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Insights 44: 22 November 2019
Report - Real Action, Not Empty Words: How to make the Zero Carbon Bill about cutting emissions.
On Q+A, Briar Lipson discusses our survey that tested New Zealanders general knowledge.
Research Note - Ignorance is not bliss: Why knowledge matters.

Ignorance is not bliss, even in Bluff
Briar Lipson | Research Fellow |
“For a child in Bluff who might be interested in muttonbirds, they are not going to be interested in the fact that there are seven continents in the world."

This statement, made by the elected President of the New Zealand Principals’ Federation, Whetu Cormick, perfectly encapsulates what is wrong with education in New Zealand.

Reported in the Herald in response to a question about our national curriculum, Cormick’s example was prompted by our latest research note Ignorance is not bliss.

And it was not a blunder. Far from it. Rather, Cormick’s illustration exemplifies the consciously-held beliefs of the loudest voices in our educational elite. It also exposes at least three of their well-intentioned but ruinous assumptions.

Despite what Cormick claims, schools do not exist to cater to the necessarily constrained, and often passing penchants of their children. Schools do exist to serve the interests of children, but only in the broadest, long-term, life-interest sense of that word.

Secondly, the part of New Zealand you hail from should have little influence over what you learn.

In the past (and still in most other countries) the national curriculum detailed the core of knowledge all children would study. However, instead of providing this safety-net of knowledge, the New Zealand Curriculum dramatically overplays the principle of localism by suggesting that children in the Manawatu need fundamentally different knowledge from those in Manurewa.

They do not.

They may need more practice, more discipline or more motivation. They may even need different hooks or introductions into the knowledge, but they do not need fundamentally different knowledge. If something is worth knowing in Westport, the chances are it is worth knowing in Whanganui, too. If knowledge is powerful in Porirua it will be powerful in Parnell too.

Of course, teachers can and should add local flavour, but the core knowledge all Kiwis need – of culture, maths, science, social studies and so on – is the same. And the danger of giving teachers total discretion over curriculum content is it permits poor quality and/or parochialism. 

Finally, Cormick’s statement suggests he thinks a child in Bluff is unlikely to be interested in the fact there are seven continents. Not only is this hugely presumptuous, it is also downright offensive. Would he say the same about a child growing up in Epsom, Queenstown or Karori?

School is the one and only chance some children get to explore the world beyond their confines. It is time we directed their attentions out of the window, instead of into the mirror. 

Getting wellbeing right in education policy
Joel Hernandez | Policy Analyst |
If there was one buzzword for 2019, it was “wellbeing”.

This year, our government launched the world’s first Wellbeing Budget, Treasury continued developing its Living Standards Framework measuring wellbeing, and Statistics New Zealand established Indicators Aotearoa also to measure wellbeing.

Targeting wellbeing is most apparent in education policy.

It was even the focus of presentations at the 2019 New Zealand Association for Research in Education’s conference in Christchurch this week.

Presentations covered all aspects of wellbeing in education, from student and teacher wellbeing, wellbeing in modern learning environments, wellbeing in the curriculum, to wellbeing policy.

Broadly, this focus of wellbeing in education is valid. After all, no parent wants their child to achieve academic excellence but have low wellbeing. However, it is difficult to strike the right balance between the two in the classroom.

As many presenters highlighted during the conference, wellbeing is not easy to measure – one presenter even said wellbeing is “fuzzy”. It is almost a catchall term encompassing hundreds of aspects of one’s life from friendships to cultural identity to success and failure in academia, music and sports.

This poses a problem for educators, researchers and policymakers. Without the ability to measure an outcome reliably and consistently, we cannot determine whether a policy such as modern-learning environments works in improving the education and wellbeing outcomes for students.

Standard academic outcomes are already difficult to measure and analyse; wellbeing is orders of magnitude more difficult to measure, let alone target.

This does not mean we should drop the goal of wellbeing; but it is a signal that great care and consideration must be taken when targeting it through policy.

We also need to remember the other pitfalls and unintended consequences in wellbeing policy.

Teachers do not have infinite time in the classroom to teach students English, mathematics, science, and history. Over the past few years, teachers have emphasised the increasing pressures they face in the time they have available to teach.

Fortunately, one presentation discussed what can be realistically achieved in the classroom. Dr Jenny Robertson cited a research paper summarising the results from 45 studies on wellbeing policy in schools, concluding that school interventions targeting a whole-school approach to enhancing social and emotional development did not reduce academic achievement.

In light of this, we need to care and consider that the more traditional and fundamental role of a school is not overshadowed or pushed out by a misguided wellbeing policy in education. 

Three cheers for no applause
Toby Fitzsimmons | Former Research Intern |
“If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands”. Clapping is a common gesture across all cultures – even babies clap. There is nothing scary about clapping, is there?
Britain’s House of Commons disagrees. Two weeks ago, a candidate for the position of Speaker of the House urged for a crackdown on clapping – the announcement was naturally followed by MPs clapping their approval. 
Clapping had been taboo, but now some MPs want to enshrine the clapping ban in legislation as it might disorient autistic visitors. The MPs were inspired by students of the Oxford Union debating club who have replaced clapping with welcoming jazz hands.
The tradition against clapping probably originates from Erskine May’s 1884 treatise on parliamentary practice. It bans clapping (and hissing, chanting and booing) as it might disturb a speaking member.
Despite clapping being too loud, MPs are fine with jeering and shouting “hear, hear”. Presumably, double standards are also a parliamentary tradition. 
Unsurprisingly, outsiders find the clapping ban bemusing. In 2015, the Speaker reprimanded the newly elected Scottish nationalists who, unaware of the peculiar Westminster tradition, clapped in Parliament.
But what if there were really something terrible about clapping?
A 1998 select committee considered clapping dangerous. They found parliamentary speeches might not be judged by their logic or persuasiveness, but by whether the politicians were popular enough to get a long standing ovation. 
This argument is not without merit. 
In ancient Rome, Cicero sent friends to follow rival politicians to make detailed notes about the length and strength of applause politicians received in public – a primitive poll.
After that, Romans paid actors to clap during their speeches to appear more popular, just as clapping and laughing tracks are added to sitcoms to make them appear entertaining. Emperor Nero even sent 5,000 men to Alexandria to copy Egyptian methods of clapping. 
Clapping can also be used to test subservience — we are expected to clap for the great. Stalin’s speech at a Communist Party conference was followed by an 11-minute applause. The first person to stop clapping was executed. 
Clapping is thus not such an innocent gesture – it can be a sinister tool too. MPs in Parliament are under pressure to clap to make their leaders seem popular and convincing, but also to not appear disloyal. 
The clapping ban may seem an antiquated habit, but it is an ingenious custom of the Westminster system – one we should applaud. 

On The Record
All Things Considered
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