DR HELEN ANDERSON reviews the most talked-about new book in educational circles in recent months: Changing our Secondary Schools by Bali Haque.

Bali Haque’s Changing Our Secondary Schools was a welcome Christmas present and I settled to read with expectations that this would challenge the summer sun. A book with a similar title (Our Secondary Schools Don’t Work Anymore, David Hood, 1998) edged into my memory but 16 years have passed and Bali Haque has the credentials to produce something built on considerable direct experience.
The book is divided into four parts. Part 1 considers the many ways a quality education is measured and offers thoughtful critique of a range of testing and data processing methods, including PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) and NCEA results.  In part 2 recent educational reforms are reviewed, notably, Tomorrow’s Schools, the New Zealand Curriculum and National Standards. Part 3 delivers on who might be responsible for the ongoing failure of reform efforts and, not to spoil the story, but school leaders including the author are mentioned. In part 4 a set of proposals is put forward to address the issues identified in the first three parts.
Bali Haque notes that it may seem “dangerously contradictory” to offer reforms when he has been highly critical of New Zealand’s reform and policy development process, and this has some truth in it. Blaming the process, however accurately, without addressing how to fix the process beyond exhortations to do better, softens the impact of an otherwise excellent set of proposals for change.

Looking for the shock factor

Part 4 is about teachers and this creates a vital focus on the core activity of education, that is, learning and teaching. This is an outcome of Bali Haque’s experience and knowledge across the secondary system in schools and agencies and now as a researcher and writer. However, having built a convincing, balanced and evidence-based argument that some groups in New Zealand society are disadvantaged by our secondary school system and that this situation is persistent in spite of reform intentions, it might be expected that the proposals in the last section would surprise. Instead, they provoke contemplation. This is useful and less unsettling to my holiday mood but I still have a moment of wishing for something that will shock.

The task is a tough one. We have an internationally outstanding curriculum design, a mass of talented teachers, a growing number of schools with purposeful learning space designs, but like the cover design, these are very smart cogs, whirring around determinedly in a system too often maintained on its current path by the compelling force of the domestication of innovation and failure of leadership to carry change into practice. To set a new direction may require a significant disruption – a disruption that would cause the comfort seekers to drop their baggage and prioritise learning and teaching. This might hopefully be premised on learning achievement defined in terms of innovation, creativity and valuing of the way technology and diversity can reframe our solutions.

The light in the tunnel?

Disparity of outcomes has been our long educational history and Bali Haque has clearly identified the urgency of the situation where disparities are sustained, the numbers affected increase, and talent is wasted in failure and disaffection. There is no doubt that Haque’s proposals for better use of data, greater support for teachers, stronger school leadership and robust policy development are valid but saying it does not make it happen. A small light in this long tunnel might be found in the current policy support for new learning space designs. These challenge the philosophy of education that goes with the box classroom, rows of single tables and chairs and the teacher at the front delivering immediately dated information. At the very least the new learning environments change the physical arrangements that have enabled single, directional learning, and support interactive, collaborative learning that builds on and values diversities.

Bali Haque provides an elegant image when he identifies that teaching is an art much akin to “improvised street theatre”. This notion comes alive in interactive learning spaces where all participants contribute. For his proposals to happen, the ’theatre’ must be allowed to be creative, required to engage in change and capable of being startling if we are to succeed on the much larger stage of our social, economic and political futures.

This book is a significant achievement and it will certainly provoke useful debate on a vital issue; it supports those who would create change and this is of considerable value.

Dr Helen Anderson works in Academic Quality at AUT University.

Bali Haque, Changing our Secondary Schools, NZCER, Wellington, 2014.
pp274, ISBN978-1-927231-47-0 retails at $39.95 and can be purchased at
www.nzcer.org.nz/nzcerpress/changing-our-secondary-schools

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