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"I’m big on the idea that students learn best when they ‘do’," he says, emphasising the word "do".
"And that they actually do better when they learn ‘with’ each other."
Dr Steven Sexton is preparing for another year of teaching New Zealand’s future teachers.
He has more than 20 years’ teaching experience in schools in half a dozen countries and is now a senior lecturer at the University of Otago’s College of Education.
He is talking about the New Zealand Curriculum, Te Marautanga o Aotearoa, the little-known document that underpins the education of all of this country’s children from their first day at an early childhood centre to the day they walk out the secondary school gates for the final time.
"If I’m going to be talking about friction and forces in science, I’d take the students out to the playground," Dr Sexton says.
There he would get them to have a go on the swings and the slide.
"We can talk about why the swings work the way they do; what happens when you slide down the slide in shorts compared with long pants; what would happen if you wore a different jacket or a rug ...?"
"So yes, they could be having a good time, but they are seeing the result. It’s putting the learning into a real world context."
Last month, controversy erupted over a classroom resource released by the Ministry of Education. The new resource, Climate Change: Prepare Today, Live Well Tomorrow, is aimed at Level 4 teachers teaching children aged 7-10 about climate.
It includes suggestions such as talking more about global warming, reducing electricity use and driving and flying less. It also states that red meat and dairy production results in significantly more greenhouse gas emissions than growing chickens, fruit, vegetables and cereals.
Students are encouraged to "eat less meat and dairy" and are told they could "try having a meatless day each week".
The resource was condemned by the meat industry's lobby group Beef + Lamb NZ as "simplistic" and potentially "detrimental" to young people’s health.
It was defended by the Ministry of Education, which said the resource was not a compulsory part of the curriculum and that the resource’s content reflected existing advice.
"Awareness of the environment and our place in it is one part of the New Zealand Curriculum. Nutrition is covered in a different part of the curriculum," a Ministry spokeswoman was reported saying.
The brouhaha puts the New Zealand Curriculum in the spotlight.
Usually a bottom-drawer document that gets little attention outside of education academia, the curriculum is in-fact the fount from which flows everything that takes place in classrooms throughout the country. It defines the ultimate goal of all education in New Zealand up to tertiary level. It specifies the learning areas to be taught, the competencies to be aimed for, the values to be inculcated and, at the far end of it all, the type of young adult to be released into the big, wide world.
So, what is the New Zealand Curriculum? What does it say? Why does it attempt to do anything more than teach the three Rs? Is it an agenda-laden Trojan horse or an enlightened, empowering force for good?
Information for parents on the Ministry of Education website says the national curriculum "guides what your child learns at school".
"Your child will develop a range of values and key competencies, or capabilities, that they need to succeed in life. These are all woven into the teaching of learning areas, or subjects."
These days, the entire curriculum is a comparatively light document, less than half a centimetre thick.
That is because it has no content, Dr Sexton says.
His surprising comment holds one of the keys to understanding the curriculum and its role in educating young New Zealanders.
The curriculum it replaced 20 years ago was heavily prescriptive. The current one specifies what teaching areas need to be covered and how to do it, but does not tell teachers what to teach.
Instead, it defines lots of achievement objectives.
"For example, demonstrate an awareness of dance. It doesn’t say what kind of dance, whether they need to do the cha-cha or the rhumba. It just says they need to have an awareness. How that gets played out and what the teacher does with that is open to interpretation."
Anyone could be a teacher under the old curriculum, Dr Sexton says. All they had to do was follow the prescription.
"The new curriculum gave professionalism back to teachers. It’s now much more holistic and big picture. But teachers really have to know what they’re doing and how to do it."
That flexibility lets teachers find the best ways to help their students learn.
Dr Sexton’s example of teaching science in the playground makes the point.
"It’s hands-on, but also brains-on and it’s community-engaged ... But [students] also have to know what they are doing and why they are doing it."
Watching classmates stutter down the slide in shorts but slip down in trousers helps them grasp lessons about friction and forces.
"You see them and hear them making those connections to ‘Oh, so when I do this, this is why this happens’."
Training students to practise and internalise particular values is part of what the Government expects in return for the money invested in education, Dr Sexton says matter-of-factly.
Part of our curriculum is designed to prepare students for beyond school, he says.
The values chosen are those the Ministry of Education believes will help students function in, and give back to, society.
"We are still under a neoliberal system, where the idea is that a lot of money goes into schooling so we need a product out — at the end of schooling, students should be able to contribute to society."
Asked whether schools should stick to their "reading, writing and arithmetic" knitting and leave values education to parents, Dr Sexton says school should be one of several settings where values are taught.
His reasoning is informative. It is not because the various settings will reinforce the teaching, but because each will teach different values. Diversity, not homogeneity, is the crux.
Most people are members of multiple societies, each with their own values, Dr Sexton says.
"There are many things they would do in school that they would not do in their church. There are many things they would do in church that they would not do on a sports team.
"So, in each society they will learn different values and different ways to interact and behave."
Diversity. And flexibility. Two keys to unlocking the mind of the New Zealand Curriculum.
In addition to diversity in the values of the different settings students shift between, allowance is made for schools to reflect the different views, values and priorities of their wider communities.
"It’s not a ‘you must do this’ recipe.
"The principles allow for community engagement — the community can have input into what goes on — the diversity within the community, how we build it all together, how we focus on what we are doing ..."
All these forces filter and give an individual flavour to what goes on in each school.
"That’s one of the brilliant parts of the new curriculum; it’s no longer one size fits all, no-one is doing the exact same thing and no-one has to do the exact same thing. Within the guidelines of the learning objectives and how the curriculum is set up there is a lot of flexibility."
But doesn’t the "eat less meat and dairy" suggestion point to an explicit agenda?
Prof Jim Flynn, of the University of Otago, does not know about New Zealand teachers’ colleges, but he does know that their equivalent in the United States (US) are what he calls "ideologically driven". This is enforced in schools at the expense of a good basic education, the politics and psychology researcher says.
"They would say, [for example,] we teach arithmetic by counting the profits imperial powers made when they enslaved the West Indies."
This, Prof Flynn says, is literally what happens in some US schools.
"This is a pretty indirect way of teaching arithmetic. And there is no indication their methods are particularly effective in what we think school should be all about."
Dr Sexton says that is "possibly not done here to the extent" Prof Flynn is talking about.
"We don’t have a manifesto of what we require our [trainee teachers] to say and think."
He says teachers’ personal opinions and biases will come out in the classroom.
"In most cases teachers teach who they are. For a lot of teachers, their political affiliations, their religious affiliations, their personal biases, pet peeves or soapboxes are going to come out."
Once again, allowance for that diversity is flexibly built into the system.
It explains why Dr Sexton believes the "eat less meat and dairy" controversy is "making a mountain out of a molehill".
It is just a suggestion, he says.
There will be people who agree and people who disagree with the suggestion.
"But part of what the curriculum wants to do is to get people to realise we can disagree with what other people say or think, but we can do it respectfully."
In the classroom, if the issue was raised and there were different opinions, a good teacher would turn it into a class activity, debate the topic and ask students to come to their own conclusion on it.
The same applies to "leakage" of teachers’ personal views.
"Once again, it comes down to being able to respectfully disagree."
In September last year, the Minister of Education Chris Hipkins announced a review of the curriculum. The aim of the review is to update the curriculum regularly, make it easier to use and make the most significant learning steps clearer.
Digital technology will be added to the learning areas, as will history in two years’ time.
Dr Sexton thinks ecological sustainability might also be added to the learning areas.
On the values list, diversity and equity could potentially be replaced by inclusion.
But he is not expecting too many other changes.
"We have a pretty good vision, pretty good values. The key competencies are brilliant. The learning areas always get modified."
Pauline Cleaver, associate deputy secretary early learning and student achievement, at the Ministry of Education, says basic education — literacy and numeracy — are seen as key to helping young people become lifelong learners.
"But it is also important to support our young people to be confident and creative, connected, and actively involved," Cleaver says.
That is essentially the New Zealand Curriculum’s overarching vision. It will likely remain much the same.
"It’s about building their confidence in their own abilities," Dr Sexton says.
"It’s about getting them to build connections in the fabric of the societies they are part of and making the connections with what is valuable to them.
"Students have to do this. We can’t make anyone learn. We can provide opportunities to support it. But they actually have to do it."
It is a lofty goal. But, says Dr Sexton, it is the goal for the majority of the country’s 105,286 registered teachers when they walk into the classroom each morning.
The playground swings and slide lesson comes to the fore again. It is a moment in time, a piece in the jigsaw, that takes curious students another step towards becoming confident, capable adults.
"It builds their confidence that they know what they are talking about. And then when they get older they can put it into a context of, for example, driving a car.
"Lots of people in Otago have driven on ice ... When you have an understanding of friction you can now start talking about what happens when you reduce friction and why tread is important on tyres.
"As a classroom teacher, if my kids walk out confident, connected, actively involved and lifelong learners, yep, I did my job."