The Rhetoric and the Reality: New Zealand Schools and Schooling in the 21st Century
Fraser Books, $39.50,
David Hood has written a thorough, detailed and impassioned plea for major changes to our education system. He calls for a paradigm shift; what is needed, he claims, is transformation rather than reform. Hood speaks with authority on a subject that is clearly close to his heart, but that has also consumed his professional life for a good 50 years.
Perhaps there are few people in the country better placed to produce the sort of overview that The Rhetoric and the Reality presents. A former secondary school teacher, principal, Department of Education official, senior manager with the Education Review Office, and former chief executive of NZQA, Hood has also worked as an educational leadership consultant. Now 75, he is a member of the establishment board of Tai Wananga, a new model multi-site secondary school based out of Palmerston North and Hamilton.
Hood doesn’t mince words. The cultural capital of schooling has become “fossilised and ritualistic,” and there is “a monotonous and boring sameness about schooling”. We are still labouring under a system that was set up to meet the needs of capitalism and industrialism in the late 19th century, a system in which the “overt curriculum” was reading, writing and arithmetic while the “covert curriculum” was discipline, punctuality and repetition. Hood calls this “The Paradigm of One”: “one teacher, teaching one subject to one class of one age, using one curriculum at one pace, in one classroom, for one hour.” You won’t have to go very far to find secondary schools today that still function according to this paradigm.
If we are to prepare students effectively for the 21st century, for jobs we can’t yet imagine, we need to replace this system with one based on collaboration, critical thinking and flexibility, Hood argues. Instead of being able to come up with the “right” answer, students should be encouraged to think across the curriculum; schools need to give them experience and practice at “solving complex, multidisciplinary, open-ended problems [and] … making innovative use of knowledge and opportunities.” Interestingly, these are the very skills that employers value so highly, as Hood’s own research, presented in chapter four, bears out.
Hood presents a comprehensive overview of how the system got to be the way it is, as well as how and why it needs to change. He quotes extensively from national and international research, from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and OECD statistics and from experts across a range of fields. However, he is at his most eloquent in chapter five, “A Failing System”, in which he details the shame that was the scaling of School Certificate results. This had a pernicious effect on those who were (and sadly still are) achieving at rates considerably lower than the national average, namely Māori, Pasifika and lower socio-economic groups. This system “produced pass rates in Te Reo at about half the rates of other languages and a hierarchy of subjects that discriminated against Māori.” Not so far removed from being smacked in the playground for speaking your mother tongue! In spite of our ranking among the top countries in international league tables, Hood concurs with 2012 Minister of Education Lesley Longstone’s assertion “that the New Zealand system could not be described as world class as so many students, especially Māori and Pasifika, were failing in it.” A breakdown of suicide statistics in New Zealand, placed alongside educational achievement results, would make sobering reading indeed.
The introduction of the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA), begun in 2002, did away with the pass/fail nature of School Certificate. Initially, pass rates for our most vulnerable students looked encouraging under the new system, but improvement for these groups has begun to stall. Hood presents detailed statistical analysis and graphs to illustrate these trends and it is very clear from his argument that we are vastly over-assessing our students. As he points out in his introduction, “New Zealand is the only country in the world with four different qualifications – NCEA Levels 1, 2, and 3 and University Entrance – and external testing in each of the last three years of schooling.”
NCEA was initially seen as a fairer and more enlightened approach to assessment, in which students accumulate credits for mastery of discrete skills and knowledge within a curriculum area. However, the result, from Hood’s point of view, has been further fragmentation of the system and the very opposite of a cross-curricular multi-disciplinary approach to integrated learning that promotes and enables 21st century skills. Calls for a more coherent and holistic framework are not new, and Hood details in chapter six the working parties and reports that have been produced since the 1960s and whose recommendations for radical change have languished for lack of visionary leadership at the highest level. He is particularly critical of the way examinations and assessment have been used by universities to identify those students capable of success at tertiary level.
Do we have the courage to change the system? This is the challenge Hood lays down in his final chapter, in which he recommends abandoning all external examinations and scrapping all Achievement Standards (the building blocks of NCEA). In their place, he recommends a return to a system of in-school accreditation, similar to the way students in the sixth form (now Level 2) in the 1960s and 70s were exempted from sitting exams if their teachers deemed them sufficiently able.
Such alternative systems work well in Big Picture Schools in the United States, in independent secondary schools in Finland, in the Australian Science and Mathematics School in Adelaide, and in Tai Wananga, a multi-site secondary school established in New Zealand in 2011. (It is not a charter school, is spread across two campuses and accommodates 120 students in each.) Every term, students set specific personal goals which they share with their peers, whanau and kaitiaki (teacher/mentors). They work on “real-life inter-disciplinary projects with experts from organisations such as AgResearch and Waikato University”, in modern open-plan spaces with break-out rooms for group activities and are well-supported by digital technologies.
Hood’s message is an important one. It is a shame that, in the telling of it, he relies sometimes too heavily on long quotations from source material, an overly-liberal use of the rhetorical question and the capital letter, repetition, truisms (“this complex, unpredictable and uncertain world” – was it ever not thus?) and a tendency to inadvertently diss those many excellent teachers in conventional schools who work miracles every day and always have. Hood himself was a mathematics teacher; perhaps an integrated cross-curricular programme 60 years ago would have resulted in a more fluent, engaging and nuanced prose style.
That said, the challenge for our education system is to shift from the rhetoric of paying lip-service to innovative pedagogical change, to the reality of every student in every school in the country having the sort of positive and supportive learning environment that Tai Wananga clearly promotes. Hood’s state-of-the-education-nation book should be in every school library and staff-room in the country, even if at times its stolid tone makes for hard going. I hope those copies become well-thumbed, dog-eared and tatty from being passed from teacher to parent to board member to student. And I wonder if there is another, more personal book waiting in the wings, given Hood’s impressive professional pedigree. He has clearly spent his whole career in the body of the beast, so to speak, having been there on the inside when NCEA and NZQA were set up. It’s a brave man who, at 75, can look back and say “we got it wrong” but, also, “this is what we can do to get it right.”
Elizabeth Crayford is a Wellington teacher and reviewer.