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Month: September 2014

When will we ever learn?

Shock horror revelations by the police last week had the country reaching for the smelling salts. “300+ students” truanting from school from just three high schools in southern Auckland. The story didn’t have a lot of merit – it was the last week of term. How many were explained absences? On what basis was this precise figure calculated.

But the issue it raised was a critical one – if students aren’t at school, they are less likely to learn, more likely to fail and inevitably join the ranks of the NEETs and rather than be unemployed, end up as unemployable.

Talkback callers should fasten their seat belts at this point.

It has been estimated that on a daily basis in New Zealand in excess of 30,000 students are truanting. They are not all from secondary schools either. If a large school is one of a thousand students then every day thirty large schools in New Zealand are empty.

First reactions are generally to blame the parents and caregivers. Fine them! Take them to court! All of this is just hot air for how can parents and caregivers who have failed to get their young ones to school and keep them there, start doing so because of a fine or the admonitions of a judge. Quite simply, by the time that such actions are taken something has well and truly broken down.

Truanting is a process and not an event. Zero tolerance from age 5 for any unexplained absence would be a good start. But this probably requires skill sets that are different from those of teachers and, dare I say, current truancy services. This is where the social worker presence in education should be targeted. Going to school each day and staying there is a habit as much as anything else based on routines in the household. Schools and teachers have a role to play in making the programme relevant and interesting and they should be left to get on with that.

The issue with older students is more complex. Disengagement is also a process rather than an event (and truancy plays both a part in this and is a key indicator of likely disengagement). Teenage persistent truants fall in to two categories – on the one hand there are those disillusioned with school, not making progress in learning and probably at war in their own little way with the authority of the school and, on the other hand, middle class students who rather than truanting are attending selectively. Yes, there is quite a bit of this as well.

It is the first group – the likely disengagers / drop outs – that should concern us greatly. If they are in Year 10 or higher it is most unlikely that any attempt to return them into a school will succeed. At that point it is the environment of a school that has become toxic and they need to be placed somewhere else. This is not a criticism of teachers or of schools but simply a conclusion that when disengagement has reached a point where dropping out has occurred or is incipient and truancy has become persistent, schools are almost certain not to be able to effect a change.

The provisions of alternatives for education (and I don’t mean “alternative education”) for such students exist through the development of secondary tertiary programmes such as the Tertiary High School at Manukau Institute of Technology and if they are 16 years old, rather than happily washing them off the hands of the system we should be guiding them into the fees free places under the Youth Guarantee policy in tertiary providers. Such learners respond positive to the opportunities to undertake applied learning and to experience success in doing so.

Of course this has implications, NCEA would clearly become a qualification common to providers other than schools, many “secondary school age” students would learn in settings unlike a school and free of the irritations that those seriously headed towards disengagement have no appetite for wanting to put up with any longer.

The discussions of truancy are dogged by an obstinate belief that schools as they are constitute a good place for everyone and for all levels. It simply isn’t true. A more flexible approach to provision of schooling will lead to a more flexible range of responses to issues such as truancy.

It is only in the past few years that we have asked: “Where have all the students gone?” As unpalatable as the answers might be we do need also to ask “When will we ever learn?”



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Passing sentence – hard labour


So they don’t speak in sentences anymore! So trumpets a headline in a recent press report.

Apparently there is anecdotal evidence that young people are entering school and not speaking in sentences. Let’s accept for the sake of argument that those making this assertion are in a position to make such a judgment. What’s the explanation?

Well the immediate response is to lay the blame at the feet of electronic devices and media.

There might be an element of truth in this but it is not likely that the actions of little ones with their cute iPads or toy smart phones bring such a factor into consideration but the actions of their parents. Walk along any city street, or through a shopping mall or anywhere that grown up and especially young parents congregate with children and you will see the many adults giving closer attention to their texts and messages and whatever on their devices than they are to quality interaction with their children. One can only imagine that the situation is even worse at home where presumably the children are in a environment that requires even less attention from the parent.

Children develop language through a variety of factors. They arrive at the task with an innate desire to communicate through their eyes and their ears. They start with sound, move onto words and then proceed to put words together. They pick up patterns and rules and this process shows sometimes in the “mistakes” they make. “I for-nearly-got to put my underpants on,” said my son one morning. “I cutted my finger.”

They are acute observers of such patterns as emerge from the language they hear. Again, my son when told that we were going to go and see Granddad asked the question “Which one? ‘Golly Gosh’ or ‘Crikey Dick’?” He had observed that each grandfather had their own particular exclamation that they used and probably in fairly identical situations. Don’t underestimate the power of the young person when it comes to language learning.

In fact, the world’s population actually manage to learn their language to varying degrees without the help of schools, often in states of poverty and hunger, regardless of culture or faith. In fact one applied linguist claimed that it wasn’t learning language that was hard, but learning it in classrooms. Most young learners achieve excellent levels of language use with knowing a stick of grammar. Knowledge of grammar is useful for the most elegant and sophisticated uses of the language and is best learned when comparisons between language are possible. A child learning Maori and English will at an early age understand that a Maori sentence is different from an English sentence even if they couldn’t give you a definition of a sentence.

And here are some tips.

Grow the young person’s vocabulary – the number of words a learner can use with confidence will be the factor that identifies them as an advanced language learner or one that is catching up or lingering behind their peers. Words are the fuel of language. How many of us travel to foreign lands and get by with single words garbled because our ears aren’t up to it. Young people thrive in a situation where they are surrounded by real people who use lots of real words in real situations.

But this is not an invitation for parents to take over the talk. Janet Holmes tells the apocryphal story of the three year old who never uttered a word until one day at the dinner table she said “Would you please pass the salt?” An astonished parent sought an explanation as to why she had been silent until now to which she responded “Everything has been OK up till now!” Sit in a café and hear the parents taking over the responsibility for talking – usually in the third person. “Now, does Tommy want a muffin or a brioche? Mummy is going to have a brioche? I think Tommy would prefer a muffin? That’s what we will have today.” Child thinks: “Won’t be long and she will be back on to the iPhone!”

So children need to be surrounded by quality speakers of the language. Consider the impact on the development of young one’s when Celebrity A speaks on TV “Yeah, well, definitely – awesome, I mean to say – at the end of the day, well, brilliant!” Spot the sentence on that gob-full.

Finally, be relaxed about the young ones. The silent ones who don’t talk early will talk later (check for hearing issues though!) and they will use language at about the same level of sophistication as the early chatterers. And remember that talking is thinking. A silent brain is not an inactive brain. Children hear more than they appear to listen.

Vygotsky, the great Russian psycho-linguist, reminded us that “thoughts are not merely made up of words but come into being through them.” He uses the anecdote of the young boy who when challenged about something he had said replied “How do I know what I think till I see what I’ve said?”

It is very likely too early to predict that children are mutating into some kind of non-sentence-using little creatures. But do pay attention to the language environment in which they swim. It is probably the most important part of the child development eco-system.


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What a dull party it’s been….

So the election is just two weeks away!

From an education point of view, it has been a pretty dull affair and education has largely been absent.

Perhaps the biggest political news is the support being given by the NZPPTA to the policy that once was called “Investing in Success” but seems now to have morphed into “Communities of Schools”. This has always been an excellent policy and it is to the credit of the secondary political lobby that it now is willing to get on board. But just as thrilling as that news is, it remains a great blunder that the NZEI stays away from the party.

I have never understood why the primary sector feels that it should just be allowed to be alone and blunder on. Yes, there are splendid primary schools. Yes, some of the most exciting work in education is being done in primary schools. Yes, many parents are happy with the primary schools they have.

Too many young students reach the end of Year 8 ill-equipped to continue the journey. This group is woefully short of the basic skill levels needed, skills that primary and elementary systems the world over have a responsibility to see taught and firmly in place by the end of Year 8. Refusing to take part in a system wide achievement initiative such as the Minister’s cross Sector Forum on Educational Achievement, and not wanting to co-operate with the Investing in Success / Communities of Schools policy are signs that the NZEI is more interested in the “politics” of education than in the policies and practices.

It is a truth that we are going into the election and are likely to come out of it with only the current Government’s performance and the achievement of the education sector in putting into place such approaches as Youth Guarantee, the clear Numbers/Names/Needs method of tackling achievement, the clear commitment to a true picture, and an assertive focus on achievement as the continued path forward

Other political groups simply haven’t come up point-of-difference policies likely to tackle the issues of achievement. Untargeted ECE resources can be increased till the cows come home without increasing access for many little ones in our community. Compulsory student unions at tertiary will achieve little and ignore the fact that young people have moved on – it’s the nostalgia of the student politicians of the past that keeps this one going! Putting however many devices into however many little hands will not address basic skills, like reading, writing and doing sums. Meals to feed the hungry will not create an appetite for learning if a whole lot of other things are not addressed.

And at the top of the list of what needs to be addressed is the issue of getting competent teachers to do the right thing. The issue with achievement in New Zealand is not one of teacher competence. It is one of competent teachers doing the wrong thing. Education needs to have a focus on best evidence as to what works intensified by a much clearer and unrelenting view on what matters in terms of skills. The target must be that each and every primary school student reaches the end of Year 8 with the skills needed to progress smoothly into secondary school. The goal of secondary school is to prepare each and every secondary student for further education and training and for employment (or “college and career” as they say in the US). This will involve multiple pathways to multiple exit points.

It is not that difficult. And having a succession of school cohorts who meet such expectations will also see an enriched community less dependent on welfare and able to rise above the standards of behaviour made explicit by so much in this election period.

If we want better adults we had better start ensuring that we get better young people.


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