Education minister (then opposition spokesperson) Chris Hipkins speaks to students at Fergusson Intermediate in, 2014. Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

These education reforms put the sector at the precipice of disaster

Education policy should be evidence-based, informed by experts with real experience in the sector. Instead the never-ending drive to modernise every aspect of children’s lives at school is replacing genuine education with social engineering, argues former Auckland Grammar headmaster John Morris

Having spent Queen’s Birthday Saturday at the ResearchED Conference in Auckland along with 300 other educators who have a passion for teaching and learning, I have come away feeling inspired, uplifted and determined that the problems our education sector currently faces can be overcome.

But it will need thoughtful teachers’ voices to be heard and acted upon, and school leaders to put their heads above the parapet to let the minister and the education policymakers know that the sector is at the precipice of disaster if current recommendations for reform are carried through without them being moderated by well-regarded subject and assessment experts in the sector who have actually taught, have wisdom, commonsense and experience.

Currently education policy is being determined by political imperatives. It should not be. All policy initiatives, and in education there are so many of them, should be evidence-based. We currently have major initiatives such as Innovative Learning Environments, inquiry-based learning, 21st-century skills, and some very curious recommendations on the future of NCEA. It is a further case of hyperactive intervention by successive governments.

Where is the evidence for these initiatives? There is none. The never-ending drive to modernise every aspect of children’s lives at school is replacing genuine education with social engineering.

On top of this we have recently had two major education summits that will dictate how education looks in New Zealand in the future. The recommendations from these summits were (in order) hauora/wellbeing, creativity, family, community, respect and belonging as the key elements of our education system. Not a mention of achievement, excellence or academic pursuits.

While not decrying the importance of all the recommended features above, it does invite the question of what is the role of our schools.

Aristotle noted that “the future of a state depends upon the education of its youth”. It is difficult to argue with this statement and, to me, it is clear that all schools, regardless of the nature of their intake, must offer an education of excellence that will enable all its students to become the contributing members of society that Aristotle envisaged, and precisely the kind of people who will make a positive difference to the world.

That is, well-rounded, accomplished individuals who, while at school will have been extended academically, challenged physically, stimulated artistically, developed sensitivity to the needs of others and developed pride in the school and in themselves.

Education, more than any other sector, attracts countless new ideas, innovations, buzzwords and fads. Many schools in NZ, almost without thinking, jump on the most recent education bandwagon and see it as the next big thing – the silver bullet to improve student achievement, often despite the lack of evidence. To be seen as “progressive” is regarded as a big plus to many schools.

The current focus in some schools, encouraged by the Ministry of Education, is on so-called 21st century skills to the exclusion of knowledge. These 21stt century skills include problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and interpersonal communication. These skills are undoubtedly very important but there is nothing uniquely 21st Century about them. In fact it is quite patronising to suggest that no one before the year 2000 ever needed to think critically, solve problems, communicate, collaborate, create, innovate or read.

The problem with skills-driven approaches to learning, which the NZ curriculum encourages, is that there are so many things students need to know that can’t be learnt by hands-on experiences. The educated person learns not only from their own experience, but from the hard-earned experience of others.

Education is not solely nor mainly about preparing students for future employment. It is about making life richer, about opening people’s horizons to see things and have experiences that would otherwise have been denied them.

Unless we insist that knowledge must be at the heart of our education system it will continue to fail our most disadvantaged students and thus deepen inequality.

Knowledge is power and knowledge liberates.

Looking things up on Google is fine but also presupposes an awful lot of knowledge. Without prior knowledge students will not be able to engage with meaning and work out what is and is not relevant and correct.

The most recent fallacy is that because of the expansion of technological breakthroughs, this alone renders memory and the teaching of knowledge redundant. However, long term memory is integral to all our mental processes. When we try to solve problems we draw on all the knowledge that we have committed to long term memory. The more knowledge we have, the more types of problems we are able to solve.

There is no doubt change was needed in the sector but change needs to be considered and evidence-based, not change emanating from Ministerial Advisory Groups made up predominantly of non-teachers who will impose upon 50,000 teachers, policies that have never been trialled nor assessed nor moderated by expert teachers nor checked for evidence.

That is arrogance in the extreme. It is also pure nonsense and a recipe for disaster.

Thanks to Tom Bennett, founder of UK-based ResearchEd, an international community of educators who believe in evidence-based policy, there is a groundswell internationally that the voice of passionate and thoughtful teachers must be heard and acted upon by policymakers and governments. New Zealand is now part of this international community.

I left the New Zealand conference, organised by Briar Lipson, research fellow at the NZ Initiative, uplifted in the hope that future educational change will be based on evidence, not ideology or political imperatives.

John Morris was the headmaster of Auckland Grammar School, 1993-2012

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