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Bill Courtney, Education policies, GERM (Global Education Reform Movement), Government Policy

Learning languages, Education Policy and the Law of Unintended Consequences: Joining The Dots

flag world imageA good discussion is currently taking place through the media about the low numbers of secondary school students who are learning a foreign language.

Even the NZ Herald wrote an editorial on the subject following publication of an article by Martin East, an associate professor and language teacher educator at the University of Auckland.

Both pieces made some good points that are worthy of consideration.

But neither spent much time examining how this observed outcome might be one example of how the infamous “Law of Unintended Consequences” plays out in the education reform debate.

Consider the interplay of the following factors and how these have played out over the past 25 years:

  • The effects of isolating individual schools as silos, which arose from the 1989 introduction of the Tomorrow’s School policy;
  • The erosion over many years of centrally funded specialist support teachers who, as part of the advisory services, used to support schools in specialist subjects;
  • The introduction of standards-based assessment via the NCEA qualification at secondary level, coupled with high stakes accountability by way of publication of school results measured only as % pass rates;
  • The impact of “narrowing the curriculum”, which was one of the serious concerns of those who spoke out against the introduction of National Standards and its narrow focus on the “3Rs”;
  • The current Government’s strong endorsement of STEM (Science, technology engineering and maths) in determining what are the most desirable subjects to fund and support;
  • The introduction of the charter school initiative, which has seen the creation of very small schools with a limited range of curriculum subjects on offer, especially at secondary level;
  • And finally, the general “dumbing down” of education as we lose track of what the real purpose of education is and what we want for our young people.

So much of the effort put in to the resistance against the education reform movement, or GERM, as Pasi Sahlberg has christened it, has been to raise the spectre of how things can go wrong, no matter how well intentioned the reformers believe they are.

Each of the reform initiatives listed above has played some part in contributing to the outcomes we see today.

How can schools as isolated silos employ all the teachers and resources needed to support a full curriculum, including foreign languages?

And if small schools in particular struggle to do this, why introduce small secondary charter schools with such a limited subject range?

Why have we systematically dismantled many of the support mechanisms we used in the past, as we rushed to implement the quasi-competitive stand-alone model?

Or, in other words, why have we ignored the reality that the unit of production is really the “system” as a whole and not individual schools on their own?

Is it any surprise that schools (intentionally or not) are encouraging students to take less demanding academic subjects, that will assist their NCEA % pass rates to climb ever higher with each passing year?

Is it all that fluoride in the water that makes each successive cohort of students supposedly smarter than all those who passed before them, or is there something else at play?

And lately we have Steven Joyce, as Tertiary Education Minister, expounding at length about how STEM is all that counts in education in the eyes of the current government!

Professor Robert Greenberg, the Dean of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Auckland, gave an address defending the value of an Arts education at the Wellington alumni gathering last year.

He quoted from several of the University’s distinguished alumni on the worth of their Arts degrees and the value of what they have learned from their studies.

Cultures, Languages & Linguistics, along with Social Sciences and Humanities (as we now call Social Studies) are the major schools within the Arts Faculty at Auckland.

Another aspect of Humanities education has been at the forefront of our minds over the past month, as we helped our children do their ANZAC projects at school.

The incredibly moving events of ANZAC weekend underscored the importance we still place on history and learning from our past mistakes.

But will the architects of the modern education system of today learn from their recent mistakes?

Do we have any confidence that today’s education leaders and policy makers have understood the folly of the past 25 years and the unintended consequences that have arisen?

What will it take to bring about a sea change in the education debate starting with no lesser a question than “What is the purpose of education”?

Only then might we start to move together and to break down the silos and the competitive mindset that has caused so much damage.

We live in hope.

– Bill Courtney

Bill is a parent and former school trustee who writes for Save Our Schools NZ. 

About Save Our Schools NZ

"One needs to be slow to form convictions, but once formed they must be defended against the heaviest odds." Gandhi


One thought on “Learning languages, Education Policy and the Law of Unintended Consequences: Joining The Dots

  1. Such a well-written piece. Yes, it’s the narrowing of the curriculum which is having such a detrimental effect on student learning, including languages and the arts; and the brainwashing of students to believe that they are all going to be businessmen, and must take subjects to help that cause. Sigh…….


    Posted by Alison. | May 3, 2015, 11:10 am

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