“I’m very concerned about education and the teacher strikes but I don’t think I’ll make any changes for my children.”

Over the last while I’ve been heading down to a playground here in Christchurch and interviewing the parents down there about their views on education. In particular, I asked about their thoughts on the upcoming teacher strike in response to the ‘education crisis’, as it is called by NZEI (the teacher’s union). As I write this article it has just been confirmed that a strike will happen on the 29th of May, 2019. While this was a small scale study, the answers were in-depth and very revealing. I thank all the parents who took the time to share with me their honest thoughts and opinions. I immensely enjoyed all the conversations. This study is in no way meant to single people out for criticism but rather to explore the opinions, attitudes and perceptions regarding education that are currently in our society.

In my first question I asked parents whether or not they were concerned about the ‘education crisis’ and the fact that teachers didn’t have enough time to teach, that there was a need for more support staff and more resources, all parents were very concerned. Even phrases such as “massively concerned” were used and there was strong support for teachers taking strike action.

However, my next question was where things got interesting. I asked if the crisis affected them and their children personally in any way. Half of the respondents then said that these problems wouldn’t impact their children’s learning even though most of them agreed that the teachers at their school had gone on strike during the last teacher strike. Most of these parents responded with phrases such as, “I think my child is not struggling” and “My kids are doing OK”. It is interesting hearing this as a former teacher, especially when you know that most of what parents know about their child’s progress comes from reports. It has been my regular experience that the picture painted in these reports is usually very much inflated, particularly for struggling students, and I have been involved in seeing marks artificially exaggerated simply to not make the students or parents “feel bad”. That’s probably a truth that most parents do not want to know.

How the ‘education crisis’ cannot affect some students is unclear when NZEI has said that the problems of not enough time for teachers, the lack of support staff and lack of resources is something that affects schools throughout New Zealand. One thought I have regarding this is the psychological concept of optimism bias. As humans, we basically overestimate problems when we talk about society and other people as a whole. However, we very much underestimate problems when talking about the likelihood of things affecting us personally (for more information on this watch this TED talk on optimism bias). Could it be that we have overestimated how “not struggling” and “OK” our children really are?

The other half of the respondents who answered that yes, the education crisis was affecting their children personally, pointed to things such as modern learning environments where a few teachers are scattered in a class of up to 90 students. I then pointed out that the government is saying that there is no money for the demands of teachers and NZEI. While I did not add this detail in the interviews, the fact is that the teachers have not accepted the government’s $1.2 billion settlement and Chris Hipkins, the Minister of Education has said that the current demands by the teachers would cost the government nearly $4 billion. This is even on top of the fact that last year the government committed to more learning support staff at the cost of $217 million over four years and came on top of an extra $272.8 million in the 2018 Budget operational spending for learning support.

After pointing out the fact that there is unlikely to be any money for the teacher demands, I asked the parents if there was anything that they would personally be doing in regards to their concerns. Only two parents responded that they would be. Their answer was that they were considering private schools and one also mentioned “Private tutoring, that’s the only way to fill the gap.” The other parents either had no idea as to what they could do or responded that the government has to do something because, after all, they pay taxes. This last response is similar to the response of NZEI President Lynda Stuart who said, “the government needs to find a solution - now." Unfortunately, there is a common perception in our society that "need" trumps reality. Unfortunately, simply saying that you need something loudly enough will not somehow change reality and magically make what you “need” appear.

What I found interesting about all these interviews is that other than two parents, who had thought of some sort of plan, none of the rest were interested in dealing with the problems at a personal level. Not a single parent said anything along the lines of, “As teachers talk about the ‘education crisis’ it has really woken me up to the state of our schools and I’m seriously trying to figure out a better path for my children.” Why not? Why is this not even something that crosses people’s minds?

As my conversations continued they became even stranger. When I asked about people’s philosophy of education and the purpose of education I was pleasantly surprised with the results. While there were some answers of “they need to learn the basics” and “to get a good job”, other answers included; “Gaining a love of learning”, “Developing the whole person”, “Learning to think outside the box”, “Learning through play”, “Learning practical hands-on real-world skills”, and “Understanding the world through exploration”.

The fascinating thing about this list of answers is that people’s stated purpose of education is very much antithetical to the system of education that we actually have, with the possible exception of the purpose of “getting a job”. While I won’t go into too much detail of the reasons why this exception exists, the answer lies in what the economist Bryan Caplan calls the “signalling model”. Basically the higher the qualifications we can achieve the more we signal not greater knowledge or skills but rather raw intelligence, our conscientiousness despite doing boring tasks such as school work, and our willingness to conform to the expectations of authority. This makes us “good workers”.

While “learning the basics” was a common answer, as one parent pointed out, “as homeschooling has shown, you can learn as much in a couple of hours as you can with a whole day at school…” In fact, some educators such as John Taylor Gatto have pointed out that a child may only need approximately 100 hours to learn to read, write, and do basic maths. This leaves us with the fact that school is filled with far more “fluff” rather than having much to do with learning the basics.

The other answers in the list above also have very little to do with our current schools. Most students do not come out of school with a love of learning but rather see it as a series of hoops to jump through. “Learning to think outside the box”, “Learning through play”, and “Understanding the world through exploration” are all incompatible with a curriculum based system where it has often already been decided beforehand what you will learn and how you will learn it and most certainly how you will be assessed. As for hands-on real-world skills, I struggle to find people who say that their school or university courses effectively gave them the necessary skills that they needed once they started working. Most skills are learned on the job rather than in a classroom.

So where does this leave us? On the one hand, I am optimistic upon hearing that for many parents their stated educational philosophies are consistent with the facts regarding how children actually learn. On the other hand, it is also hard to fully understand the inconsistency between words and actions and why we continue to chase a system of education that is so antithetical to everything we know about how humans learn. Although we want our children to think outside the box, we struggle to do so ourselves. The societal pressure is huge and so we push for ever more money to be thrown at the education system hoping that with enough funding the problems will go away. Yet will there ever be enough funding? What is the limit? How much money should we throw at the system until we finally and seriously consider that there is something wrong with the very foundations? More importantly, when will we take personal responsibility to do things differently rather than see ourselves as being completely helpless in making any decisions for the learning of our children?

To learn more about the education crisis and what you can do click HERE.