The basic flaw in our education system

The University of Auckland's Elizabeth Rata explains how New Zealand's National Curriculum is falling short

English and History are the casualties of the lottery that is our National Curriculum. The selection of topics depends upon teachers and schools. Some students may receive a rich dose of English or History or similar subjects such as Te Reo or Music. Others may get little. The tragedy is that those who are already disadvantaged are more likely to get less of this rich knowledge that leads to success.

The cause is a basic flaw in the National Curriculum that has seriously downgraded English and similar subjects. (Maths suffers from the curriculum’s other flaws but my interest here is the additional suffering endured by English and History.) English and Maths are both academic subjects but there is a crucial difference. That difference exposes English to social and political influences that have led to the end of English as a standardised subject in New Zealand secondary schools.

Maths is still Maths no matter who the students are or where they live, or even when they lived. In contrast, the National Curriculum is based on the false belief that the English language and literature taught to students must be connected to their social and cultural circumstances. This has stripped English of its academic identity.

But does English have an academic identity? Yes it does. But it’s complex in a way that the academic identity of Maths isn’t. English is at the same time dependent on the social and cultural context and independent of it. It is both universal and tied to the local context.

English language has grammar, genres, techniques, and so on. These are the universal features of all languages. But those language features are context-dependent when it comes to the content of the grammar, genres, or style.

At first glance literature may appear totally context-dependent. But that’s not so. Concepts such as ‘metaphor’, ‘narrative’, and ‘character’ are universal. The content may be context-dependent. But even that is not clear cut.

Selecting what to teach means considering both the context-dependent and context-independent aspects of English. Selecting quality literature and language depends upon judgment not preference. Preference is the simple ‘I like it because I like it’ approach. You don’t have to give reasons. If the students say they like this book or those lyrics then that’s good enough reason to teach them. Judgment is different. It has criteria. When you judge something you must give reasons for the value of the literature and the worth of the language. These reasons themselves are up for criticism.

But because there is no standardised curriculum we don’t know what topics are taught in English classes throughout the country. Nor do we know why those topics are selected. Is it preference or is it informed judgment that decides what our young people are learning? If we don’t know, then we should.

Experts need to state the criteria for the value of a subject according to that subject’s academic integrity – its quality and the value which gives it that quality. The outcome of this democratic discussion should be the National Curriculum.

That means standardising the English curriculum so that we can be sure that all students receive quality literature and language. This will take political will. It would require consensus from those who know the subject (academics, teachers, and others who study the subject independently) to agree on what has value. These experts will need to justify their selection and the selection must be continually up for debate. Otherwise the selection of content will descend into being the fossilised preference of those with the loudest voices.

In English, as in other languages, grammar must be included. Grammar organises language into patterns that make it comprehensible. Without a knowledge of grammar how can we know what is good writing and what isn’t. Grammar doesn’t just tell us how to use language. It tells us how to judge the language we use. The ‘I like it because I like it’ of preference tells us little and leads us nowhere.

It is the same with literature as with grammar. Without knowing what makes quality literature, how can we judge what has value and what is simply preference? But sorting out a subject’s academic identity is one part of the matter, although it’s where we should start.

There is another reason for selecting English topics and this holds for other subjects as well. Our education system is a national one for a reason. It serves the nation by educating each generation into becoming New Zealanders. What do we want each generation to know so that young people feel they belong – to our past, our present, and our future? Context-dependent knowledge has a social and political dimension to it.

This means that everyone is involved in what is taught. The unstable consensus of the experts I’ve mentioned needs to be presented to the public and justified. These experts need to state the criteria for the value of a subject according to that subject’s academic integrity – its quality and the value which gives it that quality. The outcome of this democratic discussion should be the National Curriculum.

The discussion should be based on this question: What New Zealand and World literature and History (in English and Te Reo) should all New Zealanders know? This requires agreeing on principles for the selection criteria. Crucially it includes justifying those principles.

The first principle is social cohesion. Does the knowledge serve to unite all New Zealanders into a shared understanding of themselves as a society (warts and all)? The second principle is identifying with humankind (past and present). Does the knowledge connect New Zealanders to the world in humanising ways? The third principle is justice – does the knowledge selection acknowledge all New Zealanders fairly?

Selecting what knowledge to teach in context-dependent subjects like English and History is based on two criteria. The first is its intrinsic quality according to the judgment of an unstable consensus of experts. This is the subject’s academic identity. Only content which meets this quality criteria should go forward to be considered for the second stage of selection. The second is the value of the knowledge to society, a value justified according to agreed upon democratic principles. We need a new National Curriculum that meets two criteria. The current one does not.

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