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What actually is happening in New Zealand schools?

By Nina Hood

The recently released New Zealand Initiative report by Briar Lipson together with the vigorous response it has provoked (I provided some initial reflections on it here) has got me thinking about how much we really know about what currently is happening in New Zealand schools.

The central argument in Lipson’s report is that the dominance of a child-centred approach in New Zealand schools, combined with the design of the New Zealand Curriculum which she considers to prioritise competencies over disciplinary knowledge, and the dominance of NZCER in educational research, evaluation and policy, have led to declining outcomes for New Zealand students over the past two decades.

Critics have questioned the claims on a number of levels. For some, including John Hattie whose response to the report is available here, Lipson provides no evidence to attribute declining academic outcomes to child-centred approaches. There certainly is an argument to be made that many of Lipson’s claims about what is happening in New Zealand school are based on anecdote rather than rigorous research. However, on the flipside, there is a robust body of research on particular aspects of the report including the importance of knowledge in and for learning and the importance of cognitive science for guiding pedagogy.

Another common critique is that Lipson is reinforcing the very binaries she is trying to rally against. Perhaps most obvious is the skills/competency versus knowledge dichotomy, which is further expanded in the characterisation of the implementation of the curriculum as prioritising competencies over disciplinary knowledge.

For me, what is unfortunate, is that the inflammatory and emotive language used – both in the report and in some reactions to it – and the lack of nuance in many of the discussions – again in the report and in responses to it – means that we are missing an opportunity to seek areas of commonality and to engage in productive dialogue that actually advances the conversation rather than rejecting it on ideological grounds.

However, what also strikes me is that if we really want to advance the conversation about New Zealand education in a productive manner, we actually need to know much more – from a research perspective – about what currently is happening in New Zealand schools. Too frequently discussions are based on anecdote and individual experience – I count myself in this category as well. While it may be possible to glean an understanding of common philosophical approaches to education in New Zealand through reading blog posts, attending professional conferences and meetings, and following social media threads, we know relatively little about how these are being translated into actual classroom practice.

Hattie, in his response to Lipson’s report, commented that the New Zealand Curriculum is not inherently problematic. Rather it is the implementation of it that raises concerns. I’ve had a number of conversations with John over the years about the implementation challenge facing education and the absence – in many instances – of a strong implementation framework (or as he terms it implementation science) to support educational practices and initiatives. In the case of the curriculum, even those intimately involved in its creation now question whether greater support was and is required to enable teachers and schools to effectively interpret and implement it. For me, forever thinking as a researcher, I’m not certain we know enough about how the curriculum currently is being implemented across classrooms and schools to be able to adequately judge how well it is working (it should be noted here that there recently have been several very good Masters’ theses exploring teachers’ interpretations of aspects of the curriculum, however, these are small scale and necessarily focused on a narrow slice of the curriculum).  

Similarly, we do not have an accurate understanding of the nature of tasks teachers are utilising in their implementation of the curriculum. As I have previously discussed, it is the tasks that children are asked to do on a daily basis that ultimately predict their learning (this notion is borrowed from Professor Richard Elmore’s work on the instructional core). And sadly, in too many instances, it would seem the types and level of tasks that students are expected to do vary significantly. While my experiences visiting [an admittedly small number given the overall number] classrooms across New Zealand would suggest that too many tasks are low level and lack cognitive demand (there also are happy examples where this isn’t the case!), I do not in fact have robust evidence to allow me to make any sort of generalisable claim.

So, while I agree with some of the messages in Lipson’s report – knowledge is critically important (although currently a contested topic, particularly in bicultural New Zealand), the current dominant conceptualisation of child-centred education is problematic, and the science of learning or cognitive science should be routinely informing pedagogical practice – I also think we need much better evidence of what is actually happening in New Zealand schools in relation to each of these ideas in order to be able to move this discussion forward and to identify recommendations or courses of action.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr Nina Hood

Nina is responsible for the strategic direction and day-to-day operations of The Education Hub. She is a trained secondary school teacher, and taught at Epsom Girls Grammar and Mt Roskill Grammar in Auckland. She undertook an MSc (with distinction) in learning and technology, and a DPhil in Education at the University of Oxford. Since returning to New Zealand in mid-2015, Nina has been employed as a lecturer at the Faculty of Education at the University of Auckland, where she specialises in new technologies in education.