Speech: Minister James Merlino keynote address

The Hon James Merlino MP, Victorian Deputy Premier and Minister for Education

Keynote address to the General Assembly of the International Academy of Education at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education

Thursday 13 August 2015

Speaking notes

Thank you for your warm welcome and for the invitation to speak with you all today.

I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land we meet on today.

I would also like to pay my respects to their Elders, past and present, and the Elders from other communities who may be here.

I'm really pleased to be here with you this morning – it is indeed an august gathering!

I appreciate the opportunity to share with you some of our current thinking and to engage with you about the future of education in Victoria.

The Andrews Government was elected in November last year on a platform to place education at the centre of our reform agenda: to make Victoria the "Education State". It's a bold agenda, and one that we can't realise without the contribution of all Victorians.

Our vision for Victoria as the Education State is one in which Victoria:

  • is recognised nationally and internationally for the skills, knowledge, expertise and outlook of its people.
  • is a place where the vibrancy of our innovation and the pursuit of new knowledge, skills and jobs draws others to live, work and invest here
  • and where all Victorians have the understanding and attributes to shape their futures in a changing world regardless of their location, background and circumstance

It's an ambitious vision, and with the investment of almost $4 billion in education through our first budget in May, we've made a great start.

But it's a vision that will require bold action by government, and the engagement of all sections of the community - including with students, families, educators, industry, international partners and experts.

We've recently concluded a process of consultation with educators and the wider community about what the Education State will look like, how we will know when we have achieved success and how we will track and monitor our progress towards that goal.

The Premier and I will have more to say about this in September when we make detailed announcements about the scope of our reform agenda.

But what I would like to do this morning is to share with you our proposed directions in one crucial aspect of reform that I know is a key focus of your deliberations over the next few days, the domains curriculum and assessment.

So let me start with curriculum. There's no doubt that the curriculum is an area of great current public and political interest.

It seems rarely a day goes by without a concern being raised about what should be taught in our schools.

As one example, the past-president of the World Anti-Doping Agency recently called for every Australian school student to be taught about the dangers of performance-enhancing drugs, saying children are risking their health by taking steroids and sports supplements. "We need to get that message into the curriculum at schools", he said.

Edward de Bono, in his book Think! Before It's Too Late, argues that "operacy" – the skill of operating, or getting things done – should be given the same attention as literacy and numeracy in the school curriculum".

And Professor Jeffrey Rosenfeld, Director of Neurosurgery at the Alfred Hospital, believes it is the responsibility of schools to teach "self-restraint to young men" as a way of dealing with the current problem of street violence.

I welcome this kind of community discussion about the 'what' of learning – it's a sign of societies investment in education – a sign of the value we all place in what happens in our schools.

And it demonstrates that the 'what' of learning matters deeply to us as an economy and as a society.

The attention of most education reform is so often on the 'how' of learning, finding new ways to engage students in the process of learning, which of course is of critical importance.

But without a clear and considered specification of what students should learn, the how is a process without purpose.

But for some, curriculum appears to remain almost a dirty word.

The argument is often made that any attempt to take a position on the content of a contemporary school curriculum is immediately out-of-date.

It's argued that the only curriculum appropriate for the digital age, is one based on defining the skills of information gathering, synthesising and evaluating; problem-solving; team work; creativity and innovation.

I believe it's worth challenging those who argue that the ubiquity and exponential growth in information has rendered the definition of what students should learn redundant.

While there's no doubt that the rise of digital technologies has generated a higher level of demand for the capacities of students to access, analyse and synthesise information, that is, to transform information into knowledge.
I believe that this means the definition of the knowledge and skills essential to develop these capacities has become more not less important.

So let me set out in a little more detail what I mean by the "what" of learning – the curriculum – and why I believe it is so important.

It is important because the school curriculum is actually a statement of the purpose of schooling.

The curriculum defines what it is that all students will have the opportunity to learn as a result of their schooling, set out as a series of learning progressions.

Enabling and monitoring every student's progress along these learning continua is the fundamental role of teachers and of schools and should be the single focus of all of our reform efforts.

The content of any contemporary curriculum is not simply a list of facts or dates.

It must include both knowledge and skills and in the view of leading curriculum specialists such as Binkley and others the curriculum should also include the consideration of attitudes, values and ethics.

In Victoria, these are defined by domains which include both discipline-based learning areas and capabilities, that is, the knowledge and skills that are transferrable across but not defined by the learning areas.

These capabilities enable students to develop particular values, dispositions and self-efficacy to become successful learners, confident and creative individuals and active and informed citizens.

In Victoria, the curriculum currently being finalised for release to schools later this year consists of eight discipline based learning areas and four capabilities.The discipline based learning areas are:

  • English
  • Mathematics
  • Science
  • Health and Physical Education
  • Languages
  • Humanities and Social Sciences (History, Geography, Civics and Citizenship, Economics and Business)
  • The Arts
  • Technologies (Design and Technologies, and Digital Technologies)

It is my view that there are unique aspects of each of the eight learning areas or disciplines that it is essential every student has the opportunity to develop and acquire.

And I don't use the word 'every' lightly in this context.

This is the public guarantee of education. The notion that every student without exception, has the right to learn this knowledge and these skills and dispositions is at the heart of our education system.

And there is important content that every young Victorian should learn.

This includes, for example, Australia's system of government, our history and cultures, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures.

It includes the values of democracy, equity and justice, including reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

It includes high levels of enabling skills in English literacy and numeracy.

And it includes a broad knowledge of and appreciation of the importance of the STEM, Humanities and Arts disciplines.

Equally, however, I am committed to the importance and the inclusion in the school curriculum of what we now term in Victoria "capabilities".

In Victoria, four capabilities, in addition to the discipline-based learning areas, will be included in the curriculum:

  • Critical and creative thinking
  • Personal and social capability
  • Intercultural understanding
  • And Ethical understanding

The inclusion of these areas of learning addresses the concern recently articulated in the volume Assessment and Teaching of Twenty First Century Skills edited by Patrick Griffin, Barry McGaw and Esther Care, all of whom are here with us this morning.

They wrote:

  • Changes in labour markets have changed the skill demands of most new jobs. There is an increasing urgency in the need for skills such as analysing the credibility and utility of information, evaluating its appropriateness, and intelligently applying it…
  • The changes in the workplace have meant that we need new ways of working, new tools for working, new ways of thinking and new ways of living in the digital world.

They go to say that

  • Ways of thinking is conceptualised to include creativity and innovation, critical thinking, problem-solving, learning to learn and the development of metacognition. Ways of working is conceptualised to include communication, collaboration and teamwork.

In my view, this definition of a minimum set of knowledge and skills based on both learning areas and capabilities that all students should acquire, irrespective of their personal inclinations, is of critical importance.

It does not limit what students can learn.

Rather, it ensures that every young person is able to develop the foundational knowledge, skills and dispositions that enable future self-directed learning, social development and active and engaged citizenship.

This definition of what is to be taught and learnt provides a necessary framework for decisions about the structure of the teaching and learning program at each level of whole school, individual year levels and daily programs.

It unclutters the curriculum by making clear what is most important for all students to learn.

And it enables teachers to identify the point of learning progression of each individual student and to plan for the appropriate next steps in learning.

These ideas are currently the basis of a research partnership between the Department of Education here in Victoria and the Melbourne Graduate School of Education at the University of Melbourne.

Panel - Minister Merlino
Panel discussion

This brings me to the second aspect of the Victorian Curriculum that I wanted to highlight this morning: assessment.

The Victorian Curriculum is not a curriculum organised by grade or year levels.  It does set age-related expected standards of achievement in English and Mathematics, but the fundamental organising principle is the curriculum as a learning continuum along which students will make progress at different rates.

A challenge we are setting ourselves in Victoria is that we should be able to report on progress in learning for every student not only in the traditional disciplines such as Mathematics, Science and History, but in the capabilities as well.

We should be able to indicate to the parents of every student, and students themselves should know, how much progress they have made in developing their critical thinking skills, in developing their capacity to problem solve and to work well in teams, their understanding of ethical concepts and their knowledge of different cultures.

To this end, Victoria will be the first state in Australia to require schools to report on student learning in both the capabilities and the discipline-based learning areas.

This will require new approaches to assessment.

We will, for example, clearly benefit from the pioneering work of the ATC21S project in its development of collaborative problem solving.

The contribution of Victorian schools to the trials and development of these new assessment strategies has established a firm foundation for future work in the development of new metrics, new strategies and ways of providing feedback to students and teachers.

The guidelines for these new assessment approaches have also been outlined by Professor Mark Wilson, now a joint appointment between Melbourne and Berkeley Universities and also here this morning.

While we are the first to take this step in Australia, our aspiration in this regard is clearly one shared at the global level.

The OECD report published earlier this year, Skills for Social Progress, recognised for example that "children need a balanced set of cognitive, social and emotional skills for achieving positive life outcomes".

The report also noted, however, that "more efforts need to be made to identify relevant social and emotional skills constructs and improve measurement instruments so that they are robust to inter-cultural and linguistic diversities and response styles".

We intend to invest considerable effort in Victoria to developing such instruments and tools and making them available to all our schools and teachers.

One crucial piece of work we hope to build on will be the pioneering work on collaborative problem solving led by the Melbourne Graduate School of Education that this year has been modified as part of the PISA study.

We have already done pioneering work in this regard, in partnership with the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER), in developing an on-line tool to enable teachers to assess student progress in critical thinking.

Collaborative Problem solving has also been developed by the teams at the MGSE and the research continues in partnership between our Department in the Science of Learning Research Centre, co-directed by Professor John Hattie, also here with us this morning.

We want to expand this work into areas of personal capacities such as resilience and ethical thinking and expand the already extensive and globally recognised work by the ATC21S team at MGSE in the assessment of social capacities such as collaboration.

We look forward to collaborating with you, the leading lights in education, in this endeavour.

I do not want what I've said to be interpreted as downplaying the importance of theories of learning or of empowering students as learners or the importance of pedagogy.

I do, however, want to be clear that I think we have to give as much attention to thinking about what students learn as how we will teach them.  We can walk and chew gum at the same time!

Thank you again for the opportunity to be here with you this morning and to be part of your discussions.

As I said earlier, for Victoria to be the Education State, we need to draw on expertise from across the globe and to continually challenge our thinking.

I hope you will continue to challenge us in the years to come and contribute to achieving the goals we all share for the success of our schools.

Thank you.

Group photo