Steve Maharey: I put your article in the category of much wallowing in the fluff

Steve Maharey was a Labour minister of education and recently stood down as vice-chancellor of Massey University. He has written an article in the publication Pundit (March 11, 2017) titled ‘Can we finally agree on how to run schools’, the answer, of course, is no, but we might be able to agree on an education system structure which is democratic in nature, and allows meaningful and open discussion to occur to guide and inform an attentive government in its decision-making. In other words, the opposite of the one we have now and which, not incidentally, is working to a philosophy introduced by your political party

I dislike the article because it sounds good – meaning in detail it gets us nowhere – putting it into the category of much wallowing in the fluff. At the conclusion of the article, Maharey tells us that he drew on a paper by Jane Gilbert and Rachel Bolsted, a background paper for policy development during his time as minister of education. And there-in, as far as I’m concerned, lies the major source of Maharey’s problem; about ten years ago I wrote a many-paged savage critique of Gilbert and Bolsted’s wish-washy futurism, saying look at children now and their needs, because that is the best way to prepare them for the future – and teachers now and their needs, because that is the best way to prepare them to prepare children for their future. Fluffy words in education don’t register but structural ones, as occurred 25 years, do, which means we have had quite enough fluff from the originating and uncomprehending perpetrators.

Teaching is about children and the curriculum, and being teaching, while the children are the recipients, the curriculum is the way – and the way in each curriculum area, before being laid out in straight lines in small boxes by national standards, quantitative academics, and bureaucrats, was a journey for teachers, an exciting, life-long journey – almost spiritual, but always stringently practical, a search for the truth, judged by way it was received by the children.

When I read lists like Maharey’s I feel weighed down, dispirited by generalisations about teaching and the system that sound good but float serenely above reality when it is curriculum depth and nuances that matter and interest me, curriculum depth and nuances overseen by the lightest of regulatory frameworks, and a government that listens, but generally keeps out of teachers way.

Maharey’s big idea is ‘customising learning’ (a metaphor I don’t find fitting) which he supports with the need for children to produce knowledge as well as consume it (more unfitting metaphors), to cater for each child being different, and to use a diverse range of teaching practices. There is heaps more of stuff like this under various headings.

Teaching begins with the curriculum and a dynamic main idea developed as a guiding question. If it is the right main idea and right guiding question, all those things that constitute good teaching will occur. In science, for instance, a teacher should ask him or herself: How can we get children to think like scientists about, say, light and shadow? All the time checking: Where is the science thinking? How to set up opportunities to do that science thinking better?

Each curriculum area: mathematics, reading, writing, drama, science, social studies, art, physical education has its own main idea providing structure for children’s learning – if correctly chosen and applied, then all those things that Maharey bundles under customised learning will result. But only teachers know that; also that it demands constant high level thinking and nuanced maintenance – and being free to take learning this way and that.  But it is more than freedom; it is also about what clever teachers do being recognised and valued – at the moment, what clever teachers do, more often falls on the barren minds of the unrecognising, censorious, and the national standards transfixed.

The irony of Maharey’s customising learning idea is that it has already been fully taken up.

Because teachers don’t control the curriculum, because the curriculum is not respected as something deep and beyond the real understanding of people outside the classroom, because we can’t engage in free conversation, it has come out as inquiry learning in which each child, increasingly in cathedral-like surroundings, wanders around with his or her customised iPad and reorganises google information, does routine comprehension, non-problematic maths, and so on – but no-where (or very rarely) does the activity deeply engage the affective and the cognitive: where is the maths thinking, drama thinking, art thinking, writing thinking?

Maharey – Tomorrow’s Schools are your responsibility, and Labour’s; when the left political party imposed a neoliberal right-wing education system, you left us stranded. And how carefully did you listen to us when you were minister of education? How much structural change did you effect or even contemplate? Since Tomorrow’s Schools,  when a right-wing party is elected it does structural change; when a left-wing party is elected it does fiddle.

In most Western countries, under the strictures of neoliberalism, those in charge of education systems 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.

The managerialist leadership system you set up 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 idea in your Tomorrow’s Schools was that if the government gets the administration of education right, and principals follow suit with their schools, 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 – that is, a narrowly-focused view of literacy and numeracy and the rest of the curriculum take the hindmost.

As I have suggested above, the 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.

Curriculum-driven leadership never happened, crushed, in particular, by your education review office. You didn’t even restructure that rogue organisation.

The bureaucracies have devised a de facto curriculum of objectives and indicators because they don’t understand or can’t handle (for purposes of status and control) the real one.

You see, any jackass by functioning at the level of management by measurable objectives can sound knowledgeable about education, pandering as it does to the current obsession with certainty and precision. Management by measurable objectives eases the way for external and hierarchical control over schools, laying the basis for an industrial model of education. In schools, management by measurable objectives makes education understandable to those who don’t understand the curriculum and a nightmare for those who do.

Leadership courses should be about the curriculum, about clarifying the essences of curriculum areas and coming up with main aims that make curriculum areas cohere. These essences can’t properly be handed down as a list; they need to be worked out, school by school. Leadership courses should discuss the philosophy behind this process and ways to get it going. Current leadership providers, however, take as a given the managerialist basis for administering schools which is the way managerialism comes to drive the curriculum. The curriculum is set up for observable and measurable outcomes and, not coincidentally, for expert, bureaucratic, and political control.

So what are you going to do about that?  I believe the drive to teacher degrees, pushed by the university where you were vice-chancellor, is a perfect example of what your generalised list represents.

For people outside the classroom, ministers of education, some academics, education bureaucrats, using such ideas as are on your list can be thrilling because they can go on about them, sounding modern, well informed and, most nauseating of all, futuristic, without knowing much or anything about classroom practice at all. But even better, as a result of the elevated flights of prose or oratory, by nature of delivery, it places them securely above classroom teachers, clearly superior to them in insight, after all why can’t they cotton on.  I have had quite enough and so have the teachers and principals of New Zealand. Tomorrow’s Schools wasn’t customised for teachers they were customised for bureaucrats, hostile ministers of education, right-wing propaganda, control, and private capital. So keep your fancy lists to yourself until you show some penitence and come out fighting for the other side.

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2 Responses to Steve Maharey: I put your article in the category of much wallowing in the fluff

  1. Kelvin says:

    Kia ora Kelvin

    I struggle everyday with our current system. When I first started teaching (back in the 80s) the job was about learning how to teach, being involved with the curriculum and making it work for your students and communities. I was there when Tomorrows Schools was invented by David Lange and his bunch of political followers-on. What I have witnessed over the intervening years is the slow destruction of a very treasured taonga (education), the entrance of National Standards, the ever declining standards of teaching professionals and poor leadership from a succession of managerial principals.

    Thank you for telling people this is how it is.

  2. Kelly-Ned says:

    I agree entirely. Unfortunately we are now at a point where few know the name, much less the work of our educational ground breakers: Beeby, Richardson, Ashton-Warner.
    Their legacy has been lost in the mess we know as Tomorrow’s Schools – which ironically have come to look very much like the schools of a time long past before the innovation of our educational heroes.
    I try to keep it all alive – even if only in my small part of the educational kingdom but it is an uphill battle.
    Kia kaha

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