Joy Cowley would have been discouraged by National Standards

[g1_quote author_name=”Joy Cowley (Autobiographical notes, 2010, para 2)” align=”center” size=”l” style=”solid” template=”01″] In the early years at school, I was a slow and struggling student and I could have added…

[g1_quote author_name=”Joy Cowley (Autobiographical notes, 2010, para 2)” align=”center” size=”l” style=”solid” template=”01″]

In the early years at school, I was a slow and struggling student and I could have added to the country’s illiteracy statistics. The experience of trying to learn to read with a meaningless system of fragmented language, has made me a passionate advocate for the beginner reader, the slow reader, the reader who has English as a second language. I believe that learning to read must be a pleasurable and meaningful exercise. If it isn’t, then we teach children to read and to hate reading at the same time.

[/g1_quote]She reminds us that learning can and should be both pleasurable and meaningful. These qualities also underpin and spur motivation. For some children however, learning at school is de-motivating and the advent of National Standards in numeracy and literacy contribute to this problem.

Joy Cowley did not learn to love reading (and writing) by having her performance measured against national standards. She learned to love reading through discovering that books can take you on adventures and she lost herself in libraries. What she could not contain from her reading overflowed into her writing. This motivation to read and write was deeply intrinsic; it did not come from externally imposed standards that measure children’s progress. It would be interesting to know what she thinks of the latest education policy on NS. While it is touted as a panacea for children who are struggling it threatens to penalise the very children most at risk. In this country this includes large numbers of Maori and Pasifika (especially boys), those with learning and cognitive disabilities, and some for whom English is an additional language. It means the likes of Joy Cowley who struggled initially and would not have met the early standards. She would have been judged as failing in the twice yearly reports with the comment “below standard” or the even more condemnatory “well below standard”.

There is no evidence to show that regularly reporting on children’s inability to reach a target encourages them to learn. Children learn best when engaged, motivated, see purpose and meaning, and feel that magic mix of frustration, excitement, determination and elation.

As Oakley (2010) stated, NS by itself will not improve achievement and that it risks demoralising those who currently struggle with numeracy or literacy. The NS are intended to be the benchmarks that inform teachers about what to aspire to in their teaching. The onus on teachers to help children meet the standards is a transparent aim of the policy, and a misguided one. At this stage there is no funding given to schools to help teachers improve their pedagogical capacity in regards to NS. The professional development focuses on school leaders and the implementation of the NS; not on improving teaching or funding groups most at risk. The same groups of children who are struggling are unlikely to suddenly respond to the urgings of a teacher providing more assessments in literacy and numeracy.

Too much emphasis on reaching an externally imposed goal can have the effect of undermining intrinsic motivation. This is because people strive hardest for the goals they create. For example, Henderlong and Lepper (2002) refer to the “4 C’s” of intrinsic motivation” challenge, curiosity, control and context. Mountaineers climb mountains because they are there. Scientists are curious to discover why things are the way they are. Humans find the exercise of control over their environment to be inherently motivating. Intrinsic motivation can then be taken to mean when a person engages in a behaviour without coercion; this motivation is strongest when the urge to engage in a behaviour arises from what is within the learner, rather than outside pressures such as praise, assessment exemplars and performance targets (Webb & Fraser, under review).

Moreover, teachers increased focus on set standards of achievement in numeracy and literacy will serve to narrow curriculum. The sheer hours of extra work required for the multiple assessments, moderation and overall teacher judgements, plus the reporting processes will necessitate that there is less time for other curriculum areas. This too will impact upon motivation, both for children and for teachers. Children go to school to learn to read, write and “do their sums” but they also go to school to fall in love with books, design web pages, make friends, learn about distant places and times, examine the natural world, explore the capacity of their bodies to move through space, enhance their aesthetic awareness and attend to qualities that grow who they are and what they might become.

We need to remember that school currently does not˜work’ for all our students. We need to find ways to make it work better for those who are underserved. Narrowing the curriculum and assessment with NS risks alienating further the very children it is aimed to serve.

Deborah Fraser is an Associate Professor in the Department of Human Development and Counselling at the University of Waikato. She can be contacted at



Henderlong, J., & Lepper, M. R. (2002). The  effects of praise and reward on children’s intrinsic motivation: A review and synthesis. Psychological Bulletin,128 (5), 774-795.

Joy Cowley: Autobiographical notes. (n.d.) Retrieved from:

Oakley, C. (2010, June). National standards. Parliamentary Library Research Paper, Wellington.

Webb, M., & Fraser, D. (under review). Ability, effort and motivation.