Friday, September 29, 2023

Michael Johnston: Now is the time to face up to our education challenges

In a recent survey[1], New Zealand voters were asked to nominate the issue of most importance to them in the forthcoming election. Unsurprisingly, hip-pocket matters topped the list, with the cost of living on 28% and the economy on 17%. The top-five list was rounded out with healthcare (14%), crime (9%) and the environment (8%). Education was in seventh-equal place, on 5%, alongside housing and government operations.

Why education doesn’t rank more highly is something of a puzzle. All voters have been through school themselves and many have children or grandchildren at school. Whether or not their children are getting a good education is something that concerns most parents. Most New Zealanders understand that a sound education system is a key to both individual and national prosperity.

I suspect the reason that education is not rated more highly as an election issue, is that the consequences of its failure are not immediate. Inflation is happening in real time, causing day-to-day economic pain for many households. Poor-quality or delayed healthcare and being a victim of crime cause similarly immediate suffering.

The effects of policy failure in education are more delayed. Parents may worry that their eight-year-old is struggling to learn to read, but the dire consequences of not doing so may not be fully felt for another ten years. But the fact that the damaging effects of poor education take time to manifest does not make them less serious.

Young people who leave school without at least basic qualifications are at risk of underemployment, welfare dependency and negative encounters with the justice system. Just as importantly, they are deprived of potentially fulfilling modes of self-expression.

At the societal level, a poor education system has ramifications for many of the issues that voters rate most important – the economy, crime, and healthcare (doctors and nurses need to be well educated). A well-functioning democracy relies on an educated populace. If voters care about those things, then they should care about education too.

Our school education system has been in decline for many years now, under both Labour- and National-led governments. Neither party has a strong track record in education reform. Ministers of Education tend to focus on surface issues that they think will appeal to parents. They do not typically delve into the structural problems in our education system.

Usually, Ministers begin their tenures with flagship policies, which they task the Ministry of Education with implementing. Either because the policies themselves are misguided, or because the Ministry botches their implementation, they fail to shift the dial. Meanwhile, a generation of young people has been sold shamefully short.

Any education system rests on two main pillars – its curriculum and its teachers. In New Zealand, the school curriculum and the way in which we prepare teachers for the profession both have serious flaws.

The New Zealand curriculum is very thin on content and provides insufficient guidance to teachers. It lacks any clear structure or progression. Prospective teachers who train through university programmes spend too little time in the classroom, and the quality of the mentoring they get during these placements is too variable.

Underlying these flaws is a deeper philosophical issue. We have moved from a system in which teachers are seen as primarily responsible for their students’ learning, to one in which knowledge is ‘co-constructed’ by teachers and students. Teachers directly communicating knowledge to students is seen by many in the education establishment as authoritarian, outdated and dull.

These objections are straw men. Structured teaching can and should be accompanied by warm relationships between students and teachers and, far from being outdated, it is based on recent research from the science of learning. Structured teaching is certainly not dull when it is practised by a skilled teacher.

A structured approach to education, including a well-ordered curriculum and direct instruction by teachers, has evidence on its side. On the other hand, co-constructive and ‘child-led’ approaches often do not work. A case in point is literacy.

For years, the teaching of reading in New Zealand has been based on the ‘whole language’ approach. The basis of this doctrine is that children will ‘discover’ how to read by guessing words from pictures, context and other hit-and-miss cues. But evidence from the science of learning shows that the most effective approach is to start by teaching them the regular correspondences between spelling and sound. Once those are mastered, children can ‘sound out’ most words. This gives them a great start and builds confidence. From there they can tackle irregular words and develop fluency.

We might wonder how we have ended up where we have. We could blame the Ministry of Education. We could blame the major political parties, both of which have tended to treat education as a political football. But in a democracy, ultimate responsibility lies with voters. In this election let’s make education policy count.


Dr Michael Johnston has held academic positions at Victoria University of Wellington for the past ten years. He holds a PhD in Cognitive Psychology from the University of Melbourne. This article was published HERE


David Lillis said...

It is critical for the future of this country that we get education right, both in respect of teacher training and the provision of our national curriculum.

We have been let down very badly by our Government agencies, and both teacher training and the revised curriculum have suffered.

We must listen to experts such as Michael Johnston (a former colleague of mine) and Elizabeth Rata, and be very aware that we have many non-experts in positions of influence and many ideologues pushing their own political agendas onto our school children and our schools.

Let's get education high on the agenda for our election.
David Lillis

Anonymous said...

What we obviously need is a group of qualified and invested professional educators to lobby the government with all the power they can muster to get education to where it needs to be. Parents are powerless in the education system here. We don't have funded school boards to call the shots like they can in America. Very interesting wars on gender education going on over there. Hopefully with a change of government here we won't go down that road any further than we have already.

Robert Arthur said...

There is a third reason the MOE is so ineffectual. All staff are selected and programmed pro maori so will not adopt methods which wil clearly reveal inherent maori inabilities.
It staggers me the effort spent on teaching research. Judging from my tradesman father, his similar colleagues, his remaining school exercise books, the methods of the 1920s worked admirably. I guess learning to teach without the strap requires enormous study.
The osmosis reading method does not work in reverse ie for writing, whereas the older methods do. On that basis alone it should have been condemned from the outset. (25 years ago as a parent I used to assist in a primer writing class. Working with the trailing students we built up words based on my phonics childhood memories from the 1940s. The teacher frowned but it worked.

Anonymous said...

It's a sad indictment of our society today when something which is so fundamental to a successful future is overlooked, or downplayed to an almost 'also-ran - was of some concern' status. Yet again, our MSM has let us down, all too eager to seize and rabbit on about a 'climate crisis' (which we have truly miniscule impact on), and yet this very REAL CRISIS in our education system is rolling out before us. The impact of its deficiency is NOW MANIFEST and will only grow in momentum unless it's addressed.

How will we address the problems of our future if those that are to meet those challenges are dumb, ignorant and ill-equipped? More especially if our national wealth for that same reason is declining and has to support an ever-growing cohort of under-achievers, all because we allowed some deluded ideologues to pursue their wayward thinking.

And, as for those under-achievers that the system, under our watch, has permitted, what of life for them?

Thomas Sowell once said, "There are few things more dishonorable than misleading the young."

If ever there were a cause to march on Parliament and demand better of our politicians, this has to be it. Why isn't it happening? Because our MSM are complicit in the dumbing-down and indoctrination of our young and most vulnerable.

Gaynor said...

In this election time, and as a superannuitant with some spare time, I have dedicated some of my day on this and similar sites hopefully, informing people of how disastrous failure in the basics is to all society. As Michael states it is relevant to many areas, including discussions on ram- raids, supermarket theft, gangs, welfare numbers and dependence, health, lack of professionals, poor economic growth ,social inequality, housing, and mental health statistics. Very annoyingly writers of articles on these topics seldom mention education.

I am becoming quite strident because after 50 years, of 'fighting' in the reading wars and seeing the absolute misery of illiteracy and innumeracy, I am dismayed about how inactive the articulate middle classes are at raising their voices to speak out,equipped with a sense of social justice. So many just don't care, it seems, about lower SES children's suffering in failing to acquire quality higher learning,let alone the basics. This includes some teachers.

I hear and read : "My children have learnt to read, OK", or," My child had a tutor or home-based workbooks", or, "We can bring people from overseas ", worst of all, I'm sorry to say so many academics along with others repeat ad nauseum, " Education begins and is dependent on the home environment. Failure is primarily caused by social economic problems." That is very true if the education system is based on failing methods and a crumby ideology that encourages a lack of both discipline and work ethic as we have now. This, SES one is the MoE 's favourite excuse, after all they are a model establishment who do no wrong.

Robert Arthur said...

The social economic thing is overplayed. Many children in the UK were desperately poor in the early to mid 20th Century but learned the basics. My garndmother in the 1880s spent much of her childhood and youth in the "Poor House" or " Work House" for the destitute but learned to read and write nonetheless.Several things have changed; no punishment, no failing, soppy reports, no parent chastisement or punishment for truancy, acceptance of lame excuses (lke colonisation)