Conquering the Crowded Curriculum

Is Australia’s curriculum really overcrowded? And what does an overcrowded curriculum actually look like? More importantly, how do we use it to our advantage? 

As teachers, we are guided by a passion to see others learn, grow and develop, it is why we do what we do. We enjoy sharing our knowledge and equipping our students with the tools they need to make it in the world. And we do this in, around and through the curriculum (mostly). Love it or loathe it, the curriculum is our nation’s uniform learning map which many believe to be ‘overcrowded’ and impossible to cover. 

The changing state of the curriculum 

Many teachers will remember all the changes to the curriculum that have taken place over the years, from outcomes to essential learnings and more recently a move towards learning progressions and general capabilities. And while there have been many eyes rolled, followed by years and years of professional development and policy changes every time a new curriculum is written, it is important that we don’t stop looking at how we can improve. Reflection and review often brings about change and change is necessary.

The curriculum is and always will be a living, evolving beast. It should adapt and remain relevant to the world we live in, teach in and that which our students will grow up in. Through Growth to Achievement: The Report of The Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools has identified a number of recommendations to put Australia on the path to be a leading education nation. One of these recommendations calls for an embedded focus on individual student achievements through continuous learning progress. Another is for wider use of the Literacy and Numeracy Learning progressions. Both of these recommendations, along with the other 21, are necessary to keep Australian education relevant. However, few of these recommendations will be effective unless teachers are willing and able to continually develop their understanding and use of the curriculum and its purpose.

The purpose of the curriculum

At a glance there is a lot happening in the Australian Curriculum and it can seem a little ‘crowded’. For instance, let’s take a look at the achievement standards for English Foundation-Year 6. For illustrative purposes, each achievement standard has been broken down into assessable chunks/elements:

  • Foundation – 17 assessable elements
  • Year 1 – 16 assessable elements
  • Year 2 – 15 assessable elements
  • Year 3 – 16 assessable elements
  • Year 4 – 12 assessable elements
  • Year 5 – 14 assessable elements
  • Year 6 – 12 assessable elements

In the first 7 Years of schooling, a student will be expected to show they know or can do 85 different things. But if you take a closer look, you will see that many (most) of the elements are similar to each other and require building upon year by year. In that way, it is more like a continuum. 

So the question we need to ask is: Are we really required to teach brand new skills and concepts each year? Or should we be using each previous year’s learning as a launch pad to take a deeper dive into similar concepts that grow in complexity? 

As teachers, if we are approaching each year with a ‘let’s start from scratch’ mindset, then we have missed the point of the curriculum.  Or perhaps we need to be better at collecting and using relevant data (and I am not just talking about NAPLAN). We are not being efficient or effective educators if we are starting ‘fresh’ each year.

So what can we do?

As suggested in the Through Growth to Achievement Report, we need to be experts at understanding our students’ achievements. We need to stop looking at the curriculum as something we need to ‘cover’ and instead, see it as a guide to helping our students navigate an ever-changing world. When we adopt a different perspective and approach, it then becomes imperative for us to be able to assess students’ understanding in a variety of ways.

To achieve the goal of regularly understanding student growth and achievement, we need to change our practice. We need to shift from a summative to a formative assessment mindset. If we only know what our students know (or don’t know) at the end of a 6 or 12 month period, how will we adapt our teaching to help them? How will the next teacher know which learning to build upon. How will the next teacher know which concepts or skills students need to revisit? 

Many educators start again each year because they don’t know what they don’t know. It is up to us as educators and schools to develop systems, processes and professional capacity to better support and understand our learners. 

Giving every student, every opportunity to develop and achieve is no easy task. But we don’t teach because it is easy, we teach because it is high stakes. If you don’t have a broad understanding of the curriculum, put it on your to-do list. The curriculum is not crowded. It may be a little complex at times but it was designed to equip complex humans to thrive in a complex world.