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Being open to the possibility of different approaches in education

The recent education report from the New Zealand Initiative, and more specifically the responses it has generated, has emphasised for me the need for greater nuance, consensus building and an openness to the possibility of plurality in our schooling system. These ideas were further reinforced in two pieces I have recently read, both of which provide differing messages to the key claims made in the NZI report. I do not believe that either provide “the answer” (indeed I’m fairly certain no such thing exists in education), but they do suggest that there needs to be an openness and willingness in education to recognising and accepting the possibility of different approaches.

A recent interview by McKinsey and Company with Mark Scott, Secretary of the New South Wales (NSW) Department of Education, discussed the changes Scott has implemented since taking up this role. Many of the ideas align with aspects of the NZ report, among them the importance of tracking and data use (although perhaps in NSW these are being interpreted more broadly than they were in the report) and a desire to lift PISA results. However, where things differed was in the conceptualisation of the type of curriculum that would bring about the desired changes. As Scott discussed: “One of the things I’m pleased about is that we have commissioned a big review of the New South Wales curriculum. It’s been found to be overly dense, overly prescriptive, pretty conservative, and certainly not encouraging of the higher-order thinking that PISA assesses. Those results have led to a conversation about how we reshape the curriculum. The results drive us to ask: What is it we are teaching and how we are teaching it, and do we have the settings on both of those things right?”. One of the things that particularly jumps out at me reading these comments is that before making changes, NSW commissioned a big review of the curriculum, something New Zealand should consider. Otherwise, we run the risk of reacting to anecdote and opinion rather than evidence.

Questions regarding what we teach and how also feature heavily in Andrea Gabor’s 2018 book After the Education Wars. The first chapter explores the progressive school movement in New York City, starting in the 1970s and 1980s. There were a number of parallels between the questions and issues these progressive school leaders and teachers were exploring forty years ago and the ideas currently being raised in New Zealand, including: the role of rich assessment opportunities; the possibilities of curriculum integration; and the use of experiential and inquiry pedagogies.

What emerged in Gabor’s account are examples of successful progressive schools (as well as some that were less successful) – schools graduating students and achieving college acceptance levels (a key marker of success in the US-school system) in record numbers. Gabor provides some valuable lessons for New Zealand educators about what it was that appeared to make these schools successful:

Rigour, rich and varied content, and high standards. Teachers in the schools Gabor documents described themselves as student-centred. However, this did not mean abdicating choice of subject matter to students. Rather, teachers selected much of the content (sometimes with student input) but ensured that they provided connections into students’ worlds and ways of being and knowing. In many cases, this was about the pedagogy used, and in particular the utilisation of effective questioning, often through encouraging student-generated questions. There is a passage in the book describing how such an approach had impacted one teacher’s classroom: ‘Once he had hooked the kids on an argument or provocative idea, Barlowe found it was easier to engage them in readings. “When you are encouraging voice” to be part of learning, says Barlowe, “you are also encouraging rigour”. If the teacher doesn’t have the answer (or if there is in fact no “right” answer to the questions being posed), then you “create an environment in which evidence becomes important”. The focus on developing arguments, on analysis, on evidence … seeks to draw out the students’ own points of view. It is the key to getting kids engaged and to much deeper learning, argues Barlowe”.’

While some people argue that an inquiry approach can result in a narrowing of content and lack of deep understanding, a years-long study by Linda Darling-Hammond and Jacqueline Ancess, which explored student portfolios at a progressive school in New York, found that English students studied a rich range of classical texts – Brecht, Chekhov, Poe, Shakespeare, Tolkein, among others – as well as what would be labelled “non-traditional” texts. All this to say that the utilisation of an inquiry approach does not necessarily preclude a narrow curriculum or lack of rigour. Instead, it is very much about how the inquiry approach is envisioned and enacted in a particular school context.

Strong professional learning, mentoring and an acknowledgement that learning to teach effectively in progressive schools takes time. The most effective progressive schools recognised the importance of strong professional learning and ensured that this was front and centre of their efforts. Furthermore, teachers were not just expected to know how to teach like this but rather were supported to continually improve and refine their craft. Teachers new to a school would go through a two-year mentoring process, involving daily classroom observations and opportunities for new teachers to visit the classrooms of more experienced teachers. There was an acknowledgement that it took years to master the inquiry process.

Democratic structures and the active inclusion of teachers’ and students’ voices. In these schools, teachers and students were not the objects of the schooling system but rather were central participants and co-constructors of it. Part of what facilitated such an approach was the careful selection of teachers who subscribed to the values and the vision of the school

A strong network of similar schools was established, which enabled schools to provide each other with support and guidance as well as co-operative learning opportunities.

The discussion above is in no means trying to advocate that all “progressive” schools are “effective” nor that this is the model that everyone should be following. Rather, what it suggests to me is that any discussion about how we should be approaching the curriculum and pedagogy in schools requires nuance and an openness to the possibility that there is not just one way of doing things. The beauty and challenge of education is that for nearly every claim about what should be happening, you can find examples that both support it as well as those that disprove it. Therefore, rather than working in absolutes, it is much more valuable to explore the variation, asking: what works, for whom, and in what contexts?