Archive for June 2020

What would Peter, Paul and Mary say…?

There is quite properly a strong focus being directed on to the challenges that New Zealand will face as it copes with the growing numbers of new unemployed who have lost their jobs as business shrinks in face of the pandemic. It has happened suddenly and rightly has produced a response from the government through support for businesses. As time goes on the impact of this support in stemming the flow of unemployment will become more explicit.

But we need to recognise that this group, newly unemployed, could mask the continuing issue of those who live in a state of enduring inactivity and unemployment – the NEETs. These citizens of New Zealand are typically a group of 15 to 24-year old students at some point, often around Year 10 at 14 – 15 years old, who disengage from school – the US simply says “drop-out” of school. This group includes a wide cross-section of all ethnicities, from a wide range of backgrounds, who all end up sharing a lifestyle of inactivity. The couch is more attractive than most initiatives that set out to address the issues.

But all is not lost, there is clear evidence that the development of secondary-tertiary programmes is able to create pathways that lead through skill development to a wide range of employment opportunities. These disengaging students respond positive to such programmes

And such programmes are becoming more favoured. They take the form of programmes located outside the conventional secondary school structures and offerings to varying extents. Some totally engage the student in a mix of learning opportunities heavily focussed around vocational and technical activity (such as the MIT Tertiary High School and the Unitec Pathways College) while the growth of trades academies provides for students to learn in a tertiary polytechnic setting for one or two or three days a week with students moving along a seamless pathway with a line of sight to employment.

The differences between school and the secondary-tertiary options are clear. The programmes focus on the things that matter: strong personal skills, a curriculum that is based on real world outcomes such as employment and activities that require students to demonstrate skills.

There are also pedagogical differences:

  • mandated engagement – doing the work is not optional but a clear requirement;
  • attendance is critical;
  • basic skills are taught in an applied manner and setting;
  • students with gaps in their learning have remediation that accelerates their progress rather than putting them into a holding pattern;
  • students work at multiple levels of qualifications and move at a speed through the levels rather than being in a lock-step group doing one level each year – time served is dead in these programmes!

Turning groups of students around through these programmes is the cheap option. Doing nothing is to take the easy and expensive route. Who knows what the real underlying costs of school failure and unemployment are. We do know that issues such as the 6,000+ young benefit-dependent people in South Auckland incur a lifetime cost of $239K per person, the cumulative costs of unemployment in South Auckland ($1.4 billion) and the 50% school leavers who choose not to pursue a formal tertiary qualification constitute a picture of that is simply undesirable and unacceptable. What about the many “South Aucklands” located through New Zealand? And what about school disengagement in the resrt of the community?

Currently there are levels of concern developing over an increase of students not returning to school after lock-downs. This will exacerbate the NEETs issue. Add the Covid-19 impact on employment and the situation looks grim.

It won’t just be the flowers that are gone!

Did the gain come with the pain?

The extent to which the education system responded to the Covid-19 crisis has been remarkable. The response to coming out of the lockdowns has perhaps been a little less praiseworthy in terms of the general community. And its probably too early to gauge the real impact on education going forward

Central to judging that impact on the education system will be the extent to which changes have been made. Or will the footprints of the pandemic have been quietly been wiped out of the system as it returns to the tried and tested “normal” Will what might have been seen as interruptions been sanitised out in returning to “normal”.

It would be a pity if the gains made in online learning, provision of devices (more on this in a minute!), home-based learning  and parental involvement and were to be lost.

Utilising online learning has the potential to alter the nature of the school day, to release teachers and students from the tyranny of the timetable through allowing students to plan and execute their work programme. The much-vaunted model of the teacher as a learning support might then actually increase both the development of students’ responsibility for learning while allowing teachers themselves to introduce variety into the ways they cut and dice the day. The boast of some schools that they are a “Bring your own device school” does not automatically mean that the capability of the device is being maximised to quality learning. Most schools are also “bring your own lunch” but this is no guarantee that the diet is wholesome and balanced.

The targets for the provision of devices and of the essential access to the internet was really a brave and daring gaol that had the power to change the way schools worked and probably put some better levels of equity into the advantages that are denied to many simply through a lack of access. I can’t help but think that the level of logistical sophistication required was simply not there. That was a great pity. It is hoped that the goals set out for the lockdowns are continued and eventually met.

There was a clear spirit among many families that took pleasure in being engaged parents and children doing things together in the process of learning. But not everywhere – the statement that “I worry about my children missing so much learning” was a somewhat sad reflection of a misunderstanding about what learning is and about the complementary roles of the home and the school in the educational process. Learning is not the sole property of schools, nor is the home the single fount of pleasure and freedom of spirit. Loosening the boundaries between formal learning and informal activity in daylight had a lot going for it. And institutionalising “after-school-care” and “holiday programmes” meet the needs of many grown-ups but might miss the mark for students.

We have just lived through a remarkable period, of that there is no doubt. It might not yet be finished. Lessons learnt might come in handy – they often do.

There is a Disease that Lingers

Attention has lately been focussed on the rates of return to school with something of a focus on primary education. But the real issue is still in the secondary and post-secondary levels.

It was reported about a year ago the number of those Not in Education, Employment or Training (NEETs) aged between 15 and 24 had gone past 100,000 in New Zealand. The US continues to break through 15 million in its numbers, Japan is at half a million while the UK approaches a million. It continues to grow.

It is hard to not expect that the events of the pandemic will have driven this statistic to even greater levels. The actual figures are very elusive. A number of NEETs are invisible in the statistics. The manipulation around “seeking employment” rather arbitrarily shifts the border between NEETs and Jobseekers and a lack of definition about disengagement leads to an opaque boundary between being at school and not being there.

Several posts ago I pointed to the long gaps of lockdown in the momentum of learning from a combination of the necessarily quick application of the Level 4 lockdown and the quite reasonable time that it took to get schooling up and going again. These gaps will have persuaded a number of learners at secondary (and possibly also in tertiary) to simply give up, or to feel that they are better to try for a job, or feel that returning is just too hard. This starts the retreat to join the NEETs.

Both disengagement and the process of becoming a NEET are deceptively pernicious and not well understood. There are some simple reasons for persistence of people who are in the NEETs category that disables them from making that progress to a better place.

The first of these, and the most misunderstood, is that the remedy that will enable them to progress to a solution is never located in the very same setting that drove them to being a NEET. It is pointless to try to return them to a school with all the pressures and stresses that have had such an unfortunate result both for them and the school. It is pointless to place them back in a programme that they have abandoned.

NEETs need the energy of a new direction along a new pathway that is directly aimed at a visible target – employment. Career and life readiness are needed – the basic knowledge and skills required for learning both on instructional programmes and employment skills. Career development is also a key element – using that knowledge and skills to make informed choices.

At the heart of the drive to bring purpose to their lives must be a commitment to Pathways that builds purpose and maintains a line-of-site to employment and its demands. This pathway must be seamless, focus on the goal, and teach the relevant skills and knowledge for that goal. Rather than surround NEETs with a well-meaning focus on well-intended educational programmes, it is much better to surround them with people from the world of work who bring an authenticity to purposeful learning.

All this implies a pedagogy that breaks the mould. Early exposure to hands-on applied learning will trigger those parts of the brain that may have been untested and little used. Speed in approaching skills work will bring better results that trying to wrap the learner in a variety of preparatory and remediation strategies – problems for no obvious person – teach the real skills and let them apply them. Well, we all know about the claims for the ability of dysfunctional events to bring about change – let’s hope it works this time.

Hat’s Off to the Minister

Well done, Minister! The simplicity of your concession to NCEA students consisting of a distribution of credits made to compensate them for the difficulties of continuing their studies through the lockdowns, is appropriate and measured.

In this the other hero is NCEA itself. The actions taken make the most of the flexibility of this successful system of assessment and reward; students will still receive a balanced programme and exhibit skill and knowledge at appropriate levels. This is what standards-based assessment is designed to do.

Back in the 1990s I was involved in the development of NCEA and a constant and tense discussion focussed on how the students would receive credit. The Unit Standards were planned to operate simply on an Achieved / Not Achieved basis – if you demonstrate the knowledge and skills required by the standard, the student receives the award of the credits.

But this did not satisfy those (a relatively small group) who believed that there are many kinds of demonstrations and many levels and, this was important, some students would not get credit for being better than others.

NZQA sought to appease that group and thought it had by inventing a system of grades to differentiate performance among the group that had demonstrated the requisite knowledge and skill – it required, the conservative group of schools argued, differentiation of success. So NZQA developed the system assigning Achieved / Merit / Excellence with credit differentials. I was there, in the room, when the official revealed his plan to smiles from one side of the argument and puzzled frowns from the other. The smiling group had got what they wanted, a system of assigning results in a way that seemed to replicate the norm-referenced outcomes of the examination system that the frowning group had sought to replace.

Standards-based assessment does not require differentiation beyond that of Achieved /Not Achieved. Minister Hipkins realised this in his plan to adjust credits and to use them to recognise those who had completed the work and to distribute some in a way that seemed fair.

I have been a Chief Examiner of a few old-style national examinations way back, usually national senior school examinations. Issues sometimes cropped up and situations developed that seemed to be a set-back not of the students’ making such as the teacher who taught the wrong Shakespeare play in an English exam then went to the evening Post to complain, the marker who lost ten scripts (found a year later down behind the backseat of the family car), and the examiner who forgot to insert an instruction  to Write on ONE of the following topics, none of the moderators picked up on this,and well-intentioned students wrote four essays when only one was required. That kind of thing. The emphasis was on what to do then that is fair to the students. Old fashioned common sense prevailed just as it has with the actions of Minister Hipkins. It might not seem to be the solution that wins over those who think they know better, but it is the right decision to those who do.