Dr/Prof. Victor Luca
For many years now alarm bells have been ringing loudly across New Zealand’s educational landscape. Lately there has been something of a crescendo that has been extensively reported on and has been accompanied by dismay, consternation and bewilderment. The main reason for this appears to be the continuing slide in the performance of our year 11 students as measured through a test known as the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). The PISA is a triennial survey of 15-year-old students that assesses the extent to which they have acquired the key knowledge and skills essential for full participation in society . These tests are very basic.
Figure 1. PISA scores for New Zealand compared to the OECD average. Source: https://www.oecd.org/pisa/publications/PISA2018_CN_NZL.pdf
Sure, the PISA score might be just a number and using it to determine the performance of children for life in a fast moving world needs to be done with a good deal of caution. However, it is not without meaning either and it is currently regarded as a gold-standard tool to inform and craft education policy. The PISA is a measure of the knowledge that our children acquire in the three important areas of reading, math and science.
Figure 1 shows what all the concern is about. In 2000, NZ students used to score well above the OECD average in reading, math and science. The OECD PISA average itself has been on a slow decline but nothing close to our rate of decline. Moreover, the trend in our PISA scores has been on such a rate of decline that in less than 20 years we went from being well above the OECD average in math to now having hit it. Even more concerning is the fact that the trend doesn’t seem to be slowing and in another ten years, if things continue as they are, we will be well below the OECD line.
It would seem that math and science are particular weak points, presumably because these subjects are conceptually more complex and abstract.
Given the concern at the way things are trending it is pertinent to ask what might be causing the decline. In other words, now that we have measured something we have to explain our observations.
Many theories are flying around to explain declining PISA scores, and of course, nothing is simple where people are involved as the causes might be many. So let’s go through some of the theories that have been bandied around to explain the data.
One theory has it that kids are just trying less, or care less about the PISA test than they used to. Less effort equates to lower results. This sounds like an easy explanation but there is in fact little empirical support for the idea that PISA scores are falling because kids are putting in less effort .
Another theory is that socio-economic factors are to blame. That is, children of less well-off families are less inclined to work at school, while those from better-off families have the opposite tendency. As society becomes more unequal, and the numbers of the less well-off increase relative to the well-off, the average decreases. I think there could well be something to this theory.
The next theory has to do with the way we use technology. I think it is fair enough to assume that the innate average intelligence of our kids is probably not declining. However, could excessive use of technology such TV, smart phones and tablets be having an impact? Aside from being sources of distraction, and potentially obsession, could these activities also affect the way kids think? In the case of TV watching we don’t have here in NZ the “thirteen channels of shit on the TV to choose from” that Pink Floyd sang about in their 1979 hit song “Nobody Home”, but we sure do pump a lot of crap into the air waves, including adverts, trivia shows and so forth, all seemingly designed to dumb kids down. Note that kids are not just tiny adults, they are, among other things, highly impressionable.
The link between excessive smartphone use and education performance is actually being studied and it might come as some surprise that there is actually solid empirical evidence to suggest that the use of smart phones is actually making our kids dumber . That is, at least in so far as basic competencies in Math, Reading and Science are concerned.
Could poor nutrition and greater use of drugs (incl. sugar) be factors to consider? That is, if you are what you eat, could cognitive impairment be a result of poor nutrition. The answer here is that it is almost universally accepted that ‘proper’ nutrition in early life is crucial for normal brain and neurocognitive development with long-lasting, and often, irreversible effects on an individual’s cognitive development and lifelong mental health .
Another potential cause of decline could have to do with the way we teach. However, ask any teacher who has been in the game for more than a couple of decades and they will tell you that they are working harder than ever. They will also probably tell you that the system has been tampered with considerably and is in an almost constant state of flux.
A specific example of how things have been changed would be the teaching of multiplication. Back in the day, we used to learn the times tables by wrote. Although we used to chant the tables at the start of classes, we were also made to understand what was going on. These days, pedagogic experts have invented a new system to fix what, if you ask me, wasn’t broken, and in fact was always working well. And low and behold there are lots kids these days that can’t seem to multiply. I experienced this transformation in the way of doing things with my own kids who seemed to struggle with multiplication all the way through secondary school. I never worried that much about it because one of my twins was the school dux and the other runner up. They are excellent students, but I reckon I could beat them hands down in multiplication because I don’t even have to think about it. I have no idea what they were being taught to do.
Our educational system has certainly got more complex since I was at school, and there are certainly plenty of other distractions we didn’t use to have including the computers, smart phones, tablets and other such devices referred to above. These had simply not yet been invented. The psychologists must surely be having a field day trying to figure out what impact these devices having, so watch this space as the science is done.
Another consideration is that of structure and how things are done at school. Back in the day a principal seemed to have greater autonomy. Now we have the teachers sandwiched in between the students, parents, and school boards. The latter are bodies of elected individuals which do not necessarily have any expertise in education, and yet they provide input to a school’s educational policy. The ministry of education together with pedagogues based in university ivory towers sit on top of these bodies and have perhaps the largest role in defining policy. This policy seems to be following some sort of progressive ideology coupled with a relaxation of discipline.
And yet, with all these additional players in the system and radical changes in the way teaching is done, we continue to experience a slide in performance.
Since the ministry is the top dog in so far as policy making is concerned, they must surely bear a great deal of the responsibility for the performance slide. If I were in charge of a system in constant decline I would be ashamed of myself and I would have to ask myself some serious questions about the system I had designed. For instance, is the curriculum well designed, clear and consistently applied? Is teacher training keeping pace with the times?
Could it also be that we as a society are not providing kids the incentives for education. Perhaps parents and kids no longer consider academic education a meal ticket. There is certainly a case to be made that math, science and reading aren’t going to help you much if you are going to pursue certain types of careers. However, you are probably going to need the basics and this is what the PISA is about. The idea that education was a meal ticket that was inculcated in me during my early life might well have gone by the boards. This idea is articulated nicely in the old proverb of imprecise origin; “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”.
Teaching used to be an esteemed profession and being educated meant something. Although I have taken the teaching profession to task, let us not forget that education starts in the home . So perhaps we would do well to take a good hard look at what is going on in our families rather than blaming the teaching profession and the academics and politicians that craft policy. That said, if they haven’t figured out that education starts at home, then God help us. And chopping and changing things surely can’t help.
Finally, let me posit one another theory that declining performance has to do with the pace of change. The kids of today are living in a world in which knowledge is accelerating at an unprecedented rate. In a world that is changing fast, even over a period of a few years, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep up? This would apply to kids and teachers alike. Could it be therefore that we are simply asking too much of our kids to keep up? I am not so sure about this idea because PISA really tests fundamentals, but it could do with being explored.
Whilst more than one of the hypotheses mentioned above could be relevant in explaining the poor PISA results, it seems clear to me that we are all part of this and we should not stand idly by and watch the erosion in basic competencies without making every effort to ‘get it right’.
In John Donne’s words; ”And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee”.
Once we have dealt with basic education we can then perhaps turn out attention to what happens beyond school. At tertiary level we seem to have been content to turn education into a commodity, a business.
Maybe it doesn’t matter that we don’t set the foundations properly as long as we can get professionals such as doctors, scientists, engineers and mathematicians from overseas as we have been doing for decades. After all, who cares now that the state doesn’t pay for a citizen’s tertiary education?
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