Waiting for Godot and the Big Gestalt
The performance of students in New Zealand schools is declining. This has not been difficult to foresee. There are doubtless multiple causes. But the major culprits stand out.
Emeritus Professor Warwick Elley worries that New Zealand's education system is failing an entire generation. "I worry that it's a dumbing down of a whole population of students," he says.Up until a couple of years ago, the Teacher Unions were in denial.
When Elley chaired the international steering committee for one of the first world literacy surveys, in 1990, Kiwi students came fourth. A decade later, when the Programme for International Students Assessment (Pisa) started testing 15-year-olds, NZ students came second only to Finland in reading, third in maths, and sixth-equal in science.
But it has been downhill ever since. In six three-yearly Pisa surveys, the most recent (2015) reported last December, each group of NZ students has scored lower than the group that went before them in both reading and maths. [NZ Herald]
They virtually tarred, feathered and ran-out-of-town anyone who dared suggest that NZ's educational industry was anything other than stellar. The Teacher Unions have controlled state run education in New Zealand for nearly two decades. Their stranglehold over the profession and government schools has squeezed the life out of the system. They are unable to be rigorously self-critical.
Probably the biggest culprit has been the revolutionary brainchild of NCEA (National Certificate of Educational Achievement). This utopian project wanted all pupils to graduate from NZ schools with a certificate of having achieved in something. While may be hyperbolic to assert that some pupils graduated from high school with a Certificate in Environmental Studies because they demonstrated an ability to pick up litter in the school yard, at the same time it's not too far from the truth.
But [Emeritus Professor Warwick] Elley believes [NCEA standards] have actually dragged most students down. They have:In other words, students are not being taught to think, nor have they been given the lost tools of learning. But they have been coached to achieve standards. Moreover, the government schools have opposed focusing upon providing the tools of thinking and learning. Instead the pupil-centric approach to modern education puts the pupil at the centre of their own education. This is dressed up as, "letting the child learn at their own pace," and "pupil focused learning" which sounds wonderful (to the naive and uneducated). Here's how it worked out in maths:
•Focused teachers narrowly on teaching what is tested (only reading, writing and maths in the case of national standards), so students are flummoxed when faced with Pisa's tests of broader knowledge and skills;
•Encouraged schools to steer weaker students into easier NCEA subjects that they can pass, such as statistics instead of algebra, so they can't cope with Pisa's harder questions;
•Broken up subjects into small chunks for NCEA credits, rather than helping students achieve the deep understanding that comes from seeing the big picture;
•Allowed our top students to relax as soon as they reach the standards or gain 80 NCEA credits, instead of stretching them to achieve their full potential;
•Intensified competition between schools, so the best schools attract the best teachers and students at the cost of declining quality in other schools.
Finally, the Initiative and Hattie blame a specific teaching change called the Numeracy Project for our uniquely sharp decline in Pisa maths scores. The project, launched in 2000, trained primary teachers to give students "a range of different ways to solve problems" and is said to have reduced emphasis on basic knowledge such as the times tables.So, does two plus two equal four? Who knows. Let's have a look at different strategies to solve this question. You, dear pupil, can pick the strategy you like--which will keep you wonderfully motivated and profoundly interested in studying maths. Actually, it will make and keep you, the pupil fundamentally confused. And so it has come to pass.
"Teachers loved it because they didn't have to know the maths, they only had to know the strategies," says Hattie. "It led to 10 years of the greatest decline in maths. People have woken up to the fact that that was one of our biggest failures."
Sadly, we have little to nil confidence that things will change in the short term, or even longer term. Even more sad is the reality in many homes. Pupils return home from school where they so often exist in a fog of confusion, only to enter a house where there are no books, and where their current "care-givers" never read to them. They rarely sit down as a family to eat and converse together. They play games on electronic devices until the wee hours of the night. They live in their own virtual world. So much of the real world remains a confusing mystery.
But don't worry. Somewhere in the next thirty-five years the average bemused pupil-now-adult will have a blinding gestalt. They will suddenly be ready to learn. All will be sorted out, PISA scores notwithstanding. And if not? . . . . Ah, it will be someone else's problem. Don't worry. Be happy.