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Learn, don't think.

By Daniel Brass - posted Monday, 1 May 2006

Discussion about the slow response of New South Wales HSC English teachers to curriculum changes introduced in 2001 overlooks the fact that there is a deeper problem with the syllabus itself.  Far from making more options available and challenging students to think about texts in new ways, the syllabus demands conformity to a new orthdoxy as insidious as the old.

The cornerstone of the syllabus is the "topic area", compulsory for most students. For the past few years it has been "the Journey", which is subdivided into physical, inner and imaginative journeys.  Different texts are set for each type of journey and a Board of Studies (BoS) booklet provides a selection of texts for the whole topic area.  Students are required to master only one of the three types of journey. The syllabus thus dictates how students must read their texts. Shakespeare's The Tempest, it says, involves an imaginative journey, Sally Morgan's My Place an inner journey, Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn a physical journey.

Similarly the poetry of Bruce Dawe is no longer to be studied as the poetry of Bruce Dawe. It is to be studied under the framework of consumerism. Bruce Dawe equals consumerism. Simple.


A demarcation of teaching responsibility where the BoS delineates themes for study as well as prescribing texts, is a radical departure from the tradition that the BoS sets the texts but teachers decide how to approach them. The change will have serious long-term consequences for both teachers and students.

For instance, the lack of autonomy is surely a factor in Australia's critical shortage of teachers.  Students who aim to do well at school are generally distrustful of anything not directly linked to the syllabus.  Teachers are therefore reluctant to step beyond it; they are confined to the compartment of their discipline sanctioned by the BoS. Offered such an intellectually stultifying role, is it any wonder that so few top graduates pursue careers in secondary education?

Going through these hackneyed motions is also tedious for the students. There's no opportunity for them to make connections between material studied in different English electives, much less to identify points of intersection between subjects. Yet surely the most inspiring teachers are those who are able to cross disciplinary boundaries - the English teacher who can discuss Darwin or Einstein, the science teacher who quotes Wordsworth.

The stated aim of the syllabus is "to enable students … to become thoughtful, imaginative and effective communicators in a diverse and changing society".  English "enables students to make sense of, and to enrich, their lives in personal, social and professional relationships and to deal effectively with change". The syllabus itself identifies humanist principles in its aims, but in practice, rather than broadening minds and encouraging thought, it only permits thought within strictly defined parameters.

As a society we are increasingly confronted with "information" masquerading as truth. The onslaught of advertising and the compliance of the news media with various political agendas make it ever more important that we are equipped to engage critically with information presented to us, that we read against the grain, and don't necessarily accept everything at face value. To counter this, we must nurture imagination and understanding, encourage reflection rather than blind acceptance. Broad discussion of poetry, drama, novels, films and other textual forms can cultivate understanding more effectively than the explicit study of consumerism.

Critical theory can inform thinking, but theoretical ideas should be presented as ideas for discussion, not as absolute truth. The old English syllabus was very far from perfect. It took a conventional and uninspiring approach to literature and allowed few opportunities to use the ideas which so drastically changed the intellectual climate of the second half of the twentieth century. The introduction of theory was one of the great advances of the new syllabus, but it's also the easiest to sideline. Theoretical concepts are often difficult and the evidence is that teachers are not impressing the importance of theory on their students.  The result is that the major advance of the new syllabus is only being put into practice by a very small number of students.


And, in any case, how should the theory be applied given the narrowness of the syllabus? Is it allowed to think about Bruce Dawe from a feminist perspective or to consider The Tempest not only as an imaginative journey but as a discussion of colonialism?

After five years of the current syllabus, it's time to consider deep-seated structural changes.

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First published in the Sydney Morning Herald on April, 24.

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About the Author

Daniel Brass has a PhD in English from the University of Sydney, has tutored high school English for ten years and is now studying medicine.

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