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Dr. Kevin Donnelly

New Zealand Curriculum: Backward looking and dumbed down

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New Zealand and Australia have a good deal in common: breeding Melbourne Cup winners, the ANZAC legend, Captain Cook and not making rugby world cup finals. Education is another area where we share many of the same characteristics. Since the early 90s, both countries have adopted what is termed an outcomes-based education (OBE) model of curriculum development.

OBE, unlike a syllabus, or what in the USA is termed a standards model of curriculum, gives precedence to so-called generic skills and competencies, like thinking, working in teams, being futures oriented, instead of teaching the type of essential knowledge and understanding associated with traditional subjects like history, geography, mathematics and literature.

Under OBE, teachers are described as facilitators, students become knowledge navigators and more structured and formal approaches to classroom interaction give way to group work, inquiry learning and extended projects. In some cases, based on the assumption that children learn at different rates and in different ways, learning is described as developmental and nobody fails as all are guaranteed success.

The recently released New Zealand Curriculum, as the previous approach to curriculum development, adopts an outcomes-based education model. While the so-called Learning Areas includes subjects like English and Science, the priority is on schools dealing with Values, Key Competencies and Principles. Generic skills like relating to others, managing self and thinking are listed, as with values like excellence, diversity, equity and ecological sustainability.

The New Zealand Curriculum also mandates that schools should embrace new age and politically correct principles like cultural diversity, inclusion and community engagement – all with a Future Focus. As with Australia’s adoption of OBE, during the early to mid 90s, the New Zealand Curriculum defines the purpose of education with clichés like: ‘actively involved’, ‘lifelong learning’, ‘connected’, ‘learning to learn’ and ‘active seekers, users and creators of knowledge’.

What is wrong with OBE? The first thing to note is that OBE has only ever been adopted by a handful of countries (England, USA, Australia, South Africa, Ontario, Canada and New Zealand) and that there is little, if any, research proving its effectiveness or value. The majority of countries that outperform Australia and New Zealand in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study test (TIMSS), like Singapore, South Korea, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic, never embraced OBE and have continued with a syllabus approach.

In the USA, such has been OBE’s failure, that the term is rarely used and the overwhelming majority of states are implementing a standards approach to curriculum. Both a syllabus and a standards approach have a strong subject discipline focus, are related to year levels, embrace more formal methods of teaching and provide curriculum road maps that are clear, concise, teacher friendly and detailed.

As proven by recent events in Tasmania (where OBE, otherwise known as Essential Learnings, has been ditched in favour of a more conservative model) and Western Australia (where, given the public outrage about trying to introduce a new NCEA look-alike senior school certificate, the education minister was sacked), OBE is also passé in Australia. Both major political parties at the federal level have released policies arguing for a more academic, rigorous and teacher friendly curriculum and the preferred model is described as a standards one.

A second weakness in OBE is that its approach to teaching is flawed. Generic skills and competencies, like thinking and being creative, cannot be taught in isolation and they do not happen by accident. As argued by the American academic, Jerome Bruner, competencies like being able to communicate are subject specific and being creative relies on mastering particular disciplines. In order to communicate, for example, one needs to study literature, especially poetry, learn how to write a grammatically correct sentence and how to précis complex and challenging prose.

Research associated with how children best learn, such as the USA’s Project Follow Through, also suggests that more formal and direct styles of classroom interaction are better than OBE inspired approaches like group learning. Instead of facilitating, teachers should teach and students need carefully structured and directed lesson, especially with the basics during the early years of primary school.

Instead of students floating through school, being automatically promoted from year to year, it is also the case, unlike the New Zealand Curriculum, where the expected Achievement Objectives relate to a number of year levels, that overseas ‘best-practice’ is to have year level specific curriculum documents. With a syllabus or a standards approach, it is also the case that students are expected to master essential learning at each year or grade level before being promoted.

As noted by a number of submissions to the draft New Zealand Curriculum, and illustrated by events in Tasmania and Western Australia over the last 2 years, one of the worst characteristics of OBE curriculum are the excessive and debilitating demands it places on classroom teachers.

The New Zealand Curriculum is not a syllabus, as such, and each school will be made to reinvent the wheel, as it were, when translating the NZ Curriculum into a format required for teaching. While good schools, with the necessary resources and expertise, can cope, many schools and teachers will flounder as they do not have the time nor expertise to be curriculum designers.

One of the strengths of a syllabus or standards approach, where teachers are given clear and succinct road maps of what to teach, is that teachers are freed to mentor one another and to improve classroom practice.

Education is increasingly global and the majority of countries associated with the OECD and APEC are re-evaluating their education systems in order to be more competitive and to best meet the demands of an increasingly complex and demanding international environment. While the designers of the New Zealand Curriculum will argue that their approach represents ‘best-practice’, unfortunately, such is not the case.