VCE English syllabus

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