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Learning Matters: a case to make school more compelling 

A new year always brings with it new promise. Promise of change, growth and hope for the future. It’s a chance to right wrongs and tackle our challenges head on. 

New Zealand has some pretty monumental challenges when it comes to how we do education. The biggest of these is a falling attendance rate amongst school students. Recent data showed that under 50% of students met the criteria for regular attendance (90% or above). This is down about 17% from Term 3 2021. There’s a growing trend of absence among our school students. There have always been those who believe the education system is irrelevant - touting the anomalies of tech CEOs who dropped out of school and went on to see success. However, we are now seeing a mass exodus from the traditional schooling system. The impact of COVID is just one reason among many for drops in attendance, dispelling the myth that learning exclusively takes place at school. I would go as far as to say there has been a post-covid paradigm shift in how our society views school - it’s optional. 

Two questions sit in my mind - Does school matter and if so, how do we get kids attending?

We could argue that we’ve seen a positive move towards online remote learning, providing more flexibility and freedom in the way young people learn. However, I fear that students are missing out. Despite its benefits, distance learning has been found to cause many mental health issues including online anxiety and technostress (stress aroused from the prolonged exposure of information-communication-technologies) (Xu & Wang, 2023). In 2021/22, nearly one in four (23.6%) young people aged 15–24 years experienced high or very high levels of psychological distress. (Mental Health Foundation, n.d.) School provides students with the opportunity to engage regularly with other students, building important character skills such as empathy and the benefits of attending school are well documented, establishing that there is a strong relationship between attendance and student attainment (Webber, 2020). 

So how do we get kids to go to school? 

I remember being fourteen and convincing myself that I needed to read Charles Dickens. I plodded my way through the pages of Great Expectations over a number of weeks, forcing myself to keep going. Here’s the thing, I didn’t enjoy it. Meanwhile, I ferociously consumed the Hunger Games and Harry Potter series. I was hooked on sci-fi and young adult fantasy and wanted to read more. It compelled me. 

If being in a classroom is the priority, then we need to make school a little more compelling. We need learning that is engaging, student-driven and playful. Getting young people in the door starts by making learning fun. 

In late 2023, our government proposed their solution, namely that all primary and intermediate students would be taught an average of one hour a day each of reading, writing and maths. I don’t think anyone disagrees with the notion that students should be learning how to read and write. However, there is a subtext here and it all feels a little dickensian. It’s an approach concerned primarily with performance, one that kills learning. This is the same party that brought us National Standards, a programme that only 16% of teachers believed had a positive impact, that saw teachers pressured to accelerate students through levels and led to anxiety amongst young learners (Dougan, 2020). They’ll argue that while all this talk of making learning fun sounds good, shouldn’t students be engaging in core competencies such as writing, reading and math? 

This paints a false dilemma - that students either learn core fundamentals or just have fun.

However, research in the UK actually reveals that students who enjoy school at age six go on to earn higher standardized test scores (Morris, Dorling, Davies, & Davey Smith, 2021). When kids engage in learning from a young age, achievement follows. Therefore, enjoyment and engagement should become our key metrics. Reinfusing learning with joy and fun becomes our core business. 

Designing learning that is fun doesn’t mean a lack of rigor or shying away from difficult, and highly cognitive activities for our young people. I'm not campaigning to scrap reading, writing and math in the curriculum. Instead we need to redesign our lessons in these subjects to be motivational and developmental. In his latest book, Hidden Potential, organizational psychologist Adam Grant argues that what we need is deliberate play. 

Deliberate play is structured activity that is designed to make skill acquisition and development enjoyable. It blends elements of free play and deliberate practice, promoting learning and mastery and recreation (Grant, 2023). This can look like implementing elements of novelty and variety into practice when doing math or reading. It’s about taking daily grind and infusing passion into practice. It looks like giving young people freedom to explore and share individual interests however reinforces enthusiasm for learning. When students get to select activity stations, books and projects they’re more likely to develop intrinsic motivation. (Grant, 2023) 

My concern with our government’s vision for education is that it’s bleak. It’s like we’re aspiring to have the highest achieving PISA scores whilst being responsible for a generation that is anxious, bored and depressed? Let’s remember, I’m a pretty good case that forcing kids to read the classics doesn't inspire them to read. Mandatory reading, writing and maths programmes won’t solve our attendance issue. If the outcome we want is achievement, then we need to boost attendance and this starts by making learning more enjoyable. When school is compelling and kids want to go, results will follow. 

Reference list

Dougan, P. (2020, September 21). National standards: “no positive impact.” NZ Herald. 

Grant, A. (2023). Hidden potential: The science of achieving greater things. Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. 

Ministry of Education - Education Counts. He Whakaaro: What is the relationship between attendance and attainment? (n.d.). 

Morris, T. T., Dorling, D., Davies, N. M., & Davey Smith, G. (2021). Associations between school enjoyment at age 6 and later educational achievement: Evidence from a UK cohort study. Npj Science of Learning6(1). 

Statistics on Mental Health in schools in New Zealand. Mental Health Foundation. (n.d.). 

Xu, T., & Wang, H. (2023). High prevalence of anxiety, depression, and stress among remote learning students during the COVID-19 pandemic: Evidence from a meta-analysis. Frontiers in Psychology13. 

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