Does school still work for kids?

By Joanna Mathers

Technology, resilience and reading - three skills your children need to thrive in an ever-changing world. As schools return this week, Joanna Mathers asks the experts what parents really should be teaching their kids.

Dean and Tanya Gerrard with children Zena, Harry and Grace. Photo / Chris Loufte
Dean and Tanya Gerrard with children Zena, Harry and Grace. Photo / Chris Loufte

Three young people are splashing in a swimming pool in the backyard of an Auckland suburb. It's the end of the summer holidays - long days at the beach are soon to be replaced by school bells, uniforms and homework.

One of the swimmers, Auckland Grammar School student Harry Gerrard, 14, climbs out of the pool and flops down on an outdoor chair. "The holidays go too quickly," he sighs.

His sister Grace, nearly 11, sits next to him. "I'm excited about going to Remuera Intermediate," she enthuses. "I've heard it's a really good school."

Elder sister Zina, 16, is looking forward to her last year of secondary school at Epsom Girls' Grammar, but is realistic about the challenges ahead.

"It will be much harder than last year," she says. "I'll have to prepare a portfolio for university." She wants to study architecture but knows places on the course are hard to come by.

On the eve of the new school year, scenes like this are being played out across the country. And although parents can be fairly sure that school will provide their children with grounding in the basics - maths, science, English - the question has to be asked: will it get them ready to deal with life in a fast and unpredictable world?

The question of whether school works for 21st century kids is occupying the minds of the world's great thinkers. The past decade has been one of exponential growth and change - in 10 years we've seen the emergence of Facebook, Twitter and iPhones.

The population of the planet reached seven billion. We experienced the worst global financial crisis since the Great Depression. Change in the next few years looks set to occur at an even faster rate. Are schools preparing our kids for what lies ahead?

And what role should parents play in equipping their children for a future where change is the only constant?

Parenting and education coach Rachel Goodchild has researched the effect of change on children. She says while parents often think change is bad for kids, it can be just the opposite.

"There is often a negative perception of change, but it doesn't have to be a bad thing.

"Change is actually excellent for building resilience in children. Some more introverted children will need extra help and support in times of change, but change in itself isn't bad."

Rachael says resilience is an essential life skill that's best developed at a young age. Setting age-appropriate goals and being judicious with praise will help build resilient kids.

"Constant praise is counterproductive," she says. "Praising children on a job well done will teach them to strive. If a child gets praise for everything they have nothing to aspire to."

Harry, Zena and Grace's dad, Dean Gerrard, agrees with this philosophy. "I only praise my children when they've done well. I think it's important for children to learn to expect reward for a job well done."

Zena says her parents encourage her to overcome obstacles. "When my parents suggest I do something that seems difficult I'm often resistant.

"But I get a great sense of achievement once I've done it and I learn important lessons along the way."

While resilience is an essential skill, there are other more practical ways to equip young people. One of the skills all school-leavers need is literacy.

Literacy rates have been dropping dramatically over the past few decades, and the lack of basic reading and writing skills has left many young people floundering.

Professor James Chapman is the former vice-chancellor of the Massey Institute of Education, and is now a professor of educational psychology. He is a passionate advocate for literacy but says our standards are a cause for concern, pointing to the international 2006 Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey which revealed that more than half of people aged 16 to 25 had inadequate literacy skills.

"Subsequent surveys in 2009 and 2012 reveal similar results," he says. "There doesn't appear to be any lift in literacy over that time. It's appalling."

The reasons behind these statistics are complex. Chapman's research will attempt to untangle the web of issues underlying our poor literacy rates. But he says there are simple things parents can do to counter the alarming trend.

"Parents and caregivers should turn off the TV and spend time every night playing word games like I Spy or reading to the children in their care.

"Engaging children early on with language develops their meta-linguistic skills and sets them up for when they learn to read."

He says that even five to 10 minutes daily of reading and word games can be of great help. He emphasises the need to make the activities fun - "it shouldn't be viewed as a chore or children will resist it".

Knowledge of technology is another essential component of any modern child's education. A recent report by Parliament's education and science committee on digital literacy and learning in the 21st century put forward the recommendation that every child should have a digital device, such as an iPad, at school.

Although the recommendations have been met with scepticism (there are claims that it will create a "have and have-not" school culture) teachers at schools in some of the country's least-affluent areas say the time has come to implement that idea.

Helen Prasad is head of IT and technology at decile one Otahuhu Grammar. She says courses in digital technology in the school are extremely popular. "There are more people wanting to learn technology than teachers to teach it," she says.

The school has six computer labs, and ensures the computers are up-to-date. "We upgrade our computers every three years."

The school has seen an increase in the use of portable digital devices owned by students and systems are being put in place to allow them to use these. Students who come from families who can't afford such a device will be offered a "lease-to-own" option.

"The families will be able to pay a small amount regularly and the student will be able to keep the device when they leave school," says Prasad.

"I can't see why [the education committee's proposal] shouldn't work. It's a good idea."

Equipping young people with the resources needed to excel in a technological world is just half the story. Technology expert Pam Martin says many students are coming into the workforce with little or no understanding of how to use basic computer programmes.

"A lot of schools don't teach Word or Excel," she says. "Understanding how to use these programmes is a basic requirement for many jobs."

She says that teaching young people basic computer skills (such as formatting a document in Word or using formulas in Excel) will stand them in good stead.

"If you are sending an employer a CV that uses five different fonts they won't be impressed," she says. "Having a well-formatted, clean CV is the first step to getting a good job."

David Lowe is the employment services manager for the Employers and Manufacturers Association. He says much of the teaching today is geared towards "glamour jobs", such as in design and media, and that a broader approach is needed.

"Young people need a wider breadth of exposure to the jobs that are out there," says Lowe.

"New Zealand is crying out for tradespeople, but these jobs are often not discussed in school. Everyone has different skills and the emphasis on the academic education leaves some students behind. Students need to be able to find out what their skills are and develop them."

Zena Gerrard's experience of Epsom Girls' Grammar is a good illustration of this. "At my school we are being prepared for university. There is not really any expectation of us going straight from school to work."

And while this emphasis on preparing students for further study can be useful, her father Dean says there needs to be more recognition of diversity in the school system.

"We don't live in a square-box society like we did in the 1950s. The internet has exposed our kids to so many different ways of life. But I think many of our children are being held back by an archaic school system.

"If all we expect is that the school system will set young people up with the basics, then send them on their way, fine. But I think it should do more than that.

"School should encourage diversity and help students find their own way in the world."

Four tips to becoming a resilient adult

Life coach Lesley Colchord has these tips.

1) Disappointment is a great catalyst to look at doing some things differently. It may be time to make some changes.

2) Allow yourself to be flexible and to have change in your life.

3) When speed bumps and challenging knocks are encountered, wounds may need to be licked, but just for a short time! Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, take what you can from that lesson, and then bounce back up.

4) Don't take things personally, learn and resolve and keep moving ahead.

Five tips for raising resilient kids

Parenting expert Rachel Goodchild has these tips for developing resilience in children.

1) Don't freak out around your kids about change. You can't spend your life protecting your children from change. If you accept change your children will learn from you.

2) Confident, resilient parents raise confident resilient children. Working on your own confidence will help you to be a good role model for your children.

3) Make sure you have your own life. You are not your child's slave! Don't feel guilty for doing things without your children. It will help them develop independence.

4) Praise children for a job well done. Excessive praise reduces resilience. Set age appropriate goals for your children and praise them when they achieve it. The more you praise the less your children will want to achieve.

5) It's not the tools your children have that are important it's how they use them. Free play (without mechanical or digital toys) can make children more confident. Parents pour money into gadgets for their children when they're not really necessary.

- Herald on Sunday

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