Ignorance is not bliss, even in Bluff

Briar Lipson
Insights Newsletter
22 November, 2019

“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."

This statement, made by the elected President of the New Zealand Principals’ Federation, Whetu Cormick, perfectly encapsulates what is wrong with education in New Zealand.

Reported in the Herald in response to a question about our national curriculum, Cormick’s example was prompted by our latest research note Ignorance is not bliss.

And it was not a blunder. Far from it. Rather, Cormick’s illustration exemplifies the consciously-held beliefs of the loudest voices in our educational elite. It also exposes at least three of their well-intentioned but ruinous assumptions.

Despite what Cormick claims, schools do not exist to cater to the necessarily constrained, and often passing penchants of their children. Schools do exist to serve the interests of children, but only in the broadest, long-term, life-interest sense of that word.

Secondly, the part of New Zealand you hail from should have little influence over what you learn.

In the past (and still in most other countries) the national curriculum detailed the core of knowledge all children would study. However, instead of providing this safety-net of knowledge, the New Zealand Curriculum dramatically overplays the principle of localism by suggesting that children in the Manawatu need fundamentally different knowledge from those in Manurewa.

They do not.

They may need more practice, more discipline or more motivation. They may even need different hooks or introductions into the knowledge, but they do not need fundamentally different knowledge. If something is worth knowing in Westport, the chances are it is worth knowing in Whanganui, too. If knowledge is powerful in Porirua it will be powerful in Parnell too.

Of course, teachers can and should add local flavour, but the core knowledge all Kiwis need – of culture, maths, science, social studies and so on – is the same. And the danger of giving teachers total discretion over curriculum content is it permits poor quality and/or parochialism. 

Finally, Cormick’s statement suggests he thinks a child in Bluff is unlikely to be interested in the fact there are seven continents. Not only is this hugely presumptuous, it is also downright offensive. Would he say the same about a child growing up in Epsom, Queenstown or Karori?

School is the one and only chance some children get to explore the world beyond their confines. It is time we directed their attentions out of the window, instead of into the mirror. 

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