Teachers slam call for cursive handwriting lessons

Photo: Getty Images
Government advisors say every child at school should have their own desk and chair, and take part in annual literacy and numeracy tests. Photo: Getty Images
By Bill Hackman of RNZ

Educators are worried about a recently released Ministerial Advisory Group report on English, maths and statistics.

They say the report, which is likely to inform the content of the revised English and maths curricula due later this year, is politically motivated and misses the real drivers behind poor performance in the country's classrooms.

The advisory group recommended grammar and handwriting lessons, including cursive handwriting, in primary schools and called for every child to have their own desk and chair.

It also recommended annual "checkpoint" literacy and numeracy tests for all children at the beginning of each year.

But New Zealand Educational Institute president Mark Potter said he had "no confidence" in the recommendations.

The report's conclusions were written "without any broad consultation with the sector", he said.

"The risk is we're going to get a curriculum that's been written by people who actually aren't in the field and that the practitioners in the classroom just won't be able to use it. What that'll mean is that we're going to have yet another failed intervention in classrooms and New Zealand has had too many of those."

Mark Potter from the New Zealand Educational Institute, which represents primary school teachers....
Mark Potter from the New Zealand Educational Institute, which represents primary school teachers. Photo: RNZ
Potter said falling standards of numeracy and literacy reflected societal pressures on children rather than poor teaching, and the proposed changes were politically motivated.

"We hear phrasing and framing of things that don't ever get close examination - such as our falling standards of literacy. People seem to think that every child in the country's literacy standards are falling - they're not, in fact our best students are still the best in the world. What we have is a falling tail and that is coming about for other reasons than just teaching practice.

"The fact that we keep asking teachers to change practice on a five- to 10-year rotation - and the statistics keep going in the wrong direction - shows we are absolutely looking in the wrong place."

Potter said a return to "high stakes assessment" in the form of annual tests would have a negative impact on children and was not backed up by evidence.

"It just makes them more stressed and is counter-productive. An annual check at the beginning of each year presupposes that every child at that point of the year is at the same measurable point but because children enter school at different ages and different stages one single point of assessment won't work for all children," he said.

"That one-size-fits-all doesn't work, evidence shows it doesn't work, so we're just concerned about what will be the impact on children be if we go back into this kind of environment."

New Zealand Association of Teachers of English president Pip Tinning said the recommendations were out of touch and failed to embrace the diversity in the country's classrooms.

She said the report went too far in dictating how teachers should teach, instead of making useful recommendations for areas that need attention.

"I would hate to see units of work where it's like going through ticking a box. 'This lesson is on this and here's how you'll line up in your seats and here's how you'll what you'll write off the whiteboard and make sure you learn it'. That's not entirely how we learn now," Tinning said.

The proposed changes ignored many developments on how best to engage students from a variety of backgrounds and perspectives, she said.

"It's outdated, it's not forward-thinking and it's not fit for purpose in our day and age."

The initial report from the Ministerial Advisory Group on English and maths and statistics went to Education Minister Erica Stanford in March.

It said the updates could cause a "step-change" for New Zealand education, but warned they would fail without good teacher training and buy-in from schools.

The report said change was needed because children's educational achievement had been falling.

"In education, our national curriculum has been weak in specifying the knowledge that students are entitled to have taught to them. Teaching practices have not kept pace with research from cognitive psychology and other disciplines - the science of learning," it said.