Computer skills upgrade will overload teachers

A digital curriculum initiative that was announced by the previous government is due to begin a progressive roll-out next year. Is it still on track, and are we doing enough to prepare children for a new future? Shane Cowlishaw reports.

A new digital curriculum will be available to schools next year, but teachers are doubtful they will have the skills to teach it.

Announced by the previous government in June, it will see $40 million spent on boosting teachers’ skills so they can deliver the new curriculum for pupils in years one to 10.

Split into two key areas – ‘computational thinking’ and ‘designing and developing digital outcomes’ – it would see children learn key digital skills such as computer coding and hardware design.

The new content was expected to be available for schools from January 2018, with a transition period of two years.

But questions have been raised about how many schools will be prepared to begin teaching the curriculum next year and whether those that want to have enough time to train staff.

A draft went out for consultation until the end of August, with the results released by the Ministry of Education last week.

“We’re now a month before the end of the year, people need to know what they’re doing, this shouldn’t be a political issue, it should be a cross-party issue.”

While there was widespread agreement from schools that a digital curriculum was needed, there were concerns about its implementation, training for teachers and the extra workload.

Of teachers surveyed, 81 percent responded that there would be significant challenges in implementing the curriculum.

“Many submitters commented that the timetable for implementation of the proposed content is too rushed, not allowing teacher capability to develop and for them to gain familiarity with the curriculum content,” a report on the submissions noted.

Whetu Cormick, national president of the New Zealand Principals' Federation, said there was no way schools who wanted to start teaching the new curriculum at the start of next year would be ready.

He believed the rollout was being rushed and understood the Ministry had been under pressure to get the piece of work drafted.

Business as usual

National’s education spokesperson Nikki Kaye worked on the initiative before the election and said she had now become concerned with the timeframe.

Some schools wanted to deliver the curriculum next year and it was a huge opportunity for the country, Kaye said.

Advice received while she was Education Minister indicated that it needed to be agreed upon and gazetted quickly following the election.

“We’re now a month before the end of the year, people need to know what they’re doing, this shouldn’t be a political issue, it should be a cross-party issue.”

But new Education Minister Chris Hipkins said the timeline had not changed.

The document would be published in the Gazette next month and released to schools “before the start of the 2018 school year”. He was still awaiting a detailed briefing on support for teachers.

“There is a two-year lead-in (transition) period built in before schools are required to incorporate the new curriculum into their teaching and learning programmes. This is to give teachers time to gain familiarity with the curriculum and to develop capacity.”

The Ministry itself has assured teachers that there will be a training package available to help get them up to speed.

“There’s a whole swathe of people who absolutely get in and are trying to push change but there are also people who don’t understand it fully. We’re talking changing core beliefs here.”

Ellen MacGregor-Reid, deputy secretary of early learning and student achievement, said that support would ramp up as schools started to use the new content.

“The support package will also cater for all teachers, from those who may just want to confirm they’re on the right track already through to those needing to start at square one of understanding the key ideas behind the new digital content.”

Ministry/industry cooperation key

A recent report from the Economist Intelligence Unit determined that New Zealand led the world in providing future-skills education for its youth, pointing to comprehensive policies and well-trained teachers.

But there has been past criticism that the Ministry has dragged its heels in the area and a more collaborative approach with the tech sector is needed.

The Mind Lab is at the forefront of changing the way schools approach education. It offers a postgraduate programme through Unitec and will also develop the new course for private teacher training programme Teach First NZ next year.

Education director Richard Rowley scoffed at the idea that New Zealand was doing a perfect job of preparing its children.

Although doing better than many other countries and benefiting from great curriculum values and flexible qualification frameworks, we were hamstrung in other areas, particularly at high school level, he said.

There was too great a focus on gaining NCEA levels and passing tests, which inhibited the creative process.

But Rowley said schools were beginning to understand the need for change, and the Ministry had also started to come around - although it still had a way to go.

“There’s a whole swathe of people who absolutely get it and are trying to push change but there are also people who don’t understand it fully. We’re talking changing core beliefs here.”

Paul Matthews, chief executive of IT Professionals New Zealand, agreed.

While the Ministry had traditionally been slow-moving and unwilling to change, there had been a recent thawing of that attitude.

“If you asked me that question three years ago I would have wholeheartedly agreed but in the last 12 months they have really changed their tune,” Matthews said.

There was now more of a willingness to work alongside industry, which was key, he added.

Regarding the rollout of the new digital curriculum, Matthews agreed the timeframe was optimistic but expected early-adopter schools to have little trouble in taking it on board from next year.

Other schools that struggled to understand digital technology would take longer, but the benefit was that they would now have a framework that they could follow.

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