Recently, criticism of the penetration of “deconstruction” into the teaching of English in schools has grown dramatically. Deconstruction is an educational theory imposed on students and is part of the syllabi emanating from the various state and territory Boards of Study. English is not the only subject that suffers as a consequence. Deconstruction as a theory pervades the boards not to mention the education establishment as a whole.
Maths (and literacy) are the great enabling tools, so it is unsurprising that performance in maths (slightly more than literacy) in the middle years of schooling is the biggest determinant of a student's final result at Year 12 exit and of subsequent unemployment.
In Queensland the most recent maths syllabus for students in Years 1-10 states among a plethora of other things, “making explicit the fact that knowledge is historically, socially and culturally constructed”. So, for example, it is presupposed that pi, cosine and e are historically, socially and culturally constructed. But are they?
These days all school syllabi are lengthy documents - lengthy because they are full of theoretical material, as well as long, complex and virtually meaningless “assessment” systems. But there is very little indication of the content, techniques and concepts that the children are expected to grasp.
Anna Bligh, speaking as the Queensland Minister for Education was quoted recently as saying “she had recently ordered revisions of a new trial (English) syllabus which lumped ... everything into a single category of text” and that she feared postmodern-style criticism would take the “love of literature” away from the classroom.
While serving as education minister, Bligh combined intelligence with “feet on the ground” thinking. She had determined previously that there must be a new framework of curricular content and assessment that will “set standards and help parents understand what their children know, what they can do, and how well they can do it. It will define essential learnings to be taught … introduce assessment against standards ... and provide easy to read reports for parents.” Those standards are intended to be universal across the state. In essence, she is requiring some quality control.
Encouraging as these moves are, there are two massive obstacles on the much needed path to both syllabi and assessment systems becoming well defined, validated and reliable.
First, syllabi for Years 11 and 12 are not included in the “new framework of curricular content”. That means the present situation of very poorly defined syllabi combined with assessment structures that rely heavily on “assignments” and “on balance judgments” will continue.
As assessment tools (in student language things that “count”), assignments suffer from an incurable disease; it cannot be known whose work they really are. For example, one Tasmanian academic claimed recently that parents “helping their children” risked turning their children into cheats. A leader of the New South Wales Board of Studies, however, claimed that because the students had to sign that the work was theirs, there was very little cheating. Presumably it is assumed that our current students are all George Washingtons who cannot tell a lie, not even when there is a palpable advantage in doing so.
The spectacle of the Board of Studies in NSW floating gently towards cloud cuckoo land leads to the second and bigger obstacle that can wreck Minister Bligh’s laudable objectives. The execution of those objectives (clarification, standards and so on) will be in the hands of a state board of study known as the Queensland Studies Authority (QSA). As this is the organisation that has produced the current vague syllabi and fanciful assessment systems, it seems all too likely it will do just enough to make it look as though all problems have been rectified.
The problem is, however, that they do not think that there is a problem. Accordingly, their heart is not likely to be in the task of rectification and clarification. It is all too probable that their idea of “clarification” will be similar to that of Sir Humphrey Appleby, who averred that clarification is not to make things clear, it is to put oneself in the clear.
The thinking and attitudes of the QSA are well demonstrated by the fact in the first draft of planning for the new Certificate of Education a course of study was defined as being “a well defined set of learning experiences”. In a response to that draft I pointed out that all of the current Year 11 and 12 syllabi totally failed to meet that definition and would hence have to be totally rewritten. Effortlessly QSA solved the problem by simply removing the words “well defined” from the later drafts!