Media Release: Muttonbirds vs. the seven continents - why we need to talk about knowledge in schools

Media Release
19 November, 2019

Worrying comments from Whetu Cormick, President of the New Zealand Principals Federation in today’s Herald show why, for the sake of educational equity, it is time New Zealand rethought its approach to knowledge in the national curriculum.

Commenting on the Initiative’s latest research report, Ignorance is not bliss: Why knowledge matters (and why we may not have enough of it), Cormick explained that the curriculum was right to let teachers choose topics on the basis of students’ interests. By way of example, he explained that:

“For a child in Bluff who might be interested in muttonbirds, they are not going to be interested in the fact that there are seven continents in the world,”

“We need to continue to develop a curriculum that is relevant to the community and in partnership with the community.”

However, according to Research Fellow, and author of Ignorance is not bliss, Briar Lipson, “These comments perfectly demonstrate the problem we want to highlight.

"Just like the New Zealand curriculum, Cormick makes the mistake of prioritising students’ interests in curriculum decisions.

"The challenge of how to motivate and engage students is one that should affect how we teach, but it should have little influence over what we teach. Schools should be teaching all children the most powerful knowledge.

"To do anything less exacerbates educational inequity as some children encounter a curriculum rich in powerful knowledge, and others something demonstrably less.”

As Lipson puts it “The New Zealand curriculum, which Cormick defends, could not be better designed to widen gaps in aspiration and attainment between children in New Zealand.”

The New Zealand Initiative set out to create a snapshot of the current state of knowledge in our nation, and argue for a refocusing of the curriculum.

“What Cormick’s statements show is that we have a lot of work to do,” said Lipson. “If you are a parent of school-aged children, we hope these comments will make you sit up and start questioning your principal and teachers about what your child is really learning.”

While there is nothing wrong with knowing about Bluff’s muttonbirds, surely we need to have higher expectations.


Briar Lipson is available for comment. Please contact:

Simone White, Communications Officer
P: 04 494 9109 / 021 2937 250

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