Critical failure

Dr Michael Johnston
Insights Newsletter
24 March, 2023

For a brief moment last year, it looked as if the Ministry of Education was finally going to embrace methods of teaching literacy and numeracy supported by scientific evidence. They published a new literacy and numeracy strategy that made reference to structured teaching methods.

Structured literacy works because it takes account of the nature of human memory and attention, and its limitations. The Ministry has spent more than two decades ignoring mounting evidence in its favour.

To be sure, the new strategy was hardly a full-throated endorsement of structured teaching, nor an especially well-articulated one. Still, I was heartened by their stated intention to develop a Common Practice Model (CPM) incorporating a structured approach to teaching these key skills. As its name implies, a CPM is a guide to teaching methods to be followed by every teacher in the country.

The CPM document was published last week. And it does mention structured literacy. Briefly. Near the end.

The trouble is, the rest of the document constitutes a doubling down on the same failed, and sometimes ludicrous, methods the Ministry has championed for years.

Under those methods, a generation of young New Zealanders has been badly let down. A third of our fifteen-year-olds cannot read at a basic adult standard. Two thirds cannot write at a similar standard and nearly half lack basic numeracy skills.

The CPM should have contained a detailed description of structured literacy and numeracy teaching and nothing else. Instead, the methods we so badly need our teachers to adopt are swamped by such things as ‘critical pedagogies’, ‘culturally responsive pedagogies’ and ‘multiliteracies’.

All of these are distractions and some will actively undermine any attempt to use a structured approach alongside them.

There isn’t the space here to describe all the ways in which these ‘pedagogies’ will harm, rather than foster, sound learning. I will confine myself to one highlight – that of ‘critical maths’.

The CPM asserts that “Ākonga [students] are encouraged to interrogate dominant discourses and assumptions, including that maths is benign, neutral, and culture-free”.

All this before they even know what mathematics is.

There is little enough time as it is during the school years for young people to develop basic mathematical proficiency. I would like to suggest to the Ministry that loading this kind of nonsense on top of that task guarantees further educational failure.

But, once again, the Ministry has shown that it simply isn’t listening.

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