Education may be expensive…

…but it’s a whole lot cheaper than ignorance

Back to the blackboard

We’ve been bickering over NCEA for years, now it’s the turn of National Standards. We’re accustomed to politicians being short-sighted and opportunistic but wouldn’t it be nice if we could rely on teachers to be more in touch with the real world?

The whole gang of them—teachers, politicians, civil servants and parents—need to go back to the drawing board. Stop tweaking the damn system, stop worrying about themselves and start teaching our kids reading, writing and mathematics. OK, you need a few other things as well but without those three basic skills you’re wasting everyone’s time and the country’s future.

The present system is not working. Fifty years ago I received a better deal from the education system than today’s children do. It wasn’t great, but it accomplished more successfully the basic aims of primary and secondary education.

I was at school decades before the advent of computers and fancy teaching aids; I was a hopelessly lazy and immature student; I never did homework; my parents took no interest in my education and almost all of my teachers were less than inspirational. Nevertheless, having scraped through School Certificate and University Entrance by a whisker, I left school with an excellent general knowledge and I was able to read, write and do hard sums very well.

What lead to this remarkable accomplishment, I hear you cry?

Nothing special.

Most kids in the ’40s and ’50s could claim similar accomplishments. We were privileged in the many ways. We had real advantages over later generations. Here are a few of them:

  • We had no television so we were more likely to read books. My parents had no books so I haunted to the library and I read other people’s books.
  • We had the good fortune to live in a world of pounds, shillings and pence; tons, hundredweights, quarts, furlongs and fortnights; so we learned to manipulate numbers to base 4, 8, 10, 12, 16 and 20 without even realising that we’d done so. Try most 16-year-old students now on long division of £.s.d. and see how they go. We did it with near-universal success at 9 or 10 years old.
  • We didn’t have calculators. We did mental arithmetic in the fearsome f.p.s. system. At tertiary level we graduated to slide rules and found out how how logarithms worked – luxury!
  • We walked, ran, or rode our bikes everywhere. So even sporting no-hopers like me were fit and mentally alert.
  • We made things: rope swings, huts, trolleys, plasticene animals, model aeroplanes; and, of course, weapons: bows and arrows, slingshots and shanghais, rubber-powered pistols. Our parents didn’t help. They were too busy getting on with life without washing machines, motor mowers and cars.
  • Life was busy for our parents so they didn’t have a lot of time for us. We made our own fun. We joined the Boy Scouts, The Girl Guides, or the Boys’ Brigade and got into camping, tramping, cooking, building and exploring.
  • We played cards and board games. I learned euchre, 500, canasta and crib when I was about 10. Fantastic mental exercise for a child. Another art being extinguished by glowing screens.
  • Our teachers taught. They weren’t overwhelmed by form-filling bureaucracy. Most of them weren’t great teachers, in fact my secondary schooling exposed me to some of the worst in the history of learning, but the playing field wasn’t tilted against them as it is today – admittedly partly by their own hands.

I didn’t notice at the time, but we were blessed.

There’s a lesson here. You don’t have to spend vast sums of money on ICT and teaching aids. On the contrary, I’m convinced that computers in the classroom, at least before tertiary level, are a barrier to learning. You need a classroom, a teacher, a chalkboard and chalk, libraries and, most importantly, a village.

Getting books into homes would be good too.

I don’t know for certain how to fix the mess, I’m certainly not calling for a return to Imperial units of measurement and I don’t wish to abandon the advances of the last half-century. But I do know that with cooperation and effort we could do a lot better than we are.

Applying National Standards to teachers would be a good start.