When I was writing our reports on the state of literacy in Aotearoa New Zealand last year, one of the factors that I was fairly certain was affecting young people’s literacy levels was their knowledge-base (or lack thereof), and that the New Zealand Curriculum was likely contributing to this. Unfortunately, we could not find the research that proved this. The New Zealand data was non-existent save some [still very useful] small scale studies, which demonstrated that New Zealand students experience very different opportunities to learn in terms of rigour, content coverage, and text selection. However, most of these studies did not connect the learning opportunities with literacy outcomes. There are international studies demonstrating that background knowledge influences reading comprehension (the now famous baseball study is one example and more recently the use of culturally relevant content in Australian NAPLAN tests is another). But these studies do not explicitly tie reading outcomes to specific curricula.
It was exciting, therefore, to read the recently released findings from a long-term US research study, which found (using a robust methodology) that the Core Knowledge curriculum, which is designed to build students’ general knowledge about the world, had significant positive impacts on elementary/primary students’ reading and maths (and for some students science) achievement in Grades 3 and 6. Of particular note, at the one low-income school in the study, the gains were large enough to eliminate altogether the achievement gap associated with income. If you want to learn more, Robert Pondiscio has done an excellent write up of the study and its implications.
The study raises a number of implications for New Zealand, particularly given current policy initiatives, proposed policies, and many of the discussions and debates being had.
- The common practice model – while the pedagogical practices teachers use to teach literacy (in all its forms) are hugely important, the study confirms that for reading, at least, it is not just how one is taught but also what one is taught across the curriculum that is crucial to outcomes.
- The current emphasis in many primary schools on adopting an explicit, systematic approach to teaching early reading is important but insufficient. It is essential that alongside explicitly teaching phonological awareness and the ability to accurately decode and spell, students are also being exposed daily to rich texts and rich oral language and discussions, and that they are engaging in a broad curriculum which includes science, social studies, and the arts.
- The Curriculum. While there is already a Curriculum Refresh underway, it is important that consideration is given to, as Pondiscio describes it in his article, “a curatorial effort” that considers the background knowledge that all New Zealand children should know. Not, again quoting Pondiscio, as a “canon-making exercise” but because there is some core knowledge (which will need to include not only traditional disciplinary knowledge but also different world views and knowledge systems) with which all young New Zealanders should engage.
This does not mean that everything should be specified, and it does not remove the opportunity for some localisation. It also does not mean that there is just a focus on academic knowledge or general knowledge, or that a lock-step approach to curriculum is required. Furthermore, it does not dictate the pedagogy that should be used (although there are some principles that should be informing practice in all schools, however, the ways in which those principles are enacted may vary).
- Research on how the Curriculum is being interpreted, designed, and taught in New Zealand schools and the impact this is having on students’ learning. Currently, we know far too little about what is being taught to students across New Zealand. Data from a recent survey The Education Hub undertook (the full report will be released in the middle of the year) found that only 51% of the over 500 teachers who participated believed that teachers teach the same content and only 42% believed that students consistently learn the same things, no matter by whom they are taught. While there’s always going to be some variation in what students learn, the degree of variation currently happening in New Zealand schools is of concern. And it seems, many teachers agree. 40% of participants were dissatisfied with the current approach to curriculum planning at their school.
With the attention that’s currently on education in New Zealand and the growing number of questions that are being asked about how well our schooling system is performing, it seems we have an ideal opportunity to push to do things differently.
By Dr Nina Hood