Prudence Greene, English advisor for Years 7-12 arranged for us to discuss critical literacy in NSW educational policy and practice. We were joined by her Kindergarten-Year 6 counterpart, Janet.
Prue explained that the Department writes educational policy for Department schools (not Catholic or independent schools which have separate, equivalent bodies) and that it supports teachers through training and the creation of support materials and resources. The Department does not write syllabi, set exams, manage NAPLAN or create student achievement standards – these functions are done by the Board of Studies in NSW and ACARA. The Department supports about 70% of schools in NSW (the remaining 30% are Catholic or independent) and, owing to budgeting restrictions, much of their support has moved online. They offer online courses for teachers, webinars and collaborative googledocs to help teachers ‘upskill’ to be able to deliver aspects of the new syllabus. This is much more cost effective than face-to-face workshops which cost both the department and schools (teacher cover is expensive and not built into most school budgets).
I asked what role was played by critical literacy in educational policy and practice in NSW and Prue was quick to identify that it is at the heart of the English syllabus at all levels from the early Years to the HSC. In NSW, public education is founded on solid principles of good citizenship; local, national and global. ‘Being, becoming and belonging’ is an aim for public education which is supported through nurturing learners to ask the right questions about texts. Janet supported this view, saying that, ‘We actively encourage children to see the bigger picture, take on injustice and respond both critically and compassionately to the world around them’. In this way, then, critical literacy does not appear as a separate skill or discrete aim of education in NSW: it is deeply embedded in the literacy continuum and the English curriculum with clear links to citizenship.
Teachers are helped in their own knowledge of critical literacy through the online support mentioned above but there are also Literacy Leaders who work in regions across the State to develop the quality of literacy teaching and learning in Department schools. They run action research projects (for example, K-2 teachers were helped to ‘boost children’s engagement with texts’ by scaffolding their teaching around the author’s intentions and inferences). Unfortunately, resulting from recent budget cuts , these valuable positions have been reduced so teachers are being encouraged to enhance their own practice through continuing professional development.
In NSW, the ‘critical and creative thinker’ general capability of the national curriculum will be assessed by teacher judgement and by sample collection. In the HSC, English is compulsory for students in Years 11 and 12 so, by this point, learners should have been exposed to communication as a social construct, know how to ‘stand back’ from texts and have experience of various methods of ‘representing’ the world. Prue and Janet both felt strongly that the study of English gives learners agency to reflect on, and act upon, their judgements. NSW has a strong tradition of public speaking and debating (the HSE includes a speaking task) which asks students to think critically not just about the words spoken, but which also includes analysis and genesis of body language, eye contact, gesture and non-verbal communication. These speaking tasks can be formative, imaginative or persuasive and often demonstrate comprehension of an issue of social justice. Students ‘build a box of critical tools’ along their learning journey in NSW and leave the system with tools to empower and embolden for the public good.
- Collaborative googledocs offer an excellent opportunity for professional learning and model the skills we seek to cultivate in learners. This could be an inexpensive way of increasing teachers’ awareness of critical literacy education.
- It’s impossible for one person to ‘workshop the world’ (Susan Sandretto) so putting Professional Learning and Development courses online, with open access for teachers, is an excellent way for local authorities to support the quality of learning and teaching in schools, without having to pay teacher release costs.
- The focus on speaking, listening and non-verbal communication encourages both critical literacy and informed citizenship. More of this could useful ‘decoding strategy’ could feature in UK classrooms.