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Top marks to syllabus road maps

By Kevin Donnelly - posted Friday, 7 October 2005

For years the mantra of state and territory education ministers has been that their systems are world's best. Concerns about a dumbed-down curriculum and falling standards are ignored, and anxious parents and employers are told there is nothing to worry about.

Unfortunately, based on the curriculum benchmarking report released last week by federal Education Minister Brendan Nelson, nothing could be further from the truth.

The report identifies the characteristics of those education systems that consistently outperform our students in international tests and compares their approach to curriculum development with what happens in Australia.


The report also analyses and ranks our primary school curriculum documents in mathematics, science and English against overseas systems, including those of Japan, Singapore, California, New Zealand and England. Unlike Australia, which has adopted outcomes-based education, those places that rank highly in international tests such as the Trends in International Maths and Science Study adopt a syllabus approach to curriculum.

A syllabus approach is one where teachers are given a clear, succinct and manageable road map at the start of the year detailing what is to be taught.

There is a syllabus for each year level; teachers are expected to teach, not facilitate; there is regular testing to monitor standards; and the focus is on essential learning. The benefits of a syllabus approach are obvious. Instead of individual teachers and schools wasting resources and time by having to develop syllabuses, they are centrally provided. As a result, teachers are able to focus energy on improving classroom practice. Syllabus documents are detailed, concise and unambiguous. Teachers are left in no doubt as to what to teach and there is an expectation that students master essential knowledge, understanding and skills at each year level.

Outcomes-based education is the opposite of a syllabus approach. Instead of defining curriculum in terms of subjects such as history and geography, the emphasis is on broad and nebulous "essential learnings" designed to inculcate new-age values.

In Tasmania, these include "thinking, communicating, personal futures, social responsibility and world futures". South Australia defines essential learnings as "futures, identity, interdependence, thinking and communication" on the basis that "these understandings, capabilities and dispositions are personal and intellectual qualities, not bodies of knowledge".

Not only is an outcomes-based education approach to detailing curriculum content new-age and politically correct, an additional concern is that compared with syllabuses, which are concise, OBE documents contain hundreds of pages of outcome statements that drown teachers, especially in primary school, in a sea of vapid minutiae. The teachers' role and the importance of whole-class teaching and explicit learning are also victims of OBE. Not only are teachers described by such jargon as "knowledge navigators" and children as "autonomous, self-directed and reflective thinkers", but the emphasis is on group learning and real-world relevance.


By downplaying memorisation and rote learning, not only are children denied the basics, especially in literacy and numeracy, but they are also denied the foundation learning on which higher-order skills are built.

As evidenced by debates about Nelson's push for plain English report cards, the OBE's approach to assessment is also very different from a syllabus approach. The assumption with OBE is that every student, given enough resources and time, is capable of success and that failing is bad for self-esteem. Yet many students float through school on the basis that if they do not pick it up this year, they will the next, and the first time they encounter a high-risk, competitive examination is in Year 12.

That OBE is such a costly failure should not be unexpected. When it was first introduced into Australia during the 1990s it had been trialled in only a handful of countries and there was little, if any, evidence that it had been successful elsewhere.

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First published in The Australian on September 28, 2005.

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About the Author

Dr Kevin Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and he recently co-chaired the review of the Australian national curriculum. He can be contacted at He is author of Australia’s Education Revolution: How Kevin Rudd Won and Lost the Education Wars available to purchase at

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