Thinking critically about New Zealand's latest prize

Briar Lipson
Insights Newsletter
6 October, 2017

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, New Zealand leads the world in ‘educating for the future’.

Their latest index, compiled in London, evaluates the extent to which the inputs to education systems prioritise ‘future skills’. New Zealand came out top, followed closely by Canada and Finland.

But is this a prize we should be proud of?

The Economist’s intelligentsia tells us that ‘workers of the future will need to master a suite of adaptable interpersonal, problem-solving and critical-thinking skills’.

The language of future-focused skills is pervasive in New Zealand. But what does it actually take for a student to be an adaptable, problem-solving, critical-thinker?

Benjamin Bloom's ‘Taxonomy of Educational Objectives’, a founding text for trainee teachers, might be helpful.

Bloom devised his taxonomy in 1956, a time when rote learning of facts and little more was widespread. Presented as a pyramid, ‘higher order’ skills like analysing and evaluating are at the top. Knowledge, or remembering, is down at the bottom.

Bloom was clear that knowledge is a necessary precondition for all other learning. But ironically, due to its presentation, his taxonomy is often interpreted as communicating disdain for ‘lower level’ skills like remembering.

Of course, employers care more about what employees can do with what they know, than simply what they remember. But the appropriate balance between when to teach knowledge and when to develop 'higher order' skills is not something anyone can generalise. Not even the Economist Intelligence Unit in London.

Sometimes postgraduates spend time reading and learning new information. Sometimes 5-year-olds have enough background knowledge to be able to evaluate and solve problems.

This reality is expressed through acknowledging a ‘novice-expert continuum’. Depending on where students are on the continuum, they may either benefit from more opportunities to commit knowledge to long-term memory, or from applying what they know to problems and critical thinking.

At a time when the OECD’s international PISA tests tell us that the performance of our 15-year-olds has been in almost perpetual decline for more than ten years, New Zealand should be on the lookout for dubious prizes.

After all, critical thinking is an essential component of demonstrating our 'skills for the future'.

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