Good teaching is the answer, no matter what the question


Last night I went to hear my son’s teacher explain what she’ll cover this year. He’s in a composite class of years 6 and 7 students, all of whom are in their final year of primary school because year 7 will move to high school in 2015. Some of the students came from a year 5 class, others from a 5/6, and others from a 6. They all completed last year under the new national curriculum for their particular class, and so now the teacher is trying to bring them together without repeating work, while not straying from a national curriculum that’s highly prescriptive on content. She didn’t complain, just outlined the plan simply and effectively.

In geography, for instance, the curriculum is only now being rolled out, so the year 7s are at a disadvantage, not having done geography last year. The teacher’s going to do a whirlwind tour of the continents and their features so that everybody is up to speed on basic principles before launching into the curriculum, which focuses on Asia. In science, everyone’s doing biology but some of them did mould last year so this year she’s found another way in through fungus. Reading novels is important, the teacher said, and there’s only one set novel for each year, so she’s going to require them to read at least one novel each term and do a little report “as an extra.” Being a novelist, I loved her from that moment, I’ll admit.


Listening to my son’s teacher got me thinking about the recently announced review of the new national curriculum, to be carried out, we’ve been told, by right-wing political appointees. But that’s all right because, as we’ve been told, those who developed the original curriculum just a few years ago were left-wing political appointees. Both sides are up in arms, either because we now have a gay, Asian, Indigenous, socialist curriculum, or because we’re going to put some straight, European, entrepreneurial, Judeo-Christian bits in it.

On both sides, this is flat-earth theory, belief rather than evidence-based curriculum development in which what students get taught depends not on knowledge or logical sequencing of learning or skills for the 21st century but on who’s in the room and what they believe. It reminds me of a documentary I watched a few years back called Jesus Camp about a US fundamentalist Christian pastor and her flock. All the kids were homeschooled and one really delightful 12-year-old boy captured my interest. In the dining table classroom, the boy’s teacher mother dismisses the entire theory of evolution with Monty Pythonesque logic. “If you look at creationism, you realise it’s the only possible answer,” she says. “Did you get to the part where it says science doesn’t prove anything?” Yes he did, he says, returning her knowing smile. You can see that he’s keen to have her approval. He’s trying to answer the questions the way she’d want him to, as children do.


Jesus Camp provides the best case you could make for having an education system in which curriculum developers have expertise in curriculum development and qualifications in the relevant discipline. It’s a good reason why politicians, for whom beliefs are a living, shouldn’t be anywhere near what’s taught. And it’s a compelling reason to focus on good teaching rather than a detailed national curriculum, to train teachers well in a discipline as well as in teaching and give them more autonomy in the classroom.

Last night, I watched one of those teachers who has gently sewn a sail from all the bits of cloth she has to make use of, the students in front of her and their past experiences, the new national curriculum, her own knowledge and skills. I was so grateful to her suddenly, and to all of the gentle, hardworking teachers who have steered our son a straight course so far on his lifelong learning journey, a course the national curriculum may aid, or be a foul political wind on. Mrs Brandon, Jen Haynes, Miss Mudge, Miss Veasey, Mrs Chapman, I salute you. I only wish our governments were as wise as you when it comes to knowing what students need in order to love learning for life.


Based on the column published in The Courier-Mail Qweekend  on 22 February 2014. I write mainly about writing, education, birth, health and the thrill of parenting. You can Get in touch,  tick the box to receive emails, Like Writer Mary-Rose MacColl on Facebook or follow MaryRoseMacColl on Twitter. Have a great day!