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Book Extract: The Rhetoric and The Reality

David Hood's The Rhetoric and The Reality aims to provoke public debate about our current system of secondary schooling in NZ.

David Hood
Fri, 29 May 2015

The Rhetoric and The Reality aims to provoke public debate about our current system of secondary schooling in New Zealand. 

It explains why our system is what it is, exposes the inadequacies and absurdities of a model of schooling designed 100 years ago for a world that no longer exists, and describes the many past and present challenges to that model’s appropriateness in today’s complex and very different world. 

The book urges readers to think differently about the purposes and nature of schooling if it is to adequately prepare all of our young people for the challenges they will face in their futures. 

It presents examples of new models emerging around the world that show there are different ways of thinking and different ways of doing things, and argues that what is needed is transformation rather than a continuing tinkering with a model that is increasingly recognised as obsolete.   


Extract from Chapter Two: 

Pleas for new skills for a new age 

Between 1985 and 1986 I conducted a survey of employers. They overwhelmingly rated communication skills of reading, writing, listening, speaking and numeracy, self-management skills, and ability to work with others above overall academic ability. School reports were the only source of information about the range of skills prized by employers, such as the ability to work with others and self-management skills. Exam results were taken as evidence of competence in literacy and numeracy

A survey conducted by the Wellington Chamber of Commerce in 1991 produced very similar results. Basic skills of numeracy and literacy, communication skills, the ability to work with others, and self-discipline were rated above academic excellence. Employers recognised that ‘academic’ performance as traditionally measured and reported did not predict a productive employee.

In the late 1990s the New Zealand Employers Federation published its list of critical competencies:

The first two: Communication in all its forms, and Computation are what can be described as the ‘old basics’ but are of even greater importance in today’s world.

The other four are the ‘new basics’ which reflect the need for a range of other competencies.

Co-operation or Collaboration – the ability to work productively with others across cultural, geographical and language boundaries.

Computer Literacy – the ability to utilise effectively new information and communication technologies.

Creativity – the ability to think outside the square, to take risks, to make multi-disciplinary connections between ideas.

Critical Thinking – the ability to self-reflect, and to make judgements or solve complex problems based on analysis, interpretation, evaluation and synthesis.

Several years ago the University of Victoria also surveyed employers to identify the skills and attributes needed for the modern workplace: strong interpersonal skills; strong verbal communication skills; strong written communication skills; flexible and adaptable can-do attitude; ‘sound’ academic achievement; self-motivated/self-starter; team player; energy and enthusiasm; problem solving skills; and analytical and conceptual skills.

New Zealanders, through the Secondary Futures Project, were equally clear that: 

“a key purpose of schooling will be to equip students with the full range of capabilities they need to participate successfully in society.... including young employees who are self-starters, can work well in teams, and know how to find new knowledge when they need it. .... Success in schools must be expanded to include social capabilities because the world of the future will be more complex, more rapidly paced and technologically driven. People will be expected to be more flexible and to pick up new skills throughout their lifetime.”

In 2013 the Committee for Auckland skills report commented that: ‘most employers interviewed also found it hard to find employees with strong non-cognitive skills, sometimes labelled EQ or soft skills. The list included self-discipline, gregariousness, conscientiousness, and agreeableness’.

Paul Winter, Chief Executive of the Employers and Manufacturers Association (Central), argued in 2008 that: 

“By losing some of our obsession with academic qualifications we can turn our focus on those underlying attitudes to life and learning that are more valuable. We need to gain better insights into our own preferred learning style, ensuring that learning becomes less a chore and more a natural part of our daily life.”

An article in the NZ Herald, a few years ago, provided a very clear summary of what employers seek in employees:

“You can have the best resume in the world but if you don’t know how to get on with your workmates then your qualifications are entirely academic.

“Team skills are usually top of the list, closely followed by analytical and problem solving ability.

“Also desired are the communications and interpersonal skills which allow you to gather information, sort it, and deliver it to the right place.

“Employers keep saying.... that the big thing they want is people’s ability and willingness to commit to life-long learning.”

Given all of this consistency of views and their repetition over many years, it is hardly surprising that in its recent election manifesto the New Zealand Employers’ and Manufacturers’ Association again reiterated they want to know what other attributes young people possess rather than just ‘academic’ as evidenced by NCEA results.

These findings, all from New Zealand over a period of almost 30 years, show strong consistency of views, very similar to the United States’ Partnership for 21st Century Skills which concluded: “Policy makers, business leaders, educators and voters all agree that today’s students need different kinds of skills to thrive in an integrated global economy.” 

It is important to recognise that these views are also consistent with wider international thinking, and I want to use two examples that emphasise the educational aspects. The first is from an OECD project – Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills – that involved more than 250 researchers worldwide:

Ways of Thinking: Creativity, critical thinking, problem solving, decision-making and learning.

Ways of Working: Communication and collaboration.

Tools for Working: Information and communications technology and information literacy.

Skills for Living in the World: Citizenship, life and career and personal and social responsibility.

The second is from the UNESCO Commission which in 2006 offered a new framework of four aptitudes, “four fundamental types of learning which, throughout a person’s life, will be the pillars of knowledge”:

Learning to Know 

Learning to Do

Learning to Be

Learning to Live Together

Under this new framework, the concept of learning to know is moving away from an exclusive emphasis on passive content acquisition to one of engaged knowing for understanding, discovery, and exploration. Learning to learn and integrating multiple disciplinary ways of knowing and modes of inquiry are now viewed as essential to learning to know. We are moving away from only learning what to know to also learning how to know.

The concept of learning to do is also being deepened. No longer viewed exclusively as developing prerequisite skills for a specific vocation, learning to do now emphasises the development of a broader range of intellectual competencies that are adaptive and transferable to multiple vocational and avocational endeavours. Creative problem solving, conflict resolution, and interpersonal communication are now viewed as essential to learning to do.

Learning to be and learning to live together are emerging as indispensable knowledge paths for a vibrant and just economy, a healthy planet, and a sustainable world. Learning to be is fundamentally rooted in autonomy and the freedom to be and become one’s self (identity). It recognises the imperative to holistically develop our full potential. It affirms the need to invite emotions, imagination, creativity, and spirit into our learning and our work. It recognises and honours the innate dignity and right of every person to develop all of who they are.

Hargreaves and Pink added a fifth pillar of learning: 

Learning to live sustainably is about learning to respect and protect the earth which gives us life, to work with diverse others to secure the long-term benefits of economic and ecological life in all communities: to adopt behaviours and practices that restrain and minimise our ecological footprint on the world around us, without depriving us of opportunities for development and fulfilment; and to co-exist and cooperate with nature and natural design, whenever possible, rather than always seeking to conquer and control them.” (2006)

These five pillars of knowledge, and Senge’s concept of connectivity, strongly endorse Bolstad and Gilbert’s view of knowledge in the 21st century as no longer universal and timeless, but constantly evolving, and something that happens in the connections and relationships between people and ideas. 

“Knowledge Age economies rely not on extracting natural resources for use in manufacturing, but on ideas. However, knowledge in this context does not mean ‘stuff’ that people ‘get’ and store away. It has a new meaning, one that differs in major ways from the one that underpins our education system. Knowledge, in the Knowledge Age, does things; it makes things happen. It is no longer something that is produced by expert individuals (academics, or scientists, for example); rather it is something that happens in teams.... It is a process not a product.” 

At the Doha’s Global Innovators Conference held in Qatar in April 2013 Frank Edwards reported on a survey involving over 2,000 stakeholders across 25 countries that found a persistent gap around the globe between the skills held by school and university leavers, and those required by employers: 

“There is strong empirical evidence to support the fact that many learners, employees and graduates are not sufficiently developing their broader skills and attitudes to ensure employability and to maximise economic returns for the individual, employer or country. The time is right to address these issues and develop new content and assessment approaches to ensure the barriers to competitive potential are clearly identified, understood, and addressed.”

Edwards also argued that: 

“More attention needs to be paid to instilling learners at all levels of the education system with the skills demanded by modern workplaces, such as 21st century skills, which include initiative and self-direction; leadership; negotiation; planning and organisation; problem solving and resourcefulness and adaptability.”

These calls for education to nurture in young people a wide range of attributes other than just academic is truly international. As a final example I return to New Zealand. The July 2014, Next Step, a careers magazine for school leavers, reported on a survey it had conducted with 52 of the top businesses in New Zealand. They were asked to identify the attributes they looked for when hiring. Employers ranked communication skills, problem solving ability and team work above academic achievement as key attributes. “Employers are looking for students who are well-rounded, and will fit cohesively into the work environment as a team player.” The results are therefore very similar to those I identified in my survey in the mid-1980s, some 30
years ago.

There are also research studies that clearly show it is other qualities that strongly determine success in tertiary study, rather than the subjects studied, the pre-knowledge brought from school or the marks gained in examinations. The 21st century competencies are critical for success in tertiary education, the workplace or as a parent, voter, citizen and member of the community (local, national, and increasingly global). To quote the Partnership for 21st Century Skills

“They are essential for effective citizens and a vibrant democracy. The knowledge and skills needed to engage in civic and political life – whether that be in one’s school, hometown or local clubs, or state, national, global and/or virtual landscapes – are the same skills needed to solve hands-on, real-world problems in college and in the workplace. The skills one needs to engage in civic discourse are the same needed to work with diverse colleagues, address challenges and creatively solve problems.”

Statements such as this are common as countries around the world grapple with how to change their schooling systems so they are responsive to this different world, and students leave school with the understandings, competencies and attributes, or dispositions, they need to successfully face the challenges of their future lives. There is increasing recognition that current educational systems, structures and practices are not sufficient to address and support the learning needs for all students in the 21st century. A continued focus on ‘academic’ learning will not equip young people with the skills they need to cope successfully with a changing workplace and a world full of ‘messy’ problems. New approaches to curriculum, assessment and how teaching and learning are organised are needed.

Bolstad and Gilbert put the challenge quite bluntly, arguing that schooling needs to be “unbundled”. Unbundling is: 

“a process in which innovators deconstruct established structures and routines and reassemble them in newer, smarter ways. It involves multiple ideas and practices coming together in ways that could ‘rebundle’ learning and teaching to better reflect the context and demands of the 21st century world.”

In this complex world it is not surprising that organisations of all kinds are realising that traditional responses to changes in the environment – increasing resources (throw more money at it to solve the problem), or working smarter (seeking better results using the same models or frameworks) – simply do not work anymore. In today’s world the response has to be different; it has to be about doing ‘better things’, rather than doing things better. It means being creative and innovative, about thinking differently and doing things differently. Schooling needs to do the same.

Before I go on to discuss how well the New Zealand secondary system is responding to these challenges it is important to dispel some other myths that underpin the factory model of schooling, and sadly are still prevalent in much of our thinking and doing.

© The Rhetoric and The Reality, by David Hood. Published by Fraser Books. 192 pages. $39.50 (softcover). Available from here. Reprinted with permission. 

About the author

David Hood has been an educator for over 50 years, as secondary school teacher and principal of Fairfield College in Hamilton, Department of Education official, senior manager with the Education Review Office and the establishment chief executive of the New Zealand Qualifications Authority. 

For 15 years he worked as a consultant on a wide range of projects with a primary focus on educational leadership and change management.

In 1998 he wrote Our Secondary Schools Don’t Work Anymore – why and how New Zealand schools must change for the 21st Century.

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David Hood
Fri, 29 May 2015
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Book Extract: The Rhetoric and The Reality