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Insights 12: 12 April 2019
Watch: Dr Oliver Hartwich discusses on The AM Show our new research on school performance
New report by Joel Hernandez: Tomorrow’s Schools: Data and evidence
Auckland Event: Lecture with international guest speaker Barbara Oakley on the science behind how we learn

Learning how to learn
Dr Oliver Hartwich | Executive Director |
Since the release of the Tomorrow’s Schools report last December, the education community has been talking about nearly every aspect of school organisation: Who should govern schools? For what term lengths should principals be appointed? How should schools be funded?

These questions are important. But by focusing on the organisational aspects of our education system, we are neglecting what is going on inside classrooms. How do children learn? Are our children learning? How can schools best teach students how to learn?

To help explain these learning processes, the Initiative is delighted to host Professor Barbara Oakley for a public lecture in Auckland next month.

Oakley is a Professor of Engineering at Oakland University in Michigan. Over the past several years, she has reinvigorated the learning space by using findings from neuroscience to determine new and better ways for learners to gain knowledge.

In 2014, Oakley wrote A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra), a New York Times bestseller.

A year later, Oakley started her free online course called Learning how to learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects. In the crowded world of MOOCs (“massive open online course”), Oakley’s course has become one of the most popular. More than two million people have enrolled in it.

Using science and her experience as a learner and a teacher, Oakley has distilled the ingredients of effective learning. They include finding the right balance between focused learning and time to digest new information. She recommends delivering knowledge in bite-size pieces instead of encouraging “binge-learning”. She stresses the importance of practice and rehearsal.

From a neuroscientific perspective, the challenge for learners is to ensure new information gets stored permanently in the brain. There is little point to learning things only to forget them quickly. Oakley’s methods are all geared towards hard-wiring new knowledge in the brain.

Like every good teacher, Oakley knows how to convey her message in an engaging and even entertaining way. It is not often that a professor of engineering captivates and mesmerises a big audience, but we saw her do just that at a conference last year.

By hosting Oakley in Auckland next month, we want to help spread her ideas to New Zealand.

Perhaps that would lead to a genuine conversation here about how our students can learn, not just how our schools are organised.

Barbara Oakley will speak at the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Education and Social Work on 1 May. Tickets are free, but registration is necessary.

Decile debacle
Joel Hernandez | Policy Analyst |
“Decile is not a proxy for school quality”. Principals, teachers and education professionals have said this for years, and yet students have been flocking out of low decile schools and into high decile schools all this while.

Decile drift is one of many issues highlighted in the 2018 Tomorrow’s Schools Taskforce Review.

Since 1995, when the decile funding model was implemented, the number of students in decile 8–10 schools has increased from 201,000 to 280,000; in contrast, the number of students in decile 1–3 schools has decreased from 188,000 to 179,000.

One consequence is socioeconomic segregation. Currently, decile 1–3 schools serve 24% of New Zealand students; at the same time, 45% of Maori students and 60% of Pacific students attend decile 1–3 schools.

Although education professionals have decried the use of decile as a proxy for years, no supporting evidence has been offered – until now.

Earlier this week, The New Zealand Initiative launched the first in a series of reports discussing the results from its ground-breaking school performance measurement tool. Tomorrow’s Schools: Data and evidence finally provides evidence debunking the myth that decile is a proxy for school quality.

The results from our data-driven research show that once you separate the effects of factors over which secondary schools have no control, like family background, there is no difference in average school effectiveness across deciles.

In other words, low decile schools perform just as well as high decile schools, given the different communities each school serves.

Sadly, while the Review criticises decile drift, the Taskforce’s recommendations neglect its origin – the failure to provide better information about a school’s true performance.

Instead of blaming parents, or seeking to artificially restrict choice, the Taskforce should be calling for better information – exactly what the Initiative is doing. We have already shown the Ministry of Education what they can do with the data that already exists.

Crucially, while our results show that average school performance is comparable across deciles, the Initiative believes our education system still needs improvement. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds still underperform in both domestic and international education figures.

Our tool is one method to improve outcomes for these students. The Ministry should use our tool to identify the top-performing low-decile schools and find out what works so we can achieve a more equitable education system in New Zealand.

The Initiative had already put in the hard yards; it is for the Ministry to act now.

To read Tomorrow’s Schools: Data and evidence, click here.

Schrodinger’s Brexit soap opera
Dr Patrick Carvalho | Research Fellow |
Saturday morning, reading the news, sipping the first coffee of the day in my sunlit balcony: Life is good and simple.

Until I remembered my promise to take my daughter shopping for a new unicorn doll that morning.

– “Let’s go, daddy!”

– “Yes, sweetheart. We are leaving. Just hold on a bit,” I said, trying to buy some time.

– “Dad, stop Brexiting. Let’s just get out already!”

All right. I have to admit that made me pause… Since when did my little one know about Brexit, and more importantly, since when did “Brexiting” become a real verb?

According to Urban Dictionary, an online slang glossary guide, Brexiting is the act of “saying goodbye to everyone at a party and then proceeding to stick around”.

Fair enough. That is the tragicomic state of Britain’s self-imposed tribulations.

The United Kingdom, the fifth-largest economy in the world and once the largest empire in history, and the birthplace of the Magna Carta, the Industrial Revolution and liberalism, has been reduced to an embarrassing political soap opera.

The situation is so acute that even Tony Blair seems a credible and sensible commentator.

Speaking on a radio show about the Brexit negotiations, the former prime minister cleared the drama plot: [Spoiler Alert!] “… the choice is ultimately between a pointless Brexit, in which the UK stays closely tied to the EU and becomes a rule taker, or it sets its own rules and must accept the corresponding pain. The government has been attempting to find a middle ground that does not exist.”

If only British lawmakers could find a way to be in and to be out of the European Union at the same time.

That’s an outcome only possible in Schrödinger's famous thought experiment, where a cat placed in a sealed box hit by electromagnetic radiation can be simultaneously alive and dead.

But quantum physics superposition is not an option in the political realm.

British lawmakers need to face the consequences of leaving – or not – the European Union. It is not a matter of compromise but accepting the reality of mutually exclusive choices.

The longer they dither, the longer the melodrama will last.

In the meantime, I decided to stop dithering myself and take my daughter out to buy her a unicorn doll – before she changed her mind and asked for a furry kitten instead.
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