Primary school education is about the curriculum, the real curriculum, developed in New Zealand in the 1940s, based on the interaction of the affective and cognitive, and evolved from teacher knowledge in shared process (see variously below, especially Part 3), not the one designed and imposed for hierarchical control.
[Beginning with Elwyn Richardson and Sylvia Ashton-Warner, The File provides examples of the real curriculum extending to ‘In which Pooh looks for a 21st Century Education’ (Attacks! 107, 112-113), which begins with the present and the future then reaches back to the ‘40s, giving close attention to a film made of a junior room in action.
This Labour government-made film is analysed to reveal the principles of the real curriculum. All the curriculum areas, as examples of the real curriculum, are given detailed attention: reading, mathematics, science, writing, drama, art, and social studies. Of particular note are the descriptions of a junior and senior classroom. These provide extended accounts of modern classrooms based on the real curriculum (Attacks! 71-77 and 78-85). The classrooms are ones in which the teachers have worked towards their holistic goals over a number of years, so for teachers who want to start out or move further along the real curriculum, ‘A Threshold Timetable’ (Attacks! 87-90) is provided.]
Quantitative academics, education bureaucrats, and politicians want a hierarchical curriculum to organise and control the system – since Tomorrow’s Schools they have been viscerally opposed to the real curriculum because it works on the intertwining of heart and mind, therefore can’t be manipulated or controlled to further their ideological and vocational ends. The primary school real curriculum is a wonderfully complex and beautifully sensitive entity, continually vulnerable to the most delectable of discoveries – it cannot be contained in a box. If the real curriculum predominates in the system, teachers have an assured place in it; if the hierarchical curriculum does, the bureaucrats, politicians, and quantitatives will continue to dominate it – with teachers divested of power, ground down, and allocated only token voice.
If the hierarchical curriculum has success, which has yet to occur, so is only illusory and concocted, the hierarchy claims the ‘credit’; if it has failures, which are endemic, teachers are blamed, and the hierarchy, perversely, are rewarded with extra powers for even more of the same.
However, why am I writing this? Who is it directed to? Is it teachers and principals? Labour politicians? The media? The bureaucrats, especially the group in control of the system, the education review office? Yes, all of those, but in a desperate and melancholy way, very much the media, though it is near hopeless. To make the whole area of education so much simpler for themselves the media take at face value whatever the bureaucrats, politicians, the quantitative academics (introduced as ‘experts’), technology advocates, and academic faddists (for instance, the ‘Summer Slump’) bring forward. The media are immediately biddable to these groups. If the media took even a mildly sceptical view of all those in education, that would require them to research, give thought, but what perilous territory they would find themselves in. How much simpler to believe in the unsullied motivation of authority. Except for some sentimental and patronising items, classroom teachers are invisible. The media, even an outstanding representative like Kathryn Ryan, never get even close to the heart of it. Below I will describe how, two days ago, Kathryn Ryan was trifled with by the education review office – it was disgraceful but, to us in education who care, is our reality. We just utter an internal scream, dismiss the impulse to jump from the bridge, hang in there, for what we are unsure, hanging in there, it seems, in the end, becomes an end in itself. Education, especially primary school education, is a battlefield. The propaganda production is typical of one of Orwell’s factories – the Education Success Factory or the Education Truth Factory. You would think that with the corrupt and muddled-farce of NCEA so clear to view, and with the plummeting results in international tests as against the absurdity of improving national standards results, or the Dunedin Monitoring Group’s finding that national standards marks are about 15-20 per cent below their own findings – the media would sense something very wrong in education. But the media can’t find a way through to something even close to the truth. The media have mainly succumbed to the view that anything new in education is good and worthy of a bumf item, for instance, computers and open plan. Last week an ‘expert’ on open plan schools was invited by ‘Breakfast’ to answer a viewer’s question on open plan schools. Even though there is now considerable research to show there is nearly always a large gap between the ideals of open plan and outcomes, only this ‘expert’ was invited and all he did was repeat the usual open plan clichés. He was no expert, as to be an expert you have to know the real curriculum, and he didn’t. Just as education technology experts to be true technology experts have to know the real curriculum, but none do. To be an expert on a modish education idea and not know the real curriculum, is a contest with no opposition and the media is yours.
The ultimate victim in all this is the child.
In 1988, just prior to me leaving the formal education system to defend the real curriculum, I set out in considerable detail (Attacks! 93-95) why Tomorrow’s Schools would fail. It is confounding that the same system structure is being retained by Labour; one bound to fail for exactly the same reasons. Labour has, once again, gone for the bosses (explained below) as against classroom teachers. Labour, of course, will promise big change, but it won’t be fundamental.
If the overarching aim of school education in democracy is that it prepare children for life in a democracy and to support and protect it (as discussed and explained in Attack! 132), then the production and validation of knowledge must be shared amongst groups, with teachers major participants.
As my writing twists and twists and turns, it is quite understandable you might be a bit puzzled as to theme – there are four main ones: the present hierarchical system is about control mainly for subversive ideological ends; to counter this the main aim of education should be openly declared as being about supporting democracy; the way to get education right is to get the curriculum right; and education requires fundamental change. There are some related sub-themes: the first is my career-long love of, and respect for, classroom teachers, what they can do given half a chance, and have done. (To understand myself, my ideas, and my motivations, I have to remind myself that I never left the classroom, because I never really did – when viewing powerful people or in their company, I always looked at them through the eyes of a classroom teacher.) Then there are two interrelated sub-themes: school education is a battlefield, a fierce contest of will, ambition, and power rapaciousness. This may not be universal but it is widespread and, on the whole, a good rule of thumb for judging individuals in the hierarchy. How can I say this: under the present system a lot of alien values have been introduced, it is trending, as they say, in fact, galloping. This is why I identify with classroom teachers. The second interrelated sub-theme is that nothing in primary school education is as it seems, all is laden with complexity, layer-on-layer, and mystery – that is unless you happen to be imbued with knowledge of the real curriculum, then all is revealed. I’ll give you two examples: both open plan classes and computers, on the whole, are hindering real learning. How to tell whether or not? Well, when you are imbued with that knowledge, you can tell in a flash whether real learning is using the computer and the open plan architecture for its educationally valid purposes; or the computer and open plan architecture are using real learning for theirs, and compromising it. In the late ‘80s, when I was a senior inspector of schools, knowing the real curriculum told me in an instance, that Tomorrow’s Schools was going to be both an education failure, and wrong (in relation to the aim I set for school education – see above). I immediately sat down and set out my predictions and what adds up to a personal manifesto and made preparations to leave the formal education system.
Teachers are unsettled by the possibility of curriculum and administrative ideas being able to be passed quickly down the hierarchical chain without those ideas requiring teacher involvement at all stages of development. The best ideas for education come from teachers and those close to teachers. The part of the education system that is important to teachers is the part close to them. The part further away has the capacity to do much harm, but little capacity to do much good. The nature of the education system should protect teachers from hastily conceived ideas – no matter their potential benefits. Good ideas are only good if the process for their development has been good. The last thing teachers want is the kind of efficiency that has someone in the hierarchy having an idea and then using the chain of command to force it on them.
If teachers continue to be in a position of disadvantage in relation to knowledge, then they will continue to be at a disadvantage organisationally within the system. That is not good for teachers and children. What is the good of every other adult group in the system – including principals who identify more with the hierarchy – having a great time, when it is teachers who, in the end, deliver the goods?
The following is how, in 1988, I described the power-sharing situation in the years from the ‘40s to Tomorrow’s Schools (Attacks! 93-95). There were, of course, fluctuations and flurries, but the consensus held fairly well. I saw it as ideal and still do.
For a democratic, participatory education system, production and validation of knowledge should be shared amongst a number of groups. One of the reasons why New Zealand primary school classrooms function as well as they do is because of the checks and balances inherent in the system. Those checks and balances derive from the relative co-operativeness in the way groups relate to one another. No group can carry out its functions without the support of a number of others, and no group can force its will on another. Ultimately, though, it must be acknowledged that what the government wants, the government gets, but what the government wants can be modified by those outside the government educating the public to influence the government – success in this being the measure of teacher organisations. But that basic consideration aside, university lecturers, department of education, district inspectors, those delivering advisory support, publishers, school boards, research organisations, service organisations, and teacher organisations – all these groups are to some extent dependent on other groups for carrying out their functions. In the absence of the inevitable conflict and control behaviours generated by a strict hierarchical system, these groups have been able to remain mindful of the need to negotiate in a spirit of goodwill to proceed.
Through the 1950s to the 1980s this kind of knowledge and power sharing relationship functioned to a greater or lesser degree. Even when it functioned to a lesser degree, there was a characteristic inherent in the New Zealand education system that kept it going. That characteristic was that all parts of the education, from principal in schools to the head of the education department were staffed by people who had experience in the primary curriculum, knew the primary curriculum, and had a commitment to and respect for it. And then there was the productive connection between the head office of the education department and inspectors of schools and the cluster primary school professionals functioning in the regions: advisers, special education, and universities.
This is the pointer to where primary school education was most seriously undermined by the Tomorrow’s Schools’ philosophy and to where fundamental correction is required.