Dr Lester  Flockton

Resetting the clock

Before the changeover to Tomorrow’s Schools, the Department of Education had a curriculum development unit (CDU) that represented all areas of the curriculum.  It was staffed by a team of professionals who had fine track records as classroom practitioners with a depth of practical and theoretical knowledge in their particular areas.  Members of the team collaborated with one another across the curriculum to provide quality policy advice as well as curricular leadership across the sector.

When the Ministry of Education replaced the department, the curriculum development unit was phased out and its people lost their jobs. Subsequently, the Ministry has placed little value on having a dedicated team of curriculum experts of similar ilk.  Does this not seem decidedly odd for a Government department whose business is education?

Before Tomorrow’s Schools each of the 12 district offices of the Department of Education had an advisory service.  All areas of the curriculum were represented in the service which maintained a direct and ongoing collaborative relationship with their counterparts in the CDU and with schools.  Subsequent to the Tomorrow’s Schools reforms, the advisory services were attached to Colleges of Education and eventually withered away.

Before Colleges of Education were subsumed into universities, they were staffed by a majority of lecturers who were curriculum specialists.  Like the CDU and the district advisory services, these people were recruited because their qualification was a fine track record as classroom practitioners with a depth of practical and theoretical knowledge and resourcefulness in their particular areas.  They also collaborated with and often worked alongside members of the advisory service.

NZEI Te Riu Roa itself was also committed to engagement in curriculum development, with curriculum advisory panels for each area of the curriculum.  I was privileged to be a member of the arts committee. Subject associations led by professionals were popular among numerous teachers who attended their conferences, seminars and workshops.  These once very active arrangements have also slipped away.

The common ground across all of the curriculum support provisions noted here, is that they subscribed to what is called “grounded theory”; theory and practice were inseparable, and the drivers’ seats were occupied not by singular theoreticians, orthodoxy pedants, or fee charging consultants and contractors.  Together, they constituted a powerful, well-qualified, resourceful and highly effective nation-wide collaborative curricula network that served the whole of Aotearoa New Zealand’s schools.  A very far cry from, and no comparison to the indulgent fantasies of ideologically conceived communities of learners that currently exist in disparate pockets of New Zealand.

I appreciate that for some, all of this might seem to be harking back to the “good old days” – days that a majority of today’s teaching profession have little knowledge or appreciation of.  Indeed, we live in times when it seems all too easy to completely write off or dismiss what was done in the past, regardless of how good some of it might have been. Yet knowing about the past provides a valuable window on the present, and an explanation of the situation we find ourselves in today. It allows us to reflect on questions such as, are we really better off today than yesterday?  Has total abandonment been replaced by something that is even moderately superior? The evidence says it would seem not.

Curriculum is the reference point for all teaching and learning.  It demands high levels of ongoing teacher support – support that is accessible and relevant to the needs of teachers and their children; support that actually attunes to practice and the day to day practicalities of the classroom.  So where should that support come from, in what form, and in what order of preference? Ministry booklets? Ministry websites, Ministry contractors and other consultants? Google? Facebook? Or from accomplished professionals on the ground who are respected for being well-grounded in teaching experience in their particular areas of curriculum practice, knowledge, theory, and resourcefulness?  Should it be a top down model of support, or a bottom up collegial model, or a collaboration that spurns the “upper hand”?

Arguably, New Zealand curriculum development and support for countless schools and teachers has been woefully underserved with the unwinding of various reforms that followed on from Tomorrow’s Schools.  Lockwood Smith’s “achievement initiative” that introduced levels and achievement objectives in curriculum statements written by Ministry contractors, proved chronically problematic and resulted widespread mechanistic practice that runs counter to imaginative teaching, original thinking and localised initiatives.  Significantly, those levels and achievement objectives linger on – because there hasn’t been the wit or will to replace them with something better. The Ministry’s National Standards perpetuated the model and drove a fundamentalist wedge between literacy and numeracy and the richness and roundedness of The New Zealand Curriculum.  

We can’t turn back the clock, but we can certainly re-set it.  We could make it happen, if only we had bright minded and willing leadership supported by the right kind of attitude at the top and enthusiastic commitment from the bottom up.  So let’s re-invent the wheel that once moved and progressed so well, and get back to nation-wide, professionally led, collaborative curricula networking.  It would take time and perhaps modern tyres to get this up and running, but it would be worth it for our schools, teachers, children, and for breathing life into The New Zealand Curriculum.  Let’s do it?

Dr Lester  Flockton recently presented at the NZEI Te Riu Roa curricula hui – Taking the Lead. He has worked on many national curriculum and assessment committees and projects throughout his career, including major roles in the development and writing of the New Zealand Curriculum (2007).

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