Transcript of National Curriculum Address to the KMEIA National Conference by Richard Gill OAM11,910 Comments
The following is the transcript of my National Curriculum address at the recent Kodaly Music Education Conference, held in Adelaide from Tuesday, October 2nd to Friday, October 5th
In presenting this address I amplified certain aspects of my content, which can be found in the body of the text with the word EXPLAIN in parenthesis. I have tried to explain the context as succinctly as possible.
I also preceded this address, expressing the notion that nobody has the corner on truth. I also explained that I speak without fear or favour in presenting my views on the curriculum or any aspect of music education, indicating that I operate as an individual having no allegiance to any association or organization and thus express these views as an individual.
THE NATIONAL CURRICULUM
In my second address, dealing with an up-date on the National Curriculum, I began by acknowledging and recognizing Deanna Hoermann’s extraordinary contribution to music education in Australia.
There was then a brief exposition on the events surrounding the circumstances which led to the National Review of Music Education.
This was followed by a further exposition dealing with the relationship and matching of the ideas and recommendations from the National Review of Music Education to the ideas which emerged from the results of the feed-back from teachers and interested parties on the Draft National Curriculum. This was in response to a question from the floor. Many teachers to whom I spoke expressed great disappointment in the Draft Curriculum using words such as ‘inadequate,’ ‘lacking,’ ‘rubbish,’ ‘disappointing,’ ‘disturbing,’ and the like.
I spoke briefly about my involvement in the initial stages of the National Curriculum and my relationship with ACARA.
ACARA knows that I will speak without fear or favour about documents and that I will give what I perceive to be direct and honest feed-back, which I indeed have already done.
I also talked about the need for the unification of all music education organizations and associations, irrespective of their philosophical ideas, using ASME as the official conduit to Federal Government.
The Federal Government will only consider acting on ideas if there is unity and agreement among the parties presenting the ideas. The idea we all need to agree on is that music education is essential to the educational well-being and general development of children, starting as early as possible in the child’s life.
I spoke briefly about the idea of a National Institute of Music Teaching.
I spoke also about the notion that Teacher Education for Music in universities seems to have lost its way, almost completely, and indeed universities seem to have lost their way generally with Teacher Education. I made these remarks based on observations and as the result of conversations with numbers of university students who report, openly and freely, on the inadequacy of their preparation for the teaching profession and the music profession generally, and the fact that they found much of what they learned at the Kodaly conference as incredibly enlightening and brand new!
Then followed my prepared speech.
Towards a National Curriculum
A Trio of Monsters
The road to achieving a National Curriculum for this country has been, and continues to be, bloody. Part of the bloodshed can be attributed to the fact that every Tom, Dick and Harry, or in a gender-balanced world every Jane, Jill and Jenny, has been invited to make a contribution, probably believing that their contributions all carry equal weight. Responses have been attracted from almost every majority and minority group in the country, each group believing that a child’s education is incomplete without a course including its particular bias.
I cite this example because I believe that we have almost lost our way with curriculum generally.
The so-called crowded curriculum has become a monster, our first monster, which devours everything in its path. It occupies a place next to that other monster with multiple heads which devours teachers’ time almost to our second monster which causes teachers to expend time on arranging and supervising pastoral care, arranging and following through on counselling, acting in loco parentis, risk assessment, occupational health and safety, teaching and learning meetings, student evaluations and endless box-ticking to keep the educational bureaucracy happy, to the point where the actual business of teaching is swallowed up with tangential activities which in most cases have nothing really to do with teaching children.
The third monster is the standardized test. This form of activity is a god-send to the lazy teacher and a source of continual frustration and stress to the thoughtful and creative teacher.
No serious curriculum should have standardized testing as part of its content. Standardised testing tells you almost nothing about the child you didn’t already know, provides you with no direction in which you might take the child which you hadn’t already thought about.
Furthermore, it places undue and needless pressure on teachers who work themselves into a lather because the Principal of the school has the mistaken belief that all the students in his or her school have a mental capacity which sits somewhere between Socrates and Einstein and the imperative to do well in standardized testing subsumes everything else in the school including the other monsters
While there may be some genuine geniuses in every school my experience has been that many of the students are challenged by the work they have to do, not because they are inherently stupid, but because the curriculum is so stretched with goals which are almost unattainable.
Such is the emphasis in some schools on so-called student-driven learning and holistic learning, that students often come away from primary education with patchy, unconnected pieces of information they carry with them to secondary school where the teaching and learning is often even more disconnected. My colleagues who teach languages at university level complain bitterly about the fact that their language students have read very little in the language they profess, have little or no knowledge of grammar, either English grammar or the grammar of the language being studied and yet have a sense of entitlement which leads them to believe that the university owes them a degree because they have paid for it.
The picture I am painting is bleak because it is. It is totally unrealistic of the current Federal Government to think that by 2025 everything in the education garden will be rosy. (QUOTE FROM SYDNEY MORNING HERALD ARTICLE FROM FESTIVAL OF DANGEROUS IDEAS – This article dealt with Finnish Education as explained by visiting Finnish General Director of Education, Pasi Sahlberg at the recent Festival of Dangerous Ideas, reported in the Sydney Morning Herald on September 29th.
In commenting on Australia’s goal to be within the top five nations for education, he said:
‘If the goal is to be in the top five I think it requires rethinking some of the fundamental policies and reforms as well here in Australia.’ END QUOTE
Since when has there been a need for education to be competitive from Kindergarten through to Year 12? Since when has there been a need to turn education into some sort of race for results with measureable goals associated with standardized tests and results published on a web-site for all to see?
Education is not a race. If it were a race who would you identify as your competitors? What are the rules of the race? Who sets the terms and conditions of the race? Who judges the results and on what basis? Who calls out the names of the winners and losers, publicly?
Of course we need tests and any good teacher is testing all the time: testing the effectiveness of his her engagement with the class; testing what has been absorbed; testing what aspects of the work need more emphasis along with more formal methods of assessment and so on. No test is perfect, but a good teacher will devise multiple ways of assessing and testing students knowing that students learn in a variety of ways, indeed in individual ways and isn’t that what we as teachers are supposed to be doing? Aren’t we supposed to be finding the individual in the child and not the mean average? Do we not go to school to learn how to learn and to learn how to think?
A good teacher recognizes this and finds, especially in music, many ways to say the same thing and many ways to make the same point. As a discipline, music provides us with a rich variety of ways to impart information, to have students deduce information and for students to use musical information to make their own music. A good teacher also recognizes that music is the only subject in the curriculum which calls on all the faculties of a child with such intensity and invariably simultaneously; listening, moving, singing, playing, improvising, memorizing, recalling and so on.
A good teacher also recognizes the fact that an enormous amount of learning takes place away from the school when children are in each other’s company or mixing with friends. Some aspects of learning need considerable time to sink in and for some children, time to reflect, consciously or otherwise, is imperative in forming how they think about things and then use those thoughts constructively and creatively.
A good teacher will also recognize that often it will be, for some children, the thousandth time a concept has been dealt with before it finally sinks in and knows that with repetition, reinforcement, questioning, good old-fashioned drill and any other techniques he or she can muster, the unconquerable and impenetrable mind of child can be reached and hitherto untapped sources may be attained and gold is finally struck. People who construct standardized tests, I suspect, do not think like this.
If you have read the recent Music document in the Draft Curriculum released by ACARA, you would also suspect that little or no serious thought had gone into this work. The transformation from inception through to shape paper and now draft has seen a horse become a donkey turned into a camel.
The current Draft is, in my view, unmitigated rubbish. Interestingly, that is what the feed-back is saying from all over the country. Teachers are demanding, direction, content and material, not airy-fairy claptrap of the kind with which this document abounds.
This document, to my mind, reads like the Victorian document known as VELS, Victorian Essential Learning Standards, a work of considerable weight and volume but of little substance or genuine educational content. Its principal function is realized at the end of the year when teachers have to tick assessment boxes. It drives the teachers mad, wastes endless hours of time and achieves nothing. This evidence I have directly from teachers.
Similarly, teachers do not want to spend hours of time reading ridiculous documents which don’t tell them anything. For years I have been advocating the National Standards for Arts Education document. (SPEAK TO THIS: At this stage I read from parts of this document and explained, with example, what I meant.)
Who then should design the curriculum?
You should. You know best. Teachers, in front of children on a daily basis should design what is taught. Teachers understand their classes better than anyone else and certainly better than some bureaucrat who has never been inside a classroom since he or she left school let alone teach anyone anything.
By all means use a guide or a set of principles such as you might find in the National Standards for Arts Education document but ultimately you should decide what, when and how to teach. Let’s imagine that you are teaching some aspect of music and you are on a roll. The children are loving the work, ideas are flowing, enjoyment is high, there is imagination, creativity in abundance but the curriculum says that you really should be covering some aspect of integrated studies or links with Mathematics, History or Science. How does some curriculum writer know that you should do be doing that, or that you indeed need to? Sitting in an office somewhere in education land writing meaningless documents which will really never be read are plenty of these people, probably quite nice people but genuinely free from extensive teaching experience, or at the best very limited classroom face-to-face teaching.
Any good teacher will make connections in materials taught by virtue of the circumstance, supported by his or her own knowledge. No amount of legislation is going to encourage teachers who don’t know how to make connections to make them.
You, you the teachers, are the best curriculum writers. You are the ones who ostensibly know your subjects and if in doubt you know where to go. You ask around and find a teacher who knows a bit more than you. You actually engage in the business of education and teaching and withdraw your children from standardized tests because you can.
Pasi Sahlberg continues
(READ ON FINNISH EDUCATION Here I read some more material from this article which dealt with the facts that (i) Finnish Education is free; (ii) there are no standardized tests; (iii) teaching is as valued as law or medicine; (iv) competition is fierce for places in Teacher Education.
If you Google ‘Orchestras in Finland’ the chances are you will come up with a site which lists thirty orchestras. If you Google ‘Problems with school music in Finland’ you will see reference to a scholarly article written as part of a PhD addressing what the author, Mikko Anttilaa sees as problems with Finnish Music Education. I cite these examples from the point of view of balance. So often we have an ideal from another country levelled at us as being the perfect model.
Indeed, in Australia this very conference, along with the Orff Schulwerk conference, the Suzuki and Yamaha conferences are all examples of what I’m talking about. It is not that these imported ideas aren’t good but in the end, you the teachers are the ones who have to make the decisions about what is taught, how you adopt, adapt and shape these ideas into your own form of pedagogy.
It is hugely empowering to be in this circumstance, the circumstance of making your own curriculum. When I teach composition I don’t use a syllabus or a curriculum I use J.S.Bach. In short, we teach music from music, not curricula. While a curriculum might guide your thinking you will choose the material, you will work out the pedagogy, you will assess the students in your own way because there is, in the end, nobody else like you.
However, as we are placed in the position of having a National Curriculum we may as well have the best one possible and it is here that your responses to ACARA will prove to be invaluable. I can assure every response is read and taken seriously, as it indeed should.
Although I didn’t read this out at the conference I had paraphrased a section of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
Our hope, dear Teachers, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are not underlings but people who can make changes.
A little clumsy, I admit, but it is an attempt to encourage you all to take the bit between your teeth and make changes.