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Initial report from the Ministerial Advisory Group: Reasons to be Cheerful, Part. 3…(maybe)

By Steve Saville

Well, if nothing else the initial report from the Ministerial Advisory Group, released late last week, has at least provided me with the opportunity to use the title of a song from the late, great Ian Dury to start this blog.

As expected the release of this report has caused a bit of a debate and discussion, including the excellent review of the report published by the Aotearoa Educators Collective [here]

I share much of the concern voiced so far, especially around the eurocentric focus that seems to be advocated in the initial report but, being an eternal optimist, I think there are glimmers of hope within the 60 plus pages of this report. So bear with me while I outline why I think there are some reasons to be cheerful as a result of this initial report (as well as reasons to be more than a little worried).

From the outset I need to clearly say that I believe we all know we can do better in the reduction of inequity within our schools, but I also believe in the mantra ‘nothing about me without me’, my main concern is similar to that expressed by the Aotearoa Educators Collective, is with the process:

Who is being consulted, who is being listened to, and who is making the decisions?

If this process is not inclusive - and truly inclusive - then it will inevitably be divisive. I also need to say that egos have no place in education. It  is too important, our kids are too important. I will just leave that comment there but I hope it will be clarified below. 

Reason to be Cheerful #1

I realise that most of the material relating to Te Mātaiaho has been taken down from the Ministry’s site but the MAG report makes constant reference to Te Mātaiaho and on page 7 (1.4 Recommendations) the authors suggest that the Minister, “approves the amalgamation of Te Mātaiaho, the Common Practice Models and the teaching sequences into a single document.”

So it would seem that there is no desire to scrap Te Mātaiaho, this is a positive. It is my hope that the whakapapa of Te Mātaiaho, with its seven interweaving curriculum components, remains as the unifying document that sits over and unifies whatever happens in the refreshing of the refreshed curriculum. 

The MAG report seems to be driven by a desire (amongst other things) to create greater cohesion, connection and clarity across the sector. This is all good and it is my hope that we continue to see the whakapapa of Te Mātaiaho as the mauri in all of this. After all at its heart is Mātaitipu, the learner, and this surely remains the prime reason why all of us have entered this profession; to enhance the learning experiences of each and every child who enters our classrooms. If retained, the whakapapa of Te Mātaiaho could still be the beating heart that gives life and compassion to the proposed recommendations that lie within the report.

The whakapapa provides the overarching and interconnected framework that will inform and direct the connection and cohesion that the MAG report sees as being of paramount importance. It already talks about progressions and monitoring within its components so it seems to be a perfectly appropriate korowai to wrap around the recommendations outlined in the report. If this whakapapa remains then the potential for our teaching and learning energies to be focused on the  learner rather than some cyclical political game, is not unrealistic.

This, surely, is a reason to be cheerful. Naive? Possibly - but there are numerous examples within the report that hint at a real desire to address equity issues that currently exist within her sector. On Page 34 the MAG report refers to the lack of conclusive evidence supporting streaming. 

 “However, while streaming sometimes improves the achievement of students in higher streams, it often disadvantages students in low streams. The effects in those different contexts often cancel in the overall effect size.”

Then on page 16 the report sees the potential benefits of integrating learning (albeit in a literacy context).

“ Literacy then becomes an important component of every school subject from about Year 7 and must be increasingly integrated with specific subjects thereafter.”

So there is enough in this initial report to suggest that the inclusive vision of learning as captured in the  whakapapa of Te Mātaiaho and the desire to reduce inequities could still lead us forward in a way that retains the learner as being at the centre of all we do.

Reason to be Cheerful #2

Now if this was to be the case then I see the MAG report as primarily recommending a fleshing out of the specific details that sit below the seven components of Te Mātaiaho. This is another reason to be cheerful.

If we really want to close the equity gap then we have to do all we can to ensure that every child, irrespective of where they go to school or what school they go to, or even what class they are in within a school, receives the same rich and enriching educational opportunities.

With this goal in mind a more detailed and specific curriculum is nothing to be feared or suspicious of. If we can combine content and pedagogy into one coherent document we could be on the right track to systematically address inequities within our system.

In the same way a focus on foundational skills is something we should welcome. A student can not go ‘deep’ in their learning if they are struggling with the foundational skills that are the basis of literacy and numeracy. A skilled musician, artist, tradesperson spends hours practicing and refining the basics before they can innovate, problem solve and create.

Again, a focus on foundational skills is nothing to be fearful of. 

I include here the recommendation in the report that we prioritise the physical act of writing. I believe the physical dexterity required to write and make objects of art is vital to cognitive growth and skill mastery. As an example, most of the staff meetings that Rebecca and I facilitate now are tactile, we find that the act of creation encourages engagement, rich discussion, debate, understanding and fun. If the tactile and physical works for adults then it stands to reason it will work in our classrooms.

Then again I could be biased due to the fact that I am a compulsive doodler.

Reason to be Cheerful #3

Third reason to be cheerful can be found on Page 6 of the report and the recommendation that developing literacy skills is the responsibility of every learning area. This is not new, but it doesn't hurt to make sure it remains a focus.

Reason to be Cheerful #4

The MAG report seems pretty keen on the Understand Know Do model. Great. This is another reason to be cheerful. One of the concerns I have had of late is that a section of the profession seem to be seeing the path we are on as a return to explicit teaching as the one and only way to fill the bereft and empty minds of children with knowledge. Explicit teaching is important, and, in some cases, I see nothing wrong with rote learning and memorising key information, unless it is seen as a worthy end product. It is a step towards being able to use knowledge to do things, to create and problem solve with confidence and mastery. The retention of UKD makes it quite clear that learning is not just the acquisition of knowledge but what one does with that knowledge that is important. So the need to use knowledge beyond just regurgitation in a test/ exam situation, to use it in authentic and problem solving situations seems to be understood and supported in the report. Or am I reading too much into it?

Reason to be Cheerful #5

The numerous comments in the report that make it clear that the recommendations are not intended to be restrictive.

 From page 16;

“The sequence is therefore intended to be a support for effective teaching, not a straitjacket. The teaching practices describe ways of teaching the content specified in the sequence.”

And on the same page,

“The MAG recognises that teachers are creative in their work and must be responsive to the needs of their particular students.”

So the professional respect placed in a teacher to choose an appropriate approach and content to suit their context remains as a given, great.

We hear so much about how poorly we are performing in international standardised tests (despite the fact that some of these tests are seen as pretty suspect by many academics around the world).

It is a shame that we don't also celebrate the fact that in these same tests our higher performing students are doing as well as anywhere in the world. So we must be doing something right, somewhere in the country. It would be a crime not to utilise this considerable expertise and use it to inform the development  of many of the reports recommendations. It would be very short sighted and arrogant to not acknowledge and make use of  this powerful, world beating element that exists right here. The report talks about the real enemy early on, inequity, that is what we need to focus on and we have schools and teachers who are highly successful in closing this gap but we need to empower them.

Reason to be Cheerful #6

Even the proposed checkpoints could be a reason to be cheerful. The report refers to them as more formative in nature, rather than summative. Checkpoints designed to inform and warn, to catch students at the top of the cliff, before they stumble off it. Not to be used to report in a summative fashion.

Correctly implemented checkpoints could well be a vital part in reducing inequities, until, that is, they are used to define school effectiveness, until they become part of a national grading system used to classify schools, then they become less about the learner’s needs and more about the schools public image.

OK enough of the rose tinted, love fest. 

There are also many reasons to be fearful at what is contained within this report. 

Reason to be Gloomy #1

I remain very concerned about the composition of the MAG and the associated  National Curriculum Writing Groups. I have no doubt that they are all highly intelligent and passionate educators. I just question whether they are as representative as they could be. 

The three secondary teachers in the English 7-13 writing group are from two central city Auckland schools that serve a higher socioeconomic community. Again, I do not doubt for a minute their abilities. I just wish that overall there was a bit more diversity present. And yes  I do acknowledge the South Auckland Intermediate that also has two representatives within these groups.

Reference is made in the report to consulting with teachers and teacher groups but it seems that this is to be in the trial phase as opposed to the writing phase. Which means that their input is likely to be confined to tweaking and refining rather than establishing direction.

Hopefully I will be proved wrong here but there does seem to be a bit of selective choosing of those who are likely to have a similar perspective when it comes to educational change in Aotearoa and this has the potential to be a divisive rather than a unifying factor.

Reason to be Gloomy #2

This is kind of a mix of the cheerful with  the gloomy and is focused on pages 32 -35 of the report Appendix 2: Standards of evidence.

There seems to be a skepticism in this section about the validity of much of the research that has previously influenced educational initiatives and change. Now I applaud this as I share that skepticism, but this seems a little strange when a fair few of the writers of the report are heavily engaged in research. I accept they are talking primarily about the need to gain real and relevant evidence from ‘good’ intervention studies and how this process is inadequate in many cases. But this reads like, ‘our research is right and good and everyone else's is wrong and poor,’ and this causes me concern. It also seems that they couldn't help but have a pretty obvious dig at John Hattie in passing. This seems to read a little bit like academic posturing here and as teachers we have all had about as much as that as we can stomach.

So the suspicion of research here cheers me up but the fact that this group and the research they adhere to is being presented as the ‘right’ way makes me a little nervous. I wonder if 'they', as a group, are representative enough to really be able to make the claim that they are right and others are wrong. I am nervous that many of the recommendations seem to be asking the Minster to give this group more and more power to make the decisions that will affect all of us (and ultimately our students) when I am not sure they have wide enough credibility yet within the teaching fraternity that will be expected to implement the decisions made by the MAG.

Recent comments around the fact that teachers can't be expected to be involved in curriculum design because they are 'too busy', has done little to allay these fears. It came across as, ‘teachers are too busy - or just not smart enough to be entrusted with higher level thinking’. So there are some trust issues that need to be addressed here. I could be wrong, and I am not saying that the MAG are not right, but I am nervous about how widely they are going to consult in a genuine  and collaborative way.

Why the nerves? Well let me give you an example. One of the MAG members recently provided some insight behind the recommended texts proposal, it was published on [here]

The following quote caught my eye;

“If we turn to the novels programme we have once again an extended list of recommended titles with the addition that teachers will also be able to select their own titles as well."
She said the recommended novels might include Pōtiki by Patricia Grace and Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck at Year 11, with Year 12 recommendations including 1984 by George Orwell, Witi Ihimaera's The Matriarch and Moby Dick by Herman Melville.”

Now I acknowledge that the list would be ‘recommended’ works for study and I applaud this. Primarily because it uses the word ‘recommended', if it was to become a prescribed, mandated list then we are only one short step away from banning books that are seen as unsuitable. This is a situation that we have seen occur in the States where, interestingly, two of the titles above are amongst the most banned titles in schools in certain States: 'Of Mice and Men’ and ‘1984’. Other frequently banned books include ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. 

But we won't have a problem here because this list is ‘recommended’ only…right? 

My main concern though is the inclusion of ‘Moby Dick’ as an example…seriously, has anyone read 'Moby Dick' recently, or at all? Once you have read past the quite tender homo erotic opening section, the novel becomes a turgid ordeal that I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy, let alone the nation's youth. 

For some bizarre reason, a few years ago, I was determined to read ‘Moby Dick’ and ‘Don Quixote’ in their entirety. Finishing ‘Moby Dick’ was an act of resilience and bloody minded determination. As yet I have been unable to complete ‘Don Quixote’ which sits there on my bookcase, with its sad bookmark permanently lodged about half way through, mocking me.

If we want to suck the joy of reading and literature out of our senior students then yep let's give them a dose of ‘Moby Dick’ - that'll do it! I consider myself well read and have a lifelong love of the classics, but I sincerely hope the advisory group that will be assembled to compile this list will save our youth from ‘Moby Dick'. After all there are so many beautiful works of literature that will enlighten and enrich us that we don't need the whale.

I mention this small example because to me it could be an indication of how aspects of the report and those writing it could be a wee bit out of touch with our reality. Any teacher subjecting a class of Year 12 learners to ‘Moby Dick’ is likely to end up being the one harpooned.

Which brings me to...

Reason to be Gloomy #3

Schools are meant to be places of magic, they need to be places of joy. They need to be places where young people learn and then use that knowledge to create. 

The one thing I see missing from this report is the sense of joy. I know this all sounds a little bit ‘unicorny’ and it could be argued that ‘spreading joy’ is not the purpose of the report but if we dont enshrine what we value in our documentation then we may well lose it. I fear we could lose the joy of learning in our pursuit of the appropriate and correct use of the semicolon; a development that I have heard expressed by teachers from the UK. 

Reason to be Gloomy #4

Look, I know the ‘devil is in the detail’ and this initial report can hardly be expected to provide all the required detail (especially as I still hope that there will be extensive consultation before those details are finalised), but there is one more aspect that bothers me. 

The PISA results are referenced by all of us who think we need to address falling standards in our education system, and let's be honest we all know that we have work to do. But PISA largely tests critical thinking and the understanding of what the message is in the writing, it is less a test of foundational skills. As a nation we actually don't do too badly in the foundational skills area when measured internationally. The problem is that whilst many of our students can read they don't understand the nuances of what they are reading, the complexity and purpose of the writing is often only superficially grasped. This is the area that we need to really make progress in, this is the area where transferable skills can play a part, this is an area where cross curricula studies can make an impact and this is an area where authentic learning context can make an impact. I agree with the emphasis on foundational skills, I agree with the fleshing out of what progress looks like as students progress through school, I agree with being more specific about content than we have been of late, but I still wait nervously to see how we are going to address the development of the critical, analytical skills beyond this, because this is where the environment within the classroom becomes as important as the content, because this is where development of student curiosity, imagination and creativity become vital parts of development and understanding and that is why we can't lose the sense of magic and the joy.

Final ‘Unicorn’ rant

I learnt my love of literature and words and ideas not from grammar drills but from my older brother reading, ‘Animal Farm’ to me when he was studying it for School Cert. I learnt my love of reading from my Father who encouraged me to read comics, by a student teacher who encouraged me to read ‘Lord of the Flies' when I was 12 and then took the time to discuss it with me. I learnt my love of literature in the Levin Public Library where I was welcomed into the worlds of Moomintrolls and Hobbits. 

In all of this, the one thing that will make me really gloomy is that in our pursuit of technical competence (which is certainly of vital importance) we lose the joy.

I don't want to live in a world without Moomintrolls.

We need to make sure we have the right balance and currently I feel that the process is not ensuring that we have that balance right…yet. 

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