Not ‘Getting it’ – and ‘Getting it’

When Tomorrow’s Schools was introduced, I immediately recognised we would be incapable of thinking ourselves out of the education failure we had allowed ourselves to be thought into (led by Treasury and a mesmerised David Lange) and predicted the next 25 years would be one of steady school failure. I also recognised the only possible way fundamental change might occur was through the shock of economic and social failure, but that way was unlikely to provide relief, because those in charge would be well prepared to reward themselves, as is the established neoliberal pattern, with an even more narrow, elitist, and autocratic way of proceeding. 

Following the 2017 election, in bungling the opportunity for something like genuine and cohesive democratic change, and in showing ourselves once again incapable of thinking ourselves out of education failure – I am predicting another 50 years of failure.

Fundamental education change does not come out of the moment, it comes out years of struggle, not from teachers passive and bewildered; and principals and organisations, children to the rear, playing a game of fawning to neoliberal authority, yes, occasionally opposing, but only for appearance’s sake.  The depth, willingness, and cohesiveness of the system to oppose and propose, whether from schools, organisations, universities, and bureaucracies is unyieldingly and pathetically Lilliputian. The metaphor that pervades my thinking is pigs round a swill. 

Where is the Ivan Snook of our time to change our metaphorical environment?

I use the term ‘neoliberal’ loosely when I apply it to neoliberal hangers on or dupes – that is those who use and act on neoliberal ideas even if they don’t know their origin. Teachers, are after all, professionals, and should know about the various competing ideologies. Ignorance of the prevailing ideology is no excuse. Our present system is significantly neoliberal.

Labour is willing to give jam to schools but not anything as uncomfortable as courageous and principled thinking representing fundamental education change. We are at the moment in a crisis of lack of quality in education, but the present government, to avoid placing itself in danger where the need to prepare children for life in a democracy, with all the fundamental changes that would require, becomes too blindingly obvious, refuses to spell out the problem.

A hastily-appointed, panic-driven, and evasively-directed 13-member Ministerial Advisory Group on the Curriculum, Progress and Achievement will report to the minister of education on new measures of student progress and achievement across years 1-10. 

Having announced that teachers and schools would have the freedom, assistance, and time within the official curriculum to develop teaching and evaluation programmes to replace the failed national standards programme, the minister succumbed to his own aridity of education thought and that of his secretary of education to begin preparations for measurement programmes, along newly suggested Australian policy lines – policy lines that might appear voluntary for teachers to undertake, but would ensure the need for an education review-type organisation to oversee. So over the top of all Chris Hipkins’ panels and advisory groups has been dropped a group whose purposes encompass everything.

Please note the complete title allocated to the Ministerial Advisory Group, it is, in effect, signalling a return to the grisly review office philosophy of the past: Curriculum, Progress and Achievement – the curriculum gets one word, measurement gets two, and that is the about ratio of disproportion measurement accrues in neoliberal practice. Also note the sickly, sweet nausea of the euphemistic and redundant tendencies in the final words. It should be Curriculum and Evaluation but in the neoliberal style runs scared to avoid anything to do with values or the affective (difficult to measure don’t you know?). Curriculum, Progress and Achievement, when you see it inserted, is a Mason’s sign of secret fraternity, though now, because we are the naïfs we are, its language corruption has been normalised by use. Indeed, our very intercourse has been made toxic by the ladenness of neoliberal vocabulary in our everyday talk. But the overwhelmingly salient point is that for the neoliberals – Curriculum, Progress and Achievement – has allowed them to turn the curriculum upside down – the title is made the beginning from which curriculum extends; for the holistics the curriculum is set out on the basis of the content and practice required for preparing children for living in a democracy – and the evaluation follows from that.

Let’s face it, the minister is a twit.

For the system it will be fifty years more of education failure, protected, and made the norm by propaganda of industrial proportions

And before you laugh me off, I challenge you to go through my 50 years of writing and find an error of prediction. 

The ranks of principals and teachers sufficiently informed and willing to speak out are already severely depleted. And as the years have gone by, the system power holders have become even more deeply entrenched; the education neoliberal futurists have claimed the future and, in doing so, the present as well; teachers have become drilled into teaching the template curriculum (they have known no other); system propaganda and its tight-as-two-coats-of-paint ally professional development form a corporate and bureaucratic hegemony; and breakouts from within the system are rarely contemplated let alone attempted. 

Following Labour’s election victory, Hipkins has stumbled around like an antipodean Macbeth (King of Education) on a foggy heath (is that a spurned Cordelia in the background?) providing a combination of education mush, a return to the same and beyond, lack of insight and courage, and a cataclysmic philosophical ignorance and ineptness. National will pounce in two or five years (is that Goneril looking remarkably like Nikki Kaye) in a way that will fix this country’s education destiny for generations. Labour treats education as a kind of family board game; National as Game of Thrones.

The children of the elite have the social capital to enable them to survive an impoverished education system, it is the children of the poor who will go under.

This posting will continue to examine:

  1. Not ‘Getting it’ 
  2. ‘Getting it’


  1. Not ‘Getting it’ 

An education system should be based on the nature of the curriculum as it is understood, and for New Zealand it should be a curriculum that prepares children for life in a democracy and, as such, is boundless and of infinite beauty and complexity. 

Having settled on that understanding, the question should then be, how can we build education structures on that curriculum from classroom to ministry. Such a construction based on such a curriculum would never have veered off course so disastrously as national standards did to serve the power holders, not the children.

And teachers, of course, given the shifting and boundless nature of the curriculum, would be seen as being in a prime position of interpretive advantage. 

The same principles apply to the secondary curriculum, but here I am mainly addressing primary and early childhood. On the whole, secondary education was left largely untouched by Tomorrow’s Schools and its prolonged aftermath, protected as it was by its examination-based curriculum (the knowledge therefore being far more settled); by the bureaucrats and politicians who understood secondary education better and took it more seriously so were loath to take risks with it; by the public which saw secondary as bearing more directly and sensitively on the futures of their children; and by its departmental structure, the size of the schools, more informed and energetic teachers organisation, and by far more of the bureaucrats and decision-makers involved in Tomorrow’s Schools coming from secondary. Society controls the secondary programme more than many of us appreciate, and parents, for one social group, have the expectation that secondary will play an important role in defining students’ vocational future and pathways. As a progressive idealist, I try to modify this, as a progressive realist, I accept that reality.

Deep down Hipkins supports a neoliberal education for New Zealand, this outcome brought together by a Judy Garland combination within him of Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion. To me Hipkins is fundamentally more Scarecrow, lacking an education brain, he just doesn’t ‘get it’, he is a technical thinker who likes things to be straight up and down, unable to handle the complexity of education, a sure candidate as a result to slip by default into the neoliberal camp. 

Then, In one lightning strike of illumination, while under pressure from media, we had him blurting out that if teachers got the curriculum right, they would get the ‘assessment’ right (I use apostrophes because ‘assessment’ carries the idea of measurement, while ‘evaluation’ the idea of meaning, the affective, and various ways of expressing it). If Hipkins had stuck with that illumination, and surrounded himself with the right people, he would have struck out on the journey of building an education system on the structure of an inspired view of the curriculum (which is our ideal – see above). The appointment of his Ministerial Advisory Group brought an abrupt ending to that moment of enlightenment.

If only Hipkins had a Dorothy and not Iona Holsted to tell him what to think and do. Iona Holsted, in the interests of the review office, has been aggressively promoting the case for more of the same but even more so, and been forming committees with splashy neoliberal elitist abundance (with the exception perhaps being the Tomorrow’s Schools’ panel) all with a membership spine of the existing dominant system group.

  • If Hipkins wants to know what neoliberalism in education is, it is the setting up of a specialised organisation, separate from administration and practice, to control the system through a curriculum organised to produce high stakes measurement, meaning an emphasis on skills, fragmentation, and narrowness, and a lack of attention to the interaction of the affective and the cognition 
  • Another criterion to note is the heavy emphasis within the system of administrators not professional educators.

National standards and national testing have both recently been found to have failed – testing in Australia through no improvement occurring; and standards in New Zealand through too much – the Dunedin Monitoring unit found standards were nicely graded by the schools to their own decile but inflated by between 10%-20% thus it is only mildly astonishing that New Zealand primary is now at the bottom of the Western world in international results when once we were at or near the top. 

In a subsequent posting I will examine the makeup of the panic-assembled Curriculum, Progress and Achievement Advisory Group members, many I have been assured by my ministry informant on the recommendation of the education review office and the hierarchy. Two-thirds of them have an expertise in the elitist form of ‘assessment’, with a strong tendency to technology, PaCT, and having an official position in the education system. To reform the failed standards system – the one that has failed hundreds of thousands of children, alienated thousands of teachers – Hipkins has called on much the same group of academics and bureaucrats, along with a few from the organisations, who were the adamant authors of that failure.

Let me sum it up here about one member, and how it promises to be a return to the past with knobs on: Mary Chamberlain is not only on the Ministerial Advisory Group, she is a co-chair, she is there with her first attribute baldly listed as a Director of Evaluation Associates, what a conflict of interest! Such groups were part of the hegemony established by the review office which was to bind New Zealand primary schools in fatefully destructive thrall for over 20 years, and here is this director, a co-chair to replicate indeed add to the role. 

Back in the late ‘90s, Mary Chamberlain was appointed by the ministry to bring the New Zealand Curriculum through to completion. It was a fragmented document that contributed substantially to the structure of the failed national standards programme. But no sooner had this New Zealand Curriculum been completed than calls were made to extend national standards beyond the 3Rs to the whole curriculum; while this was rejected then, is about to become the accepted now. Though Hipkins won’t know it, a standards testing programme is about to be introduced to the whole curriculum, ostensibly without the national, but with the national really being there in the form of the demands imposed by the external organisation set to monitor it (in other words, a review office-type organisation). The hope by the Ministerial Advisory Group is that the standards testing programme will also be extended to lower secondary. Having devastated primary school education for nearly twenty years, national standards in another form is about to be extended to lower secondary and for primary school, the whole curriculum.

It was a telling moment, over a hundred teachers from the Far North had assembled at Kawakawa to protest national standards. 

Kelvin Davis was there.

It was a stirring meeting, but Chamberlain was pitiable. She was called on late by the ministry, supposedly to defend the new document, but really to protect national standards. 

The meeting was over.

 I was to write:

‘But then I looked across the road to under the spreading oak and I felt a chill. The ministry delegation was clustered around their public service car in deep and serious discussion. I sensed then a different message leading to a different mood to be delivered to head office. It reminded me of the change of mood after the Springbok tour match at Hamilton – a change of mood from finding us mildly comical to one bordering on hatred. The body language of the ministry officials, Mary Chamberlain at the centre, was a signal – inevitable if our struggle was lifted to the real – that the New Year was going to be a terrible one in our education history with the education of a generation of children at stake, the professionalism of teachers, and the humanism of our system.’

A number of the principals at the meeting were to be hunted by the ministry and education review office for years. One principal was caught in a Whangarei school car park and harassed by Duncan Garner who had travelled all the way from Auckland on information provided. 

And here we go again on setting up a network of Australian David Gonski-John Hattie assessment tasks that will operate under an education review office-type regime, one even more destructive than national standards.

I can barely suppress my fury at the thought of putting the children and teachers through another generation of failure because a Labour government can’t get it right because it won’t listen to the right people preferring the comfort of the wrong people and avoiding having the right people recommending the awkwardness of fundamental change. 

It is impossible to have an external organisation, one separate from practice and administration, and to have a relatively free education system. So the choice for Labour is going with a neoliberal organisation and having it in control or, without a neoliberal organisation and having a shared system of control. But if the neoliberal organisation continues in control, the effects will fall differently for the different education sectors, if Labour insists on continuing with the farcical mishmash the NCEA group has handed down to secondary schools, that sector will set-up its own system and eventually win the battle for parental support and destroy the government; but that similar mishmash will continue for primary unimpeded, in this instance to continue further destruction.

Yet no-one in Labour seems to be listening.

Hipkins’ U-turn from his momentary progressive position on evaluation to a review office-type one is set to be decisive in where his education changes are heading. The U-turn represents an end to any hopes of education becoming focused on teaching and learning, meaning school education will continue to be controlled by ‘progress and achievement’, that is measurement, as labelled by academics and bureaucrats and set and administered by them. Children with high social and cultural capital will barely be touched by the continuation of the broken primary school education, but the children Labour says it particularly represents will be particularly damaged.

The notable thing about Labour’s education changes is the minister’s lack of articulation about how Labour’s policies will meet the prime minister’s stated aims of education becoming more imaginative and creative. There is a phantasmal feel about how Hipkins is working: a promise of huge change but in a vacuum; change that don’t seem real because Hipkins has failed to make clear why the change is needed. New Zealand primary school education is indeed broken, but while substantial change has been promised, the case for it has not been made. Part of the reason could be that Hipkins is from the Wellington education establishment, indeed from a family of the Wellington education establishment, and that establishment is profoundly averse to any reduction in establishment control.

With Labour we are ensnared by a powerful paradox: primary school education is in a dismal state, and Labour, in sensing that, has promised the greatest education change since Tomorrow’s Schools but, deep down their still prevails a crippling conservatism in Labour’s education mindset meaning Labour will steadily slide back to the status quo and beyond. The primary school education system has failed in New Zealand, a failure implied, but never made explicit, and set to be repeated. Hipkins refused to become involved because he didn’t want to foul even further the nest he knew he was bound to return to.

The etiolated, sly, jargon-strewn paper issued by Iona Holsted setting out the terms of reference for the Ministerial Advisory Group is evidence that Hipkins has failed to get control of his ministry, leaving the architects of the past, the ingloriously failed past, to be in control of the future.

Primary school education is once again to be run by politicians and bureaucrats fixing on the ideas of experts drawn from those experts’ deceptively-described, farcically-overblown, ‘evidence-based learning’; there will be an organisation like the review office focusing on that education euphemism of the neoliberal age ‘progress and achievement’ rather than the complexities and subtleties of actual teaching and learning; and that same organisation will be central to a hermetically sealed circle of one way Jose, linked to the ministry, to the universities, to privatised advisory services, and to principals who have attended far too many leadership courses and too few curriculum ones; there will still be the same misuse of computers, and use of another euphemism – ‘personalisation’ – which really means abandoning children to their own devices (in both meanings of the word); there will be even more fooling around with open spaces, programmes laden with Hattie-type testing even more intrusive than national standards, with some of that testing high stakes, therefore vulnerable to more intense mark corruption; and there will be even more ‘inquiry learning’, template and phonics overload, fragmented and step-like metaphors for learning, lack of attention to the affective in motivation, lack of cohesion in knowledge, and lack of attention to drama, dance, and the arts.

  1. ‘Getting it’

A good number of teachers will be disappointed that Labour intends to stay with the status quo, but a good number, perhaps a majority won’t , they won’t because they are feeling lost; lost because, while national standards have gone, national standards teaching hasn’t, and they don’t know how to find themselves in their teaching. If the Ministerial Advisory Group goes where it is set to go, those teachers will give a sigh of relief and settle comfortably back into their templates and ‘inquiry learning’. 

It will be many more decades of failure, of the same but worse. 

Neoliberals and their hangers on  (most hangers on don’t know they are) insist on building education structures from the pivotal neoliberal expression of ‘progress and achievement’, an expression developed by people who don’t ‘get it’ (see below) – ‘progress and achievement’ is really just ‘measurement’, but is an expression constructed from the top for the constriction of learning, the convenience of the system, and the preservation of control; they do this instead of building education structures based on the holistic curriculum developed by people who ‘get it’ (see below),  a curriculum that allows children to respond in infinite ways, and for the accompanying process of evaluation to help teachers (and children) to follow where their individual learning has taken them.

When I criticise Hipkins for his lack of intelligence, I always preface it with the adjective ‘education’: those with an ‘education intelligence’ or, as I put it’ who – ‘get it’, that is the ‘curriculum’, are understandably in the minority and are a special breed and, as such, need to be in key interpretive or control positions from the classrooms up. As for ministers of education, they need to surround themselves with such people. I have seen those who work to an admirable proximity of ‘getting it’, but the ones for whom it is inherent should become, as they develop, be recognised as our education geniuses. 

Understanding this section of the writing is very much about ‘getting it’ and ‘not getting it’.

I don’t want Labour members of parliament to be in any doubt, the work of this Ministerial Advisory Group will mean deeper failure for those children who are already failing – no extra money, or other kind of system change, will help those children, it’s the pits for them. But from a long memory I know you will do nothing, even though the remedy is quite simple, what needs to change is that which is taught, and how it is taught, if teachers get the teaching right, are freed and encouraged to get that right, the evaluation, if bureaucrats are kept out of it, will look after itself. Your minister said that, but succumbed to his ministry who happen to be prime hangovers from the previous government and system.

‘Getting it’, for instance, is dependent on ‘getting’ what follows.

Learning to be holistic needs a dynamic main aim, not only for learning as whole but a connecting one for each curriculum and the school education system as a whole. A holistic, dynamic main aim puts school education in the control of schools; an inert main aim, or the complete absence of one – as has been the case for the neoliberal education era under Tomorrow’s Schools, puts bureaucrats and quantitative academics in control.

The holistic philosophy is about the interaction of the cognitive and the affective; the combination of knowledges – teacher and academic (also other); teaching and learning being organised by dynamic broad aims (assisted by criteria that can be seen as converted objectives); dynamic broad aims being an expression of the essence of curriculum areas; learning being meaningful, exploratory, and challenging (hence the attention to discovery learning and problem solving); learning experiences having shape extending from an introduction, to gaining information, to using that information flexibly, to a conclusion; learning being coherent and organic not fragmented and desultory; children having significant control over their learning; observational evaluation being central; and that philosophy being fundamental to school education in a democracy.

If you look thorough the New Zealand curriculum document you will not find a main aim for the curriculum or school education. That omission means the politicians, education bureaucrats, and quantitative academics can interpret the curriculum, and have interpreted it, in ways that suit their education philosophy and vocational interests, and that way is always fragmented.

I have written a main aim for the curriculum and the education system, one that makes for a coherent, transparent, and balanced education system.

The holistic main aim for school education in a democracy is that school education should prepare children for life in a democracy and to support and to protect it. 

This main aim points to its basis in humanism which affirms the dignity of the individual and advocates democracy as a way of establishing and furthering that. It rejects authoritarian beliefs, emphasising individual freedom, responsibility, compassion, and the need for tolerance and co-operation. And it affirms that we must take responsibility for our own lives and the world in which we live.

Such a main aim is comprehensive and dynamic. The question then becomes: How do you prepare children for life in a democracy – this dynamic main aim leads to dynamic responses, requiring the children to be active in preparing themselves to live in a democracy and to support and protect it. The main aim in opposition to preparing children for life in democracy is preparing children in an unbalanced way for a technocratic, digitalist, vocational future. Indeed, the technocrats by taking control of the future are really taking control of the present. Preparing children for their technocratic future is subsuming preparing children for life in a democracy and is therefore anti-democratic. The opposite should be happening: children should be prepared for life in a democracy by that main aim subsuming the digital and all the disciplines and attending to them in a balanced and thoughtful way.  

The question to ask in an education system aimed at preparing children for life in a democracy is what learning is essential to learning to live in a democracy and to support and protect it?

Of course this would involve the arts, drama, history, geography, mathematics, reading, writing, and the digital.

And as a matter of urgency, Maori language should be made part of the regular and official curriculum. It should be ‘compulsory’, but to tactically assuage alarmed prejudices it could initially be introduced with appointments to larger schools of one teacher and smaller schools sharing a teacher, being done on a school-by-school ‘voluntary’ basis. There is no curriculum activity that would help prepare children better for democratic life in New Zealand and to support and protect it. It is a democratic right for all people who live in New Zealand (whether pakeha or Maori) in which one world view dominates, to have the Maori world view as a powerfully inherent part of the overall culture. There must appointments from outside the school but inside communities. The making of language compulsory should not be sold as a way to fix this or that social, economic, or educational ill – it should only be expressed as a right. Rights are inherent, that’s why they fix ills, but they are more than that, and why they should not be reduced in the explanation. 

As well, it might surprise some people to know that I don’t see the classroom so much as a microcosm of democratic society, as a preparation for it (of course a democratic classroom will be an essential part of it) – you can see much classroom democracy in my models but, for me, a classroom is a preparation for democracy implying sensitive but rigorous teaching and requiring a central role by the teacher, not a by-standing one. Twenty-first century education is characterised by something called ‘inquiry learning’ which, of course, sometimes, in association with computers, produces useful stuff, but often useless, unoriginal, sterile, flashy, culturally insensitive stuff, lacking in cohesion because of the absence of a dynamic main aim.

‘Getting me’ is also about ‘getting’ that the neoliberals want to reduce the affective in learning to make it more measurable so they pare it down. Nothing has been more pared down by neoliberals than skills. Skills are pared down in what they carry to diminish, divide, and fragment learning to allow the formation of measurement hierarchies so favoured by neoliberals. Skills by definition, can only be means not ends, if they are, indeed being used as ends, then leaving aside a few exceptions, the fault is in the ends. The matter is complex but that complexity can be resolved by the use of different vocabulary, vocabulary that is holistic, a bringing together rather than dividing. The label ‘skills’ can be dispensed with and replaced by ‘activities’, that is a combination of child-centred things children to achieve holistic ends. As well, below, I introduce the main aims of curriculum areas with the lead in: A willingness and ability to read independently … willingness encompasses children’s attitudes; and ability the means to carry out the various required activities.

Now back to ‘getting’ the dynamism and coherence provided by a main aim.

Each curriculum area would also work to a main aim, connected, of course, to the education system main aim. For instance, in reading the main aim would be: A willingness and ability to read independently (if teachers really had that as a main aim, a whole lot of practices, especially involving writing would be ditched, and drama, for instance, might be included); or in writing, the main aim would be two-fold for the two main kinds of writing: A willingness and ability to write sincerely; and a willingness and ability to write clearly and logically (if teachers really had those as main aims, teachers in both forms of writing would make sure the children were motivated to write and good use was made of what was written); or in mathematics the main aim would be: A willingness and ability to solve mathematical problems (if teachers had that as a main they would be real problems not ones from Math-Aids.Com templates posing a so-called problem like ‘Melanie had 805 pennies in her bank. She spent 471 of her pennies. How many pennies does she have now?’) A mathematics problem is not an old fashioned sum dressed up with words to be a ‘problem’ but a problem possessing complications requiring time and discussion to resolve; or in science the main aim would be: A willingness and ability to pursue an idea, observing and testing that idea, reaching conclusions that can reasonably be validated by the evidence of their investigations, and that can replicated by others (if teachers did that there would be a decisive move away from study skills projects); in arts dance, and drama the main aim would be a willingness and ability, using a range of art, dance, or drama forms, and grounded in the real life experiences of New Zealand children, both concrete and abstract, to participate in activities that can be described as an exploration and expression of a unique New Zealand identity (if teachers did that, the arts, dance, and drama would develop a sincerity, cohesion and immediacy for children). 

An overall intention in teaching and in any curriculum area is to work with children for that moment of transformation even transcendence.

No matter the curriculum means or practices, all curriculum activity, whether digital or not, should conform to the fundamental democratic aim of education: that aim is to provide an education experience of the sort that transforms (or is intended eventually to transform) children intellectually, aesthetically, ethically, and reflectively. Such experience takes children back to two fundamental cultural breakthroughs – the way things are, are not necessarily the way things are or should be; and an individual’s place in it is not predetermined, and from that, the realisation of ‘I am’ and the capacity to think, imagine, appreciate, and appraise. In a sense, the individual becomes of the world he or she lives in and a step beyond it. Leading to three questions continually to be asked, wrestled with, and answered, but never concluded, they are: Who am I? Why are we living this way? How can we make things better? It is this process that puts all curriculum areas, and the digital, into context, a democratic one – transforming the main purposes of everything that occurs to prepare children for life in a democracy and to support and to protect it.

I remember being in my friend’s Chris Horne’s room watching him take a drama event, and my eye caught the transcendence of a boy and the thought went through my mind: That boy will never be the same again, his way of looking at the world will be forever changed.

I had set up a y. 6 classroom teacher with pictures and text to take a social studies unit on the Treaty of Waitangi. They used a number of small activities that in combination helped build up a fair bit of knowledge, many of the activities were based on pictures, also on reading to children, as a way to provide the children with the knowledge which interacts with the affective and, on that happening, the children becoming affectively involved. All children, as New Zealanders, should have multiple experiences in exploring the meanings and implications of the Treaty of Waitangi – achieving that, carried out holistically, could indeed be transformational and enable children to see the world in a different and insightful way. In the 1990s, I produced a picture kit, accompanying notes, and activities. I had gone up to Waitangi and taken photos of Waitangi in action, also pictures of significant places in the years building up to the Treaty signing, the places around the country where the Treaty was taken for further signing and, of course, places where battles had taken place in the bitter aftermath and the battles in action (some of them photographs, others historical artwork collected from art galleries). The teacher was using that resource. Towards the end, the teacher then read excerpts (included in the kit) from the speeches chiefs made, she did not push for emotion – she just let the knowledge do the work – but a good number of the children were weeping – not an outcome necessarily sought but a sure sign the children were in. When I was watching the teacher take the Treaty of Waitangi topic the thought that kept going through my mind was that the teacher was taking the children where they had never been before – and they would, like the boy at drama, never be the same.

A problem that qualifies as a genuine problem for children has certain characteristics, for instance: it is a genuine problem – not one the children already know the answer to; it is a genuine problem – one that has considerable intellectual challenge; it is a genuine problem – one that requires some genuine thinking at the children’s level of thinking; it is a genuine problem – not one that can be downloaded at the click of a couple of keys; it is a genuine problem – one that has considerable affective challenge to it (in other words, stimulates children’s curiosity); it is a genuine problem – in that its richness readily lends itself to other lines of investigation. Problems can be explicit or implicit. In children working on explicit problems, the problem is usually best developed after the children have participated in a number of preliminary activities. Problems in other words, should be provided with time to emerge and be refined. Teachers often overlook the subtlety, honesty, and power of implicit problem solving. Being implicit the children are, of course, not made aware of the problem – that would interfere with the process and calculation of response. The problem would usually relate to the value-based main aim of a curriculum area and involve the children being moved to that main aim through a series of activities. The process could be seen as just another example of good teaching but in this case heightened by the likelihood of the teacher’s increased clarity and intensity of purpose.

Children can develop an affective relationship with the topic, a powerful attitude of mind, a deep curiosity – and in those ways reveal their intuitive recognition of the implicit problem and their degree of movement toward resolving it. The solving of the problem can be revealed in such things as the tone of voice of a child talking about the people and situations involved, to insightful responses to open-ended activities provided by the teacher, to expressions in drama and the various arts. Sometimes the teacher can observe a movement of sudden and wonderful comprehension in a child’s eyes. For the experience to be transformational, indeed, transcendent, it needs to be encompassing in implication, extending far beyond the specific focus of the topic. The experience can also be transformational for the teacher, deepening his or her understanding of children’s learning. An example from social studies of such an implicit problem is children being involved in a series of activities exploring the idea of the underlying similarity of all human behaviour as a means to coming to terms with, and appreciating, difference. It is an implicit problem, so the children are never told of the idea being explored or of the intended outcome, they are just exposed to a number of activities that could lead them to a satisfying resolution. The reward for teacher and child can be a wonderful shared experience: the child seeing the world in a different way; and the teacher, children.

‘But then I looked across the road to under the spreading oak and I felt a chill. The ministry delegation was clustered around their public service car in deep and serious discussion. I sensed then a different message leading to a different mood to be delivered to head office. It reminded me of the change of mood after the Springbok tour match at Hamilton – a change of mood from finding us mildly comical to one bordering on hatred. The body language of the ministry officials, Mary Chamberlain at the centre, was a signal – inevitable if our struggle was lifted to the real – that the New Year was going to be a terrible one in our education history with the education of a generation of children at stake, the professionalism of teachers, and the humanism of our system.

‘Get it?’

Let me know.

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1 Response to Not ‘Getting it’ – and ‘Getting it’

  1. Cindy Meyer says:

    Agree with much, but the overall aim seems a bit weak. In my opinion it would be better to include the thought of wisdom and working together to make a just democratic society.
    Love the ‘willingness and ability’ phrase. I still like the phrase, ‘knowledge, skills and attitudes’ as foundational to the curriculum. I personally plan this way.
    Teaching and learning is the focus and not measurement, and this changes everything. Evaluation is so much more complicated than a set of measures. It includes relationship between teacher and student, invitation to improve, decision, a complex and complicated mix of knowledge, skills and attitudes that are very difficult to separate and identify individually. That said I don’t want to join in the present Hattie bashing. He has taught us many helpful things, including making explicit the standard, but a helpful tool becomes an unhelpful weapon when it is taken too far, and becomes dominant.

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