A defective product of the New Zealand education system
I wanted to write a piece on my experience of being educated in New Zealand. What I write is purely based on personal experience, and I’ll not attempt to apply my observations to the situation of any other student in New Zealand; the diversity of student experience and culture should be respected by not shrouding it in blanket terms. I merely hope to add my voice to clamour, to speak out about our system and how it has shaped me, for better or worse, into the person I am today.
My education took place in privileged realms; decile 9 and 10 public schools. This is one thing I do like about New Zealand schools – I do not feel disadvantaged for not having gone to a private school. I was lucky enough to have a comparatively well-resourced high school inside a commutable area to pursue my studies. I realise that this is not the case throughout New Zealand. For many families, the choice lies between sending their children to under-resourced, low-decile skills and (arguably) suffering accordingly, or paying monumental sums for private education. However, for those with a high-decile public school in their area, the advantages are great. My own family is not well educated; so far I am the only family member who has attended and graduated university, and shown any sort of academic capacity at all. Attending a good public school ingrained me with the expectation that I would go to University. But more on expectations later.
For the most part, I enjoyed school, but I found certain subjects too easy. I felt far more challenged in Australian schools, and far too coddled in my Auckland school, particularly in the humanities. Of my brief period at an Australian high school, I retain fond memories of history class, geography class and even maths class. I enjoyed learning about the world in fun, nurturing environments. I was encouraged to read, to expand my knowledge and to be creative. Looking back, I realise that I would have done well at my Australian high school, though life outside of school was somewhat traumatic and I was suffering depression. This catalysed my desire to move back to New Zealand, but a part of me wished that my mother had held fast and remained in Sydney as she had wanted to do. How different my life would have been.
In New Zealand, I was placed in an ‘extension’ class, but even this was not challenging enough for me in the humanities. I was outraged that because I did well in English and social science, I was also expected to be above my level in maths and sciences. The truth is that I was not – I am fabulously mediocre at maths, and my understanding of science remains basic at best. I have an odd notion that I could have been better at science, but, counter-intuitively, my placement in the advanced class dampened my enthusiasm for the subject. I was one of the poorer achievers in my class in maths and science and I felt demoralised as such. Had I been placed in an ‘ordinary’ maths class, I think I would have done better overall. The pace of the class would have been more suited to my level, ensuring that I understood concepts more completely before moving on. As it happened, the advanced maths class moved too fast for me and I remember breaking down in tears one day because I simply didn’t understand. After that, I gave up on the subject almost entirely. I gained the marks required for University entrance, then gleefully dropped the subject at the end of year 11. My interest in maths was effectively shut down because the knowledge presented to me in the extension class was inaccessible.
New Zealand’s system allowed me to drop maths at age 15. Though I happily did so at the time, perhaps I would have benefited more from another year of maths class (at a level that suited me). If you’ll forgive my conceit, I was a bright student. But, I was woefully lazy. Rather than put in hard work, I liked to work the system to my advantage. My school, therefore, never taught me how to work hard. It is a skill that I am still learning at age 21. Had I been required to work hard at school, I would have been far better equipped for University. As it was, though, I picked and chose which papers to sit, and which to disregard entirely so that my record ‘looked better’. I worked out how to gain points during the year so that I didn’t have to sit exams (I don’t generally do well in exams). Some students re-sat assessments in order to achieve a better grade. This was another sore point for me – my own school allowed only one re-sit, and only for one grade higher than the one originally achieved. Other schools, though, allowed their students to re-sit multiple times for any grade they chose to aim for. This inconsistency irked me.
I do like the fact that NCEA takes into consideration that some students do not test well, but do well in assignments. I appreciate that. But, I don’t think it’s in students’ best interests to allow them to pick and choose what they will and will not sit. Students need to learn to try, even if they might fail. I didn’t learn that lesson – school taught me instead that if I thought I was going to fail, it was better to not try at all. Though I might have resented it at the time, I could have learned from failure, or even the prospect of failure. Without the prospect of failure, there was no incentive for me to try at all.
I understand that in the last few years there have been tweaks to the system, to encourage students to aim for Excellence. Perhaps it’s draconian of me to think so, but the very real threat of failure dangling over my head would have motivated my ass into gear far more than an ‘Excellence’ would have. For me, an ‘Excellence’ was usually unremarkable. An ‘Unachieved’, however, would have been a disastrous blow to my fragile teenage ego.
So. I learned to work the system. I learn how to get by on the seat of my tartan skirt and a minimum of actual effort. In subjects I wasn’t immediately good at, I tuned out. I certainly wasn’t gaining a depth of knowledge. But what about breadth? My school, a large and well-resourced school, offered a comparatively large range of subjects. The issue was time, and timetabling. By opting to take Japanese in year 9, I missed out on home economics (or whatever politically prudent label that had slapped on that at the time) and hard technology. Economics was never compulsory, and never promoted to me as subject of interest, so my understanding of economics to this day is vague. This frustrates me somewhat. P.E. on the other hand was compulsory for the first two years of high school. At the time I loathed it, and even in hindsight I fail to see how making me run for an hour was beneficial to me. If anything, it made me despise exercise even more, an attitude that I’m only now getting around to fixing. Give me yoga over cross-country any day.
By the time year 13 rolled around, I was expected to pare my subjects down to five. This resulted in a very limited, heavily humanities based curriculum. Although I enjoyed it at the time, I might have benefited from a more rounded course. Why are students expected to reduce the amount of subjects they study to only a couple? Why aren’t more subjects compulsory? Although having a highly tailored course of study can seem great at the time, problems arise later when students change their minds, as young people do. Asking 15 year olds to pick the subjects that will later determine their tertiary studies…in my view it’s madness. Perhaps other students benefited (or suffered) from their parents’ input, but in my case…well, as I said, my family are largely uninterested in education. I’m not saying that all choice should be taken away from teenagers, but exposure to a greater range of subjects could make more well-rounded young adults. Surely there is some room for negotiation here?
The second major problem I have with New Zealand’s education system is that too little was expected of me. If expectations were higher, I might have achieved more, and transferred that attitude on to my University studies. I could have done more work in high school, much more. I reiterate that I’m only talking about myself here – I had peers who were perpetually busy and had so much to do. No doubt they did better than I at University and are better off for it. Since high school, I have learned that I thrive off being busy, but only when it’s compulsory. Set me an optional essay that will be really beneficial for exam practice, but won’t actually count for anything, and I’ll let that sit dustily at the bottom of my to do list while I read a novel instead. But, set me an essay that will be graded and visible on my record, will be beneficial for exam practice and will incur tangible consequences if I do not complete it… well, then I’ll bloody well have to do it, won’t I? The expectations for bright young New Zealanders are far too low. Only those who are intrinsic self-motivators will truly excel within this system. The fact is, the rest of us don’t know how to self-motivate and an education system that allows for so much bargaining and manipulation does nothing to teach this important skill.
When I started University, I immediately began to work the system just as I had in high school. Tutorials aren’t compulsory? Flag that, I’m going home to read my book and luxuriate unproductively in my freedom. Most of this course is revision of year 13 work? Great! Maybe I’ll show up once a week. It’s okay, I’ll still do well in my assessments. One morning I woke up obscenely early and was seized by scholarly inspiration (it’s been known to happen occasionally), so decided to go to school early. Thumbing though my course guide to see whether or not I needed to lug my textbook in with me, I discovered to my horror that an essay was due that very day. An essay I didn’t know about because I never went to tutorials. I considered handing the essay in late, but I was in a scholarly mood, so I went to school and sat down to write my essay. It was a breeze, thankfully, and I handed it in an hour early. A few weeks later I got my mark back – an A. This should not have been possible. Why was my first year at University so easy? Why were the expectations so low? Why did they send me away for three or four months per year, when I could have been learning?
It wasn’t until second year that it all turned to custard and it became evident that my corner-cutting methods weren’t going to cut it any more. My marks suffered under the weight of all the work I had to do and my lack of skills for dealing with it all. But that’s when I learned how to work hard; by third year I was back to getting As. Thank goodness. It wasn’t until I studied for my graduate certificate, though, that I did my best work. Why? Everything was compulsory. The course spanned an intense three months, and attendance was mandatory. Don’t show up to class? You fail. Don’t sit that test? You fail. Don’t have your lesson plan prepared? You get to stand in front of a class full of students and a video camera and look like a complete twit. On my first assignment, I got (what I considered to be) a bad mark – a B-. I was upset at the time, but my poor mark informed my work on my second assignment. I learned from my mistakes and saw how to improve my mark. My second assignment received an A, and I felt a sense of pride that I had never before felt from a grade. I felt empowered by my ability to learn from my own mistakes and improve upon myself.
If only I had learned that lesson in high school. In a different education system, perhaps, I could have.
I realise that my own experience is highly individual, and smacks of #firstworldproblems. But I believe it gives a small insight into the follies of New Zealand’s education system. Perhaps my views on the education system are not as liberal as my general leanings, but I honestly believe that putting too much room for manipulation in the hands of young people who don’t, at the time, realise that some lessons need to be learned…well, that’s not helping anyone. At the same time, I don’t agree with National’s education policies, which seem to place emphasis on funding for technology and physical spaces with little concentration on education culture and assessment methods. I don’t want to diminish the importance of learning within a modern, fully equipped environment, but isn’t it ultimately futile to create a beautiful new building to house students whose perception of achievement within our education system is so flawed?
I am certainly supportive of the Green Party’s desire to establish a commission of enquiry into the education system, particularly of their desire to include the views of children and young people in their enquiry. In my own view, there needs to be a duality in approach the education reform – one that raises expectations of students and holds them as accountable for their own success as their school, but one that also identifies students who struggle and supports them accordingly. There needs to be a cultural change in the perception of failure and poor grades – one that emphasises that failure is an opportunity for improvement and growth. Improvement and growth can increase a young person’s confidence in their own abilities. Student who are naturally good at subjects and achieve consistent Excellences, as I often did, can stagnate and grow bored. The education should allow for those students to aim for higher expectations and experience the learning curve that is striving to achieve a goal.
I speak here not as a policy developer, nor a teacher, nor a person up to date with international education systems and their various merits and failings. I am simply someone who has been through the system, a product of it.
My challenge to you is this: tell me about your own experience of the New Zealand education system. As I said earlier, the student experience is diverse and I cannot claim to know anything other than what I have seen and done myself. I would love to know how other young people reflect upon their education, to see if there is a common theme. What do you think?