I am not sitting on my hands: the cabinet paper is not enough

On balance, the paper by the minister of education to the cabinet removing national standards is useful, but not sufficiently so to make definitive philosophical change in the way National always does, and Labour has done twice, once with Peter Fraser and once with David Lange.

Schools have had 27 years of terrible curriculum advice and oversight and as useful as the cabinet paper’s abolition of national standards is, the greatly reduced role of the Education Council, and the setting up of an Advisory Service under the control of universities (readers of networkonnet will know, all three changes were at the top of my wish list), it is by no means enough.

A few minutes ago I rang up an absolutely grand principal to wish him well in his retirement. He said he had hopes for the new government.

I replied that the government will, indeed, do some very good things but it won’t be enough because so many primary teachers, as a result of Tomorrow’s Schools and its fetish with assessment and leadership, cannot teach because they have never been called on to do so. When I criticise the nature and quality of what is occurring in classrooms there is incomprehension at both a conceptual and practical level of where those criticisms are coming from. It is to me the tragic disconnect between our New Zealand holistic philosophy and the introduced, imposed neoliberal one.

I go into classroom after classroom and see template after template and worthless scratches in exercise books allegedly connected with reading, writing, and mathematics. Children being taught to read but not become readers; to grasp the mechanics of maths without being able to use them to maths good effect; to be involved in writing which remains forlorn in books, unmotivated in introduction, unused in outcome; undertake soulless and fragmented science and social studies in the name of inquiry. And so many children are being denied the transformative qualities of drama and the arts (think of the children who may have had a special ability at drama over the 27 years of Tomorrow’s Schools – nearly a big fat zero of those decades).

I know the few of the principals who have the inclination or the time (given schools are closed or closing for the year) to be reading this will ask, why are you banging away about this and especially at this time. My answer is that it is not really intended for you; it is a desperate call to the politicians who are making decisions – decisions I know, while looking good, are going to fall well short of the mark.

For New Zealand to slide so dramatically in international tests in a systems sense, really takes some doing. And it is decidedly pertinent that the Dunedin Monitoring Unit, which is being retained by Labour, scores its research at 15-20 per cent below schools’ reported national standards results. Goodness knows where we are in the arts, drama, science (though the Unit does include science) social studies, and genuine open-ended thinking.

I am making these points not to go over them again to harangue but to dramatise the need to make decisive, fundamental structural and contextual change.

Labour, as you will have read above, is abolishing national standards, making drastic changes to the Education Council, and setting up an advisory service.

But it is messing around with local and national assessment, and is likely to tie schools in knots and, most grotesque of all, allowing an unchanged education review office the power of official oversight. The education review office has signed off the huge percentage of schools as satisfactory in performance and assessment and has been the determining factor in what happens in schools, yet it is being left untouched. And in that time school performance has descended to the bottom of the Western world and, amongst a number of other fantastic deficiencies, what is not happening in Maori and Pasifika education. The education review office in visiting schools very rarely goes into classrooms and when it does, only cursorily – how well suited is it to contribute positively to the creativity and imagination the prime minister has promised schools? How free can schools be when a school control institution, in its reports, can end or severely curtail a principal’s career? If that institution writes to recommend a certain policy, that recommendation becomes a direction, why would a principal take a risk?  The oversight of schools should be restructured to get the right people to be able to take more of an advisory role. And amongst a number of other things, are the communities of learning. If they are continued then, on a change of government, they will simply be swung back to the form and purpose originally envisaged by John Hattie and the Treasury. Quite simply, if schools want more money, a lot more money, for Maori and Pasifika education, special needs, Maori language, lower class ratios, and pay rises – then community of schools will need to be ended. The teacher organisations should be invited to poll their members.

(And re assessment: on a systems level that should be left to the Dunedin Monitoring Unit and a reconstituted NEMP; on a local, left to schools, on the approval of boards – what an opportunity for originality and exploration.)

A moment I’ll never forget: It was January 1989, Tomorrow’s Schools was imminent, and the radio was full of it. A Maori woman was being interviewed:

What do you think about Tomorrow’s Schools?

I don’t know what I think about it, but I do know it is the government’s last chance to really help Maori. I must trust it, but it is its last chance.

I could have cried because I knew, despite the efforts of Maori, they were going to be, at the very least, wasted years. I am determined that there be no more wasted years for Maori, Pasifika, or any other ethnicity.

I refuse to sit on my hands.

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Here we go on phonics again

Ros Lugg managing director of The Learning Staircase uses the PIRLS result, no doubt in a way that will feel utterly sincere to her, to stir up support for her highly structured and commercialised phonics programme, blaming teacher training for the deficiency. Which is suspiciously adroit in the way it avoids alienating her potential customers.


It seems these days that the only way you can guarantee having your views expressed in the media is to have a business-rewarding axe to grind in combination with a learning panic of some sort. It’s usually computers but here comes phonics again.

Ms Lugg, is of course, is wrong in every way but, in saying that, she is tactically clever in being a reasonably moderate voice. Her declared concern, as it always is with this agitating generation-to-generation phonics bloc (Tom Nicholson and Bill Tunmer won’t be far away), is the bottom group of learners. Oh how their hearts go out to them, but the odd thing is they rarely mention deprivation, squalor, disorder, and truancy. No give them phonics.

Other countries will be referred to by the phonics panic-group; countries who use a heavy programme of phonics and how they have done so much better than New Zealand. (Finland, by the way, which doesn’t use phonics is near the top in all results but is never referred to. Their lips are sealed on this one.) But all those countries have more money spent on classroom teaching, lower class ratios, more teacher aides, different school structures and entry ages, and above all, less inequality.

When New Zealand primary schools went into Tomorrow’s Schools we were top in reading, near the top in writing, and middling in mathematics. With Tomorrow’s Schools (irrespective of what Ms Lugg says) came increasingly heavy phonics imposed and policed by the education review office; this heavy use is recognised in a round-about way by people who want more phonics by them saying we want ‘a much more structured and research-based’ approach and the like.

It is so all so boring but oh so potentially devastating to children. I will have available in a few weeks a publication that goes into all this and much, much more.

One prediction I recorded in 1988 was that with Tomorrow’s Schools, primary school results will fall in all areas, especially in creativity, thinking, and the arts, but also in the 3Rs which both tragically and ironically, Tomorrow’s Schools was particularly supposed to lift. It was an impossible hope because disempowering teachers to the advantage of bureaucrats and quantitative experts, and punishing and deriding teacher knowledge to the advantage of absurdly named evidence-based knowledge, was sure to fail.

I want to make quite clear that there is considerable ‘evidence-based knowledge’, and in New Zealand universities, that supports my view – a view that most children need only a dusting of phonics with the emphasis being on children learning by storing words in the brain and using the characteristics implicit in those words to read. So please Ms Lugg, don’t use the expression ‘evidence-based’ as if it is entirely at the disposal of your bloc.

Now Ms Lugg, a word about children with dyslexia (by the way, I did agree with your 10 per cent estimation), I nearly wept at what I took from your brief reference to them. In my publication referred to above, is an article by an academic with deep dyslexia, who, in reading my articles on holistic reading, was drawn to set out in brilliant manner the nature of the proper response to dyslexia. I consider it definitive.

In the two crunch paragraphs he wrote:

I have used phonics-based learning as part of working with dyslexic learners because, certainly, phonemic awareness is an indispensable aspect of written language literacy. It would be utterly wrong to exclude phonemic awareness. But in the end, the process of literacy learning for a dyslexic person is indeed broadly the same as for any non-dyslexic person. And what is broadly the same is not narrow phonics but wide, supported literacy experience.

Instead of reducing all literacy learning matters to phonics, we must trust in the brain’s plasticity in the context of rich and properly focused, well supported language experience. An abundance of well-structured, personally highly meaningful written language experience – experience that takes proper account of whole language insights and works synthetically within the context of real, contextually relevant, reading and writing – the dyslexic brain will, over time, re-programme adequately and the experience of dyslexia will be ameliorated – though never ‘cured’. What is key is the close support of dyslexic learners as they struggle with the details of language in their acts of real reading and writing.

I have been going into schools in an official (or as now, semi-official) capacity for exactly 50 years, first, as a teachers college lecturer then as a senior inspector, now as an invited guest (no fee charged) and I have seen the grandeur of the stjcs of old who took a balanced approach slowly being pushed out by the review office, careless principals, and ruthless qualitative academics.

Another prediction of mine in 1988 was that the education right-wing won’t mind in the least their ideas failing because they know politicians and academics will ramp up the propaganda so that the same failed methods will just be imposed more formally and stringently.

So Ms Lugg, if primary schools are failing because a highly structured and formal phonics programme is needed, could you explain why mathematics will be in a tail spin and writing at the worst level ever?

The problem is not phonics but the structure of education, the deepening social inequality, and the destruction of teacher knowledge.

I am visiting a middle-size school in a Waikato country town as a school inspector. The principal is towards the end of his career and is quite content to run a settled school and to have an uneventful tenure. One thing, though, he greatly enjoys is helping children with their reading. Some of these children are slipping behind in their reading, in other words, potential candidates for reading recovery; others are failing readers. They come to his office on a regular basis, sometimes in small groups, sometimes on their own, to read to him. He is patient, kindly, and interested. No particular reading techniques are employed. The most you could say is that he gives them plenty of time to work out any word they are struggling with. Their reading takes wing with him. The results are outstanding but, to me, not surprising, because I have seen the phenomenon occur many times. If you put a child or a small group of children with a kindly, patient adult, regularly, and in a settled environment, there will be a remarkable improvement in reading. What is happening is reading by words, not parts of them, and in a highly conducive atmosphere. The moral is: When adults try out reading ideas in such circumstances, the variable that brings success is not any particular reading technique – it is the situation and environment. I call it the RPE – Retiring Principal Effect. This effect comes into play pretty much irrespective of other circumstances.

The following are some of the ideas I would discuss with teachers to set up a rich language environment:

Some children will need more phonics than others, but the overall aim should be sparing

One-to-one is magic, the programme detailed below is intended to free teachers to provide more of individual time to those who most need it

Reading, like written language, offers a straightforward way to set up independent learning in an emotionally supportive atmosphere

Reading in a developmental classroom provides children with many choices.

An important part of that choice comes from the arrangement of the physical environment:

There should be a snug, relaxing reading area

A lively class and school library

At all teaching levels there should be plenty of reading on the walls around the room.

Complementary with the organisation of the physical arrangement:

Should be the freedom to use it

Children should be able to use resources and to get out books and read them on their own initiative

If they are in doubt about the propriety of doing so, they could make a request on the request board

No templates and no written comprehension

Lively open-ended discussion and drama activities should predominate

And reading should be seen as an all-day activity or writing, or whatever (of course you will be keeping an eye on it all)

The term contract is used to describe an informal agreement between teachers and individual children for certain activities to be undertaken by the children at a time, and pace, that suits.

If reading is, indeed, a highly valued activity:

Then the freedom to read should have considerable precedence throughout the day

Of course, it is not absolute freedom of choice

But teachers should go out of their way to accommodate that choice.

In a threshold developmental reading programme, children should have considerable choice in the materials they read:

A central reading philosophy will be the ‘I can read’ developed so beautifully developed by stjcs – a gift

Younger children should choose their Ready to Read and supporting reading materials, and have an even wider choice in their independent reading

Older children should always have an independent reading book on hand

And teachers should make it their business to know what it is, and celebrate it when completed

They should challenge children: What book are you reading at the moment?

They should further challenge children by encouraging them to widen the scope of their reading.

There are plenty of other opportunities for choice in reading:

If thematic reading is being taken, children should choose from amongst a list of journals, bulletins, books, articles, and so on

For activities at the end of reading there should always be a choice

Children should never do worksheets, templates, book reviews, written analyses, written-question answering, unless they have chosen to do so.

Children’s reading is enriched by having the stimulus of other children’s ideas –

As a result there should be:

• Shared reading using enlarged print books or sets of books

• Language experience

• Story reading to children

• Thematic reading

• Drama

• Partner reading

• Interactive reading using computers

• Story reading from tapes

• Song and poetry reading

• Investigative reading (using reference books and other reading material)

• Reading material on display around the room (often associated with partner reading)

• Certain reading activities within context (cloze, alphabet, matching, and construction of sentences

• Own written language reading.

This variety of reading brings further opportunity for choice:

Children can choose to continue with an activity in preference to a subsequent activity suggested by the teacher

Or choose to do an activity produced on their initiative.

The concepts of print should occur throughout the reading programme in a contextual way:

There is a tendency for teachers to become overly involved in the ‘pathology’ of reading

That is, analysing and making moves to correct reading failure

If a child is undertaking reading recovery, the key is the support the child receives on his or her return to the classroom.

Children with dyslexia should be taught reading employing the same reading principles as for all children, that is in context and with meaning:

But there should be generous amounts of one-to-one reading with the same person and, compared with some other readers, more attention given to the parts of words

On the understanding that children with dyslexia should be taught holistically, children, if possible, should be taught reading within schools rather than through outside organisations (I know this can be very difficult to maintain given the meagre allocation of special teaching funding, but that would be the ideal).

The greatest challenge in reading is not to teach children to read, it is to get them to enjoy reading:

A major cause of children not enjoying reading is a lack of fluency in reading

And a major cause of a lack of fluency in reading is learning to read in a highly structured, rather than a holistic, naturalistic way

Notice that boys who tend to receive the most phonics and for longer, tend to be non-independent readers when they get to intermediate

Highly structured teaching is an impediment to reading fluency and enjoyment in the longer term

Teachers should focus children on clusters of words and their meanings

Rather than on single words and their insides.

The best way for children to build up letter-sound associations is by participating in a range of holistic, contextual reading language activities.

The best way to achieve a holistic, naturalistic approach to reading is to:

• Build on, and maintain the ‘I can read’ attitude to reading

• Make reading enjoyable

• Undertake letter-sound association and word study subtly

• Encourage independence in reading

• Allow reading to occur at most parts of the day

• Use a variety of reading materials and experiences: enlarged print, shared books, individual readers, writing of language, reading of own written language, songs, poems, comics, language experience, computers, word processors, and so on

• See language as something that occurs throughout the curriculum and the day

• Make reading a highly valued activity.

Women in primary school junior classrooms, the ones who have been the heart and soul of junior class reading for decades, have been diminished in status and spirit by the structures of Tomorrow’s Schools and in particular by phonics-focused academics as an outcome of the bitter and long-running phonics debate. These women are in an increasingly weakened professional situation, and vulnerable to any future undermining by politicians, the media, bureaucracy, education lobby groups, community pressures, and the effects of a changed emphasis in the training of teachers on some campuses. I call this group of teachers the ‘balanced reading’ group. The philosophical antecedents to balanced reading going back to Clarence Beeby.

There was no doubt in my mind that the battle over the teaching of reading was a battle for the one remaining curriculum area in which primary teachers still retained the edge in control. And, of course, within the structures and philosophy of Tomorrow’s Schools, the academics, bureaucrats, and right-wing politicians were always going to win. Phonics was one way academics could leverage their way into a direct say in what happens in schools – for phonics-focused academics, teachers having the edge in control over reading was akin to there being a power vacuum. Political and socially conservative groups also knew that reading, because of its importance to the public and the way emotions can be stirred, was a key to reducing confidence in teachers and their representatives, and to helping them gain dominance over education. As a result, from time-to-time, you will find phonics academics forming unofficial alliances with conservative elements to further the ambitions of both groups. Teachers, to retain what little they have, need to be on guard against the collusion between phonics-focused quantitatives, conservative politicians, and commercial companies to produce book and computer programmes – programmes always riven with flaws and rigidities. Holistic reading requires highly skilled teachers, in free interchange with other highly skilled teachers in close relationship with their school communities. But these teachers have been seriously reduced in number by the actions of the education review office, private consultancies, and submissive principals.

I am just so sick of this one. When is Labour going to get going and fill the vacuum? All the old primary school antagonists are pouring in: the education review office, right-wing politicians, commercial interests, the media, and quantitative academics.

Posted in Curriculum, Schooling, Teaching | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

A quiet pre-Christmas warning: We are in trouble

In 1988 I wrote a three-part series in which I predicted why primary school education was heading for trouble (which is about to be re-published); to live that warning, in 1990, I resigned at 51 years as senior inspector of schools, with a view to mitigating the harm of Tomorrow’s Schools and to preserve and keep alive the philosophy of education that is best for all children but especially children who come to school needing to build-up cultural capital.

Labour in recent decades has been hopeless with primary school education, that is because Labour, in being the party of education, thinks it knows (or even worse thinks NZEI knows), and that what is right will come naturally on assuming office. After all, how hard can it be? we are the party of education.

So things go in patterns.

Labour set up the education review office in 1990 to run education and they have ever since, with ministers only nominally in charge – the education review office turns out the same dramatically failed rubbish decades after decades, and Labour leaders, in the absence of any ideas of their own, follow along.

For instance, the review office has just put out a report on the ‘right way’ to teach reading, thus removing the chance of any other way of reading being permitted, it is not research, it is not progressive, it is just more bureaucratic propaganda. I’ve looked at other review office reading reports from over the years and there is no difference between those reports and the present one.

And while Labour drifts, the review office takes even further control; further ingratiates itself with the media and public, making it near impossible for Labour to bring in anything new, really new (not warmed up tripe), even if Labour got it into its head to do so.

The review office also comes up with the old education bureaucratic chestnut of teacher training being the problem. Teacher training is part of the problem because it is based to a T on the review office philosophy, that is on academics and ‘evidence-based truths’, and teaching to national standards (even if national standards are not there, to the inevitable substitute). And I see principals quoted as agreeing with the review office. But principals are on firmer ground in their blaming of national standards though I suggest they don’t push their luck because their reported national standards results went upwards, therefore in a decidedly different direction to PIRLS. How did that happen when PIRLS results dived? And if national standards were so terrible why did principals and NZEI go into a frenzy of support for CoLs for which national standards were their raison d’etre? And why are CoLs getting together to standardise how assessment will be taken? Are they utterly devoid of ideas?

The education iniquity of national standards is deeply entrenched, schools and teachers may give up national standards but still hold inflexibly to their associated practices (what else is there? is the seemingly quizzical response).

I do not believe in proscribing any particular philosophy or practice but I do believe in the free and open discussion and interaction of differing ideas.

A teacher came on the screen, obviously capable, but I disagreed with nearly everything she said. I say good on her and good on me; whatever, I don’t want bureaucrats proscribing who is right and whose ideas are forbidden, either hers or mine, I want the clash of idea freely expressed and undertaken.

For instance, the teacher said her children have learnt to read through phonics now they need to be taught to read to learn. I say children should learn to read what is meaningful and interesting to them from the start, even before they can read. And most children need a very light dusting of phonics because an emphasis on phonics is inefficient, problematic, and a beguilingly easy resort (though it can be something of a sugar rush), leaving a lasting ill-effect on children reading for meaning and interest in the long term. I believe children learn to read by storing whole words in their brain rather than piecing it together in bits as they go. And the idea of moving on to reading to learn is a destructive emphasis. It should be meaning and interest as ever. As well, I don’t believe in confusing reading with spelling. The teacher pointed out one particular year in which official records mandated a big learning jump – really? Is that good education child development. Look first at the child, to hell with the official.

This is all a hangover from the terrible education period of review office control of education, but now set to continue – the minister does not visit schools in rampant manner and hold principals’ career hostage pending sufficient signals of craven obeisance. It’s trumps to the review office: ministers come and go, but ha-ha, they hold all the cards.

There is a crisis in primary education, with all children, especially children from lower socio-economic levels, and affecting Maori and Pasifika children. But you wouldn’t know it with Labour. Where is the urgency? Where is the structural change? Where is the analysis of the disaster? (An analysis I have detailed for years in my posting.) Where is the vision? all fragmenting into trivia.

The thing is you cannot get Labour leaders to focus on the curriculum, to take it seriously in a real way.

When I personally challenged David Lange about the lack of direct attention to the curriculum and his hope for an imaginative one – he said it would flow from Tomorrow’s Schools structures. I pointed out to him that an imaginative curriculum was unlikely to come from the kind of structures established. Two years later he was reported as saying he was bewildered that the curriculum had not changed (it had, but for the worse). At a research conference, I bearded Phil Goff, associate education minister, as he walked across the quadrangle, he was trenchantly dismissive. When Brian Donovan (New Zealand First was in coalition with National) set up an inquiry into the review office mainly as a result of agitation through my magazine, but he was got at, and in facing the inquiry, my most virulent critic was Margaret Austin, a Labour mp (also, incidentally, Apryll Parata). Trevor Mallard was great friends with John Hattie, and Trevor, though a good guy was just intellectually and emotionally too much the man, to bend to primary to understand. And now Chris Hipkins, I know he thinks me wild and destructive … so it goes on. If Labour wants to help the groups it particularly wants to help, it won’t do so with timid nudges.

Schools are ineffably sensitive to any education system change. What appears the tiniest change at the top can multiply to severe dislocation for teachers and the curriculum at the bottom. In most Western countries, those in charge of education systems have devised a managerialist system of separating the administration of the education system and role of principal, from teachers and classroom practice. This is done by having those in administration inculcated in the values of the centre so that the values and purposes of schools don’t get in the way of the values and purposes of the centralised agencies. People are purposely chosen for administration on the basis of no experience in education, or no experience in that part of education, or being highly amenable to the centre’s values. From the centre’s view, this has the further advantage of desensitising those undertaking actions to the effect of those actions on schools, and of demeaning the value of the knowledge held in schools and the professionalism of those involved.

There is an urgent need for an holistic curriculum-driven leadership theory to be developed and advanced to challenge the managerialist-driven one. The managerialist leadership theory in education is about hierarchy of the sort that functions on the belief it knows; it knows how education works; how it can be organised and standardised into unproblematic and manageable parts; made utterly assured in its mission by the ideas of quantitative academics who also know. Curriculum-driven leadership is based on teacher knowledge, on commonsense through informed experience, on the value of variety in education, on education as part of life in a social democracy, on identifying the essences of curriculum areas, on a commitment to a broad-based curriculum, and on teaching and leadership being significantly an art.

The reality about principals and their knowledge of the curriculum was devastatingly and, in a way, inadvertently revealed in 2008 by the ministry publication, Kiwi Leadership for Principals, which said that most principals had lost touch with the curriculum even though (I would claim significantly ‘because’) they work 50 per cent harder than their overseas counterparts. This was entirely to be anticipated given the Tomorrow’s Schools’ stance that if principals got administrative systems right, the appropriate curriculum implementation would devolve from that. And an appropriate curriculum implementation did evolve from that – a curriculum appropriate to the way the bureaucracies worked, a way to make easier the way the bureaucracies worked, and a way to extend managerialism to schools. Unfortunately, it was a way that narrowed and reduced the curriculum for children. What took the place of a broad-based curriculum was the layering of classrooms and schools with measurable objectives: they were declared good by managerialists, just what the doctor ordered, what education should be about.

A crucial element of curriculum-driven leadership is establishing the essence of particular parts of the curriculum – the task for principals and teachers having discerned these is to believe in them and pursue their logic through to the implications for the administrative structures of schools. Leadership would, to a great extent, be the sum of those implications. For a broad-based curriculum, principals are central to the provision of contexts in which teachers will feel sufficiently free of constraints, and understood and supported enough, to teach in an imaginative and creative manner. Principals, however, in being drawn away from the curriculum, are increasingly vulnerable to challenging teachers administratively rather than where it matters, through the real curriculum. In curriculum-driven leadership, the challenge should come through an inspired view of the curriculum, not an unbalanced view of administration.

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A schoolwide science experience

I demanded of Shay Noonan, principal of Morrinsville School, that he write up one of his schoolwide science experiences as I knew they exemplified in practice the main elements of the holistic. The schoolwide science experiences, along with other kinds of experiences the school provides, are powerful examples of open education, calling on principles long established in New Zealand – timeless – therefore inappropriate to be called ‘modern’ or ‘21st century’ or automatically associated with the tools and architecture connected to those labels (though computers were lightly used). The schoolwide experiences, however, directly confront the present-day obsession with that almost invariably puny, fragmented, and thought-numbing practice of ‘inquiry’ learning.

Show me the science

What started out as a discussion at a board of trustees meeting on the topic of sugary drinks and healthy drinking, evolved into a range of diverse science experiences for our children.

At the subsequent staff meeting I asked teachers to give consideration to creating a set of activities to help children explore ideas about the school’s drinking fountains.

I knew there was a possibility that it would veer off to a language experience rather than a science one.

But my catch cry in response, as ever, would be ‘show me the science’.

Teachers were asked to identify the science in children’s activities. To frame a viewpoint, teachers informally collaborated within their teams, or with colleagues, to identify science elements within potential activities the children might engage in. Teachers came up with ideas like children gathering information; sharing their ideas; interpreting what they were observing; surmising about things they observe, intuit, hear, smell, touch, and taste.

The expectation was that children would make their own suggestions about how to undertake their observations; make up stories about what they had observed; and work out ways of telling those to others.

And so it began.

There they were, children, including five-year-olds, determinedly setting out on walkabouts to find, reflect on, and tally drinking fountains.

In other words, as scientists they were observing and finding out.

The children shared their ideas first in groups, then in their class; made up charts; summarised observations; explained the observations and summaries; and acknowledged what still puzzled them about fountains and needed to find out.

Three five-year-old junior classrooms worked together and produced a video about where they thought the water came from, how it got into the taps, and what they found good and bad about the fountains.

The usability of the fountains became an issue.

It was interesting to see the children working in pairs or threes, chatting away about fountains, and what worked for them, and what didn’t, for instance, being able reach the top of the fountain to get a drink, or press the water button down hard enough to get more than a dribble.

The three five-year-old scientists were using the evidence they produced, that is photographs and videos of themselves using the fountains, to demonstrate the deficiencies as far as they were concerned.

The teachers shared amongst themselves their view of how the children were responding. The immediateness of the study, they agreed, was compelling to the children, allowing teachers to gain regular and open access to children’s personalities, behaviours, and thought patterns.

When the y. 6-y. 8 children explored the drinking fountains their engagement was based on questions they collectively built up in class such as ‘why do some of the fountains give you more water than others?’, ‘how can we find out which are the best drinking fountains?’, ‘how will we know?’, ‘how will we find out?’.

These kinds of questions produced an array of random, potentially fruitful, responses.

The y. 7-y. 8 children with typical ebullience decided all this was no problem for them, they would just measure the water when they pressed the fountain button.  But then they discovered they had to find ways of measuring that made sense. After a time they came to a conclusion that they had to be able to compare the water they gathered from all the drinking fountains.  What the teachers noticed was that as one solution was proposed, further obstacles were created that had to be overcome. This was genuine science.

Direct teacher interventions occurred in maths activities with volume and measurement.  Some children suggested turning on each fountain for a set time then making comparisons.  This led to further discussion, even argument, as the children tried to work out a manageable way.

It was noticeable at this stage that certain children’s expertise or knowledge formed the basis for others to take on to help in solving their problem, for instance, two children working together told the class that they were going to collect water, time themselves for 30 seconds, and then measure the amount of water they had in their container from the drinking fountain.  They subsequently found this solution inadequate because they had to adjust the size of the container, sort out their timing with the stopwatch, and then there was the small amount of water for the effort.

Some other children suggested they needed five minutes collecting the water from each of the taps.  Others thought that that would take too long and so the problem was tossed about among them. The eureka moment was when one girl suggested they collect the water for 30 seconds and then work out what that would be over five minutes.  This fitted in with the work they had recently done on rate, ratio, and proportion in their maths work.  The idea was cottoned on to and the class, working in pairs, collected their samples from all drinking fountains, measured them, and drew up charts for what fountains produced for five minutes based on the button being held down for 30 seconds.

Each pair worked on their charts and shared the results. They were gratified to find that most of the collected figures were consistent across their records for the nine fountains; also which were the better producers or not, or as one of the juniors said ‘two of the fountains were pakaru’.

The older children not only engaged in gathering and interpreting their data and using evidence to support their ideas, they critiqued the evidence with evermore critical eyes. They checked their results for reliability, asking each other questions about whether other groups were getting similar results to theirs. With these older children, the knowledge they established within the collaborative environment of the groups, was willingly shared to support each other in their solutions.

The experts were sitting someplace else in the room and they were not the teachers.

The y. 5 class got excited about measuring a ‘metre  container’.  They explained they wanted to make a big container to collect water and someone said a ‘metre one would be big’.  The question they had for their expert (whom their teacher suggested they needed) was how to get the metre measurement of water.

At the same time, the y. 7-y. 8 children were working on the cost of water charged by the local council ($1.28 per cubic metre).  The class had constructed from metre rulers a cubic metre.  In this way, the y. 8s became the experts and assisted the y. 5s to develop the concept of a cubic metre of water.

The thrill factor was evident as the y. 5s built their own cubic metre.  They also spent time seeing how many of their classmates could stand inside one.  But ‘how much water would this hold?’ was the question of the moment.

The y. 7-y. 8s and some y. 6s worked on how many litres fitted into a cubic metre.  A maths lesson was sustained for few days as they figured out ideas like the spoon used for medicine – 5 mls; the drink bottle – 300 mls; the 2 litre bottle of milk; and the mls-litre relationship – eventually talking about how many litres it would take to fill their cubic metre if it had sides on or was made of metal or plastic.

A group, had a moment of gigantism, and wondered what the swimming pool would hold.

The juniors mapped how they thought the water system worked in the school.

The y. 5s once again borrowed ideas from the y. 7-y. 8s and worked on the line of the underground water pipes.  Some pairs went as far as measuring the length of the line or, in the plumber’s explanation, the underground water pipes which he had laid ten years previously.  They used and followed the water line maps the y. 7-y. 8s had created for themselves.

The visit of the plumber stimulated a lot of questions, of which he was selective in answering: which way does the water travel? where does it comes from? can it go uphill? can it be made to? how is it made healthy? why does the water come out fast or slow? how big are the pipes? how did the council know how much water the school used? what happens if there are leaks? does the school have to pay? the questions kept coming.

Some classes visited the toby or point of entry for the water.  They saw the water counter clicking over as water flowed through the pipe.  They then split up and turned on some outside taps to see if the counter went faster.

One of my great memories was lifting the toby cover and observing the excitement generated amongst the children as they surveyed what lay below, and the animated questions and discussion that followed. I was relegated to that most admirable of teaching situations, redundant to children’s interested chat amongst themselves.

The toby investigation opened up new research possibilities about the school’s drinking water and water reticulation in general.

When we returned to the room, the children’s attention having been focused on getting ‘to know’, now turned to explaining it to others in other rooms. In response, ideas abounded about how water pressure was created and works.  Questions often remained unresolved though the curiosity remained.  Some explanations were not particularly accurate but they served the purpose of moderating and satisfying the children’s thinking, allowing them to move on.

‘The water is collected up the hill and flows down the high pipes and flows out the tap when you turn it on’ … ‘What does that mean?’ ‘What?’ ‘Turn it on? ‘You just turn it on …’ with a look of ‘What’s wrong with you? Don’t you get it?’ ‘But what do you mean?’ and off they went again.

Others suggested further explanations for pressure, ‘We use a pump on my dad’s farm …’ ‘What do you do?’  ‘The pump takes the water to the paddock.’  Another child tunes in ‘It pushes it from the river …’ ‘So is that what happens here?’ another one asked.  ‘We don’t have a pump,’ someone remarked.

These snippets would hardly make sense outside the social context of the science being learned.  It was situational ‘good oil’.

What followed were mini-experiments with water in a jar and a tube … bird feeder (water).  Question: ‘How come all the water doesn’t come out?’

It would be difficult to plan for any of this I thought as I watched what was going on during these encounters [Shay teaches mathematics or science every day].  There were times when children became frustrated with either trying to find information or how to turn a problem into mathematics, for instance, tracking the underground water pipe lines and figuring out their actual length.  Finding the solution to this question resulted in them seeking information from a group of children in another room who had just completed the same kind of activity.  The older children thought it would be interesting to know in more detail about the layout of the pipes so that they could locate on their map of the school where exactly they wanted the new drinking fountains placed.

Classes were tasked with identifying possible options for improving the school’s water fountains.  The designs for this were creative and in some cases radical but they were an indication of how the children’s imaginations had been stimulated. The children also accessed their chromebooks to extend their ideas about various drinking fountains found around New Zealand.

The younger children were particularly fond of their designs.

‘Show me the science’ – in answer I saw it in the final designs the children were making, in the gathering and interpreting information, pictures, websites and, above all, in the evidence they had gained in a science way (observing, thinking, and weighing things up). I also saw it in their ideas for designs, and asking each other how do these work, that is, deliver water?

I am reminded of the five-year-olds who made numerous trips around the school assessing the drinking fountains and recording their ideas on charts.  I saw children working on improving their investigations particularly in identifying which fountains they were retaining and which to remove.  These children did not just surmise or guess but designed a scientific approach to measuring the effectiveness of the drinking fountains.  They developed their own research processes, building on the information they had gained, and demonstrating that they knew what it meant to organise a scientific test and to report on it.

The language that they used demonstrated connections within the language of the investigation.  They drew up lists of key words associated with the idea of water and drinking fountains and were heard using them during their discussions.  They were able to communicate their observations to each other and to explain their diagrams and representations of what they were doing.

It was all very noisy, very messy, but very exciting.

My intention was to provide an opportunity and context where children could engage to make connections with science in their environment, to learn how science activity affects life, indeed their life. I delighted in the idea that that in the process of undertaking this science, the children were keenly telling their parents what they were doing, why they were doing it, and the ambitions they had for the outcome.

Posted in Curriculum | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Jacinda: Labour’s school education reforms look set to fail


Other than the abolition of national standards, the last time I heard anything hopeful and inspiring about Labour’s school education reforms was when you said that creativity and imagination was about to return to schools.

Your minister of education categorically failed in the lead-up to the election to explain how and why New Zealand school education was in difficulty. He will think I’m picking on him, but I’m not, I’m pointing out stark reality. I have waited and pressed for this political opportunity for decades and Labour is fumbling it.



Politics is about politics, even, indeed especially, the politics of education. And by politics I don’t mean lying or exaggerating, I mean putting previous governments to honest but searching scrutiny. Where was the intensity and passion?

School education, especially primary school education, is in a spiral: where has been analysis of Maori and Pasifika achievement? Education is Labour’s nominated partner-in-solution to poverty (along with improved income) but it is a faltering one.

You are right, the outlook on creativity and imagination is a desiccated one.  And under the previous government, in the basics, their supposed priority, primary schools slipped to the bottom of the Western world. But only a fainthearted peep here and there from Chris Hipkins. He was, I think, concerned about offending the teacher organisations.

Chris Hipkins should have been out there kicking up merry hell but he is utterly unable to do so, his personality, it seems, won’t permit it, perhaps he doesn’t feel the pain – he much prefers the cosy world of the teacher organisations.

The abolition of national standards was well accepted but their abolition did not have a dynamic impact because no context had been or was provided.

But I don’t want to dwell on that calamitous lack of a critical contextual launching pad for Labour’s reforms.

The announcement of the abolition of national standards came and went; followed by bits and pieces: one of those bits and pieces being when children can begin schooling (and fair enough) but where was the accompanying persuasive laying out of the argument for the return to long-established practice? Then the minister of education felt it incumbent to say schools can continue with national standards if the feel they want to – I agree – but why bring it up? Then there was a titbit about NCEA. All this and more is an ominous augury for what is to come.

Where is the overall strategy to go with the key reform of the abolition of national standards? Most teachers and principals have only experienced the paralysing hold of the review office and national standards. They are being abandoned. They need both practical and inspirational help to lift themselves out of the curriculum rut.

The overall strategy for Labour to follow is not difficult to establish: it is locate the key neoliberal educational policies and change them to democratic and progressive ones.

By definition, neoliberal education policies cannot be good for children or democracy, so Labour should track the main neoliberal drivers and replace them.

In this respect, above all, the review process must be restructured with each team for a school visit comprising a permanent member and principals and teachers trained for the purpose. You cannot have creativity and imagination fostered if the present personnel and the present review practices are persisted with.

The review process should also be brought into the ministry – separating policy function from the review one is pure neoliberalism.

A sharing of the control of knowledge is central.

Where are the advisory teams of top-notch creative teachers attached to universities? Surely Labour is not relying on those purveyors of commodified knowledge – the private companies?

The major teacher organisations are important in this. I know this might seem at odds with my warnings about Labour getting too close to the teacher organisations, but they are what we have and, who knows, their open involvement in curriculum policy might be formative for them and eventually beneficial to education.

A monopoly of education knowledge by bureaucrats and selected academics must be ended and university appointments and courses changed.

Communities of Learning, which originated with John Hattie and Treasury, were clearly being converted to neoliberal purposes (and will be again if Labour doesn’t act decisively); Labour must bite the bullet and abandon them or scale them down mightily, with the money saved being spent on drama and arts specialists working amongst a designated group of schools, also Maori and Pasifika languages, mathematics and science. (Teacher aides and children with special needs must also be a priority).

In a sense, it is not too late to rescue the reforms, but in contemplating the record and personality of the minister of education, it looks near hopeless. This warning, I know, will be dismissed as the declarations of a noisy, uncompromising commentator; while that may, indeed, be my personality, I invite my critics to contemplate my record.

Posted in Education Policy, Political | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Laura Walters and Simon Collins: wayward and biased reporting

Laura Walters should give up altogether, her writing spirals unobstructed by any semblance of originality below that which an intelligent 15 year-old could produce – there is a breathless, girl’s adventure quality to her writing, a hugely misplaced confidence, demonstrating a lack of any apprehension of the dross she is producing. Her scrap (article would dignify the writing seriously beyond its worth) is based on bits-and-pieces she has picked up from newspaper headlines and put together in a mishmash to ludicrous effect.

She is Hub writer for Stuff.


To compare this rubbish to what you can get from any writer listed on Public Address is to make clear its Lilliputian worth.

Simon Collins – a respected senior journalist for the NZ Herald – is setting out on a weird course in his writing on education. I track him.

In a posting to come later I will describe that in my living memory, no writer, no permanent TV or radio commentator or interviewer (no, not even Kim Hill, Katherine Ryan, or John Gerritsen – worthy as they may be) has ever demonstrated a genuine understanding of primary education. The closest anyone has come is Kirsty Johnston of the NZ Herald, not so much with her dazzling ‘Under the Bridge’ series but when she came close to the real thing in her exposure of relationships between the ministry and education review office. After a tactical pause (or so it seemed to me), the Herald editors acted on their long-established education line and pulled the carpet from under her (accomplished with the utmost consideration I’m sure), to be replaced by Simon Collins who, though a respected writer on social issues, is a considerably unreliable one on education.

(There might be some who think Brian Bruce’s documentaries demonstrate the qualities I’m looking for, but I categorise them as I categorise ‘Under the Bridge’. Heart in the right place, instincts good, but presentations that go straight for big feelings and big ideas, instead of working surely towards them, invariably go off track.)

But how could media people know anything on education, relying as they do on an ‘understanding’ gleaned from their own experiences, prejudices, other media opinion and headlines and, above all, on official releases. Under National, nothing emanating from the ministry leadership or the swollen ministry media section, leaving aside the copious straight lying or deception, was, in fact, ever straight, most of it vulnerable to exposure from the most cursory of examinations, but reporters are so uncaring, so lazy, so biased, or affected by concerns for vocational security, that nearly all media releases, leaving aside the occasional routine other comment, are left undisturbed. The rationalisation might be, an intention to return to the matter, but that doesn’t do because first and official word wins. The profound problem is that in the media, serious attention to school education rarely occurs and when it does, it begins with secondary, yet by the time children get to secondary the die has been cast (which is why secondary teachers in a mixture of humanity and career protection, blatantly and universally, falsify and fudge NCEA). Whenever has any media person shown any signs of searching for the reality of primary education with an attitude that there is something deeply significant to know, that reality won’t come easily, that a strenuous humility is required, that academics don’t know (only isolated bits of it), and that that reality, if uncovered, might well be antithetical to their existing beliefs, therefore susceptible to the bane of primary school education, a resort to academic last word.

The media, in education, display their shallowness in the wild fluctuations in directions, for instance, when Simon Collins finally got round to a recognition (though timorous) that internal NCEA does, indeed, put pressure on teachers to manipulate nearly all students through – the next day he presents, in a feature article, an example of inspirational teaching of a principal displaying the photographs of a number of children he wants teachers to put an ‘extra effort’ into passing.

To put together her mishmash, Laura Walters introduces it with the callow sentences ‘Walking the fine line between principles and pragmatism can cause governments to become hypocrites. Seems it’s much easier to talk the line in opposition than walk the talk in government.’

I’m not going to waste my time on the rubbish assemblage of ‘examples’ Laura Walters chooses, but in introducing her choices for hypocrisy she does not, of course, refer to any of the numerous exceptions to such ‘hypocrisy’, for instance, the ban on non-residents buying houses in New Zealand, even though National said it couldn’t be done.

To accuse Jacinda Ardern and the Labour government of hypocrisy just doesn’t fit and if Laura Walters stood back from her breathlessness, even for a moment, she would recognise that.

But it is on her education example for Labour hypocrisy I want to concentrate.

Labour was hypocritical she implies in that ‘One of Labour’s flagship education policies during the campaign was to promise to scrap National Standards.’ And now it was saying, she exulted, that ‘schools could continue to use them’. This she pronounces is ‘a big U-turn’.

National standards she reports ‘are highly unpopular with the unions, and teachers who feel the administrative workload impede on their classroom time and teaching.’

‘They’ve also been called simplistic, and focus on literacy and numeracy …’

But Laura Walters avers ‘… parents like National Standards – they give them insight into their child’s progress: they set a clear measure, and the updates come twice a year.’

When reporting on what the unions and teachers had said about national standards, it was what teachers and unions said – when it came to parents, Laura Walters is rampantly decisive on their behalf: national standards ‘gave insight into their child’s progress’; and ‘set a clear measure’. Has our junior reporter (surely so) run a poll of primary school parents or had access to such a poll?

(I’m not saying the word union can or should be avoided but any reference to teacher unions is often motivated by, and plays on, a deep-seated political and community prejudice – a prejudice unrelentingly embedded by the major newspapers over decades and fervently picked up on and cruelly developed by neoliberal advocates.)

Before becoming a seer on primary school characteristics and structures, I assume Laura Walters had knowledge of, and therefore took into account, the work of the government-funded Dunedin Monitoring Unit which has found that national standards reported results were 15-20 per cent above the results reported by the Unit.

And during the time of national standards, this assiduous burrower for the truth would have found that New Zealand has slipped from near or at the top to at or near the bottom of the Western world.

‘… and the updates come twice a year’ – oh happy days and the birds atweeting.

In discussing national standards, reporters like Laura Walters, through ignorance or caring more for their story than the truth, approach them as if they had no past – which slews the facts of the matter – because their past is one of abject failure in the validity of their measurement, destruction of New Zealand’s international standing, and wreaking of considerable harm on children, especially the most vulnerable.

But you have, I know, already worked out, the mistake our breathless reporter has made.

Laura what are we discussing? yes national standards. How many words in the label, national standards? yes, two. Worked it out yet?

Oh well, I will continue.

Chris Hipkins, in referring to school assessment, is reported as saying ‘What tools (schools) use to do that is up to them.’

Our reporter then triumphantly announces that this ‘appeared to be a big U-turn for Labour’.

If you put the adjective ‘big’ in front of ‘U-turn’ then the use of ‘appeared to be’ must surely be inappropriate.

Laura, Laura, as was sung in Pinafore:

‘Things are seldom what they seem,
Skim milk masquerades as cream’.

Under national standards Laura, did schools have a choice?

From now on they will.

So you see Laura, they are not national – they are simply something a school has decided to continue.

Will the media feast on the results of the handful of schools that continue to use those standards?

Of course they won’t because they aren’t national therefore can’t be compared (actually because of high stakes inflation they were never validly able to be anyway).

Will the education review office insist on studying those standards to the exclusion of even entering classrooms (as has become the practice)?

With the high stakes national standards gone, will those schools feel the inclination to inflate the results?

Will those schools feel the pressure to let children know after a few months at school that they are below standard?

Will schools neglect children well below the standard and well above the standard to concentrate on those round-about it?

Will those schools feel the overwhelming pressure to neglect creativity and imagination in their teaching?

Spot any differences Laura?

Enough with Laura Walters, now for Simon Collins who seems to have succumbed to the Herald’s long-established use of Auckland Grammar as the education yardstick?

My concern with Simon Collins is not an overall bias, on social policy he is sound, a soft, diffuse style, perhaps, but studiedly fair; it is in education that I have found him seriously wanting.  I believe the Herald editors delight in their obscurantism in relation to primary schools. For decades they carried attacks on the imaginative, differentiated teaching philosophy established by Clarence Beeby and Peter Fraser and which, despite the Herald (including Minhinnick), was to carry New Zealand to the top of the primary school education world.

I refer first to ‘Election Policy series’ and headed ‘Can we trust teachers?’


So according to Simon Collins the issue is not can we trust parents but can we trust teachers? Really? – my query is moot given the spotty record of boards of trustees.

It is not can we trust politicians? Really? – moot again given the undemocratic way Labour forced Tomorrow’s Schools on the system and the nine years of undemocratic National government in which never a straight answer was given.

It is not can we trust bureaucrats? Really? – moot once again because they have entangled education and made it the misshapen mess it is.

The implication in Simon Collins’ headline, is given the scintillating education success of the last 27 years can we risk moving away from trust in boards, politicians, and bureaucrats to giving teachers more freedom.

I move now to the Simon Collins’ article headed ‘Labour’s education plans revealed’.


Simon Collins has a clever way of obscuring New Zealand’s school failure: instead of saying we are near or at the bottom of the Western world, he fudges:

‘Surveys show that our average 15-year-olds out-perform the global median, although we have been slipping from near the top towards the middle of the pack.’

Oh great, we need more of that.

However, of the international tests that cover national standards nary a mention.

This can’t be by accident.

This article overall is wandering and indecisive. Simon Collins’ heart is not in it.

The wonder is, Simon, who, in a social issues context, writes so sincerely about the effect of child poverty on education, meanders and loses focus when it comes to writing about primary school education.

He outdoes himself with his vox populi – but in being only one person, perhaps it should be vox personam.

I hope you are sitting not standing for the next one.

‘Axing national standards may be unpopular with parents. A Herald poll [now wait for it] when the standards were introduced in 2010 found that 73 per cent of parents with school-age children supported them.

Did I read 2010? Yes, you did. I remember the poll it was a swizz at the time and a swizz maximal now.

Simon Collins resorts to a 2010 poll which was held amidst furious support by the Herald, and intense propaganda by the government. Of course it was bound to get a majority, why wouldn’t it sound OK to a significant number of parents? But education decision-making by newspaper polls and government propaganda is no way to run an education system. But then as Simon asks – can teachers be trusted? Better to cut teachers out of it and let children take the brunt of it when things don’t work out. Did you pick up the result Simon, bottom or near the bottom in the Western world in international testing and children ill-prepared to succeed validly at secondary? Simon, that’s your Herald, your poll, and you.

The difficulty with reporters like Laura and Simon, and just about all the rest, is a lack of awareness of how unknowing they are. If I tried to communicate with them, they would dismiss it as moonshine; after all, they would think, how complicated can primary teaching be? and, in a way, they are right, their picture of primary teaching is uncomplicated, perhaps a bit messy at base, but given the right steer, not difficult to find their way through. They are wrong: effective and inspired teaching that sets children up to succeed in a democracy, and be prepared to defend it, requires a network of relationships of infinite sensitivity, involving striving and caring children, and a  teacher working in harmonious collaboration with all concerned. But with wayward and biased items like Simons’ and Laura’s, what hope do children have? If we had media possessed of an understanding of, and a respect for, primary education, we could have an education system that in its own way excelled in the manner of Finland. Instead, it’s a kind of generational dog fight to be able to do something for all children, but especially those who need it most.

Posted in Media | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A threshold timetable Part 4 – Mathematics and Conclusion

National standards have gone, but how will schools react, will it just be much the same but minus official national standards? will there be much scratching of heads? or will it be a return to holistic values, our education cultural heritage?

Some will express concern about a fall in standards occurring; others will know that standards have already fallen (as the inevitable effect of that imposition of standards). 

On the narrow measurement of standards in international tests, even though we moved our programmes to focus on those narrow standards, New Zealand is at or near the bottom of the Western world – so it is because. High stakes inflation has worked to mask New Zealand’s true performance. The Dunedin Monitoring Unit, for instance, has our true results and that is around 20 per cent lower than our reported ones.

The holistic, based on a broad, rich, and informal programme, had its origins in the Beeby-Fraser period led by New Zealand’s senior teacher of junior classes. As a result of neuroscience, what New Zealand’s educationists knew about education then, has moved to be proved scientifically now; neuroscience has proved that a narrow, formal programme reduces a part of the brain and, in some children, makes them highly resistant to learning (children likely to be heavily represented in lower-socio-economic groupings); and a broad, rich, informal programme expands part of the brain making children highly receptive to learning.

(Please note: in three weeks my holistic publication – The File – will be available for purchase. It will include amongst other things a detailed description of two teachers and their holistic programme, one junior, the other senior).

About the threshold timetable

These are the expanded notes I used as I travelled the country after I had left the education system in 1990 to put forward a simple framework to encourage and enable teachers to get on to the holistic continuum. They are largely pre-computer times so, for today’s programmes, teachers would have to insert useful computer work into the various parts of the programme. These are not necessarily sophisticated curriculum ideas because the main intention is to get teachers and children going on a timetable that flows and provides children with the choice as to when, where, and how they undertake learning. Large numbers of teachers used this threshold timetable as a starting point then proceeded from there at a pace and direction that suited them and the children. 

Some key points 

  1. Once you have stepped over the threshold of the holistic, what is suggested, and what you devise, should be considered moves along the holistic continuum
  2. You do not need a modern learning environment (as commonly understood) to develop a broad, rich, and informal programme (far from it)
  3. You need to work within the realities of your situation – realities such as the degree of freedom likely to be afforded by your principal and senior teachers; your curriculum understandings, abilities, and personality; and where your children are
  4. A key part of a threshold timetable is the generative effect of timetable blocking
  5. The timetable, from time-to-time, should be blocked for all parts of the curriculum including mathematics, ways to use the computer, Maori language, and physical education activities
  6. The holistic continuum is characterised by choice, productive choice
  7. A key way to generate productive choice within the overall programme is using timetable blocking
  8. In art, for instance, children should have days developing knowledge about printmaking, clay, painting, and so on, to enable them subsequently to make productive and varied choices
  9. Choice does not mean fragmentation of learning: when children do science blocking in preparation for choice, the emphasis should be on the main values of science, that is curiosity, hypothesising, and honest investigation; this can be done informally or formally – an observant teacher can soon detect that a child has resorted to google 
  10. In social studies blocking, cohesiveness should be sought by children gaining ideas that get them close to the lives of people and, in the process, discovering that people have similar basic needs but different ways of meeting them, and by that means establishing a bond of humanity with the people being studied (refer to the techniques of the ‘feeling for’ approach)
  11. Blocking for drama should establish the need for sincerity and concentration, also the various drama techniques, as way for children in the choice programme to prepare honest drama for everyday presentation. 


In the context of a discussion on developmental, a threshold timetable is one which places teachers conceptually on the developmental continuum. This writing is not intended as a deep discourse on curriculum areas but a way of encouraging teachers to make key curriculum decisions, and a timetable to suit, based on the holistic philosophy.

Developmental is the holistic in classroom practice – in another discussion, the whole school education system could be discussed in relation to the holistic, as Peter Fraser did with his main aim – but it is learning in classrooms that is addressed here; the holistic being teaching and learning organised by dynamic aims that are a combination of the cognitive and affective. An outcome of this is that evaluation occurs using criteria not objectives, meaning the dynamic main aim is systematically supported as the unifying driving force for teaching and learning, a single main aim for a curriculum area or an integration of areas (but care has to be taken with this last). A dynamic main aim is a main aim that has a powerful, unified, though discriminating effect, on teaching and learning. For instance, in expressive writing, a main aim could be writing with sincerity – dependent matters occurring in the course of pursuing that main aim then expressed as criteria – if they are not dependent then they should be omitted. A dynamic main aim is powerful in guiding what should be both included and excluded. (In reading, a main aim could be children becoming independent readers; or in mathematics, children’s ability and willingness to solve mathematical problems.)

For the teacher, developmental is a state of mind, that once held allows the teacher to go in many directions but unified in overall effect by the holistic philosophy.


Shortly after lunch, perhaps following a story read by the teacher, could come mathematics.

An organisational practice has taken hold involving the streaming of children and their resulting movement to different classrooms.

Such a practice is disruptive, status confirming (winners and losers), and a cause of isolating maths from the rest of a class’s programmes.

The contrary should be the practice, with children socially grouped for mathematics based on problem-solving possessing gradients of difficulty allowing children of all abilities initial entry.

A particular challenge comes from the nature of the curriculum area:

It seems to encourage overly structured responses from those who develop textbooks and programmes of work for teachers

Textbooks, templates, worksheets, and mathematical programmes developed, often seem to be based on the idea that the sum total of a number of small steps will lead to satisfactory overall understanding

However, it doesn’t, it leads, at best, to a satisfactory understanding of a number of small steps

What can be theoretically logical on paper can be educationally illogical for children

The overly structured response to the nature of the curriculum area often leads to mathematics becoming a learning of mathematical labels rather than an understanding of the meanings they encompass

As well, it tends to encourage teachers to become dominant in proceedings, which results in children being unable to see the mathematical rules for the explanations.

A further challenge becomes evident when the nature and practice of mathematics is compared with the nature and practice of reading:

To start with, but as an aside, nearly all teachers are enthusiastic about meaning expressed in words

Far fewer about meaning expressed in algorithms

More particularly, compared to mathematics, reading, as a curriculum activity, has far fewer major concepts inherent in it

As well, reading concepts are strongly and clearly interrelated

This means that when children read a book they are learning all the reading concepts in a cohesive way, all the time

Cohesiveness is further added by the nature of the basic reading resource – the book

The purpose of a book is obvious, it can be immediately attractive, and is easily obtained, stored, and carried around

And when it goes home, it can be readily understood and supported by parents.

What then should teachers interested in a threshold timetable do in mathematics?

To start with, teachers should recognise that children fail in mathematics not because of a lack of competence in the mechanics, but a lack of understanding of the big ideas

The emphasis, as a result, should be on discovery and understanding

Next, teachers should take more control of their mathematics programmes, the syllabuses, textbooks, and other resources

From there, using a few major concepts, they should reorganise their mathematics to make mathematics more interrelated.

It would give more scope for:

  • Exploration and discovery
  • Problem-solving
  • Children to find their level
  • Understanding to be developed and extended
  • Learning cohesiveness
  • Children’s weaknesses to be exposed and corrected
  • Learning to be related to the everyday world
  • Groups typically disadvantaged in mathematics to perform better
  • Mathematics to be a way of viewing and explain their world, rather than just something that is done at school, at a particular time.

In mathematics, as for all curriculum areas, but often overlooked in mathematics, a key is the open-ended discussion, with the children being challenged, being invited to hypothesise, but not being told, and then, with interest high, going off to contemplate, explore, and finally to make decisions.

As an ideal, and along the developmental continuum, mathematics should occur during most of the day as it does in reading:

Children, for instance, could have individual maths boxes (or storage places) in the way children have individual reading boxes in junior classes, with resources organised around mathematical big ideas selected by teachers.

When an idea is being studied, children should use a variety of experiences and approaches in their activities:

Children should, as much as possible, choose their mathematics activity

Often this would be done within a designated range

These activities, problem-based in nature, could be on task-cards, on charts, in parts of books, on display tables, and inherent in materials.

In mathematics there is a step beyond using basic ideas for organising programmes:

That step is made by basing programmes on problems, situations, and themes.

As part of learning, children should develop learning activities for themselves and other children:

For instance, they could be asked as part of homework to find a mathematical situation from everyday life and then work it through. This situation could then be written up on newsprint sheets as a problem for other children to do

Games and puzzles should be an important part of mathematical learning.

On a regular basis, say once a fortnight, mathematics could run for a good part of the day, for instance, from morning play onwards:

Teachers should be alert for learning opportunities that occur throughout the day.

To help them in this, they could draw up a list with an introduction saying:

We are learning mathematics when …

Children should be reminded that in classroom practice, as described above, there are times when rather than working with the rest of the class in another curriculum activity, they can pursue, for instance, mathematics (what a marvellous signal about that child and your teaching).

Teachers should use the choice time to challenge children in mathematics, to encourage creativity, and to meet individual needs:

Teachers should regularly sit beside children and talk with them about mathematics

Indeed, they might develop a list of questions and activities which would act as a kind of mathematics running record

Children might develop newsprint booklets for younger children and do a form of partner (or buddy) mathematics with them

Alternatively the partner might simply use younger children’s current mathematics books for discussion

Children should be able to read mathematics around the room – it should ‘speak’ to children from the walls.


As has been discussed above, there is a centrality to the function of the threshold timetable and that is to regularly block the timetable so that curriculum areas can be pursued intensively in the interests of further child choice and learning depth.

All curriculum areas benefit from timetable blocking: mathematics, health, Maori language and culture, music, computers, and physical education, as well as science, art, language, and social studies.

Timetable blocking encourages:

  • Programme flexibility
  • Innovation and creativity
  • Learning depth and coherence
  • Children’s control of learning
  • Programme individualisation
  • Authenticity and variety in child choice.

Blocking needn’t always be planned for, it will sometimes occur out of circumstances, for instance, teachers may see children so well involved that they decide to let matters run. It can occur at key times to build-up or sustain programme momentum. These times will often be at the early stages of topics, but they can also be near the end as a way of weaving together various learning strands.

At a basic level, the threshold timetable is a way to free teachers and children from the stop-start, teacher direction emphasis often typical of classrooms. Such a process becomes a career-defining behaviour for teachers and a routine series of little commotions and minor hectoring for children.

At a practical level, the threshold timetable provides children with more control over what they do and more continuity in doing it. At a fundamental level, it can free teaching and learning to consummate process and transcendent outcome.

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