John Key on education

A promising step forward for education

In his 2014 State of the Nation address, delivered yesterday at the West Auckland Business Club, Prime Minister John Key used the word “equality” only once, immediately prompting criticism from opponents who accused him of overlooking one of the country’s most pressing social challenges. However, there was another word, said nine times, which perhaps carries even more meaning in terms of its ability to address the issue of inequality in New Zealand, and that word was “education”. Despite speaking before a crowd of business people, it was the future of education in New Zealand, and not or the economy or the nation’s finances, which dominated Key’s vision for 2014.

As the Prime Minister was eager to point out, by referring to his own apparently blue-collar upbringing, education is a very important determinant of a child’s future success.

“[That] education opened the world to me [...] I visit a lot of schools around the country, because they play a huge part in shaping the lives of our young people.”

And when used effectively, education has the potential to not only provide people of all social backgrounds with the critical knowledge and understanding to find employment and succeed, but it also has the ability to increase the collective wealth and happiness of an entire nation. Education, therefore, is inextricably linked to the issue of equality.

At a time when the income gap in New Zealand is a lowly 20th among 34 OECD countries, and our achievement levels relative to other countries have recently taken a nose-dive, Key’s sense of urgency wasn’t surprising.

“Today’s 15-year-olds in New Zealand are performing worse, on average, than 15-year-olds in 2000. That’s despite a lot more money being spent on education. So that has to be a call to action for all of us.”

But we’d heard all of this before. It is one thing to say that our education system is at a standstill, and quite another to propose solutions, at least without setting off any political landmines. Something had to be done, however, and Key settled for what was a very shrewd compromise, one which could just as easily have come from the Labour party as National.

Stating that, “A mountain of evidence shows the quality of teaching – inside the classroom – is the biggest influence on kids’ achievement,” Key focussed less on school facilities or class sizes, and more on incentives for better quality teaching. Historically, this has been shaky ground for the government. Unions are strongly opposed to any suggestion of performance-based pay, arguing that performance is too difficult to accurately assess and that such a policy would create harmful infighting within the teaching profession.

Instead, Key settled for a more nuanced approach, creating four new teacher and principal roles:

“Executive principals will provide leadership across a community of schools, and be paid an additional allowance of $40,000 a year. Each will work with an average of 10 schools.

Change principals will be employed to lift achievement in schools that are struggling. About 20 of these positions will be needed a year, and principals in this role will be given an additional $50,000 a year.

Lead teachers will be “highly capable” school teachers who will act as role models for those in their own school and those in their area. The Government anticipates around 5000 will be needed.

Expert teachers will work with executive principals and include experts in areas like maths and science.”

“Key: Leadership of NZ schools overhauled”, Nicholas Jones, NZ Herald.

These new roles are not exempt from the criticisms which have halted previous, more extensive performance-based pay measures, but they definitely act to minimise some of those concerns. And when packaged together, they appear to offer a very compelling solution to the issue of under-performing schools going largely unnoticed in the current system, as well as the lack of a compelling career ladder for classroom teachers other than entering management or admin type roles.

For one, these policies should hopefully result in better collaboration between teachers. It has always bothered me the way in which public schools, far from working together to deliver a better education, appear to compete against one another to win over new students. The creation of the new executive principal role, over-seeing a cluster of 10 schools, will hopefully foster far more sharing of knowledge and resources between schools, so that they can collectively deliver a higher and more consistent standard of teaching.

The lead and expert teacher roles address another nagging concern about the teaching profession: the lack of an incentive for teachers to lift the quality of their teaching. It is a concern which has long been acknowledged, but proposals to address it have faced overwhelming opposition from teachers unions and sections of the public. Under this new model, however, lead and expert teachers will be paid for taking on new responsibilities, over a fixed two or three-year period, and not for simply doing the same job—a subtle but important distinction. As well as rewarding the individual teacher, these new roles should also help to lift the performance of lower performing teachers, and encourage more highly skilled individuals to enter into the teaching profession in the first place.

If these ideas really do work as intended, we could see more collaboration across school clusters, more effective action in the lowest performing schools, and better retention of high performing teachers in the classroom, where they can have the best effect on the achievement of their students.

After having weathered a number of storms on the education front—from controversial school closures in post-quake Christchurch, to the introduction of bigger class sizes in 2012—it finally looks as though the National party is taking the high ground on education, an issue which deserves all the attention that it received in yesterday’s State of the Nation.

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You cannot be both young and wise

“Remember, you cannot be both young and wise. Young people who pretend to be wise to the ways of the world are mostly just cynics. Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics always say no. But saying “yes” begins things. Saying ‘yes’ is how things grow. Saying ‘yes’ leads to knowledge. ‘Yes’ is for young people. So for as long as you have the strength to, say ‘yes’.”

— Stephen Colbert, in his 2006 commencement address at Knox College, Illinois.

Xero iPhone screen

From Xero to hero in seven years

In 2013 alone, cloud accounting company Xero saw its share price rise by a massive 333%, rounding out the year as the second most valuable company on the New Zealand Stock Exchange behind only Fletcher Building, and in turn nudging out the likes of Telecom and Air New Zealand.

I don’t pretend to know much at all about the share market, and there’s certainly far more to a company’s story than what its stock price may tell you, but when the total value of a company’s shares adds up to over $5 Billion—a three-fold increase on the year before—you could probably conclude that either, the shareholders are deluded and misguided, or that people see in that company something special, even if it is just the opportunity to make a small fortune for themselves.

To me though, as much as Xero is a New Zealand business success story, it is also a reassuring reminder of the potential for tech startups, based on our shores, to make it big here and elsewhere. Granted, almost half of Xero’s customers can be found here in New Zealand, but with the backing of some of Silicon Valley’s most prolific investors, it seems increasingly likely that Xero’s next 200 000 customers will come from much further abroad.

There is a catchphrase in the tech community that goes simply, “software is eating the world”. While we may marvel—and occasionally scoff—at the huge valuations of companies like Twitter and Facebook, Xero goes to show that even an industry with a reputation as staid as accounting can be disrupted and reinvigorated by fresh thinking and new technology—from New Zealand of all places. Looking at Xero’s website, you see little of the industry lingo or tired brand image which one might expect of accounting software, but rather a tagline which reads, “Beautiful accounting software,” and a modern, professional, yet somewhat edgy, design which demonstrates just that.

But enough of me spouting on about a company which has seen its fair share of praise in the media already. After all, it’s not as if Xero has any direct relevance to me. It does, however, have a kind of indirect relevance to my own interest in technology and innovation. It shows the potential for a company of such a young age which began as little more than a piece of software—albeit an ingenious one—to become a mainstream product that makes life easier and more efficient for hundreds of thousands of businesses worldwide.

Many startups are born every day, and the vast majority will never be publicly listed, valued in the billions, or used by millions. But then, that’s the beauty of technology today: the barrier to entry is so low that one can attempt to create something revolutionary without betting their livelihood on it. In the years ahead, we are going to see many more existing and emerging industries disrupted by technology and new ways of thinking, as is happening around us all the time. With a new wave of wearable devices hitting the scene, and the so-called “internet of things” taking flight, our very own day-to-day lives are poised to change in step with industries as wide as education, enterprise, and government.

Democracy, health, communication, education, the environment. For every important facet of modern society, there are already many examples of technology improving upon the status quo in the last decade alone. It’s exciting to imagine what possibilities might lie ahead for the next decade, and to think that we could be even a small part of that change.

Image courtesy of Bexar Bibliotech's Facebook page.

Reimagining the library of the future

Texas has seen the future of the public library, and it looks a lot like an Apple Store: Rows of glossy iMacs beckon. iPads mounted on a tangerine-colored bar invite readers. And hundreds of other tablets stand ready for checkout to anyone with a borrowing card. [...] The library is on pace to surpass 100,000 visitors in its first year. Finding an open iMac among the four dozen at BiblioTech is often difficult after the nearby high school lets out, and about half of the facility’s e-readers are checked out at any given time, each loaded with up to five books.

Texas library offers glimpse of bookless future, AP.

Not only do I find this idea compelling in its own right, but just as importantly, it makes you think of the many other ways in which we could make better use of the space that our libraries provide, if they were not stacked full of physical books. In a time when even my grandparents use e-readers to borrow books from their local library, it makes sense that we begin to at least explore how we can make better use of these abundant public spaces.

Perhaps in the future there could be a section of the library devoted solely to education, where people of any age can sit at a computer and take a free online course, or conduct research using the extensive online archives already accessible in many public libraries. In another area, kids could sit around a table with a tablet at each seat, competing against one another in multiplayer maths or spelling games.

Where today there may only be a few couches and a couple of bean bags in one corner for quiet reading, without the need for shelving there could be far more space devoted to the pleasure of reading a good book, on an e-reader loaned out from the library. Librarians would no longer need to busy themselves with stacking shelves or tending to damaged returns; instead, they could roam the library giving book recommendations, guiding people in their research, and offering tutorials on how to use the technology around them.

More than simply a storage space for a finite collection of titles, the library of the future could be a hub in which people have convenient access to thousands more books than before, enabled by technology and enhanced by an environment which is even more spacious and pleasant than today.

And yet, these ideas, well within the reach of modern technology, represent only one possibility, and I’m certain that many more exist. So what is your vision for the future of the public library? Or if the idea of a traditional library is too deeply embedded, perhaps think of it in terms of, how could we use these open public spaces to have an even more positive effect on our local communities?

Image courtesy of Bexar Bibliotech’s Facebook page (source).

Upfrontness

An unwieldy word though it may be, I firmly believe that ‘upfrontness’ is a key litmus test of someone’s ability to collaborate with others. By my definition, upfrontness is partly synonymous with honesty, but has an additional layer of meaning: more than merely being truthful, someone who is upfront makes their honest opinion clear at the earliest appropriate junction.

Upfrontness is letting others know whether you agree or disagree with a decision or direction before the opportunity to do so passes.

Upfrontness means saying “no” to a new task or project when you know you don’t have the time nor energy to dedicate towards it.

Upfrontness is about seeing people promptly, in-person, when an issue arises, and being frank about how you’re going to resolve it—regardless of whether it was intentional or not.

Being upfront isn’t easy, of course. But like any virtue, if you can at least catch yourself when you get it wrong, then hopefully in time that incidence rate will fall.

What I’ve learnt in 2013

Looking back over the past 12 months, recalling memories both fond and forgettable, I find it tempting to compartmentalise my year into a series of fortunes and misfortunes. Indeed, I could quite easily conclude, based upon the weight of successes and disappointments, whether 2013 has been a net loss or net gain, as if life were in fact a corporate balance sheet. But to do so would be to overlook the broader picture, and to forget that this year has brought with it a great deal of change and plenty of new experiences which can’t be so easily quantified or compared.

With that in mind, in this post I reflect upon some of the more general ideas that have occurred to me during the year, and which I hope to keep in the back of my mind as I embrace the unexpected challenges that 2014 is bound to present. To begin with, I would like to open on a practical note, on a topic that we can all immediately relate to.

Getting a good night’s sleep

Having talked to others my age who would routinely stay up until the early hours of the morning, I stubbornly thought that I too could manage on 6 or 7 hours a night. However, I’ve learnt on more than enough occasions in 2013 that consistently staying up late will invariably result in a series of knock-on effects, from a general feeling of fatigue to a miserable state of depression.

I realise now that if I don’t get enough sleep—I’m trying to get my eight hours a night—then I’ll have a hard time concentrating in class, struggle to finish a decent run, and worst of all, I’ll be a miserable person to be around. As my dad reminded me, you can’t burn the candle at both ends. Granted, people’s sleep requirements do differ, but I realise now that, for me, sleep is not an area in which I can simply choose to skimp. So in 2014, I’ll be doing my best to burn a bit less of the midnight oil.

There’s no shame in quitting

If asked to choose one podcast that I’ve found myself revisiting time and time again as the year has gone by, both for reassurance and for a sense of perspective, it would have to be “The Upside of Quitting” by a show called Freakonomics. An economist’s take on the old adage—or rather, the myth—that “a winner never quits and a quitter never wins,” this episode makes a comprehensive case for quitting often, and quitting quickly.

Obviously it pays not to be too impulsive about important life decisions, and there are no hard and fast rules as to when you should and shouldn’t decide to throw in the towel. But for me personally, I find great benefit in at least questioning why it is that I devote my time and energy to various pursuits, even if I don’t then go ahead and give them up entirely. Asking yourself such questions may help you to evaluate whether or not there is any point in continuing to expend time and effort in a certain area, as well as clarifying the purpose or purposes for which you are doing it, and hence, to what extent you should devote yourself to it in the future. I could write a lot more on this topic alone, suffice it to say, there’s only shame in quitting if you feel shame.

Put yourself out there

I’m grateful and relieved, if not especially overjoyed, that I have had a successful year where school is concerned. However, when I consider my proudest achievements, gaining Excellence credits doesn’t register very highly. This is not to say that I consider school pointless or easy, but to some extent, I would say that it is straight-forward; my success in school is mainly on account of the fact that, most of the time, I follow teachers’ instructions and do what is expected of me. The result at the end of it is a certificate, university entrance, and another line on my CV.

All of which is not to say that school itself is a waste of time—far from it, school provides all of those essential social and intellectual skills that we’re often reminded of—rather, I would contend that school alone will never help me to achieve my most ambitious goals, or find the same sense of joy that comes from self-driven pursuits. Such success, I believe, takes initiative and a willingness to part ways with the herd.

Most of my proudest achievements this year have come either partly or completely of my own volition; helping to start a student magazine, winning a writing competition, sharing an article that I wrote among educators across the country, and offering my services as a web designer to a number of small businesses. I also happen to think that, where my reputation and skills are concerned, these achievements are far more distinguishable than an NCEA certificate alone. In 2014, I hope to take my own advice and devote more time to these pursuits and more. The opportunity cost of doing so, which probably amounts to a bit less time spent mindlessly browsing the web, is not a steep price to pay for the potential feeling of gratification.

I would encourage you, particularly while young and relatively free of responsibilities, to pursue the areas which interest you and to extend yourself beyond the confines of the school curriculum in 2014.

Remember how fortunate you are

At Christmas every year, we are reminded that for a great many people living right here in New Zealand, they go without the shared spirit of happiness and coming together of family that I tend to associate with Christmas. Instead, many parents feel a burden of guilt for being unable to afford presents, while many children are lucky to be fed three meals a day, let alone receive a Christmas gift.

Another reminder of the contrasting fortunes within our own communities can be seem in Christchurch, currently amid a period of post-quake recovery which seems to unfairly favour the more fortunate. It is bad enough that 270,000—or 1 in 4—New Zealand children are living in poverty, but here in Christchurch, this issue is only compounded by the fact that the poorest in society are overwhelmingly the ones who are struggling to find adequate housing. Meanwhile, the wealthiest, who could afford to build on more stable land in the first place, experience little of the hardship and stress with which the less fortunate are forced to grapple. These stresses shouldn’t be underestimated. Indeed, research released this year has shown that living under the conditions of poverty can impose a burden equivalent to a drop of 13 IQ points.

These issues are understandably complex, and deserve far more attention than I can offer in a couple of paragraphs. But when children miss school because their parents can’t afford lunch or a pair of school shoes, and when a good bed, fruit and vegetables, and visits to the doctor are luxuries beyond what the wages of two parents, working full-time, can afford, that is when you know there is a problem.

For me personally, this realisation serves as a reminder of just how incredibly fortunate I am. I have all of the material goods one could ever really need, as well as the comfort and opportunities afforded by a safe home, supportive parents, and an excellent education. Rather than feeling guilty about it, in 2014 I want to make a greater effort to both better understand the issues around social inequality and poverty in New Zealand, and begin to actually do something meaningful about it.

Your mileage may vary

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” — Aristotle

I realise that you might disagree with some of the notions presented above, or on the other hand, you might agree wholeheartedly. I needn’t say that we’re all unique, and the different areas in which we hope to improve ourselves over the next year will naturally reflect that. Besides provoking thought about the ideas I have discussed above, I hope that after reading this blog post, you will use this opportunity to consider what you personally have learnt in 2013. Write down your thoughts, share them with others, and I would encourage you, as you push ahead into 2014, to repeatedly remind yourself of these ideas in the hope that they may evolve into good habits that stay with you for many years thereafter.

Encouraging creativity in the classroom

More and more, young people come to university and prospective employers with thick dossiers of certificates and commendations for the worthy activities with which they have filled their teenage years. We want sparky people with a fascination for how the world works and an ability to balance hard work and fun, but increasingly adolescence is seen as an opportunity to stuff a curriculum vitae.

Let teenagers have their kicks by David Bainbridge.

I sometimes worry that our education system, and the expectation of conformity and uniformity that it promotes, can stifle the creativity and imagination of young people. Between internal and external assessment and the myriad other commitments which occupy the lives of many students, the opportunity and the requisite space that creativity calls for is often hard to find, and altogether left for the individual to discover in their own time rather than being actively encouraged.

Indeed, if you took a wholly straight-faced, methodical approach to your education, studying in-depth every page of every textbook and revising after every school day, you would likely be very successful, as far as school’s definition of success is concerned. But to what end? And how can we expect everyone to enamour themselves with such a repetitive, tedious pursuit? We simply cannot. Not only is an education system focussed on grades and the accumulation of knowledge—as I suggest, at the expense of creativity—unlikely to ever enthuse the student body, but it also leaves students ill-equipped to deal with the many other facets of a working life, like communication and collaboration.

Yes, we need to continue to encourage students to follow traditionally academic paths like science, mathematics and technology, but it is my belief that we should do so in a way that promotes discovery and curiousity, rather than cramming and memorisation.

Hope in darkness

Hope in darkness

Every time I passed through this city, I couldn’t help but marvel at the majesty of so many lights, painting a spectrum of colour across the night sky, and the Triumph Tower, like a 2000 metre needle to the stars. As the monorail whirled away from the city, I looked out the other window, into almost total darkness. A thick shroud of gray smog hung over the slums, which were dwarfed in height even by the railway tracks that ran indiscriminately through the neighbourhoods below. 

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student-leaders-spread

Two ideas in leadership

Originally published in the 2013 Student Leaders ezine.

I have to be honest, my leadership career is not the most distinguished, nor have I ever really considered what it means to be a great leader. However, although I might not consciously think about it, I do see leadership as playing an important part in my future. Whether I choose to pursue politics and a career as a leader in my community, or follow a career in business and lead a team of my colleagues, I know that, in order to improve upon the status quo, I need to learn to be an effective leader. In this article, I’m going to take the opportunity to reflect on just two of the ideas that I’ve learnt about leadership in my sixteen years, in the hope that maybe you and I will both have a better idea of where we see our leadership careers headed.

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Learning questionnaire

Learning is a two-way street

An idea often tossed around in education circles is that of personalised learning, as opposed to the more uniform, prescriptive learning that has dominated popular education for a century or more. As an ideal, there is no denying the value here—we are all different by nature and we will never grow up with the same strengths or ambitions, so if we learn in a way that is natural to us, then we will achieve better outcomes.

The flip-side of the argument says that if you instruct all students to follow the same course, then you can focus on optimising the education system for the most number of people—from the choice of textbook and the layout of the classroom to the times at which the bells ring each day. I think we have all acknowledged by now that a system based on sameness is not only unattainable, due to the inherent differences between students, but counter-productive. After all, today’s economy cannot be defined simply by “technical” and “professional” occupations, but it now encompasses a diverse range of services-based, people-facing, information-handling jobs, the evidence of which is in the statistics.

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