New Zealand’s education revolution

Dr Oliver Hartwich
The Australian
24 April, 2024

In New Zealand, one of the most exciting education reforms in the world is quietly getting underway. Erica Stanford, the country’s new Education Minister, is on a mission to overhaul the education system from top to bottom – and she is leaving no stone unturned. 

Stanford, a rising star in Prime Minister Christopher Luxon’s cabinet, has hit the ground running since taking office in late 2023. In just a few short months, she has announced a suite of reforms that promise to fundamentally reshape the way New Zealand children are taught.

At the heart of Stanford’s agenda is a return to knowledge-rich curricula and explicit instruction in foundational skills. It is a decisive break from the child-centred, competency-based approach that has dominated New Zealand classrooms for decades.

Under the reforms, primary schools will be required to dedicate an average of one hour each per day to reading, writing and maths. While it is doubtful that the requirement will be rigorously enforced, it sends a strong signal that the Minister is serious about improvement in these crucial skills. Not that an hour for each of these core subjects should be too hard a challenge for schools.

Mobile phones will be banned during school hours to minimise distractions. Schools will be required to assess student progress in core subjects twice per year and to report the results to parents. And the curriculum will be reviewed to specify in detail the knowledge students must master at each year level.

Now, one might say that these policy measures are hardly rocket science. In a way, one could rather describe them as common sense or a “back to basics” approach. But it is precisely that which makes Stanford’s policies so revolutionary. For decades, the education establishment has not focussed sufficiently on the basics, nor even displayed common sense.

Perhaps Stanford’s most consequential change is a requirement for all primary schools to use a “structured literacy” approach to teaching reading. Structured literacy systematically and explicitly teaches children the key components of reading, including phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. 

The structured literacy mandate marks a seismic shift for New Zealand education. For years, the prevailing approach has been based on “whole language” theory, which assumes children learn to read naturally through exposure to books. Phonics and other foundational skills have often taken a backseat.

The results have been disastrous. New Zealand’s literacy rates have declined steadily over recent decades. On international assessments like PIRLS, the country now ranks well below other advanced nations. A shocking two-thirds of students failed the writing component of a recent pilot assessment for NCEA, the national assessment system.

Stanford is determined to reverse this trend. Her structured literacy push is backed by a mountain of evidence from cognitive science and reading research. Study after study has shown that explicit, systematic instruction in phonics and other key skills is the most effective way to teach reading – especially for students who struggle.

Crucially, Stanford is putting serious resources behind the reforms. Schools will receive extensive training and support to implement structured literacy in the classroom. Teachers will learn the science of reading and how to use direct instruction techniques. 

It is a comprehensive, evidence-based approach that has few parallels in the world. If implemented well, it could transform the literacy landscape in New Zealand and provide a model for other countries to follow.

But Stanford’s ambitions extend beyond reading. Across the board, she is working to re-orient New Zealand education towards a knowledge-rich curriculum that specifies the content students must learn in each subject, at each grade level.

The curriculum reforms mark a rejection of the “21
st century skills” philosophy that has long dominated New Zealand education. For years, the emphasis has been on generic competencies like “critical thinking” and “problem solving” rather than mastery of subject knowledge. Traditional academic disciplines have often been sidelined in favour of “project-based learning” and “student-led inquiry”. 

Stanford argues this approach has badly shortchanged New Zealand children, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. On that, she can point to a wealth of research showing that knowledge is the key to reading comprehension, critical thinking, and academic success. Students need a broad base of background knowledge to engage with complex texts and ideas.

By contrast, the skills-focused approach has often left students with significant gaps in their knowledge. Many arrive at university lacking even basic facts about history, science, and literature. Even worse, many lack basic writing skills, having made it through school never having written more than a paragraph at a time. The consequences are particularly acute for disadvantaged students, who are less likely to acquire academic knowledge or literacy at home.

Stanford’s solution is to create a sequenced, content-rich curriculum that builds knowledge systematically over time. The goal is to ensure all students, regardless of background, have access to the key facts, ideas and concepts that underpin each subject.

Of course, there will be resistance from some quarters of the education establishment, particularly those wedded to child-centred, inquiry-based approaches.

But cognitive research backs Stanford’s approach. It has consistently shown that explicit instruction, regular practice, and a strong foundation of background knowledge are essential for learning. Students do not acquire skills like critical thinking in a vacuum; they need a rich base of content knowledge to draw upon.

Stanford also has the strong backing of Prime Minister Luxon. Education reform was a central plank of the National Party’s successful 2023 election campaign. Luxon has staked his government’s credibility on lifting academic achievement and closing equity gaps.

As Stanford presses ahead with her reforms, there will undoubtedly be bumps along the way. But if she succeeds, the impact will be profound, and not just for New Zealand’s students.

New Zealand could provide powerful proof that a knowledge-rich curriculum and explicit instruction work. In a global education landscape still largely dominated by skills-based, constructivist thinking, Stanford’s agenda would offer a compelling counter-narrative.

Other countries will be watching New Zealand closely in the years ahead. If Stanford can demonstrate that a knowledge-rich curriculum, coupled with explicit, research-based instructional methods, can lift achievement at scale, it could have far-reaching implications for education policy around the world.

To read the full article in The Australian ($) website, click here.

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