You’ve probably heard of The Law of Unintended Consequences. An unintended consequence is an outcome or event which happens as a result of another, often unrelated, happening. In the movie based on their book Freakonomics, journalist Stephen Dubner and economist Steven Levitt, there is a section on the unintended consequences on crime of the Roe vs Wade abortion ruling by the US Supreme Court in 1971. You can watch the clip from the movie below, but very briefly, there was a massive drop in crime in the US in the 1990s. Dubner and Levitt discovered this was not the result of law and order policies similar to the Broken Windows one used in New York City. Instead they were the result of a reduction in the births of “potentially unwanted children” into possibly harmful home situations who would then go on to commit crimes.
This morning Q and A held their education debate ahead of the election (part one here, part 2 here). On the side of National was new(ish) Education Minister Nikki Kaye and attending for the opposition Labour spokesperson Chris Hipkins.
Minister Kaye continued the National Party’s obsession with national standards, which, it turns out, they are planning to supersize. With what? A sweet little app which parents can follow their child’s progress on their phone or tablet. Now apart from the potential data security issues of looking at assessment data on a mobile device might entail, some parents might think this is a good idea. After all, we are in a digital age now and when my phone beeps / chirps / buzzes, I must check it.
Before I begin to dismantle the National Party education policy, let me just say this: We should definitely be measuring a child’s progress, not where they stand against some arbitrary standard set by some boffin in Wellington. All children are different. No child is going to progress against any standard in the same way as any of their classmates, schoolmates or peer group across the country. Sometimes progress is very fast; sometimes it can be painfully slow. Just ask any teacher.
National standards have an in-built language of failure. There are four measurements: above, at, below and well below. Three of those ooze with the putrid juice of defeat. Parents get their reports every six months, and if their child is below or well below, then that’s failure isn’t it? “My child isn’t doing as well as all the other children.” I would also argue children who are assessed as “at” the standard may also be considered average by their parents. They are neither above or below the standard, they are just “at,” which could be construed as very, very average. As well as this, National are never in their wildest educational successes, going to get 100% of students at or above the standard. It would never happen. At some point New Zealand students are going to come to some kind of standstill. You could spend billions of dollars and you would still not shift achievement levels.
When I was given my report back in the 1970s, I rushed home to give it to my parents, not because I wanted them to read it, but because I wanted to read it and I couldn’t do that until they had. Every child I know wants to read their report to find out exactly what their teacher is thinking about them and their learning (or, in my case, behaviour!). With national standards the child will also now have a measurement that could include “well below.” I know schools try to douse the flames of failure with phrases such as “progressing towards” and so on, however if every six months a child seeing their report say they are a failure, what is the unintended consequence of that going to be?
Despite my many, many “could try harder” report comments, I did make it to university in 1989. Eventually I discovered psychology and media studies which turned out to be an interesting mix. Learned helplessness is one of the things we were taught during second year. Often this happens in situations of extreme abuse where a child or animal has learned that no many how much they struggle or try to escape, there is no escape from the abuse. In the end they give up trying to escape because there is no use. I have seen this in students, but rather in relation to severe abuse, they have learned helplessness in relation to their learning. They have discovered that it does not matter how much they struggle to try to achieve in the school setting, nothing seems to work so they have given up even trying.
Question: how does labelling a child “well below” or a failure for their entire school life lead to the unintended consequence of learned helplessness? How much has the National Party and their bureaucrats researched this phenomenon? Based on my experiences in the classroom I suspect learned helplessness has increased over the last decade – particularly since national standards were introduced. Report comments filled with well below or below will undoubtedly have an impact on a child’s self-worth. “I am always well below so what’s the point?” That’s just at primary school. How does that attitude to self play out later in life as the student heads through secondary and, perhaps, tertiary education?
I was having a conversation at work the other day about early childhood education. My wife is currently retraining as an ECE teacher and we are, much to the annoyance of my son, having plenty of in-depth dinner table conversations about learning styles and pedagogical theories. I was saying to my colleague how it is very rare for you to see a child in any early childhood setting sitting there in his or her kindy or preschool, not doing anything. Unable or unwilling to take a risk to try something that is new or dangerous or out of their comfort zone. Yet, by the time they get to my level (mid-primary), students may often sit there and do nothing. Afraid to even put pen to paper in case they do the wrong thing. What has changed in the time they were in early childhood education to the time they get to me?
It is because these days the pressure is on from day one. New Zealand children mostly start their primary school on their fifth birthday. From the first day at school it is about sitting up straight on the mat, learning numbers and letters, maths, reading and writing. This pressure can come from whānau, but mostly it comes from the system. When we should be celebrating and welcoming a child to a learning environment and allowing them time to bed themselves in to this new and daunting system, teachers are ever mindful of what is coming down the track. At some point soon this child will need to be measured against national standards. If we don’t get things moving as soon as possible then the progress line of that child is always going to be behind the national standards line.
This is a massive problem for all those students who aren’t ready to read or write (or even sit for long periods with their arms and legs folded – why is that important to a modern society when you can whip around Google HQ on a scooter?). There is something to be said for the holistic nature of Steiner schools which recognises every child moves through developmental stages. These stages are linked to the child, not some booklet sitting on the shelf in my classroom. Every child is different and they will move through those stages when their development allows.
Learning becomes much more than the acquisition of vast amounts of information; rather, learning becomes an engaging voyage of discovery, both of the world and of oneself.
One of my friends went to a Steiner school growing up in Northern Ireland and he wasn’t reading until he was 7. He turned out fine.
National standards and the one-size-fits-all education system that has developed over the past century really doesn’t cater for this developmental progress. Pressures from the top down mean we teachers feel we have to fit our students into this system, despite them not being ready for it. If we extended the use of the early childhood curriculum Te Whāriki into the early years of primary, I firmly believe we would reduce the problem of learned helplessness as children move up the primary school. Even though this is something I’ve been thinking about following my wifely discussions this year, it turns out it is also Labour Party policy.
I have previously blogged about The Economist’s survey into what skills modern employers are looking for from their employers. During the debate Nikki Kaye herself said we needed to prepare our students for a future where vast swathes of jobs that currently exist have disappeared. From a report titled, Driving the skills agenda: Preparing students for the future, part one asks what skills we will need in the future. Their lead graph is the one on the right. Clearly employers see literacy and numeracy are important but not as important as problem solving, team working, communication, critical thinking, creativity and leadership. None of those top six are in the standards. Neither can they be measured. All of them, though, are depended on a good level of self-confidence. You are not going to be taking risks with your thinking or learning if you have some level of learned helplessness. You are not going to offer up a solution to a group if you aren’t confident your solutions, or anything you do, is worthy to the group, to school, or to life. Why would you put yourself out there?
I feel I might be preaching to my echo chamber with this post. Every teacher worth their salt knows in their hearts that national standards does absolutely shit-all for lifting student achievement. They create a huge amount of work and extra pressure on teachers and school communities as they try to improve their national standards performance. Of course, the media don’t help. During the debate Corin Dann suggested that parents love national standards. This couldn’t be further from the truth. There are vast numbers of parents, including I, who care little about where their child measures up against a standard set by the National Party. Stuff.co.nz love to rank schools and regions every year when national standards data is released. How does that help to lift student achievement?
Pressure can also lead to unintended consequences. The education system in the United States has been going down the path of the common core for many years. George W Bush had the No Child Left Behind policy which, ironically, lead to more children being left behind than ever before. In the US, school funding is linked to student performance against the standards. As you can imagine this leads to pressure. Pressure on teachers and schools to have high test scores. Where does that lead? I’ll let the Freakonomics guys tell you.
New Zealand doesn’t have to go down this path. Despite National’s best efforts over the past decade, the New Zealand education system is amazing. It is filled to overflowing with brilliant teachers all working their hardest for the 25 or so students in their care. Anyone who says teachers are lazy or only interested in lining their own pockets is a liar or a trouble maker or both. I do wish to insert other words here, but for the sake of decorum, I will not. I only have 12 or so years experience as a teacher. I don’t claim to have all the answers to the greatest educational questions of our time, but I do know those answers aren’t “national standards” and “David Seymour having a say in education policy.”
School needs to be a place where self-motivated students want to come and achieve at the very highest level. Schools need to celebrate success, give students every chance to practise all those skills employers are demanding – not just numeracy and literacy.
If our goal is to create life-long learners, we’re not going to do that by turning some of them into learners who have an aversion to learning.