Education

Elizabeth Rata: NZ’s knowledge blind spot

New Zealand is prey to educational fads and fashions. We see it with NCEA, modern learning environments, and the country’s localised curriculum.

It’s in our cultural psyche, the result of a small population and a centralised government. In 1897 Andre Siegfried, an astute French anthropologist, observed our delight in following the latest fashion without waiting for wise and considered discussion. He also noted the power of interest groups in pushing through change.

Over 100 years later the latest education reforms are another excited rush to deal with an issue, in this case the persistent inequality which bedevils education. According to government advisers, reforming school administration is the way forward. But this is not where the problem lies. Reforming school administration will do little, if anything, to address the achievement gap.

The problem is the curriculum and that’s where wise and considered discussion is needed. Constantly repeating that New Zealand has a ‘world-leading curriculum’ does not make it so. What we do have is a localised curriculum where communities and schools decide what to teach with widely varying results.

According to the Ministry of Education, “your local curriculum should be unique and responsive to the priorities, preferences and issues of your community and your people”. In contrast, countries like England have a standardised curriculum to ensure that the knowledge provided at school is the same whether children are from wealthy or poor homes. Of course, this doesn’t make up for social disadvantage. Like any policy a standardised curriculum isn’t a cure-all but without access to the same academic knowledge, young people are even further disadvantaged, something we are now seeing in this country as the gap widens.

The devaluing of academic knowledge is bad enough for individual children as they are denied the chance to grow their minds. For the nation the consequences are serious and deeply worrying. So why does academic knowledge matter so much? Why, despite the fact that academic knowledge is difficult to acquire and takes years of hard work, is a national standardised curriculum essential to New Zealand’s future? The answer lies in the way that this type of knowledge builds our minds.

Constantly repeating that New Zealand has a ‘world-leading curriculum’ does not make it so.

Intelligence is a child’s symbolic knowledge. It consists of abstract thoughts and the language used to express those thoughts. We see it in the young child who can talk about mammals (an abstract idea) rather than just a cat. It’s the 16-year-old starting a building apprenticeship who knows about the reaction of chemicals on timber rather than just how to saw a log. It’s the book-lover whose knowledge of grammar enables enjoyment of the imaginative world of literature. Academic knowledge provides us with concepts that build a complex way of thinking and an equally complex language. We become intelligent by thinking and using language this way. It’s a long, slow, difficult task but the benefits are huge.

The obsession with administration reform blocks us from identifying the real problem as the localised competency-based curriculum. One hopeful sign is the recent media interest in why young people don’t study history in our schools. This is a surprise to some who believe, quite reasonably, that the national curriculum is filled with knowledge.

It would come as an even greater shock to know that some students don’t study other subjects either, or if they do, the subjects are emptied out of the knowledge we would expect to find. It’s now possible to study English throughout primary and secondary and not encounter one New Zealand poet. What about our geography? Are nine-year olds required to know our main towns, mountains, and rivers? What about the building blocks of language? What vocabulary is taught at each school level?

The three fatal flaws of our localised curriculum mean that we can’t answer these questions. The first flaw is that individual schools and teachers decide what content to teach. Some schools teach rich subject knowledge. Others do not. This makes going to school a lottery. The second flaw is that the curriculum is based on competencies. The curriculum states what children should be able to do, that is their level of competency, rather than stating the actual academic knowledge they should know.

But knowledge is a complex mix of concepts, content, and competencies. This is the knowledge itself (content), what it means (concepts), and what we can do with it (competency). A good curriculum would design all three in a coherent way. The third flaw is that student interest drives the pick and mix selection of supermarket education. But how do you know what you are interested in if you don’t first know what it is? Interest follows from knowledge, it doesn’t precede it.

In the absence of a national curriculum which states what knowledge to teach, we don’t know what this generation of New Zealanders are learning. What we do know is that we have two serious indicators of a knowledge problem. The first is the persistent inequality gap. The second may prove to be as serious. It is that even our more successful students are falling down the international rankings.

My colleagues and I have a project underway to turn the national curriculum on its head. Working with schools and teachers we are taking a concept-content-competency approach to curriculum design. We work from two principles. The first is that academic knowledge matters for individual children because it builds intelligence. The second is that a national curriculum is responsible for creating a shared pool of understanding so that we can see ourselves as a unified society. What we have at present is localised, competency-base curriculum which confines young people to what they already know and to a community they already know.

The outcome for New Zealand is a nation increasingly divided between those who know a lot and those who know less and less. The localised curriculum is also a way to build division between communities. Until the education system deals with this knowledge blindspot, reforms to administration and assessment are simply tinkering with a fundamentally flawed system.

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