Teach subject knowledge, not activism

Briar Lipson
Insights newsletter
24 January, 2020

Last week, an educational resource unveiled by Ministers Shaw and Hipkins was praised by The Guardian newspaper for putting New Zealand “at the forefront of climate change education worldwide”. ACT MP David Seymour judged differently, describing the same resource as “state-organised bullying”.

Readers can appraise the optional ministry resource for themselves. However, what matters is not its content (important though it is). What matters is how we have reached a point where a ministry resource can so liberally mix science and political activism, and expect to be well received.

The answer lies in New Zealand’s retreat from subjects.

Most people agree that schooling should teach children to think, be creative and solve problems for themselves. Subject knowledge is fundamental to these skills, so in most other countries schools teach it - selected and sequenced by their nations’ leading subject professionals.

However, during the 1990s and 2000s, influential educators in New Zealand became convinced that instead of carefully and cumulatively teaching subject knowledge, schools should instead teach skills, cross-curricularly. This is why, nowadays, instead of listing the basic concepts and content students should study in each subject, our national curriculum focuses on cross-curricular competencies.

It is a seductive idea, that if we just teach children the right skills, like teamwork and problem solving, and the right values, like equity and sustainability, then they will find the cures for cancer and injustice. Indeed, it is ideas like these that encouraged some politicians and teachers to think that a unit of lessons mixing climate science with political activism is what our children and planet need.

It is not.

If New Zealand is serious about equipping children to fight climate change, lessons spent pledging action and tracking emotions on ‘Feeling Thermometers’ are wasteful. Instead, children need coherent courses in history, economics and chemistry.

Already, scientists are discovering new ways to capture carbon and generate clean energy. Innovation would accelerate if governments, encouraged by activists, priced carbon high enough to reduce its emission into our atmosphere.

If Kiwi kids are to fight climate change, our national curriculum must support every school to teach a coherent, subject-based, knowledge-rich curriculum. Climate would be covered in geography, atmosphere and why it is changing in science, politics and incentives in social studies. 

Curricula would be set by subject experts: politicians could no longer interfere.

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