Sauce for the goose but not for the gander

It was clear in the fall-out from the reduction in the numbers of students gaining university entrance in the recent round of NCEA results that the changes to the rules were driven by several principles that are of themselves quite worthy.

The first is that students should study a narrower range of subjects in order to know more. Or put another way, knowledge is gained vertically rather than horizontally. It is clear that the universities have believed this right from the very introduction of a standards-based assessment system when the move towards credits was described as the process by which knowledge had been turned into intellectual finger food!

That was not entirely true but there may have been a whiff of truth in it. Certainly depth of knowledge was thought to be in danger when students were given the opportunity to study subjects that are outside of the standard academic canon.

The second principle is that there should be a set of approved subjects that would be acceptable in making up the university entrance qualification. The existence of such an academic canon was the result of hundreds of years of development of universities as places of privilege and so certain subjects were also privileged. Such a list of privileged subjects was promulgated by the University Grants Committee and indeed even School Certificate maintained that privilege by on the one hand pretending to be norm-referenced while on the other using a procedure called “group mean referencing” whereby subjects undertaken by “brighter” students were scaled to a produce a higher set of results.

Now the education system has, some time ago, debated what real subjects were. “Twilight Golf” never made the cut, meditation had no observable actions that could be assessed, and language CDs handed out in cafes were thought to have had too few demands on the students. No complaint about all that.

But the firm grip that such views have enjoyed has seen a distortion on what was valued in terms of pathways to an education and to later success. Gradually only the track to university was valued in the school system and the capability and capacity of schools to provide programmes in areas that would grab the attention of young students was allowed to atrophy. The bog standard “academic” diet was going to nourish all the students.

When now there is a call for students to have the opportunity to study subjects based on applied learning and to specialize in technical areas that require skill and knowledge in greater depth in order to pursue fulfilling and useful lives in the community, that the argument is put forward that what students need is a broad and general education.

Is there a contradiction here?

 

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