Disciplining and drafting, or 21st century learning?

Disciplining and drafting, or 21st century learning?

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Will today’s curriculum prepare secondary school students for life in the 21st century? 

Rachel Bolstad and Jane Gilbert propose radical new models for schooling that challenge long-held ideas about the purpose and structure of the senior secondary years.

They take a specific look at the curriculum that is taught in Years 11–13 and how it will need to change to be relevant in the developing knowledge society.

From: Discipline and drafting, or 21st century thinking, by Rachel Bolstad and Jane Gilbert



Major curriculum change has been a feature of the New Zealand education landscape for many years. The last 15 to 20 years in particular have been a period of major review, refocusing, and revision. In 1993 the New Zealand Curriculum Framework was introduced. This set out the official school curriculum for Years 1 to 13 (that is, all of the years of schooling). It was followed by a series of curriculum ‘statements’ for each of seven ‘essential learning areas’. In late 2006 a new draft national curriculum document was released and sent out for consultation, and on 6 November 2007 the final version of The New Zealand Curriculum for English-Medium Teaching and Learning in Years 1–13 was officially launched.5 These documents represent the culmination of many years of research, review, consultation, and feedback. Since the Thomas Report in 1944,6 the New Zealand school curriculum’s aim has been to provide a coherent curriculum package that, because it is wide ranging, balanced, and based on a set of common goals for all learners, gives all students the basic platform of knowledge and skills they need to function in adult society.

While, in theory, the senior (that is, Years 11–13) school curriculum has been part of this ongoing review/revision process, in practice it hasn’t. When students move out of Year 10 and into the upper secondary school, they move into an environment with an ethos and goals that are much more traditional. The junior secondary focus on a broad and balanced general education for all is replaced by a focus on more advanced and specialised forms of learning designed to prepare—and sort—students for a range of different postschool options. As a result, the discussions of the Years 11–13 curriculum have a different flavour from discussions of the Years 9 and 10 secondary curriculum.

Unlike the early secondary years curriculum, the senior curriculum is not a coherent package. It is made up of a series of discrete parts—the individual subjects that are taught in Years 11–13. Each of these subjects has its own independent set of goals and values and, in most cases, is derived from a body of knowledge that exists—and is developed and controlled—outside the school sector. Teachers of Years 11–13 students are subject specialists. They identify strongly with ‘their’ subject’s knowledge and ways of doing things, and see their job as being to inculcate these things in their students. Teaching and learning are organised around the requirements of the subjects, on the one hand, and a high-stakes credentialing process on the other. Thus the shift to the senior curriculum involves a shift away from an approach that is, at least in theory, learner centred to one that is quite explicitly knowledge centred.

This subject-oriented focus is the product of a set of goals and values that have a long history. In this section we explore some of this history as a way of evaluating the extent to which it should continue to frame the shape and scope of student learning in the upper secondary school years. We then look at some of the pressures on the current curriculum, the reshaping of the curriculum–assessment relationship that has taken place since the 1990s, and the opportunities and possibilities that have been provided by this reshaping. Finally, we look at the work that is still needed if we are to provide young people with 21st century skills and knowledge, and evaluate the extent to which current curriculum and assessment practices are capable of doing this.

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