Friday, February 18, 2005
Back to the drawing board for Secondary Schools!
Some times you need a bit of distance to see the big picture with relation to education. Those involved are just too committed to a task to see past their immediate concerns while others, locked into some romantic golden era of education, cannot see any good in what is currently happening. And then of course there are politicians.
With this in mind it was great to read Chris Trotter’s column in today’s Daily News.
Chris Totter reminds us we would never want to go back to the ruthless ‘pass and ‘fail’ which left thousands of New Zealanders emotionally scarred for life. It was, as Chris writes, ‘an outrageous exercise in social engineering.’ In the 40s and 50s, when we had full employment, it may have been logical with plenty of jobs, to fail half our students. The failed students became steady if unimaginative workers and the successful the ‘movers and shakers’; the ‘failures’ were provided with trade apprenticeships.
Things have changed since the 90s. All schools now compete as ‘stand alone self managing ’schools with‘ direction’ being provided by a highly technocratic National Curriculum. Primary schools, being more flexible, have managed to ‘colonize ‘most of the imposed constraints but secondary schools have not been so adaptable. Still trapped in antiquated industrial age structures and mindsets they have found new the requirements all but impossible.
Chris mentions that there always have been two mutually antagonistic education reform agendas. On one side the liberal inheritors of the sixties (Chris calls them the ‘Summerhill Generation’) and on the other technocratic efficiency of the market forces revolution.
It isn’t quite as simple as this. Although there were excesses of liberalism, creative primary teachers believed strongly in creativity and excellence and not, as he indicates, everybody has to be seen as equal. As well secondary schools were never taken over by liberal philosophies and to this day remain as monuments to an industrial era. For many students enrolling in a secondary school must belike visiting a foreign country. No wonder many students fail. So there is also a traditional agenda as well represented by those who want to go back to pass/fail exams
The controversial NZCEA was an attempt to ensure all students gained qualifications from their secondary experience. It was not a ‘progressive educational initiative’ but rather an imposed business concept of defining standards for students to achieve so school could be held accountable and learning measured.
It has been as Chris indicates a disaster, not because as Chris states it is a compromise between ‘Summerhillers’ and the employers but more because it had design faults. With its concept of breaking up education into endless measurable objectives it has almost been impossible to realize.
David Hood, who introduced early NZCEA ideas, has written a book simply called ‘Our Secondary Schools Do Not Work Anymore.’ I can but agree.
It would’ve been preferable to‘re-imagine’ schools for a new millennium. Such schools would need new structures and cultures and would require new roles for teachers. Such a system would need to focus on helping each student develop whatever talents they might have and in the process equip them with the life long learning attributes required to live in a world that will be marked by continual change. It is entirely possible but only if we changed our minds first about education.
Instead we seem to have developed the worst of both worlds. Traditional schools, and some politicians, want schools to revert to the old fashioned ‘pass/ fail’ exams under the banner of high standards and competition. Secondary schools, it seems, haven’t had the wit, creativity and intelligence to colonize the NZEA requirements by developing holistic meaningful tasks that integrate traditional subject areas with teachers working in teams to assist each learner. In this scenario appropriate achievement standards could be imbedded into the tasks.
In the meantime the debate continues with more heat than light. New thinking is required Secondary schools are almost collapsing with what Chris calls the ‘hyper-bureaucratizing of our schools and teachers.’ Learning he writes, ‘has been reduced to require the great feast of human knowledge to an unappetizing pile of bite sized morsels.’ One other writer calls it the KFC curriculum!
Chris continues his article by saying, ‘schools have been reduced into educational warrant of fitness stations and our teachers into testers.’ It is he says about training not education; ‘we are producing people who understand the world’s parts but who can tell us nothing about the whole.’ Schools are producing students ‘who are prepared to work diligently for others but who are singularly ill equipped to think for themselves.’
It didn’t have to be this way. There are alternative ideas around that could have transformed education as we know it but this would have taken courage and intelligence from politicians and school leaders.
Chris concludes that we have sacrificed educated holistic thinkers and instead have settled for producing ‘serfs of scholarship’.
Little it seems has really changed?