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Major curriculum overhaul looking likely

23 Jan 2020, by Amy Sarcevic

Professor Geoff Masters, the person behind a proposed curriculum overhaul for New South Wales has so far racked up “considerable support” from teachers for his suggested redesign, which is due for finalisation this year.

Since the release of his interim report in October last year, Masters has received more than 700 submissions providing feedback on his recommended reforms.

“The submissions are still being reviewed, but the overall feedback has been encouraging. This feedback will play an important role in shaping the final report,” he said ahead of the SMH School Summit 2020.

Masters’ report ­­challenges the traditional aged-based syllabus, proposing instead a model in which students work through a sequence of learning units, for each of their academic subjects.

At any given time, students will work on a unit appropriate to their current level of attainment, only progressing to the next unit when a teacher has decided they are ready.

Within this model, students continue to be grouped into school years, but primarily for social reasons.

“This is a significant change to the status quo, and so it’s important that it has the support of the teaching community,” Masters told Informa.

“As you may expect there have been a mix of views, but I’m overall very pleased with the response.”

Opponents of the reform say that having students in the same class working at different levels may encourage peer-to-peer comparisons, putting undue pressure on students and causing anxiety. Particularly in an era in which childhood and adolescent anxiety – and anxiety-related disorders – are at a record high.

But Masters doesn’t agree.

“Students who receive low grades year after year on syllabuses that somebody has decided are appropriate for their age, often believe that they are “poor learners” and suffer low self-esteem – a precursor to feelings of anxiety,” he said.

“At the other extreme, aged-based syllabuses often do not stretch more advanced students to the levels of which they are capable. Those unchallenged tend to become disengaged, with some even underperforming as a result.

“When a student is given learning material appropriate to their level of attainment, both engagement and learning outcomes will be greatly improved.

“By recognising individual growth over time, the model is designed to foster student wellbeing and, in turn, reduce anxiety,” he argued.

The report also proposes the “decluttering” of the curriculum by reducing the amount of material teachers are expected to teach, focusing instead on essential knowledge and concepts in each subject.

“The aim is to develop a deeper understanding of content and to ensure students appreciate the relevance and potential applications of what they are learning,” he said.

Masters also sees a need for students to be given more opportunities to develop critical life skills in the course of their education.

He argues that every school subject should include activities that require students to use technologies, think critically and creatively, and collaborate and communicate with others.

“No subject should be focused solely on developing knowledge. The application of theory should be part of everyday learning,” he said.

Masters’ final report isn’t due for release until later this year and its fate is ultimately in the hands of the state government; but with support from frontline workers, it’s looking likely that change will happen.

Presenting at the third annual SMH School Summit, due to take place 20 February in Sydney, Masters will open debate on his report and give up-to-date commentary on the proposed curriculum reforms.

Premier of New South Wales, The Hon Gladys Berejiklian will headline the event with other insights from the NSW Education Standards Authority and NSW Department of Education.

Learn more and register.

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