• The Walls of Jericho

    The Minister of Education, Hekia Parata, recently visited a primary school in a rural area. She spent some time with a class of nine year-olds and was impressed with how much they knew.
    Thinking to test them out, she turned towards the end of the lesson to a bright young boy and asked him a question. “Who was it who brought down the walls of Jericho?”
    The boy looked uncertain. After a moment, he blurted out, “I don’t know Miss.”
    The Minister decided to encourage him to think about it a little further. “Are you sure you don’t know?” she asked.
    The boy suddenly burst into tears and said through his sobs, “It wasn’t me. It wasn’t me.”
    The Minister was amused and mentioned the incident to the class teacher at the end of the lesson. The teacher became somewhat defensive and said, “Jimmy is a very well-behaved boy. I’m sure he wouldn’t do a thing like that – and if he says he didn’t do it, I believe him.”
    Hekia Parata was a little nonplussed, and decided to raise the matter with the principal as she left. She recounted the story and was about to inquire about the teacher’s ability when the principal responded firmly, “Miss Jones is a very experienced and reliable teacher. If she says Jimmy didn’t do it, then he didn’t do it.”
    The Minister decided to pursue it no further. At the following Monday morning’s Cabinet meeting, however, there was a discussion about primary education. Seeking to amuse her colleagues, she repeated the story about the walls of Jericho.
    There as a shocked silence. The Prime Minister raised his hand and looked at her sternly. “Be careful with this one,” he said. “We’ve had enough PR disasters in education recently. If it gets into the media and you’re asked to comment, just smile and say something like “boys will be boys”; then refer the matter to me and I’ll deal with it. We don’t want the government dragged into an issue like this for which it has no responsibility. The school should be advised that it’s a matter for the local police but that the government takes the issue seriously and will not tolerate acts of vandalism.”
    His cabinet colleagues chorused “hear, hear,” and banged their desktops to show their support. Another crisis averted!
    Bryan Gould
    3 December 2012

  • Bridging the Teaching Divide

    The recently published assessment that New Zealand has the best education system in the world is a valuable antidote to our predilection for beating ourselves up about our supposed failings in this regard. It should not, however, reduce our vigilance in identifying issues that will continue to need attention.One such issue is the perennial complaint of tertiary institutions that school-leavers are inadequately prepared to study effectively at tertiary level. This complaint has been around for as long as there has been university education. To some extent, it is simply a reflection of the belief of every older generation that standards have slipped. Supposedly sliding standards of grammar, spelling, and general literacy have all been targets.But the issue may not be as simple as that. One example of an area where the complaints may have particular substance is in maths and science, and particularly physics. Universities are constantly urged to produce increasing numbers of graduates in these areas, but – all too often – school-leavers themselves are deterred from studying these subjects because their secondary education has left them short of the level required for university study.Whatever the truth of that, there is growing concern about a new and different problem, involving not so much what is taught as how it is taught. Secondary education has, over recent years, undergone major changes. The introduction of the NCEA, in particular, has signalled and required a substantial shift in how students are taught and how they learn.There is a growing acceptance across the education world that these changes have been – on the whole – beneficial. Students themselves have responded well. Most students have flourished in a regime which encourages them to work and to stay involved over a whole period of study, rather than one that simply requires cramming when it comes to exam time. Our top world ranking suggests persuasively that we are reaping the rewards of these changes.These worthwhile changes may nevertheless have created a new disjunction between the methods and skills needed for studying and learning at the secondary level, and those required at tertiary level. It may be that tertiary education has not yet fully woken up to the new and different skill sets that students bring with them as they begin their tertiary studies.Much secondary teaching now rests less on formal teaching, where the teacher provides the information and tuition and the student then assimilates and regurgitates it, and much more on informal collaborative and group work, on inquiry and project work, on assembling and exploring relevant information from sources other than the teacher. The aim is to raise involvement and interest levels and to prepare students for new kinds of life-long learning in the modern world.These changes are of course not only a function of different teaching methods. They also reflect the student’s experience outside the classroom – an experience greatly influenced by today’s electronic media and in particular by the internet.The results, however, have a downside – at least from the viewpoint of the traditional university teacher. The first-year student is increasingly unfamiliar with what is required for university study. Taking in, understanding and then articulating a particular body of knowledge, mastering it accurately and comprehensively and then demonstrating that by putting it in written form in a properly constructed paper or essay which offers a reasoned conclusion – these are skills that have not been practised by many of today’s school leavers. Little wonder that some struggle to adapt.The evidence that this should be a cause for real concern is still quite fragmentary. Further research is needed, and is currently being undertaken in a number of projects supported by Ako Aotearoa – the National Centre for Tertiary Teaching Excellence. It is clear that if we want our tertiary institutions to produce the best-equipped graduates, we must be alert to factors such as this which might inhibit the ability to get the best out of tertiary education.To identify this possible disjunction is not to apportion blame, or even to think that there is blame to apportion. But, if the gap exists, it should be addressed. The benefits of the changes at secondary level have been too great to be cast aside, but we will all benefit if tertiary students are helped to achieve a better learning experience by closing the gulf between the demands of secondary and tertiary education.It is already the case for some students who are thought to have been disadvantaged at secondary level that they begin their tertiary study with an introductory course in what is needed for success at that level. This should perhaps be provided as a matter of course to all first-year tertiary students. It would of course add to the costs that taxpayers and students alike have to bear for tertiary education. But, if the outcome is that we get better value for the resources we put into tertiary education, wouldn’t that be worth it?Bryan Gould

    4 November 2010
    This article was published in the NZ Herald on 17 November

  • Bryan Gould Speaks to UNESCO

    Speech to the UNESCO General Conference By the Chair of the New Zealand National Commission Mr Bryan Gould

    Tena koutou katoa kua huihui mai nei i tenei ra.

    (English translation: Greetings to all who have gathered here today).

    Mr President, Ladies and Gentlemen

    In 1946, when UNESCO’s Constitution came into force, New Zealand was the second country to step forward to sign it. We did so, in the aftermath of a tragic conflict, so that the instinct for peace should take hold in the minds of new generations. So, with other founder members, we signed up for a future built on the life of the mind and the heart and the spirit – on education, culture, the sciences, and the free exchange of information and ideas.

    Sixty three years later, New Zealand continues to support UNESCO’s goals. Both at home, in managing our own affairs, and in offering an example internationally and particularly in the Pacific sub-region, we try to demonstrate through our actions the value of UNESCO’s agenda for progress.

    So, we are strong supporters of education for sustainable development and we have an active network of ASPnet schools committed to UNESCO’s values. In science, we focus on waiora, the Maori word for our sustainable fresh-water resources. The bicultural foundation of our country – Maori and pakeha – gives us a strong base to take advantage of the growing cultural diversity that enriches our society. And we continue to enjoy, and encourage others to emulate our commitment to, a free press and the free exchange of ideas.

    What we seek is to lead by example, to cast new light on old problems, to think strategically, to change attitudes, to open minds, to know and understand more of ourselves and of others.

    We like to think that New Zealand lives UNESCO’s ideals. We do so at what is another critical moment in the world’s affairs. The global recession may not be a disaster on quite the scale of the Second World War, but it should lead us nevertheless to re-affirm the great value and importance of what UNESCO stands for. The recession, after all, was the end result of a doctrine that said that all that really mattered was the maximisation of profits for the masters of the global economy.

    We now know that we cannot entrust human progress to the tender care of the bottom line. That way lies not just economic crisis, but ecological degradation, social disintegration, and international conflict. Man is not just an economic animal. The lessons of the recession should teach us that the way forward lies – not with ever faster and less responsible consumption of material things by a small fraction of the world’s population – but with learning more about and responding better to our relationships with each other and with our planet.

    A General Conference is inevitably concerned with budgets, elections, resolutions, organisational structures and processes. But we must never lose sight of UNESCO’s true purposes, and each of our individual decisions should be judged according to whether it advances or hinders the achievement of those goals. So, New Zealand, from our vantage-point in the Pacific sub-region – the sub-region most distant from Paris and covering the greatest number of countries and the largest geographical area, but a sub-region challenged not only by immediate dangers of which last week’s tsunami is a sad and destructive example, but also by longer-term threats such as climate change – has naturally been a consistent advocate for decentralisation. We welcome the report of the second task force review. But modalities are less important than people. We continue to be concerned at the damaging delays in recruiting professional staff to the UNESCO Office for the Pacific in Apia. There is no point in changing the structure if we cannot commit the resources to make it work. Similarly, we are concerned about the performance indicators proposed in the draft 35C/5. We are not convinced that these largely quantitative performance indicators will provide a meaningful assessment of the Organisation’s effectiveness. They may be easily measured but they tell us little about our real achievements; at worst, their adoption could lead to a diversionary goal displacement. We strongly encourage the Organisation to undertake further work on this issue. We continue to believe that working across sectors and themes is the way UNESCO should operate. The next Medium-Term Strategy UNESCO programme should, we believe, be organised around these intersectoral themes with a Secretariat that mirrors this structure. Two years ago, my predecessor delivered her speech to the General Conference while wearing a Maori cloak or korowai. I am similarly privileged today. The cloak that I wear has been gifted by the National Commission to UNESCO as a taonga or cultural treasure. It is a work reflecting the great skill of a traditional weaver who has brought together a range of materials to produce something of significance, value and beauty. It is, we like to think, a suitable metaphor for the role that UNESCO should and must play in tomorrow’s world.No reira, tena koutou katoa.(English translation: In conclusion, greetings to you all).

  • Universities “More Than Just Agents of Economic Development”

    A former New Zealand vice-chancellor has cautioned that universities must be more than mere instruments of economic growth and development. Bryan Gould, former vice-chancellor of the University of Waikato and current chair of the board of the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology, issued his warning in opening the University of Auckland’s winter lecture series, “Challenges for research in modern academia”, earlier this week.

    Calling on universities to be vigilant not just in defending themselves against familiar threats, Mr Gould said, “They must also be alert to new challenges, which sometimes come in unfamiliar guises.” Expanding on the theme, he added that the danger today is not so much that universities are threatened by direct, hostile, and deliberate assaults by governments or the private sector, though it also must not be assumed that these were things of the past.

    “The threat arises from the growing importance that universities are increasingly invited to assume in promoting economic growth and development,” said Mr Gould, adding that commentators from across the political spectrum and from all parts of the economy have agreed that universities are essential agents of economic change.

    “Our economic future is increasingly said to depend on the research effort undertaken by our universities and by their role in producing graduates with the skills needed to promote economic growth,” he said. “This view is naturally congenial to the universities, since it affirms their value to society and appears to guarantee at least an approximation of adequate funding. But the argument comes with an unstated but potentially damaging downside, that this role is what universities are essentially about and that it is only to the extent that they fulfil that expectation that they will be supported and funded,” he said.

    Pointing to the dangers of the approach, he continued, “If it is asserted by political or business leaders that the universities have failed to come up with the required outcomes – that the economy is, for example, short of particular kinds of graduates or is handicapped by the failure to undertake particular kinds of research projects – then continued support and funding for the universities will be placed at risk.”

    He said that the problem, then, is that universities would be tempted, so as to maintain continued public support and funding, to go along with the inviting but dangerous assumption that their only true value is as instruments of economic change. “In doing so, they would accept a barely recognised but increasingly damaging constraint on their freedom to pursue knowledge – and we would have significantly misread our own intellectual history,” he concluded.