Nigel Latta: we needed insight and we got a blarney-spouting leprechaun

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.

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22 Responses to Nigel Latta: we needed insight and we got a blarney-spouting leprechaun

  1. Janicebelgrave says:

    I totally disagree!! I work as a professional Practis lecturer for the university of Canterbury and I have seen some absolutely awesome and amazing teaching and learning happening in the schools I have visited in the last two weeks.
    In Greymouth! the children are self managing! competent learners! the teachers are facilitating in fe dibble learning experiences. In Southland, the modern learning environments are providing incredible learning experiences, where students are revelling in the positive environment.
    Seriously, there is some awesome teaching and learning happening in our schools….all praise to our tireless teachers and there flexibility and knowledge!!

    • Damn auto correct on iPad . Practise…….incredible ( not in in fe dibble)

      • Kelvin says:

        Thanks Janice. I want to comment in general not specifically re Greymouth and Southland. In a way, I really answered your view in the posting. I see all those things when I visit schools too, I see the interest and so on, but as I said, I put that aside and look at the quality of the learning in relation to curriculum aims as I understand them, and I’m rarely impressed. Readers of this site need to consider our two views and ponder it.

  2. Shirley Knuckey says:

    Kelvin – your in-depth analysis is at the highest level. Is your targetting though, somewhat mis-directed? The object of your very astute criticism was after all, a very light trying-to-be-positive bird’s-eye view of the experience of school, compared with what Nigel Latta remembers. It did not pretend to be any sort of analysis. Nigel was quite clearly politically focused in his previous week’s exercise – that of poverty in New Zealand, but interestingly he simply did not apply any political analysis in the ‘education’ episode. I still think that it was a useful counter to the dreadful put-down tone that Parata has pervasively disseminated in recent years – that teachers and schools aretoo often imcompetent and need to be constantly ‘picked on’. The Latta programme dispelled some of that. Shirley K.

  3. Kelvin says:

    Thanks Shirley. I agree, it seems I’m just not in the mood for nice. I’ll leave nice to others. As well, it provided me with a vehicle for some ideas I wanted to get out there. Perhaps, he’ll buckle down next time.

  4. Mike Rogers says:

    Kelvin

    Thank you for your in-depth critiques. As a retired teacher/adviser I look forward to your postings, even though many make me fear for primary education. Do you see many worthwhile technology projects out there; the technology curriculum, that is, with student-initiated investigation and authentic outcomes, effective thinking and practice?

  5. Kelvin says:

    A long-time networkonnet reader wrote:

    I agree with you absolutely about the Nigel Latta episode on education. I thought it was superficial and unbalanced.

    The bit of your posting that really jumped out at me was when you were talking about experiential writing being governed by the demands of e-asTTle writing or what teachers think is good writing. I’ve been fighting this battle for years up here. We used to meet with teachers from two other neighbouring schools to moderate our children’s writing and it became very obvious to me that many of the teachers couldn’t write well themselves and therefore had no idea what good writing was. It’s all very well ticking the e-asTTle boxes but it’s the mysterious and inexplicable effect of the whole rather than the correctness of the segmented parts that the less creative teachers miss. They feel safe ticking the boxes because they can justify their decisions. We don’t moderate with the other schools any more.

    Our writing data doesn’t look good against other schools and my children have to work very hard to reach Level 4 Achieved by the end of Year 8 but what interests me is that I hear every year from their Year 9 English teachers that almost all of them are well ahead of most children from the other contributing schools across the whole English curriculum.

    We have something a very transient roll and I very rarely agree with the Writing data we receive from the previous schools of these children. One recently enrolled child came with a piece of writing that was assessed at Level 3 Achieved. It was very badly written and our assessment was that it was Level 2 Progressing at the very most. That’s a huge discrepancy. We used to think that we marked too hard. We now realise that most other schools talk up their children’s writing and it would be very tempting to do the same thing but we’re not going to. I’m happy that my children go to high school knowing that they need to keep challenging themselves to improve rather than with an inflated view of their ability.

    Have a good day. I hope you are keeping well.

  6. Andrew says:

    I was a bit disappointed to read your analysis Kelvin, as while I agree with what you wrote – he didn’t set out to achieve what you would have liked him to present. I think he has done NZ education a greats service actually going forward. In my view he presented to NZ, very much what the professionals in the field (not the politicians) are saying. Nigel Latta I think constructs his shows from a moving platform. He goes in with his eyes open and ends up with a personal view which is his perogative. Overall he tries to cover a lot but has 45 minutes to pack it all in. So he gives a macro view. The final show that aired was a pretty good representative of NZ education – vastly positive with some tricky stuff that needs appropriate intervention to tackle. That intervention is where it is all going astray in terms of leadership from Parata and co. Unfortunately everything has to fit into a 3 year plan when a 10-15 year plan is required to address the really hard stuff and need inter-ministry intervention.

  7. Kelvin says:

    Thanks Andrew. I appreciated the opportunity to talk about getting depth in children’s learning; an opportunity, with everything that is going on, I only feel I can occasionally pay attention to. In my view, there are huge amounts about curriculum areas that are close to being lost because of Tomorrow’s Schools and more recently digital learning. For me it was like the time before when the main discussion was about the curriculum. Perhaps, under a kinder regime, those days may return.

  8. Andrew says:

    Yes – you are bang on – but the two examples that he showed Point England and Pakuranga College have superbly engaged their children and strengthened the relationship between the school and the home – empowering both to better things. So this was evidence of schools engaged in lifting the potential and aspirations of children that were in front of them.

  9. John Carrodus says:

    I have a feeling Nigel was trying to support teachers. Unfortunately by telling them they are doing a wonderful job by giving every child an laptop and involving them in group discussions in maths class, he has condoned a system that is failing NZ kids by not acknowledging that “primary education is in trouble…….in how far short we are falling in how good we could be.” ( Due to being misinformed and hung up by various authorities, agencies and political meddling.) The other tragic outcome is that “teachers have virtually no control over their destiny.” His snapshot left an impression that all was well on the West Wing. I suspect had he taken his thermometer and performed a few more blood tests on other wards, he would have come up with a totally different diagnosis. Kelvin, it is no wonder your laser scalpel is creating some reaction from body education. The patient is now so critical on every vital sign, there is no anesthetic powerful enough to allow painless administering of your badly needed cure. This miserable state of denying the inevitable truth -reminds me of a saying …”The biggest trick the devil performed was to convince the world he did not exist.” This slipping downwards will continue whilst many stand by and applaud or – merely do nothing and fool themselves that it will all turn out ok in the end.

  10. Kelvin says:

    A South Island principal wrote: Right on the money Kelvin

    I hope you send this to the leprechaun. I totally agree with everything you have said.

    Surely the opposition parties should be using this as a plank to attack the government. I have been a National party supporter all my life but what is happening to our schools, sickens me.

    Where are the good investigative journalists gone? Where are the interviews with the ‘knowing’ academics’?

    What kind of society are we left with when we have Mike (I love myself) Hoskins and his silly giggly sidekick Tony Street throwing light hearted diatribe at us every night?

    I believe our schools will soon be in crisis. Our education system now has a feel of big company philosophy being imposed on us. The Executive Principals will be C.E.O.s dictating what mindless goals we will have to have in our schools. I see we will be assessed and probably paid according to our success. Good even playing field.

    My teachers work very hard in a low decile school and we are stressed to the max with all this. With the social ills in society impacting on our schools, we have a large number of teachers working in unsafe conditions.

    Keep up the great work. Are our unions and leaders listening to you?

  11. Thank you for the detailed description of where (primary) schooling in NZ is falling short, and where teachers are being short-changed (cut out of the decision making) while being over-worked. I think the posting by “a South Island principal” indicates one of the roots of the problem we have in changing perception – complete lack of any knowledgeable media coverage or analysis. Juliette Laird

  12. Etomia says:

    Thank you for this Kevin, I am living this nightmare at work and it is heartening read that you share some of the same concerns I do. I look forward to reading more of your articles.

  13. Paul says:

    Great article I have three young children at school and feel iPads and laptops have no place at school until high school at the earliest. Children will quickly catchup when exposed at a later age. Imagination, creative play and interaction with a teacher and classmates is far more valuable than some cute mass produced cartoon walking you through some mindless exercise of instant gratification.

    • Allan Alach says:

      Sorry Paul, I’m going to strongly disagree with you. Technology is an integral part of today’s world and this will only increase. Children need to be able to automatically use it as one of their learning tools, in just the same way as they use a pen to write or books to read. This isn’t to say that technology, on its own, is the solution to everything, regardless of the spin that comes from the providers. Old saying – any teacher who can be replaced by a computer should be replaced. You are correct, however, about the use of mindless cartoons and keep busy drill type applications.
      The key issue is how the technology is used:
      * Technology must be used as part of well planned learning experiences,when it is appropriate to do so.
      *Technology offers immense opportunities for creative expression, such as the use of multi media as a presentation tool.
      *Technology provides children ways to communicate, instantly, with their peers across the country and around the world.

      I could go on but then this comment would turn into a book. I suggest you follow up with some research of your own as this is a very important consideration in children’s lives.

  14. Paul says:

    Hi Allan

    Sorry if my reply sounds ill considered but I guess it is something I am passionate about. I should add that I’m not adverse to technology as I actually have worked in the IT sector for close on 15 years now. I still disagree about any need for immersive technology at a young age. The use of technology is pushed by fancy advertising and people readily buy into the fact that our kids will be left behind.

    I actually find it quite sad seeing kids heads down and totally disconnected from their surrounds and those around them. There is also increasing evidence of increasing health issues such as neck and spine problems as well as the obvious child obesity epidemic.

    While in some cases there may be some merit to electronic learning it should at the very least be kept to a minimum and carefully regulated.

    I also cringe every time I see that schools have rolled out laptops or iPads to every student or that Labour would do similar if in power.

    To learn hand writing, spelling, true maths, the ability to engage with one another no electronic device is required in the classroom. Instead of turning on an Ipad perhaps introduce more experience, real life based learning where possible.

    Very emotive issue here I feel.

    All the best – Paul

    • Allan Alach says:

      I agree with you about the fancy advertising driven by suppliers. I agree with you about parents being manipulated to feel worried that their kids are missing out. Your points about disconnected kids, spinal problems, etc have merit, but then again the same has been said for years about kids who are bookworms. The answer now is the same as it has always been – moderation and variety.

      I also agree that real life experiences are the best; however since kids are limited to their immediate environment, technology provides access to multimedia experiences that can enrich any learning. The effectiveness of educational technology is really enhanced when used in cooperative situations, especially in the production of multimedia presentations for the sharing of learning (and I don’t mean powerpoint boredom).

      The handwriting issue is an interesting one. There seems to be sound cognitive reasons for teaching children how to write while they are learning to read, write and spell, but after they reach competence, the question is why take it further? The education sector, especially secondary and tertiary examinations, is the only sector that requires copious written tracts. Employers who have requested a presentation would not be impressed if delivered in hand writing. I’d suggest that professional writers always use technology over hand writing.

      There is enough quality research to show that there are significant benefits for children from the incorporation of technology into well planned learning programmes – the key phrase here being ‘well planned.”

      I’ve seen children produce some mind-blowing stuff using technology. Sadly this isn’t too common. That’s not the fault of the technology, but due to teachers struggling to adjust their pedagogy to the incorporate this new medium.

      Cheers

      Allan

  15. Kelvin says:

    Well said both of you. I probably veer toward Paul on this one.

  16. He got it right alright!

  17. D Saunders says:

    I do feel with this one Nigel missed the mark. Great to highlight the fact we have a lot of fantastic, hard working, “above & beyond” teaching & support staff but what about lack of resources, funding, support for special eduction. What about the kids falling through the gaps, the kids just missing out on the specialist help they need because they can write their name & don’t fit the criteria? I would love to see Nigel Latta’s response to this. I have great respect for the man because he puts up a good debate, is willing to listen & states facts.

  18. Kelvin says:

    Summed up perfectly.

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