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Australia’s curriculum gap fails

Mailie Ross, Australia’s curriculum gap is failing science teachers and students, Australian Financial Review, 27 November 2023

Compared with the best systems, our national science curriculum is far from being world-class, as its creators claim.

Teachers are handed a document so vague that sometimes an entire term’s worth of science is described in a sentence.

Australians are constantly told that science is central to the nation’s future; that much social and economic success will rest on the shoulders of our engineers, technicians, researchers, chemists and physicists. But we are kidding ourselves if we think we are on track to deliver the people and expertise required.

Last year, the Australian government announced a commitment to widen the talent pipeline and address “a decade long science and tech skills shortage”. Engineers Australia called on the Australian government to invest in an engineering pipeline strategy to address “plummeting rates of secondary students taking up STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) subjects [that] is setting the nation up to fail as it transitions to a smart jobs economy”.

In addition, Australia’s performance in international school education tests is bad and getting worse. In the decade to 2018 the average science scores of Australian 15-year-olds in the OECD’s PISA tests fell by 24 points: these students’ performance was nearly a year below the level of their Australian peers studying in 2009.

A growing number of countries are leapfrogging Australian students in these tests. Educational inequality in our schools is growing so sharply that one in five 15-year-olds is deemed by the OECD to have literacy levels “too low to enable them to participate effectively and productively in life”.

Many reasons have been advanced to explain these trends, but one explanation is rarely discussed: the content of the Australian Curriculum. Our national science curriculum, far from being world-class – as its creators claim – is vague in language, sparse in content, and puts an unacceptably heavy load on our teachers.

That is revealed by comparing the content of the Australian science curriculum between prep and year 10 with curriculums in the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Quebec – two of the world’s best-performing systems on global tests – as well as Singapore, England, Hong Kong, Japan and the United States.

The authorities entrusted with writing our curriculum have set the bar so low that only radical change can lift it.

The Australian Curriculum includes about half as much science content as the average of these seven other curriculums. Instead of offering breadth and depth of learning, the Australian science curriculum is narrow and shallow. In the first nine years of schooling, the Australian science curriculum covers only 44 topics (compared with an average of 74 topics in other systems) and only five of them in depth, compared with an average of 22 in other systems.

Consider these topics: the nature of cells and organelles, electrical circuits, energy conservation and transformation, gravity, heat energy, mass volume and density, and states of matter. Most of the curriculums benchmarked teach this material earlier than the Australian Curriculum, with greater depth and in clearer language.

Advocates of the Australian Curriculum will say that this lack of precision doesn’t matter. Australia’s teachers can fill any gaps in the curriculum. Well, I can tell you from experience as a former high school science teacher and school leader that through no fault of their own, they can’t.

Like most teachers, I spent a lot of time with colleagues trying to work out what content our students needed to know. Most non-teachers assume that this work is already done in the curriculum. After all, the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), the body that created it, tells us our curriculum is world-class.

However, I never found that the curriculum helped me to understand what to teach. I was not alone. Teachers often have more than 20 hours of classes a week to teach and hundreds of students to deal with. They are so busy and stressed that they are leaving the workforce in droves. Yet they are handed a document so vague that sometimes an entire term’s worth of science is described in a sentence.

When I look at the curriculum given to teachers in other countries, the amount of content and the degree of clarity and guidance are striking. It is incredibly frustrating that this is not provided to Australian teachers.

A curriculum sets an expectation of what content all students are expected to learn, regardless of what school they attend. If content is not in the curriculum, we are effectively saying that we are comfortable with a student going through school not learning it.

The authorities entrusted with writing our curriculum have set the bar so low that only radical change can lift it. Our science curriculum should be benchmarked against the best research and the best systems in the world. Then it needs to be rewritten, from top to bottom. Only then can we be confident that our students are not being left behind, but enjoy the best education they have every right to expect and to demand.

The writer is co-author of the report Fixing the hole in Australian education: our curriculum benchmarked against the best.

See also: Australia’s curriculum gap is failing science teachers and students