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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
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What can schools do? Knowledge, social identities and the changing world

Lyn Yates
Foundation Chair of Curriculum, Department of Learning and Educational Development, University of Melbourne

Professor Lyn Yates is the newly appointed Chair of Curriculum at the University of Melbourne. This article is an edited extract from her inaugural professorial lecture for the Faculty of Education Dean’s lecture series. In part one of the article, published this week,  Professor Yates outlines a range of issues facing curriculum researchers, policy makers and leaders within schools.

I think many people are a bit unclear about what it means to be an academic who works in curriculum. Isn’t a curriculum something that is handed down by the government, or a curriculum authority, or the board that runs the International Baccalaureate? It is in part, but curriculum is also about conceptions of what should be in those frameworks and how they get handed down. It also involves research on unintended effects on what happens in practice.

Curriculum questions are difficult ones because they involve both big picture thinking, and attention to everyday pragmatics. Curriculum questions look at the substance of what school does: they go beyond just seeing schooling as a black box that produces scores and outcomes patterns. Curriculum asks us to think about what is being set up to be taught and learned, what is actually being taught, what is actually being learned, why agendas are taken up or not taken up, who benefits and loses, whose voice is heard and whose is silenced, what future is being formed for individuals, and what future is being set in train for society as a whole.

I want to sketch out some of the challenges facing curriculum in these changing times.

Curriculum needs a broad approach

There are a wide range of issues to confront. Challenges are posed by the changing forms of knowledge, work and social identities. These changes have led to the adoption of civics and citizenship education, teaching for social competencies, and have spurred the study of boys’ education. New fields of work such as biotechnology have blurred the boundaries between disciplines and have helped to inspire cross-disciplinary activities in schools. There are also the challenges of dealing with diversity and inequality, managing ever-changing innovations in ICT, and coping with ever-changing reforms of schools.

To meet these challenges we need broad conceptions of curriculum, teacher education and academic research.

Two important inquiries are currently underway, launched by Dr Brendan Nelson, the Commonwealth Minister for Education, which will directly impact on the work people like myself do. One is an inquiry into what quality research in universities looks like, and how that can best be measured every year. The second is an inquiry into teacher education and whether it is sufficiently ‘evidence-based’ and producing competent classroom-ready teachers. In both cases I’m worried that these inquiries are going to come up with too narrow a vision of what schools are about, and what research and scholarship is about.

People who think that the only issues for people who work in university education faculties are how to produce a good teacher in their first week on the job, and who think the only good research should look like a classic experiment or a randomised controlled trial, have got it wrong. We need good quality thinking and lively conversations, inside and outside education faculties, about what we are trying to do in schools and other education institutions.

Asking the impossible of schools

The demands society makes of the schooling system create major issues for everyone involved with curriculum. Curriculum questions are complex, but they are made more difficult by a public discourse that pretends that impossible things can be achieved.

As teaching institutions, schools are often seen as social ‘fixers’. Parents, media commentators and politicians are constantly discovering new social problems (or old ones for that matter), or social issues, or new needs and, as a first knee-jerk reaction, they think that if only something simple, some x was done in schools, we could solve that problem.

As well as teaching, however, schooling sorts, selects and discriminates, and here a second set of pressures apply, in the form of contradictory social demands. The fact that some people don’t do as well as others in schools isn’t (or isn’t just) a failing on the part of schools; it is part of what schools as a system are set up to do – to save universities and employers some of the burden of deciding for themselves whom they will take on. If you don’t in principle want some people to do worse than others, you don’t set up final certificates that decide in advance what proportions can be awarded various grades, and you don’t insist on a final tertiary entrance score that lists everyone on a relative standing from 1 to 100.

The sorting work performed by schools is never considered satisfactory because we’d like everyone to get top marks, and we swing back and forth between approaches like national standards and a common curriculum that put everyone on the same path and in the same competition, and approaches like the plan to revive technical colleges that decide early on whom you’re going to be and set you off on that track.

Identity, values and social cohesion

In recent times, some of the concerns of the bleeding heart equity people, such as myself, about those who are losing out or being trampled on in the system, are being taken very seriously in the heart of the hard-headed economics camp of the OECD. In the world now, issues of what they like to refer to as ‘social cohesion’ – of how people of different religions and cultural backgrounds and gender treat each other – are real issues. Talk about ‘social capital’ and ‘resilience’ is suddenly important. Identities and values are on the map. It’s not much use as a nation upping your average maths performance score in the international league tables by .0001% if people stop behaving civilly to each other.

The more researchers and expert committees look at the new types of work, at what jobs are going out of existence, and what kinds of competencies are needed, about how you need to be a so-called 'flexible, autonomous lifelong learner', the more they start talking about identity issues. The important work of curriculum is not just about learning particular things, but coming to be a particular type of person, a person who can operate successfully in a changing world, a person who can work locally and internationally with others who are different.

So part of what a curriculum researcher does is to try to keep an eye on these big pictures: what is going on in universities and in the OECD; what are sociologists, economists and others showing about the changing nature of work; what reshaping of education systems is being set up in Australia and in other countries. I think of curriculum research as a kind of conversation, in which we are trying to feed in and examine different claims about what is happening now, and different visions of where we might go.

Next week Curriculum Leadership publishes the second and concluding part of this article, in which Professor Yates draws on her involvement in three major projects to look at how curriculum issues play out at the local level for schools and students.

Copies of Professor Yates’ original lecture are available from the University of Melbourne’s media unit. Contact Katherine Smith (k.smith@unimelb.edu.au).


Subject Headings

School and community
Educational planning
Educational evaluation
Education research
Education policy
Curriculum planning
Curriculum studies