Closing NZ’s knowledge gap

06 August 2018
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Professor Elizabeth Rata

COMMENT: What is behind the schism in our education system? The Coalition of Principals’ response to the Government’s NCEA Review has brought to the surface the long-simmering conflict between two opposing camps. It’s one presented in the media as ‘traditional education’ versus ‘progressive education’. That’s not the case. None of the principals is arguing for an elitist education. Both so-called ‘traditionalists’ and so-called ‘progressivists’ agree about the purpose of schooling - fair and equitable education for all students. The disagreement is about the means. It’s about how we get that equitable education. 

The Science Faculty at De La Salle College was a worthy finalist in this year’s Prime Minister's Education Excellence Awards. Kane Raukura, the Faculty Head, attributes the expedential increase in the school’s chemistry, physics, and biology classes to making science compulsory, teaching it well, and expanding students’ horizons. These are all features of a knowledge-rich education. Academic subjects are compulsory. Teachers know their subject well. They also know how to teach the knowledge in creative and motivating ways. The school knows that by providing this knowledge, difficult as it is, students, their families, and the nation benefits.

It seems so obvious that providing academic knowledge is the purpose of education, so why is De La Salle’s Science Faculty exceptional? Why isn’t this rich knowledge offered at early childhood centres, primary schools, and secondary schools regardless of the wealth or poverty of the community?

Fuelling the confusion is the inaccurate portrayal of academic knowledge, at times its downright misrepresentation. Accusing its proponents as out-of-touch ‘traditionalists’ wanting to re-instate the 19th century classroom, with rows of unmotivated students, boring teachers, and ‘chalk and talk’ methods, is distorting the truth out of all recognition.

It’s not only an untrue picture of academic knowledge’s intrinsic value, but it ignores almost a century of creative teaching methods in this country. We can have, and in many schools like De La Salle do have, all the components of good education; academic knowledge, creative teaching methods, and knowledgeable teachers. 

Let’s give academic knowledge the value it’s due by first recognising what it is. It’s the knowledge that enables us to think about what we don’t experience. It’s the knowledge in our minds. We start acquiring this rich, powerful knowledge from the moment we begin to use language. Its first rewards are felt in our delight at reading imaginative stories, or counting to 10 for the first time, or learning the names of the stars at Matariki.

We don’t have to wait until secondary school to experience the joy of discovering a world beyond our ken. The symbolical systems of words and numbers open up this world to us, taking us beyond the limits of our experience to what we don’t know that we may indeed enjoy knowing. To deny this rich knowledge to young people, from youngsters to university students, is not only inequitable. It’s morally wrong.

Why the insistence on a false portrayal of academic knowledge? Why the refusal to acknowledge that there is some knowledge which must be compulsory because of its inherent value? What are the consequences of a national curriculum which does not provide equal access to this valuable knowledge? The success of the science students at De La Salle should not be exceptional. It should be the norm for all, especially for those in disadvantaged areas. 

Sebastian Faulks’ novel A Week in December describes what knowledge-blindness looks like. His character, Gabriel the lawyer, tells the story of what has happened to knowledge. Gabriel “was lucky enough to be educated at a time when teachers thought children could handle knowledge. Then teachers withheld knowledge. I suppose the next lot of teachers didn’t have the knowledge to withhold. Now knowledge has been abandoned as a goal. We chose to know less”. This dire fate is what worries the Principals’ Coalition. Given our empty national curriculum and the current tinkering with NCEA, they are right to be worried. We choose to know less.

Professor Elizabeth Rata is the Director of the Knowledge in Education Research Unit in the Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Auckland.

Used with permission from Newsroom, Closing NZ’s knowledge gap published on Monday 6 August 2018.