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Caleb Anderson: Is There a Pattern to our Education Resets?

New Zealand's education system is certainly under the spotlight at the moment.  An increasing number of people seem to be of the view that education in New Zealand has been going in the wrong direction for some time.  

Changes in curriculum design and delivery over recent decades mirror similar changes across many Western jurisdictions.

I have been working in the education system for more than thirty-five years, and I thought it might be helpful to identify some significant milestone events (resets) during my career (and before) that, in my view, have made this decline inevitable.  

I am not saying that these are the only significant milestones ...  but all of them marked decisive stages in a nationwide change in direction.  I have identified seven major resets (or shifts in thinking) over the past fifty years.  

These resets (you might even call them movements) may have begun a little earlier in some places, and they may have dragged on a little longer in others.  I have placed these in the approximate order in which they were implemented.

Seven significant resets from the nineteen seventies to the present.

1.  The move to whole language learning 

This was the idea that most children would learn to read in the context of reading, and write in the context of writing, and that teaching of specific skills, as distinct from immersion in context, was not only unhelpful, but potentially detrimental.

2.  The idea that self-esteem was more important than success

This asserted that education should be more about feeling good (and achieving equitable outcomes) than about excellence - many schools canceled traditional prize givings - most (if not all) children at the end of the year received certificates, and achievement data was sometimes withheld from parents.

3.  The shift of emphasis from content (knowledge) to process (action) 

This asserted that what students learn is significantly less important than how they learn.

4.  The move from a knowledge-based curriculum to a curriculum where knowledge was determined (when relevant) by the learner, or by the learner in conjunction with their teacher.

This asserted that knowledge, by and large, does not need to be taught, but should be accessed by learners themselves when it is needed (e.g. via the world-wide web).  

The teacher's role is simply to teach learners how to access information when they need it.

5.  The move from teacher-led/designed learning to student-led/designed learning 

This asserted that the student is their own teacher  ...  the teacher's job is to "facilitate" learning, and to allow students maximum control over what, how, and when they learn.  

This saw the rise of student choice, collaborative classrooms, and modern learning environments.

6.  The replacement of existing ways of knowing with decolonized ways of knowing 

This asserted that too great an emphasis on Western knowledge denies other ways of knowing that are of equal, or greater, value.  

Western knowledge was identified as inherently racist and contaminated with privilege.

7.  The replacement of empirical, evidence-based, knowledge with traditional, or indigenous, knowledge - including mysticism 

This asserts that indigenous knowledge (including spiritual beliefs) should stand alongside, and in some respects is superior to, empirical and scientific knowledge.

Employment Agreements have sometimes required that teachers adopt these new pedagogies.  In some cases, the Teachers' Council has required implementation as a condition of re-registration.  

Sector organizations were, in most cases, supportive of these resets.  The only criticisms were generally around how the changes would be phased and resourced.  

Inevitably, some teachers felt conscience-driven to only partially implement some of these initiatives.  Some had a policy of closing their classroom doors so they could continue using teaching methods that they believed worked better.  

Oftentimes teachers who questioned these initiatives were characterized as stale, unprofessional, uncaring, past their prime, and even, in later years, racist.  

In compiling this "reset" list I was struck by four things ...

1.  Each reset seemed to lay the preconditions for each subsequent reset

2.  The pace of reset appears to have been accelerating.  (The earlier resets took over a decade to become fully embedded, and the later resets a matter of two or three years). 

3.  These changes, by and large, were implemented in the absence of public debate, and sometimes in the absence of convincing (quantitative) research.

4.  Each reset has involved a radical rethink of what knowledge is and how knowledge is acquired and applied.

I should point out that these resets were not all bad, although some were.  The problem has generally been with how uncritically these resets were implemented, and what these resets were permitted to displace.  

Most fundamentally 

1.  These resets were ideologically based and not based on solid empirical research.  

2.  The objectives of each reset became unbounded ...  it was an äll or nothing at the point of implementation.

3.  Proper trials over appropriate periods were not conducted ... and signs of problems were brushed aside.

4.  No serious thought was given to the damage that might be caused by the displacement of more traditional ways of learning.

5.  The centrality of knowledge (content) has become progressively eroded.

In summary

Data suggests a likely correlation between the implementation of these changes and a decline in education standards.  

Countries (and schools) that implemented these changes to the fullest degree, seem to have shown some of the greatest declines (although hard data is thin on the ground and generally univariate), those who implemented these to a lesser degree, or not at all, seem to have had a lesser decline, or no decline at all.

The problem was not that these ideas were lacking in merit entirely, although some were, but that they were allowed to displace proven (and common sense) methods of learning and teaching.

Without delay, we need to ...

...  reinstate teachers as instructors of learning

...  put critical content (and core disciplinary methodologies) back into the curriculum

...  acknowledge and reward success (make it fashionable to succeed)

...  value empirical knowledge over other forms of knowing

...  collect good data and respond to this data moving forward

Most of all, the idea that knowledge is simply a "google away" is fanciful.  Knowledge needs to be known (and committed to memory) to be applied.  

Equally, student self-management is a laudable goal, but is often developmentally inappropriate.

It should not be a mystery that we have two generations, soon to be a third, that are devoid of the knowledge, or you might say wisdom, of preceding generations.  This makes them susceptible to ideas that an educated mind might dispense with outright, and it renders them susceptible to those who would manipulate and destabilize.

The real tragedy is that all of this even needs to be said!


The government will soon mandate an hour a day's instruction in reading, writing and mathematics.  It is customary in many schools to integrate these subjects (e.g. if studying the seashore - reading, writing and mathematics would relate to the topic of the seashore).  This is a great way to make learning relevant, but in many cases it has resulted in the piecemeal (and non-sequential) teaching of specific reading, writing and mathematics skills.  This problem might be solved if the government simply inserts the word "ïnstructional" - e.g. instructional reading, instructional writing and instructional mathematics will be taught in all schools.  This would not mean that integrated learning could not take place, but it would require teachers to show, within their planning, where, when and how, specific subject skills were being taught.

Caleb Anderson, a graduate history, economics, psychotherapy and theology, has been an educator for over thirty years, twenty as a school principal.  

Published first on NZCPR

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