brings. There is recognition that we live in an increasingly complex, dynamic and uncertain world and that expanding globalisation and new technologies will bring continuing change to everybody’s life and work. There will be ongoing, complex social and environmental challenges. People recognise that, as a society, we will require wisdom, skills and resilience to adapt, operate and flourish in this world and they look to schools to provide the best possible preparation for this future.

A related aspiration is to be a clever, technologically advanced society that not only consumes, but also produces, new knowledge. There is recognition that a strong economy, increased productivity, and prosperity for all depend on a highly educated and skilled workforce that can develop innovative solutions to problems and create leading-edge products and processes. People’s aspirations are for a knowledge society that punches above its weight in science, technology and innovation, and they look to schools to develop future capacities to think creatively, operate in effective team environments, and collaborate globally across cultures and languages.

People also aspire to a society in which everybody has a common foundation of knowledge and understanding, enabling them to engage in informed ways with contemporary issues and to exercise their rights and responsibilities as citizens. Access to the disciplines — including history, literature, the arts, mathematics and the sciences — is seen as every citizen’s entitlement and a key contributor to effective civic engagement, personal fulfilment, and a thoughtful and reflective life. The implication for schools is clear community support for common, discipline-based learning and for ensuring every student achieves at least minimally acceptable levels of knowledge and understanding.

Added to this are strong community aspirations for a just and equitable society. People see an urgent need to reduce the consequences of social disadvantage to create a society in which every individual can advance and prosper, regardless of their background, and to achieve the social cohesion necessary for an effective democracy. The vision is for a culturally, linguistically and religiously diverse society in which people of all backgrounds and lifestyles live in harmony. People believe schools can ameliorate the effects of disadvantage and promote a cohesive society. For many who spoke with the Review, the challenge is to ensure through the school curriculum a society characterised by empathy, compassion, respect, tolerance, and kindness toward others.

There is also a desire for a society in which every individual can become the best they can be by discovering and pursuing their strengths, interests and passions. Many in society currently do not have this opportunity and fall short of their potential because of lowered expectations, closed doors, dead-end pathways or lack of support when it is needed — often correlated with socioeconomic or cultural background. The challenge to schools is to design inclusive curricula that open rather than close options (for example, through low-level courses that set ceilings on how far individuals can progress); offer flexibility and choice; provide challenging learning opportunities appropriate to the points individuals have reached in their development; and set high expectations for every student’s progress and eventual attainment.

And people aspire to a society that is optimistic, resilient and underpinned by shared moral and ethical values—a society that can bounce back from adversity; that has a strong sense of hope and purpose; and that is prepared to be courageous and provide leadership in addressing challenges, redressing injustices, and alleviating poverty and disadvantage. They aspire to a society committed to doing the right thing and ensuring a ‘fair go’ for everybody. People expect the school curriculum to contribute to this aspiration by promoting attributes such as resilience, optimism, a sense of purpose, courage, self-awareness, and moral and ethical responsibility. Those who spoke with the Review made repeated references to the importance of prioritising social and emotional health and wellbeing, and to the need to develop ‘people of character’.

Much is now expected of the school curriculum, possibly more than it can deliver. But a lesson from Estonia is that the curriculum can contribute powerfully to a society’s vision for its future. A second lesson is that this is a long-term agenda. The NSW community’s vision requires a curriculum that transcends old divisions between knowledge and skills, theory and application, and academic and vocational learning — a new curriculum reimagined for the future and developed over time.

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