Brisbane's beacon for the new basics

21st April 2006 at 01:00
Embracing curriculum change is a bit like cuddling a koala. You soon learn, says May Sweeney

aesar salad, roast chicken, braised rump of kangaroo - the familiar sits comfortably alongside the unexpected, both in menus and in the Queensland education system. The focus of my recent visit to Brisbane with education officers from Scottish local authorities was the Queensland "New Basics"

project. This tackles learning and teaching in a way that directly confronts the challenges of constant change. Electronic communications, students' boredom with traditional print media, rapid developments in communities and economies are some of the characteristics of an emerging world which the programme strives to address.

Since 2000, the objective of New Basics has been to concentrate on the knowledge and skills required for better, more effective linkages between curriculum, pedagogy and assessment. These basics are not deliverable without significant innovations in learning and teaching, defined as "productive pedagogies". These are a set of strategies designed to preserve academic rigour while ensuring that content is relevant, meaningful and connected to the world in which students live. Assessment is carried out through a series of "rich tasks" encompassing specific subject disciplines, transdisciplinary activities, problem-solving, decision-making and action.

Students' work must demonstrate genuine intellectual engagement.

I was interested in capturing any lessons we could learn from the Queensland experience as we take forward A Curriculum for Excellence in Scotland. Innovative curriculum design and the strategy for addressing change are particular challenges for us. The first visit to the office of the New Basics team provided some reassuring messages, however. Lesley Friend, leader of the team, conceded that not enough time had been invested in working directly with headteachers at the outset. By contrast, every director of education in Scotland has been offered the opportunity to engage with the national team for A Curriculum for Excellence.

The majority of authorities have chosen to focus initially on the key leadership role of headteachers. The national team has also responded to requests for direct encounters with clusters, individual schools and many other constituencies with an interest in Scottish education.

As we foster closer partnership with teachers and other educators through the register of interest for A Curriculum for Excellence, our aim is to encourage the involvement of front-line teaching staff in shaping the curriculum of the future. A significant strength of the Queensland model is the effort devoted to discussion about how the curriculum will be delivered. Each school has a critical friend providing ongoing support.

This emphasis on co-operation and collaboration has led to a clear focus on the experience of children and young people and has also boosted the level of professional debate.

While the intention is that schools devote 60 per cent of the school week to rich tasks, a few schools have restructured their whole curriculum around New Basics. Iqbal Singh, headteacher of Burnside State High School, redesigned the first and second-year course with the New Basics model while introducing increased choice in second year. Teachers worked in teams from a range of disciplines and contributed their individual subject expertise to the design and delivery of the curriculum.

As we discussed the challenges that face schools in Australia, the strengths of the Scottish system came into sharper relief. The Standards in Scotland's Schools Act 2000 set out what we as a nation want to achieve for young people. From responses to the national debate, it is clear that parents value the contribution teachers and other educators make to the lives of their children.

Scotland performs well internationally, and innovations such as the probationer induction year are equipping teachers of the future with the skills they need to confront change. Many authorities offer staff the opportunity of international study visits. The experience can yield both an insight into new ideas and appreciation of our Scottish system.

Yet we cannot afford to slide into complacency and self-congratulation.

Some students are disengaged from learning, leading to disillusionment and indiscipline. Too many young people between the ages of 16 and 19 are not in education, employment or training. Scotland cannot afford to waste such a vast amount of potential. The globalisation of the world economy and the pace of technological change mean that young people face a working environment worlds away from that of their parents and grandparents. It is essential to examine experiences from other countries across the world in our present discussions on the curriculum.

Visits to classrooms provided our group with a snapshot of the New Basics curriculum in action. When I asked one student her opinion, she replied in the international language of youth: "It's really interesting. It's not like you're sitting there thinking this is boring." Parents had made a positive choice to send their children to the schools we visited. They were fully informed about the nature of the curriculum in advance. In some primary schools, all classes were "multi-age" as a matter of policy. A few had included philosophy classes from primary 1 onwards.

It was refreshing to hear teachers talking about the need for challenge and enjoyment, depth in learning, connections across the curriculum and relevance. While the New Basics curriculum provided a consistent framework, there was room for flexibility in delivery. However, some schools are now looking for ways in which to revitalise the original rich tasks. A blueprint is being developed for schools that want to design their own.

Consistency of standards is maintained by a process of moderation.

The collaborative nature of the training has produced benefits similar to those we are now seeing in teachers involved in the Assessment is for Learning Programme. The direct relevance to their work, coupled with the intellectual satisfaction of professional discourse with colleagues, has rekindled the enthusiasm of many.

While my experience provided valuable information for our current debate on the curriculum, I still had one important objective outstanding - to cuddle a koala. With Joanne Scott from Stirling and Eleanor McGuire from North Ayrshire, I embarked on a mission up the River Brisbane in search of a koala sanctuary.

Fortunately our new friend, Fabio the koala, was so disposed to being hugged by curious foreigners that he gave us the confidence to progress to feeding kangaroos by hand. So we returned to Scotland as successful learners, both in planning the curriculum and in cuddling koalas.

May Sweeney is national co-ordinator of A Curriculum for Excellence at Learning and Teaching Scotland.

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