Features Australia

Dumbing down

29 September 2018

9:00 AM

29 September 2018

9:00 AM

The Commonwealth Minister for Education, Dan Tehan, must be congratulated for rejecting the curriculum model pushed by the OECD’s The Future of Education And Skills Education 2030 project that the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority is planning to adopt as the basis for the next iteration of the national curriculum. Even though the national curriculum has only recently been bedded down and it is impossible to know how effective it will be, Rob Randall, the CEO of the organisation responsible for the national curriculum, recently stated ‘ACARA is leading Australia’s participation in the OECD 2030 Education and Skills Project. It’s exploring the best ways to structure and design a curriculum that fosters competencies essential … in 2030’.

The OECD’s approach embodies all the worst aspects of the current faddish approach to the school curriculum and, if implemented, is guaranteed to further dumb down the curriculum, lower standards and ensure students are indoctrinated with a cultural-left view of education.

Much like the much maligned 1972 Limits to Growth report that warned of an impending global catastrophe the OECD Education 2030 project also warns of an increasingly uncertain, complex world; one where students must ‘abandon the notion that resources are limitless and are there to be exploited’.

Channeling the shibboleths of the deep green movement the OECD’s report argues the world of the 21st century will be one of ‘climate change and depletion of natural resources’, characterised by ‘inequalities in living standards’ and ‘populist politics eroding trust and confidence in government’. According to the OECD the future scenario is so unpredictable and challenging that schools must prepare students ‘for jobs that have not yet been created, for technologies that have not yet been invented, to solve problems that have not yet been anticipated’.

As such, the purpose of education instead of centring on what T. S. Eliot describes as ‘the preservation of learning, for the pursuit of truth, and in so far as men are capable of it, the attainment of wisdom’ is concerned with ensuring students ‘contribute to and benefit from an inclusive and sustainable future’.


The classroom of the future is one that must embrace ‘a new ecosystem of learning’ where students are ‘change agents’, ‘system thinkers’ and ‘future-ready’. In this brave new world of global group think learning is collaborative and negotiated where ‘everyone should be considered a learner not only students but also teachers, school managers, parents and communities’. The impending future is also one where ‘the curricula should continue to evolve, perhaps in radical ways’. And central to this new-age, 21st century approach is making knowledge secondary to what are described as ‘inter-related competencies needed to engage with the world’.

Under the heading ‘Competencies to transform our society and shape our future’ schools are told they must prioritise capabilities such as: using knowledge and information interactively, relating and cooperating with others, managing and resolving conflicts, acting autonomously, forming and conducting life plans, creating new value and taking responsibility. In addition, teachers and schools are told they must embrace what are listed as ‘a set of specific constructs’, including: ‘creativity, critical thinking, responsibility, resilience, collaboration’.

While couched in the clichés and jargon much loved by futurists like the American-based Charles Fadel who is employed by ACARA to design the revised mathematics curriculum, the reality is that there is nothing new or original in the OECD report. The 1980 Core Curriculum for Australian Schools also stresses replacing the more traditional discipline-based curriculum with generic competencies like developing learning and thinking techniques and personal and group relationships. The Finn (1991), Mayer (1992) and Carmichael (1992) reports also argue that the Australian school curriculum must be radically transformed to embrace generic, content-free competencies such as collecting, analysing and organising information; communicating ideas and information; planning and organising activities; working with others and in teams; using mathematical ideas and techniques; solving problems and using technology.

Even more egregious is that the OECD Education 2030 project and ACARA confuse education with indoctrination in their attempt to turn students into new-age, politically correct cultural warriors. Education, as argued by the American academic Israel Scheffler, should facilitate independent evaluation ‘serving autonomous ideals of inquiry and truth’. Central to this liberal view of education is the belief that learning should be impartial, balanced and objective. Instead of being the handmaiden of a particular ideology or whatever passes as the most recent educational fad, the curriculum should be centred on what Matthew Arnold terms ‘the best that has been thought and said’.

The Victorian Blackburn Report puts a similar case when it argues all students must be free to encounter the ‘best validated knowledge and artistic achievements’ associated with the disciplines that, while evolving and open to critique, have stood the test of time.

As argued In How People Learn published by the American National Research Council, the OECD’s push for generic, content-free competencies is also misplaced. Research associated with how students best learn, especially if they are to be creative, adaptive and critical thinkers, argues for a solid grounding in the various disciplines and subject domains.

The American researchers conclude: ‘to develop competence in an area of inquiry, students must have (a) a deep foundation of factual knowledge, (b) understand facts and ideas in the context of a conceptual framework’.

Contrary to the belief that competencies like being creative and critically minded exist in isolation or a vacuum, the American experts also argue: ‘The key attribute of expertise is a detailed and organised understanding of facts within a specific domain’. While there is no doubt that school funding is a vital and significant issue even more important is what actually happens in the nation’s classrooms. If the curriculum is substandard, flawed and ideologically driven, generations of students will continue to leave school illiterate, innumerate and culturally impoverished.

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