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Missed Connections

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.18, 15 May 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.

 “Only connect!”  is the running message in E M Forster’s novel Howards End and it is an exhortation to bring together the disparate parts of life so as to get balance and, in the long term, a better result. There is a message here for us in education. If we were to seek increased opportunity to increase connection with, between and for students the benefits to students would be immense.

“Only connect!”  One of the key roles that Early Childhood Education plays is to provide a benign and empowering introduction to the education system for parent and child. Opportunities for many in those sections of the community that are likely to benefit most in this way continue to elude us. We miss an opportunity here to get connection with parts of our community that education serves less well.

“Only connect!”  Then there is the question of the sectors that I raised a couple of weeks ago. By breaking education up into these disparate and partitioned pieces we place the onus for achieving connection on the students and his or her parent rather than presenting a smooth and easy road along which they can travel. Students (and their parents) have a lot of other things to concentrate on without also having to be responsible for navigation. They need to concentrate on getting there, having the right preparation and support, making sound choices, staying the distance and achieving success without becoming distracted by a map that seems to bear little resemblance to their lives.

“Only connect!”  And within the sectors there are issues related to the changing of classes and teachers and the different demands of different levels. We know why we do things this way or at least we can rationalise it all but how easy is it for our community to grasp? Does something that seems to them to be simple – learning new and different things – require us to approach it in such a complex and at times convoluted manner?

“Only connect!”  the education world in general has now realised that a major issue exists at the end of secondary education (whenever that comes for a student) where the interface between schools and whatever is to follow is arguably the most difficult set of rapids for students and those who care for them to attempt.

The water rushes them ahead at this point, around, over and sometimes into the rocks of pathway choices, subject choices, career and vocational choices, and choices of institutions and providers. The work that is happening in some schools now to slow down the waters by starting the processes of decision making much earlier holds much promise and should be supported, Similarly the return to a more orderly education system at this level through a network of provision in which universities behave like universities and polytechnics behave like polytechnics will also help.

But perhaps the key connections will be the ones which education professionals make with each other. If education were an ecosystem then survival would depend on our becoming smart at seeing the symbiotic relationship between the parts rather than our simply relishing our spot in the food chain.

The rapacious decade of the 1990’s where students were there to be fought for, in which we all ate each others’ lunches, in which big was beautiful and bigger was more beautiful  took us nowhere and will increasingly be seen as time lost. This was time when we could have been tooling up an education system for what lies ahead rather than shoring up the system to make the most of what has always been.

The growth of our education system has been accidental rather than planned – there was no educational Mt Sinai from which tablets of stone were delivered to us saying this is how it shall be now and for evermore. Despite the tone of various reports over the years, attempts to change the system were attempts to bring some order to a system not built to a plan. The ark of the educational covenant when it is found will be found to be empty.

What was planned was that communities such as ours (and Australia, US, UK and Canada) would have universal primary (elementary, basic) education and a few would proceed to the conventional higher education academy for which a pipeline, secondary education, was required to deliver those few. At the end of primary education pathways would take students into the world of work or into the fee paying secondary schools that led on and up to the academy.

The growth of other options was slow as the British tradition of seeing anything other than a literary education as being inferior, influenced decisions. But other options did emerge and became an imperative after the Second World War when the group of five launched on a track of universal five year secondary education for a variety of reasons. Even the structures within which was tackled were rather haphazard. Junior high schools came but went nowhere, intermediate schools became a quick fix for population growth issues, single sex schools went out of fashion. We are now seeing the emergence of junior and secondary high schools again. All of this by and large took place and takes place without much discussion – it is a series of little bangs rather than intelligent design!

But the most random aspect of education and what could well become the most important lost opportunity for connection is the curriculum. Successive reviews have seen the curriculum feed on itself rather than the needs of the community and the economy. I can’t remember a review that has had the courage to conduct a real stock take of where we are and what we need, not even the orgy of consultation that characterised the Wellington (as in Merv) and Lockwood Smith reviews.

The current NZ Curriculum is a mighty fine document that schools can get their teeth into but will it promote connection? In other words is it an internal document for an in-house discussion or is it the document that will look outwards and tackle the issue of connection? It does mention that a target is to develop learners to be connected but to what?

“Only connect!”  – that is a challenge.

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