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.
ACER Chief Executive Professor Geoff Masters kicked off with his provocative address on the Conference theme of excellent progress for every student.  We know a lot now about human learning. Why then do we set up the formal structures and processes of school education contrary to its promotion?
Professor Masters goes further still with even more confronting questions. Why do education systems seemed fixed on sorting students into post-secondary pathways? And why was this at the expense of guaranteeing excellent progress of every student in the K-10 compulsory years of schooling?
Not content just to provoke, Masters’ keynote and all 21 presentations over the five days offered a comprehensive solution. Through the practice of learning progressions, they showed, education systems everywhere had a continuum that maps key stages in the development of a learning domain (e.g. reading and mathematics). Individual teachers to education system managers could map learning of every student from simple beginnings through to complex interpretations and applications.
Where I’m Coming From?
I’ve written learning progressions in drama education. My involvement as a curriculum content creator in curriculum reform in the late 1990s gave me a seat at the table of their early development. How were they are seen today as delivering excellent progress for all students?
I found the conference gave me ample opportunity to reflect on why devising curricula in schools and commercial settings had become steadily more complex. 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.
Not what teachers teach but what systems mandate
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.
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
In 1996, I was a curriculum writer and researcher in the implementation of the Curriculum Framework of Western Australia (1997). Firstly, I worked in the Assessment and Reporting Branch for the Education Department of WA. Then later, I was a district-based Curriculum Improvement Officer to refine and implement WA’s Student Outcome Statements. Remarkably, my specialist knowledge of drama education readily transferred to articulating 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. Both seemed to me valiant in countering the opponents hellbent on overturning 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 not enough. Teachers need more that that in 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. Most worrisome of all, as far as I was concerned, placing curriculum creation into schools with few tools undermined the reform and allowed the ‘back to basics’ lobby to flourish.
Curriculum reform needs more than vision
Yes, the Education Department of WA and the Curriculum Council eventually created the websites and resources needed. However, I don’t believe they compensated for the fall-out due to the disconnect between a new curriculum vision and its implementation. In particular, an imaginative implementation of how school-based curriculum creators might realise and validated a once in a century reform.
Interestingly, Richard Pountney’s recent blog linked historical problems of curriculum development to a belief that its ‘something’ all good teachers can do. What’s more, 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.
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’. The projects aimed at developing critical and creative thinking and philosophical discourse. They also employed movement and dance to enhance children’s conceptual understanding. 
For this, 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. In turn, young people co-design learning programs in the arts centre’s large learning space. Interestingly, topics that were usually taken for granted arose for interrogation, such as negotiating everyday 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).
Loss of a curriculum exploration space
Unfortunately, I ran out of money to do a proper analysis of what worked in my experiment. The best I can report is that I seemed to repeatedly demonstrate that learning can be ecstatically sustained. For instance, I sustained the project on schoolyard negotiations for three years with the same group of 40 students! But in the end, I exposed further gaps in my curriculum knowledge. Firstly, of my understanding of 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. It’s hard to imagine today but the Melbourne-based J. C. Williamson Ltd. was the largest theatre company in the Southern Hemisphere from the late-nineteenth century until at least 1947. 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’
During my research in the Victoria and Albert Museum Archives, I started noticing how cultural historians were dealing the cognitive sciences. For instance, Professor Bruce McConachie’s research had been an ongoing influence on my work since my doctoral research. Now it was allowing me to view ‘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 (e.g. Articulate Storyline), Google Apps and building WordPress websites. At the same time, I worked as a theatre reviewer of London Fringe Theatre blogs. It gave me access to observing how London’s broadband rollout affected entrepreneurial London fringe companies.
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.
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.
My Current Work
Meanwhile, I’m preparing for meetings for my Curriculum Maker project with independent children’s author Clare Rose Trevelyan. I am designing parent resources around Clare’s Young Philosophers Series which we contextualised in a ‘theme park of the mind’ that she calls Everything World. Based on her own parent needs, I find it a marvellous idea through which the writer has looked for ways that she be at ‘the kitchen table of wonder’ and discuss her books with her kids
I am working on four other projects.
School Story Projects in which I work with school leaders, classroom teachers & students. These show to how focusing on a school vision help develop a sense of coherence within a school community. It arises from the work I began 2018 at Wooranna Park Primary School in Dandenong North on the impact of digital self-publishing technology on curriculum creation.
My experiences have led to consider how producing an engaging curriculum is also connected to new fields of knowledge arising from the digital disruption of education. These include considering the impact of curriculum design of content strategy, digital marketing and the concept of the user experience.
The other three projects are
- DramaLearning Projects in which I facilitate self-publishing process for devising drama-based integrated curricula for schools and small creative business
- Radical Pantomime Projects in which I particularly focus on the role of the school and community based theatre producer to facilitate entrepreneurial education to produce more laughter-provoking events and
- Kajabi Learning Edge Projects in which I maximise the pedagogical effectiveness effectiveness of rapid authoring software.
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.
Curriculum Content Creators In The Education Publishing Industry
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 of 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 know 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.
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?
Then, the principles of learning outlined my Professor Masters provide me with a seismic challenge to be “guided more by our emerging understandings of human learning than by education models of the past.” (Masters 2021, 4)
- 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
- ACER’s Learning Progression Explorer.
- 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).
- 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, related to course of study set by the Curriculum Council Of WA, now the School Curriculum and Standards Authority.
- 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
- Drama and Philosophy: Language, thinking and laughing out loud L D’Olimpio – Applied Theatre Research Journal, 2004
- 1954 was when subsidised theatre arrived through the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust, the predecessor of what we know now as the Australia Council.