The sight of children in orderly rows of desks chanting multiples of three in unison felt so removed from the typical Kiwi classroom – yet also faintly familiar. As I watched the clip, I was transported back to my own education, many years ago, at a small rural school in the Waikato, characterised by spelling tests and reciting times tables.

Katharine Birbalsingh is a staunch advocate for such ‘old school’ methods.

Three hundred guests gathered at Auckland Museum last night to hear the headmistress talk about how her educational philosophies are changing the lives of the 480 students currently attending Michaela Community School, a charter school she founded in a poor neighbourhood in inner-city London four years ago. The dinner event, hosted by the New Zealand Initiative, was attended by business leaders, politicians, educators and media.

Judging from the sheer size of the audience and its reaction to Birbalsingh’s presentation, there is clearly an appetite to revisit traditional teaching methods here in New Zealand – especially with our education system poised for reform.

Little ripples of applause interspersed her presentation, often following her bolder statements, suggesting an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the status quo. Certainly, her ideas sat in stark contrast with those raised in the recent Education Summits led by the Ministry of Education.

According to Birbalsingh, content is important and 21st century skills are not. The teacher is not a “facilitator of learning” – rather the teacher’s job is to deliver direct instruction in front of the class. We should be teaching subjects like English, maths, science and history, not learning areas and key competencies. There is little need for students to have devices to aid their learning. Tests and exams are good. Open-plan learning environments are bad. Teachers need to be “untrained” from their teaching education. Sir Ken Robinson’s ideas around progressive education are completely wrong. Unions need to back away from pedagogy.

Birbalsingh’s chief argument, however, is this: how can we expect children, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, to be creative or succeed in their chosen area if we don’t equip them with the knowledge and content first?

She is critical of the progressive movement with its focus on inquiry learning led by students.

“The saddest thing about the progressive movement is that it hurts the very people it wants to help,” she says.

“The progressives say that learning is boring, so we have to make it relevant to kids by making it fun and entertaining – and that necessarily means dumbing things down. The simple fact is that subjects are intrinsically interesting. Knowledge about something makes that something interesting.

“One cannot be inquisitive about something one knows little about. One cannot think independently about something if you have little basic knowledge of it.

“It’s our job at school to expose children to thoughts, knowledge, ideas that they might otherwise have never come across.”

Questions from the floor revealed some of the audience members’ uncertainties around her system – and on occasion, exposed some of its weaknesses. There were queries about how the system worked for children who had special learning needs, and about how students’ creativity was nurtured.

But a question on how the school built students’ cultural capital possibly revealed one of the biggest concerns for Kiwi educators in the audience.

It is hard to fathom an approach which veers away from the culturally responsive approaches that are starting to have an impact in New Zealand schools.

But Birbalsingh stands by a one-size-fits-all approach to what kids should learn and how they should learn it.

“Black kids and white kids are all the same. They’re just kids. To think otherwise is, well, racist,” she says.

“We don’t make them learn things that are relevant to their lives. We don’t have them learning things that are more engaging through play and fun. We succeed with our children because we don’t treat them differently with a misguided view that brown, black working-class children can’t access, and not deserve to access, the same curriculum content that their whiter or richer counterparts do at another school,” says Birbalsingh.

The school takes a “no excuses” approach to behaviour. Its motto is ‘Work Hard – Be Kind’.

“We believe the secret is simple. Expect a lot of children and they will rise to the standards you demand.”

Birbalsingh didn’t hold back in criticising New Zealand education and was forthcoming with her fears for our system.

“Right now, I slightly worry that you’re about to go off the edge of a cliff as a country. And that’s because the future of any country is its education system. And you have decided to pursue competencies in your curriculum, project-based learning in your classrooms, whole-word reading methods in your primary schools. You’re abandoning testing and traditional teaching methods that have worked around the world for hundreds of years.”

It was fascinating to see conservative ideals spoken about in a revolutionary fashion – elements of my own education heralded as the way forward.

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of all was the discussion Birbalsingh’s talk generated.

Following her presentation, heated debates took place over dessert, people dissecting this potential ‘way forward’ in the context of their own experiences, views and understanding. From those I spoke with, many were conflicted – agreeing with some aspects, dismissing others.

I shared in this irresolution. While I couldn’t imagine my precocious seven-year-old sitting in a school like Michaela, chanting multiples of three, I wondered if I owed more to my own ‘old school’ education for giving me a firm foundation in knowledge.

If consultation about the future of New Zealand education is to truly be genuine, we need to consider all avenues. It might mean, as Birbalsingh suggests, that we need not reinvent the wheel after all. Or it might mean a totally new direction. Either way, we need to continue to have these sorts of debates, consider what is working elsewhere and why, and dissect the underpinning evidence.

Source: Education Review

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7 COMMENTS

  1. Ah, I have the all the answers. The conviction of absolutes.

    “The progressives say that learning is boring, so we have to make it relevant to kids by making it fun and entertaining – and that necessarily means dumbing things down.

    Ah, the classic strawman. Having taught in NZ schools, guess what! Lessons can be fun and entertaining AND not dumbed down. Not sure how quantum mechanics can be dumbed down.

    “We don’t make them learn things that are relevant to their lives. We don’t have them learning things that are more engaging through play and fun. We succeed with our children because we don’t treat them differently with a misguided view that brown, black working-class children can’t access, and not deserve to access, the same curriculum content that their whiter or richer counterparts do at another school,” says Birbalsingh.

    More strawman and black and white fallacy added in for good measure. Makes a big assumption that the white and rich curriculum is superior. Though I do think she has a point about unconscious bias we have of what makes a ‘better school’ in this country.

    She is critical of the progressive movement with its focus on inquiry learning and group work led by students. Again it depends how you wish to parody what inquiry learning is. I have not seen in our classrooms where students are just left to ‘go google it’ it requires scaffolding and linking to prior knowledge supplemented with the teacher’s insight (oooh direct instruction scary) learning is complex, but to just say oh all the ‘progressive’ stuff is mumbo jumbo and ‘traditional methods’ are the bees knees will be where the harm comes.

    One size does not fit all, techniques and approaches are chosen based on the learner and where they are in the learning. That is the art of teaching. As Elisabeth Gilbert says: Absolute certainty is not something I strive for anymore. I’ve learned the hard way that destiny usually looks upon our most strident convictions with amusement, or perhaps even pity. That, of course, cuts both ways in this debate.

    • Are we on the edge of a cliff?

      Maybe, however, Ms Birbalsingh’s alleged New Zealand “cliff” is an unfortunate misconception and her teaching approach misguided.

      We now know how children learn, for example: we understand that ball-handling skills develop with age, we understand that language vocabulary develops over time, we acknowledge that metaphoric communication may not be understood until middle adolescence, we appreciate that image-making ability progresses through stages of development, we know that true problem-solving, as Design, is similarly age-dependent … and, although disputed by academics, that some students learn better in ‘modes’ other than verbal or numerical.

      Bear in mind that formal education is not for the present, it is for an unknown future. How to decide what to learn and applying what we know about student development and how to facilitate learning, is the job of teachers – the ever-changing problem of effective teaching is what makes the job interesting.

      Whether we like it or not, education is inevitably involved with Communication. This is a process of Input, either direct sensory perception or processed human. Aspects of Input are further manipulated mentally, Processing, involving thinking. Parts of this thought are stored in memory and can become the core of related communication using a chosen medium and means of transmission, Output. In turn, this may prompt a response from other people which is Comparison. The outcome of all this is Learning. (The overall process is complicated by the impact of cultural influences that can ‘filter’ each part of the process of communication.)

      One aspect of Communication can be in a visual ‘mode’. The process involves imagery throughout Input, Processing, Output and Comparison – Visual Learning. This may be defined as: “… the ability to perceive, think, organise, and produce visually.” It is obviously part of the National Curriculum Visual Arts, but also applies to such subjects as English, and Science. If you are a verbally dominant thinker, learn more about the ‘visual mode’ by going to http://www.responsetovision.com where you will find further information including (see Contact) an email address for communication and detail about an extensive ebook resource, Response to Vision : OUR POND, which includes student Activities to stimulate Visual Learning – a ‘learning cliff’ for Ms Birbalsingh to climb!

      Derek Olphert.

  2. Send this hideous woman back to where she belongs – a dysfunctional UK education tip. Expert? Opinionated know-all who has no currency in Aotearoa. We are better than she will ever be.

  3. Always be beware of people who talk in absolutes. That they have all the answers.

    “We don’t make them learn things that are relevant to their lives. We don’t have them learning things that are more engaging through play and fun. We succeed with our children because we don’t treat them differently with a misguided view that brown, black working-class children can’t access, and not deserve to access, the same curriculum content that their whiter or richer counterparts do at another school,” says Birbalsingh

    A lot of assumptions in this sentence, that learning is a dichotomy – you can’t learn AND play and have fun or that the curriculum accessed by rich and white is superior. Most higher decile schools, for example, teach GCSE at higher levels. Does learning about the British electrical wiring system have more benefit than learning the NZ one? or learning about the medicinal NZ native plants have less benefit than learning about pine forests of Europe?

    “The progressives say that learning is boring, so we have to make it relevant to kids by making it fun and entertaining – and that necessarily means dumbing things down. The simple fact is that subjects are intrinsically interesting. Knowledge about something makes that something interesting.”

    I challenge this assertion that ‘progressives’ whomever this nebulous group are, make learning fun and entertaining to the detriment of difficulty. Again, another false dichotomy learning can do both. Fun and complex. I explain the complexities of chemical and physical changes by baking muffins – fun and tasty! in no way making the concept less complex in nature.

    The attacks on problem-based learning are based on a straw man, the parody of teachers saying to students just go google it. Learning is complex and requires a mixture of skills (some domain specific) and content It is a continuum which can include direct instruction, group learning, and other pedagogical tools which are adapted to suit the learners on we they are at in their learning.

    This is the art of teaching, not a magic bullet of if you follow traditional methods and not this ‘progressive’ hocus pocus then all will be well.

  4. Birbalsingh is living in cloud cuckoo land if she insists there is only one way (her way) to teaching and learning. She may be teaching but the extent of her learning is questionable. I am just curious as to who invited her and why she was invited to NZ . What exactly is her field of expertise? Teaching and learning, for me is about, promoting a sense of belonging, connection, engagement and empowerment to reduce the negative and accentuate the positive and can only be achieved through striking a balance between content and skill development, driven by students’ unique needs.

  5. I probably would have agreed with the comments here – until I read her book. She’s working in one of the poorest areas of London. She is getting outstanding results. The children (and the teachers) are happy. Why would be so dismissive of a system that achieve that? I’m not sure our current system is getting the same kind of results with our lower decile schools (even with the dedication of some of our best teachers in those schools) – and she is making the point that the development we’re thinking about it untested, and driven by a liberal ideology which may not meet the needs of our most at-risk kids. Isn’t this at least worth looking at and thinking about? Shoudn’t we be making a call based on evidence?

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