Meaningless Debates

by David Hood

Retired after 50 years in education

Career includes 25 years as teacher and principal, Department of Education official, senior manager of ERO, establishment CEO of NZQA and consultant since 1996 – working on range of projects with schools, industry, MoE, Te Wananga o Aotearoa. Author of Our Secondary Schools Don’t Work Anymore [1998].Currently on establishment Board of Tai Wananga, a new model multi-site secondary school.

Debates on (New Zealand’s) National Standards, NCEA (New Zealand secondary school qualifications) , and Charter Schools are likely to continue, and to remain largely meaningless, until as a society we ask and seek to address some more fundamental questions:

  • What is the purpose of schooling in this complex and rapidly changing world?
  • What are the understandings, skills, attitudes and values [or dispositions] our young people need to develop if they are to successfully face the challenges of their futures, and to contribute as productive members of our society and economy?
  • What does this mean in terms of curriculum, teaching and learning, and assessment?
  • How will we know when we are successful?

 To answer these questions we need to have an understanding of history.

 Universal schooling was a response to the emerging mass manufacturing economy of the early part of the 20th century. Its design is now universally described as the factory model because in design and process it reflected the characteristics of the assembly line. Children entered the production line in batches by age and at various points ‘quality checks’ applied to test their educability. Selection was its over-riding objective; its purpose to progressively sift out the 12-15% who would become the professionals, administrators and managers, the decision makers for industrial society. At different points on the production line were the ‘purchasers’ choosing different grades of product suitable for their purposes. At the very end of the line, accepting the surviving 12-15% with the highest grade, were the universities.

 Justification for this selective function lay in the beliefs that intelligence is fixed at birth, is innate, and can be measured in precise numbers. The overt curriculum was reading, writing and arithmetic; the covert curriculum was punctuality, repetition and discipline. Thus the majority were prepared to be passive, obedient workers in the factory and other workplaces.

 While schooling now offers a plethora of subjects, and in spite of numerous ‘reforms’ at high cost to the taxpayer, the key characteristics of the factory model remain. We still have an obsession with trying to measure learning and schooling still grades, sifts and sorts students by seeking to attach numbers to them that are limited measures of a limited range of abilities. Is this what we really want out of our education system?

 Around the world, respected thinkers – politicians, business leaders, economists and academics as well as educators – are saying that the factory model is past its used-by date and needs to be replaced. The reasons are many, but include:

  • We live in a world very different from 100 years ago.
  • There has been in a revolution in our understanding of the nature of intelligence; it is complex, and more than just IQ.
  • We are also much clearer in our understanding of how the brain works and how children learn best.
  • Knowledge is no longer seen as individual, fixed, passive and a matter of facts to be regurgitated, but active and constantly evolving. The emphasis is on creating and sharing and utilising new knowledge, and problem-solving and creativity require multi-disciplinary approaches.
  • The workplace is totally different; employees need a much broader range of skills. Over the past decade the biggest employment gains are in occupations that rely on people skills and emotional intelligence, imagination and creativity.
  • Recognition that the current model cannot meet the needs of all students and cannot resolve the issue of the continuing under-achievement of particular groups.

 Among those challenging our current system are Stephen Covey [e.g. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People], Peter Senge and Tom Peters who will be well known to New Zealand business leaders. Peter Senge argues that: “The problem is not measurement per se. The problem is the loss of balance between valuing what can be measured and what cannot, and becoming so dependent on quantitative measures that they displace judgement and learning.” Tom Peters in his book Re-Imagine comments that we need a school curriculum “that values questions above answers; creativity above fact regurgitation; individuality above uniformity and excellence above standardised performance.”

 Every child will be a future parent, voter, citizen, member of the community [local, national and increasingly global] and a worker. The emphasis of the current system is on the last, in the false belief that delivering education in this way, through standardisation and a focus on ‘academic’ learning New Zealand will be assured of a bright economic future. There is however little correlation between a country’s economic performance and creativity and technological innovation, and national testing, and how many external exams and school qualifications it has in the last three years of secondary schooling, or with the international PISA results [which seem to be the basis of the oft repeated claim that “New Zealand has one of the best education systems in the world”].

 On other international indicators New Zealand doesn’t rate anywhere near as highly e.g. child and alcohol and drug abuse, youth suicide and incarceration rates, the poverty gap. These ‘outcomes’ seem to be a clear indication there is something wrong with our education system. Along with those major issues the world faces such as climate change, the environment and rapid depletion of the earth’s resources, we seem to be leaving it to our children to find answers to all of these problems because of our continuing reluctance and apparent inability to deal with them. To find solutions will require an education system that produces young people who understand themselves and others, and the world in which they live; are tolerant and compassionate; and lateral, creative, innovative and ‘connected’ thinkers.

New models of schooling are emerging in many different countries including here in New Zealand. All of them share common philosophies and challenge conventional practice; they also show that poverty and ethnicity do not have to be barriers to success in learning.

 This means a strong focus on every student as an individual, their individual strengths, interests, passions and aspirations, and the nurturing of their mental, physical, social/emotional and cultural/spiritual capabilities [see Covey]. It also means high expectations for every student, a focus on quality work and students applying effort and perseverance.

 The curriculum of these schools is designed to provide rich and varied contexts for students to acquire, develop and apply a broad range of knowledge, understanding and skills; to enable them to think creatively and critically, to solve problems and to make a difference for the better; to give them the opportunity to become creative, innovative, enterprising and capable of leadership to equip them for their future lives as workers and citizens; to enable them to respond positively to opportunities, challenges and responsibilities, and to manage risk and cope with change and adversity.

Some of these new kinds of schools monitor their students for up to 12 years after graduation; they recognise that what students achieve after school is probably a better measure of the value of their schooling than what they did in school.

 Instead of having endless debates about National Standards, NCEA and Charter Schools as if they are separate and isolated issues we need to have a national debate on what should be the nature and purpose of schooling in this complex and rapidly changing world full of messy problems, rather than on what it is now. We need to answer questions such as:

  • What do we mean by learning?
  • What does it mean to be literate in a networked, connected world?
  • What does it mean to be educated?
  • What do students need to know and be able to do to be successful in their futures lives?

 We need to do that rather than continue to tinker with a model that increasingly is seen to be irrelevant, that is itself largely meaningless, and obsolete for today’s world.


2 thoughts on “Meaningless Debates

  1. Interesting post and it’s always a good idea to think deeply about the reasons for and ‘ends
    of education, but your analysis of the history is flawed. The reasons for universal education were far more complex than you describe here, and this makes for quite a different understanding. The tension you describe is one that’s been argued and thrashed out since at least the 1930s and the NEF in New Zealand… Yes selection and sorting, and the type of curriculum you describe have been aspects of the education system, but at the same time individual growth, personal enquiry, education for life, leisure and citizenship have all been explicit and significant goals too. If you’re going to recommend knowing the history I suggest that you refamiliarise yourself with it too.
    Also- the claim that our other youth related statistics like child abuse, poverty and drug and alcohol abuse are “indications that something is wrong with the education system” is bizarre – it would be more valid to claim that despite these things the fact that our education system does relatively well is a sign of its strength.

    • If we think children in poverty cannot learn i.e. learning is predetermined, why have schools?
      If we think education does not influence young people and adults in their thinking, their values and their actions and reactions as individuals in society, why have schools?
      If the primary purpose of schooling is selectivity [and I would argue that it is] then we should not be trying to justify it is something else. That is hand over heart stuff that justifies continued tinkering with an out-dated model of schooling.

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