Worrying lack of Asia engagement among NZ school leavers
Afew weeks ago, Asia New Zealand Foundation staff travelled to Rotorua’s Taheke Marae for a hui on our engagement with Maori.
We were lucky enough to have three young people with us, the children of Josh Wharehinga, one of the members of our Leadership Network’s Maori caucus.
Aged between 12 and 17, they had grown up in Gisborne. We asked them what they knew about Asia. They told us they knew nothing, except that their greatgrandfather had served in the Korean War.
They went away to think about this a bit more and came back with a few cultural references – noodles, manga, Gangnam Style, kung fu, the Japanese movie Spirited Away ... They knew more than they thought they did about Asia. But they hadn’t learnt it at school – and in that they’re not unusual.
Why does that matter to New Zealand business? As a crude example, you only have to look at the logs leaving New Zealand via our East Coast ports to see a connection between Asia and the regional economy.
And no matter where in New Zealand our young people grow up, they’re likely to find themselves interacting with Asian cultures or peoples in some way as they enter the workforce.
The Asia New Zealand Foundation has just released the report Losing Momentum – School Leavers’ Asia Engagement ,a national survey that asked more than 1000 senior secondary school students about their knowledge of Asia.
The students ranked Asia as the second most important region to New Zealand, just behind Australia. Seven out of 10 said Asia was important to New Zealand’s future.
But fewer than one in 10 school leavers fitted the description of being ‘‘Asia-ready’’, which includes factors such as understanding of different cultural perspectives; and the ability to communicate beyond a superficial level in an Asian language.
Worryingly, more than half of students said they did not feel prepared to engage with Asian peoples and cultures here in New Zealand.
And in most cases, the students didn’t see a link between Asia’s importance to New Zealand and their careers. More than six out of 10 of those surveyed didn’t think Asia-related skills and knowledge would be important for the future workforce.
This is at odds with New Zealand’s economic reality – and with the views of leading businesspeople.
Speaking recently on the growing importance of Asia to New Zealand, PwC chief executive Mark Averill said: ’’People coming into business now have to understand the culture and business environment of that market so they can advise clients – so again it is a great opportunity for younger people to employ their digital and diversity skills.’’
Probably the most worrying element of the report is the fact that the results are in fact worse than when we first did this research in 2012. Fewer secondary students believe Asia-related skills will be important to their future; knowledge of Asia has decreased; and fewer students are studying Asian languages overall.
How did we get to this point? Students we spoke to said their social studies classes mainly touched on European and American history. Despite the centrality of Asia to New Zealand today, it’s still often seen to be peripheral when it comes to education. Generations of New Zealanders have grown up in a Eurocentric education system and change doesn’t happen overnight.
A lack of confidence among New Zealand teachers is one of the barriers and our education team has been working with schools around the country to tackle this. We’ve held workshops, produced Asia-focussed classroom resources, and over the years have taken hundreds of educators to Asian countries to give them onthe-ground experiences.
But we also know there’s an urban-rural and socio-economic divide – and we don’t believe that Asia-related skills should be the preserve of high-decile schools in urban centres. We hope our report sparks a conversation about how we embed Asia capabilities in our education system – and we hope businesses get involved in this conversation.
On the bright side, the survey also showed more than half of those who are not currently learning an Asian language are interested in doing so. Young New Zealanders identified cultural activities, food and personal interactions as important motivators for learning more.
Coming back to our young Gisborne friends, cultural references such as manga and Gangnam Style can act as starting points on a pathway to becoming ‘‘Asia-ready’’ – if their education gives them the opportunity.
The crazily colourful world of manga can be an entry point to Asian culture for young New Zealanders.