Skip to content

Month: July 2014

Big isn’t better, better is better

We spent quite a bit of time in the 1960s singing “When will they ever learn…?” and I find myself humming it again quite a lot lately.

I have just read a recent Malcolm Gladwell (he of Tipping Point and Outliers and What the Dog Saw fame) called David and Goliath. He pursues the view that most things conform to an inverted “U” curve in which there are clear gains for a time but then they fall off.

One of his case studies is the issue of smaller class size and its impact on student achievement, noting that dozens of countries have clear evidence that smaller classes do not impact on raising student achievement even though eventually they might. But, he suggests, that point is nowhere near being reached in most western systems.

Put another way, there is room in western systems for class sizes to be increased and for the resources that are freed up to be diverted to more focused activity that lifts teacher quality.

Of course there is screeching from certain sections of the profession about this – this too, Gladwell says, is a feature across those countries which like us have concentrated over the years in increasing the number of teachers in the system

But the sad and sorry truth of this approach is that the basis of the increase is usually through student teacher ratios. This is as blunt an instrument as you could wish for and as unfocused an approach as you might find. Pouring more teachers into a system to do more of the same work will inevitably end up with more of the same results. If you don’t believe this then simply look at what has happened in New Zealand, Australia, the US, UK and so on and so on over the past few decades.

Looking at the use of teachers in other systems might encourage us to believe that until teachers are able to work in teams and to bring different skill sets into the classroom, increasing teacher numbers is simply to throw good money after money that has been unable to effect improvement in outcomes for many students.

Furthermore, increased flexibility for students would allow approaches that are more able to allow those teachers to target students in programmes matched to the needs of the individual student.

So the incessant campaign of the teacher unions (and they have once again persuaded the Labour Party to head into an election with such a policy) seems to become an argument against lifting teacher quality (and school quality don’t forget) rather than “investing in educational success” (the Government’s words for it) through the provision of quality leadership from our best teachers and principals. It was interesting to see a recent media poll that showed that vox populi was siding with the quality side of the issue rather than the class size position.

Jacques Barzun captured something of this in his argument that “teacher competence is not the issue, competent teachers doing the wrong thing is.” That sums up the issue somewhat. Throwing increased numbers of competent teachers at the system will not effect improvement unless there are changes to what those competent teachers do. Wasting such an opportunity by lowering class size defies both belief and the evidence.

History is larded with examples of great teachers working with large numbers of students – but often this reflected idiosyncratic character and/or approaches. Universities would claim to be able to effectively teach huge numbers but schools are different. School systems are measured not by their performance at the top achievement levels but by their success in giving all students equitable outcomes. Ironically, school systems are regarded for both achievement and equity – that’s an unpalatable truth for some in New Zealand. But it is a truth.

Last week I saw classes of 50-60 students being taught with purpose and enjoyment. There was not enough furniture to go around so a third of the class sat on the floor. The teaching was lively and I sensed that learning was occurring. Where was this? Samoa. This is seldom seen in New Zealand and that might be a good thing. But perhaps our best teachers should be supported to have more reach than the ratio-allotted number.

But as I have often said – in these issues the truth is in the middle, at the top of Gladwells’ inverted-“U” curve. Class size could easily be increased under certain conditions and for positive reasons but they can’t get huge.

Everyone knows that.




Bottling up the policy on Te Reo Maori

Hon Nanaia Mahuta thinks that the policy is compulsory Te Reo Maori in schools, Education Spokesperson Chris Hipkins thinks that well its important but….. While the rest of the MPs and most of the electorate have no idea what the Labour Party’s position is.

Never has the case been stronger for a policy of compulsory Te Reo Maori instruction and learning for all New Zealand school students but this is not the first time that the Labour leadership has lost its bottle on this one.

In the 1980s I was on a national curriculum group developing a syllabus for English in Form 6 – up to that point the sixth form had no syllabus and simply used examination prescriptions (who said the senior schools wasn’t all about going to university!).

A distinguished group of knowledgeable people (and me!) set about devising a strategy to teach about language at that level that was innovative and exciting. It was to be a study of English language based on a comparative linguistics approach. In other words, Sixth Form students were to learn about English language by comparing it to another language and that other language was to be Te Reo Maori.

There were compelling reasons for doing this.

Te Reo Maori was an official language of Aotearoa New Zealand therefore all citizens have some obligation to be acquainted with it.

More importantly, knowledge about language is more easily achieved when a student has a basis for comparison. In what ways is this language different from this other language that I already know? Most English speaking people who insist on and endorse the teaching of English grammar actually only learnt what they know about through an experience with another language. This was probably Latin or French, or German.

You do not need to know about English grammar in order to learn the language as a native speaker. But knowledge about how the English language works is essential if students aspire to be highly articulate and elegant in their expression and especially in their writing. So what better way to seek improvement of your first language (should that be English) than by studying a second language? And what better language to study than Te Reo Maori?

It is a language used around us – daily on television, radio and in many places and occasions in our daily lives – I hear much more Maori spoken than I do French or German.

Maori is also linguistically an excellent choice as it has a different vocabulary, an easy phonics system and a quite different structure. And it is an easy language to learn and pronounce. No!!! I hear some older people say but that is not the fault of Maori language, it is the consequqnece of not getting the opportunity to learn about it and to learn it at a time when we were young enough and our aural skills were acute enough to hear and retain the sounds which are different from English – another useful comparison.

So a policy of getting more Maori language instruction into schools is on very strong grounds and there is no danger of it not helping students to achieve higher levels of competence especially in English.

The dangers and risks are all political and that is where some courage is needed.

And who and when did a Labour leader lose his bottle? It was about 1985 or 1986 when the new Form 6 English Syllabus was circulated for comment and a certain lobby group within education got at David Lange and, goaded by allegations from the Opposition side of the House that NZ kids would all be gabbling Te Reo Maori but have no competence in English, and not for the last time he lost his bottle. It was enough for him to summarily dismiss the English Syllabus group which never met again.

New Zealand lost a chance to lead the way internationally to not only  bring an indigenous language into the mainstream curriculum but to also demonstrate the value of doing so to all the students who each require in order to achieve  and learn, knowledge about and skill in language at increasing levels throughout their educational journey.

So Chris Hipkins should stick his head up above the desktop and declare a strong policy of introducing Te Reo Maori into schools for all students. Not enough teachers, of course there is. They live in the street out the back of the school.

“Courage mon brave” and what a shame my own education sees me default to this exhortation rather than to “Kia kaha!”


Leave a Comment

Allons enfants! It’s time to storm the educational Bastille

A few weeks ago I passed on to you a view that sheer snobbery might have been an encouragement for the diminishing attention placed on trades education in Britain.

I recently came across the following from the Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, Secretary of State for Education in the UK in a lecture he gave in 2010:

At crucial moments in the development of our education system the opportunity to embed high-quality technical routes for students was missed.

As [the historian] Corelli Barnett has persuasively argued, the prevailing intellectual orthodoxy at the time of educational expansion in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was disdainful of the practical and technical. While our competitors were ensuring that engineers, technicians and craftsmen were educated to the highest level, British – and specifically English – education reflected an inherited aristocratic disdain for trade. The highest goal of education was the preparation of young men for imperial administration, not the generation of innovation.

He went on to explain his vision of the future.

If one looks at those countries around the world that have the best technical education systems, core academic subjects are taught and assessed alongside – not in place of – technical learning until students reach 15 or 16. That’s why I floated the idea of an English Baccalaureate – a new certificate for all children who achieve a good GCSE[1] pass in English, maths, science, a modern or ancient language and humanity like history or geography. But it is crucial to note securing this core base of knowledge would not preclude the study of technical or vocational subjects.

It’s not either/or but both/and.

But suggestions such as these require us to think differently. It is no longer sustainable to continue to make distinctions between academic and vocational when all education is both. We can no longer describe something as technical rather than professional when it is almost certainly both. And we can no longer place educational experiences into boxes marked secondary and tertiary when the distinctions are spurious.

I write this in the year that the Government has made a commitment to the trades through the Maori and Pacific Trades Training scheme which offers to Maori and Pacific students between the ages of 18 to 34 free education to get them through to Level 4+ qualifications and/or to NZ apprenticeships. I wonder why it is not age 16 that this scheme begins and can only assume that it is because of the view that all students should achieve NCEA Level 2. But that is to respect a barrier that should not be there. The Better Public Service goal is not NCEA Level 2 but rather NCEA Level 2 or equivalent. Again the conventional subjects are privileged over the trades other than in a few innovative programmes offered in a few places. We cannot both want the world to be different but continue to insist that old and sometimes discredited ways of working be respected.

The education systems that we admire and aspire to emulate, especially in regard to equity of outcomes in which we lag far behind, have all solved the issue of giving a fair measure of parity of esteem to trades alongside the conventional school subjects and the best of those systems do so in a setting characterised by multiple pathways which are flexible and to a high degree learner led.

Michael Gove might well be right – it boils down to a deep seated prejudice. Certainly most of the teacher organisation and principals bodies in the UK joined a stampede to condemn him. But more recently the British Labour Party seems to have picked up on his ideas.

Bastille Day is an appropriate day to remind ourselves that considered change is a gentler approach than barricades. Entendez-vous dans les companges the gentle sounds of change?

Leave a Comment

Labour’s Lost Loves

You really have to wonder what’s going on. Here we are, 90 days out from an election and Labour at last releases some of its education policy. It’s a grab bag of unusual ideas at this stage – a copy-cat, a bribe to be good and a return to the scene of the accident.

The Manaiakalani copy of the digital device for all students in Years 5 – 13 is the best of the policies they have announced to this point. But the real challenge is not to see if the idea will work – they have shown that it will in Tamaki. It is not to see if parents and caregivers will stump up – they do in Tamaki.  It is not to see if it has a beneficial impact on achievement – it seems to be worthwhile in Tamaki. The real challenge is to see if an idea that works well within a defined project can actually be scaled up to be the normal way of working across the whole country.

There is no need for them to take this risk. The middle classes, the employed and medium and high earning parents are already giving these advantages to students. Many schools in middle and high decile areas are already asking students to bring devices to school. Again, and this is something of a repeated pattern for Labour, the policy is very poorly targeted. In seeking but not being seen to do something for its bedrock support it sprays the resource across everyone at wide groups of students both vertically (5-13) and horizontally (all schools) and while everyone is slightly better off, the key groups to whom priority should be given remain at a relative disadvantage.

Have they forgotten their classically un-targeted approach taken with the 20 hours free pre-school resource?

Then we have the “We’ll-Pay-You-To-Stop-Acting-Illegally-But-It-Is-OK-For-the-Rich-To-Carry-On-with-Gay-Abandon” Policy related to school donations. Schools that are Decile 1 – 8 will receive $100 per student if they agree to not ask for school donations. Yes, it will help low decile schools, no doubt about it, but remember that they are generally smaller than higher decile schools. And don’t forget that the $100 a student payment will be made to Decile 1 – Decile 7 schools. That is another “spray and walk away” approach to policy. the differences between Decile 1 and Decile 7 are huge, the differences between Decile 7 and Decile 8 are negligible.

The fact remains – demanding school donations is not allowed in neither law nor regulation. But Labour has said in almost conciliatory tones that it will not ask Decile 8 – 10 schools to take part in the scheme. Why would a Decile 10 school of 2,000 students forgo $1.8m in order to show solidarity with the low decile community? And why would a political party dare to take them on as a matter of principle?

I celebrate the extra cash that low deciles schools will get but this approach to deal with a reprehensible practice does not bring credit to those promoting it. Let’s have the financing of a few beers for those who don’t drink and drive, petrol vouchers for those who agree not to flee from the police when asked to stop, Countdown cards for those who agree not to shop lift.

This is bizarre!!!

Then we have the “Lower the Teacher/Student Ratio” policy.  It is almost a case of “Let’s-have-a-policy-that-denies-the-evidence” approach. The evidence is overwhelming – lowering the student/teacher ratio will have a low impact, if any, on student achievement. New Zealand’s pre-eminent researcher John Hattie has provided plenty of evidence that the effect size of lowering teacher / student ratios, especially the negligible -2 students impact of the policy will be not worth the effort. The scuffle with Minister Parata on the question of a couple of years ago saw the system lose some real potential gains (but not in the intermediate schools) and so we have the teacher union and principal associations appeasing policy back on the list.

And how much will this cost? Surprise surprise! About the same as the Government’s “Investing in Educational Success” policy will cost! Actually a key factor that will improve student achievement is the use of our most talented teachers and principals in spreading best practice. Is that not what Labour wants?

Elections are always fraught. Perhaps the issue is whether they are fought or taught!


1 Comment

Renewed energy for the journey

The MIT Centre for Studies in Multiple Pathways in partnership with Ako Aotearoa has just finished its fourth annual National Symposium in Wellington. Over 200 educators gathered to continue their journey along Te Ara Whakamana, considering possible pathways, transitions and bridges from secondary education into tertiary education.

Flashback to Manukau Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2011 when the first gathering was held at MIT and 120 people got together to ask tentative questions related to the “new” policy setting of the “Youth Guarantee”, the approach to the new proposals for a more orderly view of NCEA credit that the Industry Training Federation had developed and called “Vocational Pathways”. The first secondary / tertiary programme in New Zealand, the MIT Tertiary High School, was up and running into its second year, and various academy programmes had started up.

MIT has established the Centre for Studies in Multiple Pathways to be a centre of excellence for discussion, development and advocacy of the ideas that would allow students to find new and different ways of moving seamlessly through secondary and on into tertiary education and training.

In particular, the initiatives were aimed at addressing the dysfunctional approaches to senior secondary schooling that saw too many students fail to achieve educational outcomes of which we could be proud and, to not put too fine a point on it, which were acceptable to a high-performing economy. And this in addition to the numbers of students that were dropping out of school prior to approaching the threshold for secondary education.

So the 2014 Symposium was a very different affair. Policy is in place, there was very little discussion and grizzling (as there had been back in 2011) about funding other than its lack of flexibility and reports were made on a wide range of successful new ways of working that were bringing success to some of those who had previously failed or perhaps more correctly, been failed.

An inspirational session came at the end of the second day when a team from Christchurch reported on developments that have arisen from the disruption and damage of the earthquakes. Working differently had become not only possible but also necessary – the old approaches would no longer be adequate nor would they have the urgency that was now needed. Key messages I took out of the session were: 

  •          It is possible to do something about what seem to be intractable problems. They took the dirty statistic of NEETs in Canterbury and by elimination reduced the numbers to produce a list of names. “From numbers to names to action” has been a call for action by Minister Hekia Parata for some time. The Key benefit of such an approach is that it gets the scale of an issue out into the light and able to be tackled.
  •          They showed that you manage transitions by doing something about them. Organizing the employment sector (manufacturing in this case) was a first step and then connecting that sector to those coming out of training programmes plugged the gaps.
  •          There is a high level of connected activity, one party addresses the issue of another party by adjusting the way they work. It is collaboration in practice.
  •          An idea that intrigued was the development of a Destinations passport that gave students a mechanism for systematically noting the ways in which they had developed the so-called soft skills that employers sought. No need to wait for schools to act, allow the students to use their real lives!
  •          There is a strong focus on evidence-based activity.

Trevor McIntyre leads much of this work and he issued a challenge to those present. What is your earthquake? Certainly there are many things that need a good shake up.

Steve Jobs always claimed that “the journey is the reward.” There is a group of educators in New Zealand that grows larger steadily that is on a journey to a place where students have access to equitable outcomes. Dr. Peter Coolbear, director of Ako Aotearoa, invited the symposium to consider the impact of the changes that were being discussed. In the four years since the symposium started, 14,000 students have engaged in a pathway that is different from a conventional track through the conventional school. 

I noted, in bringing the deliberations to a close, that a wide-spread adoption of a “multiple pathways” approach (“linked learning” it is being called in the US) could well be the means by which we address the issues of the bipolar education system and see equity matching achievement in our school system’s performance. 

Momentum is building.



Leave a Comment