The Australian Mathematics Curriculum: A Move Forward or Back to the Future?

By Atweh, Bill; Goos, Merrilyn | Australian Journal of Education, December 2011 | Go to article overview

The Australian Mathematics Curriculum: A Move Forward or Back to the Future?


Atweh, Bill, Goos, Merrilyn, Australian Journal of Education


Attempts at national collaboration and standardisation of school education among states and territories in Australia date back more than 40 years (Marsh, 1994; Reid, 2005). Previous attempts were led by federal governments of different parties (Labor or Coalition) and have taken different forms (sharing curriculum resources, setting standards and profiles, nationwide testing, developing national curricula). Undeniably, one major obstacle to the success of such collaborations is the federal system of government in Australia, which grants the states and the territories full constitutional jurisdiction for decisions affecting schools and the federal government the responsibility of funding schools through the national taxation system. The regularly Re-emerging debate about states' rights and federal ambitions coupled with party politics and ideological rifts between neo-liberal (conservative) and progressive agendas have had a decisive role in frustrating previous attempts of national collaboration in education. But, as Reid (2005) argued, there are other serious lessons from such failures that should be heeded. Reid noted three reasons for which previous attempts at a national curriculum had failed: among those, previous attempts for national collaborations 'failed to develop a rigorous theoretical base' (Reid, 2005, p. 20) to present an alternative to current curricula developed by the different jurisdictions.

Arguably, the motivations behind previous attempts at national collaboration have been varied. In general, they were mainly technical in nature (Kennedy, 2009; Reid, 2005). They included efficiency in the use of resources, the movement of students from one region in Australia to another, and reducing the difference in student performance between the different states and territories. Kennedy (2009) argued that claims that a national curriculum might meet these needs remain untested. Luke (2010) put it this way: 'the national curriculum ... remains a solution seeking robust demonstration of an educational problem' (p. 59). Of particular relevance here is the observation that the different mathematics curricula across Australia already enjoy significant overlap, if not uniformity. Here we argue that perhaps three of the most crucial differences that give rise to difficulties in student movement and differential performance levels are the different starting age of students in Grade 1, the positioning of Year 7 in either primary or secondary school and the exit qualifications in Year 12. These concerns are not considered by a national curriculum as such. More importantly, such technical motivations, as Kenney pointed out, 'do not provide an exciting and futuristic rationale for having a national curriculum in the 21st century' (p. 7).

This article examines the Australian curriculum: Mathematics published in 2011 in the light of the point raised by Reid (2005). In particular, we will examine the conceptualisation of the curriculum and the formulation of content, and raise the question whether it represents a vision for mathematics education that is likely to guide school practices to meet the needs of students in a rapidly changing world marked by rapid change, but also by uncertainty and complexity (Skovsmose, 2009).

Curriculum for the future?

As Apple (1979) argued, developing any curriculum is a political activity through and through. It legitimates what knowledge and skills are valued in society and whose voices are represented. The curriculum a society produces is a representation of its traditions and history, a reflection of its cultural identification. A curriculum is necessarily a reflection of accumulated knowledge from years of practice and research in education and the related disciplines. It is also a reflection of the dominant political values of the day. It is also a vision of what we desire a society to be and what students might need to know and be able to do in their lives as citizens of the future. …

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