Monday, May 19, 2008

A critical view of the New Zealand Curriculum.

Kelvin Smythe has long been a critic of an imposed technocratic ideology and is a passionate supporter of a liberal humanistic progressive creative approach to teaching. Check out his website. Older teachers will remember his Network Magazine.

Teachers , Kelvin advises, before they move to make something of the new curriculum, should look at it clear eyed and not be beguiled by those who devised and presented it.

Compared with its predecessor, Smythe believes, the new curriculum is heading in the right direction but the developers, he writes have fumbled an opportunity to produce a cohesive, powerful and inspiring document.

As such he sees it is a lost opportunity and that teachers will have to step up to correct significant omissions . This he presents as a challenge for teachers to realise.

This is as it should be. Creative teachers are the only ones in a position to appreciate the subtle reality of classroom relationships.

Kelvins verdict on the 07 curriculum is a long read. What follows is my interpretation of Kelvin's views, with a few of my own thrown in for good measure.

If curriculums are to inspire and challenge this curriculum, he believes, only occasionally meets these aspirations.

The problem is , he writes, is that the 'new' curriculum has been shaped to reduce criticism from a range of 'interested' groups while at the same time trying to focus on developing students thinking as a key area. As a result of trying to please all, the resulting document is somewhat flawed.

The various attempts to clarify values has resulted in a 'values morass' and begs the question of which values are most to be most valued. This is challenge for individual schools to negotiate with their communities.

The curriculum, as another writer has suggested, is 'a game of two halves'. Primary teacher are advised by Kelvin, to 'colonise' the parts that appeal to them ( as they have aways done) while finding ways to work around problematic areas'. Kelvin fears that the professional development that will accompany this document will have the 'opacity of an education sandstorm'.

The substantive issues that schools will have to face up to, once the 'guff' has been read, are implementing the key competencies, the learning area statements, and the achievement objectives. Much of the 'guff at the front of the curriculum , Kelvin writes, is far from new.

As far as the key competencies go Kelvin is mildly supportive of them; two, he says are passable ( thinking and language), while the other three are a mess. His main concern about the competencies is the pressure that will come from the Review Office as to how they are being implemented and the professional development time that will wasted on clarifying them. Another of his concerns is the implication that the competences are even new or fresh but he is certain they will become a bureaucratic battleground for schools with the Review Office.

Kelvin is concerned, as I am, that the competencies will be seen as more important than knowledge attitudes and values involved in learning and, as such, will result in anti intellectualism in our schools.

The real debate about about the curriculum will be about the purpose, soundness and practicability of the competences - as well as if they really represent anything new.

Kelvin believes, as I do, that if teachers are teaching well based teaching units all the elements of the competencies will be attended to and, he adds, the 'learning' will result in subtle and incremental learning not easy to 'tick off', or demonstrate, to Review Officers.

Overall , Kelvin writes, he 'cannot take the key competencies seriously

The effective pedagogy section, Kelvin sees, as an example of both the strengths and weaknesses of the new curriculum. The explanations, he writes, under the various learning area headings are 'never less than very good'. He does have concerns about the press for curriculum integration and inquiry learning which could result in content with little intellectual challenge. Learning is about 'what' as well as 'how', as anyone involved in any area of learning would appreciate. Kelvin is strongly in the camp of understanding, attitude and values as against skills and processes. The suggestion to do fewer things well in depth is good advice.

Unfortunately, in my experience, shallow learning is a feature of many class studies ; the process of learning being seen as more important than in depth understanding of the content involved. All sorts of 'higher order thinking' (HOT) programmes are being implemented, all too often resulting in some very 'thin learning'. As well Kelvin is critical of simplistic inquiry based models that many schools use. Kelvin thinks that the developers could well have developed a more generic inquiry model that would apply, with adaptations, to all areas of learning. Inquiry learning, he says, 'is making students curious, getting them thinking, and helping them to develop new and valid understandings'.

The use of computers comes in for some valid criticism from Kelvin ; computer use being seen as a an end in itself and rarely resulting in adding real depth to students understanding. And, I would add, diverting students from studying in-depth environmental studies where sensible use of computers would be a real advantage. The arts,Kelvin believes, have not been accorded the importance they deserve in comparison to computer education; the computers are the 'new arts'?

Kelvin is supportive of the section om assessment while still preferring the tern evaluation. Assessment, he believes, links to an accountability and a surveillance culture which has dominated schools the past decades. This culture has led to a, 'stifling of creativity and individuality, making teaching less attractive to those of a more adventurous mindset'. Accountability also leads to the fantasy that that teachers can predetermine exactly what students should learn and then be able to present 'proof' to others - this was the ideology underlying the previous curriculum. Teacher are still being asked to be able to recognise, measure, discuss and chart the progress of their students - this will cause some soul searching to keep in perspective.

Couldn't agree more.

The prose description of the learning areas are seen by Kelvin as a far better way to comprehend the various learning areas than the 'pull out' pages. These , although containing far less learning objectives, still retain the same faulty thinking of the previous curriculum . Creative teacher are encouraged to select appropriate learning objectives to suit chosen studies although teachers still have to have evidence of covering all the strand over two years!

Kelvin is supportive of the suggestion for schools to use the document flexibly according to the student's' needs and the assessment sections which focuses on improving student learning and teachers teaching.

Kelvin's final verdict is that it is a mixed document. 'It is amiable, generous, mainly non ideological, ingratiating , rambling, confused, flawed and ultimately disappointing.' 'The document continues some of the faults of the past , nevertheless, is heading in a more productive direction'.

The question remains, Kevin writes, is 'will the curriculum provide impetus for transforming any particular parts of New Zealand education. Secondary teachers, he says, will see it as a non event, easily lost in the various subject departments, but they will find that key competencies will give them pause for thought, as it will primary teachers. Primary teachers will find its implementation less of a challenge and it may encourage them to value the 'voice' of their students more. Their real challenge is to involve their students in sustained in depth thinking and understanding.

One phrase that I like, that Kelvin neglects to mention, is the phrase that students should be seen as 'their own seekers, users and creators of knowledge'. And he makes little mention of the need to develop the talents, gifts and dream of all students, which I see as a priority as we enter, what some call, a new creative age, an age equivalent to the first Renaissance.

It may be worthwhile for schools to tale a clear eyed look at the 'new ' curriculum now that it has been in schools for a year?

The 'experts' always get it wrong!

Bruce's view on the 'new' curriculum
John Faire's view on the draft
Assessing competencies.
Inquiry approach and the NZC


Anonymous said...

Kelvin makes some excellent points but I think he is to hard on the new curriculum? The worry about the possible anti inteLlectualism of integrated studies is a real one. Knowledge is still important along with the learning process.

Bruce said...

You really need to read Kelvin's full article. But I am in full agreement with his passion about valuing student centred learning and creative teachers.

Kelvin's work with his 'feeling for' approach in social studies, and the 'science alive' resources, are stiil really valuable and possibly lie unused in many schools.

His worry about shallow thinking, that could result from integrated programmes, is already seen in many schools.

It is great to see he is still keeping an eye on educational developments and reminds us all of great ideas that could easily be lost.