No Time to Learn

During my most recent position as a secondary teacher I moved to using student-led projects to introduce and develop design process, technical skills and project management skills to students. To help students plan projects out over a year I created a simple template document that broke the terms down in weeks and totalled the hours per term. It was this document that raised some serious concerns for me about the way secondary schools operate and the expectations we have of students.

The immediate issue of time

I, like many people, thought of a school year as an entire year and that, while the students (and teachers) were pressured to keep moving, it allowed for a reasonable amount of time. As I wrote out the template the following happened: The first three terms broke down into approximately 9 - 11 weeks, the last term (for senior students) was about 4 - 5 weeks before exams kicked in; and the weeks broke down into my 4 hours (for each class) spread across the week. It all looked like this:

Term 1: 36 hours
Term 2: 40 hours
Term 3: 44 hours
Term 4: ~20 hours

To put this into perspective, the average senior student had approximately 3.5 working weeks in my course over a year. This does not take into account any sickness, public holidays or other reasons for being absent from class. Time is not on our side here but in combination with the next issue things become very difficult for our young people.

Standards and assessment

A typical secondary level course that leads to the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) is assessed using a number of standards. As an example my Digital Technologies course at Level 3 offered students the following standards for internal assessment:

91608 Undertake brief development to address an issue within a determined context Generic 4
91609 Undertake project management to support technological practice Generic 4
91610 Develop a conceptual design considering fitness for purpose in the broadest sense Generic 6
91634 Demonstrate understanding of complex concepts of digital media Digital Technologies 4
91635 Implement complex procedures to produce a specified digital media outcome Digital Technologies 4

In my project-based courses students could develop evidence for any of these standards from any project, i.e. I did not force them to produce evidence for a single standard in a single project or task as is common (e.g. an examination or other form of single hit testing). Students may also not have needed to be assessed, for credit and qualification purposes at least, if they were tracking well for NCEA requirements in other subject areas (that is an entirely separate discussion) but in general a student is expected to produce evidence for 5 achievement standards in 3.5 weeks. If we compacted that time down that equates to one standard every 5 or 6 days and a typical student will be doing this for five subject areas.

Life long learners, chronological age and levels

The vision in the New Zealand Curriculum aims to develop  "Young people who will be confident, connected, actively involved lifelong learners". This is, in my opinion, a great vision for education and the idea of a lifelong learner implies a nation of adults who are actively learning new skills. As an adult I can learn new skills over a period of time that is determined by my priorities and personal or professional requirements. As an example I began learning about programmable electronics in my late 30s. I am still not really at the level required by the Level 1 NCEA Digital Technologies (Electronics) standards. I may never reach that standard but my interest in the topic and practical application of the skills I have learned are both valid and personally exciting. My learning is not constrained by arbitrary time frames so why do we persist in applying this exact barrier to our young students?

Why is a level in a secondary qualification linked to chronological age?

If we are truly interested in developing a life-long love of learning and an innate sense of curiosity in our society, and we expect to initiate and instill those attributes through our education system we really need to start removing the time related barriers. Students should know what level they are at in any given topic through careful assessment and their level of understanding may vary between topics and areas of interest. We need to do away with chronological year levels and focus on the student as a person and let them develop understanding and skill at a pace that reflects them.

We all need to appreciate that people operate with different levels of interest and learn at different rates and in different ways. Time and age constraints are barriers to learning and, as they were originally put in place as a management tool maybe they no longer have a place in our education system.