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?

2 thoughts on “Literature and ‘balance’ in the school curriculum

  1. Thanks, Ian, for reminding us about a time when different protocols shaped the development of curriculum than those followed by organisations like ACARA. The VCE Study Designs arose out of a consultative process that stretched back to Ministerial Paper No. 6 and the Blackburn Report – all driven by a concern about the role that schooling should play in a democratic society and the need to provide a common curriculum in which all students could meaningfully participate. Obviously, I don’t know what Bill Louden had to say, but I do hope that the English teaching profession’s response to Christopher Pyne’s review won’t be limited to defending ACARA or the Australian Curriculum: English. There has been plenty of vigorous debate that has exposed the flawed nature of the new curriculum (see ‘English in Australia’, Volume 43, Number 3, and Doecke, Parr and Sawyer, ‘Creating an Australian Curriculum for English’, Phoenix Education, or Doecke, McLean Davies and Mead, ‘Teaching Australian Literature; From Classroom Conversations to National Imaginings’, Wakefield/AATE Interface). We should use the challenges posed by the new Federal Government to revisit the principles that matter to us as English teachers in order to argue better models of English curriculum and pedagogy, ones grounded in the knowledge and experience of the English teaching profession.

  2. And thanks to you, too, Brenton for this valuable perspective and for the references to some of the relevant published critiques. Having contributed to one of those publications and read the others, I should have thought to mention them myself. Good to be reminded!

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