How a content-rich curriculum would help our children learn

Dr Michael Johnston
NZ Herald
5 April, 2023

During my years as an education academic, Professor Elizabeth Rata of the Faculty of Education at the University of Auckland always stood out as a model scholar. She has always argued calmly for her ideas, using logic and evidence. And although she has been a frequent target of unfair personal attacks by ideological opponents, I have never known her to respond in kind.

I recently asked Rata for her view of the single most important thing we could do to improve our ailing education system. She answered without hesitation, “Reform the curriculum”.

It’s hard to argue with that. The curriculum is a blueprint for what we teach in our schools. It should provide a framework for teachers to guide young people through the school system. It should provide detailed indicators, so that teachers can clearly identify who is on track, and who needs additional assistance. It should also ensure that the domain of knowledge that we expect all of our schools to teach is adequately covered.

New Zealand’s curriculum hardly qualifies as such a framework. It’s threadbare. There is very little detail to help teachers guide students. This is a problem, both for the teaching of core skills like literacy and numeracy at primary level, and for disciplinary subjects like English, mathematics, history and science at secondary level.

The lack of specificity in the curriculum means that teachers must spend more time developing content than they should have to. Even more seriously, the actual content taught varies widely across schools. Regrettably, there is nothing national about the New Zealand Curriculum.

The problems don’t end there. Instead of clear guidance for each school year, the curriculum is divided into three-year bands. That makes it difficult for teachers, let alone parents, to tell whether or not a student is on track.

A third problem is that the curriculum includes a distraction, called the ‘key competencies’. These are things like ‘managing self’ and ‘relating to others’. They don’t need to be in the curriculum because they don’t need to be taught directly. Personal responsibility and social skills are acquired through interacting with others in a community.

Schools should be set up to foster this kind of knowledge. An orderly and respectful school environment fosters interpersonal skills. A school in which students are expected to complete tasks and keep their word fosters personal responsibility. But trying to teach this kind of knowledge directly isn’t effective. It doesn’t need to be in the curriculum.

So, our curriculum overemphasises knowledge that doesn’t need to be taught and underspecifies knowledge that does. It’s hopelessly vague when it comes to signposts for students’ progress.

Not all professors of education agree that the curriculum needs reform, though. Writing in Newsroom, Professor Peter O’Connor, Rata’s University of Auckland colleague, criticises National’s recently-announced curriculum policy. He says that the intention to beef up the curriculum in the areas of literacy, numeracy and science would make it “dull and narrow”.

In another recent column, in the Herald, former York University Professor David Cooke defends three-year achievement bands in the curriculum on the grounds that children acquire knowledge at different rates. He also takes an unscholarly swipe at opposition leader Christopher Luxon, implying that he is slow to learn.

Both Professors’ arguments are straw men.

In response to O’Connor, I say that there’s nothing duller and more narrowing for a child than being at school and not learning. He seems to have overlooked that far too many of our young people, especially those from poorer communities, are leaving school without basic adult levels of literacy and numeracy.

As bad as that is in itself, if children don’t learn sufficient numeracy at primary level, the path to success in mathematics and science at secondary school is closed off. And not learning to read and write closes off the path to almost everything. Far from ‘narrowing’ the curriculum, a focus on ‘the basics’ at primary school, is what opens the curriculum up later on. Besides, National’s policy for two hours per day to be spent teaching literacy and numeracy still leaves about three hours for art, music, P.E., science and more.

Cooke’s argument that including yearly progress markers in a curriculum assumes that all children will learn at the same rate misses the point. Yearly curriculum expectations provide a mechanism to identify students who are falling behind, so that they can receive the additional teaching and support they need. Obviously not all students learn at the same rate, which is precisely why schools need clearer specification of the learning goals for each year.

The Ministry of Education has recently produced a ‘refreshed’ curriculum, due to be introduced in 2026. So far, only drafts of the English and mathematics curricula are available. These documents include a little more content than in the current curriculum, but still not nearly enough. And the three-year bands remain, as do the key competencies.

What schools need is a curriculum that focusses on the core knowledge that is every New Zealander’s birth-right. It must be specified in enough detail for teachers to be able to take a reasonably consistent approach across the country. It must include enough information about what is expected every year for schools to be able to identify students who are falling behind and help them to catch up.

Does that mean that all students will progress at the same rate? Of course it doesn’t. It does provide an opportunity, though, to reduce some of the appalling gaps between the highest and poorest achieving students. It is those students who are served worst by the curriculum’s lack of specificity.

O’Connor calls this approach ‘tired’, ‘cliched’, ‘right-wing’ and ‘ideological’. But it’s hard to see why wanting every child in New Zealand to have an equal chance to succeed at school is any of these things. And his assertion that such a curriculum would be dull and narrow confuses curriculum with teaching. The curriculum simply specifies the knowledge that is to be learned. It’s our teachers who bring it to life.

A high-quality curriculum would be an enormous support to teachers, especially those early in their careers. It would free their time to explore ways to teach engagingly and effectively, and provide clear indications of which students need more help.

Finally, O’Connor and Cooke also have something else in common besides their distaste for National’s curriculum proposals. They both resort to hyperbolic attacks on those with whom they disagree - a sure sign of someone who lacks compelling arguments. The contrast with Professor Rata’s scholarly demeanour could not be starker.

Read more

Stay in the loop: Subscribe to updates