Now for a generational change in education

Don’t look now but there are changes in schooling and in the way the two big parties think about it. The twentieth-century education factory system won’t do in this century.

Last century’s school factories mass-processed children into intermediate goods for final processing by employers or for further processing by the tertiary factories.

This worked well for an economy built around people-intensive top-down-organised factories (some were called offices) which mass-produced goods and services.

In the late twentieth century large numbers of such factories relocated to lower-wage economies. At home computers and their offspring transformed production and stripped out multitudes of skilled jobs. Goods and services were customised. Old-style factories had to adapt into smarter operations.

This century smartphones, robots, artificial intelligence devices and the like have speeded up change — though where to no one knows.

There still is a need for hand skills and for brawn: water pipes to be fixed, houses built, roads dug up, decaying baby-boomers tended, tourists buttered up. But even for those tasks modern tools and consumer expectations require more than rote-learning.

Also, anecdotes and evidence are mounting that many graduates expecting degrees and certificates to be meal tickets are on tight rations, weakening the advantage the 1960s-70s educational meritocrats thought was embedded for their offspring’s lifetimes.

Now educational need goes beyond bits of paper to a range of life and other skills: to the capacity to learn constantly, including from others, which requires intellectual humility, and to process information, plus an ability to collaborate. This requires a “big ego and a small ego at the same time”, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman put it recently.

For educators the schooling criterion now is not what is taught but what the child or student has learnt. Teachers must teach how to learn. For that they need a much more diverse range of techniques than declaiming knowledge from the front of a room.

It requires high capabilities in teachers at all levels, incorporating the most useful of the evolving technologies. Rote teaching won’t do.

To develop this new breed of teachers requires, as the New Zealand Initiative’s John Morris and Rose Patterson have argued in two reports and will reinforce in their final report tomorrow, a much higher bar to entry into training and much better training, constant updating of professional knowledge and high status for the profession.

In the transition from majority illiteracy to a population skilled for the factory economy teachers were seen as important members of the community. In today’s transition towards the smarter, more complex, more confusing 2020s the profession needs the same high status if it is to recruit people of high enough quality.

That includes principals. They need to be principal-teachers instead of the principal-bikeshed-managers they have partly become, which non-teachers can do. Their real job is to inspire and get the best out of teachers. Minister Hekia Parata and Labour’s Chris Hipkins are hot on that. Hipkins and Morris and Patterson variously add a high recruitment bar, high-end training and higher pay.

Parata took a first step in January to pay good teachers more so they don’t turn bikeshed-manager to get a rise and to spread top teachers and principals around for others to learn from.

That thawed the teacher unions a bit: money is money. Hipkins backs the sentiment but doubts principals can run multiple schools. Morris and Patterson agree. The logical flipside of their push for professional upgrading, but too hard (so far) for politicians, is to relate teachers’ pay rises to learning outcomes and pay the best the most.

That would need more sophisticated assessment tools than the “standards” test data, though those data are getting richer and might in time be one useful element, if (a big if) filtered, fine-tuned, controlled for complex variables and applied intelligently.

Learning starts before school. So Parata sees herself as minister from age zero to 18. Labour’s child policy (the real one, not the cash-in-hand bit) agrees. Ministers have yet to back Parata explicitly on that zero start. John Key, who got a good zero-to-five, is more comfortable with a school-age focus.

Parata also is zeroing in on the first secondary school years, when many teenagers get lost — the schools’ focus is on the NCEA years. Watch out for “standards” to cover those years. Hipkins opposes that.

There is much else, including class space design, clusters and hubs, tested in Christchurch, and Education Secretary Peter Hughes’ herculean task to turn officials from “sector leaders to system stewards”, as Parata puts it.

The takeaway: the main parties disagree on much detail but are both on a path aimed at highly professional delivery by high-status teachers to fit a modern society and economy.

The hitch: it could take a generation.