Archive for October 2013

There might be more than meets the eye!


I have been criticized plenty of times for suggesting that a key purpose of an education is to get a job. I have plenty of times put up with arguments about the higher purposes of schooling. I have even been told, with great seriousness, by the VC of a prestigious university that “We don’t train people, we educate them!”

Then dark clouds rolled in – we had a skills shortage, we had a mismatch between the labour market and the supply line from education providers. We had a growing sense of unease at the indicators that pointed to something of a perfect storm where Salt’s demographic faultline rumbled at the same time as the GFC (i.e. a recession for those not into TLAs) took hold.

There then developed a set of sideshows that risked turning education into something akin to a vaudeville show. Student / teacher ratios led the charge, then there was Novopay, then there was push back in Christchurch at offers of support to look at working in other ways that some other parts of the country might have welcomed (without, of course, the earthquakes that provoked them).

Meanwhile, without a fuss, the world had started to change. New programmes appeared that were more closely aligned to employment. Students started to move into these programmes at a younger age. No longer was a 15-19 year old faced with a single choice – stay in school – but was able to consider pathways through different kinds of institutions and face having not just what used to be thought of as a school leaving qualification (NCEA) but with a set of qualifications, NCEA and a technical qualification, employment ready at about the time the rest were heading off to university to start the journey.

In short, we are at a time when the education scene is changing for 15 – 19 year olds and the conventional senior secondary school is slowly being moved sideways to take its place alongside other pathways. Some of the developments are highly visible (the Tertiary High school, Youth Guarantee fees free places) while others are less obvious retaining a little of the look of school (trades academies for instance).

I am told that by 2015, there will be about 17,500 young people (15-19 year olds) who will be pursuing their education in a place other than a school – ITPs, wananga, PTEs would account for most of them I imagine. This is something of a silent revolution. Imagine the size of a group of 17,000 students would look like in the one place! It is quite a few empty classrooms.

That this is happening is not an argument against schools, it is simply affirmation that some young people have their life chances enhanced by continuing their schooling somethere other than a school. Don’t you love the US habit of referring to “school” for pretty well all levels? One fellow said to me recently I am going back to school next semester – that was to Harvard to do a Masters degree!

So imagine my surprise when on Labour Day (consider the irony of this) I heard two news reports on the radio both urging the authorities to see that education institutions be measured by their success in getting people into employment. And they both were teacher organisations, one here in New Zealand and the other in Australia.

We have just had the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment issue a RFP calling for proposals that bring together community connection and involvement, quality trades training, involvement of ITOs in the process of moving the student through to employment, the provision of tools – this all sounds like a commitment to seamlessness, it sounds like a carefully constructed pathway. And it is interesting that the TEC and MBIE are involved with each contributing what they do best.

Is there enough happening to claim that a paradigm shift is under way? Possibly, the signs are there that we are moving away from a set of practices that have been fairly constant for thirty years. Next will come the uncertainty and then the emergence of a new way of working.

But let me put this forward as an idea. Education was pretty constant in the way it worked for a hundred years until the late 1960s and 1970s when much change happened. Tracking / streaming was bad – out it went. Industrial arts were a reflection of an age now gone – out they went. The government employed 80% of the apprentices but they sold off the industrial and service agencies that employed them – out they went. Polytechnics were invented and training shifted both in the institutions and into daylight – out went learning on the job.

It could be that the big paradigm shift really started back then, went through a time of great uncertainty (the 1990s and the 2000s) and what is happening now is the emergence of a new way of working. Now that would be exciting.


Striving for the top in the old classrooms


A friend enthusiastically told me about finding, on a visit back to what was once his home town in England, the British Schools Museum. It was housed in a set of old school buildings, not just any old set but one that had housed the first “Monitorial School”[1]

The idea of the school started in 1808 following a discussion on the education of the children of the working poor between Joseph Lancaster and a landowner William Wilshere, a local lawyer and land-owner. At that time it was considered unnecessary for them to learn – it was likely to give them ideas above their station! And furthermore there was no government funding, and very few private schools of any worth.

A group of like-minded people clustered around Wilshere and an old malt-house was converted in the town of Hitchin into what came to be known as a Monitorial, or Lancasterian, school.

Children were taught by the methods developed by Lancaster. One teacher taught a number of the older and more able children; they then passed onto other children what they had learned. The school taught both boys and girls (another revolutionary idea) but they were taught separately. It became very popular and in 1837 the Lancasterian Schoolroom was built to accommodate the numbers of boys who flocked there to learn. Over time additional classrooms have been added to the site including the Infants’ and Girls’ school.

The site is now extremely important to the history of elementary education that it portrays. We have yet to find another schoolroom built to Lancaster’s specification, with the supporting pillars marking the teaching aisles still in place, surviving anywhere else in the world.

The Museum describes the classroom thus:

The room was built in 1837 to enable one master to teach 300 boys with the aid of 30 monitors by the Lancasterian method. It is the only known complete example to survive in the world. The pupils sat facing the master on benches at narrow desks and were taught by the monitors at semi-circular ‘teaching stations’ around the walls.

That captures the model. Older children taught the younger children. The “monitors” (hence the “monitorial” school) would receive instruction which was then passed on to groups of students. One bright spark, an inspector who visited the school had an idea, why not have the floor rising on tiers that reflected the standards reached. He was Matthew Arnold the poet.

I am sure that I have seen a photo of a classroom in New Zealand that was tiered to reflect the standards and we certainly made use of pupil-teachers. In order to supplement the numbers of teachers in a school, the older children, while still pursuing their own learning, taught the younger ones under the supervision of a teacher. In New Zealand they received a small wage for doing this.

I am not sure that we attempted to teach 300 students in one classroom as happened under the Lancastrian Model! Of course New Zealand was small and we might have been struggling in the middle of the 19th century to find 300 young people in one place! But multi-level teaching is common in small rural schools still. There are examples of single sex classes within co-ed schools in New Zealand.

What we have inherited is the fixed views surrounding educational progress and while our classrooms seem flat we still make pupils climb the tiers from one standard to the next. The word “standard” used to describe the levels in New Zealand primary education only disappeared relatively recently. And I speculate that the use of the word “form” for a class level or year level in secondary schools is a hangover from the fact that the students were seated on forms according to progress.

Much that we have and do in schools is the result of previous practice and often is a reflection of thinking at the time. It is not entirely arbitrary that the word “grade” is used in systems that rely heavily on testing or that “year level” is used in systems that uncritically fire people onwards and upwards as year-end ticks by. And the tiered classroom lives on in so many ways.

What anaylsis would we make of some of the new schools being built if we expect their physical characteristics to reflect a way of working as, once, the schools of John Lancaster did?


There’s no “moocing” about here!

I have become a student again. Yes, I am now a student of the University of Edinburgh. This would have brought great pleasure to my Scots grandmother I am sure.

Yes, I have started my first MOOC (Massive Open Online Course). It is called “Philosophy for Everybody”, lasts for seven weeks, will require me to study for 1-2 hours a week and has a book that goes with the course.

How did this come about? Well I had, some time ago, wandered through the various web sites of the major providers – Coursera, NovoEd and so on – and must have left my email address somewhere that indicated I would be interested. They got in touch recently with a range of courses that I might be interested in. Easy, minimum fuss from my point of view, getting back to me impressed me – all behaviours that face-to-face providers might strive to copy.

I needed something that would not have time demands that were too heavy, that was focussed, had good, helpful resources and related to my interests and past learning. This fitted the bill nicely.

At 1-2 hours a week I could see myself managing this. The trouble with so much conventional learning is that it is dolloped out in such large chunks, like the ladles of mashed potato thrown onto your plate in the army mess-hall. I wanted finger food.

The focus was clear and the explanations of it attractive – a short introduction to some of the current approaches to philosophy, thinking and ideas. The resources were clear – seven staff members at the University of Edinburgh each wrote a chapter related to their unit in the course, they were put together into a book and that was it. I got mine from Amazon and put it into my Kindle – I have the resources for the course with me in convenient form.

I am interested in philosophy having undertaken Philosophy 1 in my BA degree many years ago. That course was strong on logic (Students sit in lecture halls. This is a lecture hall. Therefore I must be a student) and some selected philosophers – Bergson and Plato I think.

But the impressive thing to this point has been the total ease with which I have been enrolled -not only the ease, but also the style and approach. I was on first name terms with the University of Edinburgh and the philosophy team instantly. “Hello Stuart, Welcome to the University of Edinburgh.” I was enrolled, welcomed and knew what I needed to know in the space of the time it takes to search and make the thirteen clicks required by conventional tertiary websites.

Of course the course despite attracting the description “massive”, is very small and narrow. What is massive became apparent on Monday when the course started. I signed the “Honor Code” which was a simple set of requirements related to ethical and sensible behaviour in my conduct – these people trusted me! I didn’t have to show my passport, three invoices with my address on them, proof that I had the entry requirements, no standing in a queue, no being interviewed by strangers who would decide whether or not they wanted me in the course. I received detailed advice and guidance about how the course would be conducted, a detailed “syllabus” and invitations to join the discussion group,

The course had actually been open for 12 hours when I got to it on Tuesday morning and already there were several hundred people logged on to the discussion room and they came from all over the world. It was like walking into a common room full of the buzz of friendly conversation with no-one staring. Immediately I was taken by the massive reach of this course geographically, across ages and experience. Being shy by nature I didn’t sign in – I shall do that this weekend.

Now I know that it is easy to be enthusiastic at the beginning. A whopping 93% of those who start a MOOC are not there at the end. I am determined to be there. At that point, if I have “completed” the course (I know exactly what that entails and will require), I shall receive my “Certificate”. This will not be one that produces credit (you need to have your credit card handy when enrolling in those ones) but rather a simple acknowledgement of course participation and completion. That’s all I need at my stage. That might be all that a huge number of people are looking for. I suspect that MOOCs have wide appeal as a kind of Online University of the Third Age.

I promise not to bore you with a blow-by-blow account of my toe-dipping experience with this course and style of learning but will report back to you later in the year when I have completed the course (or, perhaps, have dropped out, or perhaps have failed to pass!).


Talk-ED: In Praise of level 1 and level 2

One of the real strengths of the current Better Public Service Goals is that the target for 18 Year olds is expressed with some flexibility. To pin the target at “NCEA Level 2 or equivalent qualification” is both sensible and essential for a variety of reasons.

It will be a very long time before all 18 year olds will be achieving this target through the conventional approaches of the secondary school. NCEA Level 2 does not function as an effective school leaving target for all simply because the secondary school-based pathway is not one that is attractive to or effective for all students.

This is recognised in other school systems. In the United States the High School Diploma is the standard “school leaving qualification”.  But many do not achieve this so an option is offered through the community college system in two ways. Study for other awards at the level of the diploma is recognised in the associate degree qualification or, where that study has been in general education subjects, often remediation courses, the qualification awarded is a General Education Diploma. This is “an equivalent qualification”.

When a student has not found success in the pathway through a school the appropriate response will neither be in a school nor will the appropriate qualification be one that is seen as a “school” qualification. A multiple pathways response will see the foundation level study wrapped onto other postsecondary programmes and the student who finds renewed interest and energy in different pathways will subsequently be successful not because of the Better Public Service Goal but because they have a line of sight to other postsecondary qualifications and the employment that goes with them. Achieving the Level 2 goal will merely be a station their train passes through on that journey.

Our education system has been dogged by two things in its history – the lack of connection between school and what comes after for a significant group of students and the fixation with a school-based qualification that has little connection with the qualification required beyond the gates.

The Qualifications Framework was a mechanism that would allow equivalence to be struck between different programmes and qualifications. “Equivalence” is not “sameness” and judgment is required in striking equivalence between dissimilar programmes and qualifications at the same level. Trying to bundle everything at Level 1 or Level 2 into a package is at best pointless and might even be counterproductive.

The Tertiary Education Commission insists only that programmes “offered through Youth Guarantee must be linked to level 1-3 qualifications on the New Zealand Qualifications Framework”  and notes that “achieving level 2 qualifications should be the starting point for the learner, with tertiary education organisations encouraging and supporting Youth Guarantee learners to progress to higher levels of education” (see  This reinforces the principles of difference and equivalence. It also importantly reflects the importance of the Minister’s recent announcement that Youth Guarantee would apply to 19 year olds allowing level 3 programmes to become a realistic goal within a Youth Guarantee supported pathway.

Level 3 is important in that at that level entry into other industry-recognised qualifications becomes more realistic and suggests that level 2 is an important stage – essential but not sufficient for a secure future. And that is an important point.

The Ministry of Education ( notes that “foundation education at levels 1 and 2 on the New Zealand Qualifications Framework provides people of all ages who left school school without qualifications opportunities to learn foundation skills needed to progress to higher-level study and skilled employment.”

Current moves to wrap foundation education into continuous pathways that take young people to a higher and better place are to be welcomed but if they result in re-introducing the disconnection between foundation work and the real qualifications they follow then many of the gains made by Youth Guarantee might be lost and that would be a great pity.

If issues such as disengagement, NEETs, teen Mums and Dads, Maori and Pasifika achievement and so on are to be seriously addressed then level 1 and 2 must not become programmes based on new turf in its own right but a level of learning that is a genuine foundation on which the superstructure of higher skills can be placed. The two parts of this process are one and indivisible.

Effective delivery of levels 1 and 2 in a seamless and connected manner will be a key to success not only of programmes but also for learners – both those things are also the same thing!



Pathways-ED: It’s not just another project!

“You mean that you don’t have any scheduled classes on a Wednesday?” I asked wondering what was happening here.

“That’s right, the students spend that time doing their impact projects,” the Principal replied. “We call them the Impact Projects and it gives them a chance to bring their learning together and apply it for a practical purpose.”

I had been invited to participate in the celebration evening at the Albany Senior High School. Thinking about it as I headed across the Harbour Bridge, I wondered if this would be like so many of the many Science Fairs I had attended, or the other efforts I have seen where students generate hugely disproportionate amounts of energy and fun but produce not a lot – never mind the quality, or the warmth.

I was sure that what I was about to see would not challenge the amazing activity I had once seen at High Tech High in San Diego. There the students were nearing the end of the semester and this school, located in buildings in an old and historic naval base, had developed a project-based approach. Students were too busy to talk to me but they took time out to quickly explain what they were doing, etc. It was greatly impressive as they gave voice to the learning they had. Mature scholarship and youthful inventiveness characterised the typical project.

In New Zealand many tertiary programmes, especially in IT, have a requirement for a keystone project towards the end of the course. Would the high school projects be like these but perhaps at a lower level?

Well, was I in for a surprise. I saw that evening some of the most advanced and mature work I have ever seen high school level students produce. It was remarkable.

Microsoft had agreed to publish an app developed by one student that simply but incrementally taught a learner the basics of music theory. It was clever in its conception and beautiful in its execution. Clean lines, simple instructions. The student was articulate both about the IT and the music. Other music projects included performance, original compositions and, the building of a “copy” Les Paul guitar. To this last student I was able to chat about a concert I had seen Les Paul give in a jazz club in NewYork. We shared an enthusiasm.

Another student saw his project develop out of his after-school / holiday job in a surf store. He had set about developing the complete array of programmes and IT services needed to run the business especially the customer end of it – using barcode for stock control, an interactive and youthful internet store (increased turn-over = ten-fold). This was IT, business, strategic thinking, all wrapped into a very smart piece of work.

It was appropriate that in that very week where those daring young men, sailors in their flying machines were bouncing around San Francisco harbour, a further project had built a small craft that lifted out of the water on foils. The group had encountered issues, all tackled and resolved as the project unfolded.

There were dance performances, art projects (original painted shoes, a graphic novel, an origami chandelier), environmental projects (I loved the recycled furniture project – from inorganic collection to art work) and so on.

What was the point of all this? Well, quite clearly in the face of such explicit evidence of learning, some excellent teaching had occurred. But that seemed minor in light of two more important elements.

There had been extensive engagement with the community across this array of projects. Business, local government, tertiary education providers, retailers, primary schools, and sports organisations both local and national. This is just a sample. Students were faced not only with finding a confidence in doing this but also a security about their own learning as they interacted with busy people. The school had confidence in these exchanges which might have caused some nervousness in a more conventional setting.

The other exciting element was that the students were clearly demonstrating the qualities and skills that are so often spoken about as the soft skills of employment. Certainly they are the skills sought by tertiary education providers as students move into the higher levels of learning and qualifications. Team work, strategising, planning, implementing, setting of goals, ability to think creatively, to be articulate about technical knowledge and suchlike are the key outcomes of a good grounding in the basic skills.

Schools such as Albany Senior High School are leading the way in showing that having confidence in the quality of your programmes and in the the teaching / learning dynamic of the school then liberates the students and allows them to use new learning and develop new skills in ways in which the quality of the activity is nourished by personal interest, need and passion. I say need because one student had realised that she was light in physics given the direction her interests had developed – she saw an opportunity in her project work to do something about this.

Perhaps all this was summed up for me in a comment from Lucy in a reflective piece that looked back on her Impact Project experience – “The highlight for me was being able to learn from Amy.” This captured the essence of a good programme where the teacher stood aside and students saw the real lifelong learning resource -those around them.

Proud parents and grandparents, excited and animated young people, teachers who knew their job had been well done – education at its best.