'Social experiment' curriculum draws damning attack

New Zealand's school curriculum has been hollowed out of knowledge as academic learning is increasingly abandoned for a misguided focus on skills and the process of learning, an academic claims.

University of Auckland education associate professor Elizabeth Rata has launched a blistering attack on the NZ Curriculum, calling it a social experiment that will deprive Kiwi kids of intelligence.

Her award-winning article, The Politics of Knowledge in Education, published in today's paper, has reignited debate about what children should be taught at school.

In it, she writes that "one of the great puzzles in education today is what has happened to knowledge".


"Why does our national curriculum not mention content knowledge? Why is it all about skills, competencies, and values? For the past few decades many in education have worried about how to teach, and rightly so, but in doing so, we have taken our eyes off what to teach."

Professor Rata, who has attracted controversy for her writings on issues including biculturalism and the Treaty of Waitangi, argued that academic knowledge is what makes us intelligent, and is the purpose of schooling.

A misguided notion that knowledge is a process, not content, had meant we lost the doubt and criticism of academic subjects.

People will value teachers again when they demonstrate they are knowledgeable, Professor Rata writes.

"A teacher who says, 'I co-inquire with my students', 'I learn from them', 'we construct knowledge together' does not deserve that status."

Allan Vester, chairman of the NZ Secondary Principals Council and head of Edgewater College in Pakuranga, East Auckland, said the NZ Curriculum was now far less prescriptive, but "that is not the same thing as saying there is to be no knowledge".

"The skills, competencies and values can't be taught as standalone items. What the NZC does is give schools and teachers more flexibility about what context they are taught and practised in."

Mr Vester believed the ability to synthesise information, data and situations and then arrive at a solution or new understanding was intelligence, rather than the ability to remember a discrete body of knowledge.


Dr John Langley, a member of the Minister of Education's Forum on Student Achievement, said he thought Professor Rata had a point.

"It has concerned me in recent years that our increased ease and ability to access information has been confused for and, in some cases, provided an argument for not actually learning something. The two are not the same. It is very hard to have an intelligent conversation with someone who constantly has to rush away to a computer to find out what their next salient point is going to be."

Influential educationist Professor John Hattie, said Professor Rata had presented knowledge and "skills, competence and values" as an either/or.

"It is not as simple as prescribing knowledge as if every student throughout New Zealand needs the same - wow, would that not help them in the world they now live in.

"I think Dr Rata has over-simplified the issue by looking at one document, has not been in many schools who are very imbued with domain knowing, and failed to see the many other demands in many New Zealand education system documents, assessments et cetera on schools."

Post Primary Teachers Association president Angela Roberts said since the new curriculum was introduced in 2008 there had been a significant shift in teaching approaches.

"We haven't replaced knowledge with skills and competencies ... The fact that subject-specific expertise is still required of teachers in secondary schools is evidence that academic knowledge is still the major focus of classroom teaching."

Professor Rata said she did not advocate a return to rote learning. New methods of teaching were a step forward, and her criticism was directed at the lack of content prescribed to be taught.

"If the curriculum doesn't say what should be taught, then who does? Where do we get that from? What are children taught?"

Read also: Let's bring knowledge back into schools