Can we finally agree on how to run schools?

New Zealanders have been arguing about education since the Royal Commission on Social Policy in the 1980s told them the needs of all students were not being met. After thirty years of debate confusion reigns. But there is a way forward

The New Zealand education system is in trouble. Not for the reason usually advanced by the critics of our public schools, but because for far too long we have ben arguing about how to equip young New Zealanders for the rapidly changing times in which we live.

The confusion caused by this debate leads to constant shifts in policy, uncertainty in the education community, concern among parents and a bad deal for students.

That confusion started in the 1980s when the Royal Commission on Social Policy pointed out that the education system, geared to the demands of a society that was fast disappearing, did not meet the needs of many students.  

Pointing out the problem proved to the easy compared to the difficulty we have had finding a solution everyone can agree on.

After thirty years of debate we have a system that includes two main camps (what I will call the first and second Ways) and increasing pressure to allow small groups to exit the public system.

Two “Ways”

The first Way is something most adult New Zealanders over thirty know well because they experienced it. They chose what to study from a pre-defined and delineated set of options, sat with 20-40 others, learned from a teacher, who delivered a set amount of content in a more-or-less inspirational style, sat tests/exams, got results, moved onto the next stage and did it all again. In other words the focus was on learning a great deal of content.  

In times of major change, many people prefer a version of this first Way because it allows them to take refuge in what they know while the education debate rages around them.

The second Way argues that in a rapidly changing world, students have to be provided with the skills they will need to thrive. Now and in the future skills like collaboration, problem-solving, innovation and self-regulation will be far more important. Appropriately equipped, young New Zealanders will be ready for whatever the future might bring.

Over many years in a variety of roles I have been part of the education system and, while the first and second Ways should be seen as generalisations, they represent the poles in what can often be a very fractious debate.

There is, thankfully, a glimmer of hope. It is, if you like, a third Way that called “personalising learning”. Just as I have seen the first and second ways in action, so too have I seen the third Way. More precisely, for reasons I will explain, I have seen exciting shifts in that direction.

Personalising Learning

Personalising learning is based on the assumption that we are entering the knowledge age. In such a world, everyone is going to need access to the kind of knowledge and thinking skills that in pervious times were the preserve of post-graduate students. Learning is no longer about “filling” up students with what they need to participate in the workforce and society before they exit the education system: rather it is about building the foundations for life-long learning.  The aim is to equip learners with the knowledge, skills and attitudes they need to participate in the 21st century – in whatever way works best for them.

If there is a temptation to think that personalising learning is merely a combination of the positions occupied by the poles in this debate – think again. It means nothing less than transformation.

For schools it means:

  • customising learning;
  • developing links with parents and the wider community;
  • becoming part of a learning community and allowing the student to engage with other schools and people outside education;
  • producing knowledge as well as consuming it;
  • developing a culture that acknowledges each child is different;
  • developing the talents of young people through a diverse range of teaching practices.

For the students it means:

  • being at the centre of learning;
  • the system being reshaped to fit them;
  • being directly involved in ensuring their learning fits their needs;
  • enjoying learning.

For teachers is means:

  • high expectations for all students;
  • using assessment to diagnose and inform the development of each student;
  • using diverse teaching practices;
  • making use of new technologies;
  • being both teacher and a facilitator linking students to whatever helps them learn;
  • understanding that what a student knows and what they can do with what they know are equally important;
  • redefining what it means to be a professional;
  • leaders within the school (including Principals) facilitating change.

For parents and caregivers it means;

  • being fully involved in their child’s learning:
  •  being involved in school-community life;
  • insisting on clear information about the progress of their child;
  • helping to plan their child’s future.

For employers it means:

  • becoming involved in learning,
  • supporting the shift to personalised forms of learning,
  • finding out what mix of knowledge, skills and attitudes will be required in future workplaces.

For the Ministry of Education it means:

  • providing an environment – curriculum, assessment, teacher training, physical resources, evidence, supporting links to the community and families - that will enable schools (they have to do it themselves) to shift to personalising learning.

For Ministers of Education it means:

  • not building policies around 20th century questions,
  • being prepared to convince all education stakeholders in the need for change.

I would add one other dimension. All students need to acquire the foundations for life-long learning and this will usually take until they are sixteen. In their late teens it should be possible for students to begin to choose a route that suits them. In particular, moving into more vocational or academic forms of learning. Critically, there should be no status difference that surrounds this choice.

Come Together

Finally, I mentioned earlier that I have seen bold and exciting attempts to offer personalised learning. But it is hard work. Schools that move down this track often find themselves criticised by parents, employers and sometimes even students who believe they should be focusing solely on passing exams.   

This is why it is vital to resolve the education debate. By personalising learning we offer young New Zealanders the best opportunity to thrive in new times. It is not possible to make this shift if it occurs in isolation. It is the system that must change if we are to see the kind of transformation that is needed to ready ourselves for the 21st century. It is time to agree.  


Note: This article draws on a paper written by Jane Gilbert and Rachel Bolstad as background for policy development during my time as the Minister of Education.