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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
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Curriculum heretics

Bruce Wilson

What is the role of curriculum leaders? Why do we bother having them?

One answer is that curriculum is like religion. Each diocese needs its bishop and priests to ensure that the faith is upheld, and members of the flock don't stray too far from dogma.

I don't find this answer convincing, but I would like you, as a self-confessed educational leader, to give yourself the official test for dogma, which follows immediately, before proceeding to read the rest of this piece. The test consists in deciding whether you agree or disagree with each of these three statements.

  • Teaching should move from a content-centred approach to an approach based more on processes.
  • Teaching should move from a knowledge-based approach to one based on learning how to learn.
  • Teaching should move from teacher-centred approaches to student-centred approaches.

    I have used this test on perhaps 20 occasions, with live audiences totalling around 6000 educators. Of those people, approximately 90% agreed with all three statements, 2% offered a mixed or negative response, and the rest spent the time looking at their watches wondering whether, if they left now, they could be home in time for the cricket.

    There is now a broad consensus among educational leaders about teaching, and although there are some significant variations in views, most of us share a relatively common view about what works in teaching. And of course, as is usually the case when people agree, we all feel pretty good about it.

    Which is a sign that we are probably wrong. I think we are.

    I don't mean that we are necessarily wrong to hold these views. It could be true that teaching should move, for example, to an approach based on learning how to learn. My difficulty with this view is not that it is wrong. It is that it is not examined. We are convinced about what makes good teaching, and I can't see that we have good evidence for our views. What is the effect on student learning of, for example, student-centred approaches? Who knows?

    People in education, like us, act as though teaching was somehow justified in itself, as if it had inbuilt criteria for excellence. So there are strongly held views about collaborative approaches, student-centred teaching, the democratic classroom or outcomes-based teaching. People in education believe in styles of pedagogy as if they were magic. Just wave a bit of group work, or peer support or guided reading in front of them and learning will occur.

    This kind of view is simply prejudice. Most of us have prejudices of that kind. The contemporary danger lies in the fact that our prejudices are very consistent with each other, and that to a significant extent they rest on beliefs rather than evidence.

    Teaching is a kind of surrogate for learning. When we talk about improving teaching and learning, what we often mean is changing teaching and assuming that learning will improve as a result.

    A better approach is to look for what improves learning and do that. That is what I hope will happen in Australia's classrooms. We will become research based and absolutely eclectic in our approach to pedagogy. Teachers will no longer simply do what they have always done. Nor will they do what they believe to be right. They will act without prejudice and preconception to improve student learning. They will do whatever works, whatever makes a difference: teacher-centred or student-centred approaches; content or process; direct teaching or facilitation; disciplinarian or libertarian. In this respect, the work by Peter Hill at Melbourne University has been one salutary lesson about how we should listen to the evidence.

    The test will be this: if independent research demonstrated that rote learning was the best way to gain a particular form of understanding, we should adopt rote learning. If we don't, then we are at risk of imposing our prejudices on those students for whom we are responsible, to their loss.

    I am not suggesting that we should move to rote learning or return to a discredited reliance on formal modes of classroom interaction. I am making a different kind of point: that ideology and prejudice should have no place in selecting teaching interventions, any more than it should guide doctors in choosing medical interventions. Our role as curriculum leaders is to ensure that Australian education focuses on evidence, and on what works, not on whatever fad or belief is currently driving educational theory.

    We should not be the bishops and priests of education, but the heretics.

  • KLA

    Subject Headings

    Education aims and objectives
    Education research
    Educational evaluation