As we know, many teachers spend their holidays engaging with professional learning opportunities. For two days last week, I attended the New Zealand History Teachers’ Association conference in Hamilton, and the following day I was a delegate at a one-day conference on assessment practice in Auckland. Both events were attended by several hundred dedicated professionals, enthused by the expert advice on offer. The contrasts between the two experiences were striking.
At the History conference, the dominant topic for conversation was curriculum content and the nature of our discipline, and in the pursuit of deeper understanding on one day we took a field trip around key Waikato battle sites of the New Zealand Wars. The ‘WHAT’ of History was foregrounded: pedagogical and assessment discussions pedagogy flowed from conversations about subject content.
At the assessment event, ‘HOW’ formed the basis for almost all sessions. Transferability and the genericism of the advice on offer were emphasised here, rather than the content being assessed. One presenter’s exclamation of ‘I don’t care what they know’ seemed a world away from the History conference’s concern for the content.
At both events people were interested in the need to examine professional practice in order to make improvements for the benefit of their students. At the assessment day in particular, ‘reinvention’ was the preoccupation. Presenters spoke about the need to reimagine or revolutionise assessment for the 21st century. History involves the study of continuity and change, as well as the reasons for change, and it teaches us that constant flux is destabilising. The problem with the cult of reinvention, which seems to have a strong grip on New Zealand’s education system, is that continual remaking undermines the knowledge and experience of the practitioners upon whom the system depends. When change becomes the norm, sometimes for its own sake, shared understanding of best practice is lost, established expertise is devalued, experimentation is celebrated and the most radical solutions tend to be the preferred ones.
Teachers need to exercise some of the critical thinking they are so often called upon to instil in their students. They must engage with demands for the need to reimagine or reinvent education with some scepticism. The status quo isn’t perfect, but judicious and carefully considered change is in everyone’s best interests—students’ interests most of all. In my view, teachers would do well to learn WHAT matters, as the lessons from the History conference show.
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