By Michael Reddell 30/06/2017

I usually don’t pay much attention to the output of the Ministry of Education or its ministers.  I often fear that if I did it would turn out to be about disconcerting as MBIE’s output.  

I focus on getting my own kids through the school system with as little enduring damage as possible  (one of the real joys of being a stay-at-home parent is the time to counter the “indoctrination” that comes from, say, fourth form social studies teachers).

Every time I walk past the Ministry of Education’s head office in Wellington, their slogan or motto emblazoned across the front of the building gets my goat.  It reads

“Lifting aspiration and raising educational achievement for every New Zealander”

It must have sounded good to the bureaucrats and their PR people, but frankly it is the sort of slogan that shouldn’t be seen outside an authoritarian state –  Singapore, Turkey or the like.   Ideally it wouldn’t be seen even there.

I don’t particularly want to have my “educational achievement” raised, and certainly not by the government and its ministry.  As it happens, I’m always keen to learn and am a voracious reader.  Many people aren’t.   But, either way, what business is that of the government?    My “aspirations”, such as they are, are my own, and also no business of the ministry or the government.   The Ministry would, only can only assume, have strongly disapproved of St Paul, who wrote that “for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content”.

If one took it seriously, it is the stuff of a mindset that sees citizens as a resource of the state, owing it to the state to get with the programme (whatever it is).    Many ministers must be able to see the slogan from their Beehive office windows: does it never occur to them that they are from the National Party?  Among National’s values are, supposedly

  • Individual freedom and choice
  • Personal Responsibility
  • Competitive enterprise and reward for achievement
  • Limited government
  • Strong families and caring communities

I’m pretty sure that list doesn’t really fit that well with the Ministry of Education trying to lift your aspirations or achievements.  Come to think of it, the ACT leader is a Parliamentary Under-Secretary to the Minister of Education, and as a party they claim to be even more strongly in favour of limited government.

Do government departments need slogans at all?  Perhaps “administer our legislation and advise the Minister of Education” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, but it is what officialdom is really supposed to be doing.

‘Computational thinking’

That quote has been annoying me for a while, but this post was prompted by news that the Minister of Education has announced that “computational thinking” and “designing and developing digital outcomes” will become compulsory parts of the national school curriculum from next year.     Perhaps there is a good case for adding those items to the curriculum (I’m frankly a bit sceptical –  apart from anything else, in ye olden days when I went through school we didn’t teach typing to everyone).  But I looked through the Minister’s speech announcing this change, and have read newspaper articles on it, and listened to other media stories.  And in all of that material, I’ve seen not a hint of what the Minister wants schools to stop teaching, or teach less of.

I’m sure there aren’t many economists in the Ministry of Education, but the idea of constrained optimisation shouldn’t be too difficult to grasp, even for Cabinet ministers.   It is easy to add new items that sound or feel good, but there are only so many hours in the day, so many weeks in the school year (and I’m not one of those who thinks that year should be lengthened).    Perhaps there is room for increased productivity in schools, but there isn’t any suggestion that that is the answer either.  It feels a lot like an initiative that will squeeze other stuff out, and we’ll never quite know what, but the Minister concerned and her officials will long since have moved on by then.  But surely the Minister should be able to tell us what she wants schools teaching less of?   Because it is a real choice, and something will be lost, either consciously and deliberately or by default.

Specific, structured knowledge

I think I’ll always remember the evening, shortly after our oldest child started school, when the then Principal of the local school –  a vocal union advocate for teachers, staunch opponent of National Standards, and prone to somewhat convoluted prose (I often thought he must have been angling for a job at the Ministry) – declaimed that he had no interest in teaching specific knowledge because pretty much everything he had learnt at school had been superseded.   I’m a history buff, and I kept asking myself whether somehow Dick Seddon, Michael Joseph Savage, Sid Holland or Keith Holyoake were no longer significant figures in our history?  Or did World War Two, or the Russian Revolution no longer take place?  Is gravity no longer a force?  Does Shakespeare no longer influence our language and cultural reference points?

It is old ground, but worth repeating. It is all very well to teach general problem-solving and analysis skills, but without context, without specific structured knowledge, those skills aren’t really that much use at all.    And so when the Minister says that schools must teach “designing and developing digital outcomes”, which

“is about understanding that digital systems and applications are created for humans by humans, and developing knowledge and skills in using different digital technologies to create digital content across a range of digital media”

I can’t help thinking that rather better use made be made of the time the Minister wants to devote to matters digital. For example, in teaching New Zealand history, in the context of the history of western civilisation (or even global history) than preparing to use Facebook or whatever newly trendy medium is around a few years hence.    And if there are more resources to train teachers,  I’d suggest some be devoted to improving teachers’ own communications skills.  The local principal (a new one) recently began her newsletter this way

Last week I began a conversation about dispositional ways of being.

I still have no idea what it meant.

C S Lewis, professor of English at Cambridge, once wrote a letter, replying to a young American fan, offering five guidelines for good writing.    Thanks to the wonders of the internet, it is freely available to all our teachers, and to Ministry of Education bureaucrats as well.    George Orwell offered similarly sound advice.


Featured image: verkeorg / Flickr


0 Responses to “A question for the Minister of Education”

  • Learning without context is no learning at all. My 26 year old son, who is an outdoor pursuits instructor with an honours degree in philosophy, espouses the rhetoric that the dairy industry is destroying our clean green country, largely because he has no context. He is an empty vessel for those who deny the benefits of our booming dairy industry and see only farmers, who depend on the health of their land for their livelihood, painted as despoilers.
    I am trying to give him some political context by playing the 9th Floor series of interviews recorded by Guyon Espiner with 6 recent Prime Ministers. He’s getting it and has at least agreed to read media/blogs that don’t agree with his beliefs (I promised to do the same). I am expecting him to make a more balanced decision when he makes his vote in September. History, the context of our society, is necessary to balance what we see in our time, nothing is only of the moment.