Difficult conversation needed over knowledge

Briar Lipson
Insights Newsletter
20 March, 2020

New Zealand’s ‘upset-no-one’, content-free National Curriculum is hurting our children’s education.

To identify what knowledge should be every child’s entitlement, the Ministry of Education must be willing to have some difficult conversations. Instead, it dodges them, lowering standards and crippling educational equity.

When the OCED began testing the performance of 15-year-olds two decades ago, New Zealand proudly ranked with the highest performing nations worldwide.

Ever since, our performance has declined. For example, average mathematics scores have dropped by the equivalent of about a year and a half’s worth of schooling.

The present review of NCEA could be addressing our curriculum problem. By writing assessment standards that prescribe basic content, it could re-establish the essential role of subject knowledge.  Instead, the ministry has written assessment standards even more vacuous than the ones they replace.

Their published excuse is that it’s impractical to specify content through NCEA standards.

It is not.

It would be perfectly possible for new standards in, say, Visual Arts, to ensure children understood representation, abstraction and expressionism. In Science, that children studied energy, evolution and oxidation. And in English that children learned about literary genres, grammar and styles of writing.

However, in Visual Arts only three of the seven ‘Big Ideas’ would be recognisable by art educators internationally (and even these are knowledge-neutral). The other four focus on biculturalism, te reo Māori (language), social change and Māori cultural identity.

The science standards focus on investigative techniques, some ‘real-world’ issues and possible actions, how to interpret science in media and the ‘attributes of science’ (whatever that means). In English, the building-blocks of the subject are ignored in favour of building identity, enjoyment and meaning.

Aside from the lack of a ministerial mandate, one of the main reasons the ministry does not re-establish knowledge at the heart of schooling is that it cannot imagine how a bicultural New Zealand could ever unite around a common core of knowledge.

The mandate problem could be easily solved. After all, the present Government said it would create a national history curriculum soon after coming to power! And if we can agree on what history all Kiwis should learn, we can definitely agree on the core lessons of physics and English.

Deciding what knowledge makes the cut will always be challenging. Yet until we do, both standards and educational equity will continue declining: New Zealand will allow its children’s futures to be the permanent casualty of its past.

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