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Month: August 2020

It was the Heading that Caught my Eye!

“Low Level courses not helping young Maori” headed a single NZ Herald column report on the soft underbelly of secondary and post-secondary programmes. The research being discussed had found that “a disproportionate number of rangatahi leave school after completing NCEA Level 2 to go on to level 3 certificates at PTEs [private training institutions]” and concludes that “They would have been better staying at school for Year 13.” Well, would they have been?” Taking a wider lens to the issue has to start with the stubbornly robust statistics which tell us that:

  • 20% of young students have left school by the school leaving age of 16-years;
  • There is significant disengagement from age 14-years on;
  • Young people who complete Level 3 would be encouraged to consider that they were successful (and they are!) but there is a missing element that is a goal of schooling;
  • 76,000 school students are absent from school on any given day.

Starting with the obvious, schools cannot hope to reach those who are not at school. Why are they not at school? That is not a mystery – they have disengaged and end up in the ranks of the NEETs.

The issue that the research stresses is that the Level 3 qualifications simply do not constitute a pathway that leads to employment pathways that provide a sustaining income. Yes, the students appear to be on a successful pathway until they reach the decision point – employment. They are led astray by being tempted to go to programmes that are disconnected both to their past education and to those critical pathways that constitute careers. Level 3 does not constitute a take-off point for employment. And a pathway is not a pathway unless if engages at an early point hand gives a line of sight to the future.

But all is not lost, there is a different pathway that has opened up.

The Maori and Pasifika Trades Training Programmes have matured and now constitute settings in which Maori and Pasifika students are supported, have a clear focus on employment, access to free tools, and a setting which has the promise of continuing not only on to further qualifications after Level 3 but also to employment.

But the real development that is proving itself is the array of Trades Academy Programmes that have grown out of the pioneering Secondary/Tertiary Programmes, particularly the development which instituted the Tertiary High School for students who have disengaged or are likely to disengage – a very successful intervention that has been beneficial to over 1,000 students.

The key to the success of both the Trades Academies and the Tertiary High School is that they firmly embed students into a career pathway in the trades, they are unashamedly focussed on employment.  In 2019, Manukau Institute of Technology achieved creditable levels of success – 74.5% gained NCEA Level 2 and over 80% met the assessments for the credits offered.

The MIT Tertiary High School has a pathway that proceeds through NCEA Levels 1 and 2 (with students simultaneously working at both levels and at a speed they set targets for rather than the lock-step pace on the conventional school programme) and on to Level 3 and higher but rather than take NCEA route from level 3 they start on MIT qualifications that are employment focussed.

But they differ in their choices after that. Only a few (with higher “academic” aspirations) take NCEA Level 3 a large number opt for choices that are take-off points on a career pathway. Having experiences a range of trades earlier, they have a sound basis for choosing chosen pathways that they understand and for which they have an appetite. And from there they continue onward and upward through study at levels up to Level 7 – a surprising number have successfully reached Level 7. Levels 4-6 are by and large exit levels.

But….. Don’t forget that the trades lead to early and substantial earnings. A recent study showed that the institution which produced the highest earners five year after graduation was a vocational and technical tertiary education organisation. Who was that? Oh all right I will mention it, MIT topped the list!

Some might argue that this focus is a narrow and limiting approach. Well, that is simply wrong, the secondary tertiary programmes focus on basic skills, on understanding applied technical education. Of course this has focused on specific trades for the Trades Academies and Tertiary High School students will have experienced four different trades prior to making their choice of a career pathway. Because of the focus on trades students have a purpose for learning rather than the become lost in the murky fog of conventional “education for no obvious reason” in which many struggle with and from which so many simply give up.

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The Chore that keeps on Giving

I shared some ideas about children learning to read in my last blog and promised to ask the question: When does learning to read finish?

The quick answer to this is that it doesn’t. Certainly young people usually grasp the process, the mechanics of reading that enables them to convert marks on the page to meaning. The faster they can do this the more pleasure will follow. If they slow their development down before “getting up to speed” they might be adults who don’t read for pleasure and who are operating at a level well below what they are capable of. And simply being asked to “bark at print” won’t work! All ages get meaning from print by bringing meaning to print.

So why does there seem to so little emphasis on continuing to learn to read and on raising the levels  of competence among adults other than, seemingly, in prisons! Tertiary institutions are on the whole a little remiss in not including substantial language components in most of their courses.

Reading is generally driven by both necessity and opportunity. Around the 1970’s, a pattern of courses and books that were based on the use of language in different occupations and polytechnics were attracted to such courses. “English for Secretaries” and “Language and Science” cashed in on the movement coming out of the United Kingdom under the title of “Language Across the Curriculum.”  This was a breakthough movement that gave language the importance it needs if learning is to proceed.

The fuel for language is vocabulary – the words you know and can use. Many studies have shown that the size of a person’s vocabulary will asign then to various lecels of reading competence. Some words look easy but have multiple meanings. But highly specialist word are easy to use, it is those faux amis that catch you out. Some words are simple (bark,nails, jam, pool, mine etc.), others are slightly more difficult (bolt, season, novel, draft, squash etc.) while others could be thought of as hard (buckle, current, harbour, hatch, racket) and so on. This is because they each have multiple meaning and are capable of being used in different ways. This can be a trap for learners at every level and is a difficulty that learners of a language that is a second language find initially something of a barrier.

In technical subjects, words can be deceptively easy but obscure in the meaning given to them (belt, family, gall, lisp, patch, and shear etc.) It is not possible to rote learn all these ambiguities and shared meanings, which brings me to my last point – you learn to read by reading! Nothing else will substitute for this.

You might think that mention should be made of “writing”. No need to, you learn to write by reading!

PS   Get a good dictionary (i.e. Oxford Concise English Dictionary) can’t be beaten, keep it no more that arms length away, and use it!

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Reading Ability Falls the NZ Herald Tells US

A very enjoyable part of my journey as a teacher was a very wide and intensive engagement with language and especially reading. I was teaching at a school with a student population that was struggling with English language. It was required in a New Zealand school setting but was anew language for many of the students, certainly the formal brand required indoors. They had quite adequate vernacular outdoors. English was not a mother tongue for most of them.

Already I have mentioned two key principles without being specific – first, “reading” is a subset of “language” and secondly, success in reading relies heavily on success with language. The language-poor simply do not have the currency to cash in as a reader. So, what do we do about this as children come through school?

Above all, if students for whom English is a second language and for others who struggle, the only hope of real success in reading is to ensure that these wonderfully potentially gifted speakers of another language are not in a position of ever using these assets. In short, get cracking at teaching the first/mother languages of the students – those are the language systems their DNA holds captive until unleashed by good teaching and appropriate environments.

Next is the important principle that “students get meaning from print because they bring meaning to print”. If the materials they are using to learn how language works are alien to the things they hear, the interactions they indulge in, and the nuances and tones do not carry the music of their tunes rather than the sounds and accents of foreign voices, they struggle.

The miracle of watching little ones learn to read is the relatively small period when “the penny drops” – they understand what it is to read. They have skills now at determining how words sound in ways that mean things and as this facility becomes more secure, they get faster and that is the key. They have the appetite to learn to read. Many children do not get the meaning of the material they are using because it is a languorously plodding and slow and boring chore.

Of course, schools then placed barriers in the way. In my childhood they were reading books like the Janet and John series (based on the American Alice and Jerry readers), and then later stories about Daddy flying to Wellington on the Viscount! They were greeted with a vacant stare.

Reading is about connecting words discover worlds that are able to be related to world inhabited by people like the reader.  Adults not being seen to read are not serving young ones well. And learning language skills appropriate to levels higher than the relatively beginning levels I have skipped over in this blog will be the subject of the next blog.

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The Power of Purpose

When Trades Academies were established in 2011, the target group of students were not those headed to university or tertiary programmes which are both appropriate and attainable. If a student has the skills and aptitude for the heavily academic setting of a university programme and can be assured of making the cut, they should do just that. They have a pathway.

But there is a significantly large group of students who run the risk of being left behind because pathways have not opened up. There is therefore a significant group who are starting at about Year 9 to show weaknesses in the academic journey and to start the process of disengagement. This exhibits itself in haphazard attendance patterns, and when they are at school there are signs of a niggly relationship between them and their teachers accompanied by wilful gaps in their work. They are the ones that will be left behind as teachers maintain a momentum for those who cooperate with their effort and who do the mahi!

These Year 9 and 10 disengagers are on the way to being incipient dropouts. The statistics on this are a woeful indication of the simple truth that a diet of conventional schooling does not suit all learners. The disengagers that are well down the track to full disengagement have few choices. They can end up being destined for the NEETs group which is a difficult situation to get into and a worse one to get out of. The conventional solution is to get them back into school. But school is where they dropped out of and which subsequently holds little attraction for them. A very small numberhave been able to access the Tertiary High School model in the 10 years it has been operating with success in terms of pathway outcomes for a high proportion of them.

But all is not lost. It is becoming apparent that the Trades Academies, a programme in which school students undertake either one full school day (Level 2) or two school days (Level 3) in a tertiary programme delivered by an Institute of technology / polytechnic institution at the tertiary institution. The evidence suggests that the programmes are encouraging secondary students to develop a frame of mind where pathway in the technical and vocational areas, especially the trades careers. It is a bonus that these programmes also encourage students to maintain better attendance patterns and more willing interest in the rest of their school programme resulting in.

Remember that the Trades Academy students are unlikely to pursue heavily academic pathways. The performance of the Trades Academy students in 2019 continuing improvement in gaining the relevant NCEA credits. Manukau Institute of Technology, a large provider of Trades academies recorded an 83.9% of students successfully completing Level 2 and this was even across student groups – Maori 78.2%, Pacific 81.4% and Pakeha 93.1%.

There is an explanation for this. These students have in those proportions found purpose in learning. Research shows that the applied nature of learning when hand help heads and vice versa is a powerful attraction for adolescent learners. Pathways to employment are a real possibility when learners discover the meaning of learning and accept their role and responsibility responding positive in the more mandated engagement environment of trades academies. A key element in this is played by the NCEA qualification which in the trades academies is playing the role intended – it must not be tampered with, but more of that later!

(Dr Stuart Middleton is Specialist Advisor to the Chief Executive, Manukau Institute of Technology)

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Who are the fruit cakes in all this?

If fruit cake caused serious mental health issues in in young people and especially boys there would be a call to have it banned.

If skateboarding were to cause mental health issues to adolescent boys and some girls, it surely would be side-lined by authorities.

If travel on an international flight was to cause a set of boys, about 10% of adolescent boys and fewer girls then there would be calls to recommend that flying was a serious health issue.

Why then do seemingly intelligent and reasonable adults wish to rush to cause levels of harm to a percentage of adolescent boys and girls by voting to make cannabis legal. Scientists are agreeing that should an adolescent be exposed to cannabis before the age of 15 they risk having a serious psychotic episode around the age of 18 years – well, 10% of those who indulge in smoking dope will.

That might seem a smallish risk but the tough side of these findings is that it cannot be predicted who among those who partake will fall victim to serious psychosis until they are melting down, irrational and about to cause pain and hardship not only to themselves but also to their families.

Believe the science on this. The highly respected Dunedin longitudinal research on development has seen this exact phenomenon in their youthful subjects. And it is not just New Zealand: “Cannabis is strongly associated with psychotic symptoms and psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia” concludes a major researcher in Ireland (NZ Herald, 3 August 2020). Furthermore, early heavy use dulls the brain with irreversible brain damage. So go ahead and vote for the legalisation of cannabis but do so in the knowledge that if sourcing it and using it becomes a habit for young people, they will enter into a game of cannabis Russian Roulette and 10% will lose with disastrous results for themselves and their families.