CEO Blog: Nurturing Wonder and Igniting Passion

Nurturing Wonder and Igniting Passion


The recently published NSW Curriculum Review Report [1] has such an enticing title – Nurturing Wonder and Igniting Passion: Designs for a New Curriculum. It could easily have been the sub-title of the Australian Steiner Curriculum Framework[2] itself. Therefore, there was much to be anticipated in reading the report, even though at first glance it seemed a little disappointingly ‘back to the future’ in essence: ‘declutter’ the curriculum; back to basics in the early years; modernisation of pathways for Year 11 and 12 students so they have greater chance of further education and employment options.

Student engagement, creativity, student agency and well-being are seen globally as the new priorities for education. Steiner Education Australia made two submissions to the NSW Curriculum Review led by Geoff Masters. In the submissions I made clear connections between the very tenets of Steiner education – and these new OECD[3] priorities for an education to prepare young people for the future. Has the NSW Curriculum Review Report and its recommendations missed a wonderful opportunity to embed these priorities into a radical new way of approaching the education of our children?

It seems so. Within this emerging global educational priority, it is surprising to read the report and find little practical reference to how or why ‘nurturing wonder and igniting passion’ will be realised. Peter Hutton, convenor of the Future Schools Alliance [4] completed a word count of the NSW Curriculum Review Report and found in fact, no references to values, passion, enjoyment and trust. He found 1 reference each to engagement, individual, and exciting. The whole document uses the word ‘student’ 103 times, but ‘learner’ only 3 times. This reveals the gesture of the student as passive recipient of knowledge. Where is the agency of the young person in a curriculum that aims to prepare young people for an uncertain future?

The NSW Curriculum Review Report recommends an ‘untimed syllabus’ with students progressing to the next syllabus once they have mastered the prior syllabus. Whilst this represents a welcomed and major shift in curriculum design, it will probably involve creation of detailed learning progressions. If teachers have learning progressions many pages long in several subjects against which 26 or 28 students have to be assessed – with individual learning plans and starting points created and monitored – asking these same teachers for innovative, joyful and emotionally engaging teaching in which each student’s agency, interests and sense of wonder are promoted will be problematic.

So … how do you nurture wonder and ignite passion?

Firstly, you need to value these as part of a key purpose of education and prioritise it. Purposes of education cannot be reduced to gaining knowledge, skills and dispositions to go on to do something, even though this is a crucial element. Yes, young people becoming socialised into society, its traditions and culture is important, and schooling has a part to play in this. We also surely want our young people to develop agency to create a future they believe they themselves can create. This involves valuing uncertainty of outcomes, risk, becoming autonomous and independent in thinking and acting –possibly the opposite of socialisation – all developed through an integrated, innovative curriculum and pedagogy. How to hold these in creative tension in the interests of developing a young person’s sense of moral purpose and social consciousness is an educator’s true task.

To nurture wonder and ignite passion sees teachers as creative professionals with the capacity to think imaginatively and understand the need for and growth of imaginative capacity in young people.

Educational researchers and educators increasingly recognise deep learning and engagement are fostered by development of imagination through the arts and through play[5]. If this is significantly reduced in the early years – as indicated in the NSW Curriculum Review Report in order to focus on the ‘basics’this will not only inhibit academic achievement, but the very development of the sense of wonder which is supposedly at the core of the NSW redesign. As educational researcher David Roy[6] points out, if teachers’ current ‘isolated’ literacy and numeracy foci is not delivering the results, will more of the same really have that much of an impact?

To nurture wonder and ignite passion we also need imaginative assessment as a way into building imaginative capacity in teachers and students. If we value young people developing capacities to take risks and make mistakes, then we need new methods of assessment and development of an assessment culture that prioritise and acknowledge these capacities. Especially in high school senior years, our learners need to be an integral part of the assessment process through self-assessment using rigorous methodologies. They are already in existence[7], but there is reluctance to use due to the strong pull of ATAR. The NSW Curriculum Review Report recommends a review of ATAR and the requirement of a major student-led investigative project as part of an HSC, as there is overwhelming evidence that the current ATAR based assessment narrows preparation and options for future study, constrains innovation, and constrains development of continuing passion in learning. This, however, has only been ‘noted ‘by the NSW government in response to the review recommendations and unlikely come to fruition any time soon.

Reimagining assessment and accountability practices must also include removing NAPLAN from the assessment and accountability policy agenda in order to enable innovation in education. The evidence on negative effects of NAPLAN and the effects of ATAR on smothering innovation is overwhelming, but somehow governments are glued to these failing strategies[8].

A final word on equity in the quest for nurturing wonder and igniting passion

In the NSW Curriculum Review Report there is mention of the importance of equity, but still an almost singular focus on school and teacher accountability for student outcomes, when it is clear from research[9] that 60% of student achievement is attributable to factors outside of school, such as socio-economic status, family supports, income etc. Equity is thus central to school improvement. To increase equity of educational outcomes in Australia: we need to avoid early tracking of children based on academic ability alone. We need to give equal focus to well-being and academic achievement, the arts, inclusiveness, strong family support in the years before schooling, government safety nets, intervention and preventative care at the local school level within a whole systems approach. There needs to be less focus on narrowly measured academic test scores and excellence as the key indicators of educational success.

As Sahlberg states in the recently published Equity Paper[10] ‘Believing that back to basics, that means giving priority to literacy and numeracy in school, would make Australia’s education system the best in the world, is a poor strategy. Australia should flip the system by empowering schools to lead the way towards more equitable education.’

To nurture wonder and ignite passion in our teachers and young people alike, we must also work towards a more intelligent approach to accountability systems. Schools and teachers must have agency at the school level to ensure creativity, risk-taking and time for deep learning. Equal time must be given for the academic, creative and practical arts and social-emotional education to foster this deep learning and enhance student well-being. It is these measures as well as a government that is truly accountable to schools for providing the means to ensure equity of educational outcomes, which will help ensure an excellent education. Such an excellent education successfully forms young people so they can sustain wonder and ignite passion to ‘live well in a world worth living in.’[11]

It seems we are chained to the idea of placing responsibility on education systems to come up with solutions to meet changing needs of the job market[12] (Harris & Jones, 2018). The NSW Curriculum Review Report recommendations are trying to break free of this but are still stuck there. This results in lost opportunities for real reform……unless educators take things into their own hands and just get on with creating the change we want to see.

Dr Virginia Moller
CEO Steiner Education Australia


[2] For an overview of the ASCF visit

[3] Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development


[5] See, for example, Ewing, R. (2020). The Australian Curriculum: The Arts. A critical opportunity. Curriculum Perspectives, 1-7.

[6] Roy, David (2020). The NSW Curriculum Review is vague and lacks any radical ideas.

[7] See, for example: Thompson, D. G. (2016). Marks should not be the focus of assessment–but how can change be achieved? Journal of Learning Analytics3(2), 193-212.

[8] See, for example:

Mockler, N. (2020). Ten years of print media coverage of NAPLAN: A corpus-assisted assessment. Australian Review of Applied Linguistics43(2), 117-144.

Roberts, P., Barblett, L., & Robinson, K. (2019). Early years teachers’ perspectives on the effects of NAPLAN on stakeholder wellbeing and the impact on early years pedagogy and curriculum. Australasian Journal of Early Childhood44(3), 309-320.

Emler, T. E., Zhao, Y., Deng, J., Yin, D., & Wang, Y. (2019). Side effects of large-scale assessments in education. ECNU Review of Education2(3), 279-296.

[9] See, for example: Sahlberg, P. (2020). Will the pandemic change schools? Journal of Professional Capital and Community.

UNICEF (2018), An Unfair Start, Inequality in children’s education in rich countries, UNICEF, Paris

[10] Gonski Institute for Education (2020). Achieving a bright future for all young Australians. Policy Brief 1. Kensington: UNSW

[11] Kemmis, S. (2018). Educational research and the good for humankind: Changing education to secure a sustainable world. Paper presented at the Education, Fatherland and Humanity, University of Jyväskylä, Finland.

[12] Harris, A., & Jones, M. (2018). Why context matters: A comparative perspective on education reform and policy implementation. Educational Research for Policy and Practice, 17(3), 195-207.