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Insights : 28 February 2020
UN correct about 'human rights' housing crisis, wrong about the solution writes Eric Crampton in the Dominion Post.
On this week's podcast, Oliver Hartwich talks about his background policy passions.
Nathan Smith explains in the National Business Review how the China virus offers trade opportunities for New Zealand.

Tied up in knots about knowledge
Briar Lipson | Research Fellow |
Like so much of value in life, education is oblique. Unfortunately, NCEA’s reviewers have yet to appreciate this.
Just as the route to happiness is not to pursue happiness directly, the route to competency is not to pursue competencies directly. Instead, the key is committing knowledge to long term memory and then practising it, repeatedly.
This is what a skilled golfer does at the driving range. She breaks down the skill of perfectly striking a ball to its constituent knowledge – how to stand, where to hold, how to swing – then practises the moves over and over.
Becoming a skilled scientist or historian follows the same process: isolating the most powerful knowledge then memorising it until the knowledge-party in your head is so rich and connected you can analyse, think critically and be creative.
Some schools in New Zealand understand this knowledge-bound nature of competencies. Because of this, they either ignore our competency-focused national curriculum or opt-out in favour of alternatives like Cambridge. The recent announcements about possible changes to NCEA will encourage more schools to do the same.
One particular low-light in the announcement is the Ministry’s proposal to further dumb-down national aspirations (and any tall poppies who may be lurking) by replacing assessments in Physics, Biology, Chemistry and Earth and Space Science with only 'Science' at Level 1.
The normally agreeable science teaching community is rightly up in arms, incensed about the removal of individual subjects and the nature of new assessments. By some feat of extraordinary derangement, the experts who devised the four new standards have managed to make them even more vacuous than before.
Instead of organising around the great bodies of scientific knowledge, the standards focus on attributes (curiosity, creativity, critical thinking and collaboration) and the three skills of investigating, taking action and interpreting.
This is a wretched deed. Children need basic knowledge of science, not lessons practising generic competencies.
The opportunity cost of this flawed methodology is huge. Time spent making science-informed responses to real-world issues is time not spent learning about cell structures, photosynthesis, ecosystems and materials.  Time spent interpreting scientific claims in the media is time not spent studying atmospheric pollutants, atomic energy or how the human body works.
Ultimately, time spent studying competencies is futile. Knowledge may feel like an oblique route to competency, but it is also the only one that works. One day New Zealand's curriculum and assessments will accept this reality.

The problem with free speech
Dr Oliver Hartwich | Executive Director |
One wonders what French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire would have made of the Free Speech Union (FSU).

Set up by British journalist Toby Young, the FSU presents itself as a “non-partisan, mass-membership organisation that stands up for the speech rights of its members.”

An organisation to promote free speech – what nobler cause could there be? Especially at a time of cancelled public lectures, political correctness and increasingly elaborate speech codes.

The FSU is also an organisation that counts people I highly respect among its members.

And yet, it is a union I would not join. Because it is founded on a misunderstanding. Which brings me back to Voltaire.

Among his most famous quotes is a passionate defence of free speech: “I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Voltaire captured the essence of what free speech is. It is not primarily your right to say what you like. It is primarily the right of other people to say what you may not want to hear.

This makes a free speech union a contradiction. A union is an organisation which comes out to support its members. Unions do so as a service exclusive to their members. They are like a club or an insurance provider.

The problem with the club-like nature of the FSU is that it is bound to attract like-minded members. Sure, that makes it easy for members to stand up for each other’s speech rights, but it takes little principled courage to stand up for things you believe in anyway.

An organisation better suited in principle to promote free speech might be New Zealand’s Free Speech Coalition. Its purpose is “To defend and promote the rights of New Zealanders to freely seek, receive and impart information.”

By not limiting their support to members, and by having a more diverse membership, the Free Speech Coalition’s campaign for free speech could be more credible.

Ideally, the Coalition’s atheist members should stand up for religious freedom. Its left-leaning members should support conservatives. And all of that in reverse too, please.

I would prefer that kind of organisation to Toby Young’s FSU club.

Still, I am too individualistic to join. But I will defend to the death their right to stand up for my right to free speech. And everybody else’s, too.

Why not skip school?
Dr Eric Crampton | Chief Economist |
I skived off last Friday afternoon for the first day of the cricket test at the Basin Reserve. Relaxing on the grass there really is one of the good things. At least until the weather turned.

New Zealand took every advantage, choosing to bowl first and making steady progress through the overs.

The only thing really missing was my son (my daughter is less of a fan). Instead, he was at school. I wonder whether the cricket might have been the better choice; he would not have missed much had he joined me.

Staying in class is an increasingly unpopular choice. The Ministry of Education’s figures for the past year show that only 58% of students attended class at least 90% of the time. So, 42% of students miss at least one day of classes per fortnight. A lot of those absences fall on Mondays and Fridays.

Attendance rates have been dropping since 2015, and the number of days missed has been increasing – the biggest drops among students in years 1-8. Attendance at Intermediate schools dropped from just under 74% in 2015 to just over 60% last year.

Associate Education Minister Tracey Martin put the blame on parents, warning them to take attendance seriously.

But does it really seem likely that parents are to blame here? Has there really been a massive shift in parents’ underlying values about education? A shift big enough to explain such a large drop in attendance? Or has something changed in schools leading parents to think there is less to lose in the occasional unofficial long weekend?

I do not know the full history of my boy’s intermediate school. But I know that, this term, his class is undertaking an extensive inquiry into Kindness. The students are meant to be completing some kind of “Kindness Kalendar” (that’s calendar with a K). They got to watch a lengthy video about a person who gave up plastic for two years.

If he’d instead spent the day with me at the cricket, we could have worked on practical statistics in a rather pleasant applied environment.

When a kid wants to skip school, parents need a convincing reason why they shouldn’t. If the boy next time wanted to join me at the cricket rather than spend the day watching videos about the kindness of giving up plastic, how could I say no?

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