Life lessons for ed­u­ca­tion over­haul

Marlborough Express - - COMMENT&OPINION - JOE BEN­NETT

The ex­cit­ing new Gov­ern­ment is promis­ing to do the sort of thing that ex­cit­ing new gov­ern­ments do. It’s go­ing to over­haul the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem.

The last time this hap­pened was 30 years ago when they cre­ated To­mor­row’s Schools. And I think it is safe to say that never in the his­tory of gov­ern­ment was a piece of leg­is­la­tion worse named. But now af­ter three decades of be­ing to­day’s schools, To­mor­row’s Schools are about to be­come yes­ter­day’s schools, dumped deep in the red bin of his­tory never to be re­cy­cled.

What will to­mor­row’s To­mor­row’s Schools look like? Like you I don’t know and like you I amwait­ing with breath so bated you could catch cod with it. (Pro­vided, of course, that the cod can’t spell, which un­der To­mor­row’s Schools has been a dis­tinct pos­si­bil­ity.)

Now, I am­con­fi­dent that the com­mis­sion tasked with over­haul­ing ed­u­ca­tion will spend many mil­lions of dol­lars. I amalso con­fi­dent that it will call on many hun­dreds of ex­perts, con­sul­tants and sim­i­lar life forms. But I am less con­fi­dent that it will call on me. So I am­call­ing on it, here.

Urged on by a pha­lanx of sup­port­ers con­sist­ing of a woman in Whanganui, I have dis­tilled 17 years of teach­ing into five minia­tures of ed­u­ca­tional petrol. If the com­mis­sion tips them into its tank it will find it­self tootling down the Boule­vard of In­tel­lec­tual Clar­ity in sunny weather. If it ig­nores them it will sink to the axles in the Swamp of Ed­u­ca­tional The­ory.

(I would note be­fore I start that what I have to say may or may not ap­ply to pri­mary schools. I wouldn’t know. On the few oc­ca­sions I tried to teach pri­mary school kids I proved good at get­ting them to climb the walls with ex­cite­ment. I proved less good, how­ever, at get­ting them down again. My ad­mi­ra­tion for pri­mary teach­ers is with­out limit.)

So here are my five minia­tures of ad­vice:

1. Keep some chil­dren handy at all times. Test ev­ery­thing said about chil­dren against the re­al­ity of ac­tual chil­dren. And never call them stu­dents. Kids at school are pupils. They are there un­der com­pul­sion. They have the le­gal sta­tus of pris­on­ers. Should they ab­scond the po­lice fetch them back.

If kids were stu­dents they would barely need teach­ers. ‘‘Here chil­dren,’’ you could say, ‘‘is a text­book and the in­ter­net. Go study, and please let us know when you’ve fin­ished.’’ But that is not, was not and never will be how it is.

The word stu­dent is a lie, well- meant, per­haps, but still a lie. And if the com­mis­sion starts with a lie, then any­thing they base on it will be a big­ger lie.

2. Don’t over­es­ti­mate the in­flu­ence of schools. Schools love to boast about form­ing rounded char­ac­ters and pro­duc­ing re­spon­si­ble cit­i­zens. They do no such thing.

If schools formed char­ac­ter then their alumni would all be sim­i­lar. But every school pro­duces both mur­der­ers and mur­derees, warm-hearts and in­grates, butch­ers and nurses, lovers and thieves. A school can work only with what it’s given. And what’s it’s given is the prod­uct of genes and en­vi­ron­ment, of na­ture and nur­ture. School’s pow­er­less against na­ture, ob­vi­ously. And it’s pretty fee­ble against nur­ture. As any psy­chol­o­gist will tell you, all the nur­tur­ing that mat­ters is done by the age of five.

Schools are ex­cel­lent things, but they don’t form char­ac­ter or create life-long learn­ers or any of the other guff to be found in prospec­tuses or min­istry web­sites. Let’s not pre­tend they do.

3. And please, keep par­ents out of schools. The whole point of free, uni­ver­sal and com­pul­sory ed­u­ca­tion is to give kids a chance to es­cape their par­ents, to tran­scend their up­bring­ing, how­ever be­nign that up­bring­ing may be, how­ever lov­ing those par­ents. It is an ax­iom of teach­ing that when you meet the par­ents, you for­give the child ev­ery­thing. School is a slope that helps ap­ples to roll away from the tree.

4. Don’t be in thrall to tech­nol­ogy. It is only ever a teach­ing aid. And it dates so very fast. All schools have cup­boards crammed with dead tech­nol­ogy, mil­lions of dol­lars worth, from lan­guage labs to cam­corders, all of it once con­sid­ered the new and in­dis­pens­able teach­ing won­der­tool. What never dates, how­ever, is good teach­ing.

5. And fi­nally, and sim­ply, re­mem­ber your own school days. Ask your­self what mat­tered at the time and what has stuck. What mat­tered will not have been the class­room. It will have been other kids, your friend­ships and en­mi­ties, the emo­tional in­ten­sity of grow­ing up. Far more is learned in school than what is taught.

But with luck you will re­mem­ber a teacher or two, a teacher whose in­ter­ests meshed with yours, whose en­thu­si­asm lit a light that has never gone out. Teach­ers mat­ter. Ed­u­ca­tion is per­sonal. Teach­ers make schools.

It is an ax­iom of teach­ing that when you meet the par­ents, you for­give the child ev­ery­thing.

It’s back to the draw­ing board for teach­ers as the gov­ern­ment plans to re­vamp NZ’s ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem.

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