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Insights 34: 15 September 2023
New Report: "Who Teaches the Teachers?" Michael Johnston and Stephanie Martin
Podcast: Michael Johnston discussed teacher education with Steph Martin and Dr Kevin Knight
Newsroom: Eric Crampton on Reserve Bank credibility over 'blackballing' of experts

Teacher education ignores science
Stephanie Martin | Adjunct Fellow |
Imagine the outrage if it were revealed that our medical schools ignored scientific research in the training of doctors. Yet, when it comes to training teachers, ignoring science seems acceptable.

In Who Teaches the Teachers, a New Zealand Initiative report released this week, Michael Johnston and I demonstrate that the science of learning is almost completely absent from teacher education programmes in New Zealand.

The science of learning applies research on human memory, attention and motivation to classroom practice. It provides valuable insights into the teaching practices that would best serve our young learners. Our young people should be reaping the benefits of these insights.

Yet, they are not.

For the report, we analysed the themes of the 221 courses that contribute to teacher education programmes in New Zealand universities. Most courses had at least two themes, some as many as five.

The most common themes were core aspects of teaching: curriculum and pedagogy. That is as it should be. 

Two other themes, though, presented a striking contrast. 

The next most common theme was social justice, which was associated with 130 of the 221 courses. There is little evidence that teaching based on social justice ideology is effective. In fact, educational data suggest the opposite. In recent decades, as social justice pedagogy has become increasingly prevalent, the educational attainment of New Zealand’s young people has declined.

The least common theme was the science of learning, associated with just two courses.

Social justice pedagogy emphasises cultural differences in how students learn. On the other hand, the science of learning focuses on the ultimate biological similarity of human learning. Just as we all have hearts, livers and lungs, we also have similar perceptual, memory and attentional systems that govern our learning.

People are more alike than different in how they learn. Whatever social justice theorists may contend, there is a universal cognitive architecture underpinning human learning. Ironically, the most effective method of serving educational equality would be to use pedagogy based on scientific understanding of that architecture. 

One might wonder why universities seem reluctant to provide their teachers-in-training with the best understanding of decades of research on the science of learning. Achieving a greater focus on research-led teaching was why teacher training shifted to universities in the first place.

For the sake of our young people, we need a radical shift towards science-informed teacher education.

You can read our report here

It's the spending, stupid!
Dr Bryce Wilkinson | Senior Fellow |
That is the sign all Ministers of Finance should have on their desk. 

Treasury’s latest pre-election economic and fiscal update this week forecast cumulative fiscal deficits of $17 billion for the four years ended June 2027.

These forecasts are far too optimistic. Cameron Bagrie spelt this out in a BusinessDesk article on Wednesday.

Before the general election in 2017 the Treasury was forecasting cumulative fiscal surpluses of $24 billion for the four years ended June 2022.

It only took two years for the Labour-led government to prove its 2017 Fiscal Plan was make-believe. The Treasury’s December 2019 forecasts showed that Labour’s planned $10.8 billion spending increase in the four years to June 2022 had become $30.1 billion.

Labour’s planned cumulative fiscal surpluses for the same four years had dropped from $22 billion to $8 billion.

Many CEOs would be fired for that excess.

Much worse was to come for future taxpayers. The government used Covid-19 to permanently increase projected spending very substantially.

For example, Treasury is now forecasting core Crown spending excluding, finance costs, to be $134 billion in the year ended June 2025. That is $9 billion higher, inflation differential adjusted, than the pre-Covid December 2019 updated projection.

Forecast finance costs in that year are higher by $6 billion. This is because of higher debt and interest rates than were forecast in 2019.

The extra cost for taxpayers in 2024-25 is around $15 billion, or $7,500 per household.

The extra annual costs decline slowly from there, but only if you believe the forecasts.

Government spending is now running at about $70,000 per household per year. It is essential for community wellbeing that spending at this level is rigorously justified.

Most government spending provides a private benefit to the recipient.

Why not just let them spend more of their own money?

Too often, there is no clarity about what the answer is to this question. That impairs accountability.

Poor accountability guarantees waste. People know their own needs best.

Claims that tax cuts cannot be responsible treat all existing and planned spending as sacrosanct.  There is no basis for such an assumption. Read the Auditor-General’s scathing assessments.

What is needed is a Minister of Finance who takes responsibility for imposing much greater accountability on existing and new spending programmes.

An independent fiscal council could help, too.

Why We Don’t Need Languages
Dr James Kierstead | Senior Fellow |
Victoria University of Wellington has defended its plans to stop teaching German, Italian, Latin and Greek and to cease research in Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, and French.

‘It’s not like anybody speaks these languages anymore,’ Ex Nihilo Vice Provost Brenda Boffin told us in an exclusive interview, ‘except for the 1.1 billion or so Chinese speakers, the 559 million Hispanophones, the 310 million speakers of French, the hundred and twenty million or so speakers of German and Japanese, and the almost 70 million Italian-speakers.’

When we mentioned that China and Japan together accounted for over $15 billion in exports last year, and that Germany, Mexico and France accounted for over a billion more, Prof. Boffin seemed unimpressed.

‘Nowadays, you can just use Google Translate,’ she said. ‘It’s not like you need to spend time studying these places and trying to understand their culture and society.’

‘That’s a relief,’ we told Prof. Boffin, ‘because with all those sacred texts and great thinkers – Confucianism, the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment – it was a lot to get your head around.’

‘Exactly,’ came her reply. ‘That’s exactly why we can’t waste time and money on Greek and Latin either – after all, what did the Greeks do but invent democracy, pioneer geometry and geography, and inaugurate our traditions of history and philosophy? And what have the Romans ever done for us?’

We did have some suggestions on that front, but Prof. Boffin decided to reply ‘on a more positive note,’ pointing out that the university has ring-fenced Pacific languages like Māori and Samoan.

'Could you not just use Google Translate for those too?’ we suggested. This did not go down well with Prof. Boffin. ‘You have to realise that there is precious cultural heritage at stake here, unlike with French and German and Chinese and... Anyway, New Zealand’s part of the Pacific and the Pacific’s a big place.’

We suggested that was mainly because of all the water, but Prof. Boffin was undeterred. ‘At the end of the day, we’ve chosen to focus on our neighbourhood, and a very nice neighbourhood it is,’ she continued. ‘We’re not sure we’re missing a whole lot by focussing on where we are.’

When we asked, as our final question, whether Prof. Boffin thought there might be a risk of philistinism, she gave us a quizzical look.

‘Sorry,’ she said, ‘but I don’t know what that means.’

On The Record

Initiative Activities:   
  • Podcast: Who teaches our Teachers? Dr Oliver Hartwich interviews Dr Michael Johnston, on his latest report - Who teaches the teachers? Reforming initial teacher education in New Zealand. 
  • Podcast: Issues with Teacher training. Dr Michael Johnston discussed teacher education with Stephanie Marting, Dr Kevin Knight.
All Things Considered
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