Education commentators and futurists have been calling the current curriculum into question for some time, but more recently, Australian politicians have joined the chorus.

For the first time in 29 years, a review of New South Wales’ school curriculum has been announced.

That state’s Education Minister Rob Stokes says schools will take a back-to-basics approach with a greater focus on English, maths and science.

“Several recent national reports on improving educational outcomes call for curriculum review, and we are keen to ensure that these reports are answered by real action,” Stokes says in a statement.

“This is a once in a generation chance to examine, declutter, and improve the NSW curriculum to make it simpler to understand and to teach.”

Of those national reports, Stokes has made particular reference to the Through Growth to Achievement: Report of the Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools, commissioned by the Federal Government and prepared by a panel headed by businessman David Gonski.

“Our review puts David Gonski’s report into practice and will tailor the national education reform agenda to the NSW context,” he says.

NSW opposition spokesman Jihad Dib said it was about time the reforms were introduced as the state was falling behind the Australian average in scientific and reading literacy in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

On a national level, Gonski’s report calls for a significant overhaul of the current curriculum.

Citing Australia’s decline in OECD rankings, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull told SBS: “That’s not good enough. We have to recognise that we have been falling behind other countries on any measure”.

“You can see the bell curve of performance for Australian schools has shifted in the wrong direction,” Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham adds.

Among a number of recommendations, the report calls for a greater focus on literacy and numeracy in early education, as well as a renewed emphasis on general capabilities.

Professor Romina Jamieson Proctor, state head in the School of Education Queensland, Faculty of Education and Arts at Australian Catholic University, says while literacy and numeracy are critically important, there’s a danger in hinging too much on our performance in these areas.

“Literacy and numeracy should always be a focus for schooling in every society and every culture,” she says.

“Because to be a competent person within your culture, you need to have a certain level of ability in the symbol system that your culture uses.

“So, being able to write and read English in Australia, is absolutely crucial.

“But, our focus has gone too far looking at literacy and numeracy test results and saying that these are the markers upon which we judge our education system.”

Jamieson-Proctor says the skills we test and report on in assessments such as PISA and NAPLAN, tend to be the only skills given any value.

“But there’s a broader suite of skills that we need to look at in order to judge the quality of our education system,” she explains.

“And if we only focus on literacy and numeracy in our testing, then we’re going to be giving students, parents, the entire community, the impression that the only thing that’s important is literacy and numeracy, and whether kids can read the label on a milk bottle. There’s more to it than that.”

Beryl Exley is national president of Australian Literacy Educators’ Association and a professor of education at Griffith University.

Understandably, she believes literacy is fundamentally important and a building block for all other learning.

However she too, fears a focus on literacy in an effort to climb up the international leagues tables is the wrong approach.

“What we’re getting a better understanding of now is what the repercussions are when Australia has focused its attention, in the last decade, on high-stakes minimumstandards assessment, and the way that literacy has been presented through that high-stakes minimum-standards assessment – which of course is NAPLAN – and what that reduces literacy to be.

“At the moment, NAPLAN reduces literacy to be around literal comprehension of print, around traditional grammar … around editing spelling errors, and what’s happened as a process of all of that, is that the whole breadth or literacy as a capability within the Australian Curriculum, has been sidelined,” Exley says.

What students are missing out on as a result of this, Exley says, are skills in critical literacy, digital literacy and inferential comprehension – the sorts of skills which are fundamentally important in developing students as thinkers in a future society.

“So, the sooner we can return the focus of literacy to that very broad spectrum, the better place we will be in to ensure we improve literacy outcomes for all students,” Exley says.

Among Minister Stokes’ plans is a return to the basics, a decluttered and simplified curriculum.

Dr Glenn Savage, senior lecturer in public policy and sociology of education at The University of Western Australia, says the backto-basics mantra is nothing new in education.

“The idea of going back to basics, we hear that all the time.

“It’s probably one of the most repeated claims by education reformers here in Australia and also internationally, but we should approach the sort of claim with some caution,” he warns.

“So for example, what exactly are the basics?

“Usually when people say that they are suggesting or implying a renewed focus on English, maths or sometimes science, but the thing is, schools teach these subjects already, and they already have a strong focus on these throughout schools, and since NAPLAN has been introduced there’s been a significant increase in focus on literacy and numeracy.

“So, I guess my question would be, what exactly are we going back to, if we go back to the basics?”

On the one hand, Savage sees merit in a review in terms of lessening the focus on subjects or areas of the curriculum that might be less relevant to the basics.

“I think that over the last few decades the curriculum has been filled with a great number of things that teachers are supposed to teach and students are supposed to learn, and I agree that it’s difficult sometimes to adequately cover the curriculum content, outcomes assessments, there’s very little wiggle room left for other things,” he admits.

However on the other hand, Savage says “we need to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, by getting rid of dimensions within the curriculum that have been introduced over the past decade which have positive potential”.

“So, partly what Australia’s done is move to broaden the dimensions of the curriculum by introducing things such as the general capabilities and cross-curriculum priorities, and I think that’s broadly a step in the right direction, but I don’t think we’re there yet in terms of knowing how to best implement that in classrooms.

“I think teachers are still struggling to deal with the new demands that those place on teaching and I think we need to work on trying to get that right.

“What I wouldn’t want to see, is suddenly an abandonment of those dimensions in an attempt to go back to basics.”

“I think if we look at the Gonski 2.0 review, that we wouldn’t see such an abandonment … perhaps there’s a slight tension between the Minister’s comments, to go back to basics on the one hand, and then the desire to further embed 21st Century skills and competencies, which is clear in the Gonski report.”

Jamieson-Proctor also fears a return to basics could undo some of the good work teachers are already doing in terms of embedding 21st century skills into their classrooms.

“We need to resist this urge to turn back the clock to a simpler time, a time when teachers only had to worry about whether kids could read, and could add and subtract, multiply and divide,” she says.

“Any student worth their salt, any five-year-old … can go onto Google and find out any piece of information that was just about ever created by a human, we all know that.

“Why are we wasting time teaching children that, we need to free up their thinking space, their mental capacity to do higher level stuff, to problem solve, to create, to move our society forward, to be able to collaborate, to communicate with others effectively.

“These are the things that they will need, in order to move this country forward.”

Dr Yong Zhao, foundation distinguished professor in the School of Education at the University of Kansas  and professorial fellow at the Mitchell Institute for Health and Education Policy has long been an opponent of educating for the industrial era.

A key figure behind the idea of entrepreneurial learning, Zhao believes schools which perform well on international tests like PISA, operate within a ‘sausagemaking model’ and Australia shouldn’t be looking to them, or a national curriculum, to progress.

“Education has always been about turning diversity into homogeneity,” he told delegates at EduTECH International Congress and Expo in June.

But, he says, the education system of today needs to value the unique talents and abilities of each student, rather than trying to force them to fit a particular mould. “Mediocrity doesn’t cut it anymore,” he says.

In an interview with Australian Teacher Magazine, Zhao says if he was looking to improve learning outcomes for Australian students, he would look beyond a revamped curriculum.

“I probably wouldn’t design a ‘top-down’ prescriptive curriculum, I would create more resources and encourage different sorts of pedagogies. So have students, teachers, leaders and parents to co-construct a curriculum that’s relevant to individual students, that’s personalisable,” he says.

“A government could have a very broad, but not overly prescriptive curriculum.”

Meanwhile, the Federal Government has given in-principle support to 23 recommendations coming out of Gonski’s report, and is hopeful an agreement can be negotiated this year.

Savage says we need to move forward with caution.

“I think we need to be careful moving forward, not to accept too readily some of the claims made in the Gonski review.

“Particularly around things like Growth Mindset, the idea that was floated of potentially moving away from year-based curriculum, towards learning progressions.

“I think some of those things might sound alluring and good in theory, but the actual logistics of putting into practice some of those things could be potentially nightmarish for schools and teachers if it’s not thought through very, very carefully,” he says.

“I think there’s often a tension in schools, between what might theoretically sound like a good idea, and what’s actually feasible in schools. And I think the Gonski report is full of fashionable sounding ideas, that might look appealing, but how realistic are they to actually implement?”

With all of the talk about 21st century skills at the moment, Savage is also worried the pendulum might swing too far towards skills and competancies, at the expense of knowledge.

“We don’t want to lose the focus on what young people know … do they know about Australian history? Do they know about specific texts that we think are important? Do they know specific concepts?

“I think as the drive comes towards more of a skills-based or ‘doing curriculum’, I’m concerned that we don’t want to abandon too much of a knowledge-based curriculum, I think that would be a step in the wrong direction,” he says.

“I guess I would just sound a warning there, not to too readily jump on board more fashionable ideas ... and just slow the row.

“If we are going to go down that path, I think we need a very deliberate and staged process of conducting pilot studies, research within schools, to see if that approach is actually effective before we declare that we’re going to roll that out in schools across the country, which is what’s happened as a result of the Gonski report.

“So I guess my view would be a little bit more pragmatic and a bit more of a warning for taking things slowly and trying to understand the impact of these things before we declare that they should be done wholesale, at a state level or a national level.”