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Maharey: Education in the 21st Century

Hon Steve Maharey
Minister of Education

2 April 2007 Speech notes
Think Differently: Education in the 21st Century

Slide 1 - Introduction

E ngā mana, e ngā reo, e ngā hau e whā

Tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou katoa.

Good afternoon and thank you for the invitation to address you today.

I’d like to welcome those of you who have travelled a long way to New Zealand and also to our Kiwi principals who do such great work in our schools.

This is an exciting conference; it’s one that I’ve been looking forward to. We have an amazing array of speakers discussing an impressive range of topics. It really is the ‘leading edge’ of principalship, a profession for which I have the utmost respect.

We’ve heard from the Secretary of Education Karen Sewell about the uniqueness of New Zealand’s education system; from Professor Viviane Robinson on the Iterative Best Evidence Synthesis on Educational Leadership; and from Mary Chamberlain on the New Zealand Curriculum.

They have been telling you about some of the things we are doing differently to meet the needs of young New Zealanders in the 21st century.

Now, I’d like to share with you where we see education heading in the 21st century.

In each of our countries there is little doubt education is changing. We know education has to change. We cannot continue to use last century’s model if we are to meet contemporary needs.

But like all major institutions, change does not come easy.

I recall the story of a well-known Dean of an Education faculty who was being berated by a mature teacher who had returned to university to raise his qualifications.

The teacher had received a bad mark for an essay and was protesting that this could not be right. He insisted that he had twenty years experience and this should be recognised.

The Dean replied no you have one years experience twenty times and that is why your grade is so low.

Our education systems can be like this too. In fact a lot of what we do has roots much older than twenty years and changing it is therefore going to be a challenge. But if we are to serve the interests of young people and the world they will populate – we need to change.

SLIDE 2 – (animated on a single click) – New Times

We need to change for reasons that are obvious but bear repeating. We live on the edge of New Times. This phrase – which dates back to the 1980s – captures the sense that we all have of living in a time of transition from one kind of society to another.

From the old mass society that dominated the 20th century to the diverse, differentiated, fragmented society of the 21st century.

We live in a time of globalisation, new information technology, flexible specialisation, changing social roles and new senses of identity.

A world is taking a shape that many of us predate. We live in this world, but our understanding of society was moulded at a time when many of the forces so important today were either unrecognised or did not exist.

When I came into Parliament there were no mobile phones and no personal computers. Stunning to think of this only seventeen years later.

The importance of these changes is apparent to everyone in education. We routinely talk about the challenges we face to prepare young people for this new world.

But there is a problem. We know the world is changing yet we are unsure where it is leading too.

Exactly what does the future hold for a six year old girl sitting in one of your classes? We do not really know.

Let’s take one example, nanotechnology. Heard of nanotech? OK. How many know exactly what it is?

Slide 3 - Nanotechnology

According to an article in Time Magazine, nanotechnology is the science of creating molecular-size machines that manipulate matter one atom at a time. The term comes from nanometre – one one-billionth of a metre – which is roughly the size of these tiny devices.

Right now, the use nanotechnology can be put to is limited. But picture this: nanobots are the workhorses of the nano-manufacturing world. They are nano-metre scale robots that use tiny arms to pick up and move atoms and tiny electronic brains to direct the process. Streaming through the body by the billions, nanobots could chip plaque from arteries, gang up on bacteria and viruses, scour toxins from the bloodstream, repair broken blood vessels – and dozens of jobs doctors have not thought of yet.

A more down home idea is that nanobots could replace your vacuum cleaner. Living in your carpet they would be happy eating all of that dust and grime.

Imagine a party and a guest spills the wine. A wave of nanotech bugs sweeps through the carpet to take it away. It’s scary stuff.

How do you prepare a child for the changes they’ll face in a future world where science such as nanotechnology becomes commonplace? It is not easy. So we tend to take refuge in a now tried and true formulae that looks like this:

Slide 4

* High standards;

* High achievement; and

* Life long learning.

In the face of overwhelming change no nation should want for less from its education system. If the world of New Times is going to be more demanding of our young people then we must urge them to higher and higher standards, more and more qualifications and a disposition for learning throughout life.

But ask yourself these question, excellence in what? More qualifications in what? A life of learning what?

Let me exaggerate here to help make a point.

The traditional education system most of us will be familiar with from our own time at school saw knowledge as a series of items, formulated within traditional disciplines, held inside schoolbooks and teachers’ heads, and transmitted via those schoolbooks and teachers into students’ brains.

Students whose brains were receptive to these items did well at school. Those whose brains were less receptive – because the teaching style didn’t suit them, because they had different talents, because their brains were dancing in six different directions at once – did less well.

There often weren’t other options for these students. They were branded as less able, or failures, and they believed it. There was just one form of knowledge, one way of transmitting it, one way of testing it.

And this resulted in an education – actually schooling – system that Charles Leadbetter described in the following manner:

Slide 5 – (slide is animated to come on screen line by line with a single click)

…choose what to study from a pre-defined and delineated set of options; sit with 20-30 other learners; learn from your teacher, who has to deliver a set amount of content often with a particular style; sit some exams; have your learning assessed by an examiner; get your results; move onto the next stage; do it all again.

Now, in the face of New Times it would not be a whole lot of use for us to demand excellence, more qualifications and a lifetime of learning in this system. We could make it a gold-plated system, a Rolls Royce system, but it would not serve today’s learners.

And I mean here all learners. Even the winners in the old system are not served by its continuation. They too need the chance to do things differently.

If we are to serve young people we need all of these fine aims to be attached to a new education system – a learning system. And so we need to transform education.

Transforming Education

‘Transformation’ is a big word. I think it gets overused. But what does it mean?

If we link this word back to the notion we used to live in Old Times and now we live in New Times, we would say the rules, assumptions and points of view that we used to live by are giving way to a different set of rules, assumptions and view points.

Slide 6

Charles Leadbeater captures this shift when he suggests the kind of education that goes with the times we live looks more like this:

…the basic curriculum…that could branch out in many different ways, to have different styles and endings. The foundation would be to encourage children…to become more involved in making decisions about what they would like to learn and how….mobilise children and families as contributors to their own education. The aim is to turn passive recipients into active participants…

By the way, if all of this sounds in any way new it may not be.

Slide 7

New Zealanders will recall Clarence Beeby’s and Peter Fraser’s famous quote in 1939 that;

The Government's objective, broadly expressed, is that every person, whatever his level of academic ability, whether he be rich or poor, whether he live in town or country, has a right, as a citizen, to a free education of the kind for which he is best fitted and to the fullest extent of his powers. So far is this from being a mere pious platitude that the full acceptance of the principle will involve the reorientation of the education system.

In 1986, Beeby expressed his vision for education in the future. He hoped it would contain “a school system from which all students will emerge with a sense of achievement, with a feeling of their own worth and with respect for others”.

Beeby and Fraser never saw a New Zealand education system that fulfilled their aims. They lived in an age when education was very much about sorting young people into successes and failures. There was no way everyone was going to leave with a sense of achievement, a feeling of their own worth or respect for others from that system.

But we live in an age when it is in the interests of society to find out what all young learners know and how well they know it.

So what are we doing, and what should we be doing?

I think New Zealand is a good example of where to go.

Personalising Learning for Success

Tomorrows Schools pushed the leadership of learning out to schools and into the hands of educational professionals, local communities and learners themselves.

These were structural changes that got educators and the community more involved in education. Good. But the changes had their limits. For a decade or so we did not think much about what to do with the new structure.

It reminds me of the time my Dad brought a Studebaker home. Fantastic. A big roomy car with all kinds of possibilities. Unfortunately he could not afford the gas so the possibilities went unrealised.

Well more recently we have begun to put some gas in the tank of Tomorrows Schools.

Slide 8

* The practice of teaching. In the past teaching would not have directly involved the learner in helping to construct what will be learned and how learning will take place. Now it does.

* Assessment for learning. In the past assessment of learning meant that little was done with the work students produced to assist their learning. Now with an assessment for learning approach this work is being feedback to the student.

* Leadership: Principals are being recognised as leaders and not just administrators of their schools.

* Curriculum: We used to have a prescriptive curriculum. Now we are aiming for a curriculum that sets out competencies, values and knowledge that a student needs to know but leaves it to the professional judgement of the teacher to guide the learning process.

* The use of ICT. New technologies are allowing a shift in the way learners access knowledge and the relationship between the learner and teacher.

* Involvement of parents and community. It is now understood that learning takes place everywhere and the more we can involve the parents and the community the better.

* Reorganisation of schools. ICT is allowing schools without walls. School days are being changed to maximise learning.

These, and other shifts are major steps forward. But there is a lot more to do.

I have been using the phrase personalised learning as a catchall label for the large number of initiatives being implemented in our system.

Slide 9 – Miliband quote

This term was defined by David Miliband when he said:

“High expectations, of every child, given practical form by quality teaching based on a sound knowledge of each child’s needs. It is not individualised learning where pupils sit alone. Nor is it pupils left to their own devices – which too often reinforces low aspirations. It means shaping teaching around the way different youngsters learn; it means taking the care to nurture the unique talents of every pupil.”

Personalising learning turns the traditional view of knowledge on its head. Knowledge is not “stuff” that learners acquire from the teacher and the feed-back. Rather, knowledge is a process that learners get directly involved in. They help create and manipulate it. Students are learners who engage in a dynamic, two-way process, rather than being passive recipients of knowledge.

The challenge of personalising learning is captured in the quote from W.B Yeats’ quote that “Education is not the filling of a pail, but a lighting of a fire.”

Many of our schools have responded to this challenge. They are changing the way they approach learning by making students an active part in the learning process.

Over the past year I have talked about personalising learning as a way of bringing together the wide range of world-class initiatives in our education system, and I have found people agreeing with me. Sometimes they disagree. Sometimes they agree too easily…. they’re the ones who worry me! What is undeniable is that the change to personalising learning will not be uncontested.

A change of the kind I am talking about represents an age-old battle in education. We may live in New Times, but as I said earlier, changing the institutions of education will take time.

Jane Gilbert captures just how deep this debate goes when she talks about ‘knowledge’ in her book, Catching the Knowledge Wave.

She describes the old ideas of knowledge that can be traced back to Plato. Plato’s system was knowledge-centred. He believed the mind was developed through exposure to the best and greatest knowledge. Plato’s curriculum was based on knowledge not because it was useful, but because it developed the mind.

You will recognise this as the basis of the old and, in some areas, current, curriculum.

Jane describes how New Times require us to re-think our assumptions about knowledge.

In contrast to Plato, personalising learner means being learner centred. Instead of seeing knowledge as something we have to master, we need to see it as a process; something we do rather than something we have. She discusses the need to build people’s ability to work with others to produce new knowledge that solves real world problems.

Jane argues that knowledge is changing from a noun to a verb. What she means is that knowledge today is about doing things, learning things, using knowledge to create new knowledge. It’s not just stuff to memorise, stuff to know.

No doubt you can see all around you in whatever country you’re from, the signs of this ‘battle’.

Slide 10

On one side are those who see the best educational response to New Times being high standards, high achievement and life long learning. A better version of the learner fitting the demands of the system.

(click to bring second part of slide 10)

On the other side are those who want high standards, high achievement and life long learning within a different approach to learning. An approach where the system fits the needs of the learner.

The new view must – and needs – to prevail if our young people are to have the kind of learning they will need this century.

As an illustration of this I will leave you with a story from Richard Taylor of Weta Workshops, makers of the Lord of the Rings special effects, and an Oscar winner.

Slide 11 – ("He's the one on the left!")

Richard Taylor Weta workshops / monster-drawing drop-out kids / presentation to the President of Finland.]

Richard captures in this story the imperative we face. We need to prepare people for the new economic world. We need to learn to value a wider range of what we understood to be intelligence.

Slide 12

As one of your previous speakers, Sir Ken Robinson, writes

Conventional education looks only for certain sorts of ability. Those who have it often have other abilities that are ignored: those who don't are likely to be seen as not intelligent at all…

Human talent is not in short supply. The limitations are in how we recognize and develop it.

What this comes down to for us in education is that no matter how difficult it might be we have to think differently. It does not matter how many computers there are in the classroom if the relationships between the learner and the teacher don’t change. It doesn’t matter how small the class sizes are if the learner not made the centre of what goes on. It doesn’t matter if we build whole new schools if they are just flash versions of last century’s schools.

We need to think differently and use these resources differently.

That is our challenge in New Zealand. And I imagine it is the challenge everywhere.

Thank you for inviting me to be with you. Enjoy the conference. And for those of you who must travel home – go safely.

Slide 13 – Think differently.


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