Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Government Plans for our Beloved Te Whāriki

As part of it's agenda of reform, the National Government is placing a lot of value on the recommendations of 2011's ECE Task Force An Agenda for Amazing Children. See my earlier post here for a wider discussion on the report. Most merely rubber-stamped existing policy moves, but a couple indicated future challenges for a sector already shell-shocked from attacks that were ideological rather than based of positive educational outcomes. The curriculum document Te Whāriki is one such area.

Essay six of the report deals specifically with this area. All quotes are from this essay.

Now I would say that Te Whāriki is considered a model of best practice, nationally and internationally. That is exactly what the Taskforce authors state – but they continue with:

"but could benefit from a comprehensive review of its implementation."

The obvious question is why? Let's go exploring shall we?

Again from the Taskforce:

"Research shows curricula that address motivational aspects of learning, focused on learning dispositions rather than static skills or competencies, are associated with better performance in later schooling than those that are overtlyacademicallyoriented or standards-base. Examples of learning dispositions are to communicate, to be curious, and to persist with learning despite difficulties. Non-cognitive skills such as these have been shown to have a direct effect on future earnings and educational success. (Te Whāriki's) approach to learning, and the principles, goals and strands it contains, align well with recent research and evidence. We therefore do not believe that the content of Te Whāriki requires review."

Yes they like the document. But that's hardly surprising. While many champion the document's 'liberalism', Iris Duhn (2006) argues that Te Whāriki is in fact a tool of neoliberalism with its portrayal of an 'ideal child':

"Learning is defined as the ability to continually seek opportunities for problem solving, which involves lateral thinking, a sense of self in relation to a variety of others, and the willingness to search for solutions from different angles" (Duhn, 2006).

Ahh, the undefined ever-changing future that leaves children with low expectations of achieving anything tangible in the here and now and just waiting for life to begin...
To be fair, Te Whāriki and the 'ideal child' was informed by the perspectives of adults who themselves were immersed in neo-liberal rhetoric of the time so it's no surprise that the language of Te Whāriki resonates with the language of neo-liberalism and contemporary discourses around education. Such rhetoric stresses independence, choice, process over product, rooted in local communities but global in aspiration. Learners invest in their education to be part of the knowledge wave – the door is open to all, but success depends on cultural and social capital to compete. Unlike the conservative // neoliberal battle that shaped the curricula of the compulsory sector which left us with mixed messages, Te Whāriki can almost be considered pure in its aspirations. Hence:

"We have found nothing to detract from the widely-held national and international view that Te Whāriki is a profoundly important document that is fit for purpose and meets our societys needs as well as the needs of a diverse early childhood education sector. We do, however, believe that its implementation, which began in 1996, should be reviewed in order for strengths and weaknesses to be identified and learned from."

Implementation has long been the thorn in the side. It was like an own-goal. The document was designed to be descriptive, educators would weave their own curriculum based on its guidelines that best suited their local community - arguably an essential stance for a country as diverse as ours. This ability for interpreting and constructing curriculum is a powerful tool for educators, but is a double-edged sword as it places the onus on personal discourses held by educators (Nuttall, 2003; Duhn, 2006). Traditionally, New Zealand has favoured a free-play approach to learning, a position that drew upon Piaget's constructivist theories of a naturally occurring, lineal process of development which assumes children have the perquisite skills and abilities to make choices. This discourse of learning through free-play remains powerful today (as you well know Pikler is increasingly popular in infant care) and sees teachers adopting a hands-off role (Nuttall, 2003).

Play? Ha, this is not acceptable in a 'homogenised' world that demands literacy and numeracy standards regardless of individual context! Yet they also discuss the failings of standardised testing - are we once more witnessing a clash of ideology and educational research?

Despite the in-built faults of the document, support from the sector is unanimous as the Taskforce reports:

"The majority of submissions, including academic submissions, supported Te Whāriki in its entirety and the New Zealand Educational Institute (NZEI) highlighted a 2010 sector-wide forum in which attendees showed unanimous support for it. Many submissions appreciated the model for its innovative, bicultural, holistic and contextual nature and the broad support it enjoys. However, one submission, also from an academic, was critical of Te Whāriki, saying it contained little in the way of activity planning guidelines and lacked performance measures, including assessment of learning outcomes."

Has one right-wing academic provided 'official' support and thus justification? Politicians and their fucking mandates eh? will we see more emphasis on 'activities with measurable outcomes'? The antithesis of play and natural learning...

The Taskforce:

"The successful implementation of Te Whāriki requires that teachers are well qualified so that they can understand and implement a socioculturally-based curriculum and have good subject knowledge in a range of domains. Tertiary education for early childhood education teachers is therefore essential."

Yet they have reduced the minimum number of qualified staff required in a centre and cut funding for professional development. University funding cuts are seeing degree qualifications cut in favour of one-year post-grad courses. With the foundations cuts out they resort to using the stick: monitoring outcomes.

So while some aspects of the Taskforce's recommendations are positive - resources in languages other than English; working with children with special educational needs; assessment practices; self-review; creating and supporting aspirations for Māori children etc; the focus is on “a need for a monitoring framework to be developed to capture the extent to which the outcomes of Te Whāriki are being achieved: at a sector level, a service type level, a service level and at a child level.

It will be interesting if the 'measurable outcomes' get linked to funding.

However, after all this hand-wringing there is a qualifier that worries me:

“The Taskforce attempted to consider how well Te Whāriki was working to:
  • support children’s well-being, learning and development now and in the future
  • provide support for families in their primary role in caring and educating their children
  • promote the assessment of learning
  • promote learning in centres and at home
  • encourage an effective transition to school
  • align with the National Curriculum for schools.
This assessment has been difficult because of the lack of evaluative information.

So really the whole report is a load of hot fucking air driven by ideology.

No comments: