A question for the Minister of Education

I usually don’t pay much attention to the output of the Ministry of Education or its ministers.  I often fear that if I did it would turn out to be about as disconcerting as MBIE’s output.   I focus on getting my own kids through the school system with as little enduring damage as possible  (one of the real joys of being a stay-at-home parent is the time to counter the “indoctrination” that comes from, say, fourth form social studies teachers).

Every time I walk past the Ministry of Education’s head office in Wellington, their slogan or motto emblazoned across the front of the building gets my goat.  It reads

“Lifting aspiration and raising educational achievement for every New Zealander”

It must have sounded good to the bureaucrats and their PR people, but frankly it is the sort of slogan that shouldn’t be seen outside an authoritarian state –  Singapore, Turkey or the like.   Ideally it wouldn’t be seen even there.

I don’t particularly want to have my “educational achievement” raised, and certainly not by the government and its ministry.  As it happens, I’m always keen to learn and am a voracious reader.  Many people aren’t.   But, either way, what business is that of the government?    My “aspirations”, such as they are, are my own, and also no business of the ministry or the government.   The Ministry would, only can only assume, have strongly disapproved of St Paul, who wrote that “for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content”.

If one took it seriously, it is the stuff of a mindset that sees citizens as a resource of the state, owing it to the state to get with the programme (whatever it is).    Many ministers must be able to see the slogan from their Beehive office windows: does it never occur to them that they are from the National Party?  Among National’s values are, supposedly

  • Individual freedom and choice
  • Personal Responsibility
  • Competitive enterprise and reward for achievement
  • Limited government
  • Strong families and caring communities

I’m pretty sure that list doesn’t really fit that well with the Ministry of Education trying to lift your aspirations or achievements.  Come to think of it, the ACT leader is a Parliamentary Under-Secretary to the Minister of Education, and as a party they claim to be even more strongly in favour of limited government.

Do government departments need slogans at all?  Perhaps “administer our legislation and advise the Minister of Education” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, but it is what officialdom is really supposed to be doing.

That quote has been annoying me for a while, but this post was prompted by news that the Minister of Education has announced that “computational thinking” and “designing and developing digital outcomes” will become compulsory parts of the national school curriculum from next year.     Perhaps there is a good case for adding those items to the curriculum (I’m frankly a bit sceptical –  apart from anything else, in ye olden days when I went through school we didn’t teach typing to everyone).  But I looked through the Minister’s speech announcing this change, and have read newspaper articles on it, and listened to other media stories.  And in all of that material, I’ve seen not a hint of what the Minister wants schools to stop teaching, or teach less of.

I’m sure there aren’t many economists in the Ministry of Education, but the idea of constrained optimisation shouldn’t be too difficult to grasp, even for Cabinet ministers.   It is easy to add new items that sound or feel good, but there are only so many hours in the day, so many weeks in the school year (and I’m not one of those who thinks that year should be lengthened).    Perhaps there is room for increased productivity in schools, but there isn’t any suggestion that that is the answer either.  It feels a lot like an initiative that will squeeze other stuff out, and we’ll never quite know what, but the Minister concerned and her officials will long since have moved on by then.  But surely the Minister should be able to tell us what she wants schools teaching less of?   Because it is a real choice, and something will be lost, either consciously and deliberately or by default.

I think I’ll always remember the evening, shortly after our oldest child started school, when the then Principal of the local school –  a vocal union advocate for teachers, staunch opponent of National Standards, and prone to somewhat convoluted prose (I often thought he must have been angling for a job at the Ministry) – declaimed that he had no interest in teaching specific knowledge because pretty much everything he had learnt at school had been superseded.   I’m a history buff, and I kept asking myself whether somehow Dick Seddon, Michael Joseph Savage, Sid Holland or Keith Holyoake were no longer significant figures in our history?  Or did World War Two, or the Russian Revolution no longer take place?  Is gravity no longer a force?  Does Shakespeare no longer influence our language and cultural reference points?

It is old ground, but worth repeating. It is all very well to teach general problem-solving and analysis skills, but without context, without specific structured knowledge, those skills aren’t really that much use at all.    And so when the Minister says that schools must teach “designing and developing digital outcomes”, which

“is about understanding that digital systems and applications are created for humans by humans, and developing knowledge and skills in using different digital technologies to create digital content across a range of digital media”

I can’t help thinking that rather better use might be made of the time the Minister wants to devote to matters digital. For example, in teaching New Zealand history, in the context of the history of western civilisation (or even global history), than preparing to use Facebook or whatever newly trendy medium is around a few years hence.    And if there are more resources to train teachers,  I’d suggest some be devoted to improving teachers’ own communications skills.  The local principal (a new one) recently began her newsletter this way

Last week I began a conversation about dispositional ways of being.

I still have no idea what it meant.

C S Lewis, professor of English at Cambridge, once wrote a letter, replying to a young American fan, offering five guidelines for good writing.    Thanks to the wonders of the internet, it is freely available to all our teachers, and to Ministry of Education bureaucrats as well.    George Orwell offered similarly sound advice.

UPDATE: I put the text of the Minister’s speech into Readable.io, which provides statistical measures of readability.  It came back with this summary


Your average sentence length is too high. Try to shorten or split up some of your long sentences.
You are using too many long words. Try replacing some of them with shorter alternatives.

On the Flesch-Kincaid grade, the speech came out with a score of 13.1, apparently as hard to read as a typical US law.    Ernest Hemingway, apparently, managed a score of 4, and the website observes that a document needs to have a score of 8 to be readable by most people.   It would seem a reasonable benchmark for a Minister of Education to aim for.




16 thoughts on “A question for the Minister of Education

  1. I’m pleased to say that our local primary school’s newsletters have a rather earthier writing style 🙂 And slogans come and go, the GCSB website, for example, no longer promises “Master of Cyberspace”!


  2. ““is about understanding that digital systems and applications are created for humans by humans, and developing knowledge and skills in using different digital technologies to create digital content across a range of digital media””. It makes sense if you leave out the word digital four times.

    Thanks for the C S Lewis link.


  3. An eon ago, there were 5 Grammar Schools in Auckland. Someone with the power to make decisions decided there should be a sixth. And so it was. It was a social experiment, placed in the middle of a low socio-economic state-housing area. The Education department threw everything at it. Resource. Top flight teachers. Prominent celebrity head master and head mistress. Chairman of the founding board was Sir James Fletcher who used to turn up in his rolls royce. Then the managing director was F McCarthy a prominent Auckland Magistrate, in the days when that was considered eminent

    While I wasnt a foundation pupil, I arrived a few years later. The school was driven to achieve both scholastically and on the sports field and compete with the other 5 – and we did. I was very fortunate. We had the very best teachers that could be head-hunted away from other places

    We all did extremely well

    In the present – with Nigel Latta and John Campbell producing a documentary about the future in New Zealand and now the education department starting 5 year olds on coding and the digital world reminds me of this following item from our site

    hardware v software v wetware
    Hardware is fixed in the short term.
    Software is a fixed set of instructions.
    Wetware is the most adaptive tool available.

    source – Greg Iles – Dark Matter – 2003
    “The human brain is slow in terms of computing speed. But it is massively parallel. For processing, it is capable of making 100 trillion calculations simultaneously. Together with the equivalent of twelve hundred terrabytes of memory”.

    Computers are sequential. The power of a single computer is determined by speed of the CPU. Maximum performance is achieved while running one application. With multi-threading, additional applications can be run. The performance of second, and subsequent applications are achieved by reducing the resources allocated to the first application. True parallel performance is obtained by the use of “dual” processors. The brain is equivalent to 1 million low speed “dual processor” computers.

    I know what I would prefer to emphasise educationally


      • Yes. Today the place has slipped down. It is decile 4 compared to MAGS decile 7. Had a look at the blurb and it states the school roll comprises over 50% of all pupils are Asian, 25% are Pacific, leaving less than 25% as Maori and Pakeha. Many of the stated aspirations and expectations are extraordinary, somewhat akin to your “dispositional ways of being”, much of it I could not understand. I’m sure the founding staff would be most disappointed their blood sweat and tears has been wasted


    • Thanks for the comparison. The one I like is my 6 month old granddaughter having the same number of connections in her brain as all the world’s computers added together. The latter require about 20% of the world’s energy supply whereas she just needs a few sips of milk.

      You comments about serial and parallel processing are relevant; it is quite possible in 5 to 10 years time our computing (in such things as driverless cars, IRD tax audits, virtual reality graphics, etc) will be based on neural nets and therefore be non-digital.

      Thinking logically has always been useful and worth encouraging at school. Playing with computers and robots may help make logic more tangible but there has always been chess, Sudoku, crosswords.
      Probably they will never manage to train primary school teachers to have sufficient ability to actually teach digital computing. Time to drag us old programmers out of retirement and into the classroom.


  4. Michael,

    Slogans are imprecise and incomplete. We do not want government to determine what we count as achievement, but it is appropriate for the Ministry of Education to monitor how public expenditure on education enhances the capabilities and achievement of the students and to seek better returns.
    The curriculum is not just a set of subjects. It deals with the capabilities that students develop through learning via the medium of subjects. It is wrong to think that “critical thinking” and “subject content” are alternatives. I share your valuation of historical knowledge, but learning how to study conjectures in relation to empirical testing is even more important. And these days that process requires ability to manage computers and computing. Digital literacy is not a subject but part of the process of learning. The policy announced yesterday has explicit provision for managing teacher workloads and for monitoring any impact on other skills such as writing to communication skills, but more generally it is much more about modernising what is learnt rather than adding to the quantum required of either students or teachers.
    You have obviously encountered some poor teachers. But I know nothing which enables me to tell whether the average performance of teachers is better or worse than the average performance of bank economists (both measured against some standard of what can reasonably be expected). Or for that matter bloggers – although intuitively I’d rank you highly despite the occasional blunder!

    Gary Hawke

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Gary

      (As background for readers who may not be aware, Gary has served on or chaired various Ministry of Education advisory panels)

      Entirely agree that we want the Ministry evaliuating the effectiveness of govt spending in education – but that is a very different thing from the wording of the slogan, and prob wouldn’t quite work as something to stick prominently on the front of the head office building.

      Re teachers, yes I’m sure there are many good teachers. In the three schools our kids have been to so far, we have one mostly very good experience, one probably about average, and one mostly distinctly mediocre (made worse by being a school our friends with older kids had expressed concern about for decades).

      Thanks for the comments on the curriculum changes. It certainly isn’t the way the change has been reported. I’m probably more sceptical about the extent of reliance on computing already, at least in some schools, altho my bigger concern is the near-absence of specific structured subject knowledge in so many areas of primary and intermediate teaching. Perhaps even more of a concern is the effective state monopoly on a curriculum.


  5. We spent a few years learning how to hold a pencil, then sharpen it, make marks on paper, learn to cross out, write our ‘N’s the right way round and then a little older how to use ink – at least the inkwells built into our desks were no longer in use. If this is largely replaced with ‘digital skills’ then that makes sense. Primary school teachers shouldn’t have too much difficulty teaching use of backspace and ‘Esc’, shuffling windows etc.

    Simple programming is useful – teaches how to think, teaches humility when something goes wrong, teaches analytic skills when removing bugs.

    Relating any of this to producing a nation of digital entrepreneurs is just dumb. Teaching a future Minister of Finance simple arithmetic is a skill he will use but any computer language will be out of date by the time a child leaves school.

    Most teenagers have excessive experience of computers, tablets, mobile phones. If all were banned at school and more history books issued for private reading the world would be a better place. More likely add computer science to the curriculum alongside Chemistry, Physics, French, Geography.

    50 years of computers and it is always the same: too much hype.


    • Good points Bob; you don’t need to be a plumber to know how to use the bathroom.
      One of my pet gripes is the misuse of the word “technology”; we have a vast range of technologies in use that are (arguably) of more importance than IT and without a mastery of we would be back beyond the stone age. Do our educators plan on ignoring all of that?

      Liked by 1 person

  6. From my own personal experience, you do not actually have to start programming too early. My own computer programming exposure started at a University in Australia in my undergraduate degree in Commerce. I am very surprised that graduates in Accountancy and Commerce, I have met in NZ lack programming logic. This was a compulsory subject in Australian Universities in their Bachelors degree in Commerce right through from year 1 to year 4 of my degree. Of course back then we programmed in COBOL and Basic.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Hi Michael,
    You have raised lots of issues that it would be great to think educationalists, particularly at the ministry, are giving lots of thought to. Hopefully including seeking input from those with arguments contrary to whatever the current accepted wisdom is.
    I have a question about the choices of schools in your area. This is not the first time you have expressed dissatisfaction with those that your children attend so I was wondering what it is that leads you to continue sending them there and whether you have considered withdrawing them from the system and homeschooling them?


    • Of the three schools we’ve had kids at, one has been very good, one is so-so, and one – one you are quite familiar with – is consistently poor (and at times worse). Fortunately, intermediate schools are for two years only, and so like most of our friends who have been dissastisfied with SWIS (spanning decades) we grin and bear it, and hope that the school can’t do too much damage in two years. But we count the terms – now 10 and falling – until we need never have anything more to do with that particular school.

      In principle, I’m quite supportive of home schooling – although I’d count it less good than a good Christian school – but probably not really worth it for two years only.


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