Guest Post: Something is rotten in the state of education: high school biology in New Zealand

A guest post by Martin Hanson:

In the 1990s two American social psychologists, David Dunning and Justin Kruger, began research to find out whether there was any relationship between people’s abilities and how accurately they judge their own abilities. They used undergraduate students as their subjects, and their research was published in 1999 with the title “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments”.

The results showed that people of low ability tend to be ignorant of their ignorance and have an inflated view of themselves; without self-awareness, such people are less able to judge their ability. In contrast, competent students tended to underestimate their ability relative to others.

Known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, ignorance of one’s own ignorance is widespread in society, but when it dominates New Zealand’s education culture, it’s beyond serious, and indeed terminal, without radical action from the top. The essay that follows is my attempt to show that this is not likely to happen.

* * *

International comparisons
After I retired from the classroom I gave up trying to get NZ high school biology education to begin an honest conversation about the serious lack of academic rigour in high school biology, but the publication of New Zealand’s Education Delusion; how bad ideas ruined a once world-leading school system, a report by Briar Lipson of the New Zealand Initiative, has stirred me to take up the cudgel again.

With the aid of graphs, Lipson’s report presents unequivocal evidence from international studies that New Zealand students are falling behind their overseas counterparts. Some brief quotes from Lipson’s report:

“The OECD’s Programme for International Achievement (PISA) measures how well 15-year-olds apply their knowledge and skills in reading, maths and science literacy in real world contexts. In the year 2000, out of 32 countries, New Zealand’s students proudly ranked 3rd in reading, 3rd in mathematics, and 6th in science literacy. By 2018 they had declined to 6th, 19th, and 6th places respectively.”


“The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS) assesses Year 5 and 9 students’ maths and science attainment.     .  .  . In maths, New Zealand students scored below the average of all participating countries. In reading, New Zealand ranked 24th out of all 26 participating OECD countries. Behind nations like Spain and Slovenia, only France and Chile scored worse than New Zealand.” “Despite this, looking only at data from the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA), you could be forgiven for thinking that New Zealand is doing better than ever. It is only by putting the national and international metrics together in one graph that the true story becomes clear. While the NCEA paints an illusion of rising standards, students’ scores in the most basic areas have been dropping relentlessly.”

Graph from page 16 of Lipson’s report (with permission). Source: Education Counts, Annual Reports 2004 –19, Website; Education Counts, “PISA 2018 – New Zealand Summary Report,” Website

Lipson attributes the decline in educational achievement to an over-emphasis on child-centred learning:

By appealing to the inarguable idea that children should be at the centre of decisions about their learning, children-centred orthodoxy has undermined subject knowledge. It has told teachers they are at their most professional when they let their students lead.”

Despite its provocative title and content, Lipson’s report has caused scarcely a ripple in the education pond, and received negligible coverage in the media.

This is shameful. If New Zealanders were better informed about the failures of our education system, there would surely be widespread outrage and demands for reform.

The Lipson report comes as no surprise to me; it would have been surprising had it been otherwise. It is an issue that will not go away, but it cannot be rectified without an honest but painful conversation with ourselves, something that historically we have not been very good at.

Chapter 2 of Lipson’s report begins with a quotation:

“Progressive educators have defended their aversion to knowledge with pseudo-science, sociological attacks on ‘elitism’, and the supposedly unprecedented pace of technological change. However, at the root of these arguments remains a sentimental aversion to the idea that schools should be defined by anything so hierarchical as the transmission of knowledge from the teacher to the child.” — Robert Peal, Progressively Worse: The burden of bad ideas in British schools

The aim of this essay is to present evidence that an “aversion to knowledge” is a defining characteristic of New Zealand education, at least in biology.

* * *

Bursary Bloopers
In 1992 I was interviewed by the New Zealand Listener magazine about serious errors in Univerary Bursary (U.B.) biology examinations. The article (January 27), titled Bursary Botchups, elicited an angry letter from the New Zealand Science Teachers’ Association (NZSTA).

Before quoting NZSTA’s letter, it will more effectively highlight its foolishness if I first quote some brief extracts from the supporting correspondence I received from staff at Auckland University:

From Professor Euan Young, in a letter to NZQA, a copy of which he sent to me:

I have had a good look at five questions, colleagues have considered the others. In every case Martin Hanson seems to be about right. Many of the questions are ambiguous, misleading or just plain wrong. Or, even more worrying, not able to be answered from the information given.

From Professor Rufus Wells:

I appreciated your Listener article and the attached lists of Bursary Examination errors. You must be congratulated on taking a brave stand! I have gone through the highlighted questions and have confirmed with local subject specialists that your criticisms are both warranted and correct.

From Dr. John Allen:

Although I am not an expert in all areas covered by the questions, it seems to me that virtually all of your criticisms are justified.

In addition to these people, I received corroborative letters from Prof. Dick Bellamy, Dr. Kevin Gould, Dr. Peter Jenkins, Dr. Bob Lewis, and Dr. Brian Murray. Every one of these people agreed with my criticisms. I have this correspondence, and will make copies available for anyone who wishes to check.

In light of these comments from highly qualified people, the first half of the letter from the Secretary of the NZSTA almost surpasses belief:

I was extremely disappointed and very angry after reading your comments in a recent Listener article titled “Bursary Botch-Ups.” Arrogance is undesirable in the teaching profession — your comments were not only arrogant, they were extremely uninformed and very unprofessional. Teacher bashing has always been a popular past–time [sic] amongst politicians, and journalists – the last thing teachers need in the present climate of falling rolls, increased class sizes and hasty curriculum and assessment changes is for one of their “colleagues” to publicly demean them. Just what were the intentions of your comments? Many of the assertions you make about the correctness or otherwise of the questions in recent Biology papers are highly debatable – at least amongst several Biology teachers I have spoken to (and most of them are quite expert).

Telling your students that “they must brace themselves for an examiner whose subject knowledge is not good” is excessively presumptuous and smug. To claim that your students “know more about certain questions than the person who sets the examination paper” is completely fallacious and unworthy of any teacher.

First part of my reply to NZSTA:

I am writing to you in connection with the “Listener” article “Bursary Botch-ups”. I would not have made such assertions had I not been very sure of my facts, but it is clear from the response of the NZSTA executive that nothing less than authoritative corroboration will puncture the wall of defensive complacency that appears to characterise the NZSTA executive.

In your letter to the “Listener”, you stated that my allegations had been “refuted by the NZ Qualifications Authority”. The points I raised were not refuted — they were denied, which is quite different. You appear to consider that the opinion of the NZSTA is sufficient to end the matter.

Since the NZSTA has not considered it necessary to check with specialists, I have taken the trouble to do it for them. I enclose copies of some letters to me, plus a copy of a letter from Professor Young to NZQA, and also a copy of the documentation I sent to Auckland University. Since some of the subject matter is technical, I have highlighted the most relevant parts of the responses. One letter, from a previous Scholarship examiner, was so strong that he did not wish me to use it in its original form — “a horrendous concoction of lulus” was how he described one question in the 1991 Bursary paper.

I think you will agree that the letters effectively bring the academic argument to an end. However, I am concerned that so far as the media are concerned, the NZSTA appears to have had the last word. Science teachers throughout the country will thus be left with the impression that I have made a fool of myself. I think therefore that it would be proper for you to send a short note to the “Listener”, retracting your previous statement. In case you are unable to summon up the courage to do this, I will be sending to local Science Teachers’ Associations copies of the same documentation I have sent to you.

Needless to say, the NZSTA did not find the courage to take up my suggestion. All they could muster was the following peremptory note:

Thank you for your letter of March 25th. The executive of the New Zealand Science Teachers’ Association has considered the matters that you have raised and has no plans for any further action.

There could not be a better illustration of the Dunning-Kruger effect in New Zealand Science education, and the pusillanimous response of the NZSTA is a measure of the inadequacies of the clique running high school biology.

What a contrast with the reaction I had received in 1983 from the Oxford and Cambridge Chief Examiner, while I was spending two years the UK. I had pointed out a number of mistakes in the ‘A’ level paper; my points were discussed one by one by the examiner, and in most cases accepted. His letter concluded with an invitation to submit questions for future examinations. As a result of this constructive exchange, I felt that I had not wasted my time.

In stark contrast to the attitude of the NZSTA executive and NZQA (described below), here was an examiner who was sufficiently grown up to regard criticism as an opportunity rather than a threat.

The difficulty with evidence of academic incompetence is that it remains hidden from public view because most is technical, but the following example — one of the worst — could be understood by the local supermarket checkout worker.

The question was in 1995 and concerned a breeding experiment involving a mating between two guinea pigs. Candidates were asked to state what colour of offspring would be produced, and in what ratio. The answer, and indeed the only correct answer, was that they would all be black. However, the Examiner’s Report stated that the answer was:

4 black  :  0 brown  :  0 white

“All black” was deemed to be incorrect. That a Chief Examiner — and even more worrying, the 25 or so teachers on the marking panel — could be so innumerate as to consider this to be a correct answer and, moreover, to mark “all black”, the only correct answer, wrong, defies belief. One can imagine the feelings of a candidate who gave the correct answer but was denied the mark — and as a result just failed to obtain an interview for entry to Medical School.

That this examiner, who manifestly didn’t even understand what a ratio is, could blight the career prospects of able pupils, is scandalous.

* * *

NZQA’s ‘Quality Assurance’
The New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) is so fond of the phrase ‘quality assurance’ that it has become a slogan. The hollowness of this claim was exposed by a media blowtorch following the 1995 School Certificate Science exam. Parts of five questions contained significant flaws, two of which showed that the question setter lacked the most basic understanding of physics, unlike some of the candidates. The following account quotes from “Assessment, Accountability and the 1995 School Certificate Science Examination” in the 1996 Annual Review of Education by Geoffrey Stedman, Professor of Physics at the University of Canterbury and President of the New Zealand Institute of Physics (NZIP).

A fortnight before the examination a chief supervisor had noticed that a question was impossible to answer and had contacted the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) while there was time to issue a correction. His concern was met by “indifference, disbelief, and rebuke”.

In late November Professor C. W. Gardiner, a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand and member of NZIP, wrote a letter to NZQA, explaining his concern in the hope of influencing the marking. After consultation with the Council of NZIP, on 6 December Professor Stedman wrote on behalf of NZIP to David Hood, Chief Executive Officer of NZQA, elaborating Professor Gardiner’s concerns, in which he concluded:

“The NZIP intends to make a public statement on this issue shortly. We are asking for your reply and cooperation in the hopes of being able to speak in a positive way, and to reassure all affected people that the problems with this examination paper and with the circumstances which led to them are fully recognised, and that professional and appropriate action is well in hand on these various and important issues.”

On 14 December the Chief Executive of NZQA replied, but it

fell significantly short of the requested action, failing to acknowledge the gravity of the matter or to consider any need for further corrective measures for the benefit of affected candidates or for the advice of teachers. For example it stated: “The Qualifications Authority has taken steps to ensure that no candidates were disadvantaged by the questions concerned” and “Candidates were not unduly troubled by the questions.” Such complacent phrases were evidence that NZQA would not initiate an in-depth examination of the concerns. Accordingly, the NZIP Council decided unanimously that it had a professional and public to issue a press statement.

The press statement issued by NZIP on December 19 included the following:

Several questions reflect a seriously flawed understanding of the most basic principles of the subject. The point is not that these questions are difficult. The point is that they are impossible. Any candidate attempting to answer these parts using the information given cannot give a correct answer and could reasonably accused, as can the examiners themselves, of a fundamental ignorance of the basics of the subject. NZQA is forced to accept as correct answers which are outrageously wrong or quite irrelevant. NZIP believes that suppression of the matter now would only maximise the long-term damage. What of the candidates’ misgivings about their attempts at such questions? Would publicity after results are announced be more welcome or effective?

NZQA spokespersons responded with public statements such as: “universities have problems with science” and “the science paper dealt with concepts, and it was not a physics examination” and the meaning of the flawed questions would only be unclear to those with an advanced knowledge of physics”. The senior NZQA spokesman made the astounding comment that:

“Science attracts various viewpoints, particularly in universities, and comment is premature as the evaluation process is still being carried out”.

NZQA was thus saying that ex-cathedra criticism carried no special weight. Put another way, only when they had consulted the Nelson Ballroom Dancing Club, the Wanganui Rose Growers’ Society and the Hokitika Corgi Breeders’ Association could they come to a view on the matter.

NZQA must have rued the day when they adopted the commendable policy of returning marked scripts to candidates because, as the NZIP commented:

when a sample of these scripts was analysed by teachers and by members of NZIP it was clear that the early warnings from Professor Gardiner (which had been tabled at the marking panel meetings which finalised the marking schedule) and the NZIP itself, had not been taken into account. An impeccable answer by one pupil had been awarded 1 mark out of 5. The sample analysis showed that this was not an isolated incident; the NZQA-approved answers from the flawed marking schedule had clearly been applied rigorously, and deviations were correct had been routinely penalised.

If such disadvantaged candidates were to have any chance of redress, the onus was on NZIP to apprise them of this new development, within the time-frame of set by NZQA for requesting re-marking. NZIP therefore lodged a second press statement on 2 February 1996, including: “The scripts now show that correct science was marked as wrong, while nonsense was marked as correct. Some of these candidates have been disadvantaged by 10 or marks overall. This fully justifies the initial concerns of the Institute.”

NZQA continued to maintain its arrogant intransigence even when interviewed on the Holmes show, and only when they began to look stupid as well as incompetent did they begin to hint at some grudging acknowledgment of their responsibility for the fiasco.

The most disturbing thing to emerge from this farce was that here was proof positive of an examiner who, contrary to the angry comments that the Secretary of the NZSTA had made to me, knew less about the fundamentals of the subject than did some of the 16 year-old candidates, as was testified by angry letters to the press from some of them.

In July 1996, in “NZQA Examination Saga”, his final column for the Australian and New Zealand Physicist, Professor Stedman concluded his remarks with the following:

“The School certificate science exam incident highlights one aspect which I suggest is both noncontroversial and decisive. Since NZQA has roundly failed this exam (as a test of its quality control) on all fronts, the omens for the larger issues are bleak indeed. Even with our extensive professional advice, NZQA still cannot get its studied evaluation of one exam approximately right. What hope does it bring to the larger issues? Can anyone now credit that quality control of the proposed in-school assessments, involving as it does central monitoring of thousands of test papers, is feasible in practice? Central monitoring could be therapeutic in moderation, but moderation is not a characteristic of present proposals. Good teachers will struggle valiantly to make the effects of any imposed bureaucracy tolerable. But is the flawed work of weaker teachers to be put right in this way? This exam incident shows that NZQA cannot do this.

At about this time the notion of ‘payment by performance’ was being aired in education circles. It occurred to me that it was high time that the assessors were assessed, so I devised the following criteria by which their clientèle could assess NZQA’s performance in connection with School Certificate Science and Bursary Biology:

For 5 points:         Listens carefully to criticism; admits mistakes in public, and takes energetic steps to ensure there is no repetition.

For 4 points:         Listens carefully to all criticisms, but publicly plays down their importance. Privately takes all necessary steps to ensure that problems are put right.

For 3 points:         Ignores private criticism but acts vigorously in response to public criticism.

For 2 points:         Ignores criticism from teachers, but in response to public criticism from an acknowledged expert, takes steps to put things right.

For 1 point:           Initially ignores all criticism, even by acknowledged experts, but finally caves in and admits mistakes when it begins to look ridiculous.

For 0 points:         Refuses to acknowledge the validity of any criticism, either private or public, even when coming from the highest authority. Maintains that candidates did not complain about the examination paper, even in the face of clear evidence to the contrary from teachers, and letters to the press from angry candidates. Does nothing to deal with problems even when pointed out by a chief supervisor prior to the examination. Continues to deny culpability even after it has been shown by the New Zealand Institute of Physics that ‘correct science was marked as wrong while nonsense was marked as correct’.

They just don’t seem to be capable of learning from experience, do they? One does expect adults, after repeated salutary experiences, to learn that a prerequisite for improving one’s performance is the ability to listen to criticism, admit a mistake, and take advice from others. One must therefore ask: how is it possible for such incompetents to reach high positions in a country whose politicians claim to be promoting a ‘knowledge society’?

The answer lies in the culturally incestuous nature of the cabal running education. Membership is denied to anyone who is of independent mind, especially if that is coupled with a willingness to speak candidly and to think critically. Entry to this select group has nothing whatever to do with academic competence — indeed, such people are carefully excluded because of the threat they pose to the prevailing culture. Rather, it depends on a willingness to work hard at sucking up to the right people until they are not perceived as a threat to their comfortable little world.

Take, for example, the position of Bursary Examiner. In the UK such positions are advertised and the identity of the Examiner is known. In New Zealand we are not allowed to know how examiners are appointed, and after their appointment their identity remains secret. Given their performance, it is hardly surprising that biology examiners don’t have the self-confidence to be publicly accountable for their actions.

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Poor Textbooks
NCEA examinations, and before that, University Entrance (U.E.), U.B., are/were set by teachers. Directly or indirectly, they must bear some responsibility for the failure of NCEA to deliver an academically rigorous curriculum. The answer is that teachers are themselves products of the system teachers help to create. In the witch’s brew that is education culture bright students are not the sole victims; some of the products of the system become teachers and go on to become perpetrators.

One of the chief sources of information for both students and teachers is textbooks. Almost all have three significant shortcomings: lack of accuracy, lack of rigour, and a near-complete absence of challenges to think. One, published in 1986, became a standard text in many schools. One of the authors later became an inspector, another was President of the local Science Teachers’ Association, and the third went on to write more biology textbooks. Some of the dozens of errors show a serious lack of understanding of fundamental concepts, one of the results being that that several of the experiments described are devoid of scientific validity  — yet the book was given a rave review in the journal of the NZ Science Teachers’ Association, the opening line of which read:

“It’s great!” “Wouldn’t be without it.” “It’s a must.” “Best we’ve had yet.”

Another book, published in 1998, bulging with touchy-feely, warm fuzzies, is so full of errors that the author, a head of department in a top NZ School, was clearly not academically competent to teach Year 11 students.

And it’s not only what’s in the textbooks that leaves a lot to be desired. Equally serious is what is absent, notably opportunities to encourage students to think.

A good examination should contain a mix of questions testing basic factual questions and questions of the problem-solving kind, in which candidates are asked to apply knowledge to unfamiliar situations, such as interpreting data, thereby testing understanding. I well recall using past UK ‘O’ level (Year 11) exam questions for a Year 12 class of U.E. biology students. Besides testing basic recall knowledge, there were problem-solving questions.

At first, my students complained that they were too hard, but after I had pointed out that they were from exams catering for students a year younger than they were, they began to change their tune, and with practice they gained in confidence and success.

Here was evidence that NZ students were under-achieving relative to the UK contemporaries. It was just that NZ questions seldom asked candidates to think.

The textbooks I have mentioned were published over 20 years ago, and no doubt it will be said that and things must have improved since then.

Well, they haven’t, if some of today’s widely used texts are anything to go by. They show lack of understanding of such topics as:

  • growth in bacterial cultures
  • leaf structure in relation to photosynthesis
  • the concept of net photosynthesis, essential for graphs of measurement of photosynthetic rate
  • the effect of temperature on the rate of diffusion
  • the correct way of using a Punnett square, the basic tool in elementary genetics
  • the concept of water potential, without which experiments on osmosis in plants have no validity (it seems that most NCEA teachers have never even heard of water potential).
  • the explanation for the greater muscularity of the left and right sides of the heart
  • the distinction between fermentation and anaerobic respiration

* * *

Mixed ability teaching
Bad textbooks are but one reason why students under-perform. Issues such as ‘elitism’ and mixed ability teaching raise conflicts between perceived costs and benefits. The intellectual dishonesty in refusing to recognizing such conflicts is clear evidence of politics, rather than evidence, driving education.

Social conditions in the classroom have undergone a revolution since I began my teaching career in 1965 in the UK. At that time many educationists and young teachers encouraged their pupils to think for themselves rather than blindly accepting what the establishment taught them. Where academic considerations are concerned, I strongly believe this, but in matters of behaviour it is clear that education took a wrong turning. Undue emphasis was placed on the rights of disruptive pupils, with scant regard for the needs of the majority. 

With hindsight it is hardly surprising that free-thinking pupils did not always arrive at the ‘correct’ conclusions, and in many cases yobbish malcontents successfully challenged authority. The result was that the rights of the majority of pupils all too often were forgotten, with a slide in behaviour. Malefactors who a few decades ago would have been thoroughly ‘sat on’ by authority now have to face nothing more draconian than a stiff dose of ‘counselling’.

And it’s not just disruptive behaviour. Here’s a headline in the New Zealand Herald 22 September 2006: “Threatened teachers ‘too frightened to tell principal’”. The report went on to say that “some teachers are so afraid of being labelled incompetent they are failing to report threats and abuse from students, says the secondary teachers’ union”.

Serious though this is, it is the long-term effect on the teaching profession which poses the greatest threat to education. In the high-stress zone of many modern classrooms, teachers have been forced to evolve defensive strategies.

The first was ‘mixed ability’ classes. By dispersing disruptive pupils among several classes, the problem of the unteachable ‘bottom stream’ was reduced.

Of course, teachers’ leaders could not present it in this way — it needed a politically acceptable wrapping. Streaming was held to be socially divisive, leading the less able pupils to feel inadequate and the more able ones to become arrogant. To further sanitise the package, it was maintained that the able students would be able to help the slower ones. I even heard it suggested by one starry-eyed dreamer that bright pupils would actually gain academically from the presence of the slower ones, though the mechanism by which this benefit was supposed to accrue was never explained.

The intellectual dishonesty underpinning the notion that the social aims of mixed-ability teaching can be achieved without a scholastic price tag is central to secondary education. The reality of many mixed ability classes is a travesty of the meaning of the word ‘education’. Far from fulfilling potential, the bright student is all too often under considerable peer group pressure not to shine, and under-achieves in order to avoid being labelled a ‘nerd’.

The second survival technique was to reduce the academic demands of the curriculum. The most obvious way is to gut syllabuses of anything that might present difficulty to the average student. The needs of bright ones, who thrive on challenge, are totally ignored. I have been told by many able students over the years that their third, fourth and fifth form years had been “a boring waste of time”.

Another ploy was to replace teaching by ‘facilitating’. Having all but lost their disciplinary authority, many teachers appear eager to relinquish what is left of their academic standing. By encouraging pupils to take charge of their own learning by, for example, drawing posters, or ‘role-playing a hospital board meeting to set a priority list of cases for organ transplant surgery’, they reduce the focus on the teacher.

These, then, are the new rules of the education game. Its pernicious effects on able pupils are self-evident, but even more serious are the implications for the academic calibre of the next generation of teachers — the seed corn of the education system.

In biology, teachers do not emerge from university academically fully equipped to teach. Much of the school curriculum is not taught at tertiary level and has to be learned in lesson preparation at home.

How much subject expertise a teacher acquires depends critically on the classroom environment. Questioned by bright, inquiring young minds, a young teacher quickly gains subject expertise and learns how to stretch the more able pupil. In the days when there was such a thing as a top set and a challenging curriculum, the learning curve for an able young teacher was steep.

It is not generally realised, therefore, that

not only are teachers a resource for students, but bright students are an essential resource in the professional development of teachers.

To succeed in the hurly-burly of many modern classrooms, a teacher has to be an entertainer, public relations expert, crowd controller, detective, and psychologist. For too many of today’s teachers, academic knowledge borders on the irrelevant. A result of this is that many teachers in the front rank of the profession lack the necessary academic training to be competent in their craft. In such a situation the products of the system become agents of further decline.

Those who see teachers more as agents of social change than purveyors of learning may feel no anxiety at the prospect of an education service that cannot cater for the needs of bright pupils. Others will simply deny the truth of this.

Unfortunately for the latter, the evidence is clear from public examination papers, textbooks, and other documents that a large proportion of the secondary teaching profession is incapable of catering for the academic needs of bright students.  

Central to these problems is our schizophrenic attitude to excellence. Of course, we’re all for it, aren’t we? But let’s look a little more closely, and see whether we really do believe in cultivating excellence.

Ask any educationist or politician: “Do you believe in élitism in education?” and you will probably receive an emphatic “No!”

Now ask a different question: “do you think that the education system should strive to ensure that each child reaches his or her potential?” The answer will be an equally emphatic “Of course I do!”

These two answers are mutually contradictory. To see why, let’s ask a third question:

“Do you accept that children have a wide range of academic potential?” The overwhelming majority of teachers would say “yes”.

So, if children are to realise their potential, this wide range of abilities must be translated into a wide range of outcomes. The result would be that some school pupils would reach far higher levels than others. These high achievers would be — an élite.

As George Orwell put it:“Double-think means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”

It’s clear that the present government does not believe in elitism as defined above. On page 4 of their 2020 Labour election manifesto, there is the following (emphasis added):

“Our vision of a just society is founded on equality and fairness. We believe in more than just equal opportunities— we believe in equity and equality of outcomes. An equal society is built on inclusion, respect for diversity, and co-operation”.

Surely Ms. Ardern couldn’t have really meant ‘equality of outcomes’, for the only way to achieve this would be actively and deliberately to prevent academically gifted students from achieving their potential. Though the present dumbed-down biology curriculum goes a long way to achieve just that, some in the education business seem to think that this is not enough, and do their best as individuals to bring gifted students down a peg or two. I still have the examination answer booklet of a U.B. candidate in 1991; the answer to one question required a simple sketch, plus 3 labels, for which 4 marks could be awarded — 1 for the sketch, and 1 for each label. The marking was so simple that it would have taken no more than 3 minutes to train the local rat-catcher to mark it. The candidate’s answer (left) was perfect; her diagram was actually slightly better than the examiner’s (on the right), yet she received four zeros.

There are only two possible explanations: gross incompetence, or deliberate intent to cut down to size an outstanding candidate who, by the way, received 96%, the highest scaled mark awarded. Whichever is the case, it is nothing less than a disgrace.

Despite its pejorative connotation, ‘elitism’ in education implies the advocacy of the realisation of potential — the essence of what education is about. Yet “equality of outcome” has become a mantra for many educationists, and illustrates the extent to which feelings now take priority over thoughts. It is high time we had a new clarion call: “If you’re not an élitist, get out of education!”

It might be tempting to blame the present state of the education system on NCEA and its progenitor, Achievement Based Assessment (ABA). The fact is the rot began long before either of these monstrosities reared its head. NCEA is merely the most recent consequence of a slow process of academic decay of the secondary teaching profession.

Thus the products of an effete system have become the cause of further decline. The process is feeding on itself — cause and effect become indistinguishable; victims have become perpetrators.

Adding to these woes is a salary so low that few academically good quality graduates are entering teaching, and most of those who do, leave early. The Government’s ‘knowledge economy’ will remain nothing more than a rhetorical flourish for election purposes until it devises some way of attracting good quality graduates into teaching, and inducing them to stay.

* * *

Educationists as ‘gardeners’
Education can be compared to gardening, in which young minds are nurtured as they grow in knowledge and understanding. The ‘gardeners’ – the people who like to call themselves ‘educationists’ have conned successive governments into believing that they can be trusted with the education of our children. The ‘plants’ – teachers as well as pupils – are academically emaciated as a result of many years of an academically starvation diet. Some of the ‘gardeners’ teach in Colleges of Education and play a leading role in curriculum development.

Now you’d expect that such people, most of whom started off in the classroom, would have done their best to equip themselves academically to teach. Not if “Alive and well II”, a book described by the publisher as “a new edition of the classic textbook for Year 11 Human Biology” published in 1999 is anything to go by. The authors, described on the back blurb as ‘experienced biology teachers’ are both involved in teacher education at colleges of education.  One is now a professor of education in Australia, and the other is playing a leading role in the New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER).

All very impressive. The trouble is, leaving aside the frequently infantile headings, at the time they wrote their book, neither was academically qualified to teach biology, so serious are the errors and misunderstandings. To give just a few of the most egregious examples:

  • The authors don’t have even a basic understanding of how the eye forms an image on the retina, or how it accommodates to view near objects.
  • They don’t understand the function of the middle ear. To be fair, neither do the great majority of biology teachers, as it’s not explained correctly in school textbooks. For that, you have to go to medical physiology books, as I discovered early in my career.
  • Their diagrams and labels of nerve cells are appalling (there is no such thing as a ‘dendron’ – a term invented by a biology teacher decades ago and uncritically copied by other teachers ever since).
  • I quote from page 54: The oxygen carriers [red blood cells] . . . “are bi-concave so that they can swell up without bursting when they take a load of oxygen on board.” (Bold emphasis added).Such an illustration of the authors’ indifference to accuracy is so bad, it’s not even wrong – they’ve made it up (the red cells’ bi-concave shape causes them to become bell-shaped as they move along the capillaries, increasing the surface area for diffusion of oxygen).

Just as serious as what’s in the book is what’s not; every opportunity to make the reader think appears to have been carefully avoided. The most challenging question the authors ask the reader about DNA is, next to a diagram clearly showing the two spirals wrapped round each other, “why do you think it’s called a double helix?” A bit like asking: after what saint is St George’s church named?

The authors are careful to avoid any mention of ‘technical’ terms from elementary chemistry and physics, such as ‘molecule’ and ‘diffusion’ thus helping to give credence to biology’s reputation as a ‘soft’ science for those who aren’t good at maths.

Their treatment of proteins makes no mention of different kinds of their constituent amino acids, and more particularly that they are in a specific sequence. This would give meaning to the concept of a gene carrying the information enabling a cell to join amino acids in a particular order. From there it’s just one more step to the idea that DNA contains four kinds of chemical (whose names are shortened to A, G, C and T), and it is the order of these that represents (in code) the order of amino acids in a protein.

On top of that, the authors clearly don’t even understand the meaning of ‘genetic code’. On page 120 they state that “the code is slightly different for each person”. With very rare and minor exceptions, the code is universal; it is identical for bacteria, broccoli, and greyhounds. What differs is the information. There is one Morse code, with which one can transmit an infinite number of messages. Journalists often make this mistake, for ease of communication, but it’s wrong, as any Year 11 student will understand, if taught. One of many lost opportunities for clear thinking.

The authors this ‘classic textbook’ show no evidence of a desire to impart knowledge or understanding of biology. Yet they were teachers of teachers. Moreover, one of them has played a leading part in the development of New Zealand’s National Curriculum (NZC), in which the importance of knowledge has undergone steady decline.

But at least these two authors could write coherently; an ability that’s not always apparent among educationists – even at the top of New Zealand’s educational intelligentsia. The following example was written by an associate professor of education who, for a number of years, played a significant role in Science Curriculum Development.

In Part I of an article entitled Teaching That Takes Into Account Students’ Thinking, published in the New Zealand Science Teacher in 1993, we read the following literary gem:

“Planning was done by the research project teachers who took into account students’ thinking in their teaching. Their planning was different to what they would normally have done, and overall it involved planning the unit of work and the teaching and learning activities to take into account students’ thinking. They had a goal of the students learning some science and they planned their teaching to enable this to occur. They planned teaching, learning and assessment activities to find out what the students were thinking, to get the students thinking and to respond to and interact with students’ thinking.”

In Part II we are treated to even more profound insights:

“The teachers on the teacher development programmes, as part of the research project, were encouraged to take into account students’ thinking. One aspect of this was the responding to and interacting with students’ thinking. To do this, the teachers had to create the opportunities to do this and then to actually do it. Both facilitation of students thinking for themselves and telling and explaining the science were aspects of teachers responding to and interacting with students’ thinking.”

How many years did the author of this drivel spend in the classroom before seeking the more tranquil pastures of a university education department? We are not told, but anecdotally it was not many. And why on earth did the editors of the New Zealand Science Teacher think the article had sufficient merit to publish it?

What is most irksome is that it must have cost the taxpayer over a million dollars to finance this particular educational guru’s career. Don’t any Minister of Education dare say that there is no money for teachers’ salaries when we can afford this kind of garbage.

What is to be done? In my opinion the following are prerequisites for a solution:

  1. Make it compulsory for all lecturers at Colleges of Education and all those involved in Curriculum Development to spend at least 1 year in 3 teaching full time in a state secondary school (I can hear the howls of protest from those who have used Education departments as a bolt-hole from the classroom).
  2. Replace the present ‘one size fits all’ curriculum with a dual pathway, catering for different abilities. This would be an opportunity to develop a curriculum that brings high school biology into the 21st century by incorporating principles of elementary physics and chemistry to deepen students’ understanding. I might add that some simple statistical methods should be incorporated into the teaching of Mendelian genetics.
  3. Building on #2, exams can be a powerful force for the academic development of teachers. If a topic is likely to be in an exam, teachers have no option but to get to grips with it.

An antidote from overseas
After NCEA was introduced in 2002 a number of schools voted with their feet and began with Cambridge International Examinations (CIE) in subjects across the curriculum, and a few opted for the International Baccalaureate (IB). There are now over 30 New Zealand schools that feel NCEA is academically inadequate. Overseas, more than 10,000 schools in over 160 countries offer Cambridge programmes and qualifications.

In response to some schools moving to CIE, the then Minister of Education Trevor Mallard MP remarked that CIE was a ‘third world’ exam.

Poor Trevor; attempting to defend the indefensible can make you look very silly. As Winston Churchill once remarked in a different context, it would hardly be possible to state the opposite of the truth with more precision.

I taught CIE biology for several years before retiring, so I know something about it. The academic demands of the 79-page syllabus could not be in greater contrast to the threadbare NCEA ‘curriculum’. After 9 pages of introductory blurb, the CIE syllabus is rich in detail, specifying topics and subtopics to be known. Four pages are devoted to ‘Mathematical requirements’. Ability to use four different statistical tests are an integral part of the syllabus (unlike UB examiners of the 1990s and late 1980s, CIE biology candidates are expected to be numerate).

CIE biology has two steps, AS and A level, and altogether there are 5 papers, including a 2-hour practical exam.

The CIE and IB have acted as an effective miners’ canary, drawing attention to public dissatisfaction with NCEA. Small wonder, then, that in 2015 the Post-Primary Teachers’ Association (PPTA) called for CIE and the IB to be removed from state schools ‘in order to further strengthen NCEA’. The mechanism by which this ‘strengthening’ might occur was not explained.

To pre-empt any accusation of bias against my adopted country, CIE is not entirely free of errors; the last two of the bulleted points cited earlier apply equally to CIE:

‘Anaerobic respiration’ and fermentation are are completely different processes, as any university biochemistry lecturer will tell you, and the greater muscularity of the left ventricle of the heart has nothing to do with the distances the blood has to travel, since by far the greatest resistance is in the last few millimetres, in the arterioles and capillaries.

Though CIE is not academically perfect, it does try to improve its generally excellent performance. What a contrast with New Zealand biology, where it seems that national pride perversely prevents the development of the self-awareness needed to deal with our Dunning-Kruger affliction.

* * *

I have shown that the New Zealand education system is not satisfying the academic needs of the more able biology students and anecdotally the picture is much the same in other subjects. The evidence from biology is beyond dispute, so one is bound to ask how is this possible in a country that thinks of itself as ‘First World’?

My own experience, together with NZQA’s breathtakingly incompetent handling of the 1995 science exam suggests that the answer may, at least in part, lie in deeper, cultural factors, extending beyond education to aspects of our national character. I believe there are at least two factors at work: aversion to plain speaking, and hypersensitivity to criticism.

In New Zealand, plain speaking is ‘not polite’, particularly when it comes to putting responsibility where it belongs. For example “the car lost control”, rather than “the driver lost control”, and “alcohol was a factor in the accident” rather than “the driver was intoxicated”, and “alcohol and drugs” rather than “alcohol and other drugs”, are examples of the exculpatory language of officialdom and media.

Accepting criticism is hardest of all when it comes to anything that threatens our national pride. Following the 2011 World Cup semi-final clash between the All Blacks and the Wallabies, journalist Karl du Fresne wrote an article headed: “Parading our Inferiority Complex”. What had provoked du Fresne was public reaction to a column by Sydney Morning Herald columnist Paul Sheehan, in which he criticised a throat-slitting gesture made in the All Blacks haka. As du Fresne put it:

“To say he touched a raw nerve would be to understate the case. More than 560 comments were posted on the Sydney Morning Herald’s website, many of them from outraged New Zealanders. When Fairfax Media’s Stuff website in New Zealand picked up Sheehan’s comments, a further 868 comments were posted – depressing proof that nothing, not even politics or religion, arouses New Zealanders’ emotions more than sport.”

Du Fresne’s blunt statement that we have a national ‘inferiority complex’ may not have gone down well with readers, but someone had to say it. A person with an inferiority complex tends to be defensive and acutely sensitive to criticism. As Wikipedia puts it, the sufferer has ‘an intense personal feeling of inadequacy, often resulting in the belief that one is in some way deficient, or inferior, to others’. The angry reactions of the NZSTA  and NZQA to authoritative criticism strongly suggests that leadership in New Zealand education does suffer from such a complex.

Just because someone suffers from an inferiority complex does not mean that he or she is inferior with regard to the specific criticism being made. But New Zealand biology education is different; it IS inferior, and provably so. I can’t imagine any politician facing up to this – at least not publicly.

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