The unconscious bias of low expectations

Roger Partridge
The New Zealand Herald
27 November, 2019

Forgive them for they know not what they have done. Even for those of us without religious convictions, this is not a bad rule of thumb.

Yet, I am not inclined to be so lenient on the President of the New Zealand Principals' Federation, Whetu Cormick, for his words in the NZ Herald last week.

Cormick was commenting on new research released by The New Zealand Initiative on November 19. Based on a survey of 1000 adult New Zealanders, the research found some alarming gaps in our knowledge – of science, maths, history and geography.

Our report questions whether this knowledge-deficit may partly explain the declining performance of New Zealand school students in the international league tables. For example, in the most recent (2016) PIRLS (the Progress in International Literacy Study) results, New Zealand ranked 33rd among the 50 participating counties.

By comparison, England ranked eighth. More worryingly, Kiwi children's scores were significantly worse than the last PIRLS results in 2011.

Our report puts forward the thesis that the flexibility of New Zealand's much-feted national curriculum might be contributing to this knowledge deficit.

Cormick rejects this thesis. According to Cormick, the curriculum is right to let teachers choose topics that interest their students because students can always find out other facts on the internet.

"For a child in Bluff who might be interested in mutton birds, they are not going to be interested in the fact there are seven continents in the world," he said.

Of course, the fact that there are seven continents in the world is not going to take the child from Bluff very far. But, in 21st century New Zealand, are we really saying all a child from Bluff can expect from her education is knowledge of something she already knows?

Surely the role of education is to raise children's eyes above the familiar, to lift their horizons beyond what they know and to give them the best possible shot of reaching the stars. And as for "looking it up on the internet", without a core knowledge of the wider world, how will the child even know what to look for? And how will they make sense of what they find?

Of course, knowing the answers to the dozen or so questions in our survey does not mean you have had a great education. Education is about much more than facts. It is about knowing how: About understanding and about applying what is known to solving problems.

We could also debate the relevance of each of the questions we asked in our survey. You can doubtless have a good education without being able to recall the names of the seven continents. But we can surely all agree that to lead productive and fulfilling lives and to participate meaningfully in society, some basic knowledge of the world beyond our own lived-experience is essential.

As Research Fellow Briar Lipson says in the report: "A society cannot shape its future if it does not understand its past. That is why we need knowledge of history and literature. We cannot understand our place in the world without geography and art. We cannot grapple with the opportunities and risks of technology without knowledge of science."

The government's recent announcement that New Zealand history will become compulsory in the school curriculum suggests it agrees – at least when it comes to teaching children about our own country's past. But why stop at New Zealand history? What about world history, science and art?

The approach Cormick describes of consigning the child in Bluff to the knowledge of muttonbirds (and whatever else she knows about or appears relevant to her) is medieval. It will widen New Zealand's already lamentable educational inequities, taking us back to a pre-Enlightenment period when only the wealthy had access to the most powerful knowledge and the opportunities and prosperity that brings.

The research note is a precursor to a more in-depth study underway. This study will evaluate whether the flexible New Zealand curriculum, adopted with the introduction of NCEA, is fit for purpose.

At the same time as we undertake this research, Auckland University's Professor Elizabeth Rata is leading a team at the university's Faculty of Education and Social Work to develop a new, knowledge-rich national curriculum.

Coincidentally, on the same day we released our research note, Rata's Knowledge in Education Research Unit (KERU) held its annual symposium. Rata's team has developed a new curriculum design model to help schools and teachers ensure all children benefit from a knowledge-rich education. At the symposium, teachers from Auckland Grammar School and St Cuthbert's College presented examples of the curriculum design model in practice - in social studies, science, maths, and music. The demonstrations were stunning.

But, if we are to solve New Zealand's deep-seated educational inequalities, it is not enough that only Auckland's elite schools take part in the project. Rata now has Mangere East's Jean Batten primary school on board and has plans to introduce a kura kaupapa Maori in the project next year.

However, if all children are to reach their potential, every school in New Zealand needs to teach the type of knowledge-rich curriculum as those taught at New Zealand's best schools.

This will not happen if attitudes like Cormick's continue to dominate our education system. A "child-centred" approach to learning that focuses on knowledge "relevant to the child" may seem well-intentioned. But it is highly discriminatory.

In other fields of discrimination, the term "unconscious bias" is used to describe the social stereotypes about groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness.

Cormick's approach is a type of unconscious bias. It is a blinkered approach that limits the horizons of the child from Bluff.

Our children deserve better than the unconscious bias of low expectations.

Roger Partridge is chairman of The New Zealand Initiative


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