Word Up, Student Teachers!

This article was first published in Salient magazine, October 4, 2015. 


“…no school system can claim to be just which is organised in such a way as to favour children who have been socialised in one, rather than another part of the social structure of the community that nourishes them. Wherever a school system is simply an extension of the homes of an urban middle class, or of a dominant culture, or both, it is inevitable that the children from those homes will be in the best position to profit from it.”

– John Watson, ex-director of New Zealand Centre of Educational Research, 1965.

Last year, only one third of Māori and Pasifika Year 13 students gained university entrance—down from half in 2013. Entrance has been made harder, according to Universities New Zealand executive director Chris Whelan, in response to reports that 22 per cent of Māori and Pasifika students and 11 per cent of European students are dropping out of university after their first year. One ironic consequence will be that fewer Māori and Pasifika will be able to train as teachers, become doctors and professors of education, and influence the very system that is neglecting to provide the social, economic and educational conditions for their success.

Education minister Hekia Parata appears to believe that the increased difficulty is in the interests of the very students who are being filtered out of higher education or forced to pay for a foundation studies year. Claiming no responsibility as minister for the exclusion of such a high proportion of Māori and Pasifika from higher education, Parata merely explains that “It is not in the interests of any students to begin their university studies without the skills or experience necessary to succeed.” More difficult assessments amount to a purported “clarification” of university requirements.

Whose responsibility is it, if not the government’s, to ensure that Māori and Pasifika gain the skills necessary to succeed? Statistics have repeatedly revealed systemic Māori and Pasifika exclusion from equal educational opportunities since the settler period. These statistics should be raising alarm with Parata, alerting her to the racism inherent in a system it is her job to improve with policy. They are not cause for her to advocate that more Māori and Pasifika heed the message that they are simply not university material.

A system that sends privileged Pākehā to university to contribute to the shaping of society, and Māori and Pasifika into trades and service (via government initiatives like “Vocational Pathways”) is surely based on false premises. In fact, Parata’s comments contain echoes of Charles Bowen, the New Zealand parliamentarian who penned our Education Act in 1867 on the basis of Social Darwinist aims. Bowen stated that the Act’s business was “to place the key of knowledge in the hands of every boy and girl. But,” he said,

“it is not the intention of the bill to encourage children whose vocation is that of honest labour, to waste in the higher schools, time which might be better devoted to learning a trade, when they have not yet got the special talent by which that higher education might be made immediately useful.”

New Zealand’s ongoing colonialism—the active privileging of white, capitalist interests at the expense of those of Pasifika and tangata whenua—sees one in three Māori children today growing up in poverty. Our education system has proven time and time again that it is not only insufficiently responsive, but that it also exacerbates this disadvantage. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2012 report noted a correlation between educational achievement and socioeconomic status that is marked in New Zealand in comparison with other countries. The average reading scores of five-year olds in Decile 1 schools are almost half those of their peers in Decile 7–10 schools. Māori and Pasifika students have long suffered from our wholesale refusal to address the root causes of this problem.

A warning to this year’s student teachers: you are being trained to perpetuate a racist education system, so prepare to speak out. The principal theory of literacy acquisition that informs policy and teacher education in New Zealand, called “whole language” theory, is derived from the learning experiences of white, middle-class children. This theory gained traction and was institutionalised in tandem with Rogernomics, in the 1970s and 80s. Universities, given their statutory role as society’s critic and conscience, should now be fiercely critiquing it—following the near lone voices of Massey’s Bill Tunmer and James Chapman.

Whole language theory posits that children do not need to learn language (even a highly complex language like English) through explicit teaching, but simply through exposure to text. Its principal text in New Zealand is John Smith and Warwick Elley’s 1997 Learning to Read in New Zealand, which states that:

“Children are assumed to acquire their word attack skills incidentally, while reading and rereading favourite books, repetitive texts, poems and songs. The majority of New Zealand teachers lean more towards this position … arguing that reading and writing are best acquired ‘naturally’ in the same way we learn to speak and listen.”

The problem with this theory is the same as the problem with free market ideas of an “invisible hand” being a suitable determinant of who can flourish in the market. Ultimately, it is those with pre-existing capital (in this case, educational capital) who prevail and, overwhelmingly due to colonialism, those people are white. Highlighting the flaws in the logic of this year, New Zealand Centre of Educational Research reports have shown that the primary indicator of educational achievement in New Zealand is not individual effort, but the educational levels of a child’s mother.

As stated, one third of Māori children live in poverty in New Zealand. Of course, Māori mothers overall, by virtue of racist historical processes, have generally accumulated less educational capital from white institutions than their white counterparts. What’s more, children growing up in conditions of poverty are said to experience 3 million fewer verbal utterances per year than their wealthier peers. This greatly affects literacy development. Most Pākehā children generally enter school equipped with bigger oral vocabularies, more phonetic awareness, and a greater capacity to rhyme and recognise syllables, more knowledge of written letters, and more confidence and motivation in using language. The sad fact is that the system continues to prove itself incapable and unwilling to assist students who do not enter school with this capital. Those children do not only stay behind, but fall increasingly far behind until now they meet a minister who tells them they’re better off as labourers or in the service industry.

Clearly, we need to rethink our basic position on literacy. Currently, we are insisting that reading and writing develop incidentally, while we are seeing that they rely on previously gained skills.  We need to be asking how literacy is or can be acquired by children who have small vocabularies, little phonetic awareness or letter knowledge, and low motivation and confidence when they start school. There are current and historic precedents for this kind of inquiry in New Zealand and abroad. In the U.S., for example, literacy expert Louisa Moats is a powerful advocate for the incorporation of “code-based” teaching methods for students from low socioeconomic backgrounds.

“Code-based” does not mean “rote” or “didactic” teaching. Put simply, the “code-based” school of thought advocates that teachers have a strong grasp on a) the psychology of literacy acquisition as distinct from speech acquisition, and b) linguistics, and that these inform their practice. English has a “deep” orthography, meaning it is more complex to learn and throws children off more easily than languages like Finnish, Spanish, Māori or Russian might. Yet English consists of spelling patterns and is drenched in history and etymology that can be learned. I would suggest that teachers are best placed when they understand and can reconcile the insights of this code-based school of thought with those of the child-centred movement. If student teachers were each encouraged to develop a practice based on a reconciliation of these two, then we would be getting somewhere.

Now is the time for student teachers to demand this kind of training and skill set, to tackle Māori and Pasifika underachievement. I want to encourage today’s student teachers to staunchly demand teacher training that will help them contribute to the closing of New Zealand’s literacy gap. I believe that without student teacher intervention, the status quo will not change and the literacy gap will continue to widen.

Yes, education faculties employ te reo and tikanga Māori to fulfil bicultural requirements, but this is nowhere near sufficient when what is clearly and urgently needed is a total reconceptualisation of literacy teaching that accommodates Māori and Pasifika literacy learning needs. I urge this year’s students to do these two things.

First, examine current gestures toward “biculturalism” critically by asking whether the skills offered will truly equip new teachers to close the literacy gap in their classrooms.

Second, challenge yourselves about where and when your commitment to children’s learning and education’s social role begins. Many students perceive it as beginning on their first day, wielding a whiteboard marker and a wad of worksheets. This is similar to the belief that the responsibilities of parenthood begin the day a child is born—something all pregnant women know not to be true. The raising of children is a collective responsibility met through the insistence on personal, family and social conditions that are healthy for children.

It is similar with education: it is not only through direct classroom contact with you as a teacher that the lives, opportunities and learning of your students are profoundly affected. Educational conditions are shaped by the global political economy and its vested interests, by the tasks and priorities that are assigned to public education by those in power. Since the 1980s neoliberal reforms, it has been the New Zealand Treasury and not our Ministry of Education that has determined the role education is to play in our society, or rather our economy. Successive ministers have translated this assigned role into policy and monitoring systems. From this policy, the Teachers Council creates criteria for the teacher education programmes administered by education faculty management. Many lecturers deliver these programmes with a reluctant “don’t shoot the messenger” or even “toe the party line” attitude that is not good enough and must be challenged.

Teacher education is a crucial pivot point within this overall mechanism. It is the place where the rubber hits the road in education, where theory begins its transfer into practice. It represents a rather electrifying equation: teacher education is where a distilled system of power and policy meets a cohort of student teachers who represent an infinite quantity of future classroom time. Teacher education is where two diametrically opposed motivations meet: the institution’s contractual obligation to fulfil its state-funded role of ensuring compliance, and students’ social responsibility to think critically and independently in the interest of social justice.

Students have a social responsibility to critique institutional practices that fail to address social needs. Students of education must begin demanding that education faculties develop sound and robust policies that support the literacy education of Māori and Pasifika and that can withstand political change. Just educational conditions, such as the mainstream capacity to help Māori and Pasifika children who grow up in poverty become literate, must be demanded from the moment teachers commit themselves to enter the sector.

Students studying to become teachers can make their demands known by their independent selection of reading materials and topics for discussion; by critiquing courses in a way that demands recognition, including through doing so publicly; by walking out of lectures that are tokenistic or encourage uncritical complicity with the status quo; by organising discussions about the university’s role in education; and by staging protests, including through the use of the university’s own assessment programmes and examination schedule. There are precedents for this.

Currently education faculties use familiar and modest amounts of tikanga and te reo Māori to address the issue of racial inequality in education. But what Māori and Pasifika students require of our education faculties is nothing short of a complete reconceptualisation of how teachers are to be trained in literacy education.

New Zealand’s own history provides some stunning inspiration (Carol Henderson’s book A Blaze of Colour is a great resource): Clarence Beeby, education director under our first Labour government, was inspired by the work of educationalists like John Dewey, author of Democracy and Education, Experience and Education and Art as Experience. Beeby established an Arts and Crafts Branch within the Education Department and from the 1940s its national supervisor, Gordon Tovey, got to work setting up a teacher training scheme, and a network of then-named “Native Schools” in the Far North where arts-based methods were developed. Alan Simpson—author of the unpublished To Educators Regardless, housed in the Alexander Turnbull Library—was the principal of Ngataki School. With Tovey’s assistance, Simpson used music, dance and drama to have a disengaged student cohort taking initiative to develop and catalogue their school’s own library and win local sports tournaments on the way. Oruaiti headmaster and artist-scientist Elwyn Richardson’s work you can read about in In the Early World; Sylvia Ashton-Warner is another notable teacher of this ilk, whose book Teacher provides yet more insight into genuine, child-centred teaching methods.

What Māori and Pasifika students require of our education faculties is nothing short of a complete reconceptualisation of how teachers are to be trained in literacy education.

What is interesting to note is that whilst advocating for arts-based, child-centred education practice, all of these teachers brought to their classrooms high levels of literacy acquired through the old, antiquated system. The challenge today is not to throw babies out with bathwater. Many Victorian classrooms offered comprehensive language skills drenched in punitive, competitive environments; more postmodern theories like whole language offer child-centred methods, but drain the education sector of content knowledge. The worst case scenario is, of course, substance-less activities prescribed in competitive environments—and what we need is skilled-up teachers applying child-centred methods.

Teacher training is an absolutely crucial component in the clockwork of our education system. The training that teachers receive to inform their careers is not to be dismissed as a negligible quantity of time, as just a year, or three, for a piece of paper—because it is not. It is some of the most significant, socially formative and incalculably precious time there is.

Student teachers: speak up and make it known, loud and clear, that you demand your university’s support to gain the knowledge and skills you need to close the literacy gap in your classroom. Speak up and make it known that you refuse to passively perpetuate a racist system; that Māori and Pasifika students are required in our tertiary institutions and in our highest positions of influence now more than ever.

For those who are not student teachers: send these reflections on. Encourage those you know who are in teacher training to reflect on these issues, and to critically evaluate their training programmes in relation to New Zealand’s literacy gap. Encourage student teachers you know to inform themselves on the gap, and hold education faculties to account when they are clearly not providing the training Māori and Pasifika students need from New Zealand’s teachers today.

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