The education agenda

Dr Michael Johnston
Insights Newsletter
11 March, 2022

I am excited to have commenced work at the New Zealand Initiative in early March. I come from ten years as an academic in the Faculty of Education at Victoria University of Wellington. At the Initiative, I will be responsible for research and policy advice on education. In this, my first Insights column, I lay out some education policy problems that need urgent attention and my plans to address them during 2022.

It’s no secret that New Zealand has a problem with declining literacy and numeracy. There is a lot of evidence that this decline is largely due to ineffective teaching. During 2022 I will organise symposia on the science of learning in each of these areas. The symposia will marshal scientific evidence on reforming the teaching of these vital skills. I will produce short reports with advice for teachers based on this evidence.

In my first major report I will investigate changes to classroom environments. The Ministry of Education is pushing a shift to (so-called) ‘Modern Learning Environments’ (MLEs).  MLEs don’t just change the physical environment for learning, but also the way in which students and teachers operate.  They are large rooms with multiple teachers and many more children than traditional classrooms. Students don't all focus on the same lesson at the same time but select their own activities. This approach is known as 'student-led learning'. It is part of a broader ‘child-centred’ educational philosophy under which a teacher is seen as ‘the guide on the side’ rather than ‘the sage on the stage’.

The trouble with this philosophy is that it goes against research evidence on effective teaching. Skills like literacy and numeracy must be taught explicitly or there is a substantial risk that they will not be adequately learned. But MLEs are not set up in way that facilitates this, more traditional, kind of teaching. Unless they are very well managed, they tend to be noisy and chaotic. MLEs, therefore, may well be contributing to the decline in literacy and numeracy achievement.

Looking ahead, I will build on my predecessor Briar Lipson's excellent report, titled New Zealand’s Education Delusion. Briar’s report is a wide-ranging critique of the ‘child-centred’ philosophy of education. I will review the scientific evidence on effective teaching in a report to appear in the second half of 2022. The report will include recommendations for reforming teacher training based on that research.

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