Monday, 25 December 2017

The Curse of Curriculum Inflation

Get Back to Basics in Schools

Garth George
Rotorua Daily Post
8th March, 2013

I have argued for years that our education system is failing because it does not properly teach the fundamentals upon which all learning is based. Those fundamentals are spelling (reading and writing) and basic mathematics (arithmetic) - the "three Rs".  My argument has lately been validated by two expert educationists, who have pointed to serious failures in primary and secondary schooling - spelling and counting.

We have known for years that far too many young people are leaving secondary school unable to express themselves adequately orally and in writing and, conversely, unable to understand basic oral and written English.  Now we know why. Research reported in this newspaper has found that New Zealand teachers struggle to find time to teach spelling within the curriculum and lack professional knowledge about English language structure.

And, even worse, University of Canterbury senior education lecturer Brigid McNeill, who surveyed 405 primary school teachers from a variety of regions and schools of varying socio-economic status, discovered that "many teachers have reported that their initial teacher education programmes did not provide them with adequate training in this area".

I find this incredible.
Our children are not being taught to spell - the fundamental necessity in all learning - because their teachers don't know how to and many can't spell themselves.  But school principals in Rotorua and the Western Bay, while conceding that pupils' ability to spell is not what it should be - insist that it is not taught properly because there isn't enough time owing to the breadth of the modern curriculum that had to be covered.

One said: "There are growing demands on schools to have a curriculum that is much wider than it was 20 years or 30 years ago." There weren't enough hours in the day, he said to "do justice" to all the subjects that needed to be covered.  So time is the problem? What absolute nonsense.

It's not a matter of time, it's a matter of using that time most effectively - by dealing with the most important aspects of education first. If children can't spell and thus understand language oral and written, how on earth can they learn anything else?

The same goes for arithmetic, which is the foundation of all mathematical calculations. Yet an international survey has reported that New Zealand 9-year-olds finished last-equal in maths among peers in developed countries.  The survey showed that almost half could not add 218 and 191 in a test and the problem persisted into high school, where there were still students who struggled with the basics.  For Education Minister Hekia Parata to describe the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study results as "extremely concerning" is a masterpiece of understatement.

And it's no wonder that New Zealand's foremost mathematician, Sir Vaughan Jones, winner of the Fields Medal - the maths equivalent of the Nobel Prize - has spoken out against the way maths is taught in schools. He said children needed to know basic arithmetic before they tried to start problem solving. Children had to do "lots and lots of exercises" to build up familiarity and confidence before they moved on to more advanced concepts.

Since the 1980s, he said, New Zealand had slavishly followed California in abandoning perfectly functional maths methods built up over thousands of years.  Let's hear three hearty cheers for rote learning, which gave me the ability to do mental arithmetic almost automatically, which I still do every day.

As one newspaper said in an editorial: "Basic arithmetic is essential not just for high school maths but for survival in everyday life. The person who cannot add, subtract, multiply and divide is as handicapped as someone who cannot read or write a coherent sentence."  Right on. Let's get back to basics before it's too late.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A friend's son was struggling with basic maths and she taught him the old fashioned long division, long multiplication and so on. That problem solved but another created by the teacher whining about her doing things in a way that is contrary to how maths is taught today. Dumbing down is well entrenched. My grown step daughters don't even know their times tables and think basic maths is irrelavent. The world will not belong to such as these.