AITSL The Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership

Curriculum Success Relies Upon Teaching Excellence

Curriculum Success Relies Upon Teaching Excellence - Margery Evans, Chief Executive Officer of AITSL, 14 January 2014.

Overlooking the little fishing town of Whitby in Yorkshire, England is a statue of Captain Cook, Whitby's most famous son and a major figure in the history of Australia. This monument has a plaque attached, given as a gift to the town of Whitby by the people of Australia. The plaque commemorates 'the bicentenary of the discovery of the east coast of Australia.' The wording on the plaque continues: 'From this discovery emerged a nation'.

The wording of this tribute, in a land far distant from, but inextricably linked to Australia, captures the essence of the debate currently being had over the Australian curriculum – a debate that is a perennial part of our country's broader discussion on education. Some would see the contents of the plaque as a statement of fact and an appropriate memorial to a man who was instrumental in the establishment of our nation.  Others would argue that Cook neither discovered the east coast of Australia, nor that his discovery led to the emergence of a nation. Our understanding of the Indigenous history of Australia shows that Australia was occupied long before the arrival of European explorers.

Undoubtedly Captain Cook is an important part of Australia's history and his explorations should be part of the history curriculum in Australian schools. What is more open to contention, however, is how this period of Australia's history should be viewed and interpreted. About this there is, and should be, ongoing debate.

Likewise, there should be ongoing debate about the Australian curriculum more broadly. Constant reflection on the knowledge and skills students need along with the content of the curriculum, and how this is interpreted in schools, is vital.

While we can agree the curriculum is essential, also self-evident is that without good teachers and teaching, our aspirations for our students and the future of our country would be dashed. Without an excellent teacher to facilitate debate and reflection, students might be able to discover Whitby's monument to Captain Cook and the contents of the plaque gifted to Whitby by the citizens of Australia, however, I contend that, without a teacher's support and guidance, the ability of many students to interpret, contextualise and value this portion of Australia's history would be limited.

What is enduringly important is the quality of teaching.

Consider these comments by 3 students at the Student Voice website

"My favourite teacher...knows me on a personal level, she takes interest in my life, she takes interest in how you're feeling and who you are, as much as being a good teacher in the classroom, adapting to everybody."

"She (my teacher) focused on developing me in a way that I'd never experienced before. It didn't matter what score I got as much as whether...the work I was producing was as good as I could possibly do, and she was preparing me for where I wanted to go in life. She really cared about me on a personal level and knew what it would take to get me to where I wanted to be."

These student reflections get right to the heart what constitutes good teaching.  At the core of great teaching is an ability to know the students and the content of the curriculum and to be able to bring this content to life in ways that make sense to each individual student and that show empathy for each student's background, experiences and aspirations.

This is why teaching is such a complex and rewarding profession. It is also why, in the context of the debate on the content of the curriculum, the quality of teaching can legitimately be viewed as an essential consideration.  Research shows us that teachers are the key in-school source of variation in student learning outcomes, and hence the number one source of improvement in student outcomes.

Without excellent teachers, any curriculum, no matter how it is framed, no matter what it contains, will remain aspirational and is likely to be consigned to history without its potential ever having been properly realised.

As always, I welcome your comments and perspectives.



Photo via Flickr 


Submitted by Dianne Coady (not verified) on

I agree whole heartedly Margery! Teachers are essential in fostering in their students an ability to critically interrogate the curriculum (no matter what it may be) and the primary and secondary sources students find in their research to investigate an issue or question that they have posed themselves. The inquiry approach encourages students to deeply analyse and evaluate the reliability of "evidence" and then to interpret this evidence and form their own judgements. As a Humanities teacher of secondary students for a number of years I found that using the past to interpret and understand the present was always inspiring for students in their approach to learning. This then helped them imagine and move towards a positive possible future.

Submitted by David Hornsby (not verified) on

Spot on Margery! Thanks for your comments. Since teachers make a significant difference to student outcomes, it's important for them to be "on side" and positive about the curriculum. The early review of the curriculum (which has hardly been implemented yet) seriously undermines the review's credibility and makes teachers very cynical. Sad, because it's teachers who make the difference!

Submitted by Julie Murray (P... (not verified) on

Teachers are at the core of learning, pivotal on what happens in classrooms and inside students' heads. It is agreed that a curriculum is just that. A curriculum; a document providing the framework of what must be taught and learned. Life is breathed into the document by way of processes (pedagogy) used by teachers. Teachers fuel this by their passion for their profession. They ensure they know the content coupled with knowing how to teach it. They lead students to higher levels of understanding, and many along the learning journey, lead colleagues to higher understandings and practice also.

Submitted by Leila Kasprzak (not verified) on

Curriculum is a tool…. It is our great teachers that bring it to life and inspire students to engage with the topics, to explore and expand their learning. The best curriculum in the world could be sitting on a cloud or stored in a cupboard… but without the knowledge and passion of quality teachers it is merely just a document.
Investing in teachers will bring about the best improvements for students.

Submitted by Joanne Haynes (not verified) on

Professional development around image of teacher, I believe, serves to strengthen our understandings and "admissions" around why we are, who we are with, and for children, in our learning environments. We can ask our students the question around who was their favourite teacher! Maybe the question should focus on naming which teacher inspired them, the how and the why? I recall a question asked of a group of educators in a professional development session that resonates with me. In turn, I've asked of others the same question
"Name three people that have had the greatest impact on you as an educator?" This is not about favourite teacers, it is about understanding who you are in an educational setting; it is actually about a journey to naming your pedagogy. It is both an interesting an chalening question. My experience is many struggle to respond, or say that can name one..or two? I leave you to ponder that very question.

Submitted by Matthew Esterman (not verified) on

Thank you for the thoughts Margery. As a History teacher, I know that students don't care about the content of a course without a teacher who is committed to illuminating the dusty ideas, events and people. Many History teachers, myself included, strive to help students connect with the voices whispering to us from the past. It is truly difficult at times - especially when students feel completely disconnected from what can be quite abstract and alien ideas. When I mention what I do, nearly everyone falls into two extreme categories: those who loved history at school and those who hated it. Most of the time, they say the teacher was the decisive factor. In a subject that shaped and is shaped by the minds of those who explore it, surely the role of the teacher is an essential ingredient, regardless of topic, age level or location. If a student graduates from my class having a love or interest in History - or an enhancement on what was already burning away inside them - I feel the most important part of my job is done.

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