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More than maths and marmite

28 May 2021
Writer At Work: Maze Of Pencils And Ideas
Conceptual still life with notepads, paper, and a labyrinth made of coloured pencils on a dark wooden background

The changing blend of traditional and contemporary approaches to education means our children have more options for their futures – and stronger voices than ever before. Words Shelley Robinson

Mathematics teacher Rosie Adams remembers using a bander machine. When she started teaching in 1982, the manual copy machine, which left teachers with purple-stained hands, was used to make classroom resources. Most were handwritten, unless you had a typewriter. In her classroom, she had a blackboard, a stack of textbooks and log tables for longer equations.

“There were certainly no calculators,” she chuckles down the phone from South Canterbury’s Mackenzie College.

She taught students in what she calls “transmission mode”
– giving information for students to “regurgitate” later in an exam. Not ideal at all, she says.

“You get students who are bored because they are forced to sit and listen to stuff they already know; you get students who are frustrated because it is too hard for them; and you get a band of students in the middle who are probably quite happy with it because it doesn’t require them to make a lot of mental effort.”

Traditional vs contemporary

The blackboard is just a dusty memory for Rosie. She now teaches by “co-construction of digital learning material in the classroom to enable personalisation of student learning”.

Students are tested to find out their strengths and weaknesses. From there, students choose what they want to learn about, then build a website to share the information in an interactive way. The resource is then available for the whole class to learn from. Makes copying sums out of a textbook look a tad dull.

Herbert E1550791310216
Dr Herbert Thomas

The Mind Lab Master of Contemporary Education postgraduate director Dr Herbert Thomas says the education system is rapidly developing from the “one-size-fits-all” model. But schools are at different places on the education spectrum.

Traditional education, says Herbert, puts children in age “batches” and teaching from the point of view of the mythical “average student”, relying on the assumption they have the same levels of knowledge and skills.

“In a way, because it has been described as Fordist … it is almost design based, to some extent, on the production line. But we know from experience that is not how it works. Students come into an educational experience with varying levels of knowledge, skills – and so you can’t produce a one­size-fits-all educational experience because you will lose half of your students, if not more.”

It is an experience, says Think Beyond’s leader, futurist Dr Cheryl Doig, which can do “real damage” to students and their families.

“I hear and see young people who are doing well in the current system; there are others who are doing well despite the current system, and there are others that are not served by the current system. And they and their families can get quite disheartened at the pace of change and the responsiveness of our schools to make change,” she says.

In a “contemporary” school system model, says Herbert, learning is more flexible and personalised to individual students.

“We are suggesting there shouldn’t be just one curriculum catering to the imaginary ‘average student’. There needs to be a number of curriculums that cater to the diverse needs of a whole range of different students in front of you,” he says.

In this model, education is not tied to any particular institution, such as a school, he says.

“We would argue education shouldn’t be bound to a particular space anyway. Because we can, and in some cases more effectively, teach and learn in other spaces: outdoors, at home, at businesses.”

St Andrew’s College rector Christine Leighton doesn’t think the system has been a one-size-fits-all in her 40 years in the profession. Students have been able to pick subjects that interest them, and “differentiated” learning caters to the individual learning needs of students, she says.

“Most of us are still doing that in a pretty traditional environment. We would be the same as most schools in New Zealand, that when you come into a secondary school your teachers are specialists in particular areas because that is what excites kids – when you have a person with a passion in a particular area.”

Today's classroom

It is a bit of a mixed bag in terms of where schools currently sit, says Herbert. At one end of the spectrum, there’s traditional education in traditional spaces; in the middle, traditional education in a modern-learning environment; and at the far end, personalised learning, created in collaboration with the student and the community.

Christine is a “pragmatist” when it comes to futuristic models of education.

“I’m here on the front line delivering and preparing our kids for what their next steps are for tomorrow and next year. I am probably considered quite conservative in this space, which is the kind of school I am in and the way we like to think. Which is not to say the futurists are wrong, but our kids are going into the world of tomorrow. And the world of tomorrow will be to go to university, and they’ve got to have the skills to be successful in the university of next year. And not the university of 20 years’ time,” she says.

No one, she says, knows what the future education system will look like as change happens in incremental steps, which allows for self-correction if something doesn’t work.

“How do you meet the needs of the students here and now and going into the world in three or four years’ time, and how do you then engage with the big-picture futuristic thinking? Therein lies the challenge,” she says.

Students rule

About 5km away in Christchurch’s central city, there is a school with no playgrounds and no sports fields. But, what the students do have is the whole city, and beyond, as their classroom.

At Ao Tawhiti Unlimited Discovery school, students design what their curriculum will look like. Some pick a more traditional path in a classroom with six subjects, while others may opt to have no classes and learn in alternative environments instead.

Director Steven Mustor says the school was founded on the idea of giving students an opportunity to follow what they feel passionate about and lead parts of their journey, if they want to.

The school works closely with the students and caregivers, with each student receiving 15 minutes a week to go over their path and make any changes. As a state school, it offers the national curriculum, and the student works out with their teacher how to build it into their programme.

“It can feel really risky [for caregivers]. ‘What if my kid does nothing all day?’ Well, it is really interesting, we don’t find that. There are very few students that, when given a choice won’t do anything … They do care about their future,” he says.

Herbert says the future of education is unpredictable

About 30 per cent of students choose to go to university, which he says is on par with the national average. “The big difference is those 30 per cent have already been to university and taken a course there so they are prepared.”

There is a global movement about learning ecosystems, which look from the perspective of a whole city, not just a school or university, as a source of education, say Cheryl.

As a result, equity, innovation and accessibility of education are enhanced, and it encourages people to move out of their respective silos, communities, workplaces and schools to work together for the “good of the bigger picture”.

The progress debate

Futurists like Cheryl say learning systems are not moving forward as rapidly as they would hope. One of those reasons is due to the conservative views on education, both within the system and from parents, who tightly hold onto their own schooling traditions.

“If you have been highly successful in education in the past then you are more inclined to want the same sort of education for your children,” she says.

But this doesn’t consider the rapidly changing world and the future young people will enter.

“Doctors, lawyers and accountants would tell you their professions are rapidly evolving,” she says.

Quite simply, technology is continuing to make redundant large tracts of people’s work, leaving the future not in “spreadsheets, but relationships”, she says.

“In turn, this should free up people to do more of the work that connects humanity, and that is a huge area of need for our young people and what they are crying out for.”

For Herbert, this means giving his contemporary education teachers the tools to go engage with the “diversity of response” and understand that all perspectives add value to understanding education. By doing so, they can advocate for change on the basis that they all are working for the wellbeing of students and the community.

Back to the future

The only predictable thing about the future of education is its unpredictability.

Nor can you predict what professions schools are readying young people for, says Herbert. Some technology will be defunct, more will be developed. Global humanitarian issues and cultural change will continue.

“My experience of education, in the traditional sense, was that it was the bedrock for the scientific method where you could isolate a variable and test cause and effect, and everything was very predictable.

“I think what is very different is we now have a better understanding of the fact the real world we live in is very complex and consists of interactive systems, and those systems are continually developing and changing,” he says.

Cheryl Doig

He prepares teachers by providing them with the tools and skills to engage with the future complexities of teaching, learning and leading in this kind of environment, he says.

What is not helpful in the debate over schooling is when the conversation becomes polarising, pitting one model as being better than the other, says Cheryl.

“It is not helpful when it turns to ‘this way is better than this way’. No one way will suit all, and it is important to see that there are pockets of good in all,” she says.

It is very likely that this generation, says Herbert, will experience a rate of change far more pronounced than previous generations.

“I suppose the big thing that has interested some researchers is, at which point does that rate of change become unsustainable in terms of our ability to cope or deal with that increased rate of change? There has to be that tipping point – the point of no return. As to where that is, when it is, what it looks like, there is not much agreement on that.”

Quite simply, she says, because it is a humanitarian.

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