English curriculum

Toil and trouble: why time-poor teachers choose these texts today

When Queensland introduced a prescribed text list in 2019, teachers had a smorgasbord of choice, but they went with the bread and butter options.

New data from the Queensland Curriculum And Assessment Authority about the texts shows English teachers play it safe when it comes to the texts they teach in Units 3 and 4 (Year 12). 

A major system overhaul in 2019 increased external quality assurance measures; introduced externally designed, unseen examinations; and a placed a limitation of text choice for teachers. 

But this sort of syllabus reform reduces teachers’ sense of self-efficacy and agency as well as increasing the stakes for each assessment. That has a trickle down impact on younger year levels. 

Research at the time revealed a great deal of anxiety among teachers. While this was an opportunity to reinvigorate their practice, a lack of time given to support the transition seems to have stymied this reinvigoration; teachers’ text selection choices are shaped by a range of pressures, and so the canon is the surefire solution. 

Schools are given a choice of eight texts for the External Assessment. Of the 508 Queensland schools offering the General English syllabus, 347 of them (68%) select Macbeth, and the next nearest text, with 68 schools, is another Shakespearean work, Hamlet, meaning over 80% of schools select a Shakespearean play. The three Australian authors on the list for the External Examination (Hannah Kent, Andrew McGahan and Tara June Winch) are studied by less than 50 schools collectively (9%). 

The big numbers for the three internal assessments are also strongly canonical: The Great Gatsby dominates the list of novels, with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, George Orwell’s 1984 and Tim Winton’s The Turning the only other text to have greater than 50 schools using them. The list of poets is the most balanced, but still leans canonical, with Dawe, Duffy, Frost, Plath and Owen topping 100 schools each. 

The QCAA advice regarding text selection requires:

There must be a range and balance in the texts … Courses should include texts from different times, places and cultures, including texts that aim to develop in all students an awareness of, interest in, and respect for the literary traditions and expressions of other nations in the Asia–Pacific region. Australian texts, including texts by Aboriginal writers and/or Torres Strait Islander writers, must be included across the course of study and within each unit pair of the course. At least one of the Australian texts studied over the four units of the course must be by an Aboriginal writer or Torres Strait Islander writer. Schools may include texts translated from other languages.

Yet the data clearly suggests that while text selections may meet the technical requirements of the syllabus, they do not take up the spirit of inclusion and diversity suggested by the QCAA. This disconnect between aims and reality is well established, as Shakespeare, mid-20th century dystopia and well-known poetry are safe-havens, which don’t require the development of new resources, or the teaching of contentious issues in a fraught political climate. 

It is important to note that the data about text selection focuses on Units 3 and 4, but it is Unit 2 that has a unit focus on Australian texts, so this is where it is most likely to encounter Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander- authored works. While schools are not bound by the prescribed list in Units 1 and 2 (Year 11), a number of forces work to push teachers towards ‘sticking to the list’. Queensland has a textbook hire scheme, in which schools provide textbooks to students at a substantial discount. These texts are returned and reused the following year, which means that schools cannot change the set texts regularly, and that class sets of texts become a resource that can be swapped between year levels or between schools, perpetuating the original text choice. These systemic forces are not unique, and while they vary from state to state, they have the same effect of narrowing text choices. 

The other key and most pressing impetus for text selection is resourcing: if teachers choose a text no one else is doing, they have to start from scratch in terms of developing the teaching materials. Online teacher forums and Facebook groups are filled with requests for resources and teaching ideas, as time poor teachers look to work as efficiently as they can. The other advantage of homogenous text selection is safety in numbers. In preparing students for an unseen examination, having a resource-rich professional community teaching the same text offers teachers security that they are preparing their students well. 

As Head of English and Languages at The Glennie School in Toowoomba, Emily Scott, explains, text choice is in part constrained by a school’s existing resources. Complying with the syllabus requirements across the 4 units  is akin to “a jigsaw puzzle. Building upon students’ prior knowledge, development of skills, and varying genre types are key factors to consider when selecting texts”. Further, Scott suggests teachers also have to consider “school culture, and the interests and needs of your students when choosing texts from the prescribed text list. What may work for one school may not necessarily be best placed in another context”. 

This focus on supporting learners in their contexts is reiterated by Cate Park-Ballay, Head of Faculty- English at St Hilda’s School on the Gold Coast:

we find ourselves in an educational landscape where we are no longer perceived as the ‘sage on the stage.’ Instead, we actively promote an environment that empowers student agency. Our goal is to extend learning beyond the traditional classroom boundaries, selecting texts that not only facilitate independent student exploration but also provide easy access to excellent resources shared by knowledgeable colleagues worldwide.

Both of these reflections from experienced curriculum leaders highlight the many competing pressures and priorities at play in designing a course of study and making suitable text selections. The time and workload pressures placed upon teachers mean there is an increasing gulf between “being the kind of teacher they want to be, and the type of teacher they have time to be”. This time poverty means teaching the dominant text, with the extensive resources available through professional networks, is the logical choice. With an onslaught of systemic processes like textbook hire, a high stakes testing environment and workload demands working against teacher agency and creativity, it is little wonder that we retreat behind the canon, perpetuating a more monocultural narrative with reduced teacher autonomy. As a result of curriculum and systemic pressures, have we lost sight of the joy of reading?

Alison Bedford is a senior lecturer in history curriculum and pedagogy at the University of Souther Queensland. She provides supervision to students undertaking systematic and scoping literature reviews and is interested in the methods of discourse analysis in her own work. You can find her on LinkedIn and Threads.

Prescribed texts studied at school are not engaging our students and don’t reflect our diverse society

High school students read a range of self-selected texts in their everyday lives but they remain disengaged when it comes to set texts prescribed for study in the classroom, according to a three-year research project conducted in Australian secondary schools.

The choice of what to read outside the classroom seems almost infinite for young people these days, from interactive micro fiction and real time chats about online gaming, to lengthy hard copy texts. However, inside the classroom students of English are still subject to the text selection decisions of their teachers and curriculum administrators.

The public discourse about slavery in Australia recently put a spotlight on what is being taught and read in our schools, and the need for English classrooms to be inclusive, sensitive and uninhibited toward the dark and complex events of Australian history.

English curriculum policy in fact mandates that text selection reflect the diversity of Australia’s multicultural society, as well as the diversity of storytelling mediums beyond the novel.  However, policy objects do not always become reality in the classroom.

So what texts are students reading and studying at school? Are they representative of our diverse population? Do they manage to explore the range of and type of texts now available to our online savvy young people?

What ten years of text-lists from the Senior Victorian English curriculum tell us

We conducted a content analysis of ten years of text-lists from the Senior Victorian English curriculum. We investigated 360 texts listed for study between 2010-2019, and collaborated with experienced secondary English teachers and literature academics to better understand the types of texts being set for study.

Silencing Indigenous Voices & sexual diversity

Of the 360 texts across the ten-year sample, we found only a single novel by an Indigenous creator, Larissa Behrendt’s Home.

Despite the proliferation of extraordinary Indigenous literature and cinema over the past two decades (Anita Heiss, Bruce Pascoe, Kim Scott, Tony Birch, Alexis Wright, Tara Jude Winch, Melissa Lucashenko, Claire Colman, Warwick Thornton, Rachel Perkins and many others), we found an almost total exclusion of ‘black literature’, poetry, plays and cinema. Instead, we found many stories that engaged with themes of colonisation, Aboriginal Australian identity and Australian history.  However, most were created by non-Indigenous authors, filmmakers, playwrights and poets.

Only 4% of all texts were by Indigenous creators. We believe this reflects what Jeanine Leane calls the ‘white consciousness’ of the Australian classroom and curriculum.

Our study also considered the presence of sexual and gender diversity in text selection. Recent decades have seen issues of gender and sexuality brought into mainstream discussion. Issues around the gay marriage plebiscite, domestic violence, and women in senior leadership positions have provided the background for expansive community debate. Despite this, research continues to show the persistence of heteronormative texts in Australian Curricula.

Our study found that creators of the 360 texts on the lists were primarily male (64% male to 36% female). While it was heartening to find that novels had an equal proportion of authorship, the figure for poems and films created by women was a mere 20%.  Our study of character sexuality also found an overwhelming percentage were heterosexual. Of the 402 protagonists identified, 78% were heterosexual, 18% had no identifiable sexuality and just 4% were identifiably homosexual.

Texts that deal with sex and sexuality must be inclusive, affirming, and offer students the

chance to constructively explore themes of sexuality, according to curriculum guidelines.

We suggest that the lack of inclusive texts reflects the argument made by writer Alice Pung namely, the view of a universal, shared sexual morality opposed to the presence of ‘deviant’ sexuality, or “good literature versus ‘bad morals’” and that text selection practices, perhaps unknowingly, excludes sexual diversity from the curriculum.

Adapting for 21st century storytelling

Our study also found that English text-lists are dominated by the printed word, largely ignoring 21st century forms of storytelling. Almost 85% of the texts listed for study were print-based (novels, plays, short-stories, poetry, biographies). Storytelling in digital forms was totally absent from the lists.

This is particularly surprising given the enormous popularity of new forms of narrative. The past twenty years has seen the popularity of digital storytelling increase dramatically. Podcasting has blasted into the zeitgeist, with over 550,000 different shows now available for download. Story-based videogaming has also changed the media landscape, with commentators highlighting the similarities between traditional literature and this digital form as one explanation for their enormous success.

Even social media, despite its reputation as a vacuous form of entertainment, is increasingly being utilised to provide another means for authors and creators to share stories about their worlds.

Including these new media forms in the English curriculum will allow students to study how they are formed and function, and provide new ways of understanding our world.

What should we do now?

If the study of literature is to remain relevant, we believe it is time for educators to escape the comfort of their own literary histories. We suggest English teachers consider the value of selecting for their students:

  • A greater range of text types, including multimodal and digital texts.
  • More stories set in contexts from outside the Western world, including across the Asia–Pacific region.
  • The representation of characters with a diversity of sexualities.
  • A careful consideration of the gender of authors, playwrights, directors and poets, especially across the text types.
  • More texts created by Indigenous Australians.

Literature enables a diversity of stories in a range of forms to be reflected on and brought into public consciousness.  Paying closer attention to what is being offered for study in our schools can help us create a Literature curriculum that is relevant and engaging for today’s young people.

Alex Bacalja is a lecturer in language and literacy at the University of Melbourne. He coordinates the English Method and Literacy subjects within the Master of Teaching (Secondary) program. Alex has worked for over a decade in secondary schools across Melbourne in both teaching and leadership roles. Alex’s research focuses on contemporary literacies, including the digital literacies taught and practiced in school and work environments.

Lauren Bliss is a lecturer in Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. Her research is focused on gender and the construction of the ‘spectator’ in film theory, as well as discourses and theories of objectification and the gaze. Her book The Maternal Imagination in Film and Film Theory is forthcoming with Palgrave Macmillan.

For those who want more, here is our full paper What counts? Inclusion and diversity in the senior English curriculum