Recently, I was given opportunity to reflect on the success of New Zealand’s education system. Why, for example, we are one of just five countries who have, since 2000, always been above the PISA OECD average. Given that education systems are influenced by political, economic, and cultural contexts, what is it that makes our system so special?
Take LEARNZ, for example.
LEARNZ was envisioned in the back of a Hagglunds all-terrain vehicle, in the awe-inspiring environment of the Antarctic, back in 1995. Rather than a one-off opportunity for a few New Zealand schools, this idea clearly had legs. The concept rapidly evolved over the next decade, and with support from many organisations became a popular feature of the national Education Outside the Classroom (EOTC) landscape. Along with that came international recognition.
In January 2006 the LEARNZ team received a visitor from Germany. She worked in the area of education for sustainable development (ESD) for a large public water board. The meeting went well, and she returned home determined, with our help, to develop a programme based broadly on the LEARNZ model. Despite positive email exchanges over several months, other priorities and, “too many restrictions, lack of visionary leadership, lack of infrastructure and resources in schools”, the programme got scuppered before it began. The connection with our German colleague fell silent.
A couple of weeks ago, and seven and a half years later, the connection was re-established. The desire to establish a German virtual field trip programme was as strong as ever. “How can we inform/educate a broad range of students and schools about water issues, and how can we overcome our restricted possibilities for schools/students to visit our wastewater treatment plants, pump stations, and other facilities?” But first, she wanted to know how 18 years ago we did what they want to do now: start from scratch with an idea no-one really understands.
I recalled our challenges in the 1990s: few teachers with laptops, access to internet patchy, a lack of infrastructure and support. And, how did we recruit experienced teachers to lead field trips while German teachers are too reticent to compromise teaching careers, state sector benefits, and relatively high salaries?
I’m proud of what LEARNZ has achieved over 18 years. We’ve been welcomed into thousands of classrooms during 191 virtual field trip events to team-teach with classroom teachers, engage students with remote locations, and establish meaningful relationships between students and experts. Perhaps, as Victor Hugo said, “All the forces in the world are not so powerful as an idea whose time has come”. LEARNZ was a product of its time. That time was the Tomorrow’s Schools era. Before 1989, decision makers were far removed from the consequences of their choices to see whether their policies were improving educational outcomes. In 1989 central bureaucracy was shredded, and those with the greatest stake in outcomes—parents—given greater say. The reforms have followed a troubled journey, as you’d expect—everyone is an expert on education. The democratic process has been messy and expensive. Nevertheless, the shift in bureaucratic function from directing activities to monitoring outcomes still separates New Zealand from many overseas education systems.
LEARNZ, today, is a leading e-learning experience, making the most of ultra-fast broadband, affirmed by continuing support from the Ministry of Education and many other lead sponsors.
So, how did we in 1995 do what this German water utility company wants to do in 2013. We just did it. And that’s the point. The NZ Inc version of education has created an environment that not only allows innovation, but expects it. That’s pretty cool, eh?