Time to bring ‘knowledge’ back to schools?
A more progressive approach to our education system will find ways to ensure the school curriculum is both knowledge-rich and forward-facing, writes University of Auckland's John Morgan
New Zealand is currently in the midst of a wide-ranging review of its education system. This is billed as the first real chance to think aloud about the aims and purposes of education since the introduction, in 1988, of Tomorrow’s Schools.
Visitors to the Ministry of Education’s website can fill in an online survey where the first question asks: “If you were the boss of New Zealand’s education system, what would be the first thing you would do?” It’s a broad, open invitation, underpinned by a common-sense assumption that is as Kiwi as Pavlova or summer sausage sizzles – that education matters, and everyone should get a ‘fair go’ at it. In this sense, the review follows a statement by the first Labour education minister Peter Fraser in 1939:
“The Government’s objective, broadly expressed, is that every person, whatever his level of academic ability, whether he is rich or poor, whether he live in town or country, has a right, as a citizen, to a free education of the kind for which he is best fitted and to the fullest extent of his powers."
Update the language, and Fraser’s vision still applies – but it doesn’t answer what it might look like in practice.
At a recent University of Auckland event, members of the Knowledge and Education Research Unit set out arguments for a knowledge-based curriculum. Part of the argument was, if we are serious about ensuring social justice through education, then a key element must be provision of high-quality knowledge to all, through the school curriculum.
To casual readers, the statement that we need a knowledge-based curriculum probably seems bizarre – don’t we already have one? But in recent decades, school systems in the West have turned away from knowledge. As the British-educationalist Michael Young has argued: “Knowledge is an uncomfortable word for many in education today." For some teachers, knowledge has ‘elitist and exclusive connotations’.
In the interests of clarification, I will set out the variety of positions around knowledge, curriculum and social justice currently circulating in educational debates in New Zealand.
The first group in the debate are the critical educators. This group has gained importance with the rise of identity politics which recognises the role of gender, race, sexuality and disability. It reflects the idea that knowledge is socially produced and reflects the interests and standpoints of the powerful: Since ‘knowledge is power’, there is a need to recognise other knowledges and prioritise ‘subjugated’ knowledge. This group has gained considerable influence in New Zealand education as it attempts to deal with long-standing patterns of educational inequality.
A second group are the ludic postmodernists – or knowledge constructors. These educators argue wider culture shifts related to social media, digital technologies and popular culture mean older views of teaching and learning no longer suit students who are ‘always on’. They see these developments as positive, if they can be harnessed and built upon by teachers who value co-construction, play, creativity and ‘gamification’. Some high profile schools in New Zealand are experimenting with these approaches and we await evidence of success.
Ludic postmodernists are closely linked to re-schoolers who argue conditions of knowledge production have changed in the shift to a knowledge economy. Schools and curriculum require radical redesign expressed in the idea that we are currently educating people for jobs that don’t exist, using technologies that have not even been invented. This is closely linked to arguments for New Zealand’s education system to produce ‘human capitalists’ who are innovative, enterprising and will ensure continued economic growth, an agenda set globally by the OECD and President Andreas Schleicher.
The fourth group – school improvers – have little to say about the details of knowledge to be taught in classrooms. They have been in ascendancy since the introduction of Tomorrow’s Schools. They are hot for data, evidence of what works, and typified by the work of Bali Haque, a member of the ‘gang of four’ advisors in the education review. In Changing our Secondary Schools, Haque says: “New Zealand schools are the envy of many overseas. The vast majority of parents and students in New Zealand support their schools and think they are doing a good job. We have a well-regarded national curriculum and qualifications framework, and New Zealanders are often sought-after overseas in competitive job markets”.
When it comes to the curriculum, Haque says, the New Zealand Curriculum "provides schools with a broad enabling framework to work within, which allows them plenty of flexibility to adapt what is taught and how it is taught to their own local environment". Given this starting point, it’s likely the Ministry will remain well in charge of the direction of New Zealand’s education system, and the review will conclude things are basically fine.
Finally, there are those who argue for "bringing knowledge back in" to our schools. Social realists recognise knowledge stands as "the best that has been thought and said". For example, because Robert Boyle – who discovered ‘Boyle’s Law’ – was the son of the 1st Earl of Cork, lived in a castle in County Waterford and amassed enormous personal wealth, it does not mean his finding, that the pressure of a gas tends to increase as the volume of the container decreases, is a product of British imperialism or the sign of a patriarchal Western science establishment. Social realists insist ‘best yet’ knowledge should be an entitlement for all, irrespective of gender, ethnicity, or sexuality.
Some who want to bring knowledge back favour return to a ‘traditional’ curriculum and a ‘Gradgrindian’ diet of facts, dates and figures. But a knowledge-rich curriculum doesn’t have to be like this: a more progressive approach will find ways to ensure the school curriculum is both knowledge-rich and forward-facing, and so allows future generations of New Zealanders to play an informed role in the direction of their country, and the world.
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