Monday, May 18, 2015

Prince Harry, Demolition, and High School Education

Prince Harry visits the University

Harry's visit coincided with one of my tutorials, so attendance was even lower than usual! It was raining and hailing, but hundreds of students still turned out to see him. I snapped a photo on my way back to the postgrad room. Look for the red hair!

American Treats

I made some white chocolate-covered pretzels with sprinkles and powdered-sugar-covered chocolate cereal bites for my fellow postgrads, and they really enjoyed them. I can't believe you could be on this earth for two decades and not have had these sugary treats. Despite the preponderance of sugary things here, they are really missing out on some of the best ones. 

Neighborhood Demolition

A second house in the last couple weeks was demolished in our neighborhood. The crews decided to start around 7:30am for good measure. It was strangely entrancing to watch this excavator scoop away parts of the house, mattresses tumbling down and brick walls collapsing with just a touch. Two days later, the whole lot was completely empty, as if nothing had been there before. I have no idea whether or not these lots will be filled with new houses.

New Zealand High School Education

Oftentimes, learning the history of something can help illuminate why current things are the way they are. This has been the case with my trying to discover what might be going on with the high levels of student apathy I've been encountering in my tutorials (and a general sense of it on campus).

It turns out, one of the doctoral students in my postgrad room is actually researching education and educational philosophies in New Zealand. I had heard from multiple students (both undergrad and postgrad) that the relatively new NCEA education system in high schools was not doing a good job of educating students, but he really pulled it all into perspective for me. Note that so far I have yet to do my own internet research on this topic, so everything I know I got from him and others. Basically, about ten years ago the NCEA education qualification system was implemented and meant that high school students were working toward completing credits to obtain a qualification (I'm not sure what system was in place before then -- my fellow postgrad says New Zealand had previously experimented with both British and U.S. models of education). So students take various assessments to earn credits, and then when they have enough credits, they are done with high school. He says that while they still have graduation ceremonies, the emphasis is more on completing the qualification than reaching a major life milestone. 

The part that I can't believe is how these various assessments have contributed to the fragmentation of the curriculum to the point that students are finishing high school without ever having written a full essay. I have heard from multiple sources that all they needed to do in terms of writing to pass the NCEA requirements was write paragraphs, never a complete essay. So they are shocked when they come to university and are expected to know how to write an essay. And this is the huge gap I have identified and that my friend acknowledged is definitely there: the high school curriculum is not designed to prepare students for college. It is designed at a rudimentary level for all students, including those who just want to go into the labor force after receiving the minimum qualification. 

Then, he told me that there are no standardized tests nor any mandatory curriculum content aside from some very general ones. Coming from the U.S. with constantly changing standards and tests, I couldn't believe how much freedom the state here gives to teachers. While freedom for teachers to teach can certainly be a very good thing, it seems like this means the students from the private schools -- which do have college prep and International Baccalaureate classes -- are miles ahead of the students who go anywhere else. 

Another interesting thing is that the push for "equality of opportunity" for New Zealanders has led to there being essentially no requirements for entry into New Zealand universities. I think students have to meet some of the NCEA requirements to get in. But even if they drop out of high school, after age 20 any New Zealander can be admitted to university. I told my friend, exasperatedly, that just because you let someone into college, that doesn't mean you are doing them a favor if they aren't at all prepared; you are setting them up to fail miserably and put them through a lot of anxiety. He knows, but he said that this ideal is more important to the country than actually making high schools more aligned with university standards so students are better prepared. 

Now, the lack of grammar, punctuation, and writing skills of the New Zealand students in my tutorials and at the skills center makes so much more sense. And because the bar has been set so low for many students throughout high school (what is the difference between a "meets expectation" and "exceeds expectations" if you receive the same NCEA credit regardless?), they are conditioned to meet the minimum standard and do no more. If attendance isn't required for a grade, it is just extra work. If a C will let them pass the class, striving for an A will just be more work. Some people will always want to do well because of internal motivation, but this system seems to make it very difficult for everyone else to put much effort into their education (and life? work?) since there is so little incentive. 

All of which leaves me wondering where to go in terms of teaching under these conditions. In some good news, I received a little Kudos award and chocolate bar from the skills center for my one-on-one tutoring with students. 

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