In John Morgan’s recent article on Education Central, he suggests that, “we should be looking to systematically critique the claims and ideas of educationalists and policy makers”. The key word is, “we”. Should it not be teachers who embrace the task of, “improving our education system”?

In New Zealand, formal education has evolved from two policy statements. The first, well over a 100 years old, stated that, “… for pakehas, it will be free, compulsory, and secular” [Māori added in 1894]; the second, rather later, stated, “Every person, whatever the level of his academic ability, whether he be rich or poor, whether he live in town or country, has the right, as a citizen, to a free education of a kind for which he is best suited and to the fullest extent of his powers”. Thank you Dr Clarence Beeby (appointed Director of Education 1940) for penning this for Peter Fraser, Prime Minister, 1939.

Yes, today they need a tidy-up recognising culture and gender, but these statements bear recycling.

Currently, we have an extraordinarily complex National Curriculum Statement administered by a Ministry of Education responsible to the Minister of Education, who, being elected by the people, is responsible for estimating the educational needs of voters’ children. (This assumes that parents are sufficiently well-informed to affirm government policy.)

Ostensibly, the present education ‘system’ is designed for students of varying ages, cultures, sexual orientations, financial position… to give them sufficient knowledge of themselves and others to cope with and confidently contribute to New Zealand society. No doubt a Mission Statement exists. For those responsible for planning this educational progression, (like religion) it is an exercise of faith or pure guesswork, an ongoing frustration to all perfectionists! It seems that the objectives of the Curriculum are not working for “… every person” – which presents an absorbing problem for us all.

Teachers know how students learn. We know about the development of learning across a range of ‘modes’ (verbal, numerical, and musical, visual, kinesthetic … which include creativity) and that experience in all these is essential; we know how to introduce learning at an appropriate level of comprehension starting with direct sensory experience, and possibly leading to metaphoric language or imagery in Year 13; we know that students can learn well one day yet not so well another; we know that some areas or modes of learning will be rapidly understood by a student, whereas a different area or mode can show limited progress; we know that boys can react differently from girls given the same task, and that there can be differences in response between student and male or female teacher; and most teachers know that a student’s culture will begin to influence the way he/she learns from around ten years of age (but teachers will not necessarily know how to recognise and adjust to such difference…) and so on.

Similarly, teachers have a range of technologies at hand to assist in student learning. However, the speed with which this technology advances inevitably leaves teachers trailing behind. This can result in a dangerous position where the technology developers can dictate to the teachers. Much the same can happen with the production of learning resources which should represent New Zealand, but if produced overseas can thoroughly confuse students if the plants, animals and insects shown are not found here, and more so when they are shown in landscapes lit from the South which is correct in the Northern Hemisphere, but incorrect ‘down under’.

Where and what students should learn is a matter of conjecture. Traditionally, we have given little thought to where students receive their education and have provided formal learning by isolating the unfortunate students in special learning spaces called ‘schools’, some of which artificially segregate students on the basis of gender, while some schools manage to claim a portion of state funding even though they are clearly not “secular”.

Students have their individuality squashed by uniforms and rules that can seem strange outside the classroom. The National Curriculum course structure provides a progression of content in anticipation of university study, however, for the less ‘academically inclined’, fewer opportunities arise – so much for “best suited and to fullest extent …”. Regardless of content, the learning provided by schools is certainly not “free”. Overall, room for improvement! So much as “systematic critique”, but reality must be faced.

From the above and related body of knowledge, it should not be too difficult to plan a flexible system for educating a diversity of clients. However, to succeed requires politicians and their servants, the Ministry of Education, to have the vision and wisdom to support recommendations from the professionals, rather than telling the professionals what to do. A creative approach is inherently part of this planning. For example, there will need to be a diametric shift from a competitive model (see Tomorrow’s Schools), to a co-operative model.

The physical form of schools may have to change. The use of technology could make them largely irrelevant in their current form and organisational structure, with schooling being undertaken any time between 7.00 am and 9.00 pm – learning on demand, possibly from several different ‘schools’, or teachers, or homes, or allowing the possibility of parents becoming involved with learning! All of which redefines the role of ‘teachers’ and how they are trained – a separate topic.

So, who can best plan a learning future for our younger students? The answer is surely the professionals who are closest to the students – teachers – let them have responsibility for their actions! We will need time to gather thoughts, analyse the problem, consult widely (including students), establish goals and ways of reaching them, trial solutions, then adjust and retrial.

This process must allow an interchange of ideas between all sectors of education and encourage co-operation so those involved have a clear appreciation of their particular contribution to every student’s educational progression from Early Childhood Education, through Primary and Intermediate, to Secondary, and for some on to Tertiary where ‘life-long learning’ can be addressed. In particular, educational ‘academics’ need direct experience in the simple delight of very young students – it’s called ‘play’! At all stages of this planning, the question must be asked, “How will this learning proposal contribute to the on-going education of every student in a culturally rich New Zealand society?” (Beeb should be happy with that.)

Regarding Critical Studies, if the outcomes are practical, such Studies could offer a context for change and sense of direction for educational planning. These outcomes will certainly need to demonstrate how learning and teaching modes have shifted beyond just verbal, and make full use of technology as a means of transmission.

Visual Learning is a mode with a significant role to play in general learning – see more here.

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