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Why must schools be immune to innovation?

Former Auckland Grammar headmaster John Morris recently warned that ‘genuine education’ is in danger of being replaced by reforms amounting to ‘social engineering’. School principal Marama Stewart responds.

As demonstrated by the intense competition to live in certain Auckland neighbourhoods, New Zealand continues to place great value on a traditional education. Auckland Grammar is still seen as the apex of public school values, a steadying hand on the tiller while modern education rides the waves of innovation and intervention.

Yet while reading former Auckland Grammar headmaster John Morris’ recent column ‘These education reforms put the sector at the precipice of disaster’, one thought kept springing to mind: correct me if I’m wrong, but I can’t name a single profession which still operates in the same way it did in 1987, let alone 1887. So why do we expect our schools to continue with the status quo?

Furthermore, when reading the column, I started to suspect two things:

  1. Mr Morris has never read the New Zealand Curriculum; and,

  2. He doesn’t understand what the terms ‘Innovative Learning Environments’, ‘inquiry-based learning’, or ‘21st century skills’ actually mean.

I really don’t think Mr Morris knows what’s going on in our schools today. I wonder if he’s ever stepped foot into any one of our high performing innovative schools, let alone had a discussion with the many amazing teachers, leaders and experts in our sector who advocate for 21st century education reform.

Why does he think principals, teachers and boards try everything we can in our power to improve student achievement? We really do need that silver bullet! Despite our world class curriculum, the inequity found in our education achievement stats are some of the highest in the world.

A whopping 20% of our children are not achieving in our schools, and that’s only counting the ones who haven’t dropped out. The stats for Māori and Pasifika students are horrifying – most New Zealand schools are not a good place to be a brown student. A recent report into racism in schools released by the New Zealand School Trustees Association reveals a disgraceful situation.

Isn’t it commonsense to want to improve that which is so obviously wrong? Think about it – if a business found that a fifth of their products were below standard, would they blame the faulty products for their failures while celebrating the company’s traditional manufacturing practices? Or would they change the system that produced the faults in the first place? Please excuse my simplified analogy – after all, our kids aren’t products: they are our present and our future, which makes it even more important that we get it right.

We can’t carry on knowing our system is not working for so many. Change is needed. I believe that every child attending school can be successful, but only if we continue to create an innovative system which adapts to their individual needs. This is not a pie in the sky dream; it can be a reality, but only if we are brave enough to be open to change.

Twenty-first century education reform is not an easy thing to explain in a single short article but I will try my best to address Mr Morris’s largest misconceptions.

The first is that the New Zealand Curriculum is a ‘skills-driven’ approach to learning which leaves out the accumulation of knowledge. This is incorrect. Our curriculum is a ‘learner-centred’ approach where the learner must take responsibility for driving their own learning. Dr. Julia Atkin, a leading Australian education consultant, has noted that our curriculum requires educationalists to shift their perspective from ‘teaching a subject’ to ‘teaching a person’. If Dr Atkin can see this from her position across the ditch, why is it that so many inside our system can not?

For years, education experts have provided evidence that rather than being simply transferred, knowledge is actually constructed through an active learning process. This isn’t new thinking. Yet Mr Morris and his chums continue to solely define a “genuine education” as one acquired inside a traditional knowledge-transfer system.

I was in high school when Mr Morris was headmaster of Auckland Grammar. I think it is pretty safe to surmise that back then almost every high school in the country operated in basically the same way:

Mr or Mrs Teacher would say “Today we are learning about the Tangiwai (Tang-ee-why) Disaster,” for example.

They would then proceed to dictate the ‘knowledge’ and you would write it down verbatim; or they would put the ‘knowledge’ on an overhead projector and make you copy it down; or they would make you read page 113 through to page 132 and you would take notes of the ‘key points’.

That night you would study that information before writing an essay. The outcome? All going well, you’d now be able to present what you knew about Tangiwai in a way that was the same – but not exactly the same – as what the teacher told you in the first place.

Under today’s curriculum, the knowledge we want our students to take away is a lot more sophisticated than that. We refer to this as “rich” content – content which provides an enduring understanding that can be transferred to other situations, events, and circumstances.

As an example, here are two achievement objectives from the current social sciences curriculum.

Students will:

– Understand how the past is important to people (Level one)

– Understand how people remember and record the past in different ways (Level three)

This is “rich” content because not only do to the objectives encourage the learner to seek out related knowledge, they require the learner to use that knowledge. Through the careful design of inquiry-based learning experiences I would expect the following outcomes across several year groups:

  • Year Three and Four students should be able to talk about all of special ways they remember events as a family and as a community, and why these events are important to them.

  • Year Fives and Sixes should be able to extend this understanding nationwide, including noticing the different ways people express their record of the past, such as the chairs in Christchurch representing those killed in the quake.

  • Year Seven and Eight should be able to extend this understanding to worldwide memorials in all their forms. Most importantly, they should be able to recognise that one group of people can remember a past event very differently from another – for example the Vietnam War, the Springbok Tours, Waitangi Day, or Australia Day.

This is what I call powerful knowledge. It’s a heck of a lot more powerful than ‘doing’ Tangiwai.

Can you see the difference?

Education is an investment in our future, and it’s too important not to base it on the best practice and robust research. The evidence is overwhelming that traditional methods of teaching are not working for all.

I’m not going to conclude with a quote by Aristotle or another name from the top of the traditionally-prescribed hierarchy of knowledge. But I do want to share a quote from someone I am sure many traditionalists would dismiss as being at the bottom of that knowledge hierarchy: an old Māori woman.

“Take care of our children,” said Dame Whina Cooper, “take care of what they hear, take care of what they see, take care of what they feel. For how the children grow, so will the shape of Aotearoa.”

Marama Stewart is the principal of Waiouru School.


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