Revolutionary common sense

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 1 June 2018

The counterrevolution started in Auckland last night. That is when the Initiative hosted British educator Katharine Birbalsingh for a dinner lecture in front of an audience of almost 300 teachers, school trustees, business leaders and politicians.

What made this event revolutionary was the fact that Birbalsingh re-introduced some much-needed common sense into New Zealand’s strange education debate.

Auckland-born Birbalsingh is a thoroughly modern woman who believes in equal education opportunities for all students regardless of gender, race or social background. But she does not confuse such modernity with following the education fads of our time.

At London’s Michaela Community School, which she founded and leads, children are treated to an education which is refreshingly old-fashioned. It revolves around the three core values of knowledge, discipline and kindness.

Birbalsingh and her staff maintain that it is the teacher that teaches the students. It sounds like a truism but sadly it is not anymore.

In many schools today, teachers have lost their traditional roles. Rather than being fountains of knowledge, they have mutated into facilitators of learning. By putting themselves on the same level as their students, they have removed themselves from direct instruction as a method.

That all sounds nice and fuzzy. The problem is that it does not work.

As Birbalsingh explained last night, it is ludicrous to pretend that teenage kids know as much as their much older, more experienced and educated teachers. Restoring the authority of the teacher is therefore central to her education philosophy.

In a similar way, Birbalsingh believes that many of our schools have given up on any semblance of discipline. Students are allowed to behave as they please. Again, this may sound progressive but it is not.

When children misbehave, they rob themselves and others of valuable time. That time is no longer available to do what school should be about: learning. So, at Michaela School, teachers ensure that nothing distracts children from this purpose.

Finally, Birbalsingh maintains that school should teach children values for life, and first among them is kindness. Michaela School’s students show appreciation for others, and they are guided in expressing it.

Knowledge, discipline and kindness: It is this trinity that defines Birbalsingh’s education philosophy.

Not long ago, this would have been common sense and practiced in most of our schools.

It should still be common sense today. That is what our enthusiastic audience concluded at the end of a memorable evening.

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