• 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