The sight of children in orderly rows of desks chanting multiples of three in unison felt so removed from the typical Kiwi classroom – yet also faintly familiar. As I watched the clip, I was transported back to my own education, many years ago, at a small rural school in the Waikato, characterised by spelling tests and reciting times tables.

Katharine Birbalsingh is a staunch advocate for such ‘old school’ methods.

Three hundred guests gathered at Auckland Museum last night to hear the headmistress talk about how her educational philosophies are changing the lives of the 480 students currently attending Michaela Community School, a charter school she founded in a poor neighbourhood in inner-city London four years ago. The dinner event, hosted by the New Zealand Initiative, was attended by business leaders, politicians, educators and media.

Judging from the sheer size of the audience and its reaction to Birbalsingh’s presentation, there is clearly an appetite to revisit traditional teaching methods here in New Zealand – especially with our education system poised for reform.

Little ripples of applause interspersed her presentation, often following her bolder statements, suggesting an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the status quo. Certainly, her ideas sat in stark contrast with those raised in the recent Education Summits led by the Ministry of Education.

According to Birbalsingh, content is important and 21st century skills are not. The teacher is not a “facilitator of learning” – rather the teacher’s job is to deliver direct instruction in front of the class. We should be teaching subjects like English, maths, science and history, not learning areas and key competencies. There is little need for students to have devices to aid their learning. Tests and exams are good. Open-plan learning environments are bad. Teachers need to be “untrained” from their teaching education. Sir Ken Robinson’s ideas around progressive education are completely wrong. Unions need to back away from pedagogy.

Birbalsingh’s chief argument, however, is this: how can we expect children, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, to be creative or succeed in their chosen area if we don’t equip them with the knowledge and content first?

She is critical of the progressive movement with its focus on inquiry learning led by students.

“The saddest thing about the progressive movement is that it hurts the very people it wants to help,” she says.

“The progressives say that learning is boring, so we have to make it relevant to kids by making it fun and entertaining – and that necessarily means dumbing things down. The simple fact is that subjects are intrinsically interesting. Knowledge about something makes that something interesting.

“One cannot be inquisitive about something one knows little about. One cannot think independently about something if you have little basic knowledge of it.

“It’s our job at school to expose children to thoughts, knowledge, ideas that they might otherwise have never come across.”

Questions from the floor revealed some of the audience members’ uncertainties around her system – and on occasion, exposed some of its weaknesses. There were queries about how the system worked for children who had special learning needs, and about how students’ creativity was nurtured.

But a question on how the school built students’ cultural capital possibly revealed one of the biggest concerns for Kiwi educators in the audience.

It is hard to fathom an approach which veers away from the culturally responsive approaches that are starting to have an impact in New Zealand schools.

But Birbalsingh stands by a one-size-fits-all approach to what kids should learn and how they should learn it.

“Black kids and white kids are all the same. They’re just kids. To think otherwise is, well, racist,” she says.

“We don’t make them learn things that are relevant to their lives. We don’t have them learning things that are more engaging through play and fun. We succeed with our children because we don’t treat them differently with a misguided view that brown, black working-class children can’t access, and not deserve to access, the same curriculum content that their whiter or richer counterparts do at another school,” says Birbalsingh.

The school takes a “no excuses” approach to behaviour. Its motto is ‘Work Hard – Be Kind’.

“We believe the secret is simple. Expect a lot of children and they will rise to the standards you demand.”

Birbalsingh didn’t hold back in criticising New Zealand education and was forthcoming with her fears for our system.

“Right now, I slightly worry that you’re about to go off the edge of a cliff as a country. And that’s because the future of any country is its education system. And you have decided to pursue competencies in your curriculum, project-based learning in your classrooms, whole-word reading methods in your primary schools. You’re abandoning testing and traditional teaching methods that have worked around the world for hundreds of years.”

It was fascinating to see conservative ideals spoken about in a revolutionary fashion – elements of my own education heralded as the way forward.

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of all was the discussion Birbalsingh’s talk generated.

Following her presentation, heated debates took place over dessert, people dissecting this potential ‘way forward’ in the context of their own experiences, views and understanding. From those I spoke with, many were conflicted – agreeing with some aspects, dismissing others.

I shared in this irresolution. While I couldn’t imagine my precocious seven-year-old sitting in a school like Michaela, chanting multiples of three, I wondered if I owed more to my own ‘old school’ education for giving me a firm foundation in knowledge.

If consultation about the future of New Zealand education is to truly be genuine, we need to consider all avenues. It might mean, as Birbalsingh suggests, that we need not reinvent the wheel after all. Or it might mean a totally new direction. Either way, we need to continue to have these sorts of debates, consider what is working elsewhere and why, and dissect the underpinning evidence.

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