A Curriculum Content Creator’s View On How Education Gets In The Way Of Learning

In the midst of Melbourne’s 6th lockdown, the Australian Council for Educational Research mounted its annual conference from Monday 16th to Friday 20th August. A fully virtual programme of 21 presentations and one Master Class, the …

In the midst of Melbourne’s 6th lockdown, the Australian Council for Educational Research mounted its annual conference from Monday 16th to Friday 20th August.

A fully virtual programme of 21 presentations and one Master Class, the Conference theme of excellent progress for every student was kicked off by a provocative address by ACER Chief Executive Professor Geoff Masters.[1] Pulling no punches, Professor Masters made it clear that there was an urgent need to bring the formal structures and processes of school education in step with what is now known about the best ways to promote human learning. 

However, Professor Masters’ most confronting question was for me centred on why education systems preoccupy themselves with sorting students into further education and career pathways rather than guaranteeing the right of every student to make excellent progress during the K-10 years of compulsory education.

Not content just to provoke, Masters’ keynote and all the presentations over the five days offered a comprehensive solution through the practice of learning progressions, that is, a continuum that maps key stages in the development of a learning domain (e.g. reading and mathematics) from simple beginnings through to complex interpretations and applications.[2]

Where I’m Coming From?

As a curriculum content creator involved in various reforms since the late 1990s, I’ve researched and helped write learning progressions in drama education, so I listened with great interest to how they might now be clearly linked with better curricula for all students.

The conference was a sobering time for me to reflect on why devising curricula in schools and commercial settings had become steadily more complex.[3] Setting aside the freedom that comes in any professional life when you start off with not knowing what you don’t know, one thing was for sure, as the years wore on, I experienced the time-crushing demands that seemed to work against my genuine desire to find excellent curriculum designs to meet my students’ needs. 

This is a point that Professor Masters examines by looking at the inadequacies of the systemic structures and processes rather than the work of the individual teacher. The problem, he says, is in the design of an industrial-era assembly line style curriculum.

All students move along it at the same rate. Each year, the same curriculum is delivered to all students who are given the same amount of time to master it. They then move in lockstep to the next year’s curriculum where the process is repeated. Students who have not mastered the content of the current year’s curriculum and lack the prerequisites for the following year’s curriculum move on regardless. Other students, who may not have required a full year to do this, are unable to advance to a more challenging curriculum until everybody moves in unison. (Masters 2021, 1)

In my case, I didn’t see the systemic problems for at least 10 years into teaching. Instead, I personalised my response to curriculum development and become highly involved in my professional education association. Only then did I become involved at the systems level by writing resources, advice papers and eventually whole courses and textbooks for the Curriculum Council Of WA, now the School Curriculum and Standards Authority.[4]

This led me on to complete a doctorate in theatre history on theatre entrepreneurship to try to figure out how I might better connect school-based learning to employability skills. However, the more I tried to fathom the problem of designing great curricula, the more I seemed to expose gaps in understanding.

A Pivotal Reform

One of the biggest ‘gap fillers’ came for me in the late 1990s when I was involved as a curriculum writer and researcher with the implementation of the Curriculum Framework of Western Australia (1997).5Between 1996 and 2000, I worked in the Assessment and Reporting Branch and then later as a district-based Curriculum Improvement Officer for the Education Department of WA to refine and implement WA’s Student Outcome Statements. Remarkably, my specialist knowledge in drama education seemed readily transferable to working on a team whose job was to articulate key learning and assessment principles for K-10 students.  

The project galvanised my understanding of the importance of a great curriculum vision. It was an amazing time, under the leadership of curriculum managers Norma Jeffery and John Gougoulas, who seemed to me valiant in countering the many attempts by opponents to overturn the principles of outcomes-focused education.  Nonetheless, despite my gratitude at being part of such a momentous reform, over the years I became convinced that a visionary framework is in itself not enough for teachers facing the realities of creating curriculum in schools. 

Subsequently, I looked on with a heavy heart at the huge stoush that occurred around WA’s implementation of its learning progressions.6 It wasn’t lost on me how the role of curriculum content creation was being transferred from a central ‘curriculum branch’ to school-based curriculum leaders without operational foresight by education departmental policymakers.

Most worrisome of all as far as I was concerned, placing curriculum creation into schools with few tools to support the steady uptake of outcomes-focused learning progressions both undermined the reform and allowed the ‘back to basics’ lobby to flourish.  

Yes, in due time, the websites and resources were created but I don’t believe they ever compensated for the fall-out due to the disconnect between a new curriculum vision and an imaginative implementation of how school-based curriculum creators might realise and validated it.

Interestingly, a recent blog by Richard Pountney of the Sheffield Institute Of Education at Sheffield Hallam University reminds me that perhaps curriculum development has been historically viewed as something all good teachers can do. Furthermore, that as good teachers are adaptive ones, they can “knock up a good curriculum on the hoof.”

It assumes that teachers know the curriculum well enough – to have fluency in it and to be able to exercise judgement in what is appropriate and what works – and have the basics skills to select, sequence and pace. However, these basics are not easily acquired – for example knowing how long to spend on a curriculum topic, and critically, when to move on is an essential pacing skill developed over time. Left to chance these sequencing and pacing skills become predominantly in-the-moment, pedagogical decisions – they are focused on delivery – on what I have to teach the next day. Teachers also feel they have little control over the curriculum, and this contributes to a low sense of job satisfaction, with effects on teacher retention.7

This was certainly how I experienced the decentralising of curriculum creation in schools as I participated in refining and implementing the Students Outcome Statements.

The Quest For Great Curricula Designs.

After 2001, I decided to fund my own K-10 curriculum explorations.

Between 2002 and 2007 I founded and owned a community-based arts centre that ran ‘wordplay nonsense projects’ aimed at developing critical and creative thinking, philosophical discourse and the utilisation of movement and dance to enhance children’s conceptual understanding. 8

I designed learning spaces that heightened the value of questions and metacognitive processes.  I employed performing and visual artists, an animator and a philosopher to create beautiful physical and conceptual structures and processes for use by young people to symbolically mark out the arts centre’s large learning space.9  I designed arts-based projects to interrogate topics that were usually taken for granted such as negotiating schoolyard relationships. 

I invested in a bank of 10 Apple MacBooks so young people could work with animation to view their ideas from storyboards to philosophical colloquiums. My work led me to hold a Research Associate position in the Graduate School of Education, UWA on the ARC Linkage Project “Developing Creative Thinking and the Arts” with Senior Lecturer Dr Felicity Haynes (2002 – 2004).

Unfortunately, my investment was ill-matched with the battle cry to go ‘back to basics’. Nonetheless, in those five years in which I managed to keep the curriculum explorations going, I repeatedly demonstrated something that I had not experienced in schools, that learning can be ecstatically sustained for long periods of time. For instance, I sustained the project on schoolyard negotiations for three years with the same group of 40 students! But the more I tried to capitalise on the work, I exposed further gaps in my curriculum knowledge: firstly of my understanding how my subject knowledge related to entrepreneurship and employability skills, and secondly how I could apply learning technologies creatively.

What followed between 2008 and 2015 was my decision to moved to London to research these two aspects of my work. Why London? Because of the fact that my thesis focused on the Australian theatre industry’s relationship to the development of London’s West End through J. C. Williamson Ltd. It’s hard to imagine today but the Melbourne-based JCW Ltd was the largest theatre company in the Southern Hemisphere from the late-nineteenth century until at least 1947.10 I had documented the Australian side of Williamson’s importation of London successes, but due to family issues, I had never viewed the global role of Australian theatre entrepreneurs.

Taking A ‘Cognitive Turn’

What I could never have foreseen during my research in the Victoria and Albert Museum Archives was that I would begin to consider how theatre and literary historians were dealing with the cognitive implications of expressive representation through the cognitive sciences. For instance, Professor Bruce McConachie’s research had been an ongoing influence on my thinking since the time of my doctoral research. Now his research was allowing me to view the meanings of ‘cognition’ as ‘embodied,’ ‘enactive’ and ‘distributed.

In parallel, I explored sociologist Erving Goffman’s organisational theories and transferred them into my understanding of curriculum through the concept of ‘digital dramaturgy’. I also completed as many courses as I could afford on rapid authoring courseware Articulate Storyline, as well as working with Google Apps and building WordPress websites.  At the same time, I worked as a theatre reviewer of London Fringe Theatre to observe the interaction between London’s broadband rollout and its uptake by entrepreneurial London fringe companies.11

A New Phase

I returned home to Australia in late-2014 because my twenty-something children seem to collectively decide that they were ready to become parents. As it stands now, I am the grandmother of eleven. And like many families, our children live in many different Australian locations – Darwin, Perth and Melbourne – each location with its own connections to our family story that embraces cultural influences from Northern and Southern Italy, Norfolk and London UK, Sierra Leone, Romania, Sri Lanka and Singapore.

I reactivated my consultancy, Fantastic Learning Systems Pty Ltd, and started work as a freelance curriculum writer, understanding that grandparenting is wonderfully demanding. In fact, I’m writing this as I supervise my nine-year-old granddaughter’s homeschooling. She has a diagnosis that allows me to help my daughter in her home during the lockdown. Meanwhile, I’m preparing for meetings for my Curriculum Maker project with independent children’s author Clare Rose Trevelyan. We are currently focused on delivering parent resources.

From 2018, I also began visiting Wooranna Park Primary School in Dandenong North in order to research the importance of digital self-publishing technologies on curriculum creation. This work began through a chance meeting at an address by Professor Yong Zhao at the Mitchell Institute, Victoria University.12  There, I met up with WPPS school leaders and staff and learned about the school’s two decades of implementing its raison d’être towards an autonomous learner model of curriculum.

These experiences have led to my School Story Projects which look to solve how producing an engaging curriculum around a school vision is also connected to new fields of knowledge arising from the digital disruption of education. What I have come to understand is that content strategydigital marketing and the concept of the user experience are no longer side issues for me in curriculum design.

The ‘What Now’ Question

My varied experiences in creating curriculum content, I believe, have given me insights into how curriculum today is created through a wide variety of roles. In schools, they include individual classroom teachers, teaching teams, middle management curriculum leaders such as heads of departments and assistant principals, lead teachers of literacy and numeracy and specialist practitioners, for instance, in the Arts and in Physical Education.

I have also experienced how curriculum content creators are part of the education publishing industry, employed by the likes of Pearson, Oxford University Press and a myriad of small independent publishers. This is a place which I have inhabited in writing six textbooks and designing Year 11 and12 curricula since 2001. More importantly, it has been in this space that I have viewed the links between educational technologies and agile project management, SaaS services through courseware such as Articulate Storyline, Captivate, Learn Dash and Teachable and, most recently, team-focused digital platforms created by Atlassian, Hubspot and Kajabi. 

What’s more, in 2017 I enrolled in a Masters course at Monash University with Professors Neil Selwyn and Michael Henderson. The course opened me up to key challenges in education technology.

Arriving At The First Principles Of Learning

How much my career trajectory has been the result of a Knowledge Economy to which Professor Masters alludes in his keynote, or due to the challenges of my own circumstance would take more than this blog to explain. 

Nonetheless, Professor Masters explanation of the first principles of learning challenges me now to ask what role a freelance curriculum content creator like me might play in urgently addressing the future organisation of schooling to reflect how

I have already been inspired to double down on showing the importance of learning progressions in my existing curriculum projects. And as I review what that means against Professor Masters’ first principles, the curriculum creator in me knows I must navigate complex and competing demands from policymakers, community expectations and, most importantly, students need. I look forward to sharing my efforts.

At the same time, I’m mindful that my career trajectory – from a teacher to textbook writer, self-funding curriculum experimenter and now freelance curriculum designer – is hardly the norm. However, could there be something of value in it that foreshadows the need to grow new and innovative curriculum content creation services for a Knowledge Economy?

As I come to terms with the question, I take heart from the fact that Professor Master’s first principles of learning provide me with a seismic challenge to respond to the urgent need for implementing a curriculum that is “guided more by our emerging understandings of human learning than by education models of the past.” (Masters 2021, 4) 

  1. Masters, G. (2021, August 16-20). How education gets in the way of learning [Keynote presentation]. Research Conference 2021: Excellent progress for every student: Proceedings and program. Australian Council for Educational Research
  2. ACER’s Learning Progression Explorer.
  3. https://fantasticlearningsystems.substack.com/about (A further note: many of my personal references will I have my former married name of Josephine Fantasia which I used between 1978 and 2004, after which I reverted to my birth name, Josephine De Rossi).
  4. The image is of the textbook Year 11 Drama in Performance which I co-authored with a Head Of Department, Heather Timms, and won first prize in 2002 in The Australian Excellence in Educational Publication “Teacher Reference” section. By 2010, I had written six more books for Years 11 and 12.
  5. https://web.education.unimelb.edu.au/curriculumpoliciesproject/chrono_wa.html
  6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Curriculum_Council_of_Western_Australia
  7. Richard Pountney, SIG Lead, Sheffield Institute Of Education, Sheffield Hallam University, February 22, 2021, Researching Curriculum Subjects: understanding how teachers plan, design, and lead the curriculum, A presentation made as part of the BERA British Curriculum Forum
  8. https://webarchive.nla.gov.au/awa/20050616055806/http://www.wordplay.com.au/index.html
  9. Drama and Philosophy: Language, thinking and laughing out loud L D’Olimpio – Applied Theatre Research Journal, 2004
  10. 1947 was when subsidised theatre arrived through the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust, the predecessor of what we know now as the Australia Council.
  11. http://www.serioustheatreaudiences.com/
  12. https://www.fantasticlearningsystems.com/the-power-of-a-school-vision/

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