Managing school curricula is an ongoing challenge.
There seems to be a growing belief among parents that any new challenge facing society is a candidate for inclusion in an effective school curriculum.
Among those issues – and in no particular order – are bushfire safety, pandemic preparedness, social media etiquette, cyberbullying, cybercrime, sexting, drug and alcohol education, animal rights, slavery, equity issues, eating disorders, energy dependency, gambling addiction, global warming, genetic engineering, and the rise of identity theft.
The list of existing and emerging challenges is lengthy, to say the least.
The problem is that many principals and teachers believe the curriculum is already too congested.
Most will be familiar with the term ‘curriculum’, which speaks to what teachers are to teach in the classroom and students should learn.
Perhaps less familiar, however, is the term ‘curriculum creep’, which refers to our tendency to bloat the school curriculum with new programs aimed at addressing any number of societal challenges.
Curriculum creep occurs when new programs are added but older ones are not removed to create the necessary learning space.
Within the community, perceptions prevail that school timetables are extraordinarily stretchable, like Lycra.
But while your Lycra bike shorts will stretch to accommodate any extra ‘padding’ you may have gained during COVID-19 lockdown, the same cannot be said for school timetables.
While there might be some flexibility in school curricula or timetables, like Lycra there comes a point when too much overstretching renders the product useless.
Many educators believe we have overstretched the school curriculum already.
If we are completely honest, we do push new challenges in the direction of our schools in the hope teachers can somehow fix problems that emerge in our local and broader communities.
But the impact of curriculum creep is deeply felt.
Teachers argue they are pushed to rush students through content rather than engaging them in deep thinking, and taking the time to fully develop concepts and skills.
Some teachers say that bloating the school curriculum pushes them towards a tick-box approach to teaching and learning.
Parents become increasingly concerned that an overflowing curriculum will squeeze out the fundamentals of reading, writing and arithmetic.
And in highlighting the gravity of the issue, experts suggest that loading schools up with more and more content will run the risk of leaving us with a curriculum a mile wide but only an inch deep.
Some experts suggest our focus should be on creativity rather than cramming.
Others argue that less is always more when it comes to the school curriculum.
The fact we tend to drop every emerging societal issue at the classroom door has made curriculum creep one of the greatest challenges facing school leaders.
It is relatively easy to pile things onto schools, and even easier to blame them when other standards or broader objectives are not addressed.
Resolving the issue of an overburdened school curriculum is a delicate task.
Every component of the curriculum has been placed there for a reason.
Simply removing chunks is not as easy as it sounds.
Far too often you will hear from schools about new programs they intend to deliver to address a given issue.
Yet rarely will you hear that another program is being scrapped to make way for new content.
And invariably we throw the terms ‘schooling’ and ‘education’” into the same backpack, even though they mean quite different things.
Education is something people absorb throughout their lives from a wide range of sources.
Schooling is far more limited and focused on a set period of time.
Even the best teachers and most outstanding schools will be unable to provide a full education for children.
It is a fact parents must accept.
One solution to facilitate de-cluttering is upping the ante when it comes to engaging parents in conversations about who should take responsibility for different aspects of their child’s education.
Schools, after all, are in a much better position to engage with parents in ongoing discussions over what issues might be taught in the classroom and what ought to be covered at home.
But if we are really concerned with education and not simply schooling, we will need to have many more discussions with a much broader range of groupings, all of which have a role to play in education.
The list includes the media, museums, universities, businesses and religious groups.
There is no easy fix for curriculum creep.
But the lack of a solution should not mean we continue to load schools up with every challenge that we face in everyday life.
Professor Gary Martin is chief executive officer at the Australian Institute of Management WA