Curriculum change shifts emphasis from 'what' to 'how'

Last updated 00:00 23/09/2007

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Critics say New Zealand children will grow up ignorant.

A controversial new national curriculum will teach pupils how to hold a conversation or ask for help rather than remember facts, historic dates or periodic tables.

But more than half of those who made submissions on the curriculum disagree or are not sure that the swing from knowledge to skills is the right direction for New Zealand students.

And education groups are describing the move as "intellectually flawed and obsolete", and "a shift too far".

Based on the "outcome approach", the new curriculum, to be released in November and introduced in 2009, focuses on the process of learning, rather than content.

For example, social science students will be marked for taking action to make their community a better place to live, rather than remembering facts about a society on the other side of the world.

Science students might be tested on whether they know how to design an experiment, rather than whether they remember what the result should be.

Mary Chamberlain, overseeing the project for the Education Ministry, says that although people are "rattled" by the changes, "there's no use (students) being little knowledge banks walking around on legs.

"We've got computers, we don't need people walking around with them in their heads... People just have to get used to that."

The new curriculum covers primary and secondary schools and marks perhaps the biggest challenge for the education sector since NCEA was introduced in 2001.

As well as the practicalities of having to adjust their teaching in the face of widespread shortages of staff and resources some groups are worried about the long-term effects the "outcome-based" approach could have.

The emphasis on problem solving and creativity is likely to be very evident in the classroom, says Graham Young, principal of Tauranga Boys' College and ex-head of the Secondary Principals Association. "It will change."

Chamberlain defends the system, saying "we can't teach everything. Some outcomes and topics are too important to be left to chance... If (students) don't know how to initiate a conversation or ask for help, that's not OK".

A draft of the new curriculum was released in July last year and triggered almost 10,000 submissions.

The PPTA said the curriculum represented "a paradigm shift that has gone too far".

Education policy advocates The Education Forum said: "That New Zealand authorities have continued to adopt such a model, in the face of increasing international evidence that such an approach is intellectually flawed and obsolete, is difficult to understand."

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Roger Moses, principal of Wellington College, says he is worried that the flexibility of the curriculum, and its focus on skills rather than knowledge, will see New Zealand children growing up ignorant.

"One of the dangers that I see is that there's no real specification of knowledge that kids should actually acquire by the time they leave school."

Chamberlain says "the key thing is that 80 to 90% (of submissions) really supported the direction of the draft".

But the Colmar-Brunton analysts looking at the submissions found just over half of respondents disagreed, or were not sure, that that direction was "just what New Zealand students need".

And eight out of 10 respondents expected "moderate to major challenges" phasing in the new curriculum.

- Sunday Star Times

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