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Dr Muriel Newman

Selling Our Kids Short

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The new primary and secondary school curriculum was launched this week amidst fanfare claiming that it is leading edge and progressive. However, the new curriculum may well sell New Zealand children – and teachers – short.

The Prime Minister explained that the curriculum represented a shift away from knowing facts and figures to developing the skills to apply them outside the classroom. The Minister of Education stated that the new curriculum would focus on sustainability, climate change, and that all students would have the opportunity to learn about the Treaty of Waitangi, Te Reo Maori and Tikanga Maori.

The NZCPR Guest Commentator this week is Dr Kevin Donnelly, an education consultant and author who believes that the government is taking New Zealand in the wrong direction with the new curriculum:

“The recently released New Zealand Curriculum adopts an outcomes-based education model. It defines the purpose of education with clichés like: ‘actively involved’, ‘lifelong learning’, ‘connected’, ‘learning to learn’ and ‘active seekers, users and creators of knowledge’. 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”. (To read the article, click HERE)

Kevin explains that an outcomes based approach to education is essentially experimental having only ever been adopted by a handful of countries. The majority of nations that outperform New Zealand in international tests have retained more traditional standards-based syllabus models.

In the USA, the outcomes-based model has proved such a failure that “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”.

Kevin also points out that the new curriculum will place “excessive and debilitating demands” on classroom teachers as they are required to become curriculum designers – on top of being social workers and surrogate parents for increasing numbers of children. Requiring schools to design their own curriculum is a daft idea. While it sounds progressive, the reality is that large numbers of New Zealand schools and their teachers are struggling just to keep their heads above water and to ask them to take on the specialised task of curriculum development as well, is misguided.

Similarly, the commitment to “personalised” learning for students, that is central to the curriculum, is another overly ambitious goal. Again, while it sounds good, to expect teachers to be able to give personalised attention to 20 or 30 children who are all ‘doing their own thing’ during a single classroom lesson is totally unrealistic.

The approach that has been foisted on schools has replaced academic rigour, defined standards and a proper testing regime with the concepts of participation and progress. While these are no doubt worthy in their own right, the notion of protecting children from failure while they are at school – which underpins this approach to education – defies human nature. Life is all about achieving ones potential, and competition is what extends that potential even higher.

In the new curriculum, the government is also abandoning the time-honoured tradition of educating children through the transmission of an acceptable body of knowledge. The problem is, however, that replacing knowledge with skills leaves many students at risk of finishing school with a range of eclectic proficiencies, but without the basic knowledge to read, write or calculate properly.

In fact, given the not insignificant number of non-academic students whose aspirations for the future are the dole and the domestic purposes benefit, what New Zealand desperately needs is a curriculum that introduces a separate high quality vocational training programme designed to engage such youngsters and provide them with the knowledge and skills they need to get a worthwhile job.

The fragmentation of education, caused by a curriculum which directs schools to address issues in their own time and in their own way, also leaves teachers and students extremely vulnerable to political manipulation. Using a ‘divide and rule’ strategy, a ruling party can represent its political ideology as educational principles or values which it then requires schools to teach. This is certainly the case with ‘sustainability’ and ‘climate change’, key Labour Party policies, which they have now embedded into the curriculum.

But it gets worse. As a result of intense political pressure from vested interest groups, the Treaty of Waitangi, which was dumped from the draft curriculum, has been re-instated to become a guiding principle in the way New Zealand children are taught. The Treaty has now become a key component of the official education policy and a central part of the government’s vision for the curriculum.

This turnaround, signals just how dangerously politicised the curriculum has become. Teachers are now expected to teach children that the Treaty of Waitangi conferred full ‘partnership’ privileges to Maori. Not only is the partnership theory a myth, but it is also ironic that a Prime Minister, who refused to say grace when the Queen attended a State dinner, can make the teaching of Maori spirituality in schools compulsory.

The blatant politicisation of the curriculum reaffirms my belief that New Zealand children need to be protected from political indoctrination in the same way that British children are protected. That entails inserting a clause into the Education Act not only to expressly prohibit the teaching of partisan politics, but to require that when political matters are being discussed, an alternative view is presented as well.

If you believe that children should be protected from governments that treat education as a means of instilling their political beliefs into the next generation, then please support the NZCPR petition HERE

What has been most surprising about the new school curriculum launch is the relative silence. Notwithstanding stories about those who should have been expected to speak out being told to pull their heads in by people in high places, the response from the majority of the ten thousand submitters who opposed aspects of the draft curriculum has been muted. There appears to be little concern about the fact that the curriculum takes New Zealand in the opposite direction to countries with strong traditions of excellence in education, nor about the excessive burdens it places on teachers and schools. Not only that, but the introduction of key aspects of Labour’s political ideology into the curriculum has met with a resounding silence.

The question is whether this silence is an indicator of widespread support for the curriculum, or whether it is a sign of the extent to which state intimidation has infiltrated into every nook and cranny within our society.

If you think that more and more people are afraid to speak their mind these days, then wait until the government’s Electoral Finance Bill to ban free speech in election year becomes the law – then, under threat of prosecution if they get it wrong, people will be really afraid to speak out. If this concerns you then I urge you to follow what John Boscawen, a private citizen who receives these weekly NZCPR newsletters, is doing to fight back. He is not only taking the government to court over the Bill, but is also organising protest marches as well!

This week’s poll asks: Are you are satisfied that the direction of the new curriculum is in the best interests of New Zealand students.