Pressure points for educational reform

Dr Michael Johnston
NZ Herald
9 February, 2023

It’s no secret that New Zealand’s compulsory education system is in disarray. Even worse, it’s hard to know where to begin to enact reform.

The Ministry of Education, which should be leading that reform, is instead part of the problem. The Ministry has presided over more than two decades of decline in the literacy and numeracy our young people achieve at school. They have continued to promote failed teaching methods in the face of scientific evidence about human learning. In 2007 they introduced a curriculum that devalues knowledge in favour of vague ‘competencies’.

The Ministry is driven more by ideology than it is by sound evidence. To oversimplify somewhat, this ideology holds that children should be self-directed learners. It can ultimately be traced back to 18th century French philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Rousseau thought that children are born innately good, but that they are corrupted by interacting with society. He believed that education should develop children’s natural capabilities, and that the corrupting influence of teachers should be kept to a minimum.

The same ideology pervades the Schools of Education in universities, where our teachers are trained. It also pervades the Teaching Council, the professional body overseeing teachers. As a result, a generation of teachers has been taught to use ineffective approaches in the classroom, especially in teaching literacy and numeracy.

Naturally we want school children to become self-motivated and, ultimately, to be able to direct their own learning. But young children don’t know how to do that. At the very best, they learn much more slowly under this approach than they would if their learning was led by expert teachers.

The disciplinary perspectives that come from studying subjects like mathematics, science, history and art are not corrupting, but liberating. And, contrary to the modern version of Rousseau’s theory, children have almost no chance of learning them in a self-directed way.

In the words of British educational sociologist Michael F.D. Young, the disciplines afford ‘powerful knowledge’ to those who learn them. If we fail to teach this knowledge, we deprive young people of the most effective springboard there is to propel them into prosperous lives, full of meaning and self-expression.

Unfortunately, the poisonous fruit of Rousseau’s misguided educational philosophy is now being harvested here in 21st century New Zealand. And the impact is worst on those young people who have the most to gain from a sound education.

In a recent trial of new literacy and numeracy standards for NCEA, it was found that just 2% of 15-year-olds from Decile 1 schools could write at a basic adult standard. Instead of being a circuit-breaker on inter-generational poverty, our education system is perpetuating it.

I asked a prominent professor of education where she would begin to unpick our unholy morass of educational disfunction. Quite reasonably, she replied that she would start with a new curriculum.

We do indeed need a new curriculum. The curriculum is, or should be, the conceptual core of our education system. A new curriculum should put literacy, numeracy and disciplinary knowledge in the foreground. It should provide plenty of support for teachers to sequence learning so that children acquire knowledge in a sound and structured manner.

But a new curriculum won’t help us much if we don’t have enough teachers capable of delivering it to their pupils.

There are many excellent teachers in our schools, but those teachers are fighting an uphill battle against a culture of failed teaching methods and a knowledge-poor curriculum. The sad reality is that too many of our younger teachers did not experience a quality education themselves. Less still have they been trained to deliver one.

So, while I agree that a new curriculum is a priority, an equal priority is to reform the Standards for the Teaching Profession.

The Standards describe the expectations of the Teaching Council for effective teaching. New teachers must meet them before they are granted a practising certificate.

The current Standards require teachers to be committed to the Treaty of Waitangi as a partnership. This includes developing their use of Te Reo and Tikanga Māori. They must also undertake professional development.

Further, the Standards express an expectation that teachers will establish professional relationships to promote learning and wellbeing in their classrooms. A teacher must also develop a classroom culture of inclusion, empathy, collaboration and safety.

Strikingly, there is very little in the Standards that focusses on effective teaching. They do require teachers to use methods based on their knowledge of the curriculum and to teach in ways that ensure all learners are making sufficient progress. Unfortunately, though, no guidance is provided as to what these methods are.

The New Zealand Curriculum really offers teachers nothing of any use in the way of effective teaching methods. And their training has usually been based on the same misguided philosophy that created the mess we’re now in. Suffice it to say that far too many of our young people are not making “sufficient progress”.

The Standards should be urgently reviewed. They should specifically require teachers to understand the implications for their practice, of scientific research on human learning, attention and motivation. They should furthermore require teachers to demonstrate that they can put this knowledge into practice in the classroom.

Supporting documents should lay out in detail what this research is. It should include, among many other things, structured approaches to the teaching of literacy and numeracy. Large-scale studies have shown a structured approach to be the most effective in teaching these critical skills.

Requiring teachers to demonstrate that their practice is informed by scientific research would have a flow-on effect on teacher education. Providers would have to ensure that they have staff capable of training new teachers in this knowledge and practice.

Even with a new curriculum and teaching Standards, it will take time to turn things around. In my view, though, these are the two pressure points that would get things moving in the right direction most quickly and effectively.

Whoever may be Minister of Education after this year’s election would do the country a great service by implementing these reforms.

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