There’s been a bit of a wake-up call for New Zealand’s education recently. A general-knowledge quiz, with similar questions to those used in other countries, shows an adult population direly lacking in basic knowledge.

Half of adult New Zealanders did not know how long it took the Earth to orbit the Sun. Half could not work out: if you are travelling at 40 kilometers per hour, how far would you travel in three-quarters of an hour? Only a third knew when the Treaty of Waitangi was signed (for those overseas – that’s the founding document of our nation).

When, at first, I joked about some of these results with university-educated adults, many of them could not answer these questions; nor were they embarrassed that they could not.

Next year, adult New Zealanders will vote on whether to legalise cannabis, and a euthanasia bill that I suspect more than half will (even on the day they will be voting) not be able to describe correctly. Is our NZ way of educating fit for a third-millennium purpose?

Our NZ educational approach eschews an agreed list of facts. We have a skills-focused education system more than an agreed-content approach.

This is a postmodern approach. It is an an approach that has an issue with authority. Who are you, who am I, to assert what particularly people should know?! This approach dovetails neatly with our Internet Age: you can look it up.

Because there is no canon of agreed content tied to any year of learning, no “The Treaty of Waitangi and its date is covered in Year X”, students can move from school to school, region to region, and find that they are re-covering the same content. This can even happen within the same school! And, similarly, just because a well-organised school covers what it (in its moving-away-from-postmodernism wisdom) decides to be the content that is needed for third-millennium flourishing, a student can move to another such a good school (which presents that content in different years) and thereby end up with significant gaps.

Some secondary schools stopped teaching certain important topics because they found the pupils bored: “We’ve already done that in primary school,” only to discover that those topics are no longer popular in primary, and now they need to redraft their secondary programme to try and cover such essentials.

Our New Zealand Anglican Church sits comfortably within this paradigm. I know NZ Anglican clergy, with good academic theological qualifications, who have never formally studied the Reformation. Or the Eucharist. Or Baptism. Or Marriage. And there is no nationally agreed standard for what is required for ordination.

In September, Prime minister Jacinda Ardern announced that the teaching of New Zealand history would become compulsory from 2022. NZ history teaching would no longer be left up to “chance”. If you live in another country as you read this, I can imagine that in your astonishment you need to restart this paragraph to check that I have actually written what you think you just read!

Earlier, there had been an announcement that our National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) will be rebuilt from the ground up. Currently, subjects are chopped into different standards. When a student achieves a standard, they gain a number of credits. Students must achieve a certain number of credits to gain a NCEA certificate. Currently, having a huge range of standards available fits in with the paradigm of shunning agreeing what knowledge is required for a thriving 21st century life. The rebuilt NCEA will have fewer standards and each standard will cover a broader range of knowledge – appropriate learning is not a collection of hermetically separated skills (or facts) with it not mattering what your collection is as long as your collection box is filled to a certain size.

How might this affect our NZ Anglican Church’s understanding of education, training, and formation – a church which, on this site, is often referred to as the Anglican Church of Or?

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This is a blog post to stimulate thinking; it is not a doctoral thesis. As an educationalist, I am well aware that there is crossover between knowledge of facts and skills.

In my experience, children are responsive to learning by heart. Understanding builds on knowledge. And application and connections grows from understanding. The issue is, NZ currently has an educational approach that has understanding as its foundation: “you can Google what 7+5 is, or do that on your phone which is in your pocket; you need to understand what 7+5 means.”

So we have an education system in which it is left up to the individual school and teacher to decide whether to have students memorise what 7+5 is and and whether to teach column addition with larger numbers. The way to add 197+85 can end up being akin to the way they might add CXCVII+LXXXV.

Teachers educated before the shift to this skills-focused approach will draw (even maybe not consciously) on an earlier syllabus. If the standard is, “Demonstrate understanding of a variety of French texts on areas of most immediate relevance”, they will draw on vocabulary lists from prior to the current Curriculum (there being no such agreed vocabulary lists in the current Curriculum). [The Standard, in this case currently, gives a higher grade (Merit) if the understanding is of a variety of French texts “clear”, and the highest grade (Excellence) if the understanding is “thorough”.]

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