Children are the real winners now that National Standards have gone, according to primary principals and teachers. So what will schools be getting up to in the brave new world of 2018? Kirsten Warner looks for answers.
“It’s been six years and we’ve just been so unhappy this whole time,” reads the celebratory email from the primary teachers union, NZEI Te Riu Roa to National Standards. “You’re dumped. Officially dumped.”
Primary teachers sound excited after the sudden announcement of the dropping of National Standards, and their New Year’s resolutions for teaching in 2018 are about re-discovering the New Zealand Curriculum, and locally relevant learning. They’re talking about passion-based projects, vision, and innovation; about drones and gardens, marine reserves and whakapapa. The romance has been re-ignited.
It’s like there’s been a collective sigh of relief after a long campaign by the 47,000-strong primary teachers union to get rid of the national system of evaluation rushed in before Christmas by the new National government in 2008 and out before Christmas by the new Labour–lead coalition in 2017.
Primary teachers and principals are talking about being free of the ‘straight jacket’ of daily evaluation and constant testing, and what they see as a too-narrow focus on the three Rs, reading writing and ‘rithmetic.
Teachers, Boards of Trustees and education specialists had been warning that under National Standards the arts, music and science were being pushed aside, that National Standards was an assessment of learning but not an assessment for learning. Focus on achieve or fail, win or lose, meant children couldn’t help but compare themselves and be compared.
Some people, teachers included, have expressed anxiety about what will replace National Standards. But NZEI Riu Roa president Lynda Stuart says there’s no need to replace National Standards as there was no need to introduce them in the first place. “We know that we’ve got an amazing New Zealand curriculum,” she says. “Now we can really focus in on the richness of that.”
Dr Cherie Taylor Patel, principal of Auckland’s Flanshaw Road School is delighted. “What a wonderful Christmas present to teachers across Aotearoa, New Zealand!”
Some parents, she says, will be wondering what the National Standards fuss is about. Some teachers will be wondering, “How do I teach without the close analysis and measuring of progress in reading, writing and mathematics?” and “How will my worth as a teacher to be measured now?”
But she says she is celebrating that a child’s worth as a learner will no longer be judged and reduced to a grade or mark that is then categorised ‘well below’, ‘below’, ‘at’ or ‘above’ expected levels. Instead, while the government will still require teachers to report to parents on children’s achievement in literacy and numeracy, each child’s progress across the broad curriculum will be valued.
At Flanshaw Road School, while complying with Ministry of Education requirements for reporting, teachers have been on a very different journey for the last three years – the kind of teaching enabled by the existing New Zealand Curriculum.
Teachers refer to the curriculum as a world-leading document with its own indicators that can be used to assess children’s learning and identify their next learning steps. It talks about values, vision, exploration and diversity, but it also explains achievement and curriculum levels.
In 2014, the Waitakere Area Principals Association network asked themselves, ‘What would we love to do, if we did were not constrained by the rigid, relentless focus on literacy and numeracy in our schools?’
“At the time it was an audacious question,” says Dr Taylor Patel. “We got excited as we brainstormed the possibilities!” The first initiative they put in place was STEAM, integrating Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Maths.
Students created and designed using low-tech and high-tech gear. They started getting familiar with augmented apps, m-bots and drone technology. They created machines using cogs, gears and levers.
Enviro-schools projects recreated layers of landfill. They made fairy gardens from natural materials. Recycled rimu timber to make seats for the swimming pool. The kids’ artwork integrated mathematics and chemical reactions to create exploding rainbows. All as part of daily programmes.
Projects were then written about, sung about, demonstrated, presented and used. Some students made videos of their work to share with parents, and some carried on the learning at home. Teachers and students did not assess reading levels, writing levels, or maths ability. They assessed levels of engagement, collaboration skills, problem solving skills, and their content and concept knowledge.
The second initiative focused on ‘culturally responsive’ pedagogy: How to teach in ways that work for all students but especially for Māori students. “We found out much more about who our students are and where they were from.”
One group of Year 6 students worked with a teacher on a Waitakere Whakapapa, researching local Te Kawerau a Maki iwi history and how it related to their whakapapa. Each student created a book, which was published at the end of the year. “It was rich, deep, authentic learning, not to be spoilt by talking about a grade, or level of writing!”
What will 2018 hold?
For Malcolm Milner, principal of Auckland’s Balmoral School, dropping National Standards “will ease the pressure on continually weighing the pig. We will be able to explore the depth and breadth and richness of the New Zealand Curriculum and the bi-cultural curriculum, and children able to discover that in a variety of ways.”
He welcomes the move to a curriculum where kids can spend the time learning rather than being tested and teachers can spend time teaching rather than testing.
He hopes to see a resurgence of drama, music and visual arts. “I hope that we are able to build on the elements of the Te Whariki Curriculum to develop better transitions for five-year-olds to school. To develop topics which respond to the children’s questions and discover learning for the pure joy of it. To be able to smell the roses and describe the sensations through our writing and the arts.”
In the far North just out of Kaitaia, a tiny country school has continued creating a unique identify for itself, alongside National Standards. “Already started. No change there,” says Oturu School principal Fraser Smith (author and finalist for Best First Book in the 2017 NZ Book Awards For Children and Young Adults).
His New Year’s resolution: “We’ve got a lot of wonderful work that’s on-going and I’m just going to do more of it.”
Oturu School has over 200 fruit trees, vegetable gardens, beehives, a commercial kitchen and makes its own olive oil, honey and natural remedies. There’s a bank of guitars the kids take home. “We have been heavily involved in our localised learning, creating our school grounds as a learning tool,” says Fraser, “that’s what we’ve been doing forever. No change.”
Something has changed this year though, and he’s starting to see those changes manifested in 150 mostly Māori students. That is, learning through dance, drama and the arts. Specialist teacher Josie Thomson comes in once a week, and the school has linked for the next three years with Dr Barbara Snook, a professional teaching and research fellow on the University of Auckland’s dance studies programme.
“It’s not so much integrating as actually using the arts as a teaching and learning tool. I thought we were covering a well-rounded curriculum through technology, meeting kids needs, science, our environmental learning. But then through the kids interpreting stories through drama and dance I found that we had a big gap. All of those key competences that kids are picking up through the dance and the drama has just been amazing.”
So how does this help the kids with mathematics? “That’s what I said too, okay you show me how through a movement based activity we can teach improper fractions” And so Dr Snook did, by arranging activities where the kids grouped and regrouped themselves as proper or improper fractions.
“They’re using their bodies to interpret the maths, rather than trying to figure it out in their heads which is really difficult to do. It gives you instant assessment on the spot – you can see who is engaged and who is not engaged, you can see who gets it and who doesn’t, and then you get kids teaching kids who don’t understand, how to do it.”
Early days, but he’s starting the see the results. “The kids are understanding maths much better without knowing they are doing it,” he says.
Perry Rush, principal of Hastings Intermediate School, is also excited. “It’s great not to be anachronistic about learning. I think at the time National Standards was introduced most educators’ jaws dropped, not believing something so plainly out of kilter with where the New Zealand Curriculum was heading could be imposed and therefore clash with the sort of freedom the curriculum was giving teachers.
“Any time a system indicates a change away from standardised thinking about young people is very exciting. We’ve moaned about these standards for seven years, now the onus is on educators to step into the challenge with their communities. Dropping National Standards doesn’t mean that we are in any shape or form less interested in student progress and achievement, it’s just that we disagree with the organising principle of students reaching the same bench marks at the same age, we just disagree with that. We can still articulate progress, we’re still interested in student achievement, still interested in students reading, writing and being able to do maths, we’re just not interested in standardised thinking about young people.”
His New Year’s Resolution: “To think deeply about the challenge of diversity and how teaching and assessment needs to respond to that in a smart and complex way, not a one-size-fits-all kind of way. If you have a schooling system released into a bright new future I don’t have any doubts about my colleagues’ capacity to achieve that and well.”
His challenge to the Ministry of Education and Education Review Office which evaluates school performance is to have the same courage: “Please ERO wake up, start to move your thinking into the modern age, you no longer have a government that places value in that GERM (Global Education Reform Movement) mentality so smarten up.”
Bringing the New Zealand national curriculum back to the forefront of learning is the New Year’s resolution of Lynda Stuart, NZEI Te Riu Roa president and principal of May Road School in Auckland.
“National Standards has undermined the New Zealand curriculum, to a lesser extent the Māori curriculum because there was a higher level of discussion around the formation of Te Marautanga O Aotearoa. National Standards were imposed on the sector in a different way and the sector wasn’t involved in the production of them at all.”
So 2018 is the opportunity and challenge for teachers to take a creative, innovative approach, taking those teachable moments and really making the most of them.
“People have said that the magic has gone out of teaching. So it’s about bringing that magic back into the classroom, providing those experiences that we know that children learn from and remember for the rest of their lives, those times when a teacher did something that really connected with a child, that actually helped switch that light on for them around learning. That’s really, really where we need to go back to.”
Kirsten Warner is an Auckland journalist, poet, writer of fiction and musician who plays with the blues-folk band Bernie Griffen and The Thin Men.