Wednesday, May 25, 2016

An opinion column with moving pictures

I forced myself to watch the Bryan Bruce documentary about New Zealand education on TV3 last night. Past experience told me not to expect an even-handed assessment of the issues, but the optimist in me hoped that Bruce might offer some insights into where our education system has gone wrong. Faint chance.
If there’s a word that describes Bruce’s broadcasting style, it’s tendentious – in other words, calculated to promote a particular cause.

Viewers might have learned something worthwhile had he approached his subject with an open mind, but no. He clearly started out with a fixed goal in mind. Bruce doesn’t like choice, doesn’t like competition and doesn’t like individualism. He despises Treasury and the disruptive neo-liberal reforms it has championed since the 1980s.
And he might have some valid points. Trouble is, he destroys his credibility by the way he cherry-picks information and opinions that support his own. He flies around the world (at our expense, incidentally – the doco was funded by New Zealand On Air) interviewing academics whose views he approves of, and then presents those views as if they’re incontrovertible.

In this respect he reminds me a bit of the American documentary maker Michael Moore, who’s similarly selective in the way he marshals and edits his evidence. The difference is that Moore’s sardonic wit, in contrast to Bruce’s earnest lecturing, is at least entertaining.
It doesn’t seem to matter to Bruce, or perhaps hasn’t even occurred to him, that his approach sometimes produces glaring contradictions. Hence he admiringly cites the Chinese education system for producing results that put Chinese pupils at the top of the OECD achievement rankings while New Zealand kids are falling behind. Then, later in the programme, he condemns test-based regimes and “authoritarian” systems. But hang on; the Chinese education system is both highly test-focused (as Bruce acknowledges) and about as authoritarian as it gets. He can’t have it both ways.

I noticed too that while he professes to deplore authoritarianism and “social control”, he included footage of pupils at Manurewa Intermediate – a school he obviously admires – chanting in compliant unison before a messiah-like principal. It reminded me of a Destiny Church service.  
Perhaps Bruce is so obsessively focused on proving New Zealand kids are the victims of a heartless neoliberal experiment that he’s prepared to disregard such inconsistencies in the hope that viewers won’t spot them.

Even setting aside the polemics, the documentary was seriously flawed as a piece of filmmaking; a string of unconnected ideas with little attempt to join up the dots. I’d mark it as a “fail”.
I find his style irritating and tiresome too. The meaningful downward glances, the hand gestures and the solemn lecture-theatre tone (Bruce is a former teacher, and it shows) are clearly intended to convey a sense of moral authority, but it’s a style that hovers on the edge of priggishness.

I’m perfectly prepared to believe there are a lot of things wrong with New Zealand education, and that some may indeed be the result of what Bruce calls neoliberalism. I’d quite like to see a robust, critical examination of the system by someone prepared to approach the subject without predetermined conclusions. But Bruce is not that person, and his much-hyped documentary was really just an opinion column with moving pictures and sound.


Jim Rose said...

Nice post. I happen to see the trailer for the latest Michael Moore movie last night.

It does seem to have a lot of pictures of him walking to and fro interviewing people around the world without regard to his carbon footprint.

Unknown said...

You seem to suffer from the same lack of even handedness that you criticize Bryan Bruce for. Maybe you shouldn't have 'forced' yourself to watch it as it is clear you didn't do it with an open mind. I agree that there were inconsistencies and his style can be a little irritating but he's not the only one with a predetermined conclusion - you appear to have already decided yours before you started watching.

Karl du Fresne said...

Not so. I gave him the benefit of the doubt. Why wouldn't why? I don't have any particularly fixed views about education and was open to persuasion by fair and reasoned argument. Sadly it didn't materialise.

Max Ritchie said...

And the other difference is that this doco was funded by taxpayers. I expect a critical, balanced research piece when the money comes from the state. Karl du Fresne, on the other hand, is entitled to be as biased as he likes. Not at all, on this occasion. I must confess that I'm tired of funding people to display their biases. If they want to pedal a particular line of thought then go raise the money yourself - and not from the tax-payer!

Karl du Fresne said...

I just spotted an error in my comment above. Obviously I meant to say "Why wouldn't I?" etc

M said...

***Chinese education system for producing results that put Chinese pupils at the top of the OECD achievement rankings while New Zealand kids are falling behind. ***

I'd be interested to see how Chinese students in NZ perform relative to their peers who attend school in China. For instance, US public schools are regularly criticised, but European & Asian students in those schools actually perform as well as, if not better, than their peers in Europe and Asia respectively.

Overtech said...

It should be noted that only the city of Shanghai is producing such *ahem* enviable PISA results, not the whole of China. This makes the comparison between China and the rest an apples with oranges exercise.

Furthermore, New Zealand's education system has attracted a lot of interest from the Chinese, who are looking to break away from their rote way of learning and instead spur creative thinking.

Third and last, New Zealand has an excellent education system in that our top performers are comparable with the top performers in any jurisdiction. Where we fail is the long tail of underachievement. The last PISA survey (2013) found that 23% of 15 years did not have the necessary numeracy skills needed in the modern workplace. That is a damning indictment.

In conclusion, if we continue to do as we have always done, we can reasonably expect to produce the same results. Experimentation and adaptation are not nice to haves in a world where the pace of change is increasing.

Karl du Fresne said...

With hindsight, my review of the Bruce documentary was gentle. For a much more devastating (but fair and accurate) critique, go here:

M said...

***The last PISA survey (2013) found that 23% of 15 years did not have the necessary numeracy skills needed in the modern workplace. That is a damning indictment.***

I wonder to what extent that is due to educational standards. Professor James Flynn pointed out a few years ago that the population is gradually getting less intelligent as smart women have fewer children on average.

Scott said...

Couldn't agree more with your critique and felt exactly the same.I watched the show hoping to learn something about the New Zealand education system. But unfortunately the presenter had a predetermined line which seems to me to be about "fairness". Fairness for him is about everyone having the same school system, without any irksome parental involvement on the Board of Trustees and no school rising above any other school.
I also thought the Shanghai school visit was a waste of time because the kids were learning from a teacher who was upfront and teaching them something. Apparently the Shanghai school system is getting very good results. But then the presenter openly contradicts his own research by lambasting authoritarian schools who teach from the front!

I think the school system is doing quite well in New Zealand for some people. But for many people, the bottom 20%, they are barely learning anything. I run a youth group on Thursday night with about 20 high school age students. Of those 20 there are about 5 or 6 that just can't seem to read at all. After 10 years of state school education they can't read!

To me that is a disgrace. I would like to see more choice in education, different models being used so that parents can have a real choice about where they send their children.