Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Why are New Zealand (and Australian) students not doing as well as our near neighbours!?

New Zealand and Australia’s neighbours in Asia are apparently doing better than our students in some pretty important areas in education. We are falling behind in Maths, Science and reading and the reasons are complex.
Firstly, it should be said that nearly all students in Australasia must go to school, for up to 13 years and the dropout rate would be low compared to those of our neighbours, so the figures may be a little skewered. It is about participation as much as it is about performance.
Then there is an attitudinal aspect. We have had good access to public and relatively free education for many years in both countries and as we all know from other aspects of our society, ‘that which is free is sometimes not always valued.’ If you know that the only way is ‘up’ if you have a good education and that the ‘state’ is not necessarily going to be there for you to pick up the pieces when you fail, then perhaps that acts as an incentive to excel. That is how it used to be in NZ. I am not advocating going back to the bad old days though. I am saying that we need to look at why our students have either stood still in the international ratings or gone backwards.
Take a closer look at the societies that have a more ‘traditional approach to learning.’ The typical classroom in much of Asia will look quite different to how we run them in NZ and Australia. There is a more formal feel and the relationship between the students and teachers is quite different. There are reports of course that things are changing slowly on that filed too though.
We also know that a great deal of pressure to pass exams and to study way beyond the hours that Australasian students do, is strongly evident in Asia, along with the collateral damage in the form of added pressure and resulting high suicide rates. However the end result is that students know that to get into good tertiary courses they must produce high grades. That involves a type of learning style that we left behind many years ago. It does produce results and the jury is still out as to how effective that learning is.
If we look at the economic growth of these countries and draw conclusions as to the relationship between ‘attitude, learning and progress, then an argument could be made to justify their approach.
What are our kids doing in class, if they are not progressing to the standards we need as nations? Those high decile schools in NZ and Australia may be bucking the trend, but for most schools there are some factors that we need to look at. How much useful study time do students put in on their own, after hours? My observation is that it is very little for a lot of students. They have ‘other things to do,’ much of which is based around social media and despite what some would try to tell us about gaming and other forms of cyber communication, it does take the hours away that could be used for more useful purposes. Many parents and teachers would be horrified if they could see an accurate breakdown of just how much time their kids spend on such activities. We all know about the possible damage that spending time in cyberspace can cause and generally most parents are ignorant of the level and type of activity their kids are involved in. Young people have always been good at hiding what they are doing from their parents and in the day of constantly changing formats, it is almost impossible to keep up.
As society changes, so do the influences that affect our young people. It goes without saying, that even in the schools of our close neighbours in Asia; the same forces around social media are operating. What is different is that parents still have more control and schools are still seen as places where ‘learning is the driving force that leads to a prosperous society;’ it is valued highly and there is an expectation that young people put in the required effort.
Politicians will use the latest reports that school and students are failing behind to ‘play’ their own particular games; that of winning a place in Governing us. Try not to get sucked in to most of their arguments unless you temper your hearing with the truth. Raising standards is not only about throwing money at the issue; that alone will not solve the problem. We must look at the bigger picture and the questions around that are difficult to define and even harder to agree on the answers. We must not get bogged down in ideology when possibly, the questions and answers may be back there in our past---we just somehow started to value ‘things’ above the needs of our respective countries. The ‘I want it now and I want it cheap,’ play a part. Add in the new directions that technology has taken us and the instancy of communication and some of the issues become a little clearer.
Let’s find out which schools are doing well (re achievement in a range of subjects) as see if they are doing something different. Will we discover what many of us already know; that richer schools have parents who know what to do to successfully support their children, with their own knowledge and capacity to provide (call it cultural Capital) or will we find new ways of looking at the issue of disengaged and failing students.  I suspect that we are in for a torrid time but answer the above questions or watch our kids falling further behind and our two nations beginning to look like those nations we like to think we are preforming so much better than----- Reality check time?