What Standards?

About twelve years ago, I was at Grand Rapids University, Michigan, talking to a professor of early education who wanted to visit New Zealand. He said he needed to know…

About twelve years ago, I was at Grand Rapids University, Michigan, talking to a professor of early education who wanted to visit New Zealand. He said he needed to know what made us a country of achievers. “You have such a small population,” he said, “and yet, if you take the top ten names in the world in any field; sport, medicine, education, music, whatever; one name will be a New Zealander. How do you explain this?”

I confess I thought him guilty of great exaggeration and I tried to change the subject; but later, given time for reflection, I realised he was right. Try the test for yourself. Mentally skim the cream of any endeavour and you will find a Kiwi in the top ten names. Then, if you like, try to imagine the achievements of four million people picked at random from say, New York or London.

So what is it that makes us great achievers?

I can think of a number of contributing factors: isolation, a small population, a pioneer do-it-yourself attitude, opportunity. But the main indicator for excellence is an education system that encourages creative thinking.

In large countries with dense populations, individualism is not admired. Schools actively encourage conformity, tidiness, obedience, patriotism, and while these traits may be helpful for social order, it is usually at the cost of individual potential. In the past forty years I’ve been in literally thousands of classrooms in the United States and when I show the writing and art from New Zealand classrooms, teachers refuse to believe the young age of the students, or that the work is representative of most schools in our state system.

Our education system had come a long way from the early 1940s when schools in New Zealand were run with a kind of military precision that had us marching into class with Sousa band music and a teacher roaring like a sergeant major if we got out of step.

With roll call came inspection, hands on desk to see if fingernails were clean. My generation laughs about this now, but we agree that in those days, schools were run with more threat than encouragement.

Change seemed to come after World War 11 with a new breed of teachers who saw children as people, rather than adult investment. There was more emphasis on literature and the arts, and at this time, teachers set me on the road to become a writer. Looking back, I realise we were in transition from an educational system based on teachers’ teaching, to one that catered for the child’s learning needs.

We are now in an era when teachers from all over the world, especially the United States, are coming to New Zealand to learn from New Zealand educational institutes and New Zealand classrooms. American teachers say, “You are so lucky not to have standardised testing. Our children get pigeon-holed for failure at age six.”

So what is this talk about National Standards, and where did it come from?

What is the teaching experience of those who promote it? What is it expected to achieve? Children are already closely monitored, but without awareness that might label them in a negative way. As I see it, the introduction of National Standards can only damage an educational system that other countries envy.

But having said that, I believe that some kind of National Standards could apply to the people who govern this country. How many MPs bear academic qualifications fitting for their job? How many are fluent in Te Reo, the indigenous language of this country?

Now, that would be worthy of a campaign.