Does NSW really need a curriculum review?

Does NSW really need a curriculum review?

Last week, the NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) released its proposals for a new English and maths syllabus that aims to de-clutter the curriculum and put a stronger focus on phonics and mathematical reasoning for K-12 students.

Under the proposed literacy syllabus, English teachers will use phonics to help children in the early years of primary school decode words, while maths teachers will ensure their students understand the reasoning behind the answers they give.

The release of the new syllabus for NSW, which marks the biggest overhaul to the state’s Curriculum in more than 30 years, has been met with a mixed reaction from across the education sector, particularly with regards to the teaching of phonics and the provision of differentiated learning.

Greg O'Connor, a former teacher, is the education and technology lead at Texthelp Asia-Pacific. Addressing the debate around best practice in teaching children how to read, he said this is not an innate but rather a learned behaviour through instruction.

“Therefore, a balanced literacy approach, which typically places emphasis on the child ‘naturally’ discovering literature, has been proven to be less effective,” O’Connor told The Educator.

“They will certainly show curiosity and play with the pages, but quite simply, children don’t just start attempting to read when books are presented to them”.

O’Connor said that while no one element of reading instruction is effective on its own, a structured literacy approach that teaches phonics systematically alongside other skills including phonological awareness, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension, has been found to be “incredibly effective”.

“And fortunately in today’s world, children can also benefit from technologies that support this approach, such as Fluency Tutor, which provides extra help for students with text-to-speech, dictionary, picture dictionary and translation tools”.

Bad timing?

Jen McVeity, CEO of Seven Steps to Writing Success, backs NESA's move to declutter the curriculum, but says a curriculum review is the last thing teachers need after the tumultuous year that was 2020.

"In the last 30 years, every societal need that we want improved has been handed on to schools. Yet, nothing big in the curriculum has been taken out," McVeity told The Educator.

"How are teachers doing all this? Every teacher I know [and we train over 6,000 a year] has the best interests of their students at heart. Teachers are talented, caring and dedicated".

McVeity said all leaders need to be adaptable and to take into account change and goals to improve.

"I’m not sure another curriculum change should be the focus right now, after a year of the worst pandemic in a century".

'Education departments must address the real problems'

Denyse Ritchie is the Chair of Literacy at Murdoch University in WA, and co-founder of the THRASS Institute. She says phonics is an essential skill needed to build a strong and sustainable foundation in early learning.

"While changes to curriculum to address ongoing learning needs are essential, the real problem is still being ignored, that is the on-going problem of the funding, staffing and the teaching time needed to support those learners who, for many and various reasons are failed by our system," Ritchie told The Educator.

Ritchie said the voice of teachers - "the very voices that can make real change to outcomes" - is being ignored.

"The cry is for less administrative activities and more time to teach while having the availability of, and access to specialist teachers who are able to address the specific needs of students left behind," she said.

"We must remember that the majority of learners thrive in our classrooms".

According to Ritchie, education departments should be reducing workloads in order to help teachers spend more time on improving student outcomes.

"Addressing these real problems rather than relying on simply watering down curriculum will build our education capacity and supersize outcomes".

Concerns about differentiated learning

Rachel Wilson, Associate Professor in Education at the University of Sydney, says that while some of the research on differentiated approaches to learning relates to streaming of students into groups and classes, none directly relate to untimed syllabuses.

“This research suggests small positive effects in some areas of learning. However, the evidence is not particularly strong, and in some studies the streaming occurs alongside other educational reforms which may be responsible for the effects,” Assoc/Prof Wilson told The Educator.

“Furthermore, there is also evidence suggesting that low attaining students suffer negative effects from streaming”.

Assoc/Prof Wilson said an important factor to highlight here is the lack of research looking at the social and emotional outcomes of differentiated learning.

“We don’t know much about how streaming impacts on this, and we know nothing about how an untimed syllabus would Impact on students social and emotional outcomes,” she said.

“The curriculum review suggested that ‘teachers require flexibility to respond to children’s widely varying levels of development and learning needs’. But this point is not established in data or reporting from teachers”.

In a large survey involving more than 18,000 teachers in NSW, Assoc/Prof Wilson and her team found that they were looking for more time to spend collaborating with each other and retaining their focus on knowing, understanding and working with their students.  

“We also found that teachers already spend a lot of time planning and delivering differentiated instruction for their students,” she said.

“However, they were finding the focus on meeting student needs increasingly difficult given a range of new heavy administrative activities that they had to undertake”.

Assoc/Prof Wilson said the voice of teachers is clear that they want time to teach.

“They do not appear to be calling for untimed syllabuses,” she said.

“Given that these also present serious risks for student outcomes it is difficult to understand where this recommendation has come from – it certainly isn’t based on research evidence”.

'Review does not address broader challenges'

According to Dr David Roy, a lecturer at the University of Newcastle, the review “is just more of the same basic structure, with some key vital areas ignored”.

“How systems will implement this ‘tinkering’ is one question; as are the implications for teacher workload and support,” Dr Roy told The Educator.

“Fundamentally, this Curriculum Review does not address the wider challenges in the education system, with Closing the Gap, the marginalisation and segregation of specific learning groups, such as children with a disability, and the ongoing poor outcomes for many disadvantaged communities”.

Dr Roy said the largest concern is “whether the new curriculum will create better educated students or more just more limited thinkers”.

“Fluttering with the curriculum will not solve our declining results”.