Turning the curriculum upside down

Dr Michael Johnston
Insights Newsletter
10 March, 2023

New Zealand’s school curriculum has things exactly backwards.

Let me explain.

Acclaimed US psychologist Professor David Geary has distinguished two basic kinds of knowledge.

The first, he calls ‘biologically primary’. We acquire biologically primary knowledge without it being directly taught. Our brains have structures specifically set up for the job.

The clearest example of biologically primary knowledge is oral language. Very young children naturally learn the language that’s spoken around them without anyone directly teaching it to them.

Geary called his other category of knowledge, ‘secondary’. This is the knowledge that human beings have developed throughout history. It includes, among many other things, the knowledge traditionally taught in schools – reading, writing, mathematics, history, science and so on.

Secondary knowledge does have to be directly taught. We won’t reliably acquire it if it’s not.

The New Zealand Curriculum includes both primary and secondary knowledge. It calls primary knowledge, ‘key competencies’, and secondary knowledge, ‘learning areas’.

The key competencies include thinking, self-management, and social interaction. They are at the forefront of the curriculum. This risks teachers over-prioritising the key competencies and thinking they need to teach them directly.

Naturally we want children to learn to think, to look after themselves and to treat others well. Schools do have a role in supporting them to acquire this kind of knowledge. But because these things are biologically primary, there’s no point in trying to teach them directly. And doing so detracts from time that should be spent learning secondary knowledge.

The best way to foster children’s thinking is to teach them facts and concepts, and to model productive ways of discussing and questioning them. Healthy personal and social behaviour will be established in a structured and orderly school environment in which such behaviour is expected and modelled.

The learning areas are in the back half of the curriculum. They are very scant on detail and structure. But these are the very things that teachers need to be given much more support to directly teach.

The curriculum should specify secondary knowledge in much more detail than it does. It should help teachers sequence their teaching, so that children are always operating from a solid foundation for further learning.

Our national curriculum doesn’t do this. It’s no wonder our education system is failing to make young people even basically literate.

It’s time for a new curriculum that puts secondary knowledge at the forefront.

It’s time to turn the New Zealand upside down.

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