Independent advice and Stuart McNaughton an oxymoron

The state of knowledge in school education and the role of academics in our governance is characterised by John Hattie being the academic star in both New Zealand and Australia. His research, and I say this quietly, is very much not what it seems or what he declares it to be. It falls just short of academic fraud (but not of trickery) because scattered throughout his research are little disclaimers in small print, as it were. He will make a quick comment, for instance, that his research is not drawn from actual school learning, but then away he goes again with his gung-ho advocacy for government policy.

Neoliberal governments are increasingly forcing academics to be either government-aligned or government-sceptical – for the government-aligned – contracts, appointments, and prestige; for the government-sceptical – struggle, criticism, and aspersion. The government puts intense pressure on government-aligned academics to deliver the government’s control message. This leads some academics to speak in code but when it serves the government’s purpose to crack the code the academics are easily cast aside. Others like Avis Glaze are perceived as past their use-by date and are disappeared. Others, though, immerse themselves in the government message and become our outright oppressors. Stuart McNaughton, the newly appointed Chief Education Scientific Adviser, and the focus of this posting, has taken huge steps in this direction, but in his own way.

Evidence-based knowledge, especially from the measurement academics, is better described as career-advancement knowledge. There are any number of evidence-based knowledges at hand on any number of education matters – but in these partisan times, it only takes a few examples of career-advancement research to make a neoliberal summer.

This brings me to a new influx of academics into the government-aligned ranks as a result of their invitation to be part of the IES advisory group, McNaughton being one of them. Most of them showing, from the government point-of-view, promising ability to align their careers to government intentions. To join the IES advisory group we have Graeme Aitken (enough said); Michael Fullan (the Avis Glaze of the IES – a fantastical academic chameleon with a colouring of Hattie); Gail Gillon (who?); Stuart McNaughton (more on him below); Jenny Poskitt (a laugh); Cathy Wylie (a tragedy – but after all NZCER is deeply involved in national standards and PaCT – so why stop there? we are being betrayed in all manner of means).

Announced in this morning’s NZ Herald was Professor Stuart McNaughton’s appointment as New Zealand’s first Chief Education Scientific Adviser.

First, the confusion and inanities around his role. The task of describing McNaughton’s appointment was handed to the Herald’s science reporter who in his first line says it was a ‘major new science education role’. But other meanings are put forward, leading to the question about whether it was science education or education as a science?  Oh dear! And from there the article never recovers: confusion reigns to which McNaughton adds his trite and ambiguous thoughts. The whole thing is risible.

McNaughton says: ‘he saw room for improvement in science in our education sector.’ Really, as against what other part of education within which no room for improvement is available?

But hold on there’s more. Wait for the next insight. He ‘was particularly concerned that some groups of learners, particularly Maori and Pasifika children and those from decile-one schools, were continuing to lag behind in the classroom.’

This man is the new Socrates. We are all ears to hear more.

And here it comes – prepare yourselves for the roll of thunder and lightning strike.

‘He felt there was a need for New Zealand to “get smarter” in efforts to tackle these disparities, which were highlighted again last week in the National Standards data.’

He’s right, you know, we do need to get smarter, and as a first step it seems it was Get Smart in the form of Stuart McNaughton.

But what he is really  promulgating with his ‘get smarter’ reference is that schools should not  expect additional teachers or support help, and if classrooms don’t get ‘smarter’ (whatever that means), it will be the teachers’ fault. This, of course, is the government line to a T.

Then he puts in a plug in for the IES and just as concerning for digital technology.

With regards to digital technology ladies and gentlemen, digital technology as a way of reducing disparities will provide an initial sugar rush and then become the 21st century’s education trap.

If McNaughton thinks that digital technology is the way to improve say, reading, science, and maths in the sense of critical thinking and fundamental understanding, he is a dingbat. If he thinks social practice (his claim of special interest) in reading will be helped by digital technology he is a double dingbat.

When he sees a child being introduced to reading and the child is struggling, is his first thought that the child needs digital technology?

Does he think, in another instance, that the undue pressure he observes a teacher applying and the formality of that teaching, might be symptom of national standards?

Oh goodness, I forgot, but McNaughton is in favour of national standards, sorry Stuart, how forgetful of me.

You were one of the few academics not to sign the academic petition against national standards. I hope you are in favour of national standards because if you aren’t and you didn’t sign the petition I’m sorry to say I would feel close to despising you.

Another memory: Your area is reading and I remember you declaring the end of reading as a problem because you had solved it – that might be why national standards, as far as you are concerned, are no problem. You have solved reading within itself. The wand of scientific evidence casting its magic overcoming even hazards like the education effects of child poverty and student transience.

Just as Francis Fukuyama announced the end of history, arguing that the advent of Western liberal democracy signals the endpoint of humanity’s sociocultural evolution and the final form of human government, you Stuart McNaughton have announced the end of reading, arguing that the advent of your discoveries in reading signal the endpoint of humanity’s evolution in how to teach reading.

Just a pity that when I asked a wide range of reading experts what those discoveries might be, they said it was something they wondered about too.

Oh well, now that McNaughton is an adviser on scientific education or is it an adviser on science education, it won’t be long before we are longer head scratching on the matter. Mind you, it will probably take a few years straightening out what McNaughton’s role is.

‘I’ll be able to offer the Ministry independent advice and insights into what scientific evidence might be suggesting.’

Independent advice and Stuart McNaughton is an oxymoron; as is independent advice and scientific advice. Education is a bewilderingly value-laden field, McNaughton by declaring his position as a dispenser of scientific advice is declaring his value-based philosophical position, his deep bias, and his ignorance about both education and science. Education decisions are not and never will be scientific, and thank goodness for that.

McNaughton says he will provide advice and insights. For our elucidation we would appreciate him making clear into which category his offerings fall. We might make the mistake, to our eternal confusion, of perceiving what was intended as advice as actually being insight.

McNaughton then switches to the science education role saying he supports ‘the idea that we should be thinking about how to better teach science, and how we can prepare children better about understanding and critically evaluating science in their everyday lives.’

Actually, this is quite good but he cannot resist starting off with a fatuity.

I mustn’t get too far down the track on this one. Just to warn McNaughton that the government push in science comes from Steven Joyce in relation to employment and economic development not that fancy stuff he goes on about. I could go on for aeons about why science, as far understanding and critical thinking is concerned, is failing, and why it will continue to fail. The measurement-based nature of education, the fear, and the White Rabbit agitation that pervades classrooms means it won’t succeed in other than Hawthorne-type situations.

John Key concludes the article, saying  ‘… the main thing is to encourage more youngsters to be actively interested in science – it’s very important for our economy, and it’s very important for how we perform as a country.’ Note any discrepancy with your statement Stuart?

I remember Stuart McNaughton from way back; one conference in a particular. Those assembled were distressed about the activities of Bill Tunmer and Tom Nicholson – Stuart McNaughton was appealed to – you see, with his ready smile and affable manner (like John Key) he comes across as an everyman – but he looked embarrassed and kind of waved us away.

He had seemed to us a successor to Marie Clay, our new champion for reading – but with the rejection of our appeal, I knew then he was an incorrigible careerist.  Understandable in a way: fighting for teachers and children is wearying and distracting, gets you off side not only with the government but also people important to academic careers.

But he abandoned us; we were left leaderless in reading education at the academic level. This was to become very much to the detriment of children in their reading and teachers in the carrying out of their role. He went on to furthering his reputation in reading while primary school education was left to shift on its axis.

To make clear what manner of academic we have on our hands here, we have an academic adviser who supports national standards, the concept of scientific education, and the government’s IES plan; but does not support, for instance, Labour’s more teachers plan (being smarter is his answer); sees the digital as the big way forward; is weak in describing the role of teachers in education decision making; gives low recognition to the education effects of poverty; and, no matter the provocation, has not been motivated to speak out from his scientific outlook or whatever.

There is no way back for children and their teachers while the neoliberal control structures are in place. McNaughton is there to say pretty things to delude, dilute, and distract. I accept that McNaughton’s  world view is different to the government’s, but that, in fact, is why he was chosen, the government would see his role as to speak to his world view to make the government’s more acceptable. Many of us, in turn, from our world view, see McNaughton as an oppressor and his role as mediator of scientific education a knowledge tyrant. We see McNaughton as saying to teachers go jump, your knowledge is not scientific, never can be, you are a teller of myths, so you are excluded. In the article McNaughton describes himself as ‘evidence broker … working with policy makers, agencies and researchers, here and around the world.’ Exactly.  We get the message. We can see you have had a time of it up there but down here it has been shitty. You are killing us but, as for Tomorrow’s Schools, it will take a generation for it all to work out. Meanwhile, with IES, we’ll have another generation of top-down failed curriculum change but, in the manner of a Soviet New Plan, it will be declared glorious in government propaganda and the pages of the Education Gazette.

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7 Responses to Independent advice and Stuart McNaughton an oxymoron

  1. John Carrodus says:

    You will no doubt be acussed of a personal attack,of probably being a wrecker and hater. Those who know you however, realise you are way more than that. There is much much more at stake. It is about the truth, how it really is. You play hard and take no prisoners. Anyone who doubts your motives and integrity are on notice, and personally I am forever grateful and glad you’re on our side. The side of kids and down to earth honest hard working professional educationalists everywhere.

  2. Kelvin says:

    Thanks John: I would just say Stuart McNaughton has a case to answer. Some academics are our key oppressors, leaving little space for teachers. My writing is to help to enlarge that space for teachers and the encouragement to use it.

  3. Jason Tane says:

    I believe the biggest problem with education in New Zealand is that there are too many people in between Treasury and our schools “clipping the ticket”. Try reading ‘The Witch Doctors: Making sense of the Management Gurus’ by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge or even ‘House of Lies: How management consultants steal your watch and then tell you the time’ by Martin Kihn. What big business wised up to years ago, they are now trying to do with the government dollar. It is as if someone has decided that the more layers they put between themselves and children in the classroom, the less likely they can be held responsible for what is happening and will continue to happen – all care, but no responsibility taken. Is the solution simply more layers? That seems to be the only strategy in use at the moment. I wouldn’t mind it quite so much if all our wonderful “advisers” would agree to give their big fat juicy fee back if their ideas don’t work. Do we really have twice as many people getting paid to sit around talking about the problem, than we have actually working with children to solve the problem? Sometimes it feels like we have. Or should we establish another advisory group to discuss that too?

  4. Kelvin says:

    Jason: a magnificent contribution in perilous times.

  5. Brenda says:

    What gives you the right to speak on behalf of all teachers?! Have just wasted 5 mins reading your unsubstantiated diatribe that reads in equal parts as a childish temper tantrum and a burned-out-pessimist rant. No wonder society at large has such a poor opinion of teachers when you take to closing your eyes and hurtling grenades at anyone who happens to put their head above the parapet instead of trying to be part of the solution.

  6. Pat Newman says:

    Dear Brenda, I look forward to the day when you have done as much for education and children in general, as Kelvin Smythe! As to your comments about hurling grenades at anyone who puts their head above the parapet…. is that not what very clearly we now know this current government has been doing with the whole might of their PR Machine (paid by us taxpayers) and using the mentally ill Whale Oil as their vehicle or attack dog????

  7. Anne Elliot says:

    I will also have to take issue with Brenda. Yes, Kelvin, who made a huge contribution to my own pedagogy, writes it as he sees it and i entirely concur with his perceptive take on the chasm between academics, who dare tell the truth – often to their detriment as Kelvin points out – and those who do not have the moral compass you would have hoped. It’s sad, but rings entirely true to me.

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