Teaching our way to success
29 July, 2016
You will never hear me criticise teachers. Both my mother and mother-in-law were teachers and — touch wood — our education system has served me and my children well over the years.
But it has been a long time since New Zealand was lauded for having one of the best education systems in the world.
Just recently expat Stephen Jennings criticised New Zealand's education system, saying it clearly has major problems and favours children of wealthier families, leaving a "decile divide" not seen in other countries.
He says we are too slow to challenge poor performing teachers; letting them stay in the system for their entire careers with students suffering accordingly.
Education is one of those things you can take for granted. We all go through the school system, and some students do well and go on to have glittering careers. Others don't; but we don't necessarily blame education for their lack of success.
Yet the quality of education is a major determinant of an individual's and indeed a nation's success and prosperity.
A recent Treasury paper noted, "education is an important contributor to raising living standards for New Zealanders. It helps to build a skilled workforce, which is crucial to raising growth and productivity."
I thought about our education system when I recently read a Financial Times article "Why Singapore's kids are so good at maths".
Before moving past the headline, I knew the article would talk of discipline and hours of learning — both at school and after school — and support from parents determined to see their offspring excel.
Sure enough it covered all of that.
But it also described aspects of the "Singapore model" which apparently governments around the world are seeking to incorporate into their own approach to teaching maths and science. It is not surprising that governments want to copy the Singaporeans; they have routinely ranked at or near the top in global comparisons of mathematical ability.
In a May 2015 OECD survey, 15-year-old students from 76 countries were tested in their abilities in maths and science. Singapore came first, followed by Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan. New Zealand was in 17th position.
The Singapore curriculum is more stripped down than in many western countries, covering fewer topics but doing so in far greater depth.
An OECD spokesperson noted that the depth of teaching was a crucial factor in Singapore's effectiveness. "When you look at England and the US, their curriculums are mile-wide and inch-deep. Mathematics in Singapore is not about knowing everything. It's about thinking like a mathematician."
Singapore's logic resonates with think-tank The New Zealand Initiative who last year wrote a paper questioning why there hasn't been an improvement in our maths achievement since the introduction of the $70 million Numeracy Project fifteen years ago.
It notes that maths teaching here encourages a range of strategies for solving maths problems, with a greater emphasis on mental problem solving and less on written techniques.
They say this approach has left New Zealand kids being better at applying and reasoning than actually knowing. Asian children are excelling because they first know (the basics of maths) and then apply that knowledge to solve problems.
Far be it for me to suggest how maths teaching should be done. But it does make you wonder, given the importance of maths and science learning to our future, why we're not embracing the methods developed by those who have nailed it.