Roll back curriculum constraints and give teachers the freedom to make professional judgements

By Nicole Mockler

The role of the teacher in an Australian classroom is changing, and not in a good way. As I see it, the relentless pressure for schools to perform well in NAPLAN, the demands of various mandated curriculum and the ubiquitous concerns about ‘quality teaching’ are making teachers lose confidence in their own professional abilities. There is little space left for them to make their own decisions and act on their own ideas and knowledge as educators.

I believe it is time in Australia to start reclaiming the notion of teacher as curriculum worker, that is someone who can translate and transform their professional knowledge into appropriate conditions for learning for their particular students in their particular schools. There needs to be a pushback to the current constraints.

We know from myriad research (just look at Finland) that teachers flourish and children learn when teachers are given such freedoms.

I am not saying we should embark on a mission to get rid of MySchool or NAPLAN, or try to dismantle the national curriculum, that would probably not be a fruitful mission for our energy. There are, however, I believe, some ways in which we, as an education community, each with our different roles, might walk this tension between the enabling and constraining factors to help teachers make this space for themselves.

How the problem grew

In their 2007 book Schooling by Design, Wiggins and McTighe expressed their frustration with what they saw as an uncomfortable relationship between teachers and curriculum:

Over the years, we have observed countless examples of teachers who, though industrious and well meaning, act in ways that suggest that they misunderstand their jobs. It may seem odd or even outrageous to say that many teachers misconceive their obligations. But we believe this is the case. Nor do we think this is surprising or an aspersion on the character or insight of teachers. We believe that teachers, in good faith, act on an inaccurate understanding of the role of “teacher” because they imitate what they experienced, and their supervisors rarely make clear that the job is to cause understanding, not merely to march through the curriculum and hope that some content will stick. (2007, p. 128)

This observation probably made them seriously unpopular with teachers, but I think the issue is at least as much a systemic one as it is an individual one. To be honest, I think we’ve been deprofessionalised in terms of our capacity as a profession to undertake curriculum work over the past 20 years.

As the amount of curriculum content has gone up, we’ve been encouraged to see the tick box list of dot points (as we like to call them in NSW) as the curriculum itself for the purposes of accountability, and like the frog in the pot of gradually boiling water, we perhaps haven’t noticed how stark the difference really is. Personally, I don’t think that initial teacher education programs have, as a rule, been good at supporting the development of ‘curriculum worker’ as a principal dimension of beginning teacher identity either, preoccupied largely with the ‘what’ and less than we should be with the ‘how’.

The original Shape of the Australian Curriculum paper, published in 2009, had the following to say about teachers as curriculum workers:

The curriculum should allow jurisdictions, systems and schools to implement it in a way that values teachers’ professional knowledge and that reflects the needs and interests evident in local contexts, as it will be teachers who decide how best to organise learning for students. Organisation of learning should take account of individual family, cultural and community backgrounds; acknowledge and build on prior learning experiences; and fill gaps in those experiences. (ACARA, 2009, p. 8)

The national curriculum will describe a learning entitlement for each Australian student, clearly explaining what is to be taught and learned in each area. Implementing the national curriculum, as in the case of state and territory curriculums, will rely on teachers’ professional judgments about how best to organise learning for students, how to reflect local and regional circumstances, and how best to take advantage of their own specialised professional knowledge and their students’ interests. (ACARA, 2009, p. 11)

By the 2012 version of the paper, these passages had morphed into:

Jurisdictions, systems and schools will be able to implement the Australian Curriculum in ways that value teachers’ professional knowledge, reflect local contexts and take into account individual students’ family, cultural and community backgrounds. Schools and teachers determine pedagogical and other delivery considerations. 
(ACARA, 2012, p. 11)

The Australian Curriculum makes clear to teachers what is to be taught. It also makes clear to students what they should learn and the quality of learning expected of them. Schools are able to decide how best to deliver the curriculum, drawing on integrated approaches where appropriate and using pedagogical approaches that account for students’ needs, interests and the school and community context. (ACARA, 2012, p. 25)

The differences are subtle but the shift from teachers deciding how best to organise learning for students to schools being able to decide how best to deliver the curriculum is not just a semantic one.

Teachers as curriculum workers

 The role I am thinking of is where teachers understand curriculum work as a complex process involving prioritisation, translation, and transformation of knowledge into appropriate conditions for learning. It is about understanding curriculum work as a deeply creative and productive process that relies on confidence with and command of content; deep pedagogical expertise; and a good understanding of the learners in question. It is understanding teaching as scholarly work, as intellectual work, as knowledge work.

As I see it, it is around embracing and consciously growing teacher professional judgement as a matter of professional development priority. Teacher professional judgement has been regarded with increasing suspicion over the past 20 years, but so much of teachers’ curriculum work, not to mention other work, relies on finely honed professional judgement. We’ve come to think of it as unreliable and ‘subjective’, when in actual fact we should be fighting this take on it and working collaboratively to sharpen it.

We might do this by sustaining real conversations about curricular and pedagogical practice, pushing each other to draw evidence from a broad range of sources and use it in both employing our judgement and opening that judgement up to the scrutiny of others. I know of no teacher in touch with their students and their learning who can’t tell you vastly more about those students’ performance than a supposedly objective test score.

I won’t pretend that professional judgement is the ‘silver bullet’ that professional standards were posed to be in the early 2000s, but so much of engaging in critical curriculum work relies on confident and well developed professional judgement that I believe we must focus on this as a matter of priority, lest it disappear entirely down the rabbit hole in our fixation on ‘objective data’.

We’re hearing a lot of late about the possibilities for curriculum integration in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths). Without teachers being supported to embrace their identity as curriculum workers more overtly, more stridently and more expansively, visions of integration, whether oriented toward STEM, STEAM (STEM + Arts), or anything else, are, to my mind, unlikely to come about.

Dr Nicole Mockler is a Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of Sydney. She has a background in secondary school teaching and teacher professional learning. In the past she has held senior leadership roles in secondary schools, and after completing her PhD in Education at the University of Sydney in 2008, she joined the University of Newcastle in 2009, where she was a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education until early 2015. Nicole’s research interests are in education policy and politics, professional learning and curriculum and pedagogy, and she also continues to work with teachers and schools in these areas.

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7 thoughts on “Roll back curriculum constraints and give teachers the freedom to make professional judgements

  1. A great article, Nicole. Thank you for writing it. This is the conversation we need to be having.

  2. Cathie burgess says:

    Yes and allow, to encourage teachers to follow their passions. It is how we keep marginalised subjects like Aboriginal Studies alive!

  3. Ania Lian says:

    Thank you Nicole.
    My thoughts as I work through my teacher training units: Curriculum is a text. It needs to be interpreted. It cannot be followed because every action is informed by interpretation; there is no one-to-one meaning to be extracted from the text and followed. So I do not have issues with the recent emphasis on “how best to deliver the curriculum”, although I do find the word “delivery” quite curious.
    My more serious concern is that covertly the quality is being replaced with top-down understandings of what quality means and direct instruction strategies and method is portrayed as the solution only because the alternatives are reduced to what the policy makers believe they would be. This then is used to stop the need for an ongoing and necessary collaboration between schools and universities. Indeed the recent push for school-only teacher training seems vindicates my concerns. It looks like a great idea to those who fear questions, loss of “authority” and most of all, who forgot that knowledge is built, not delivered. School-based factories (“academies”) have no capacity or resources to support the building process through questioning and innovation. We have written a book chapter on this here at CDU (Direct Instruction for “at-risk children” and the Australian Curriculum: Toward a better understanding of the appeal of behaviourism in cross-cultural contexts of learning), where we are quite concerned with the field stagnating and succumbing to traditional sources of knowledge.
    best wishes
    ania lian

  4. Jenny Little says:

    We seem to be constantly reframing the priorities for our teachers and, as a consequence, confusion and lack of confidence pervade the profession. Just this morning on Melbourne radio the thrust of latest critique was on the use of technology in schools! Again! Last week it was spelling teaching. But, for mine, your focus on building curriculum workers is the issue and a lack of pedagogical expertise is what holds back our teachers’ personal confidence to push back on the ‘populist’ trends and demands.

  5. Greg Ashman says:

    I’m not sure whether this site registers pingbacks so I thought I should let you know that I’ve written about this post here:


  6. Rosie Thrupp says:

    I agree that we have deprofessionalised and deskillled teachers in the last 20 years, through dictating to strictly what and how. Allen Luke warned us of this many years ago and warned education systems that we were heading in this direction. It is sad to hear brilliant teachers leaving the system because they can no longer be bound by limitations and policies that have little appropriate basis.

    As in comments above, I too and always have hated the word, ‘delivery’. Teachers are not and cannot be the font of all knowledge. They do not pour knowledge into empty vessels. Teachers design curriculum for children to learn, matching the design with the children who do the learning. We are not deliverers. We are creative, intelligent professionals who work with children to achieve learning.

  7. Bruce Lyons says:

    Nicole as a now retired school Principal and Superintendent of Schools I was pleased to note your apparent acceptance of the need for a prescribed curriculum like the Australian National Curriculum (ANC).

    I lived through a period in WA when the old prescribed curriculum was allowed to fade away faced by the flood tide of the outcomes-based approach. Teachers were floundering.

    As you have pointed out it is the teachers who will interpret the curriculum syllabuses and action the appropriate learning.

    Teachers thrive if one provides an opportunity for groups of teachers targetting like levels such as Foundation to year 3; the middle years and the final years of primary school to discuss what the details of the syllabuses mean. It is in effect a standards setting exercise whereby teachers will walk away knowing what it means to have masters this or that prescribed outcome. They will also walk away having interacted with their peers about various delivery strategies.

    Such teacher meetings are also appropriate within secondary school subject departments.

    My major beef is that students are required to move on to new learning despite not mastering the prerequisites for that new learning. This is particularly relevant in mathematics and word knowledge/reading. It is difficult for a school to swim against the tide of coverage by age grade but unless they do there will be many students with serious gaps in their learning. I have written elsewhere in much much detail about this. Setting up working at appropriate rates for each student is where teacher professional application comes to the fore. The parents must also be brought onside.

    Year 12 students who exit school illiterate and innumerate in a functional sense are a reality and we as educators must minimise such outcmes asap

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