Steve Maharey: Education is not just about knowledge

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Steve Maharey replies to Elizabeth Rata's criticism of the school curriculum

Students today need to have more than a good memory for facts - they must be able to produce their own knowledge. Photo / Getty Images
Students today need to have more than a good memory for facts - they must be able to produce their own knowledge. Photo / Getty Images

As the Minister of Education who was responsible for the introduction of the national curriculum, I was very interested to read the article by Elizabeth Rata in the Weekend Herald on September 7. It argued that today's students are being short-changed by the disappearance of knowledge from the curriculum in favour of skills, competencies and values.

This is of concern, argues Associate Professor Rata, because it is through acquiring knowledge that students learn what they will need to succeed in life.

This argument will have struck a chord with many.. Wanting an explanation for what ails our schools they will now be able to say "Ah, so it is because students can't tell Shakespeare from Bourdieu."

If these comments appear to be disapproving of what Associate Professor Rata had to say, let me note that I think she has a point. In my current role as vice-chancellor of a university, I want students to graduate having learned as much as possible of that stock of knowledge.

As an academic sociologist, ensuring that my students studied content was a priority. How could they possibly advance sociological knowledge if they did not first have a clear understanding of what their predecessors had already discovered?

But I am troubled by one key aspect of Associate Professor Rata's article: It takes a one-dimensional approach to what might be wrong or right with our education system. We have been here too often before. Focusing on one element has not allowed us to respond properly to the challenge of building a 21st century learning environment for students.

By the way, the national curriculum does not ignore content. It clearly identifies learning areas and outcomes - outcomes that cannot be achieved without content being taught. This is why the curriculum document was intended to be supported by a wide range of materials.

The curriculum does not dictate what content teachers should ask students to learn because it was intended that well trained, well paid, professional teachers would be making decisions about how best to engage their students.

To get the best from the curriculum, assessment methods known as "formative" were being developed. The intention was to ensure that students had regular access to feedback that would improve their learning as opposed to the traditional "summative" methods which ranked students once the learning had supposedly taken place.

There was also strong emphasis on the need to engage the home and community.

A radical curriculum, effective teaching, formative assessment and engagement with the community add up to a formidable agenda for change. A supportive environment is, therefore, essential.

The physical layout of schools has to change to allow for a more active style of learning and more engagement with the outside world. Information technology should ensure unfettered access to content while supporting anywhere, anytime opportunities to learn.

The organisation of the school day should be flexible rather than broken up into rigid blocks of time. Out-of-school support services should be available to ensure problems, like violence, are able to be dealt with effectively.

When this package of policies was released they were referred to as personalising learning. This should not be confused with individualising learning. The process of learning is always social and requires the kind of environment provided by all of the points above being taken together.

The environment was to be one that encouraged active learners to go as far as their talents would take them.

It is a tragedy that in the few years since these policies were outlined, our education system has once again been captured by a simplistic debate. Instead of asking ourselves what a 21st century education system should be like, we are back to arguing about single policies like charter schools or national standards.

Associate Professor Rata risks taking us down the same pathway. But now it is content that we should focus on. She is absolutely right to stress the need for content but not in isolation from what else is important for good learning. There is no either/or here. We need to advance on many fronts at once.

In today's world, learners need to know content and what to do with that content. More, they need to know how to produce their own content. We are equipping young New Zealanders for a world that is impossible to predict. If they are to succeed in life they will need every tool we can give them.

What is missing is leadership. New Zealand is blessed with an outstanding educational system. Everywhere there are examples of teachers, students and communities who are building on this legacy to ensure they are ready for the 21st century.

Our problem is that they are often doing this against the backdrop of misguided arguments and unsupportive policies. If we could all get on to the same page the educational revolution we need could get under way in earnest.

Steve Maharey is vice chancellor of Massey University.

- NZ Herald

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