What we’re teaching our children is ill-conceived

Opinion: Covid has shown the value of an educated population that trusts science. Time now surely for a ‘knowledge restoration' in schools, writes Elizabeth Rata.

Elizabeth Rata argues that two generations of Kiwi children have been taught to believe that their own opinion is justifiable simply because it is their opinion. Photo: iStock

Only knowledge drawn from disciplines and guaranteed according to rigorous procedures

After nearly three decades of trying various flawed approaches it’s encouraging to see the Ministry of Education may be responding to the rising tide of very worried parents. ‘What about knowledge’ is a cry that has been ignored for far too long. Our experience with Covid has taught us that we need a well-educated citizenry who trust science. We can only trust something we know. Where do we acquire that knowledge if not at school?

All academic subjects seek to know the world in logical systematic ways. When we study these subjects we become rational. We practise thinking logically. We use ideas that are informed by facts then we criticise the ideas and facts using those very methods of logic. Academic knowledge doesn’t just lead to employment. Its value is far greater. It is the type of knowledge that builds the mind and provides the material for our minds to work in rational ways.

Surely all children must have the opportunity to challenge themselves with this difficult but fulfilling knowledge. Tragically we now have two generations of New Zealand children who have missed out on that training in logic. Two generations who have been taught to believe that their own opinion is justifiable simply because it is their opinion.

Let’s use the experience of other countries to inform a much-needed knowledge restoration. England took the ‘knowledge turn’ in 2012. They shifted from the failed 21st century experiment of a curriculum built on measurable skills and child-centred fads to restoring knowledge as the curriculum’s purpose. This shift revealed problems that we can learn from. It showed the need for knowledge balance. In restoring academic knowledge to its rightful place in the curriculum we need to get the balance right between concepts, content and competencies.

Too much content and the resulting facts-only approach leads to rote-learning and unnecessary testing. This is the type of restricted boring curriculum we don’t want. The concept or ‘big ideas’ approach has promise, but ideas without supporting content are equally inadequate. Facts provide the evidence for the ideas. So we need both concepts and content in a balanced design. We also need competencies. After all, we need to be skilled in using knowledge. Designing concepts, content and competencies in the right order and arranged in the right way give us a knowledge-rich curriculum.

At present, teachers have an impossible job. They are currently expected to be curriculum-selectors, curriculum-designers and curriculum-implementers. That first task is an impossible one. No one teacher or school should select the curriculum. It is our national responsibility to ensure that all children are taught the knowledge needed for a well-educated citizenry. It is simply unfair to schools to devolve that huge responsibility to them. The ill-conceived local curriculum makes no sense.

Not only is a national curriculum with sufficient prescribed knowledge needed to ensure that each generation is well-educated. It must guarantee that the knowledge is verifiable and justifiable. It is too dangerous to have schools teaching knowledge which comes directly from beliefs. Genuinely- and passionately-held beliefs may simply not be true. Only knowledge drawn from disciplines and guaranteed according to rigorous procedures is sufficiently reliable to be trusted. Those who teach anti-science ideas and false history should not be allowed to do so in our schools.

Yet a prescribed curriculum is anathema to many. It is difficult to see why. If the knowledge has value, and its mind-building capacity certainly provides that value, then it has value for all. Why should some children miss out? Nor will a prescribed academic curriculum diminish teachers’ automony. Their professional expertise is in curriculum design and curriculum implementation, both requiring sophisticated judgment and creativity.

My colleagues and I are currently undertaking the Knowledge-Rich School Project with a number of schools. Our findings show that it is at the design level that knowledge balance is achieved. Creating the knowledge-rich school occurs in the teachers’ design work. This requires deep subject knowledge as well as knowing how the subject is constituted. Only then can teachers begin designing for knowledge balance. But such complex curriculum design is only half a teachers’ work. Then comes the actual teaching. This requires different but equally sophisticated expertise.

The separation of curriculum (what is taught) from pedagogy (how it is taught) and the depth of expertise needed for both addresses any fears that a prescribed national curriculum will reduce teachers’ autonomy. Their professional expertise lies in knowledge design and in the actual teaching itself. Such professionalism requires high levels of training, is worthy of our respect, and deserves proper remuneration.

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

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of the University of Auckland.

Used with permission from What we’re teaching our children is ill-conceived 16 February 2021.

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