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Month: July 2011

Pathway-ED: Once a jolly good idea

Stuart Middleton
14 July 2011

Since the early 1980s New Zealand and Australia have had an agreement to work closely together in trade and financial matters. The “Closer Economic Relations” agreement, as it is commonly called, was thought to be a progressive recognition of the need for two countries with clear differences but many more similarities to work together to their mutual benefit.

The time has come for a Closer Education Relations Agreement between our two countries.

Why would you do this? Well perhaps the key reasons would be the advantages of a synchronised curriculum which would ease the flow of students between the two systems. Resourcing the development of curriculum, supporting its implementation and refreshing it through professional development and activity is expensive. The scale of economy in setting out to work co-operatively in this would be not only have potential fiscal advantages but also professional ones.

New Zealand teachers would benefit from having a larger canvas with which to work and Australian teachers from contact with those areas in which they could learn. These areas come and go a little but at different times New Zealand had an advantage in its approach to reading instruction, at another Australia was clearly ahead in the use of technology. As a generalization, New Zealand is string in the generation of ideas while Australia has strengths in implementation

At the tertiary / postsecondary level there would be gains in synchronising the approach to student loans and allowances and to an Australasian approach to collecting those loans from students after they graduate.

International Education might well have a much stronger brand were it to be an Australasian brand rather than two separate brands both of which had their own issues.

Initial reactions to this brief sketch will probably be driven by nationalism and a belief that our separate national identities were so different that the outcome would be an inevitable loss of something precious, something we had each “fought for” and which was inviolate. But that is from a former age and the modern world is now a global world, a world made flat (to use Thomas Friedman’s term), a world in which communication across oceans is as easy as those across the street, where collaborative work (especially in education) is simple, a world in which our graduates see job opportunities and careers wherever they occur and not necessarily in the old home town.

There are other areas where co-operation if not amalgamation could be considered.

Qualifications frameworks could be synchronised (now there’s an idea that has languished) with fewer qualifications taught across our two countries. School leaving qualifications could be the same (that would be a hard one) and reporting regimes brought together (in a saga perhaps called National Standards meets Naplan.

Both our education systems share indicators that are similar when it comes to disengagement, success rates in schooling systems, access to early childhood education, completion rates in postsecondary education. We also both share similar levels of skill shortages(but in different areas), struggle to find a modern expression of apprenticeships that works, are heading towards producing too many degree graduates and too few middle level technicians.

If we share the problems and issues might not there be sense in working together towards solutions? But it would require a different kind of thinking.

Solutions could only emerge if the thinking could get beyond such searching questions as “Who invented the pavlova?” and “Was Crowded House an Australian band?” It would have to move beyond referring to or perhaps even caring about the under-arm bowling fiasco of 1981. It would have to forget the us and them mentality that goes both ways.

In short we would have to rediscover the ANZAC spirit but this time in the battle against ignorance and educational failure. WE would have to take a lesson from those sporting codes (soccer, basketball, rugby league and netball) which have found few issues in operating across national borders.

Of course our history would continue to be taught but would not we each benefit from understanding the history of our neighbour? Of course our literature would still be read but how much richer the choice if there was a developed knowledge of each other’s literature? Mathematics, science, large amounts of the business subjects, international languages, engineering and many technical areas all operate with ease in an international environment and indeed rely on an international context to exist.

It is worth thinking about but later – I have to dash off to renew my passport so that I can get into Australia!

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Talk-ED: The Middle Class Advantage

Stuart Middleton
11 July 2011

I was chatting with some folks the other day about careers advice and guidance and all that stuff. I put forward the view that what we should aspire to is to give every young person the “middle class advantage” that we had enjoyed. Of course someone had to ask me just what I meant!

Well, for a start there is the advantage of being brought up to believe that the purpose of schooling was to learn things that would eventually get us a job.  We knew with certainty that we would work. Not only because there were jobs to go round but also because that was why you went to school.

And it was an advantage to be brought up believing that school was important and that enjoying it was of less importance than doing what we were told to do when we were told to do it. We were encouraged to have questioning minds but to never question the teachers. Trouble at school meant trouble at home and homework was done before the radio was allowed on. I am sure that all that helped.

Then there was the question of which career pathway to follow. Well, since being in work was valued more highly than which job we had, simply getting ready into work was the goal. I became a teacher probably because of the availability of a secondary teaching studentship which provided a wage. We did have an uncle who had been a teacher so I guess that helped but I do not recall ever discussing it with him.

Another thing that helped was exactly that – help with homework. Mum, Dad, older  brothers were always there to help. Except on one occasion in intermediate school when the homework in mathematics stumped the whole family. Not once, but a few nights in a row. Well, Mum had the answer to that. On her bike and off to see the teacher.

“What’s the use of homework they can’t do?” she asked the teacher. “It teaches them to think, fudge and more fudge.” Well, that soon stopped and we got back to homework we could do. You see, being able to deal with the school was also a middle class advantage. Being able to intervene in education, to get what you want (in this case happy children) is not a skill or an opportunity open to everyone.

Then it came to holiday employment. First it was, at about the age of eight, employment as a grocer’s assistant. The grocer was our uncle. There’s another middle class trait – having a family that can organise these opportunities. Ten shillings a week and our own apron, bagging potatoes, weighing nails, making up the orders and then helping with the delivery.  The delivery thing came to a halt when one afternoon my brother fell out of the door of the old and quite rickety delivery van.  It was all hushed up, no health and safety in those days!

But we learned the skills of employment, a good day’s work for a good days pay, honesty, cleanliness etc. I worked pretty well every school holiday after that and each of those opportunities came along through contacts of the family.

Of course there were no student loans and allowances to speak of but with a bit of help from Mum and Dad, no board, a little car brought for us to share and to get to the university and suchlike we did OK.

Any failure we had at university was almost of our own making but that was where the middle class advantage wore thin and we did not have a clear idea of what we needed to do – first generation students and all that.

There is nothing in this middle class advantage thing – and as a phenomenon it is clear – that educational institutions could not with some thought and with a little planning provide for every student. Of course there would not be the evening meal discussions, the questions (“What does a X or a Y or a Z do Mummy?”), the steering of aspirations towards achievable directions (I was deflected from wanting to be a farmer – “We could never help you buy a farm and you’ll be a share-milker the rest of your life!”) nor that whanau collection of contacts (well, when you think of it there could be a network that was almost as good).

The middle-class advantage, let’s see that all students get it.

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Pathway-ED: Smoothing the educational paths rather than plugging the gaps

Stuart Middleton
7 July 2011

In the world of DIY there are products along the lines of NO GAPS which allow you to deal with gaps as they appear or even in new work to maintain those continuous lines and surfaces that lead to a quality finish. 

Continuity of progress is central to students achieving a good result and a gap in the educational journey is disruptive, counter-productive and in some cases the cause of failure and disengagement. The cumulative gaps lead to loads that many students simply cannot endure.

There are a number of reasons for this. One is cognitive: as Vygotsky described it, there is a “zone of proximal development”, a point at which students can with help learn. It occurs just on the edge, the fringe, of previous learning not at some spot that is removed from it or distant to it. Therefore the connection to previous learning is critical. Seamlessness in educational journeys is all.

Many students fail early in their further and higher education for this reason alone. There is a disconnection between their previous learning and what they are now encountering. This might be one of generally inadequate academic preparation or it might be a disciple deficiency. Or it might be the result of poor teaching either before or after the transition from school to post-school. As an educational issue it is serious, is often ignored and is generally seen as the fault of the student.

So getting a “no gaps” mentality into the educational system will require a far greater effort on the part of further and higher education and pose some challenges to the high school sector.

Of course, some higher education institutions simply keep raising the requirements for entry into courses and eventually will have made entry too difficult for such a number of students with the result that they will have taken themselves to a place where students entering courses are prepared to cope with whatever they are thrown. This also enables them to dispense with the support mechanisms required by higher maintenance students. It will depress their numbers and results with under-represented groups but there will be other institutions to pick up that responsibility.

Funding formulae for further and higher education that does not adequately reflect the efforts required to see that there are NO GAPS are simply not adequate. Similarly in high schools there has to be recognition that social class, the way we distribute ethnicity throughout a city and the challenges of low or no income groups make the provision of education in some schools a far greater responsibility and a far harder task than in some other schools. To fund school equally is to fund them unequally.

But gaps are not only the result of inadequate academic preparation or misplaced accuracy in assessing the needs of students, there is also the designer gap as in the “gap year”. Origninally this was the domain of the soft upper classes in the UK who were generally succeeding and were not troubled at all by a gap in the journey. But it has become a notion that not only has spread but which is admired and condoned. “My son / daughter is taking time out / finding their feet / deciding what to do….” and so on are official gaps and the evidence is ambivalent as to how this aids progress.

The final arguments for NO GAPS approach  hinge around clear evidence that if a student proceeds through school and into a postsecondary qualification without a gap they are highly likely to also undertake and complete a further qualification at a level in advance of the first qualification completed after leaving school. The road to advanced qualifications is perhaps one characterised by NO GAPS.

It could be that a “lifelong learner” is the result of this smooth and uninterrupted journey from the novitiate of the early years through to the advanced state of being a self-sufficient learner at a later age and a higher stage. The American Dream of a college degree for all has become the nightmare that it is because this smooth passage through educational stages is seriously disrupted. A great confusion of gaps characterises the community college where qualifications are significantly marked by remediation.

Most do-it-yourself exponents will tell you that those NO GAPS products have limits and their success relies on a solid structure each side of the gap and there are limits to the gaps they can close. My Dad was always saying of a extension he made to our house many years ago that should an earthquake occur we were would in trouble – “all the putty will fall out!” he would say.

Too many students face this threat when the seismic transitions they are asked to make give them a good shake-up. You can’t fill large educational gaps through some quick fix.

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Pathway-ED: It takes more than a village; it takes a country

Stuart Middleton
30 June 2011

In both Australia and New Zealand currently there is increased discussion about the need to engage young people especially but more people generally in  vocational and technical education.

In New Zealand the Government is pursuing a policy it calls Youth Guarantee which is an umbrella under which a variety of initiative aimed at keeping students in education and directing increased numbers into vocation and technical courses are being encouraged. In Australia, a recent report[1] makes explicit the valuable role that VET is playing in Australia in a wide range of programmes. It also makes clear the role VET is playing in bringing a semblance of equity into the Australian postsecondary provision.

The performance of education systems in both countries would look pretty sad if only the contribution of the universities was the measure of equitable access to qualifications and the benefits that come with them. A critical mass of students from traditionally under-represented groups find positive pathways through programmes offered at a sub-degree level and which lead them to those highly valued technical and middle level qualifications of which both countries are very short.

There is no evidence that there is a shortage of degree graduates in either country and when there are such shortages it is often in areas that have declared the need for a degree level qualification despite the proven worth of diploma qualification over many years – I think of various levels of teaching, nursing, town planning and so on. In New Zealand IPENZ the professional body for engineers has recently completed a survey that shows that the pressures in that sector come not from a shortage of degree-qualified people but from a serious shortage of those qualified with middle level and technical qualifications.

Therefore the setting of targets related to proportions of the population who should have degrees is simply a silly exercise. Australia and the UK with their 40% targets are ignoring the importance of having a spread of qualifications across levels to maintain industry and commerce. Even the credibility of such targets has been attacked in Britain where, it is claimed, the government would be stretched beyond their limit by the capital expenditure if this were to be the goal and even if they could, where would the teachers come from? It simply wouldn’t happen.

In the US, the even higher targets mean even less when so many of their indicators are headed to the frozen south at a great speed. Of course the broadening of the goal that every one should go to “college” was achieved through the development of community colleges in the US – this adding of opportunity underneath the conventional “higher education” happened also in New Zealand.

New Zealand used to have a clear “higher education” sector which required the University Entrance qualification and generally five years at secondary school. This was a track favoured by about 10% of each cohort. Others left earlier to enter employment or vocational education and often both. But the removal of pathways through the mid-1970s to thje mid-1990s saw many young people stranded with nowhere to go – the only choice was to remain at schools in which the curriculum had become comprehensive and markedly academic.

But we are seeing our way out of that now and a renewed focus on pathways and linked learning that both sets students in a direction but with options is likely to see a reversal in the worrying trends of disengagement, low qualification, poor preparation and the other facts that weight so heavily in terms of equitable access to further and higher education and the rewards that go with it. Who knows, one day our system might even develop some of the flexibility of the Scandinavians and other and students with credible middle level qualifications gained in a vocational area will be able to transfer with ease into higher level qualifications should they wish to.

But if New Zealand and Australia want to make real, the professed commitments to equitable access to further and higher education and to meaningful qualifications it will require changes in policy settings (that is happening), investment of resources where it will make an impact (that must be at the senior secondary / lower tertiary levels) and a different level of parity of esteem between those meeting the needs of the countries through different pathways by different provision with different sets of people.

[1] Wheelahan, Leesa; & Moodie, Gavin (2010) The quality of teaching in VET: Final report and recommendations produced for the Quality of Teaching in VET project, Australian College of Educators

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