‘Half of NZ adults flunk general knowledge test’ was a headline in the New Zealand Herald earlier this week. The article references the results of a general knowledge test given to over 1000 adults, which forms part of a research note published by the New Zealand Initiative on the poor state (and status) of knowledge in New Zealand’s education system.
The research note’s author, Briar Lipson, raises important questions about the current place and role of knowledge in the New Zealand school system, particularly with respect to persistent inequities in educational outcomes and whether the New Zealand curriculum is fit for purpose. The second question has raised considerable debate, both in the aforementioned New Zealand Herald article and in the Twittersphere.
NZ Principals Federation president Whetu Cormick in response to the research note, commented in the New Zealand Herald that ‘the curriculum was right to let teachers to choose topics that interest their students, because students could always find out other facts on the internet. “For a child in Bluff who might be interested in muttonbirds, they are not going to be interested in the fact that there are seven continents in the world,” he said. “We need to continue to develop a curriculum that is relevant to the community and in partnership with the community.”’
The argument that the Internet has made knowledge irrelevant is not new. But it is highly problematic. As Lipson rightly identifies, research clearly demonstrates that what and how much a person knows directly impacts their ability to access new learning and new information. This is because a new concept is always learned in association with a person’s existing knowledge. It is this existing knowledge that facilitates one’s ability to think and to apply knowledge in relation to particular tasks and problems, including higher order tasks such as critical thinking or problem solving. So while information is more easily accessible than ever before, the ability to select, interpret, and utilise this information, in order to build knowledge remains vital. Information may have latent power. However, it is only when it is combined with corresponding action that it becomes the far more powerful (and useful) knowledge
While it is important that education and schooling engages students, to suggest that teachers [only] select topics that interest their students is highly problematic. One of the roles of school education must be to expose young people to new ideas and to open them up to new worlds, new possibilities and new ways of understanding. This does not discount the importance of schools engaging with their local communities and local issues, but rather suggests that the local must not be the end point of education. Indeed, it could be argued that to understand the local necessitates also understanding the national and the global. Very rarely do events or scenarios – be they economic, social, political, environmental, historical, scientific, or ecological in nature – occur in isolation. They form part of a much broader eco-system.
The New Zealand Curriculum, in its current state, with its focus on a local curriculum, relies heavily on individual teachers (or in some cases schools) being expert curriculum designers. This is problematic. To design a coherent curriculum is an incredibly complex undertaking. It not only requires considerable knowledge and expertise but also a huge amount of time. It requires that one thinks of how conceptual knowledge develops both within and across learning areas, over time and at different stages. A curriculum further requires curriculum materials and resources. As I previously have discussed (here and here), the design and nature of these materials and resources impacts the learning that takes place. However, with a local curriculum, there is little consistency or quality control over the design and development of curriculum resources and materials.
As Lipson alludes at the end of her research note, discussions of knowledge in education will be messy and raise multiple tensions. But these discussions are central to answering the questions that lie at the heart of education and educational decision making; what is the purpose of schooling? and what does it mean to be educated? With the Ministry of Education continuing its “extensive work … with education experts on ways we can strengthen the New Zealand curriculum”, questions regarding what the right balance is between prescription and flexibility in curriculum, and what is the core knowledge that all young people should know and who gets to decide, are going to form critical discussion points.