We need to talk about education

Dr Michael Johnston
NZ Herald
23 March, 2023

We urgently need a conversation about education.

Not the kind of ‘conversation’ the Ministry of Education typically convenes when it consults on new policy ideas. In that kind of conversation, the Ministry has usually predetermined the outcome.

We need a real conversation. One informed by reliable research. One in which people with strongly differing viewpoints listen to one another with respect. One in which no one has decided the outcome from the very start.

That is how we do things in a democracy – even if some of our public servants seem to have forgotten it. And there’s nothing more important to democracy than a sound education system.

Having spent decades as an educator in the tertiary sector, I read, think and write about education a lot. I have developed some strong views. But that doesn’t mean I’ve got it all right. I always want to talk to people with whom I disagree. They often teach me new things and make me see things from new perspectives. Sometimes they even make me change my mind.

In that spirit, I will put forward some of the things I think need urgent attention in our education system. I will also suggest some solutions. My intention is to kick off a conversation in which all New Zealanders can participate.

Recent trials of new standards for NCEA show that two thirds of our 15- and 16-year-olds cannot write at a basic adult standard. One third cannot read at such a standard, and nearly half lack basic numeracy skills.

In large part, the reason for these shocking results is that we have been using teaching methods skills that fly in the face of scientific evidence on how people learn. In recent decades the Ministry has dictated an approach based on ideology rather than evidence.

The solution is clear. We must urgently start following the best evidence on teaching literacy and numeracy. These skills need to be taught in a structured way, taking careful account of the limitations of human memory and attention.

On one hand, our New Zealand Curriculum is knowledge-poor in key subjects like mathematics and science. It offers teachers little guidance on the specific knowledge that they should teach, and almost none on how to sequence learning so that children proceed on firm foundations.

On the other hand, the curriculum over-emphasises vague competencies, like ‘managing self’ and ‘relating to others’. While obviously important, things like personal responsibility and social skills are best addressed by schools maintaining orderly and respectful environments. They don’t need to be taught explicitly in the classroom. In fact, trying to do so doesn’t work.

We need a new curriculum that specifies, in some detail, the knowledge that children need, in order to learn to think independently and develop their ideas in a sound way. A high-quality curriculum would also structure the order in which knowledge is taught and learned much more effectively than our current one.

NCEA involves multiple assessments per year in each subject, each for a different standard. This leads to fragmented teaching and learning because key learning connections are often not made across standards. Students are overly focused on accumulating credits, which distracts them from deep learning. Furthermore, teachers and students often skip standards deemed too difficult.

All these factors mean that students are often left with gaps in their learning. Furthermore, teachers’ marking of internal assessment is often inconsistent. It has also become increasingly generous over time.

NCEA should be redesigned to include just two standards per subject per year. That would solve the fragmentation problem and ensure that important knowledge is not missed. All assessments should be marked by NZQA panels to ensure consistency. We should reduce the focus on credit accumulation by not reporting any results until the end of the school year. Instead, teachers should use internal assessment to provide high-quality formative feedback on students’ learning.

The teaching profession also needs attention. We might expect that teachers-in-training would acquire an understanding of the scientific evidence on how children learn. Unfortunately, most training providers do not equip them with this knowledge.

The criteria for teachers to register with the Teaching Council are the right pressure point to change this. To be granted a teaching certificate, new teachers should have to demonstrate such knowledge, as well as their ability to apply it in the classroom. Teacher training institutions would have to ensure that their graduates hold, and can apply, this knowledge.

Our education system makes no consistent information about the performance of schools available to parents, to enable them to make informed school choices for their children. The use of assessment data to judge the quality of school is a contentious issue, and rightly so. Used well, assessment can powerfully drive improvements in teaching. But if assessment becomes an end in itself, rather than a mechanism to improve learning, it can have a narrowing effect on teaching.

Even so, schools must be accountable for their performance. We need light-touch but reliable national assessments in key curriculum areas, especially literacy and numeracy. The data can then be statistically adjusted to take account of the socio-economic circumstances of school communities before being published.

I did not develop these ideas alone. Many conversations have contributed to my thinking. I enjoin all New Zealanders to talk to one another more about education. In a democracy, that’s our best hope for improvement.

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