By: Simon Collins

Faye Langdon (left) and Justine Munro have brought a new system of testing skills that employers want, such as tenacity and teamwork, to NZ schools. Photo / Michael Craig

Rote learning may be finally on the way out of our schools, as 4000 Kiwi students try out a new system of measuring the skills that employers really want, such as tenacity and team work.

Forget memorising and regurgitating mathematical formulas or the causes and consequences of the American civil rights movement.

Instead, students are being asked to make judgment calls where there is no obvious correct answer.

One question asks: “You are taking part in a study group with school mates in preparation for a particularly difficult test. As the first review session gets under way, it becomes clear that the other members of the group have not taken good notes and are not as familiar with the material as you are. How likely are you to do each of the following:

  • Do nothing: clearly you will get better marks on the test
  • Suggest that everyone read over the textbook in preparation for the next review session
  • Leave the group because you will be better off studying on your own
  • Offer to use your notes as the basis for the remaining review sessions
  • Ask the teacher for advice as to how to handle the next meeting.”

Manurewa Intermediate deputy principal Ben Hutchings, who gave the test to about 400 students, said the novel questions drew quite different responses from conventional tests.

“Our kids were kind of asking, ‘Do I answer this like I know my parents would like me to answer, or like my pastor would like me to answer, or do I answer this like I would myself?'” he said.

“So straight away they were a lot more honest because they could see that it had nothing to do with what they were learning at school, it was a whole-person assessment.

“When they answered they were talking to one another, my kids really needed to be able to discuss this because there was a lot of reading and some of the kids were not able to process some of the language. Kids were talking about whether each other did those things or not.”

The questions, about 100 of them, were developed by an American non-profit, ACT-Tessera, originally called American College Testing.

They have been adapted for New Zealand by a new company called 21C Skills Lab, founded by Auckland-based directors Justine Munro and Faye Langdon, who have worked together on other projects such as the NZ Centre for Social Innovation.

Results from the first trials at 11 schools in Auckland and one in Wellington are about to be released at workshops for teachers and to parents at a public forum with ACT researcher Dr Cristina Anguiano-Carrasco on Wednesday.

All 4000 students who have sat the tests will get individualised profiles of their strengths and weaknesses on six skills: tenacity, organisation, teamwork, emotional resilience, curiosity and leadership.

At Manurewa Intermediate, Hutchings said many students rated themselves quite differently from the way he saw them, but he said the school would respect the way the students see themselves.

“You can’t argue with the way a kid thinks about themselves,” he said.

“We may think they are wrong, but if that is what the kid thinks about themselves, that’s where we start.

“We are already beginning to create a structure where this information will feed into our curriculum. Teaching life skills, ‘soft’ skills, and developing whole people, is part of our vision already.”

Hobsonville Point Secondary School deputy principal Claire Amos is advising 21C Skills Lab on new tests for skills such as tenacity and leadership. File photo

Hobsonville Point Secondary School deputy principal Claire Amos, the Skills Lab’s educational adviser, said measuring life skills was the first step to broadening schools’ focus away from purely academic knowledge measured by the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA).

“Then it’s putting in place interventions more thoughtfully so you are not doing a guessing game, and being able to develop the skills that students need to focus on,” she said.

“NCEA will still have its place, but I do think we are going to move sooner rather than later to students being assessed against a broader portfolio of skills.”

Southern Cross Campus curriculum leader Michele Zackey-Meek, who gave the test to 250 students across three year levels, said employers had told her that the school’s construction students, for example, had good technical skills but were weak on working collectively to solve problems.

“I wanted to have a baseline of data so I can say to my staff, ‘This is what we need,'” she said.

St Mary’s College principal Bernadette Stockman said most of her students were heading for tertiary education, but she hoped the tests would encourage girls to think about “doing things like being an entrepreneur”.

Lynfield College deputy principal Steve Mouldey, who gave the test to Lynfield’s 650 Year 9 and 10 students, said the results would help the college to implement its charter aim to equip students with broader skills such as creativity as well as academic achievements.

The trials have been free but Langdon said the tests cost US$10 ($14) per student in the United States. The Skills Lab is still negotiating a price for NZ schools.

• Are our kids future-fit? Dr Cristina Anguiano-Carrasco, Claire Amos, Vic Crone (Callaghan Innovation), Marc England (Genesis Energy) and US writer Jonathan Martin speak at Sir Paul Reeves Building, AUT University, Wednesday October 18 at 5.45pm.

Source: NZ Herald


  1. While I entirely agree that we need a range of skill sets, and rote learning and memorization does not lead to understanding, creative thinkers need a base of knowledge to make creative connections from and so we still need to instill that strong base of knowledge in our kids. The problem is we have over-assessed in our classes, made them too large, and reduced the role of our teachers in proper evaluative processes. This has lead to rote learning, memorization and learning to the test, as teachers cannot cope otherwise. This does not provide a base of knowledge, just short term memories that allow students to pass the test. It certainly does not set down long term category memories. If we want a creative innovative workforce we need to look again at how we support our teachers and assess our students. What is measured matters.

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