Education Ministry strikes fool’s gold

Roger Partridge
Insights Newsletter
27 November, 2020

All too often, today’s flavour of the month is tomorrow’s failure. This truism appears to be playing out in education.

A Ministry of Education study published last week highlights Kiwi kids have better access to computers in the classroom than children from any other developed country.

According to the study, 93% of Year 5 students use computers when learning to read. This compares with only 55% in England and an international average of only 44%. Kiwi students are also the most likely to be asked by teachers to search online and write using a computer.

Good news, right? Especially in the digital 21st century? Hold your horses.

The Ministry’s study found a direct negative relationship between children's enjoyment of reading and how often they read with computers or tablets. Rather than improving student literacy, the education system’s enthusiasm for digital learning may be hurting it.

This over-reliance on digital learning may partially explain New Zealand’s dismal decline in student literacy over the past two decades. Year 5 students ranked last across English-speaking countries for reading – and 24th out of 26 participating OECD countries – in the most recent Progress in International Literacy Study (PIRLS).

The Ministry’s results are not surprising. A 2015 OECD publication, Students, Computers and Learning, found that “levels of computer use above the current OECD average are associated with significantly poorer results.”

Unfortunately for Kiwi students, the allure of shiny but unscientific solutions for classroom problems has plagued schooling for years.

Indeed, the misplaced reliance on digital devices has a far more troubling parallel. Decades of research in the science of reading shows the best way to teach children to read is with a structured, phonics-based approach.

Yet, instead of acting on the evidence, the Ministry champions Reading Recovery, a “whole-language” theory of teaching reading. Proponents claim that reading is best developed by exposing children to whole texts. They believe children can learn to read in the same natural, unconscious way they learn to speak.

The problem is that this seductive approach is not supported by the evidence.

England reintroduced structured phonics early this century. Since then, English Year 5 students climbed 11 places in the PIRLS league tables to sit at 8th equal overall (compared with New Zealand’s 32nd).

England’s experience suggests New Zealand might be wise to investigate using structured phonics here as well.

The whole language approach is certainly alluring. Yet as the Ministry now sees with its digital literacy research, all that glitters is not gold.

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