Wish I Was There

My amazing Bro’, Greg Zemke-Smith, just emailed me asking me when I’d be returning to New Zealand to be closer to my family.  I miss them so much it gets me down at least a few times every day, and especially at night when I’m trying to drift asleep.   I wrote back to him complaining that education (the field I work in) in New Zealand is in a worse mess than people care to admit.  So I would have a hard time going back home to work in schools.  University is the only place I can currently teach with sufficient freedom and autonomy and creativity.  On the surface New Zealand has a truly revolutionary secondary education system,  They have implemented many modernist ideas in pedagogy and assessment, but the combined system is deeply flawed because it still hangs on the much of the conservative education establishment norms.  And when a potential bright new spherical revolutionary system is put into an old-world establishment box, it just dies. It’s worse than the bad old system alone.

So my Bro’ then wrote back saying New Zealand’s NCEA system is at least better than the Cambridge exam system.  And I thought about this for a bit, since I was inclined to agree, but then wrote him the following email.

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Yeah, … maybe… maybe on a good day when the sky is clear and I’m tipsy on caffeine I’d agree NCEA appears to be better than IB or Cambridge.

I started writing you a short reply, but then got carried away!  hahahaha!
 Hexagonal close packing of students.

The trouble with NCEA is that it really only pretends to make learning more inclusive and student-centric, whereas in practice pretty much the same pedagogies get propagated as in the past, and students still only get taught what teachers think the students need to score well in exams.  I know some of the reformers have their hearts in the right place, but I think they are just a bit too dim to see the consequences of their policies.  It’s tragic really, NZ has such well-intentioned educators and policy-makers, and some brilliant teachers, but they lack the intellects or balls (perhaps) to really crack the insides of the edu system open and go supernova.  Just too many conservative plodders or nice people in heart without genius brains to be more super-visionary.

So while NCEA is still an exam-based assessment it will never be all that much better than IB or Cambridge or any other exam based standards education assessment system, even if the NCEA exam questions look cooler and more open-ended.   Exams aren’t the only evil but I think they are a huge part of the problem.  A predetermined set syllabus that is the same for every individual student is another evil, which tends to pair nicely with national set nation-wide exams. It’s crazy in our modern world to be treating all children or teenagers as more or less the same blank slate who all can do with the same syllabus and teaching regime.  We have the technology to easily totally individualize learning, all that is really required are teachers who can be comfortable answering any questions thrown at them and who are happy to sit back a  bit more an manage students in self-directed learning, rather than trying to bulk teach a whole class.

In fact, the more vague open-ended questions in NCEA are a disaster!  They defeat the purpose of exams which is really (should be) to assess quality of education.  If you want fair assessment then the exam questions need to be fairly boring, mild, even multiple-choice and not involve too much subjective answering.  The problem is teachers are too afraid to NOT teach-to-tests, so they drill students on how to answer exam questions, no matter what the type of questions.  And with the open-ended nature and complexity of NCEA style questions this is a nightmare for teachers.  And it is paradoxically killing creativity in our schools. If the questions were all mild and boring then teachers could ignore them and teach more creatively and tell students not to worry one jot about the exams.  Exams should really be a total minor after-thought, useful for teachers as data for helping inform, test, and improve teaching methods.

Actually, I’ve come to think testing and assessment are extremely important, but should still always be viewed as secondary to learning and secondary to encouraging positive affect in schools.  But it is the way testing is used which is vital.  I think some slight anarchy is needed, teachers should have autonomy to test their students in any way they please, but make the testing open to external scrutiny and NZQA business should be about assessing the assessments, not the students!  Tests then become ways of gathering data for assessing quality of teaching.  People, we, society, everyone, should then just simply TRUST that if the learning and teaching is good, and always iteratively evolving and improving, then students will naturally have experiences good or sufficient quality of education, so there is no need to assess students, not need to grade them.

Why do we still have grades?  The main reason I think (other than for political control of teachers) is to block and prevent some students from gaining entry into higher education.  This is evil to me.  ALL education should be freely accessible, and even maybe free cost at least up to some ways of paying for services and hence fees, but entry should not be restricted by grades, it should be restricted by self-selection of students with courses.  With Internet a lecturer can teach millions of students, there is a virtual classroom, so class sizes are irrelevant these days.

The first country to crack giving high quality peer-reviewed tested but without any student grading, and freely accessible education, will i think gain a huge economic advantage and will outshine other nations for years before the rest catch up.   Unfortunately this experiment might never happen since many top universities are giving away their course materials in OpenCourseWare.   It that ever leads to wide-spread self-education maybe our universities will gradually close down from lack of registered students!  (Probably not, but it’s at least conceivable that might happen, at least for OpenCourseWare that does not require a laboratory or other physical equipment, like engineering or medicine.  But in fact, remote equipment control over the internet is already happening, so even heavy physically resourced courses could eventually go fully online.)

But I think if I came back to NZ preaching all of this I’d never find a job, not even at Polytech.

But I think your Polytech idea is a good one for me.  I think I’d like that environment, if only there was an opening and a course I could teach.  Maybe I’ll design a course and pitch it to WelTec?  Something to put on my list of things to do in my research time.  Somehow though I think this project is more important than discovering the keys to quantum gravity.

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