Are our school students learning what they need to know and be able to do? Are they being taught in ways that motivate them to learn and do the hard yards when things are challenging? What support do teachers and school leaders need so that we can answer yes to these questions?
To me, these were the underlying questions behind the government’s set of educational reviews that were completed last year: The Tomorrow’s Schools Independent Taskforce; the Curriculum, Progress and Achievement Group; and the NCEA review.
Each of these reviews built on well-informed analysis and wide consultation. Their recommendations have largely become part of the government’s education work programme.
The final reports from these reviews highlight the value of trusting relationships – in the classroom, between colleagues, between schools and the Ministry of Education – and how such relationships are formed and improved through the kinds of interaction and partnership that need to occur if we are going to see real improvements.
They also point to the value of clarity and coherence in policy and support, so that individual teachers and school leaders do not have to reinvent the wheel but are supported with the knowledge and skills they need to do their jobs well.
And all the reviews’ final reports emphasise that the changes they recommend should not be rushed. There have been too many rushed changes in education that have come to nothing, at the cost of deepened cynicism, and wasted hours for students, teachers and Ministry of Education staff.
Nonetheless, there is keen interest in how the recommendations are already taking shape. As the saying goes, the devil is in the details.
Some recommendations from the Tomorrow’s Schools Independent Taskforce were included in the Education and Training Bill 2019 which is now with the Education and Workforce Select Committee to consider the submissions made on it and suggest any amendments before the Bill returns to Parliament for a second reading.
As part of the NCEA Review change package, the Ministry of Education has undertaken a Review of Achievement Standards and released draft Learning Matrix and Assessment Matrix for four learning areas in NCEA Level 1. These drafts are out for feedback until 1 March. Then they’ll be refined, put out for more feedback, and tested in school trials in 2021. So, there will be plenty of opportunity to consider them and make sure they’ll work for all our students to gain the knowledge and skills they need, in ways that motivate them.
I look at the Science and English Learning and Assessment draft matrices through my lens as a researcher. I think about how hard it can be to provide rich curriculum learning opportunities for students.
Rich curriculum learning opportunities grow students’ knowledge as well as their capabilities, including critical thinking, social skills, self-management and perseverance, and we need both. NZCER’s longitudinal Competent Learners study found that these capabilities contributed to reading and maths performance during primary school. At secondary school, we found big differences between the learning opportunities in the classes students enjoyed the most and those they least enjoyed. Students enjoyed classes that supported capability development, and enjoyment of learning was linked to academic success.
Other studies of student learning have similar findings about the value of designing learning so that students are fully engaged. I’m currently reading an insightful American study of ‘deeper learning’ which describes ‘apprenticeship’ approaches that involve well-scaffolded project-based, problem-based or inquiry learning where students work with knowledgeable teachers. The authors, Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine, give a thoughtful analysis of the system’s support infrastructure that is needed for such deeper learning. We’re fortunate in Aotearoa New Zealand that we have a much more permissive system than learners and teachers have in the USA. But as was found with NCEA, the system must ensure that assessments and qualifications don’t distort good intentions, and that teachers are provided the conditions and tools that they need to provide students with enjoyably demanding learning.
Personally, I’d have liked the NCEA Review to trim our three years of secondary qualifications, and I’m not sure that the increased emphasis on external assessments will support some of the deeper learning that we need if these are only exams. Some creative work – and careful evaluation of the impact of the changes and willingness to change course if there are ‘unintended consequences’ – will be needed.
I’m encouraged by these draft matrices. They’ve been developed by subject expert groups, working with suggestions of underpinning Big Ideas from panels of curriculum experts. The Big Ideas refer to ‘the learning that is too important to be left to chance’, learning that all students should have. The draft matrices unpack these, identifying the knowledge, skills and ways of working that matter at this level of learning. Teachers have guidance rather than prescription, allowing them to customise learning for their students without sacrificing the essence of what all students will gain from knowing and using their knowledge.
So far, so good. But one thing we know from the initial introduction of NCEA, and from the 1990s and 2007 national curriculums is that well-intentioned goals come unstuck if they are not supported with the right kind of infrastructure.
Both the Curriculum, Progress and Achievement Group and the Tomorrow’s Schools Independent Taskforce emphasised the importance of a strong national Curriculum Centre within the Ministry of Education that has the respect and contributions of teachers, leaders, curriculum experts and researchers. Such a Curriculum Centre is essential to the enrichment of our schools’ teaching and learning. It can’t be just the current slew of downloadable materials. What’s needed is well-designed scaffolding coupled with knowledgeable local advice, evaluation, and channels for sharing and growing teacher knowledge and expertise. It needs expert and agile capacity to respond to needs as they are identified and adapt curriculum support in rapidly changing times.
The government has recently funded physical infrastructure. We need to see the same injection and continuing support for our knowledge and capabilities infrastructure.