Tied up in knots about knowledge

Briar Lipson
Insights Newsletter
28 February, 2020

Like so much of value in life, education is oblique. Unfortunately, NCEA’s reviewers have yet to appreciate this.

Just as the route to happiness is not to pursue happiness directly, the route to competency is not to pursue competencies directly. Instead, the key is committing knowledge to long term memory and then practising it, repeatedly.

This is what a skilled golfer does at the driving range. She breaks down the skill of perfectly striking a ball to its constituent knowledge – how to stand, where to hold, how to swing – then practises the moves over and over.

Becoming a skilled scientist or historian follows the same process: isolating the most powerful knowledge then memorising it until the knowledge-party in your head is so rich and connected you can analyse, think critically and be creative.

Some schools in New Zealand understand this knowledge-bound nature of competencies. Because of this, they either ignore our competency-focused national curriculum or opt-out in favour of alternatives like Cambridge. The recent announcements about possible changes to NCEA will encourage more schools to do the same.

One particular low-light in the announcement is the Ministry’s proposal to further dumb-down national aspirations (and any tall poppies who may be lurking) by replacing assessments in Physics, Biology, Chemistry and Earth and Space Science with only 'Science' at Level 1.

The normally agreeable science teaching community is rightly up in arms, incensed about the removal of individual subjects and the nature of new assessments. By some feat of extraordinary derangement, the experts who devised the four new standards have managed to make them even more vacuous than before.

Instead of organising around the great bodies of scientific knowledge, the standards focus on attributes (curiosity, creativity, critical thinking and collaboration) and the three skills of investigating, taking action and interpreting.

This is a wretched deed. Children need basic knowledge of science, not lessons practising generic competencies.

The opportunity cost of this flawed methodology is huge. Time spent making science-informed responses to real-world issues is time not spent learning about cell structures, photosynthesis, ecosystems and materials.  Time spent interpreting scientific claims in the media is time not spent studying atmospheric pollutants, atomic energy or how the human body works.

Ultimately, time spent studying competencies is futile. Knowledge may feel like an oblique route to competency, but it is also the only one that works. One day New Zealand's curriculum and assessments will accept this reality.

Stay in the loop: Subscribe to updates