Ausopinion Reblogged – Hold the Phonics, Roast the Robustness – Donnelly the Columnist Responds to his Critics

This was the follow-up to my piece on education and Kevin Donnelly. Not quite as strong, like all my follow-ups to the big, popular posts.  There is, however, a postscript that highlights a curious side to the personality of Dr. Donnelly. 
Posted by prestontowers on January 14, 2014

The response to the appointment of Kevin Donnelly and Ken Wiltshire to a review panel for the National Curriculum has been energetic as it has been enlightening.  One of the more telling factors has been that in Donnelly’s case, his responses reveal that he is more a commentator with a populist media sensibility and less a curriculum expert.  But first the responses from curriculum and education professionals.  There has been:– An open letter by a range of academics and current teachers in school systems, pointing out in detail that the original drafting of the National Curriculum was without partisan involvement and was undertaken by experienced professionals and academics from a range of backgrounds; that the timing of the review is unworkable and placing a question around the people involved. It also features the word “robust” (whenever I hear that word – and it’s a lot recently, I think of this…)


– Bafflement amongst experts in Victoria (though, as we already know, “everyone” is an expert in education.  This article also includes key statements by the head of ACARA, Barry McGaw, who is hardly a partisan figure to anyone who has read his work or heard him speak at conferences (I remember vividly his speech about quantitative analysis at my Dip Ed graduation)

The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority’s board chairman, Barry McGaw, said he welcomed the review. But he also said the authority had used a ”rigorous, national process” that had produced a high-quality curriculum.

”The Australian curriculum is setting higher standards across the country, perhaps most notably in mathematics and science at the primary school level,” he said.

Professor McGaw said the ACT began introducing the curriculum’s first subjects in 2011. Five other jurisdictions followed, including Victoria in 2013. He said each learning area was developed by experts over two to three years.

This is McGaw’s way of responding to the suggestion that the original curriculum is biased, “left wing”, not rigorous, and not “robust”.

– This comment piece that reveals a bit about Donnelly’s comments in the media, as well as not holding back in the author’s opinion of the motives behind the appointment.

– This fiery piece by Jenna Price that includes this choice quote about Donnelly from the former Director of the NSW Education Department Ken Boston:

”He doesn’t engage with reasoned argument or evidence … [his] publications are regarded as specious nonsense.”

– This excellent and concise piece showing that this review is part of a continuing battle over the teaching of history.

– I was also pointed towards this weightier read about the push by conservatives to have a particular history taught in schools.

Donnelly’s responses, though, have revealed that his instincts are more as a columnist / commentator.  It is for this reason that, on his interview on the ABC, where he advocated, amongst other things, that more religious history should be taught in the compulsory years of schooling. For someone charged with making the National Curriculum “stronger” and “more robust”, it seems odd to be talking about teaching about religions, which has little to nothing to do with either concept.  It does, though, make sense when you realise that he is a senior research fellow for the Australian Catholic University. He has religion on his mind – though, as he was at pains to point out in the interview, also religions other than Christianity.

“I’m not saying we should preach to everyone, but I would argue that the great religions of the world – whether it’s Islam, whether it’s Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism – they should be taught over the compulsory years of school,” he said.

“When you look at Parliaments around Australia – they all begin with the Lord’s prayer. If you look at our constitution, the preamble is about God.

“You can’t airbrush that from history – it has to be recognised.”

In one breath, mentioning the “great religions”, but then focusing on one religion – the one that has ensured that the Lord’s Prayer in read in parliament – a strange thing to mention, especially considering many things are said parliaments that school students don’t study.  The other startling quote from this is the one that claims that religion is being “airbrushed” from history.  It’s not only extraordinary, but wrong.   It’s not even “airbrushed” from the National Curriculum, as you can see with a simple search of the document.  The use of the term “airbrush” suggests that Dr. Donnelly has been working with the conservative commentariat for a long time – they are very used to using populist phrases like “airbrushed”, “politically correct” and “nanny state”.

A further question in this regard is, however, where would students be educated about religions and in what way?  Almost every non-government school teach a compulsory religion subject which reflects the doctrine of the school. For example, Catholic schools in Victoria and NSW have a Catholic Studies course centred around a set of textbooks – “To Know, Worship and Love”, Christian schools have self developed, non Board of Studies courses called usually “Christian Studies” or “Bible Studies”.   Is he suggesting adding more to history? Creating a new religions course for government schools?  In either case, it would be vastly unpopular and making a mockery of the idea that this review is about a “stronger” and “more robust” curriculum.

Dr. Donnelly had decided also to experiment further with social media – searching for mentions of his name and responding to them.




The latter comment points to another trait conservative commentators for newspapers use for populist purposes – find an extreme example of something you think will create a negative connotation in the readers’ minds.  After you have done that, refuse to comment further.  That’s why he didn’t respond to many of the tweets thrown in his direction this past weekend.  He has, however, composed another opinion piece – in Fairfax this time.  Unsurprisingly, it is entitled “Coalition’s call to review school curriculum based on sound reasons”

The Commonwealth government, while being a key stakeholder in school education in terms of money, resources and programs, does not employ any classroom teachers or manage any schools.

As a result – and as signalled by Education Minister Christopher Pyne when announcing the review of the national curriculum – the review will be a consultative one involving schools, parents, professional associations, academics, and state and territory education authorities.

While critics argue that the review’s outcomes are predetermined, it’s also the case that nothing has been decided, and the fact that public submissions are being called for suggests that the process will be open and transparent.

We have again a reassurance of this “open and transparent” process. and that nothing is “predetermined” and that submissions will be asked for. Exactly the same way submissions were asked for during the actual National Curriculum consultative phase.  The questions are many – such as:

– Are they going to read the same submissions that were made before?

–  What weight will be given to various submissions from experts and professionals in the field, as opposed to submissions about the history curriculum like this from the BA graduate and PhD (in economics) student Chris Berg, who, like Donnelly, is associated with the IPA?

–  What is this “transparency” that will be used?

But let’s go on…

The reasons for establishing a review are manifold.

The Coalition’s election policy promised, if elected, that an Abbott-led government would review the national curriculum to ensure its robustness, that it represented international best-practice and that it was free of bias.

The need to benchmark the national curriculum against the curriculum of more successful, stronger-performing countries as measured by mathematics, science and literacy tests – such as Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, and Program for International Student Assessment – should be beyond debate.

“Robustness” – not sure that’s a word that is used out of newspaper columnist land and “International best practice” is not something that can be ensured by 2 men doing a 4 – 6 month review.  And “free of bias” infers that it Curriculum has bias.   In other words, Donnelly is already revealing his bias by simply repeating a political party’s dogma as justification for a review.   In addition, how does one “benchmark” a curriculum against those of other nations with different educational contexts and backgrounds?   It will be fascinating to discover how that is achieved.  The tables will be staggering in their complexity.

While Australian students perform reasonably well in international mathematics and science tests, there are always a handful of countries, mostly in the Asian region, that do better.

As noted by the Australian Industry Group, a significant number of employers are complaining about the inadequate literacy and numeracy standards of employees.

While there are no magic solutions, there is much that we can learn in Australia by analysing and evaluating successful overseas curriculums in terms of content, design, styles of teaching, classroom interaction and theories of knowledge.

If, for example, so-called best-practice curriculums are succinct, teacher-friendly, academically rigorous and involve a range of teaching styles, from teacher-directed to learner-centred, then why not evaluate the extent to which our national curriculum compares?

More comment that Asian nations do better in some subjects, in international tests that are being held as sacrosanct in terms of what they measure.  This is shown in every newspaper article written about education, where these tests are never criticised or even analysed in terms of educational relevance or worth.  Here though, because Donnelly has the mind of a columnist, nor an curriculum specialist, he is showing that these tests should be the measure of the success of a curriculum. A questionable assumption.

One of the criticisms made by primary teachers is that the curriculum they are being asked to teach covers too much territory, is overly prescriptive and that it is stifling flexibility and choice at the local level. It’s also important to analyse our approach to the curriculum in light of what the research suggests is most effective in raising standards and strengthening learning outcomes.

We finally get a reference to research. And “one of the criticisms” is that the curriculum “covers too much territory” – yet one of the first things Donnelly claimed was that not enough religion is covered. Seems to be a touch contradictory in that idea.

Countries around the world, including South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, Britain and the US are continually evaluating what works and what does not in the classroom, and ensuring the training and professional development of teachers are evidence-based.

Increasingly, across the English-speaking world for example, the consensus is that phonics and phonemic awareness are a critical part of teaching young children how to read. The research also suggests, especially in the early years, that automaticity, involving memorisation and rote learning, are important elements in allowing children to go on to higher order, more creative learning.

Ethnographic research examining Asian classrooms also suggests that lessons need to be highly structured, where students have a clear understanding of what is expected, and what constitutes success or failure, and there is adequate time for interaction and feedback.

Teachers in countries such as Singapore and Hong Kong also have the time and resources to mentor one another, to work collaboratively, and are highly respected by parents and students.

And here we have a regular hobby horse of conservative education columnists – phonics and rote learning.  That what our children need is phonics and rote learning.  Miranda Devine, holder of a degree in Mathematics, is particularly fond of it (I could link to many more pieces by Devine about phonics, but they aren’t hard to find).  Donnelly even goes so far as to say there is a “consensus” on phonics.  Quite a large statement, really.

Problem is for Dr. Donnelly is that the National Curriculum doesn’t reach into the areas of phonics and rote learning. It’s a curriculum document. It mandates what is taught in content and skills – but not how it is taught.  There isn’t a pedagogical approach being pushed nationally – that would be a near impossible task.  Therefore, it can’t tell teachers “you must teach this concept by rote, it’s the only way to communicate content” no matter how much people like Donnelly would like it to.   The other problem for newspaper columnists Donnelly and Devine is that phonics instruction is already a part of a range of teaching strategies used in primary schools.  A range.  It’s more than likely already in the teaching programs designed in incorporate the National Curriculum’s outcomes.  If Dr. Donnelly had stepped into any number of classrooms recently, he would already find teachers providing the kind structure he mentions, as well as deep and meaningful feedback that is endorsed by oft quoted researchers such as John Hattie (and when I mean oft quoted – I mean someone whose research is mentioned frequently at teacher conferences and inservices).

Donnelly also making reference to other systems, where teachers are given time and resources to mentor each other. That is true and a great thing. It is – like his comments on pedagogical approaches – irrelevant to the scope of this curriculum review.  It is not, however, irrelevant to the other fact that is evident from this column – that he is a newspaper columnist wanting to make sweeping and expensive changes to education through the power of Imagen This.   It’s an instinct he can’t resist.  This column, though, goes back to justifying his review with relevant references to a review process.

It is also important to evaluate whether Australia’s national curriculum is balanced and objective.

As suggested by Pyne, the fact that the national curriculum stipulates that every subject must be interpreted through a prism involving indigenous, Asian and sustainability perspectives needs to be revisited.

While there is no doubt that Australia is geographically a part of Asia, that sustainability is a significant and continuing issue, and that giving the curriculum an indigenous perspective is important, there are other equally important things to consider.

Australia is a liberal, democratic nation, and our political and legal institutions, and way of life owe much to Western civilisation. As such, it is important that students have a sound understanding and appreciation of the values, beliefs and institutions that enable Australia to be such a peaceful, tolerant and open society.

The National Curriculum was written by people outside Government who had not been just two men, one of whom was the Chief of Staff for a minister and the other a columnist who told independent politicians to side with the Liberal Party.  Yet here Donnelly is inferring that the existing National Curriculum might be biased, but that he and Wiltshire will make it objective. It’s a frankly bizarre suggestion.

The comment that “Australia is geographically a part of Asia” tends to suggest that we aren’t connected in any other way and that we should think of ourselves as outsiders in this geographic region – a notion that goes back to our Anglocentric past, rather than to the modern day.  Donnelly also suggests that there needs to be other focuses in the curriculum- which suggests that the future curriculum would be loaded up with more content, not less, or that great chunks of material about our Indigenous heritage and sustainability will be excised. In 4 -6 months, for implementation in 2015.  Without bias.  But what is “equally important”?  Western Civilisation, which is already in the National Curriculum for History.

Note at this point that Dr. Donnelly makes little reference to English and Mathematics and none to science in this piece. They must not be terribly important – it’s history that seems to be the main battlefield here. That’s because it is.  That is what you get when you employ a newspaper columnist and not a experienced curriculum expert to undertake your “review” of something.  It will be intriguing to see what comes about after this exercise in robustness.


It turns out that Kevin Donnelly still likes to muscle in on people who talk about him on social media, as we can see from this post by my uni peer, Corinne Campbell.  Note his comments here, especially the snarky tone and the use of the hackneyed phrase “group think”.



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