Nigel Latta on school education: What was that?
The things Nigel Latta got right about New Zealand school education were also what is wrong about New Zealand school education.
He got it right that we had many skilled and passionate teachers. He got it right that schools are kindly places. He got it right that most children enjoy school. He got it right that dance and by implication the arts generally are very important educationally. He got it right that digital technology is trending to be a crucial part of learning. He got it right that design and computer programming and by implication thinking generally is an important part of learning. He got it right that understanding mathematics and problem solving within it are an important part of learning.
But what he got it wrong, oh so terribly wrong, was that those skilled and passionate teachers are excluded from their proper and respected place in the education system – and not making that clear.
What he got wrong was that the enjoyment of school runs out for a substantial number of children in the middle years of secondary schooling. What he got wrong was that much digital work involves very little thinking. What he got wrong was that the best thinking comes from the best teaching not the best computer programming. What he got wrong was that classrooms set up for computers are not always best set up for learning. What he got wrong was that computer learning rarely gets to the central aims of social studies, science, and mathematics. What he got wrong was not taking a serious look at what was really happening in mathematics, writing, reading, the arts, and thinking. (I want to make clear that my main attention in computers in this posting is to topic work; useful learning was occurring with iPads in specific learning activities at the schools concerned, and is occurring to some degree in schools generally. Also, my comments are more directed to primary schools.)
What he also got wrong was not interviewing Martin Thrupp for his academic view and someone from school education with an authentic school education view.
If an education system is pronounced good when it isn’t, that is bad.
Nigel Latta goes into two schools (though one was a set of schools) he skates along the surface, talks to John Hattie (which adds up to the same thing), and pronounces school education good. Praise which isn’t deserved, one of Hattie’s big ideas by the way, is not good.
It is bad. It is especially bad because you know that those in control of the education system, including Hattie, in declaring what is happening in schools good when it isn’t, gives them free rein to continue with what is bad.
If you go into any primary school today (and that includes the ones in Latta’s once over lightly), to a greater or larger degree, you will find the same set of programme characteristics.
Children’s interest in books is plummeting, especially for boys.
Children’s book reading is plummeting particularly around ten years of age when the increasing use of phonics in early reading and the subsequent lack of fluency catches up with them.
Children’s interest in reading is being seriously harmed by a modern-version of old-style reading comprehension.
Because few teachers now teach in the sense of structured thinking activities or building up deep motivation – writing is something of a disaster area.
No a template is not motivation, it’s a bane.
Children, it seems are to be prepared for writing university essays – expository and argument writing (to no good effect if the growing demand is taken into account for students to pass special writing tests before being allowed university entry).
Templates reign in this area: apparently, expository and argument writing needs little more than these for motivation.
While experiential writing is the fulcrum for all writing, it is very little taken, and largely without significant motivation when it is.
Experiential writing, governed by the demands of e-asTTle writing or what teachers think is good writing, is now laden with adjectives and adverbs, laboured figures of speech, and shot through with insincerity – when good writing is writing with the minimum of adjectives and adverbs, figures of speech that work, and stringent sincerity.
It as though Elwyn Richardson had never been.
Science is acknowledged science as being in trouble, even by our political and bureaucratic leaders, whose very trade is denial.
In primary schools, science is fragmented, spurious, unconnected, and almost completely bereft of thinking challenge.
It is usually based on downloaded and, at best, slightly warmed up units.
Science is another curriculum the victim of the absence of teaching in the sense of a series of open-ended thinking activities or the building up of motivation.
Busy work at best.
There is a growing tendency for electronic projects that look good to be bad science.
The same for social studies, perhaps even worse, even more unbalanced.
At the heart of social studies should be an emotional link to those being studied.
But the topics are often absurdly grandiose or many steps away from a study of real people – for instance, Matariki (as worthy a topic as it is) is now the sole study of Maori in most schools, rather than real Maori in present or historical settings.
In mathematics, there isn’t in most primary schools, only numeracy, which is unfortunate for both numeracy and mathematics.
The numeracy curriculum is fragmented to ERO’s small objectives and learning intentions, meaning by intermediate, most children haven’t even covered the numeracy programme (let alone the mathematics as mentioned).
The fragmentation means understanding is affected and interest reduced.
The heavy use of grouping means, as research demonstrates, the top groups get a reasonable programme but the lower ones, a programme significantly below their ability. (I’m not even getting on to cross grouping.)
There is little attempt to set children’s numeracy or mathematical learning in an application or problem-solving context.
Drama makes a significant contribution in very few schools; in an overwhelming number it is conspicuously absent.
The few schools that are doing well in drama have a talented, enthusiastic person who takes a programme in a special place.
There are very few schools in which drama is an integral part of the overall programme.
Dance – as for drama.
The biggest concern is the increasingly narrow education being offered all children. In lower deciles, the overwhelming focus is on the 3Rs with a near complete absence of opportunities for thinking. Doing the 3Rs and thinking are not mutually exclusive yet that is the insistent signal being sent by politicians and education bureaucrats. When these children reach secondary school, their inability to think flexibly means that most are covertly ‘assisted’ to pass internally-marked NCEA units, then quickly despatched to less challenging NCEA work. In the upper deciles, there is a huge discrepancy between what these children can do and what they are being asked to do. National standards have put all children of whatever ability in a curriculum straitjacket and therein lies the curriculum tragedy that Nigel Latta failed to recognise. Oh dear, oh dear! (This is where Martin Thrupp should have entered stage left to Hattie’s stage right.)
Just because children have a computer in front of them and are busy and interested, is not evidence they are learning. I know this is a battle I, and others, are going to wage but lose. Many in education are going into a spin at the thought of computers in education, their judgement awry to confuse learning dross with learning glister. The mantra that computers are a tool flies out the window for computers to settle in as an end, a philosophy, the way. Part of the difficulty is that computers have become integral to the way schools and principals sell themselves, define themselves; are part of education show business, public relations.
When I make judgement about the worthwhileness of the computer topic work children are doing, I pay little attention to the interest displayed, the amount of work produced, the attractiveness of the layout – to concentrate on the challenge inherent in the thinking, the amount of thinking being done, the freshness of the work being produced, the degree to which the main aims of the curriculum area are being met. For instance in social studies, whether the children are getting close to the people concerned, seeing them as real people, appreciating the complexity of human relationships, the commonalities; or in science, solving science problems with original thinking, establishing links to other parts of science for connectedness – to parts of their world. Teacher input at all parts of the study is crucial. It should not be godlike, restricted to creating motion, and then standing back for it all to unfold. Teachers, in undertaking that crucial motivating, inspiring, and challenging, must, of course, not do this in a way that steals thinking opportunities from children.
In recent years, I’m not sure if I have seen any really challenging computer topic work being undertaken. Indeed, I have hardly ever seen an open question pursued in an open way. (I might add that a closed question pursued in an open way is often just as successful in getting children thinking.)
Almost invariably, computer topic work is no more than the old-style project made easier by google replacing the book, and computer functions replacing coloured pencils and cartridge paper. I see a pastiche of other people’s thinking; I see the main skill as that of downloading to best effect; I see other people’s thinking not the children’s … and unfortunately I see the future of school education.
When you get close to children working on computer topic work – keeping the main aims of a curriculum in mind, and the paramount need of children to be thinking, really thinking, not just thinking about where to place other people’s thinking – the thinking void is easily exposed. I see parents, politicians, the media, and well-meaning people like Nigel Latta being impressed; a learning charade; learning for show – but our children are being deprived of that life-nourishing ability to think.
The need to challenge children to think – to think to understand, to think to be imaginative – needs to be fundamental to all parts of the curriculum. But the prevailing ideology divides the imaginative from the explicit with the overwhelming emphasis being on the explicit – in this way harming natural learning (I would call it the holistic) and our humanity. Imagination should be seen as playing a vital role in helping children work to make meaning of the world. All areas of learning are an art, therefore about imagination, whether mathematics, physics, drama, dance, science, art, poetry, social studies, or writing. And all areas of learning are dependent on the creativity derived from that imagination.
School education, especially primary education is in trouble, not necessarily in comparison with other countries, but in how far short we are falling in how good we could be. Primary school education is now run from Treasury and by education bureaucrats assisted by selected right-wing academics. Teachers have virtually no control over their destiny. School education runs best when teacher knowledge is respected and given the opportunity to interact with other knowledges – academic, political, bureaucratic, and parental. Teachers have become bewildered participants in their own profession. One of my great frustrations is that instead of spending my time on the curriculum as part of the debate on making primary schools more effective, I have been side tracked by the continuing ideologically-based assaults on the very integrity of public school teachers.
Nigel Latta’s programme was a great opportunity wasted by a great whitewash. All children have been betrayed, and especially the children from straitened circumstances he so eloquently and passionately spoke up for in his earlier programme.