Category Archives: Curriculum

Required Reading

Our notions about literature, about what’s worth reading and how to read it, get shaped largely by the books we encounter at school. Texts set for study in English classes, especially in senior secondary years, tend to stay with us and influence our tastes as adult readers.

The authors and titles figuring most prominently in Australian surveys of the country’s favourite reading matter are much the same as those that recur in lists of required reading for thousands of school students. For example, Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet comes top of the list of Australian books, or very near the top, in the annual reader polls conducted by Booktopia. It was also the highest-ranking Australian title, close behind Lord of the Rings, Pride and Prejudice, the Bible, and To Kill a Mockingbird, in an ABC TV survey of ‘favourite reads.’

Such popularity is no surprise, because for more than 20 years Cloudstreet has been appearing regularly on the syllabus for secondary English and Literature in most states. No doubt this is partly attributable to its general ‘literary merit’, but many other highly meritorious Australian novels don’t achieve comparable recognition, and indeed ‘Cloudstreet is not widely accepted in the academy as a literary masterpiece.’ Its status probably owes a lot to ‘its power to evoke particular emotive responses with a voice, rhythm and location that is recognisably connected to the national mythology.’ Those quoted comments are by Claire Jones, discussing Cloudstreet as a ‘classroom classic’ in her chapter of a newly published book, Required Reading: Literature in Australian Schools Since 1945, edited by Tim Dolin, Jo Jones and Patricia Dowsett.

Some chapters in Required Reading look at the ‘teachability’ of other authors with a lasting classroom presence, such as Dickens, Hardy, Shakespeare and Judith Wright. There are also several broader historical analyses of curriculum change in particular Australian jurisdictions. My own chapter argues that text lists don’t tell the full story, because items selected for study are always ‘framed’ for their readers by ‘circumtextual’ factors – e.g. resource materials designated for use in teaching; official and unofficial rubrics inscribed in classroom practices; assessment methods and exam structures that encourage some choices or interpretations rather than others, and so on.

The book is based on a recently compiled database called ALIAS (Analysis of Literature in Australian Schools), which collates all texts prescribed for senior secondary English or Literature courses in nearly all states from 1945 to 2005. It makes available for the first time a comprehensive source of syllabus details about English in Australian secondary schools since the end of World War 2. Predictably, it shows both continuity and development in the texts prescribed for study over that period.

What particular changes would you expect to emerge? Less poetry, more pedestrian prose? Fewer canonical writers? More books about contemporary adolescent experience? More Australian literature, less British and American? You can find absorbing answers to those questions and many others in Required Reading.

The English teacher’s task? Yes, but…

What’s the main task of a school English teacher? Is it to ensure that the personal experience and familiar environment of students should be at the centre of their learning? According to a book published half a century ago but still influential, the answer is emphatically yes. While there’s some truth in that principle, the matter – in my view – is not so simple.

The book I’m referring to is John Dixon’s Growth Through English (1967), which has continued to motivate countless teachers since its first appearance. It took shape as a report on a famous trans-Atlantic conference held 50 years ago at Dartmouth College, an Ivy League institution in New Hampshire. This Dartmouth symposium brought together leading educators from England and North America to consider a perennially vexed question: What is English?

John Dixon’s book argued that English teaching should focus on ‘culture as the pupil knows it,’ affirming ‘attitudes to experience…[shaped by] family and neighbourhood.’ It’s easy to agree with him – up to a point. Certainly no teacher of English will cut much ice with students unless their classroom welcomes the personal knowledge, tastes and perceptions they bring to it from their own background.

Yes – but… Is that the be-all and end-all of English teaching? I don’t think so. Encouraging students to draw on what they already know and feel and think is part of the task. On the other hand, if their ‘personal growth’ is to be a meaningful goal, it’s just as necessary that a teacher should help them go beyond the familiar, reframing their experience of their own world by introducing them to worlds elsewhere.

Often in the lives of most present-day adolescents there is much that confines them narrowly within the preoccupations, ideas and idioms of their own here-and-now milieu. To recognise this constriction is not, of course, to dismiss their world or the kinds of texts that mirror everyday realities and topical tribulations in which the young students are already immersed – stories that engage directly with their own experience, their own values. No doubt such stories (whether told on the page or on the screen) may contribute to clarifying what they feel, alleviating their worries, freeing their imaginations. But surely it’s at least equally important for a teenager to enter richly imagined worlds elsewhere through the doorway of well-crafted narrative that is not set in their own time and place.

Consider how important this factor was in the early life of Charles Dickens. He grew up as a sickly and neglected child in an impoverished family, but literature enriched his imagination. His father had acquired a set of cheap reprints of prose-fiction classics, and young Charles read them avidly, as recorded in an autobiographical fragment on which he drew directly for a memorable passage in David Copperfield. David, exactly like his creator, devoured stories about worlds elsewhere: tales of Don Quixote, of the Arabian Nights, of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Fielding’s Tom Jones, and (in his words) ‘a glorious host’ of other writings. He goes on to describe how he wandered around the house impersonating his favourite characters and embarking with them on voyages to exotic destinations. His comment about the value of those imaginary excursions is simple and eloquent: ‘They kept alive my fancy, and my hope of something beyond that place and time.’

For Dickens, personal experience could be stifling and cheerless; but reading literature could be liberating. So too for many school students today – yet this is something that the author and disciples of Growth Through English don’t always acknowledge sufficiently. Dixon was critical of what he labelled a ‘cultural heritage’ attitude to literature, arguing that it tends to be a dead hand on the young learner’s imagination because it gives priority to the written word rather than to speech. Well, doesn’t that depend on how it’s taught and studied?

An earlier blog post of mine provoked lively debate about some of these issues, and you may find the exchange of comments worth reading. Two respected British educators, John Yandell and Monica Brady, both broadly aligned with Dixon’s position, thought that I was attaching undue significance to the study of literature in English classrooms, and failing to recognise the need to engage with popular texts (e.g. films such as The Wire) closer to the students’s current interests. I contended that, while it’s vital to encourage personal responses to diverse texts in different media (as I’ve argued in many publications over a long period), it’s also vital to ensure that literature doesn’t get pushed aside, because it can use language in distinctively valuable ways.

Thanks partly to John Dixon and to others who have reinforced and refined his arguments, most classrooms these days do place much more emphasis on the individual learner’s experience, language and values than was the case before the late 1960s. This is potentially a change for the better – but it can also be for the worse, if it deters teachers from challenging  students with a rich variety of textual experiences that take them outside the comfort zone of their home territory.


English in Schools isn’t what it used to be

It’s often said – nostalgically by some; in a tone of satisfaction by others – that English in schools isn’t what it used to be. Two recent publications and a new publishing project remind me how much the teaching of English (including literature) has indeed changed during my lifetime.


One of these is the latest issue of English in Australia (vol. 49 no. 2), the journal of the Australian Association for the Teaching of English. It’s a retrospective edition, celebrating half a century of AATE activity. For this special number, each previous editor selected and introduced an article from the period of his or her editorship, placing the chosen piece in a context of changing patterns in the English teaching profession. The result is a lively miscellany that begins with a reflection by Judith Wright on the teaching of poetry and includes items by a range of influential educators such as John Dixon, Garth Boomer, Bill Green and Claire Woods.

It also reprints an article of mine from 1982, ‘The Crisis in English Studies’ – which, to quote from Margaret Gill’s prefatory comments, ‘challenged current academic practice and argued for a radical revision of what counted as English Literature and how it might be taught.’ Referring not only to this article but also to my 1984 book The Making of Literature and my work as a curriculum developer, Margaret remarks that I’ve had a fair bit of influence on integrating the critical and the creative in classroom practice. Although she probably overstates the case in saying that ‘Ian Reid initiated a revolution in the teaching of literature’, I’m pleased anyway that this commemorative issue of EinA puts me in eminent company, and sees ideas I’ve espoused as ‘still at the heart of the best of English teaching today.’

But ‘English teaching today’ in schools and universities is not quite what it was in 1964, when the AATE began, or in 1984, when I wrote The Making of Literature. Students tend to read different things now, and are encouraged to read them in different ways. Some of the differences may be healthy, but others are less so. Here’s a dispiriting example of an unhealthy trend: the national curriculum prescribed by ACARA puts a mandatory emphasis on certain ‘priority’ themes (Sustainability, Australia’s engagement with Asia, and Indigenous culture) for English and all other areas of study. Why should those ideologically framed themes dominate student learning at the expense of elements of western civilisation that underpin our country’s political institutions, legal traditions and cultural values?

Earlier in the year I posted some thoughts on Literature and ‘balance’ in the school curriculum, arguing that the original Literature study design for VCE English got it right 25 years ago by requiring ‘a balance between material which responds to students’ current interests and material which expands their interests and increases their knowledge’ so that (e.g.) ‘students should have experience of those texts which have become a part of various established traditions in literature as well as those which have been more recently produced.’


Another perspective comes from English Teachers in a Postwar Democracy: Emerging Choice in London Schools, 1945-65, by Peter Medway et al. A detailed study of English teaching practices and classroom reforms as they developed in three London schools, it uses oral history as well as analysis of teachers’ workbooks and students’ writing. With its focus on the everyday realities of trying to engage students in forms of communication that make sense to them, this book is a salutary reminder that pedagogy, the relationship between teacher and learner, is pivotal for understanding what has changed in English classrooms and what hasn’t.

Something that makes this book relevant to an Australian context is the fact that two of the teachers who figure prominently in it had a powerful international influence: John Dixon and Harold Rosen. (I’ve also written about both of them in my book Wordsworth and the Formation of English Studies, which is cited by Medway and his co-authors.) As mentioned above, an article by Dixon is among the pieces chosen for the retrospective issue of English in Australia.

My third perspective on this topic comes from a book that’s still in preparation, called Conditions of Assent: Literature, Literary Studies, and Subject English. Tim Dolin, Jo Jones and Trish Dowsett are editing it. I know about their project because I’ve been invited to contribute a chapter. The book is based on a database they’ve compiled, called ALIAS (Analysis of Literature in Australian Schools), which collates all texts prescribed for senior secondary English or Literature courses in nearly all states from 1945 to 2005. In Conditions of Assent an assortment of scholars will interpret the data to which they’ve been given access.

As the editors are well aware, a mere list of set texts doesn’t constitute a curriculum for English in itself. But the ALIAS database, a comprehensive macro-list, can certainly provide a useful starting point for considering aspects of English in Australian secondary schools since the end of World War 2. Predictably, it shows both continuity and development in what has been prescribed for study over that period. What particular changes would you expect to emerge? Less poetry, more pedestrian prose? Fewer canonical writers like Shakespeare, Dickens, the Brontes? More books about contemporary adolescent experience? More Australian literature, less British and American? Well, I won’t pre-empt any specific findings here, but some of them may turn out to be surprising.

Of course, no database of texts can yield much insight into English teaching and learning unless it’s supplemented by other information. My chapter will consider how the curriculum for literary studies has been ‘framed’ in senior secondary Australian classrooms by various factors that may constrain approaches to the listed texts. For example, does the syllabus include reference material and recommended resources? Do assessment tasks ensure an alignment between what’s officially set, what’s actually taught and what students eventually learn?


One person’s heritage is another’s can of worms


Source: Heritage Perth (via Richard Offen)

The concept of ‘heritage’ is fraught with problems. It’s situated where a community’s past and present values collide. Often invoked in major civic disputes, heritage signifies different things to different groups and in different contexts. Caught up in the challenge of appraising and managing material resources that some people cherish but others don’t, it’s publicly embroiled in frequent conflict.

To engage with heritage issues is to confront not only the perplexities and passions of ordinary citizens but also the dilemmas of government authorities and other bodies shouldering difficult conservation responsibilities.

All of this makes it a vitally important field of study in higher education. By providing courses and research expertise in Heritage Studies, producing graduates who understand the subtleties of interrogating as well as administering heritage values, a university can contribute substantially to informed debate and decision-making in a contested area of public policy.

So I’m delighted that The University of Western Australia has now launched an ambitious postgraduate course in heritage, filling a big gap in my home state. The Master of Heritage Studies will be taught for the first time in 2015 and should attract a substantial number of enrolments within Australia and overseas, to judge from the course outline.

In an earlier post on the general purpose of universities, I proposed four criteria that any field of enquiry should meet if it merits a place in higher education. How does a course in Heritage Studies measure up?

1. A capacity to advance knowledge through disinterested investigation.
The study of heritage rests partly on the same general foundation as history, but has an intrinsically broad interdisciplinary scope. It operates at the boundaries where various kinds of historical enquiry (architectural, archeological, legal, anthropological, institutional etc.) rub against one another and against the claims of posterity.

So heritage research tends to focus not on one set of disciplinary issues but rather on the complex ways in which value gets shaped by community consensus and institutional structures.


The Old Mill and cottage, South Perth (1835-36)

These structures include museums and sites that achieve public recognition, notably through non-governmental organisations such as ICOMOS or the National Trust and through government agencies such as the WA Heritage Council with their mechanisms for registering, interpreting and protecting historically significant places.

The study of heritage reads time through place. Much of its access to the past is mediated through historic sites, memorial edifices, galleries, parks – and most typically through museums. The museum is to Heritage Studies what the laboratory is to Chemistry and the design studio is to Architecture. Research into heritage matters has immense interdisciplinary potential, because ‘the museum’ is not actually a singular category: museums cover many fields from sciences to sports, from arts to industries, from medicine to migration, from childhood to folklore, from mining to maritime activity, and so on.

2. A capacity to be socially useful through application to material needs.
The study of heritage lends itself to practical civic applications, being oriented towards community needs and the solution of pressing contemporary social problems. Graduates in this field can be equipped to participate in the complex processes of heritage policy, management and revaluation – processes that have become the public face of history. Heritage adresses situations that bristle with social, economic and political tension.

  • Should this half-derelict building be pulled down?
  • Is that once-handsome precinct being spoiled by property developers?
  • Are those traditional practices offensive?
  • Do your people have a right to be included in our ceremony or mentioned in our memorial inscription?
  • Whose beliefs are being celebrated in this local festival?
  • Are cultural tourists welcome here?
  • Should this gallery artefact, questionable in provenance, be returned to its country of origin?

Advanced coursework in Heritage Studies can promote informed debate and better appreciation of many such questions about social values – what’s worth keeping, and why, and by whom and for whom. It can also lead directly to a range of employment areas from curatorial work to tourism.

3. A capacity to enhance cultural awareness through the creative arts.
A major focus of Heritage Studies is on collection-based institutions like galleries and museums, and one of its core disciplines is museology, which deals with the preservation, presentation and interpretation of cultural artefacts.

But heritage is not the captive of high culture; its scope includes a range of folk art, and some forms of creative practice that few pundits would consider aesthetically prepossessing. It can’t accord privilege to one domain of creative artistry or to one kind of cultural institution. Its way of enhancing cultural awareness is to insist that what counts as creative artistry is relative to the particulars of time, place and function, and yet critical judgment about its continuing value is unavoidable.

4. A capacity to reflect on its own intellectual foundations and discursive practices.
Heritage is constituted to a large extent by the ways in which it is publicly talked about and by various written texts – an array of laws and charters, policies, professional documents, official publications, media reports, advertisements, petitions etc. These texts do much to determine what counts as an object of legitimate public attention or cherished significance, and to constrain the interpretation and evaluation of it. To invoke heritage is to contemplate the everyday practical ways in which a relationship between past and present values of a community needs to be negotiated through public discussion.

For example, public museums emerged during the 19th century in ways often linked with acquisitive imperial impulses – so do they remain compromised by their historical link to colonialist assumptions about civilisation, about cultural otherness as a field for collectors and exhibitors?


18th-century stone wall panel, Rajistan, imported by a Sydney antiques dealer

Posing such questions makes it necessary to investigate how certain material objects change hands across continents through the trade in fragments of monuments, statues, tomb furnishings and other antiquities derived from poorer areas of the world and transferred to collections in wealthier countries. The National Gallery of Australia has recently come under critical scrutiny because of doubts about the acquisition process for certain statues in its Asian art collection – and there many other examples of imported heritage items for which the ownership rights may be dubious.

Heritage Studies must engage with these internationally sensitive matters, drawing on anthropological and legal perspectives to explore topics such as contested spoils of war, looting, auctions and repatriation of purloined objects, as well as the roles of the academy and worldwide public opinion in shaping what counts as heritage value.

So there’s certainly an important place for advanced-level Heritage Studies in a university with strong research capabilities. I hope the new UWA course will receive an enthusiastic response.

Literature and ‘balance’ in the school curriculum

It’s the schooling system, more than anything else, that determines what counts as ‘literature’ and what gets done with it. The educational processes through which we all pass, especially in our teens, give us our working assumptions about literary texts – and these assumptions are no less durable for being seldom articulated. The sediment of my thinking about literature and ‘balance’ in the school curriculum has been stirred by a public lecture that Emeritus Professor Bill Louden gave last night at the University of Western Australia on the subject of Australia’s National Curriculum.

Screenshot ACARA

The main context for his lecture topic comprises two things. First there’s the work of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), established under the previous Commonwealth Government. A broad summary of ACARA’s role in developing a national curriculum can be found here. Second, there’s a review established by Christopher Pyne, Federal Minister for Education, aiming to evaluate ‘the robustness, independence and balance of the Australian Curriculum’ with recommendations due by mid-2014. The Government’s general statement about this review can be found here.

In last night’s lecture, Bill Louden discussed strengths and weaknesses of the national curriculum in an international perspective. He did so defensively, having been a member of the ACARA Board, though he also acknowledged problems, e.g. in relation to resources, timing, and overstuffing of the curriculum. Having worked closely with him in 2009-2012 on a comprehensive restructuring of all UWA courses, I’ve formed a high regard for his knowledge and professional judgment, though we’re not always in perfect agreement.

Bill describes himself as a ‘curriculum warrior.’ I suppose the same could be said of me. Over many years I’ve engaged extensively with schoolteachers in various states, at senior secondary level in particular – on numerous curriculum committees, some public examination bodies, and several projects on the study of English and Literature. I’ve edited textbooks for the English classroom, written a few books and dozens of articles on teaching practice, and given many presentations at conferences of English teachers.

In all such activities my purpose has been to encourage a balanced view of learning in this field. But what should ‘balance’ mean? It may not be quite what Minister Pyne’s reviewers want to restore, though I can understand their concern about the mandatory ACARA emphasis on certain ‘priority’ themes (Sustainability, Australia’s engagement with Asia, and Indigenous culture). It’s far from self-evident that those themes should dominate the educational foreground rather than elements of western civilisation that underpin our country’s political institutions, legal traditions and cultural values.

However, balance is not the same as oscillation. Bill Louden’s lecture characterised recurrent curriculum reforms as a series of politically motivated ‘jumps to the left and jumps to the right.’ I’d link to think of curriculum change not as a pendulum moving from left s/wing to right s/wing, to and fro, but rather as a search for equilibrium in all three components of the educational experience: syllabus content (what should be learnt), pedagogy (what form the teaching-learning relationship takes), and assessment (what counts as evidence of relevant knowledge).


Many years ago I was seconded to the Victorian Curriculum & Assessment Board (VCAB) to help develop ‘study designs’ for English (undertaken by all students) and Literature (more specialised) in the original Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE). These designs provided a framework within which schools would devise course details. For Literature a fundamental principle was that ‘the course should include a balance between material which responds to students’ current interests and material which expands their interests and increases their knowledge.’ Requirements for the four units, spread over Years 11 and 12, specified among other things a need to include texts of different kinds – prose, poetry, performance scripts – drawn from different periods and cultural contexts. Supporting information stated ‘that students should have experience of those texts which have become a part of various established traditions in literature as well as those which have been more recently produced.’ This is surely an important kind of balance in any literature curriculum. For units 1-2, schools selected (within the constraints of the study design) whichever texts they thought would reflect their students’ interests and needs, and VCAB provided a list of suggested texts to assist with the selection process. For units 3-4 there was a prescribed list of texts, but with plenty of room for choice.

The VCE study design wasn’t faultless, but I still regard that curriculum structure as an appropriate one for literary studies in high school. Balance is the keynote, and it’s not to be achieved by insisting that a few ideologically framed themes should pervade all subjects of study. So I’m sceptical about ACARA’s claim that its arbitrary priorities (elevating the Sustainable, the Asian and the Indigenous above other themes) are being prescribed in the name of ‘a relevant, contemporary and engaging curriculum.’ An article of mine in the journal English in Australia argues that, while relevance to students’ interests is important, their required reading shouldn’t confine them narrowly to the here and now – or to currently topical issues. For the sake of balance, students need to go beyond the familiar. They need to reframe their experience of their own world through imaginative encounters with worlds elsewhere. ‘Elsewhere’ may include Asian or Aboriginal settings, but why give them pre-eminence? The English curriculum ought to ensure that students acquire the kind of understanding that can move across time and across different places within the mainstream cultural traditions that have shaped modern Australian society. 

More could be said about curriculum content, but the choice of texts for study is only one part of the educational experience. Also vital is the pedagogical relationship between teacher and learner; and linked to that is the means by which learners demonstrate what they learn – the assessment regime. Here’s a simple example, drawn from what we developed years ago for the VCE study design for Literature. While there’s no doubt that the formal critical essay can be a useful way of developing skills in analysis and argumentation, it isn’t the only valuable medium for registering a student’s response to texts. One of its limitations is that it tends to become a ritual device for telling teacher-authorities what they already know about something already prejudged as worthy of appreciation. So in addition to essay-writing, VCE Literature students were required to review books that they themselves had chosen individually and independently from their own reading. The review had first to be presented orally, and then written up in the light of group feedback. The Year 12 extension of the ‘review’ requirement included also a study of book reviews published in different media for different readerships.

Although reviewing a freely chosen book is just one kind of learning activity, it can contribute usefully to the principle of balance in the Literature curriculum. But if students felt compelled to focus their reviewing choice on a text that dealt with sustainability, Indigenous culture or Australia’s engagement with Asia, much of the value of that activity would be lost. Wouldn’t it?