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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Australian Officials Want a Less Liberal National Curriculum

By Peter DeWitt — January 16, 2014 4 min read
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Curriculum is always a topic for debate. Educators, parents and politicians want to know what should be taught, why it should be taught, and for whom it is best taught. We worry what is age-appropriate, and to that extent, whether some curriculum is appropriate at all.

As much as this seems like an issue that only the U.S. is dealing with, it’s actually an issue that is happening in many countries around the world. When we are debating curriculum in public education, we often wonder if the public has any input at all in the curriculum that is being taught. That is certainly an issue school communities are grappling with in many cities, towns and states. It’s certainly happening in New York State.

Recently, Australian middle years teacher Aaron Davis, who reads and has contributed to this blog, sent me a link to an article in the Guardian which describes what is happening in Australia education. If you put aside the fact, for just a moment, that this story takes place in Australia, you would swear that the reporter is writing about education in the United States...or perhaps the country where you may reside. It shows that curriculum is not just a national issue, but very much an international one.

In Christopher Pyne: Curriculum Must Focus On Anzac Day and Western History (Guardian), Daniel Hurst wrote about Australia’s curriculum woes, and how what is being taught to children by teachers around Australia is being hijacked by three political figures, which happens to be a similar issue happening in states around the U.S. where the Common Core State Standards are concerned.

A Debate Down Under

Christopher Pyne, the Education Minister in Australia is using a committee of three to review and change the curriculum being taught in Australia. According to Hurst,

The education minister, Christopher Pyne, says the review will address concerns about the history curriculum "not recognising the legacy of western civilisation and not giving important events in Australia's history and culture the prominence they deserve, such as Anzac Day". He also wants the curriculum to "celebrate Australia"."

No one can deny that important events in the history of any country should be taught in public schools, just as long as the history being taught provides a well-balanced view, and not just the view of the winners. Unfortunately, the “team” involved in the curriculum refurbishing isn’t giving the public the feeling that everyone in Australia will be “celebrated.”

Hurst writes,

One of the two people appointed to lead the review, the conservative education commentator Kevin Donnelly, recently attacked the curriculum for "uncritically promoting diversity" and undervaluing western civilisation and "the significance of Judeo-Christian values to our institutions and way of life"."

Diversity...shouldn’t that be promoted when one is celebrating Australia? I mean, shouldn’t all children be exposed to diversity so they get a better understanding of their larger world?

Hurst went on to write,“Pyne said he was confident Donnelly and Wiltshire would bring a balanced approach to the curriculum review. “Everyones been to school; everyones an expert in education one way or the other,” he said in Adelaide.

And therein lies the issue. Not everyone is an expert in education. Certainly people have opinions about the role of schools or how some students best learn, but just because someone has gone to school does not make them an expert. It means they are entitled to an opinion. Just like we have all been to a doctor, dentist or mechanic, but it doesn’t mean we are an expert in those arenas, but are entitled an opinion to how we are treated.

Apparently, when Pyne was “Asked whether he believed the curriculum was too left leaning,” he answered that, “He wanted the curriculum to be a “robust and worthwhile document” that embraced knowledge and did not “try and be all things to all people”.” That makes sense. Why make curriculum that all people are exposed to be all things to them? We should make it for the chosen few, and keep the other groups out (that’s sarcasm).

Conservative View or Bigoted One?

To his credit, the conservative Donnelly does have teaching experience, and it’s much more than some state leaders in the United States have (for example...NY). Hurst wrote that,

Donnelly, fronting the media with Pyne for the curriculum review announcement, said it was a "great honour" to be appointed to the review and vowed to act in a consultative way. Donnelly pointed out he had worked as a teacher for 18 years and described himself as a "curriculum nerd"."

I’m not sure I would have been welcomed in his class. According to Hurst,

Donnelly has previously argued it is wrong for teachers in the classroom "to introduce students to sensitive sexual matters about which most parents might be concerned and that the wider community might find unacceptable"."

When creating an inclusive and positive school climate, all school community members should be accepted, and that includes gay parents. In addition, I find it hard to believe that Donnelly didn’t teach subject-matter that the wider community didn’t find unacceptable. After all, he is a conservative with a pretty narrow-minded view on women, migrants and the LGBT community, considering some of his previous writing.

According to Hurst, in a previous article Donnelly wrote,

Welcome to the gender wars! Since the mid- to late '70s, much of the education debate has centred on the supposed disadvantage suffered by migrants, working-class kids and women. More recently, gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) people have become the new victim group."

Donnelly continued by writing

Forgotten is that many parents would consider the sexual practices of GLBT people unnatural and that most parents would prefer their children to form a relationship with somebody of the opposite sex."

What an ignorant argument. Is his position on the topic so weak that he would rather that it is not involved in curriculum instead of affording all groups to have a place at the table and allow teachers to hold debates over these topics? If schools are to prepare students for the workforce and college, than that means including LGBT topics and discussions into the curriculum. That does not mean that they have to walk away accepting it, but they do not have to understand it exists, and instead of discriminating against a population, they should understand that the LGBT population, women and migrant workers deserve as much of a place in our world as any heterosexual child or adult.

But perhaps Donnelly, Pyne and Wiltshire aren’t concerned about the public in public education, and really do not want to “celebrate” all Australian citizens, and that should change.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.