I have a theory about what’s been going wrong with our education system over the last couple of decades. And it is not something that will be fixed with the billions of dollars that Winston Peters promised when he launched New Zealand First’s latest bid to become electorally relevant.
My theory isn’t especially radical. It’s simply that we have abandoned the way kids used to be taught, which worked, in favour of ways that don’t.
Many of those kids would leave school at 15, or even earlier, and go into jobs that weren’t badly paid, which made a real, valuable contribution to their lives, their communities and their country, and which did not demand any particular degree of formal education. That has changed, and to leave school now without a modicum of education, especially in terms of literacy and numeracy, represents a permanent pass to welfare dependency, poverty and all that goes with it.
In terms of schooling, the big change has been in the way teachers teach, and in many cases the environment in which they teach.
We learned the fundamentals, starting with the times tables, by rote. It worked. We learned to read by way of phonics. That worked too. Not for everyone, perhaps, but I don’t remember many kids of my era who didn’t get the hang of it.
It helped, of course, if you grew up in a house full of books and parents who took an interest in, and were supportive of, what you were being taught in the few hours of each day that we were at school. The other hours were spent by them teaching us, not social studies and geography perhaps, but all sorts of other stuff that seems to have lost all value these days.
What started me thinking about this was hearing a bloke talking on the radio about a report he had been commissioned to write on openplan classrooms. I missed the start of it so I don’t know who had asked for the report, hopefully, it was the Ministry of Education, but I suspect it wasn’t, given that it was unable to tell him who had had the open plan brainwave in the first place.
Anyway, this bloke was saying that open-plan teaching doesn’t work. And he could prove it. What he didn’t know was why it became fashionable in the first place.
The ministry, funnily enough, had been unable to tell him, so he did some digging. Turns out that the idea had emanated from, guess who? A couple of architects (who, he said, had done very well out of it). The ministry thought it was such a good idea that schools needing more classrooms could only expect government funding if they went open plan. If they wanted to build traditional classrooms they were on their own.
I don’t know who this man was, but he had no doubt whatsoever that open-plan teaching doesn’t work. I know a lot of teachers who agree with him. So why have we persisted with it? Presumably, because some bureaucrats in Wellington think they know best. Perhaps, however, the worm is turning.
I am reliably informed that a small fortune has just been spent on one Far North school, rebuilt from the ground up just a few years ago, turning open-plan teaching spaces into traditional classrooms. It will be interesting to see what effect that has on achievement levels at that school over the next few years.
Now, all we have to do is persuade some politicians that the answer to consistently declining achievement levels does not necessarily involve money. I believe we could certainly pay teachers more, particularly the good ones, although it will be a cold day in hell before the teacher unions even agree to talk about that.
The one thing we surely all agree on though is that New Zealand once had a world-leading education system, and now we don’t. And the decline, gradual as it might be, continues.
In 2019 New Zealand was 11th in 15-year-old students’ reading, 12th in science and 27th in maths according to that year’s PISA (Programme of International Student Assessment) rankings. All our results were above the 79-country averages, but well short of where they were a little more than a decade before.
Asian countries made up the top four in reading, the top 5 in science and the top 7 in maths. China led in all three.
A ministry spokesman noted at the time that there were a number of contributing factors, including that kids weren’t reading for pleasure like they once had, and that “a lot more” were saying they were in a challenging learning environment, with noise and disorder affecting their learning. They also noted a need for discipline. Out of the mouths of 15-year-olds, if not babes.
Given the conversion from open plan to traditional classrooms at one school, someone might actually be listening. But before politicians start promising to fix education with billions of more dollars, maybe they should look at what used to work here, on a comparative shoestring, no doubt, and what’s working so well in China now. What we cannot afford is more experiments, like open-plan learning. The clock is ticking so loudly that even Winston should be able to hear it.
Peter Jackson MNZM, former editor of the Northland Age newspaper, 38 years at the helm of this popular paper, now happily retired. This article was first published in the Northland Age 20/10/22.