What is the biggest challenge currently facing education in New Zealand?

This post was originally written Education Review SeriesSector Voices: the biggest challenge facing education

There are a number of issues that come to mind when pondering this question; that society is changing so much faster than the schools who fail to keep up through a lack of infrastructure or lack of perceived need to transform or the the academic “tail” that so oft seems to serve as a political cat o' nine tails to flagellate New Zealand educators.

However the one issue I actually see as our biggest challenge is our national models of assessment at both primary and secondary level. I believe it is now time to begin a nationwide discourse about how we might re-design national assessment in order to drive change in curriculum design in all NZ schools in order to improve outcomes for all.

One of the biggest issues with national assessment is also one of the biggest bonuses - quite simply, national assessment is the ‘tail that wags the dog’ in education. What we measure (and publish) is what we get and maybe we measure what is easy to measure, but is what is easy to measure the right thing to measure? Why is this is a problem you say? I believe it is a huge problem because we aren’t actually measuring the right ‘things’ and if we aren’t measuring the right ‘things’, the chances are we are not teaching the right ‘things’. Of course Reading and Writing is important and the Learning Areas measured at secondary level (Arts, English, Languages, Health and P.E, Maths, Sciences, Social Sciences and Technology) are also fine subjects to explore. However I’m not sure they are still as relevant as they once were. Our current models of assessment are based around a long standing model of education that was born out of the Industrial Age and was based on meeting the needs of workers of that age - workers who were compliant, workers who needed to communicate efficiently and complete a range of manual tasks that were all part of the industrial landscape. Now, particularly in New Zealand, we are facing a very different workplace, a knowledge based landscape that requires some similar skills, but also many other skills not necessarily captured by the literacy and numeracy focus at primary and a set of siloed subjects at secondary either. So perhaps the biggest challenge that faces education in NZ is measuring the right things in order to value and promote the right things for our learners?

So what skills do students need now and how does assessment need to change to drive a re-focussing in our education system? Luckily for us we actually have the answer already. The answer lies in our much lauded document, the New Zealand Curriculum. However, the answer lies not in the Learning Areas which so tidily spell out the achievement objectives we tend to use as a skeleton on which we flesh out courses of study, but in the front end, or more precisely on page 12. The NZC identifies five key competencies: thinking, using language, symbols, and texts, managing self, relating to others and participating and contributing.

Many may argue that these skills are already implicit in the learning areas outlined earlier, indeed the learning areas are still a fine context for teaching these skills. What I believe we need to change is the focus, we need to make the explicit. Rather than Learning Areas being the dominant foreground image and the key competencies a blur in the background I believe we need to change the depth of field and bring the competencies into sharp focus and the “subject” softens to simply provide a context for learning and this will only occur, I believe, if we change what we assess. It is these skills or competencies that will prepare our young people for the current age and more importantly for an ever changing future. Subjects, learning areas and contexts will change at ever increasing rates, the skills required to navigate these contexts will not.

Accepting the assumption that assessment is the ‘tail that wags the dog’, it is these five competencies, particularly when viewed through a future-focused lens that need to be assessed. One off tests and examinations measure little more than the ability to memorise and recall information under stress. Assessment needs to make use of the tools that are now available. Digital technologies can be used to gather data over time, capturing and analysing learner skills in informal and regular low stress learning episodes. Digital technologies can also be used to evidence, collect and curate learner stories, to provide rich portfolios of learning that go beyond a single project or subject. What if we were to forgo examinations and instead poured our resources into an expansive national team of moderators and support people that could provide both professional learning around measuring progressions of competencies as well as checkmarking educator judgements of progress made? In a digital age the notion of national and local educators pair-marking and giving feedback synchronously on rich multi-media, multi-subject learning portfolios is completely viable. Imagine a national assessment framework that was not just same old subjects ‘anytime, anywhere’ but rather key competencies demonstrated ‘anytime, anywhere, anyhow’.

Okay, I admit it, this is just one idea, one iteration of my moonshot thinking, however it is this kind of re-imagined assessment system that might, just might, help us drive a change in curriculum design in all NZ schools in order to improve outcomes for all. Who knows, perhaps the assessment system, which is our greatest challenge in NZ education, can also be our greatest lever for positive change.


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