Getting on top of the 07 Draft Curriculum (3)
By Kelvin Smythe
The values references – indications of politico-defensive New Right and New Age populism
The 07 curriculum is a sincere attempt at improvement, but tinkering with the handed-on structure was never going to achieve much. Manoeuvrings to protect the government’s education position against political attack by pandering to populism has further limited the potential for what could be achieved. The nature of contemporary New Zealand curricula was set by Tomorrow’s Schools. While the present government might have wished to at least change the tone in the new document, there is no indication it had the nerve to do so. This posting will critically consider the way the 07 curriculum has been presented to the public. Following that, the posting will argue that in the preliminary pages of the document, the writers state in four ways, in four different sections, the values they want to see promoted – a repetition that has the effect of building up a chaotic but defensive wall of New Right and New Age trigger words. The result is confusion and ineffectiveness.
In the Waikato Times (21 August, 2006), from the Dominion Post, Mary Chamberlain, acting manager of curriculum for the Ministry of Education, trumpeted that New Zealand’s education curriculum ‘is heading back to basics with a focus on reading, writing and arithmetic’. This was to be done apparently by stripping ‘junior maths back to basic algebra’, and removing ‘mention of the Treaty of Waitangi principles’. Chamberlain said the ‘focus was on developing skills that meet employers’ demands’. She does add, later on, that while ‘the treaty had disappeared from the principles of the curriculum, it would still be taught in the social studies curriculum.’ The political context for this dismal release does have to be remembered, Brash’s Orewa address was still reverberating, and the election was only a few weeks away. But from an educationist it is inexcusable. It is impossible to imagine, though, that her release was not initiated from at least at secretary of education level. This would make the sentiments even more significant, giving support to my reading of the new curriculum as having significant politico-defensive elements.
The Vision paragraph on page 8 is to humanists a bleak one. The text and subtext are far more about economic than all-round fulfillment. (Read it for yourself and judge.) And what claptrap in the concluding sentence: ‘Education empowers our young people to stand tall as New Zealanders, seize opportunities, overcome obstacles, and make a difference.’ These are New Age trigger words resonant of business ‘self-help’ seminars. The language is clichéd and alienating. Following the Vision paragraph are four lists of words. The first list goes under the heading Confident: Positive in their own identity; Motivated and reliable; Entrepreneurial; Enterprising; Resilient. The writer, not satisfied with ‘Motivated and reliable’ (which sounds like a lift from a CV) and ‘Entrepreneurial’, pushes on relentlessly with ‘Enterprising’. For me, ‘Persevering’, ‘Adventurous’ and ‘Creative’ would have been much more acceptable for these last three value suggestions. I want to make clear that I am not a knee-jerk liberal reacting against references to business activity, but I do want values expressed to be inclusive of all positive human behaviour, not Trojan-horse words for a narrow perspective. And nowhere in the lists (there are four of them) is there a reference to caring or fairness. There are references to these words in other lists, in other sections, but that is my point, there are lists everywhere which are contradictory, defensive, confusing and diluting. Pages 8-11 have different headings, but they are all about values. An important point to take into account is that the Vision page comes first and a vision is necessarily pre-eminent over any mere statement of values. (It is hard to write this without smirking.)
In the specifically designated Values page (p.10), the first list could be considerably reduced and gain more power by being so, and trigger and cliché words like ‘excellence’ and ‘innovation’ should be removed. (At least ‘passion’ has been avoided, though I note in a further list of values on page 11, ‘can-do’ makes an appearance.) The list of values is a redundant hotchpotch. A value should speak for itself, to explain it is to weaken it. In a later posting in this series I will, guided by the values statements in the document, set out a list of values in the concise way I recommend. However, just using some of the words listed on page 10, I would list: Fairness; Responsibility; Caring; Perseverance; Participation; Reflection. A list something like this, leaving schools the responsibility to work out the implications, might have reduced the tendency referred to in posting 2 in this series, for teachers to mainly ignore official curricula.
Then on page 11 is Competencies. This is another listing of values, with ‘Using language, symbols, and texts’ thrown in, I suppose, to reinforce the ‘Three R’s’ credentials of the document. I would ask the curriculum writers to take a deep breath and compare the Competencies section with the Values section. The values are the same, even if the explanation of them differs. Why repeat them, and bang on about them in such a prolix way? Such a discharge of words destroys the power of whatever value the various listings of values might possess. I know you commissioned people to do research into the area, with the result being hundreds of pages of comment on values statements around the world, but what was needed was clear thinking, not a recording of other people’s lack of it. Did you continuously consult Ivan Snook, and other education philosophers? No doubt your reasoning was that if values were incorporated into the Competencies they would more likely be an active part of programmes. However, combined with what preceded the description of Competencies, it is all too much. What you have done is trivialise values, confuse teachers, and weaken the document. The Competencies are a wordy flop that will increase administrative workload, and bring little benefit to learning and value development.
(Please note: The document being referred to is the draft curriculum.)