Looking back for future growth



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John Morris says we shouldn’t ignore what has worked well in the past, or the existing research evidence, when it comes to reforming our education system.

John Morris, Morris Consulting

John MorrisJohn MacBeath in his paper, “Future of the Teaching Profession” (2012) noted that “those who write and speculate about preparing children for life in the 21st century … have to be acutely aware that looking forward also means looking back”.

While we should never close our minds to innovation, we also need to be aware of what is great about our current system. A good future education system should be a sensible mixture of both traditional and progressive ideas: the technology and creativity of the 21st century and the best of traditional methods that we know work well.

The future will see many exciting innovations and ideas but we must be certain that these initiatives are better than what we have at present. This means that policy-makers need to be highly skilled and knowledgeable about what works in schools. They must research any potential innovations thoroughly, trial and evaluate them and, if proven worthwhile, plan and action the implementation rigorously.

It is also vital that policy-makers do not ignore the vast amount of research evidence already existing that tells us what makes a successful school, namely:


  • strong educational leadership
  • inspiring and effective teachers
  • emphasis on students acquiring basic skills and solid subject knowledge
  • an orderly and secure environment
  • high expectations of student achievement
  • frequent assessment and regular feedback of student progress.


Whatever changes are introduced in the future to education, it is essential that these six characteristics remain at the heart of any reform process, and that any innovations are supported by valid scientific evidence.

Recent ‘best practice’ innovations such as personalised learning, different learning styles, thinking skills, flipped classrooms, multiple intelligences, learning to learn, thinking hats, modern learning environments, and 21st century skills lack such a scientific evidence base. Cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham has been strongly critical of the pseudo-scientific justifications used to promote many of these fads.

Too often as a profession we are guilty of succumbing to the passionate hype of advocates like Sir Ken Robinson – who has never been a classroom teacher – telling the profession how students should be taught. Theoretical knowledge can never replace the real experience of teaching students.

My ideal would be for our future education system to produce people who are confident, creative, knowledgeable problem-solvers who have had the benefit of an education that has engaged and inspired them and prepared them well for the 21st century.

This requires a curriculum that is knowledge-based; of course, a curriculum must incorporate skills but our current curriculum is unbalanced and ‘knowledge-free’. Such a situation does nothing to improve the current achievement gap that exists in New Zealand, and which contributes to the economic and social disparities that blight our society.

Our future education system will also require, most importantly, a teaching workforce of exceptional quality, which means attracting the top tier of graduates to the profession. This is vital as New Zealand will only get a sufficient number of quality principals if we have a predominance of quality teachers.

Attracting the best and brightest into teaching remains a current and future challenge for New Zealand and one that must be met and won by innovative government policies that raise the status of the profession and make teaching an attractive proposition for our most capable young men and women.

The performance of a school system essentially rests on the quality of its teachers. It is the teacher that makes the difference.

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