Why the curriculum review won’t work – on its own

The 2021 curriculum review is entering its final stages following a recent consultation period with the public, including teachers and parents.

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Cluttered and complex. That’s how teachers describe the Australian Curriculum. Well, it was how they described it. The 2021 curriculum review is entering its final stages following a recent consultation period with the public, including teachers and parents. The new document is set to be complete early in the new year, with each state working through their own rollout timeline. 

2021 marked 6 years from the last curriculum review, the standard timeframe. But the review also comes at a time where concerns over Australia’s academic performance is at its peak. 

The most recent PISA report released in late 2019, saw Australian students record their worst ever results in reading, maths and science, continuing the long-term downward trend in our performance. 

Mathematics had the biggest decline, with 46% of 15 year-olds failing to meet the minimum national standard. It’s the first time in the test’s history that Australia has fallen behind the OECD average for maths. Even more concerning, is the fact that only 10% of Australian students demonstrated advanced knowledge of mathematics, compared to 44% in the top performing country. This is reflected in the number of students choosing to study maths in their senior years of high school and beyond. And it comes at a time where jobs in professional, scientific and technical services are on the rise, causing a big problem to the STEM pipeline.

Why are Australia’s results declining?

In a country that values excellence and equity in education, where does the problem behind our declining results lie? 

The answer can probably be traced back to a number of factors. According to this report, in Australia, low performance in mathematics is more likely for students who are socio-economically disadvantaged, girls, enrolled in vocational programs or those who had no pre-primary education or repeated a grade. 

While these factors exist across the country, different states and territories are seeing very different results from these ‘at risk’ students. For example, students from low socioeconomic backgrounds are making more progress in some states (like Victoria) than their counterparts in other states (like the ACT). 

This calls into question other factors. Like the serious shortage of mathematics teachers in Australia. Just one third of Year 7-10 maths teachers are qualified to teach maths and those who aren’t have little support when they’re required to.

Or the fact that many schools, particularly those in regional areas, don’t have the resources to offer students advanced or extension maths courses, dissuading them from taking interest in STEM pathways. 

Not to mention, the growing maths anxiety that students across the country are experiencing, limiting their progress. 

It’s a contentious topic and one that has attracted significant debate over the last two years. It’s also a major problem that the curriculum review is seeking to address. After all, a decade-long decline in international assessments of student learning should call for some sort of action. 

Will fixing the curriculum fix the decline?

Most of the factors contributing to the decline outlined above will exist in education for a long time to come. And changing the curriculum isn’t going to address them.

This review is not a silver bullet for the current state of Australian education. Unfortunately, it can’t be. 

What it can do is streamline content (content is set to be reduced by 20%), clarify language and give teachers something more refined to work with. It can even improve state-level interpretation for a more consistent national approach (although we’re not sure it will). 

But it can’t stop this downward trend. At least, not on its own. 

What will, is looking beyond international assessments and instead focusing on the assessments of individual students. Teachers know what their students need to learn and be motivated to learn in maths. A streamlined curriculum will give them extra space to do this. But the difference will be made in the classroom itself. 

When teachers can teach their students the content that they’re ready for, rather than feeling pressure to move them through the curriculum. When they can use their data and observations to inform their approach to individual students, rather than teaching to an assessment. That’s when we’re going to see a difference. It might seem like small changes, but this approach is having big results. Because when teachers have the autonomy to target their teaching students have the opportunity to progress.

What can we do now?

Behind every new troubling report and statistic are students — our students — who are struggling with maths. 

The new curriculum is still months away, and when it arrives it won’t have all the answers. So what can we do now to increase our impact with students? Firstly, we can’t waste our energy on things that we can’t control. Teachers simply don’t have the time.  We want to make the most impact with our students that we can with the little time that we have available. So we need to focus on things that we know will work. Things like personalised learning, rich tasks and targeted explicit teaching. 

Personalised learning can have dramatic results on student progress. When they’re learning the maths that they’re ready to learn, students can experience success and become more confident in their mathematical abilities, leading to higher levels of engagement. 

Rich Learning supports engagement too. It involves the whole class coming together for thought-provoking, teacher-led group activities where mathematical concepts are explored using open-ended questions with multiple entry and exit points. Research including this Queensland report and this study by Jo Boaler solidify Rich Learning as a highly effective teaching practice.

When we think of highly effective teaching practices, explicit teaching usually comes to mind. It is widely known as one of the most effective ways to teach. It involves a high level of teacher-student interaction as teachers need to check understanding regularly and provide individual support and feedback to ensure students are fully grasping concepts. This can be difficult to do, particularly if students have gaps in their learning. A targeted explicit teaching approach can give teachers the information they need to use this method more effectively.

Combining strategies like these can have a  significant impact on student learning. And that’s what is needed to drive change in maths results. Classroom level strategies that target the needs of individual students. Some schools are already doing it, and they’re seeing  students double the amount of maths they’re learning — regardless of their background .

To learn more about strategies that will increase your impact in the classroom, click here or complete the form below. 

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