Does the education curriculum need an overhaul?

There are days when I wonder how the New Zealand education curriculum got to its current state. In an age of computers and digital communications, how are we delivering basic curriculum content to our students and are the delivery methods appropriate?

When I was taught English at school, there were parts of the syllabus that were frankly mystifying. As someone who was then planning to make a career in volcanology, how was Shakespeare going to help me? I think report writing would have been more useful. As such a broad subject (film, literature, structural English). Although I did definitely learn a lot, I wonder how many people today would know what an acronym, a synonym or things like proverbs, and adverbs are. Credit to them, but sadly for New Zealanders and our education I know people from European countries where English is not their native language and yet they speak and write it better than many New Zealanders.

I mentioned the problems afflicting science yesterday, but it is worth pointing out that perhaps in addition to chemistry, biology and physics teachers having a few in earth sciences might not go astray either. Generally the curriculum of science – if the bulk of it is still structured around these three core subject areas – is fine, but the delivery in terms of assessment, along with the “War on Science” is crippling it as a teaching discipline. I don’t expect that anyone will have been able to mix Rubidium or Caesium with water, but this area more than any other needs decent practical assessments.

I think though that everyone should do Legal Studies, or some other law-based subject matter introducing them to how the legal system works, the components of it such as the Courts, the Police, Corrections and so forth. It should include a segment on how Parliament works, ones human and civil rights as well as their responsibilities before the law. People might argue that it is inappropriate to introduce students to politics. I would counter argue that it is even more inappropriate for them to not know how the legal system, its components and functions work and their rights and responsibilities before it.

For me Social Studies was probably my favourite compulsory course. I did okay in most of the others, but looking at geography, society and what was happening around the world at the time I found fascinating. Whether it was looking at how indigenous peoples live or following politics in New Zealand I was for the most part hooked. In saying that I believe by the time everyone finishes Year 10, they should be able to name all of New Zealand’s major mountains, at least some of the major rivers and lakes, all the major towns and cities and show where they are on a map – the number of people who cannot is shocking.

And then there is Maths. A subject I was excelling at at Primary School until I had a catastrophic Maths teacher in 1988 who completely – and possibly permanently – inverted my whole understanding of it. After that it was without doubt my least favourite subject, and one that I have not achieved School Certificate/Year 11 for. Perhaps that makes me not qualified to comment, but I would like to say that I noted in 1988 that we would be given a pile of little plastic pieces – a mix of sticks and little cubes. One cube equalled 1. A stick equalled 10. We were supposed to show a number using them. So, 18 would be one stick and eight cubes. How maths gets taught now I do not know, but I hope that the working still has to be shown on paper before it can be done on computers.

If you, the reader knows anyone in the teaching profession, ask them to have a look at this and find out what they think.

The war on science

When I was at high school, science was a subject I had a like/hate relationship with. It was fun doing experiments and much of the course work was interesting. However I had one major problem with it, and that was it often seemed to fall on the worst class periods of the week, when students were more just thinking about the weekend ahead or about going home. Of course some students would have had to do the subject in that period, but when combined with a class of Year 10’s whose thoughts were often somewhere else, little wonder the teacher got annoyed.

Today, everyone seems to be annoyed about science and scientists. If it is not a politician blasting the work being done on global climate issues, it is someone discharging a religious discourse that evolution is an anti-God theory designed to discredit Him (Her? It?). It could simply be a misinformed member of the public who may or may not have done papers in science during their education. Or a teacher thoroughly frustrated at all the bureaucratic restrictions, that they think teaching science is not worth the effort any more. And yet in many respects science is more important now than it has been at any time in the past.

There is a perception among many people that scientists are some sort of nonsense artists, who use their craft as a form of smoke and mirrors to make it appear that they know what they are talking about. A lot seem to not understand that a theory is only as good as the person who formed it, and that if the scientific community decide it is improbable it will fail.

Two quite good examples, one a New Zealand issue, and one an international issue highlight misconceptions and ignorance around science. At one level for example reading articles about the discovery of gravitational waves, which was announced today, or research into the Alpine Fault, some of the misconceptions are as alarming as they are laughable. In the international context, commenters on a Fox News article on Facebook went to considerable lengths to somehow incorporate religion into the news that a long time Albert Einstein theory that gravitational waves exist. They tried to suggest that a higher being was somehow at work. In the New Zealand context the misconceptions have to do with the Alpine Fault. When an the news website Stuff put up an article on Facebook last week, a substantial number of article readers commented that they thought the scientists were playing with peoples lives by drilling into such a big fault. Aside from being wholly wrong on a number of levels, it also pointed to the lack of understanding about the whole research programme,  even though the people making the comments had – presumably – just read read an entire article devoted to it.

In the case of the gravitational waves being discovered, the comments are all the more incredible since Einstein’s genius is beyond dispute. But on the other they are not so surprising given that the target audience are generally not trained to trust theories that are tested by the scientific community, especially if it does not fit a preconceived view of the world. In New Zealand, despite having seismic activity comparable to California, and a new found urgency in the post-Christchurch earthquake environment, to find out what we can about our faultlines there is a credible body of ignorance. Despite much effort to publicize the research, including public meetings, public notices, media releases and journalistic research, it seems that there is much work still to be done educating the public about the necessity of the research. This is even though one day it might save thousands of lives.

I feel for scientists. They are just humans trying to do a job that at times is misunderstood, never really properly funded and sometimes deliberately turned into a political football. Is it any wonder so few want to be scientists when we treat the existing ones like this? It might not be an intentional war, but sometimes I get the impression people who do not know better are waging war against science. And that is sad. And wrong.

War on Terrorism just a general war

The United States led War on Terrorism no longer exists. A general war for the sake of having a bloody scrap with no clear objectives is the new deal. Let us not worry about the fact that Saudi Arabia is the single biggest sponsor of terrorism, surpassing even Iran. Let us not worry about the fact that the nation that was the “Arsenal of Democracy” in World War 2 funds and arms Saudi Arabia and thinks its despotic regime are great mates.

U.S. Republican Presidential candidates thump their chests and go on about how they are going to destroy Daesh. They go on and on about rolling out the heavy bombers, about putting troops back on the ground, about turning the sand into glass. And yet these are probably the same Presidential nominees who would turn a blind eye to funds and arms going to Saudi Arabia if it will keep their sponsors in that God awful military industrial complex happy. Are the Democrats any better? Probably not.

That is fine with Russia. Whilst the U.S. funds and arms Saudi Arabia, the Kremlin sees it as a chance to fund and arm their own clients, some of whom are arch foes of Saudi Arabia. Syria is turning into a great testing ground for all the new Russian weapons systems that might have otherwise have stayed in Russia for the duration of their operational life. It is a chance for the Russian miliary to see its new anti-aircraft missiles, aircraft and ordnance being used in action.

No one in a position to stop them cares a jot about the fact that Russian bombs are being deliberately dropped in civilian areas of Syrian towns and cities, such as Aleppo. Perhaps it is because Russian military doctrine has never terribly cared for civilian lives. Perhaps it is because as a permanent United Nations Security Council, Russia knows it has the power to veto resolutions that it does not consider to be in its favour – and does (like the other four hypocrites who make up the Permanent Five).

Let us not worry about France. Blinded by rage following the Paris attacks, and unable to conceive of the fact that its dreadful 100 year geopolitical experiment called Syria has come unstuck on along religious and ethnic lines, the French have been participating in the mayhem almost without a clue as to what they are supposed to be doing there – if anything.

And Britain. The nation that thought Iraq was a great name for Mesopotamia and drew a crude border through a myriad of ethnic groups, not caring how it affected them. The nation that used gas warfare and aerial bombardment to subjugate Iraq in 1920, of course Britain knows best. And like the French in Syria, unable and/or unwilling to recognize Iraq in its current form is finished.

And what about the poor Syrian family stuck in Aleppo with no way out? Bombed out of their home (now messy water filled – hole in the ground), with nothing other than the clothes on their back in pure survival mode – steal, fight, maybe even kill for food, medicine, water, whatever – and traumatised to the point their children have lost control of their faculties. They have seen man made hell first hand. They have seen people die in front of them, people’s livelihoods explode under the impact of bombs and shells. And yet, despite having had an active hand in manufacturing this hell, there are western politicians thousands of kilometres from Syria who think they are terrorists.

Yes. Of course I have nothing to worry about. The Western Governments are all correct about Syria and Iraq are they not? The West knows best according to that tunnel vision work of Francis Fukuyama called “End of History”. We should all congratulate ourselves on a splendid job.

Eh, poor family in Syria?

The Government’s 17 billion dollar problem – and the incredibly stupid response

It costs $17 billion. The percentage of the Gross Domestic Product is almost a double digit figure. And it comes from one particular sector.

That is right ladies and gentlemen. We are talking here about the gaping hole left in the economy by the dairy price implosion. Perhaps more amazing (for not necessarily the right reasons)is the Government’s determination despite the huge hole in the economy left by this is the determination to press on with tax cuts.

Which is more staggering you ask me? It depends on which side of the fence you sit on.

On my side of the fence, the idea that the Government might will continue with tax cuts despite having a huge shortfall in revenue suggests that either a huge cut in services is going to be forced on New Zealanders in a desperate bid to keep borrowing in check or keeping the country’s debt in check is not a priority. Either way it is inane stupidity and proves to me something I already knew:

This Government is no better at economic administration of New Zealand than its Labour predecessors. And in fact, it might be worse, because the Fifth Labour Government of Prime Minister Helen Clark ran surpluses for nine straight years. Perhaps that is not surprising because for much of that time until the middle of 2006, the global economy was chugging along nicely – it was not until the first of 30+ banks to implode did so in 2006 that people realized there was a problem. Labour also did not have to worry about two devastating earthquakes and the insurance company wrangling that would follow.

But that does not excuse National for its conduct. It has had over 7 years now to demonstrate economic competence.

I have always said that this Government, like its predecessors, should have diversified the export industries instead of putting all of the eggs into one basket (which in the case of dairy was obviously not that well constructed). Our reliance on dairy and the farming sector on the whole has been excessive, and without lasting environmental damage and a potentially costly clean up bill, dairying has peaked.

The Government has suggested opening New Zealand’s seabed up for exploration, but at the same time has appeared reluctant to increase the percentage of royalties taken that must go back to the Crown. Coal for the time being is in decline as China’s economy hits the speed wobbles, and countries accelerate the exploration of renewable energy sources. Likewise oil, which New Zealand has some substantial deposits of, is in decline as a commodity – not so much from demand, but a minor collapse in the price.

I have a sinking feeling that unless National does something that appears to be blasphemous to the Prime Minister and Treasurer and raise income tax on the wealthy, or introduce a Capital Gains Tax on secondary homes, it might have trouble passing a Fiscal Budget. In which case the election nobody is ready for would have to be called.

Employment law changes coming – But will businesses be ready?

With every change of Government there are changes to employment law. A lot of the changes surround contract law pertaining to the specifics of people’s employment contracts, such as the 90 day employment legislation introduced a few years ago. However some of the more recent legislation passed has focussed on occupational safety and health, and employer responsibilities. With new legislation to be introduced this year, how ready are businesses for it?

A raft of concerns about employers in New Zealand being out to make a fast dollar, without regard for New Zealand employment law or the expectations of New Zealanders have come to the fore since 2010. In that year the sinking of a trawler whose senior crew were found to have abused the more junior crew and broken both New Zealand and international maritime law, cast a glaring spotlight on how Indonesians working in New Zealand get treated. Since then other concerns have been raised in the dairy and farming sectors about how Filipino’s get treated. As the Philippines, Indonesia and other S.E. Asian countries do not have strong labour laws their citizens are sometimes perceived as being able to be exploited by industry cowboys.

But these proposed law changes are going to go further than that. They will, among other things, affect:

  • How small-medium businesses maintain their statutory employment and financial records, with bigger penalties for non-compliance
  • The controversial Zero Hours contracts will be prohibited unless “reasonable compensation” is offered
  • Occupational Safety and Health (O.S.H.)laws regarding the handling of asbestos are going to change, with a new license required for those workers who are removing 10 square metres of more of material containing asbestos

So, now that we know roughly what the major changes are, how ready are businesses likely to be for it?

It is understood that compliance costs might increase as a result of the new legislation. However, when taken into account against the gains made by businesses by being more robust employers. Some in the dairy and farming sectors will think they are being hard done by because of the focus on their environmental impacts, but the cost of the world concluding New Zealand farmers are incompetent employers in a modern world would far outweigh the cost of complying.

Let us be honest, that there will always be a small percentage of employers – maybe 3-5% – who will absolutely steadfastly refuse to comply. Their reasoning will vary from one case to the next, but the changes coming mean the cost of non-compliance will be significantly bigger. Whether it is failure to keep full and accurate records, as per new Section 4B of the Employment Relations Act 2000 or not abiding by the new employment standards, measures include bigger pecuniary penalties, banning orders and a loss of insurance against pecuniary penalties.

This legislation has passed its first reading in Parliament. That means it can now be sent to a Select Committee for consideration before being returned to Parliament with amendments for a third and final reading. The Bill of Parliament can be read in its current state here.

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