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Insights 35: 23 September 2022
Report launch: No Evidence, No Evaluation, No Exit - Lessons from the 'Modern Learning Environments' experiment
Newsroom: Oliver Hartwich on how Italy faces threat of its most right-wing government since Mussolini
NZ Herald: Roger Partridge on the hocus-pocus in the drafting of the Government's new NPS for Highly Productive Land

Education in an evidence-free environment
Dr Michael Johnston | Senior Fellow |
In 2011 the Ministry of Education initiated a new school property strategy. Its aim was to replace New Zealand’s classrooms with ‘Modern Learning Environments’ (MLEs). For readers unfamiliar with the term, MLEs are large, open plan classrooms.

The MLE strategy was about more than new classrooms though. MLEs come with a whole new approach to education called ‘self-directed learning’. Instead of teachers imparting knowledge to children, it is expected that children will discover it for themselves.

This week, the New Zealand Initiative has released a report on the MLE strategy. Among other things, the report examines the assumption that self-directed learning is effective. (Spoiler: It isn’t.)

Obtaining accurate information about MLEs for the report was challenging. I asked the Ministry of Education how many schools have MLEs, how much it cost to build them and whether the Ministry has conducted any evaluation of how well children learn in them.

The Ministry responded that it does not hold information on how many MLEs there are or how much they cost to establish.  Neither has there been any systematic evaluation of their effects on students’ learning.

I also asked the Ministry what research informed the MLE strategy. They provided two web links. One was to an infographic by Australian architect Kenn Fisher. The other was to a TEDx talk by American architect Prakash Nair.

So, the decision to establish MLEs appears to have been taken on the advice of architects. Coincidentally, architects have done very well out of the project.

Poor evidence bases for major educational initiatives is, regrettably, nothing new. In fact, our education agencies have a history of flying in the face of evidence.

NCEA was introduced in 2002 against the advice of prominent professors of education. They warned that the standards-based assessment system would result in egregious variability in assessment results. In 2005, the Board Chair and Chief Executive of NZQA both resigned amidst a political storm caused by … egregious variability in assessment results.

I could go on: The literacy teaching methods promoted by the Ministry, their failed ‘numeracy project’ and the knowledge-poor New Zealand Curriculum are all examples of educational initiatives implemented against a preponderance of evidence. All have had disastrous results.

Perhaps the true inspiration for MLEs was the open plan offices in which public servants work. If so, the Ministry’s record of failure might be all the evidence we need that MLEs were a bad idea.

You can read Michael Johnston's new report here.

The value in Vogel
Dr Matthew Birchall | Research Fellow |
Political theatre is not usually associated with Julius Vogel (1835-99), the chief architect of the radical expansion of New Zealand’s rail network in the 1870s. A poor speaker, Vogel was also partially deaf in one ear – no small handicap in the heyday of parliamentary debate.

And yet Vogel’s financial statement of 1870 ranks as one of the most important speeches in New Zealand’s political history. Over the course of more than 3 hours on the evening of 28 June, the ambitious young Colonial Treasurer laid out an economic plan that would transform the country beyond recognition.

Vogel’s vision for New Zealand had two key components. The first was the construction of vital infrastructure, such as roads and railways. And the second was a massive boost to immigration.
He succeeded on both counts.

When Vogel announced his plans, New Zealand had only 74km of rail. By the end of the decade this had increased to more than 2,000km. New tracks were built in every province, and the country was gripped by a collective mania for the distance­-annihilating potential of steam and steel.

No less successful was Vogel’s immigration push. Just under 300,000 Europeans arrived in New Zealand between 1871 and 1886, nearly half of whom were assisted by government.

Commentators on Vogel’s Public Works Policy have tended to focus on the borrowing that underpinned it. This is appropriate. After all, Vogel proposed to finance his scheme by tapping the London market for four million pounds over ten years (roughly $615,000,000 in today’s money).

However, it is important to place Vogel and his railways in context.

Unlike Britain and the United States, New Zealand’s private capital markets did not have the capacity to fund large-scale projects like a national rail network. What is more, the provinces had proven themselves unable to build, well, much of anything.

Vogel’s trains proved essential to economic growth from the 1890s onwards. Refrigeration enabled the country to send frozen meat to the Northern Hemisphere, where it earned handsome returns for rural New Zealand. And all of this depended on adequate transport links between coast and hinterland, especially in North Island bush country.

The result? A 40% increase in per capita incomes between 1896 and 1907.

Today’s policymakers would be well-advised to take heed of Vogel’s story. Value for money matters.

A conference nightmare
Dr Oliver Hartwich | Executive Director |
Having attended too many public policy conferences, it was only a matter of time until they started haunting me in my sleep.

So, one night, I woke up from a nightmare.

I was in this big multifunctional hall. The atmosphere was airconditioned. There were mints, notepads and cheap plastic pens on the many round tables. And above the wide stage, a big screen showed a fancy slideshow on endless loop.

It was not immediately clear what the conference was about. It may have been something to do with infrastructure, financial markets, education, trade or development. It did not matter as all the topics blended into one.

The first speaker thought outside the box. He said in today’s world, low-hanging fruits were hard to find. To really add value, it was no longer enough to break down silos. Instead, he argued, we must get granular to leverage all our assets. Only this way, we could expect to raise the bar going forward.

The next speaker sang from the same hymn sheet. Well, not literally but she did encourage us to do some 360-degree thinking. At the end of the day, it was not rocket science to push the envelope on sustainability, creativity and diversity. Because we are all in this together, and togetherness is at the core of our community.

After the buffet lunch, for which the organisers had neglected to provide enough tables, we went back into the main auditorium. It was hard to tell if the audience was sleepy from digesting their conference food or from the presentations.

This did not make the Minister’s task any easier in delivering her keynote address. “In these times,” she solemnly declared, “the foundation is the bedrock of the base.” The key to stepping up to the plate was to aim for a paradigm shift, she opined.

The Minister underlined the importance of consultation with the sector and proper feedback loops. To stakeholders, her door was always open, she said, before rushing back to her limousine.

The MC, noticing a strange fatigue spreading through the audience, asked if people still had enough bandwidth to listen to the only economist on the agenda.

The poor economist looked meekly around the room. She warned of supply disruptions. She underlined the importance of cost benefit analysis. She said something about regulatory capture. And she had plenty of hard data to back up her points.

The audience was relieved when she left the stage. She had really disrupted the flow of things. She just did not speak their language.

Yes, it was a nightmare.

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