Leaping ahead of ourselves

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.22, 12 June 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.
Wellington

The International Olympic Committee has just announced an exciting new development for the Olympic Games. In a press release from the IOC President yesterday, it was announced that in the track and field programme the long jump would be combined with the high jump to create a new event – the Vertizontal Jump. In this event the athletes would, in one movement, take off over a long jump pit and then clear the high jump bar in one mighty effort that defies imagination.

It might also defy the laws of physics. But that is progress.

The polytechnic world is watching these developments with interest because a similar effort is being made within that sector to promote a not dissimilar development. The equivalent of the Vertizontal* Jump is the inexorable trend to increase access and participation while seeking to have an emphasis on Level 4+ qualifications.

This development defies the laws of the physics of learning. We know that learning that is best is continuous therefore it must start exactly where the learner is in terms of their progress to that point. Linked to this is Vygotsky’s notion of the zone of proximal development. Put simply, learning takes place just past the point at which previous learning has taken place. So reaching learners requires us to actually assess where they are and start from that point.

Level 4+ is a goal, it is the high jump, it is the end point in a journey, which is the long jump, rather than a starting point. Students who are equipped to get stuck into Level 4+ programmes are almost certainly already at Level 4. If we are to be serious about getting students to Level 4+ qualifications we have to be realistic about the continuous pathways that polytechnics will have to offer. This means that polytechnics will have to offer programmes at Level 1 and Level 2 and Level 3. It means that polytechnics will certainly have to offer entry level programmes for those whose lives have not equipped them to undertake study towards employment.

Now this raises a couple of issues – first the issue of second chance learners and secondly the pathways required for many school leavers into further education and training.

Second chance learners need provision by way of lower level programmes as stepping stones towards those Level 4+ programmes that will take them into higher qualifications and enhance employment opportunities. Second chance learning is not an easy track. One USA commentator states baldly that the one thing we know about second chance education is that the first chance would have been better.

Second chance learners can also benefit from tangential pathways such as those offered by adult and community education. I am not going into the merits or otherwise of specific programmes but there is evidence that programmes of this kind are a positive pathway into the very programmes that lead to Level 4* qualifications.

School leavers are another group who find the Vertizontal Jump just too hard. In fact those who are really struggling opt to enter the Hop Skip and Jump instead – they hop out the gate, skip classes and jump the educational ship. If we are serious about addressing the group of disengaged students we had better be serious about continuous pathways through Levels 1 – 4 in order to get them into Level 4+ programmes

The USA Community College was invented to provide open access to further education and training and has become something of a metaphor for equal opportunity and access. They carry a mission to take and serve anyone who turns up and thus keep intact the American Dream that each and every USA citizen can “go to college”. In New Zealand, the only institution that can adopt the same mission is the polytechnic and Level 1-3 programmes will be to them what remediation programmes are to the USA Community College.

In an ideal world all students would be on a flawless path to educational excellence that sees them well into higher educational qualifications sometime in their teen years. But that is not the situation that we find ourselves in at the start of this century. Either educational institutions open up to cater for wider groups in the community or progressively fewer people will reach high level qualifications. This is an equation that brings with it economic and social threats.

Groups of at-risk young people are faced with a horny dilemma – the institutions and pathways that have contributed to their situation (admittedly they have willingly gone down less productive pathways in many instances) are then held up as the only pathway out of their situation. The truth is always in the middle – educational institutions might well be the best option through which to seek redemption but it will not be educational institutions doing the same old thing.

That provides a challenge to most aspects of educational provision. Funding mechanisms need to have a capability to mount programmes that are different, quality measures need to be able to take such flexible provision and delivery into account. The notion of levels might have to be suspended until the educational infrastructure required in a successful student is reconstructed and in some cases built for the first time.

We can dream of a time when such work is rare. A time when all students are on positive and successful tracks working with purpose towards sound qualifications and a set of personal skills that enables them to contribute positively to their community, to be successful in employment, to have the capability to earn a family sustaining wage and to make the best of the talent and skills they have.

That, after all, was the New Zealand educational dream – that each and every person will have an education which achieves that – the educational nightmare comes from thinking that this requires us to ensure that each and every person will have the same education.

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 * I am indebted to that great philosopher Archie Bunker who invented the word “vertizontal”. Like all great thinkers and writers he believed that language should be his servant!

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