Pyne’s curriculum review misses the big picture

By Dr Tom Stehlik

Senior Lecturer in the School of Education at the University of South Australia


Commissioning a review of the national curriculum and then installing a known critic of that curriculum, Kevin Donnelly, as one of the lead reviewers is like putting Dracula in charge of the Blood Bank – the results are entirely predictable.

It is a self-referential exercise limited by the narrow views of those driving it, judging by the tone of the debate so far.  It could have been so much more.

I have been reading Alain de Botton’s new book, The News, in which he critiques the narrow boundaries of what gets reported in the mainstream press:

In the field of education, it seems ‘normal’ to run stories about class sizes, teachers’ pay, the country’s performance in international league tables and the right balance between the roles of the private and state sectors. But we would risk seeming distinctly odd, even demented, if we asked whether the curriculum actually made sense; whether it really equipped students with the emotional and psychological resources that are central to the pursuit of good lives. 

In Australia, everyone has been to school so everyone has an opinion on education, based on their own experiences. Unfortunately, some people are given the opportunity to express these opinions in the media, where they become reified and elevated in importance.

Kevin Donnelly, for example, is ‘one of Australia’s leading education commentators’ (according to his bio), and gets published in the national press. So he must know what he is talking about, right?

Yet his focus on ‘back to basics’ teaching and sterner disciplinary methods in the classroom diverts the readers’ attention away from the bigger questions:

What is education for?

What do we want for our children?

Is it more important to teach them calculus than how to be a good parent for example?

Christopher Pyne has been to school so also has an opinion, based on what he experienced at St Ignatius College 30 years ago. As Alan Reid pointed out in this blog on April 10, the fact that Pyne is now Education Minister and feels qualified to drive government policy based on his personal opinion is alarmingly interventionist, compared with policy decisions in other areas such as health.

In obsessing about teacher quality, school funding and student performance I suggest that we seem to be missing the point – forgetting that schooling is part of the bigger picture of education. We should recognise that schooling is just one aspect of how our society chooses to guide and shape its children and young people for growing up and participating in society. Family, friends, homelife, environment, industry, media, social media, sport, music, religion – all contribute to shaping young lives.

De Botton’s invitation for us to consider taking a step back to question the whole system of education might be a radical way of seeing the forest instead of just the trees. For example, is it really sensible to institutionalise our children for 12 of the best years of their lives? To make them spend 5 days a week for 40 weeks of the year in a classroom setting? To spend all that time with a cohort of children of the same age but with different backgrounds, learning needs, behavioural styles, parental values? To expect teachers to be able to deliver standardised curriculum in exactly the same way for exactly the same year level in every school in the country?

And comparing the Australian education system with that of Finland, which is fashionable given their successful PISA results, is like comparing apples with oranges. The countries are fundamentally different in the way they educate and employ teachers, fund and govern schools, and embed education in the national psyche.

I have been to Finland and spoken to teachers and principals, who say that while they may be pleased with the outcomes of their schooling system against world comparisons, they are actually more concerned that their children should be happy.

Why don’t we start with this challenging premise:

 an effective curriculum should produce happy children

as we engage in these ongoing debates about education?


TOMDr Tom Stehlik is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education at the University of South Australia. His research interests include adult learning, student engagement, school governance and communities of practice. He has had a long association with Steiner Education as a parent, educator, researcher, consultant and board member of a Waldorf School. In July 2014 Dr Stehlik will take up an Endeavour Executive Fellowship to study teacher education and schooling in Finland.

5 thoughts on “Pyne’s curriculum review misses the big picture

  1. thepedagogista says:

    Thanks for the great post, Tom. I think many of us are still reeling from the appointment of such a conservative ideologue (and one who has been very vocal in his criticism not only of the Australian Curriculum but of anything he deems to be a ‘progressive fad’ or conspiracy of ‘the cultural left’) as a supposedly independent reviewer of a curriculum that’s a mere 5 minutes old.

    I’m not sure whether to feel deeply pessimistic about what the review is likely to find or quite optimistic that the findings will almost certainly make little impact (especially in NSW where I am located) on teachers and schools. I guess time will tell…

  2. Tomaz Lasic says:

    Great and timely post. Thank you for articulating the felt and the obvious to so many with a shred of a (particular, of course) critical bend on the ground.

    In reply to thepedagogista, for my 2c, the biggest damage of this educational kangaroo-court is not what teachers will do (or not). Little will change, you’re right. What I fear is the exacerbation of ‘reform fatigue’ and growth of the distrust, disconnect between anyone called ‘education researcher’, ‘commentator’ or otherwise not working ‘on the ground’, in schools and those of us (myself included) who do. The elephant skin that teachers develop may protect from the powerful charlatans like KD but also form an impenetrable barrier to other, far more valid, well supported, thought out and researched ideas that abound but sadly, don’t get a voice (or teachers are simply too tired or tuned out to hear them).


  3. Tom Stehlik says:

    Thanks for your responses. Yes, a few years ago the Vocational Education and Training sector introduced new curriculum in the form of training packages. Many TAFE lecturers just resisted the changes and went on delivering training the way they always had. With accountability in the VET sector being based on completion rates rather than quality as in the school sector, they were able to get away with it (but this is all about to change of course). As I have said, the school sector is more exposed since everyone has an opinion on it and it is under the microscope in terms of performance. So yes while teachers may develop thick skins and resist interference in their classroom practice by bureaucrats and conservative ideologues, the danger is that they may also close ranks and become resistant to new ideas and genuine research. At UniSA I coordinate the course Introduction to Research in Education for pre-service teachers. It is a struggle to get them to realise the importance of becoming practitioner inquirers and understand the value of research to their future teaching practice…it will be even harder if practising teachers who act as their mentors also become cynical about educational research or valid reviews of curriculum and practice.

  4. Dan Haesler says:

    Good post. Thanks for sharing.

    I was particularly struck by your comment that Finnish teachers are more concerned with happiness.

    OECD findings appear to provide an interesting counterpoint to that:

    Cheers again


  5. Tom Stehlik says:

    Thanks Dan – very interesting OECD study on happiness!
    It does support the view that we need to re-think the whole school experience for our children.
    The Finns of course struggle with sadness (and suicide) because of the cold and darkness they experience for many months of the year…but here in Australia we can’t blame the climate for also being in that top left quadrant…something else must be going on…

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