When we teach powerful disciplinary knowledge to students, it invests in them the inheritance of the past. Let’s hope the NCEA changes will do just that, writes Dr Michael Johnston.

Recently announced changes to NCEA afford a real opportunity to improve the educational experience of young New Zealanders.

The changes, announced by Minister of Education Chris Hipkins on May 13, are very different than the proposals put forward for public consultation in 2018 by the Ministerial Advisory Group (MAG).

The rethinking that has clearly taken place shows that, as flawed as they may be, our democratic institutions do sometimes function to improve public policy.

Contrary to the assertions of some media commentators, the changes and associated repudiation of some of the “big opportunities” originally favoured by the MAG – most notably of unworkable and educationally dubious 20-credit ‘projects’ and ‘pathways’ – do not constitute a capitulation to the privileged interests of elite Auckland schools. Criticism of the original proposals came from sources as diverse as the Post-Primary Teachers’ Association, the New Zealand Initiative and the education academy. It is to the credit of both the Ministry and Minister that those criticisms have been heeded.

The ‘big opportunities’ that have survived the consultation process are exactly those that ought to have survived. The elimination of fees for NCEA will remove a financial barrier to NCEA experienced by families who struggle to pay rent and put food on the table. The intention to improve the rigour of the literacy and numeracy requirements is also welcome, albeit that the details have yet to be thought through, and there will be devils in those details.

The rebalancing of the system towards external assessment will improve the overall reliability of assessment for NCEA, reduce assessment-related workload for teachers and students and do much to alleviate the obsessive credit accumulation – to the detriment of deep learning – that has become an unfortunate hallmark of NCEA. In this regard it is worth dispelling another prevalent media misconception: ‘external assessment’ does not necessarily mean ‘time-limited examinations’.

Under NCEA, external assessment refers to assessment that is graded by NZQA rather than by teachers. Some external assessment – especially in art and technology – is conducted by portfolio. As the rebalanced system is implemented, it is to be hoped a more expansive view of the kinds of activities used for external assessment will be taken, to avoid disenfranchising students who struggle with the examination format.

Perhaps the most important of the changes from the perspective of educational quality will be the reduction of the number of assessment standards available at each level of each subject to four.  

Very early in the life of NCEA, Professors Cedric Hall and Warwick Elley warned that the division of the assessment system into multiple ‘standards’ in each subject would have the effect of fragmenting students’ learning. Time has proven them correct: teachers typically ‘teach’ internally assessed standards in a sequence, as if they were curriculum topics, each followed by an assessment. This has meant the knowledge assessed by one standard is often not considered in relation to knowledge assessed by another, even when there is an important relationship between the two sets of knowledge.

This has resulted in students often failing to make critical connections between knowledge elements in a subject. The reduction to four standards in each subject will do much to alleviate this ‘fragmentation’ problem, at least by reducing the number of potential fragments.

Another bugbear for NCEA has been that students often choose to focus their efforts on some of the standards assessing a course, ignoring others entirely. This, obviously enough, also results in incomplete and weak knowledge. The reduction to four standards per subject will curtail this selective behaviour because students will no longer have such an array of choices.

As new standards are developed to accompany the NCEA reforms, the restriction of four per subject will place a welcome – if challenging – constraint on the developers. They will have to focus on the most important – the most powerful – knowledge of their respective disciplines.

Powerful knowledge comprises processes of disciplinary inquiry such as scientific method, the language of algebra and the methods of historical analysis. It also comprises knowledge that supports the deployment of these inquiry processes – for example, atomic structure, the trigonometric identities and the events that led to the Treaty of Waitangi. It is these kinds of knowledge that must be foregrounded in the new achievement standards if the NCEA reforms are to result in the profound educational improvements I hope and believe they will.

When we teach powerful disciplinary knowledge, we are not only providing students with knowledge that will serve them in the employment market, although we are doing this. At a deeper level we are initiating students into core elements of culture. This does something even more important than providing them with the ability to earn a living: it invests in them the inheritance of the past, which is their birthright. It stands them “on the shoulders of giants”.

Dr Michael Johnston is a Senior Fellow at The New Zealand Initiative. He is also an Adjunct at Te Herenga Waka - Victoria University of Wellington.

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