Monday, November 21, 2022

Elizabeth Rata: The Curriculum, intelligence, and democracy

The intelligence of the New Zealand population increased during the 20th century. Nutrition played its part but so too did education. Young people were taught the abstract knowledge of academic subjects and in the process developed secondary intelligence. Since the 1990s, the emptying out of prescribed academic knowledge from the national curriculum is likely to reverse the trend. It’s a sobering thought that the population in the 21st century may be less intelligent than our 20th century predecessors.

Academic knowledge makes us intelligent. How is this incredible feat achieved? The answer lies in the abstract nature of subjects derived from the disciplines of the sciences, humanities and arts. It is abstraction (or separation) from the everyday world of experience which gives academic knowledge both its intelligence-building power and its difficulty. Because academic subjects are necessarily difficult they need to be taught by expert teachers. For their part, children must bring hard work and effort to the job. Parental support is vital for this mammoth task of intelligence building. There are no short-cuts for anyone involved.

So what makes academic knowledge the ‘intelligence builder’? By ‘intelligence’ I mean an individual’s secondary thinking–the thinking that is self-consciously rational and very different from primary commonsense intelligence. Humans have lived for millennia with the primary thinking needed for survival. It remains essential today as we pick up the everyday socio-cultural knowledge of the family and community. We must have this primary thinking ability but we can in fact do without complex abstract knowledge and its generating secondary intelligence. We can do as our ancestors did, rely on knowledge acquired from observation and experience and bounded by the limits of primary thinking. The question is – do we want to?

How academic knowledge builds secondary intelligence

Academic knowledge consists of abstract concepts that are structured into increasingly complex patterns. Engaging with these abstractions forces our minds to think about ideas that we can’t ‘see’ in real life. Abstractions are an assault on the senses – our primary thinking wants to ‘see’ the idea as real-life matter. Try thinking about an ‘atom’ for example. We can’t ‘see’ it. We can only think about it as a concept in a pattern of connecting concepts such as ‘molecule’, ‘particle’, ‘chemical element’.

Students need to know the abstract concepts themselves, the symbols for the concept (for children these symbols are initially words and numbers), and the way those concepts are structured into logical patterns. This structuring happens in two ways. The first is when abstract concepts are connected to related concepts as with the ‘atom’ example above. These connections create a network of logical patterns that ‘pull together’ to create a meaning deeper than if the concept was on its own.

The second is when those concepts are connected to material content (i.e. physical or social real-life matter). When I designed a topic about the biology of butterflies for year 3 children I chose ‘metamorphosis’ as the central concept. I linked that idea to the material content of egg, larva, pupa, and adult stages. That material content helps the child to ‘see’ the unseen logic which connects the stages of a butterfly’s ‘metamorphosis’. The child is also able to generalise this abstract idea to other insects.

By adolescence, youngsters have more abstract patterns in their secondary thinking (if primary schools have done their job and laid the necessary solid foundation). They are less reliant on the concept’s connection to matter. Indeed by the senior years they can ‘see’ highly complex abstractions. We know from studying highly abstract subjects like mathematics, physics, languages, and literary criticism that there is no easy path to building the secondary intelligence required to understand abstractions. It requires long years spent at school. It requires the fortitude to deal with this uncompromising, yet deeply fulfilling, knowledge.

Secondary intelligence is built in over-lapping processes that link knowledge to the mind, mind to the brain, and mind to material objects. If that isn’t complex enough, there is a further step to take. We can’t think about these abstract ideas without their symbol. We can only ‘get into’ abstract concepts via their symbol. The most common symbols are alphabetical ones, but mathematical, scientific, musical, and digital ones also part of the mix.

To return to my butterfly example – the 3-year-old child knows the spoken word ‘butterfly’ but in her year 3 ‘Biology of Butterflies’ topic she is taught the alphabetical symbols ‘metamorphosis’ and ‘invertebrate’ (as well as how to pronounce and spell the words – language conventions are essential to acquiring the symbol). Knowing these literacy symbols is the only path into acquiring abstract concepts. Without academic subjects, literacy is unanchored to the meaning of the written word and to meanings expressed in other symbolic forms such as scientific notation. Given our country’s abandonment of academic subjects for all, it is unsurprising the New Zealand’s literacy and numeracy standards are in free fall.

The curriculum and democracy

Building students’ secondary intelligence means that teachers must not only teach academic subjects, but those subjects must first be designed to capture the unseen logical patterns within networks of abstractions. No single school can design such a coherent and cumulative curriculum. Nor should it have to. Curriculum development is the nation’s responsibility. Knowledge worth teaching to some is worth teaching to all.

A well-designed national curriculum of prescribed academic knowledge is the only way to ensure that all New Zealand children are taught the knowledge that builds secondary intelligence. It is the intelligence needed for a modern democratic society. This is the case because democracy is itself an abstract idea – built on networks of abstractions such as freedom, equality and citizenship.

The alternative is returning to the pre-modern world of our ancestors. The tribal world managed successfully using primary thinking. This is because kinship relations are material not abstract – we can literally ‘see’ our relations. In contrast, democracy is justified by abstract ideas and abstract relationships – the main one is that of citizenship. For us to understand these abstractions, we must have secondary intelligence.

Professor Elizabeth Rata is the Director of the Knowledge in Education Research Unit in the Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Auckland. This article first published HERE


Robert Arthur said...

Wow. All that and the words te ao do not appear once. All a bit much for me in one reading but seems to be advocating the highly successful methods of the 1920s. But these do not suit the no failure convention as each teacher ends up teaching several levels at once. The shortcomings of that cannot be hidden as well as with the current vague curriculums.

David Lillis said...

Well said, Professor Rata. We must protect our curriculum and ensure that it matches the best of other countries. If we cannot, then we do our students a great disservice. In my own subjects of mathematics, statistics and physics (all of which I taught during the 1980s to Scholarship level), I can see that we are behind other curricula such as Cambridge and Baccalaureate, but that in itself may not be a critical issue if learning is effective.
Criterion-based assessment can be effective if it is predicated on criterion-based learning and, indeed, extended abstract thinking and establishing connections across diverse themes or ideas (often key elements of the Excellence grade) are wholly desirable and encourage deeper thinking than rote memorization.

However, something is wrong within our education system right now, but I doubt that the NCEA system is exclusively to blame; after all, it is a system of assessment and provision of qualifications, rather than a curriculum. Nevertheless, the NCEA may have led to compartmentalising of learning, over-assessment and playing of games in order to get students across the line (e.g. programmes heavy with internal assessments rather external assessments, and other games played by education providers to get high ratings in relation to moderation of students' work). Can we blame schools for wanting to maximise outcomes and get students the qualifications they need?

What about our secondary science curriculum? Of course, all traditional knowledge ought to be valued and preserved but no traditional knowledge of any cultural group, anywhere in the world, should be taught as science until tested and shown to be valid through the methods of science. We have duty of care to define clearly what sits within the ambit of science and that which lies beyond, just as we have a critical obligation to exercise the utmost rigour when we test the efficacy of newly-proposed cancer drugs and other treatments. The same critical thinking must apply to all aspects of our curriculum, particularly those aspects that underpin literacy and numeracy and on which the future education of our young people depends so greatly.
David Lillis

Anonymous said...

Excellent, thank you - but of course you'll well appreciate such is contra the current He Puapua narrative.

Given our declining numeracy, literacy and school attendance statistics it’s long overdue that we had a close look at the current curriculum, the pedagogy, and the relationship of roles paid by the family unit and the State.

The latter has commenced a push in our education systems for an equal standing of matauranga Maori (a learning system firmly rooted in nature study and animism that was without the benefit of a written language), only at best a form of primary intelligence, with secondary intelligence - that requires a demonstrably much deeper knowledge bas
ed on concepts and abstracts logically extrapolated and determined.

As you have succinctly identified, for a modern democratic system to succeed (to avert a decline into a tribal state with all its hardships and injustices) we need secondary intelligence, which can only be obtained through education and that can only be built on those essential fundamentals of literacy and numeracy.

Gaining that education of course typically requires a loving, nurturing and supportive family. With that family environment also comes the main source of primary intelligence. It’s a shame that that environment’s culture also now appears under siege, being either misdirected and/or broken

Eileen said...

Thank you thank you. Your courage and intelligence are truly appreciated.

Mudbayripper said...

We are amidst an orchestrated dumbing down of the population. The process has been on going for some time, not only in the education system, although the most dangerous outcomes for our democracy lay there. The very culture is being subjected to manipulation where the end game revolves around an easily managed population that suits the political take over that's been planned and executed over the decades. Some call it the long march. A conspiracy theory. Maybe. It don't look that way to me.

boudicca said...

Tribalism was also the world of my pre-Christian Celtic and Germanic ancestors, and that of other non-Maori i.e ALL of us. Very similar to Te Ao Maori in fact. The difference is WE moved on thanks to the classical civilising influences of Greece and Rome, then Christianity, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment

ihcpcoro said...

The fundamental difference is that we care about, and love our country. They don't.

Anonymous said...

Surely it is traitorous to dismantle our advanced social systems in favour of a few race-based ideals to satisfy a false narrative of decolonisation.
When this government is turfed out next year there should be an inquiry into the legitimacy and legality of their policies. And a very close look at the motives for what has happened with a view to identifying corruption and nepotism and making politicians accountable.

*** said...

Excellent article – but nothing new. Many of us have known this for at least 25 years: “the [NZ] population in the 21st century may be less intelligent than our 20th century predecessors”.

Why has it taken academics so long to realise the outcome of the dumbing down that has been going on in NZ education for so long? Is it because too many academics have been so focused on promoting Maori viewpoints that they have not foreseen the consequences of their “education” efforts?

Anonymous said...

I am concerned to hear from my sister (who is a secondary school teacher) that the latest curriculum changes are driven by the UN, WEF and the WHO. Global themes are being introduced and every subject must be taught around the theme. These themes are things like ‘sustainability’, or ‘being a good global citizen’. Could you please unpack this for us more Elizabeth?