Melbourne Graduate School of Education Curriculum Policies Project

Australian Curriculum Trajectory 1975-2005

In terms of our first aim for the project, unearthing the changes to the conceptualization of knowledge in curriculum policy over recent decades, we found a trajectory over the period of study towards:

This trajectory is one about which there is currently major international debate in the sociology, policy studies and curriculum literature; and is one which has significant implications for policy and reform.

Of course these developments were taken up with significantly varying degrees of emphasis by different states, but at an overview level, some commonalities over the period are evident as states faced worries about youth unemployment in the 1980s, and as they all began to turn from more taken-for-granted understandings of the school curriculum in the 1970s to the later decades where they are pondering ‘new times’ and worrying about what kinds of young people schools should be producing, and what this means for designing the curriculum. The sheer quantity of curriculum reforms over the period of the study around the country is one sign of the changing context and agendas to which curriculum (at a policy level) was trying to speak.

Another interesting element of following the changes over the four decades, and especially of interviewing people in different states who had been actively involved over a long period, is the experiences many leaders had amassed about what had gone wrong in earlier iterations of policy and policy implementation, and especially their understanding of the ways aims, adequate resourcing, political agendas, and accountability agendas often did not work in harmony. There were some widely shared understandings of why the earlier attempt at national curriculum commonality via Statements and Profiles in the late 80s and early 90s had been abandoned; and experiences of a number of people previously very critical of national and centralized approaches of the problems they had faced with managing an ‘essential learnings’ approach in the face of new accountability demands. These interviews gave some sense of why, in addition to an unusual political context of state labour and federal governments across the country, the time was more ripe for the National Curriculum Board in 2005, and also how the approach it was taking was directly taking up a number of the issues that had been difficult to manage in the preceding period – the burgeoning jargon and expansion of curriculum demands, for example.

One of the key debates about knowledge in recent times is about the role of subjects, compared with interdisciplinarity compared with competencies or skills. The papers arising from the project show the ways these agendas were being managed in Australia, with some growing emphasis through the 90s and turn of the century on the latter compared with the former, although the teachers themselves were trained in disciplines; and documents at the big policy level were often more attuned to the desired outcomes from schooling than the issues of what translated those hopes into practice in schools.

The growing concern with finding forms of managing and auditing what both schools and students were achieving was also an important trajectory of the period of this project. In the 1970s, curriculum documents tended to be thin, offering broad guidelines, with much being taken for granted or left to schools to implement. In the 1980s and 1990s, the documents became big and glossy, produced with public marketing and communication to the foreground, but also often attempting to pin down in micro-detail what should be achieved, what students should be able to do and who they should be by the end of school. Some aspects of the trajectory observable in curriculum policy thinking cuts across ways curriculum debate in the media is often seen, as direct expression of values of the left or the right about what should be known. In our study both progressive curriculum activists and managers of standards can come together, as they did in working up the national profiles in the early 90s.

This trajectory is one about which there is currently international debate and one which has significant implications for policy and reform. Some of the questions which this international debate takes up are whether the focus on competencies and skills is producing shallow foundations and paying insufficient attention to disciplinary structure today; or, conversely, whether curriculum lags sadly behind the kinds of knowledge, technologies and possibilities now seen in the home, in the community, and in cutting edge research. Another debate concerns the implications of a management and assessment and auditing approach to curriculum, where more attention is being given to external accounting and accountabilities than to the life of schools. The project showed the way Australian curriculum making has tried to grapple with these problems, sometimes taking an outcomes and capabilities approach to the curriculum; sometimes emphasizing the need for standard templates that could be used across all the different ‘key learning areas’; sometimes trying to work from community consultation; often running into a clash between aims and implementation, especially when assessment and accountability was added to the framework.

Papers on these findings have been presented at Australian and international conferences. Initially the project questions and early findings were used to convene a linked symposium with papers from six other countries at ECER in Gothenburg (2008), and this in turn led to a special issue of the European Journal of Education  45 (1) 2010, co-edited by Lyn Yates and Michael Young (University of London) on globalization, knowledge and curriculum. This special issue explores those important questions about knowledge, the 21st century and new management imperatives against a consideration of curriculum reform in Australia, in a number of European countries and in South Africa, and sets up some questions that need to be addressed further: the issue of difference and inequalities in relation to the approaches to curriculum; and the question of curriculum theorizing and the need to set the current discussions more properly against a consideration of universities and the creation of new knowledge.

An article from the project, 'The Absence of Knowledge in Australian Curriculum Reform' is published in this special issue. This article reflects on the extent to which leading curriculum actors we interviewed failed to talk about knowledge as part of their agenda for curriculum; and also our analysis of some of the frameworks that were set up in the 1980s and 1990s, which had strong aspirations for a certain type of person to be produced via schooling, but quite unclear details (as compared with rhetoric) about the curriculum and knowledge as a means to this.

The ECER symposium also led to an invitation to develop a World Yearbook on Curriculum in Today's World (edited by Lyn Yates and Madeleine Grumet University of North Carolina Chapel Hill), again taking up issues and findings from this project; and with contributions from countries around the world. Here the questions are about the substantive changes in the world, and what kind of a relationship to the world and to who we and others are curriculum in different countries is setting up. The Yearbook was published by Routledge in 2011 and is available online.

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