Learning when to catch blackfish

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The Spectator Australia 30th July, 2016

This article was written by Bella D'Abrera and Matthew Lesh

The NSW draft curriculum released last week glosses over thousands of years of western development and progress, in favour of teaching students about climate change in mathematics class.

The NSW Board of Studies, slavishly following the National Curriculum, has adopted three so-called cross-curriculum priorities: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures, Asia and Australia's engagement with Asia, and sustainability. Each of these may well be worthy topics of investigation, however there is no apparent need, or explanation for why, they must be taught across all subjects.

The concept of sustainability is relevant to environmental studies, but it is certainly not core to ancient history. Aboriginal culture should be taught in a modern history course, however it is not a key element of chemistry. While Australia's engagement with Asia is a worthy subject in a politics class, it makes little sense to discuss the issue in creative arts.

The decision to prioritise certain elements of Australian society above others lays bare a clear ideological and political bent, an unacceptable attempt to privilege select perspectives above others in the students' minds. It is simply assumed, built into the worldview of the curriculum writers, that these priorities are more important than, let's say, the power of economic freedom to deliver human prosperity, the foundations of Western civilisation, and the development of liberal democracy and free speech.

Having conceded the cross-curriculum priorities might be considered ‘lefty progressive issues', NSW Board of Studies president Tom Alegounarias justified their inclusion on the basis that the curriculum is not entirely devoid of more traditional subjects such as the Enlightenment, as well as ‘conservative views of how we developed'.

Firstly, there was nothing particularly conservative about the Enlightenment.This was a period of dramatic intellectual, social and political upheaval; superstition and dogmatism were replaced with rationalism, materialism, deism and naturalism. The Industrial Revolution changed the nature of work forever, improving our standard of living and propelling us into a new age of modernity.

Secondly, the history and ideas of our Western heritage are buried deep within the history curriculum, and only appear as optional case studies.

One series of case studies within the history curriculum is entitled ‘The Western and Islamic World', which bizarrely combines two distinctive areas of historic inquiry into one. Within this series, students will be taught about one of the following: Vikings, medieval Europe, the Ottoman Empire or Renaissance Italy.

Similarly, within the ‘Making a Better World?' case studies, teachers are instructed to explore just one of the following: the Industrial Revolution, movement of peoples or progressive ideas and movements. The best case scenario is that students will be exposed to a very small subset of our heritage. They will receive a disconnected and limited understanding of the foundations of western civilisation and why they live in a peaceful, free and democratic society.

The curriculum fails to mention the Magna Carta, the Glorious Revolution, the Reformation or the Counter-Reformation. Human rights are taught as a post-1945 creation of the UN. There is no discussion of ancient thinkers such as Aristotle and Plato. And the influence of Christianity barely scrapes a mention, placed as an afterthought to the Roman Empire. In fact, the curriculum mentions Islam more than it does Christianity.

The worst case scenario is that, considering many of the elements of Western history are optional, students will not be exposed to any of them at all. In contrast, the ‘lefty progressive issues' must be taught in every subject, no matter how tenuous the links. The mathematics curriculum includes the ‘concept of chance using Asian games', and discussion of ‘alternative energy with solar cells and wind turbines' and ‘climate change'. The English curriculum teaches students about Aboriginal language, Asian authors, and the skills required to ‘communicate information' about social and environmental sustainability. Students are being taught how to be activists in English class.

The science curriculum, rather than focussing on agile and innovative modern technology, spends time exploring ‘black wattle flowering signalling that it is time to catch blackfish'. The study of ‘spear throwers' is preferred to ballistics or propulsion, and an examination of ‘message sticks' to, say, the foundations of the modern digital communications through TCP/IP internet protocols.

Every moment spent talking about these ideologically driven priorities is time not spent on developing fundamental skills. This at a time when our education system is increasingly failing to teach even basic literacy and numeracy skills. According to the OECD, at the age of 15, fourteen per cent of Australian students are functionally illiterate, and would not understand the instructions on a packet of headache tablets. Twenty per cent of Australian youth lack basic arithmetic skills, and would fail to determine how much petrol is left in a tank by looking at a gauge. Meanwhile, Australia has fallen behind Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan in international maths and science testing.

Our school curriculums have been captured by ideologues who are more interested in teaching students what to think, rather than skills they will need.

Soon after the 2013 election, the Abbott Government commissioned a review into the National Curriculum which found the cross-curriculum priorities add unnecessary complexity and were never educationally justified. They recommended abolishing the cross-curriculum priorities, and instead embedding the themes into subjects where relevant.

The government formally supported this recommendation in their response to the review, however both Abbott and Turnbull have failed to act. Now the Baird Government is following their lead.

Instead, they should immediately redraft the curriculum, and delay its implementation until these issues are addressed. The unexplained, unjustified, and politically motivated cross-curriculum priorities must be dropped. Western civilization should be taught to all students, not left as an afterthought. Most importantly, the overall focus must be on skills, not on ideology and indoctrination.