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Insights 7: 10 March 2023
Event: Webinar on Resource Management Reform, 1pm on Thursday 16 March
Podcast: Oliver Hartwich and Michael Johnston on political neutrality in the public service
Newstalk ZB: Michael Johnston on MoE's tactic to simplify tests to improve pass rates

Transport report leaving taxpayers in a jam
Dr Oliver Hartwich | Executive Director |
The New Zealand Herald this week revealed a government-commissioned research report – just as the opposition called for fewer external consultants.  

The University of Auckland report for the Ministry of Transport seeks to identify public support for new methods of financing transport infrastructure. Fuel excise and road user charges will apparently no longer be viable ways to fund transport. The reason is that electric cars will replace petrol and diesel.  

But while the Herald reported on the work as though it were an opinion poll, it really was something different.  

The researchers used Twitter, LinkedIn, and transport blogs to invite “transport stakeholders” to take part in a novel online conversation and consensus building tool.  

It was not a poll of any representative sample of Kiwis. It was a new way of running online focus groups. Participants could put their own views into the mix while approving or disapproving of other participants’ statements.   

The conversation included only 436 respondents, which is a small sample. And it was certainly not representative. The researchers admitted it was biased towards cycling advocates. 

If you ask cycling advocates about their preferred transport policies, they are hardly likely to favour motorways. 

And where advocates write their own statements, don’t expect unbiased wording.   

Consider a statement that 88% of participants agreed with: “Use innovative mechanisms such as congestion charges and pollution pricing to encourage people out of cars and into other forms of environmentally sustainable transport.” 

Hardly anyone would prefer using outdated mechanisms over “innovative” ones. Similarly, would anyone favour environmentally unsustainable transport? There were many such examples – and who would expect otherwise, given the method? 

In fairness, the researchers clarified that this was a pilot study to test their fancy new conversation tool. It allowed them to find ‘clusters’ of beliefs among participants. But those clusters might simply be the different groups of activists drawn to the survey at different times.  

One lesson might be that these kinds of focus groups need more structure. Activists proposed and supported alternative transport funding mechanisms that make little sense. It is hard to see the point in finding out that a high percentage of self-selected activist participants support odd policies.  

The cost of the report is unknown, but whatever was spent, was wasted – at least as far as transport research is concerned. It yielded no results that would have been of value to the Ministry of Transport. 

It is non-reports like this that give external consulting a bad reputation.  

Turning the curriculum upside down
Dr Michael Johnston | Senior Fellow |
New Zealand’s school curriculum has things exactly backwards.

Let me explain.

Acclaimed US psychologist Professor David Geary has distinguished two basic kinds of knowledge.

The first, he calls ‘biologically primary’. We acquire biologically primary knowledge without it being directly taught. Our brains have structures specifically set up for the job.

The clearest example of biologically primary knowledge is oral language. Very young children naturally learn the language that’s spoken around them without anyone directly teaching it to them.

Geary called his other category of knowledge, ‘secondary’. This is the knowledge that human beings have developed throughout history. It includes, among many other things, the knowledge traditionally taught in schools – reading, writing, mathematics, history, science and so on.

Secondary knowledge does have to be directly taught. We won’t reliably acquire it if it’s not.

The New Zealand Curriculum includes both primary and secondary knowledge. It calls primary knowledge, ‘key competencies’, and secondary knowledge, ‘learning areas’.

The key competencies include thinking, self-management, and social interaction. They are at the forefront of the curriculum. This risks teachers over-prioritising the key competencies and thinking they need to teach them directly.

Naturally we want children to learn to think, to look after themselves and to treat others well. Schools do have a role in supporting them to acquire this kind of knowledge. But because these things are biologically primary, there’s no point in trying to teach them directly. And doing so detracts from time that should be spent learning secondary knowledge.

The best way to foster children’s thinking is to teach them facts and concepts, and to model productive ways of discussing and questioning them. Healthy personal and social behaviour will be established in a structured and orderly school environment in which such behaviour is expected and modelled.

The learning areas are in the back half of the curriculum. They are very scant on detail and structure. But these are the very things that teachers need to be given much more support to directly teach.

The curriculum should specify secondary knowledge in much more detail than it does. It should help teachers sequence their teaching, so that children are always operating from a solid foundation for further learning.

Our national curriculum doesn’t do this. It’s no wonder our education system is failing to make young people even basically literate.

It’s time for a new curriculum that puts secondary knowledge at the forefront.

It’s time to turn the New Zealand upside down.

Growing the pie
Roger Partridge | Senior Fellow & Chairman |
On Monday, journalists from Stuff tackled Prime Minister Chris Hipkins on his favourite pie. It’s steak, cheese and gravy, should you be wondering. With crusty pastry. 

Hipkins wouldn’t reveal who sells his preferred pies. “My lips are sealed,” he said. But we can doubtless rely on the news outlet’s investigative prowess to track down the Prime Minister’s sources. Or his sauces. 

Some might scoff at the media for focusing on such trivia as the PM’s pie preferences.  

But could there be more to the Stuff story than promoting Hipkins’ down-to-earth tastes in an election year?  

With the humble pie a Kiwi icon, Stuff’s scoop will doubtless provide solace to those suffering from Cyclone Gabrielle’s onslaught. Or those struggling to make ends meet in the face of the ongoing cost of living crisis. If low-cost comfort food is good enough for the Prime Minister, then to hell with the price of fresh vegetables. Or all that broken infrastructure. 

You can hardly blame Stuff for thinking about pies when talking to the Prime Minister. He’s had his fingers in so many of them. And not just now he’s the nation’s leader. The state of the public service and its addiction to consultants. The state of education and kids’ lack of appetite for school. The Police Commissioner’s allergy to policing. Hipkins may prefer baked goods, but aspects of his performance warrant a good grilling.  

Or perhaps reporters have been mesmerised by all the pie-in-the-sky. Like Auckland’s proposed cycling bridge (really more gravy train than cycleway). Or this week’s climate-focused transport policy statement, which disappeared faster than you can say Goodbye Pork Pie. And that’s before we get to the stratospherically expensive Auckland Light Rail project.  

Indeed, can we be sure that the pie revelation is not a taste of things to come? Perhaps a chain of government-run pie shops, with tax incentives to businesses that serve pies to their staff. KiwiPie anyone? 

Regardless, there is one pie journalists should be talking about with the Prime Minister. And that’s the economic pie and how to grow it.  

Now that would be food for thought. 

On The Record
Initiative Activities:   
All Things Considered
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  • The free speech door swings both ways
  • George Mason Uni economics department statement on academic freedom
  • Let's put the game the Government & Public Service Commission are playing out there on the table
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