New Zealand’s great education decline and the future of work

Roger Partridge
NZ Herald
13 October, 2020

The rise of automation, artificial intelligence and pressures from developing economies are threatening low-skilled and unskilled jobs. Never has the need for school leavers to be well-educated been more important than today.

Yet something is rotten at the core of New Zealand’s education system. A growing proportion of children leave school unable to read an instruction manual or do basic maths. Over the last twenty years, our education system has slipped from being the envy of the world to barely mediocre.

Kiwi students once ranked near the top of international education league tables. In the latest results from the highly rated Progress in International Reading and Literacy Study, Year 5 students placed last among all English-speaking countries and 24th out of all 26 participating OECD countries. Students suffered similar slides in maths and science.

The New Zealand education system is also now one of the most unequal in the world. The gap between the educational “haves” and “have nots” eclipses all our English-speaking OECD peers. All this, despite Government spending per child increasing in real terms by more than 30% since 2001.

In her new book, my New Zealand Initiative colleague Briar Lipson exposes how pseudo-scientific dogmas have enveloped our education system. The book New Zealand’s education delusion: How bad ideas ruined a once world-leading school system is a startling dissection of the perils of the so-called child-centred approach forced onto schools by official curriculum and assessment policy.

The child-centred approach places children at the centre of decisions about both what they learn and how they learn it. Subject matter should “relate to the child” and teachers are encouraged to let children lead their learning.

Gone are the days when teachers followed a national, knowledge-based curriculum, ensuring all children are exposed to the same knowledge in core academic subjects like English, maths, science and social studies. Instead, the much-vaunted New Zealand Curriculum is a scant 67 pages long. The entire curriculum for social science (including history, social studies, geography, economics and politics) for Years 1-13 fits on a single A4 page.

How much children learn about the world around them is left to the discretion of the individual school, teacher and, increasingly, child. Instead of knowledge, children are to develop “competencies” like problem-solving and critical thinking, commonly described as “21st century skills.” (Goodness knows how any leader managed when they were educated in the 20th century.)

Some schools have continued with a more traditional, knowledge rich curriculum. This is especially true of schools that have opted out of the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) in favour of international examination systems like Cambridge or International Baccalaureate. But in state schools, New Zealand Curriculum’s extreme child-centred approach prevails.

The problems with a child-centred approach are obvious. Or they are to almost everyone except those responsible for the education system. If the content of classroom study must “relate to the child,” students may learn little about the world outside their family or surroundings. This risk will be greatest for children whose home life involves neither books nor quality time engaging with adult family members.

But the purpose of education must be to open every child’s eyes to the world. To take them beyond what is familiar. To give them a chance to foot it with the best in the world. Without broadening children’s knowledge of the world – and of New Zealand’s place in it – schooling limits their ability to think critically about the world.

Children will not grasp a headline about the perils of “Shipping arms to the Saudis” if they do not have a wide enough vocabulary to comprehend that arms does not mean body parts and that Saudi Arabia is a nation involved in conflict in the Middle East.

Closer to home, some readers may recall the scandal in 2018 when Year 13 History students complained that they could not be expected to understand the meaning of the word “trivial” in a Level 3 NCEA exam.  Some guessed the word meant significant. Others had no clue. Within a few days, 2500 students had signed an online petition asking the New Zealand Qualifications Authority to mark the exam leniently.

In response, NZQA said the exam language was “within the range of vocabulary” for students at NCEA Level 3. However, if students had addressed the quote and integrated their ideas with it, NZQA agreed they would not be penalised for misinterpreting the word.

This prompted shocked disbelief. How could trivial be beyond the comprehension of students in their 13th year of education? The disbelief was not just local. News of the fiasco appeared in the print media in both Australia and the United Kingdom.

In New Zealand’s Education Delusion, Lipson argues that the solution to these education woes is to strengthen the role of knowledge in the New Zealand Curriculum.

Drawing on both empirical research and cognitive science, Lipson shows that the New Zealand Curriculum’s approach has things backwards. Knowledge is a pre-requisite for all competencies, from reading comprehension to creativity and problem-solving (try fixing an engine without knowing how it works). Lipson’s research also demonstrates that direct instruction by teachers is the best route to gain that knowledge.

Taking on the education establishment is not for the faint-hearted. The Ministry of Education, the New Zealand Council for Education Research and the teachers’ unions are well-organised. They (mostly) sing from the same song sheet and defend their beliefs with a religious fervour. And were it not for international data, it would be almost impossible even to identify New Zealand’s downward trajectory and grave inequities.

True to form, Lipson’s report has been greeted with howls of outrage from proponents of the child-centred approach, including former Kiwi (and now Australian) educationalist Professor John Hattie, and Principals’ Federation President Perry Rush. Indeed, Rush was in such a hurry to get out his press release in response to Lipson’s report he had clearly not had time to read Lipson’s report.

Had Rush done so, he would have known his call for The New Zealand Initiative to focus on something useful like “the inequities of our education system” (instead of his precious child-centred learning ideology) was precisely what the Initiative’s report has done.

Making the transmission of knowledge the centre of education is an issue of social justice. Many children from vulnerable communities start school with an enormous knowledge gap compared with children from homes full of books. One US study reveals that a child living in poverty can start school having heard 30 million fewer words than her classmates.

If schools do not try to solve the knowledge gap with a knowledge rich curriculum, New Zealand’s grave educational inequities will continue.

Fortunately, Lipson’s is not a lone voice. Other academic educationalists like Victoria University’s Dr Michael Johnson and The University of Auckland’s Professor Elizabeth Rata are engaged in the battle against the extremes of child-centred dogma. So too are many teachers and principals – especially at independent schools whose boards have adopted a traditional educational approach.

Success is critical. As the future of work evolves, the education system’s child-centred delusion is setting up for failure those who need the most help.

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