Monday, 11 March 2019

The Aotearoa Curriculum

The task force (1) empowered to review the provision of compulsory schooling in NZ have given all of the stakeholders plenty of opportunity to have their say. We are almost at midnight and decision time.

The  summary of the 8 key issues (2) and recommendations are far reaching and potentially exciting. There could be substantive changes coming up ! I commend the taskforce for their efforts to consult and gather the viewpoints of all the stakeholders.

 I have given my views (via the official channels) for what they are worth but a recent DomPost (Saturday, February 16 2019) obituary on Sir John Jefferies has inspired me to say more. I have done a lot of thinking about the taskforce’s brief and the implications for schools, not least the curriculum. The last curriculum implemented in 1990s has a very sound education philosophical, co-constructivist underpinning. Where it failed to deliver its promise was often in its interpretation and in recent years, the pressure and distraction from the ‘powers that be’ around National Standards.  The intensity schools felt from all quarters to ‘accelerate progress’ for those students not meeting the age appropriate standards sucked the life out of many teachers and distracted some schools from the underpinning philosophy of that curriculum and the overarching goal of inspiring lifelong learning for all.

Sir John’s obituary highlights what research has been telling us for a long time. There is no correlation between high attainment at school and later success. After failing School Certificate three times, John Jefferies went on to become a High Court judge and a Knight of the Realm for his services to law, his leadership in the business world and his lifelong contribution to New Zealand’s constitutional fabric.

The Headmaster of St Patrick’s College wrote a reference for the young Jefferies in which he advised prospective employers not to give him a job that required any study. John Jefferies was considered a failure at school!

How often have we heard these sorts of stories! How often have we seen some of our peers who struggled at school go on to achieve great things in their field of choice!

Sir John is one of the lucky ones who through his own determination, maturation and I am sure family encouragement, overcame the lack of the then ‘meal ticket’ of jumping through the hoops (School Certificate) of the school system at the same time as everyone else, to go on to have a very successful career.

Sadly though, how often have we seen the confidence of young people get knocked out of them in subtle and not so subtle ways via the school system. Many of these young people don’t rise back up but live their life believing what they have been told ----you are not worthy! We know that some of these young people go on to take these feelings of inadequacy out on others and often their anger gets them into strive. Worst still is the modelling to their young and the perpetual cycle that can develop.

So it is time! Time to do what we know is right. It won’t be easy and it won’t be quick because it is a complex task that is going to require more than the education system alone to put right. It is going to require a multi-faceted approach engaging other agencies such as social welfare to work together in a coherent and transformational way. It will also require the energy and support of the political parties to get away from New Zealand’s combative and party dogma centered construct of governing. The parties will need to work together to ensure we have a truly inclusive and powerful strategy ahead.

This comprehensive review of our school system promises much. However it is one thing to change the structure of our school system but I am really hoping a realignment of the curriculum is prioritised.  I would like to see a new curriculum developed possibly named the  Aotearoa Curriculum or the Arohanui Curriculum (love for our young) for the obvious connection with our indigenous people. In any one’s language, the colonists actions ripped the heart out of our Maori people. I am definitely not saying that was the intent but through many of their actions, this was the stark nature of things. Many of the colonists were wonderful and kind people. Many were visionary or at least well meaning, but looking back on our history, I think even the most bigoted would acknowledge we could have done better.

Metaphorically, I like the view of New Zealand as a fish. Maori culture is the backbone and all the many other cultures are the bones running off this backbone. The many, many cultures that make up Aotearoa are equally important as each other.  We are more than ever before in this together. ‘He iwi kotahi tatou.’ (We are one people)

Maori culture is rooted into our land and our DNA as a nation and needs to be central, honoured and celebrated so we can all be proud citizens of this wonderful country. Equally so, let us celebrate and respect the many other cultures not only because they add tremendous diversity and richness of spirit into our lives but because we are ‘one’. We are all fragile human beings that need and deserve respect, support and kindness. It has been refreshing to hear our Prime Minister put these things out front and forward in her speech to the United Nations Assembly where she called for a different world order - one that puts "kindness" ahead of isolationism, rejection and racism.(3)

 A 21stC  curriculum representing what we know from research and the best education minds in the world implemented  by inspired teachers is the key. We know that having supported and passionate teachers teaching in a tent, is far more effective than worn out and stressed teachers operating in the best of facilities.

Change is timely as despite the huge goodwill, energy and resources that have gone into New Zealand’s education system over the last few decades, many of our education outcomes have been progressively falling. (4) We are not alone in failed approaches.  In a keynote address, Professor Guy Claxton from Kings College, London listed many international failures.   (5)

These countries’ visions use similar words describing the desired skills and attributes needing to be promoted in their students. Words such as ‘creative’, ‘confident’, ‘flexible’, ‘curious’, ‘independent’ and ‘collaborative’ abound. These key skills and dispositions are widely recognised as being central and critical to preparing our young for the wild ride ahead, yet they get lost in the mire.

Claxton and others asks, ‘So what goes wrong’? (6) Why aren’t these dispositions imbedded in our education system after so many years of talk? Never before has it been so easy to access research and around best practice pedagogy via the world’s experts! So what gets in the way of achieving better outcomes for children?

I don’t have the ‘silver bullet’ answers but I do believe  everyone involved, including the politicians, set out to do the right thing based on the best practice but often the desire to improve learning outcomes is accidentally sabotaged and confused by each level of the education hierarchy setting out to justify their existence.

We have a great opportunity to make change now but we have to be fearless.

Many well-meaning people worry about falling standards and the importance of the basics in education. Of course we can’t underestimate the importance of the basic skills that empower communication and knowledge building.  These skills will always be fundamental and need to be fostered with rigour wherever possible using authentic and meaningful contexts. It is not the ‘content’ of these fundamental skills that needs changing but the ‘how’ they are taught and scaffolded which is crucial.  Essentially we need a school system that values the developmental nature of learning. Young children don’t and can’t jump the same hurdles all at the same time, but we can engage their minds and capture their unique ideas and thinking. Get this right and you build real learning power, confidence and aspiration.

We need to value questions above answers and creativity over fact regurgitation with an overlay of high aspirations for all.

People like the world renowned ‘thinking’ guru, Dr Edward de Bono have always believed thinking and creativity are skills that can be taught and learnt! The exponential change our children will face, demands that thinking skills should have the same focus and currency as the core skills of numeracy and literacy.

What is exciting, is that once this is recognised, across the board academic outcomes trend upwards.
According to Friedman, Finland is one of the most innovative economies in the world and it is the only country where students leave high school ‘innovation-ready’. They learn concepts and creativity more than facts.” Intelligence is not enough. creativity, or the ability to think divergently, can be developed and improved. It’s a learnable process.

What are these skills or dispositions and what is the journey we need to take children on to give them real learning power? The answer to this question has been written and spoken about for years and years.
Skills such as perseverance, flexibility, questioning, curiosity, creativity, collaboration, reflection, resilience and optimism.  I like Guy Claxton’s metaphor of a school as a mind gym v an assembly line. (6)  The concept of imagining the mind as a muscle you can build is appealing.
Seymour Papert said, “Learning should be hard fun” (7)   where there is engagement, passion and purpose.

Another key barrier which gets in the way of successful implementation of New Zealand’s vision for education is we haven’t unpacked what the key skills and dispositions actually mean and look like for our teachers. Many people in schools for example, do not consider themselves as creative and they need support to demystify and unpack what we mean by ‘creativity’.

The word creativity is bandied about quite often in education circles but what does it actually mean? Do some have it and some not? It is a widely misunderstood word.

Creativity is not a magical quality that some have and some don’t! We have to ensure creativity and thinking skill development is a dominant part of the curriculum. Not only should it be totally integrated in the curriculum ensuring the learning tasks engage higher order thinking and age and stage appropriate ‘hard fun’, but right from pre-school, children need to explicitly know that their thinking and ideas have merit and value.  Discussing these attributes and providing skill development and understanding adds enormous uplift in confidence and indirectly demonstrates to children that their thinking has merit and it is an important aspect of their development.

But it isn’t going to happen by osmosis. Schools and teachers need support, the mandate and the expectation that the culture of their school needs to live and breathe these dispositions.
We need this education change not only because it has been proven without doubt that children will benefit in all manner of means (not only academically but holistically) but also for survival. The world is facing unprecedented challenges such as population explosion, significant climate change, significant human conflict via religion, politics and greed and of course our growing resistance to antibiotics and the threat of superbugs. It is a no brainer if for nothing more than making schools a place of true learning where young people are set up wanting to learn and create for the rest of their life.
It is time to focus on learning and not schooling. Education should not be seen as something that starts at kindergarten and finishes at university. Even from a practical point of view, a university degree is no passport guarantee for a job anymore. The 19th and 20thC roadmap for success has been disrupted by exponential change, much of which has been brought about by technology.

This of course applies to us as educators. We must not be swayed by fads or pressure to do things for the wrong reasons but follow what our hearts, experience and quality research is telling us. Data is so important!  Good teachers are natural ‘inquirers’ constantly gathering important qualitative and quantitative data because they know this will provide rich information so they can provide the best programme possible. They are not driven by top down expectations unless of course it makes good sense.

The arts have suffered over the last decade or so as schools got distracted by National Standards and  the digital world. The arts taught well have always been a conduit to higher order thinking. Sir Ken Robinson gets it big time when he said, Of course technology is important as is science, maths, engineering (STEM) but they are not enough! STEM is at risk of becoming a fad and a diversion away from the heart of the matter. Students need equal doses of the arts, the humanities, physical exercise and play. But more important than any subject content is school culture. (8)

A central part of this ‘culture’ is recognising the immense importance of teacher connection and building self-belief in students (relationships), combined with fostering an exciting and rigorous thinking philosophy where ideas are celebrated and questions valued over answers. The role of the teacher is more complex and demanding than any time in history.

Interestingly enough there is nothing ‘earth shatteringly new’ with what we know about how children learn and thrive. From 1949 to 1962 Elwyn Richardson at Oruaiti School with the blessing of the then and now famous Director of Education, Clarence Beeby,   discarded the official syllabus and turned to the children’s lives and immediate environment for the basis of his curriculum. Using the children’s natural curiosity and interest, Richardson taught them how to observe closely the world around them and to record their new discoveries and their own responses to these. From here, he developed a school programme that was anchored in the children’s surroundings and real lives. Through environmental study the children learned the basis of scientific method, and brought these skills to bear on studies that spanned all subjects. His method was a revolt away from science as a separate subject to an integrated programme of arts and science. Richardson wrote In The Early World (9) at Oruaiti School published by The New Zealand Council for Educational Research NZCER in 1964. The book tells the story of how Richardson’s students became increasingly aware of their own capacity for personal expression, while collectively establishing a shared understanding of aesthetic values.

Richardson’s holistic philosophy capturing the children’s thinking and creativity has stood the test of time and is an inspiring story. The aesthetics and the power of nature holding the secrets of so much are as relevant today as ever.  Our best internationally acclaimed educationalists continue to champion such beliefs. For most children up to the 1960s their world was their neighbourhood but now technology has shown us a global neighbourhood which our young people are embracing. It is time to thread this holistic and constructivist philosophy through our schools leveraging and integrating the powerful digital tools of the 21stC. How exciting would that be!

Let’s get on with it with rigour, high aspirations and passion. Let’s really create a nation of curious and creative minds combined with kindness, empathy and good will. (E.Q.)  Let’s be fearless in the pursuit of what we have known for a long time and provide a truly transformational education that will not only excite students but set them alight to achieve more than they thought possible.

Warren Owen

(5) + (6) Professor Guy Claxton, Kings College, London, U.K.
(7)    Professor Guy Claxton, Kings College, London, U.K.
(9)    Sir Ken Robinson, p19
(10) Elwyn Richardson, In the Early World, 

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