By Nina Hood
Today, the New Zealand Initiative released a report by Briar Lipson titled New Zealand’s Education Delusion: How bad ideas ruined a once world-leading school system. The key thrust of the report is that the dominant ideology shaping education in New Zealand over the past couple of decades, with its focus on child-centred approaches, 21st century learning, and a de-prioritising of knowledge has led to slipping standards and declining outcomes for students. Many of the topics discussed in the report align with ideas The Education Hub has previously discussed, particularly the importance of knowledge, which was the subject of a 2018 report by The Hub, and the need to reexamine the New Zealand Curriculum and to ensure that all teachers have a sound understanding of the science of learning, both of which were recommendations in our recently released report Learning from Lockdown.
In this insight piece, I briefly explore some of the key ideas raised by Lipson, the opportunities they raise for New Zealand and where there might be openings for more nuanced thought and the ability to build greater consensus across a range of educational perspectives.
The importance of knowledge and a knowledge rich curriculum
Woven throughout this report is the thesis that knowledge, and more particularly disciplinary or content knowledge, is critically important, and that the current New Zealand Curriculum, which is largely content free, is highly problematic. The lack of focus on disciplinary knowledge is directly impacting the equity of learning opportunities and educational outcomes, while the current design of the curriculum is requiring extensive expertise and time and resources from teachers who must individually interpret, design and implement the curriculum as they see best in their school context.
I don’t disagree with these ideas, in fact I’ve previously written about them (e.g. here, here and here). However, I still am at a bit of a loss of exactly how to move forward with the curriculum. This in part reflects the limited empirical research on the impact of curriculum (as the term is used in the New Zealand context). It also reflects persistent questions I have regarding exactly what knowledge should be included in the curriculum and who gets to decide. Connected to this is the issue of how, in a bicultural country, we reconcile the Western canon of knowledge with Mātauranga Māori. While Michael Johnston addresses this in the foreword, and Lipson [very] briefly discusses this issue in her conclusion, I am still left wondering about exactly what this looks like. Not least because, for some scholars, given the epistemological differences between Western knowledge and Mātauranga Māori, the notion of integrating them into a single curriculum framework is inherently fraught.
The orthodoxy of a child-centred approach
Lipson positions the dominance and orthodoxy of the child-centred approach in New Zealand as the root of the current educational issues facing New Zealand. Indeed, for anyone who believes in the fundamental importance of knowledge in education, an approach that prioritises children’s interests, taking as its starting point what children find most relevant and engaging, is problematic. But I can’t help thinking that a complete rejection of such an approach is too extreme. Instead, reframing what is meant by a child-centred approach might be more helpful. For example, the research clearly demonstrates that all new knowledge must be constructed from existing knowledge. Therefore, it is essential that teachers identify students’ existing knowledge and beliefs (including any misconceptions) on a particular topic and use these as the starting point for helping students to build new and more sophisticated understanding. Failure to do so risks the understanding that a child develops on a topic being very different from what the teacher intended. Research also has identified the importance of teachers building strong relationships with their students, showing an interest in their lives and where appropriate building connections between the topics being studied and children’s frames of reference. However, and this is the step that often gets missed, it is essential that teachers and teaching move beyond this.
The failure of school education to move beyond the knowledge and contexts that students already know and are interested in, is to fundamentally fail our young people. If, as the cognitive science research clearly tells us, how much we know influences both our ability to know more about a wide range topics as well as the speed at which we can learn new knowledge, then we are condemning the children of New Zealand if our education system does not provide them with a rich body of knowledge.
The opportunities offered by cognitive science
Ensuring that teachers have a sound understanding of cognitive science and know how to translate the theory of how people learn into effective pedagogical approaches is essential. Not only does this reinforce the points raised earlier regarding the importance of knowledge and drawing on children’s existing knowledge and beliefs as the starting point for new learning, but it also provides teachers with proven pedagogical strategies to support them in their teaching (it should be noted that results of a 2020 Education Hub survey found that the ability to identify effective pedagogical practices was rated by New Zealand school teachers as the 4th – of 14 – most important problems of practice they currently are facing in their teaching).
When considering what cognitive science may bring to teaching and learning, it is essential to also point out what it does not bring so that we do not fall into the trap of binary thinking that so often affects educational discourses. An engagement with cognitive science:
- does not mean that learning is passive.
- does not reject the use of inquiry learning or project-based learning. Rather, it suggests that these must be properly set up and that students needs to have adequate knowledge of a topic area being able to undertake more independent learning effectively.
- does not suggest a narrowing of the curriculum. Instead, the arts and play are seen as essential elements of children’s learning and development.
- does not discount the importance of so termed 21st century skills or competencies (as Lipson rightly points out this over-used phrase is a misnomer, for few of the skills or competencies that come under this umbrella are in fact new). Rather, it suggests that the ability to think critically, to communicate effectively, or be creative, requires a person to have a solid understanding of the topic on which they are to think critically, communicate effectively or think about in creative ways.
- does not suggest that relationships, emotions and a school’s culture and climate are unimportant. Quite the opposite. Cognitive science is increasingly focusing on the link between our emotions and learning, recognising that building strong relationships, supporting students’ wellbeing and promoting a sense of belonging at school are all critical to learning. However, crucially, we cannot stop at wellbeing and belonging. These are simply the first steps to achieving the broad learning outcomes we desire.
So where to from here?
That something needs to change in New Zealand education is clear. We have declining student achievement outcomes (currently, 36% of 15 years lack basic literacy and numeracy), appalling youth wellbeing statistics, and a persistent and arguably worsening equity issue in education.
For me, a discussion about knowledge in schools is in part a conversation about teacher professionalism. To be a profession suggests that teachers hold specialist knowledge and expertise. And research clearly suggests that this knowledge is a combination of content knowledge, pedagogical knowledge, pedagogical content knowledge, and knowledge related to the moral purpose of education. To advocate for a stronger role of knowledge in education is not to argue for standardisation. I strongly believe in professional pluralism. That is, there are different ways to achieve common [high] outcomes in education. There undoubtedly are a set of common principles that should underpin all teaching and learning. However, the ways in which these are implemented and enacted may be varied, with opportunities for teachers to localise and contextualise their practice essential. For such an approach to work in practice would require teachers and schools to be rigorously monitoring teaching and learning to ensure that the approaches that they are using are in fact leading to the results desired and deserved by all New Zealand children.