Monday, August 26, 2013

The New Zealand Curriculum - Back to the future!

Time to return the focus to the New Zealand Curriculum

The inspiration to write this 'Back to the Future' blog came from my good friend Paul Tegg

In 2007 the revised New Zealand Curriculum was introduced to schools. It was welcomed as a positive future orientated document and a giant improvement on the 1995 New Zealand Curriculum. For those of you who remember this earlier document it was accompanied by eight extensive Learning Area booklets. The 1995 Curriculum had well thought out principles, values and essential skills but its down fall was to be found in the associated booklets with areas divided into levels with a great number of learning objectives to be assessed for each. It was the confusion and difficulty of assessing student achievement against these objectives that was the curriculum’s downfall.

The ‘revised’ curriculum features principles, values and key competencies (very similar to the 95 essential skills). The big difference was the emphasis on the key competencies. The Learning Areas covered the ‘essence’ of each area and the earlier complicated booklets reduced to an appendix. The revised document included a valuable section Effective Pedagogy and information for Board of Trustees to consider.

It was well received.

Unfortunately a change of government introduced literacy and numeracy National Standards for each student to be assessed against. Associated withthese Standards was the future spectre of ‘League Tables’ and the possibility of performance pay. Other countries that have taken this approach have seen a narrowing of the curriculum ( this will be inevitable in New Zealand as schools are judged by the Education Review Office by their success in National Standards). Having school data published in the newspapers adds more pressure. As a result the focus on the new curriculum was side-lined.

So it is time, if education rather than politics is to be the winner, to return the focus back to the 2007 New Zealand Curriculum – a curriculum, if implemented to the full, requires more than tinkering at the edges. It needs to become central. At present it has become side-lined; it is, as one English critic has written, ‘the evil twins of literacy and numeracy have all but gobbled up the entire curriculum.’

This is not to say schools should ignore National Standards but rather they need to be put in their place.  To misquote G K Chesterton, ‘If a thing is not worth doing it is worth do it badly so you can get on with what is important.’ Literacy and numeracy are important but they need to be ‘reframed’ as the ‘foundation skills’ of integrated in- depth inquiry learning across the curriculum.

I have always liked the visual metaphor for growth of the nautilus shell that the 2007 Curriculum employs. This is explained on the inside cover as a mollusc that creates new chambers as it outgrows each existing one forming a logarithmic spiral that appears elsewhere in nature. American writer Oliver Wendell Holmes saw the nautilus spiral shell as a symbol of intellectual and spiritual growth and suggested people need to outgrow their protective shells as they no longer became necessary; ‘One’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions’; an argument for developmental organic education.

The premise of the 2007 Curriculum is to ‘ensure all young New Zealanders are equipped with the knowledge, competencies, and values they will need to be successful to be successful citizens in the twenty-first century’. This is a vision of students as creative, enterprising lifelong learners all able to realise their full potential.  One phrase that seems integral to achieving success is that all students should be seen as ‘active seekers, users, and creators of knowledge’.  How to ensure all students are able to do this ‘seeking and creating’ in all learning areas is the real challenge for teachers if students are to achieve ‘personal excellence’ and to leave with positive learning identities, students who see themselves ‘as capable  learners’ equipped  with a well-developed ‘can-do’ attitude.

The key to develop this positive learning identity are the development of the key competencies (I prefer the more educational term dispositions). These competencies are to be seen as both a means and an end and are best observed through the actions of the students as they involve themselves in their ‘seeking and creating’. This is a curriculum that demands personalizing learning – a phrase not mentioned in the document. This is in direct conflict with the standardisation of the National Standards with their genesis in a past industrial age.

The Learning Areas (that had a booklet for each in 95) are presented as distinct, and like the key competencies, are to be seen as ‘both an end and a means; valuable in themselves and valuable for the pathways … to other learning’.  It is suggested that, ‘All learning should make use of the natural connections that exist between learning areas….values and key competencies.’

Each Learning Areas provides an important perspective for learning but the infusing them into contextual studies across the curriculum is a challenge yet to be realised. An excellent diagram (based on the nautilus) covers the ‘essence’ of each learning area. They all contribute towards ‘meaning making and creating meaning’.  The introduction to The Arts is important, an area being neglected due to an over emphasis on Literacy and Numeracy because they are ‘about learning how to use the imagination to engage with unexpected outcomes’; and they provide for students, who may have difficulties in Literacy and Numeracy, opportunities for success. Failing students have an ‘opportunity’ rather than an ‘achievement gap’.

Although all Learning Areas have their own distinctiveness (offering areas for students’ to discover their unique talents) they all involve generic problem solving situations. All Learning Areas provide realistic contexts to ‘think creatively, critically, strategically, and logically’ - to ‘seek, use and create knowledge’.  An inquiry model of learning is expressed in all Learning Areas – perhaps there is a need make enquiry central to all learning more explicit? The Science statement says ‘Science is a way of investigating, understanding and explaining…it involves generating  and testing ideas, gathering evidence…and communicating’. Surely this is the essence of all learning. Some rewriting might be worthwhile to make this clear?

The Effective Pedagogy section is worth full consideration by all schools.  This is what schools need to be held accountable to provide. If the evidence of effective teaching presented were to be implemented to the full few students would leave schools as failures.  Schools need to develop positive relationships with all students and parents; all teaching needs to values students’ questions and their prior ideas; all inquiries need to encourage in depth understandings by doing fewer things well; all studies need to make students aware of connections between Learning Areas and their own thinking (metacognition); and all students see the relevance of what they are learning. This is all about personalising learning.

What is missing in the pedagogy section is the need to question the use of ability grouping, setting and streaming – all of which contribute to school failure. The emphasis National Standards is in conflict with personalised teaching – the over focus on literacy and numeracy, divorced from the inquiry programme in primary schools; and streaming and compartmentalised subject teaching in secondary schools, is unhelpful.  Such approaches have their genesis in a past industrial sorting and grading era and contribute to school failure by discouraging the development of multi-disciplinary teaching teams at the secondary level, vital to develop integrated inquiry based personalised learning. A greater emphasis on developing the diverse gifts and talents of all students would also be valuable.

 The concept of interpreting teaching itself as inquiry is also vital to develop positive learning environment for all learners. Through such inquiries teachers evaluate the success of and continually modify their teaching.

The curriculum document offers schools ‘the scope, flexibility and authority they need to design and shape their curriculum so that teaching and learning is meaningful to their particular communities. In turn the design of each school’s curriculum should allow teachers the scope to make interpretations in response to the particular needs, interests, and talents of individuals and groups of students in their classes.’

If the spirit of the document, the values, principles, key competencies and inquiry based programmes integrating  the various Learning Areas,  were to be implemented schools would be transformed and this would ensure ‘the realisation of a vision of young people who will be confident, connected, actively involved lifelong learners’.

This obviously not the case now – and National Standards are not the answer but literacy and numeracy are still important. In years 1-6, the curriculum states ‘teaching and learning programmes are developed through a wide range of experiences across all learning areas, with a focus on literacy and numeracy along with the development of values and key competencies.’

Currently it seems like the assessment tail is wagging the dog! The curriculum offers sensible advice on assessment with the focus on ‘improving students’ learning and teachers’ teaching’. ‘Assessment’, it states, ‘for the purpose of improving student learning is best understood as an on-going process that arises out of the interaction between teaching and learning’. ‘Much of this assessment is “of the moment” …..taking place in the mind of the teacher, who then uses the insights gained to shape their actions as they continue to work with their students.’ Surely the best assessment is to be seen in the actions and behaviours of the students and by what they can perform, exhibit, demonstrate, or show in their portfolios.

The curriculum is underwritten ‘with the premise that all students can learn and succeed and should recognise that, as all students are individuals, their learning may call for different approaches….and different goals’.

The 2007 New Zealand Curriculum has yet to be fully implemented – at best schools are tinkering around the edges – at worst totally distracted by the reactionary demands of National Standards.Jane Gilbert, in her book ‘Catching the Knowledge Wave’ NZCER reprinted 2008, writes, ‘we can’t do more of what we are currently doing… we cannot add new ideas to an old framework’. And adds we need to ‘develop a new public understanding about what we think and hope our education can do for people’.

It is time now to put the challenges of the curriculum at centre stage.


drawing classes melbourne said...

Good job with the post.
Thank you for sharing.

Unknown said...

This is a fantastic reminder of why we are in the job - to give EVERY young person the tools they need to reach their potential.. in whatever area that means... personalised learning is key.. and understanding how to use and create knowledge, not regurgitating knowledge should be the future focus of our schools. Nice to have someone to remind us of that!!! National Standards are such a backwards take on how learning should be viewed.. Shame shame shame!

Bruce Hammonds said...

Thanks for your comments Sarah. Really appreciated. It is important that teachers begin to fight back before the next election.