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Valuing education

By Anna Campbell

My older brother took some time out of his medical degree to finish his mathematics degree. In doing so, he ended up doing his honours year the same year as I was finishing my science honours degree.

Around exam time, I was struck by our different approaches to learning. Neither style was better or worse, but it was like we were playing completely different sports.

As an example, after a day of exams we met for a coffee and a rundown. I was feeling pretty contented that I had managed to produce five essays in a reasonably knowledgeable and articulate manner. My brother was bemused that he had spent more than half of his exam deriving a formula, only to flip the exam page to find the formula on the next page.

That would never, ever, have happened to me, because firstly, I would never have thought to derive a formula - in my mind, formulae are things that should be given to you - and secondly, I would always look through the entire exam in the first 30 seconds in a blind panic to ease my mind.

I have recently returned from Melbourne, working very intensely with a small cohort of people. In the evenings, when work talk had meandered, our conversations ranged over many topics but often returned to a topic that is becoming a greater issue in both countries. How do we narrow the gap between the rich and poor? For me, this is one of the greatest challenges facing New Zealanders in the next 50 years.

Our answers ranged from needing to address basic housing to health and nutrition, but the main solution we came up with time and time again was that every person needs to receive a quality and tailored education.

How do we achieve this when individuals, like my brother and I, have such different needs? A colleague of mine working in education recently sent me a New Zealand Herald article by Simon Collins, ''Dumbing down a generation: Performance of NZ schoolchildren plummeting''.

It is a fairly sobering read, with the message that the current NCEA system forces teachers to narrowly focus on teaching what is tested; encourages schools to steer weaker pupils into easier NCEA subjects they can pass; allows top pupils to relax as soon as they reach the standards or gain 80 NCEA credits; and intensifies competition between schools, so the best schools attract the best teachers and pupils at the cost of declining quality in other schools.

I personally think there are some good elements within NCEA; regular feedback and learning in an iterative way within assessment is important.

In other words, I don't have a problem with handing assignments in and then reworking them; this is part of learning and working with our peers to always improve, something, which happens regularly in the workplace.

How do we take the best of NCEA, and also create a more dynamic learning environment? In a Guardian article, ''In an age of robots, schools are teaching our children to be redundant'', George Monbiot asks: ''In the future, if you want a job, you must be as unlike a machine as possible: creative, critical and socially skilled. So why are children being taught to behave like machines?''

He goes on to say: ''The best teachers use their character, creativity and inspiration to trigger children's instinct to learn. So why are character, creativity and inspiration suppressed by a stifling regime of micromanagement?''

Testing is important and, like most parents, I want to know if my children are falling behind. To this end, the current system is probably serving us well in ensuring fewer learners are left behind.

That is vital in closing the gap between the rich and poor, but so too is developing creative learners that think outside the square to become our business and community leaders.

I am definitely not all doom and gloom about New Zealand education. I have seen and met enough excellent teachers to know our children are in mostly capable hands.

Teachers though, need to be able to operate in an environment where they are able to be creative in order to trigger our children's instinct to learn. How do we collectively ensure this happens?