The COVID-19 outbreak has shown us how flexible we must be in a modern, evolving world. With the advent of new technologies and industries, as well as unfamiliar challenges such as the climate emergency and a global pandemic, our social, political and economic paradigms are in a state of upheaval. As the sands of change shift dangerously around us, it is the role of the education system to prepare students adequately.
Unfortunately, that seems not to be the case at present. The NSW Curriculum Review, released on June 23rd, has highlighted the current failure of the syllabus to equip “every student with the knowledge, skills and attributes they will require for further learning, life and work.” The “crowded curriculum” has left teachers spending too much time on ensuring that the students are ready for the unpredictable and broad examinations, rather than concentrating on teaching core areas that possess enduring relevance.
When studying Modern History for my HSC in 2018, I memorised over 25,000 words of notes in order to ensure that I was prepared for every potential essay question. When I first learned the content, it was both interesting and exciting. However, after a year of extensive memorisation, my essays became less of an insight into the past and simply mere words on the page, translated robotically in order to maximise my Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank (ATAR). Whilst I may have achieved a 99.95 ATAR from such a process, it did nothing for my enjoyment of the subject, and even less to prepare me for the world that existed outside the dusty textbooks that I spent weekends pouring over.
This personal story reflects a far wider issue of our current schooling system — we are trained to maximise marks, not to actively participate and exist in a world beyond the HSC. Soft skills such as time management, creativity, use of technology, interpersonal connection and communication are implicit to the process of studying, but they are self-taught. This leaves students, particular the less driven ones, to flounder upon leaving the school system, where the support networks are no longer in place.
Throughout COVID-19, students have been forced to take control of their own learning as the system collapsed around them. I can only empathise with Year 12 students sitting their HSC this year, having missed so much of vital one-on-one time with their teachers and peers in the lead up to the rapidly-approaching final exams. This has exacerbated the soft skills crisis, for students are forced to lead their own academic pursuits with minimal structural guidance from the institutions around them.
The habits that students adopt in their early years are likely to stick with them through university and beyond. The fact that these are often being developed without assistance from schools leaves Australian students poorly placed to enter this evolving world.
However, the coronavirus outbreak, as well as the NSW Curriculum Review, provides the opportunity for change. The NSW government has proposed a complete overhaul of the K-12 syllabus in the next four years, and COVID-19 has elucidated the necessity for flexibility and independence. Hopefully, the NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) do not miss this opportunity to implement changes that reflect this necessity.
Moore’s law notes that the rate of technological growth is doubling approximately every 18 months. It is clear that NESA is not so flexible, considering that the report has proposed the largest overhaul of the curriculum in 30 years. In such a rapidly changing world, we need a syllabus that is less focussed on specific knowledge, for the education system cannot hope to keep up with such exponential change. Only by focussing on soft skills, on critical thinking and creativity, can we prepare our students to be appropriately “confident and equipped to succeed in life,” as the Education Minister Sarah Mitchell so desires.
Not only will this allow students to be more prepared, but it will also allow the education system to be more malleable and responsive to developing global issues, since they are not to be limited by the rigid parameters of an outdated and incomprehensibly dense syllabus.
In my own experience of the high school system, first as a student, then as a private tutor, and now as Editor-in-Chief of an HSC study guide ‘Catch Up with Top Achievers,’ I have seen first-hand the consequences of such failures to prepare students. NESA must strike now, instituting change whilst the crucible burns hot, in order to ensure that Australian students are prepared for this daunting world that we all now face.
Fionn graduated as Dux of Cranbrook School in 2018 with an ATAR of 99.95, subsequently winning a scholarship to the Australian National University to study PPE/Law. He has since worked as a private family tutor in Austria and is the editor of Catch Up with Top Achievers, a student-produced HSC study guide that focuses on soft-skills to maximise student’s academic potential.