Australian Curriculum Review (again) – 21st century university entrance please

I note with joy the AHISA submission to the national curriculum review, as reported in the Sydney Morning Herald on Tuesday 18 March, calling for “an internationally recognised national credential for university entry.”

I am a History teacher of senior secondary students. For almost twenty years I have sat through university, professional development and TED talk experts telling me about 21st century skills and to update my teaching methods: I run multiple websites, a blog, twitter and like any good teacher vary the activities and tasks each day in my classroom. And yet none of these experts address the elephant in the room: everyone’s priority for secondary school is an ATAR. In Year 12, nothing else matters – ‘will this be on the exam and what do I write?’ It makes me want to scream from my seat at the expert/consultant, “Well, DO SOMETHING about it!”)

Here is our best chance.

Secondary schooling is distilled to the five or six external exams that rely on rote learnt answers handwritten under very tight time constraints. It is completely unfathomable to me that the current system rewards the exact methodology that experts abhor. And so, exam coaching replaces good teaching. But ‘good teachers’ have good exam results. Indeed, I have heard from past students the extent that teaching to the exam to maximise ATARs is prevalent in many schools and the disadvantage at which this places their students once they arrive at university: an inability to conduct research, take concise notes, reference, or be confident in constructing their own argument without being told the main points and the direction to take.

But what do schools care? “Year 12 is the most important year of your life” we tell the Year 12 cohort year after year. But I was struck recently that it is actually “For the school, Year 12 is the most important year of your life”. How are schools ultimately judged (and fixate their marketing around?): their Year 12/ATAR results. How many schools (even have the data to) say, “x% of last year’s cohort who are in tertiary study successfully completed their first year.”

Year 12 exams converted straight into an ATAR are bureaucratically brilliant. While marking them is still a very large undertaking, it is confined to only a few weeks of the year and a pretty small group of teacher/markers. I’m just surprised they haven’t all been made a series of multiple-choice questions so that the answer papers could all be fed through an electronic reader.

But, what of the “21st Century skills”? This curriculum review will probably set the tone for the next twenty to thirty years of Australian education. Please let us not condemn students in 2040 to the same system of testing as those with inkwells. It will certainly cost money and more work for university admissions systems. The last twenty years have proven that money has talked louder than universities’ own education experts when it comes to tertiary entry.

We need to ensure (finally!) that the reality fits the research and the rhetoric: developing a well-educated, well-rounded young adult ready for 21st century citizenship becomes the priority of schools, universities and governments, not the marketing an ATAR average based on 19th century testing.

What might this look like?

The International Baccalaureate is an already recognised world qualification and could offer some ideas, although it certainly has its flaws. It encourages its students to undertake a range of subjects across all key learning areas, as well as its ‘core’ of Creativity, Action, Service, Theory of Knowledge and the Extended Essay. I particularly like a phrase in its Mission Statement, which is something along the lines of ‘recognising that others, with their differences, might also be right’. On the down side, the IB is still also very examination focused.

An Australian Certificate of Education should encourage a broad range of subjects, while allowing some specialisation. This could be offered through semester units rather than two-year courses as are currently the case in many states. There should be mandatory units on Australian History, Australian literature and a current affairs / international relations unit which places Australia in the 21st century. There should be the opportunity for individual research and for some aspect of volunteering – ideally in an existing community organisation, rather than school-based ones, to encourage ongoing volunteering beyond school. It was pleasing to see Mr Pyne quoted in the SMH article looking for balance, free of partisan bias and real-world application.

Forget about PISA (etc.) comparisons. Australia already has one of the best education systems in the world. Any PISA comparison of Maths or Science should also be used in conjunction with Olympic medals, Academy Awards and Nobel laureates to take a complete picture of Australian achievement and the opportunities we provide our children across all aspects of being a child and a well-rounded person.

It is time we take note of the overwhelming voices for change. It is time that our assessment and university entrance instruments catch up with the classrooms they profess to reflect (and in reality judge) and become relevant for twenty-first century learners, educators and Australian society.