An ‘overcrowded’ curriculum- is it really a thing?

“Many teachers reported that they were struggling to teach the amount of mandated content in existing syllabuses” (NESA, 2019, p. 24).

The release of the NSW Curriculum Review Interim Report (NESA, 2019) has stimulated discussion again about the perceived “overcrowded and cluttered” (pg. 24) curriculum. There are, however, 3 longstanding misconceptions about curriculum content in NSW:

  1. the requirement to ‘teach’ every syllabus dot point,
  2. the need to grade students on all syllabus outcomes,
  3. that examples in syllabus documents (there to illustrate outcomes) need to be taught.

Associate Professor Catherine Attard has previously written on these misconceptions (click here).

Findings from The Mathematical Association of NSW’s (MANSW) survey of members was presented in the Interim Report and reported similar concerns (and misconceptions). Member argued that too much content led to shallow learning and very little time to explore (p. 25).

In mathematics, the knowledge-based curriculum is a structured and sequenced guide to support students develop their knowledge and skills. Teachers have the autonomy and flexibility to cover the content in ways that best suit their students. The above misconceptions by teachers and schools about the structure and intent of the curriculum has led to the perception of overcrowding. I argue that the mathematics curriculum is not overcrowded; with several ways to reduce the overwhelming burden currently felt by teachers and students. Here I present five ideas for mathematics teachers to consider in saving time throughout the teaching/learning process. Assessing (and acting on) prior knowledgeAssessing (and acting on) prior knowledge

Assessing (and acting on) prior knowledge

Well thought and targeted assessments of prior knowledge identify current student understanding and skills. They indicate a starting point for the teacher on where to begin teaching and provide an opportunity to personalize learning tasks for students. Small individual tests are common ways to assess prior knowledge, though I have also used concept mapping, short individual student ‘interviews’, groups discussions and rich tasks (more on this below).

Exam structure in secondary schools

Let’s think about the exam schedules in secondary schools- most (not all) teachers feel compelled to provide revision lessons one week out, followed by a 1-2-week exam block and then a lesson (or two) to give the exam back and to revise solutions. This can remove up to 3-4 weeks of teaching time and this is sometimes repeated twice a year in the senior years. An enormous amount of teaching time lost…

Alternative? regular formative assessment and re-thinking of school-based examinations (and exams for that matter).

Integrated curricula- reducing duplication

Duplication of content (especially in secondary schools) wastes time. Some examples include:

  1. the concept of measurement is taught in mathematics, science, technology and art,
  2. the concept of gradient is taught in both mathematics and geography.
  3. statistical procedures are taught in both mathematics and science.

Further consideration is needed to identify common skills and understanding across disciplines. The focus on STEM in secondary schools, for example, aims to reduce this duplication of content by encouraging teachers to collaborate and discuss ideas on how to connect knowledge and skills. While significant planning time is needed, from my experience this can be a worthwhile task for secondary teachers to conduct and can stimulate interesting discussions about how each department teaches these concepts.  

Katherin Cartwright (click here) has written on ideas for making connections in mathematics.

Rich tasks

Teaching through rich tasks can provide students with valuable and engaging experiences that ‘tick off’ multiple outcomes. I use tasks from NRICH ( and YouCubed ( Teachers need flexibility and an open-mind in their teaching/programming as these tasks commonly cover multiple outcomes from different topics.

For example- one topic that can drag on for students (and teachers!) is fractions, decimals and percentages, if the concepts are taught in isolation from each other. This activity ‘Percentage unchanged’ ( from NRICH is a great activity that covers many outcomes in this topic that encourages multiple solution methods.

Focusing on the ‘big ideas’

Emeritus Professor Dianne Siemon (RMIT University) is well-known for her work on the ‘big ideas’ in mathematics. Number is the topics most responsible for the range of achievement in mathematics in the middle years (Siemon, Virgona & Corneille, 2001); big ideas include place value, multiplicative thinking, partitioning, proportional reasoning and generalising. Focusing on students’ development of the ‘big ideas’ can save time with many of the misconceptions and challenges students face later on in secondary school. In teaching HSC mathematics, I know that students’ understanding (or lack) of fractions can slow down teaching and learning in many (if not all) of the HSC topics.

So- what do you think? What do you see when you look at the mathematics curriculum? Over-crowding or not? A perception or reality? Or both? Please let me know your thoughts!


National Education Standards Authority (NESA) (2019). NSW Curriculum Review Interim Report. Retrieved 24 October 2019

Siemon, D., Virgona, J. & Corneille, K. (2001). The Final Report of the Middle Years Numeracy Research Project: 5‐9. Retrieved 24 October 2019 from

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