Letter to the Prime Minister: What’s Wrong with the Curriculum Refresh
The following letter was sent to the Prime Minister, Christopher Hipkins, on 8 February 2023.
Dear Prime Minister Hipkins,
We, the undersigned, draw your attention to two major problems in the Ministry of Education’s Curriculum Refreshpolicy and in the associated NCEA qualification reforms. These problems were created during your tenure as Minister of Education and can only be solved by calling an immediate halt to the radical initiatives causing the problems. Because the matter is of such urgency, this letter is an open one and will be made public.
The first problem is the fundamental change to the purpose of New Zealand education contained in the Curriculum Refresh document, Te Mātaiaho: The Refreshed New Zealand Curriculum: Draft for Testing, September 2022.
The second problem is an effect of the first. It is the insertion into the curriculum of traditional knowledge, or mātauranga Māori, as equivalent to science.
Problem 1: Changing the purpose of New Zealand education
Since the 1877 Education Act, the purpose of education has been to build our nation upon the accumulated knowledge of humanity. The intended benefits of this universal education system are numerous. Six generations of New Zealanders are educated; a robust economy is developed; stable democracy is secured through secular institutions – all enabling the social cohesion of a multi-ethnic population with different backgrounds but united in its commitment to our nation.
The Curriculum Refresh has abandoned this goal of unity. Instead, the democratic idea of the universal human being upon which the education system was founded is replaced with a localised system that classifies children into racialised groups with, as the Curriculum Refresh states, ‘diverse ways of being, understanding, knowing, and doing’. (Our emphasis).
The ‘Kaupapa Statement’ that guided the Curriculum Refresh development makes this revolutionary new purpose perfectly clear:
We are refreshing the New Zealand Curriculum (the NZC) to better reflect the aspirations and expectations of all New Zealanders. The refresh will adorn our ākonga with a 3-strand whenu (cord). This korowai will be layered with huruhuru (feathers) representing who they are, who they can be, their whakapapa, and their connection to our whenua (lands). The whenu tying it together is made up of whānau (family), ākonga, and kaiako (teachers) working as partners to use and localise the NZC. The refresh will ensure that the NZC reflects diverse ways of being, understanding, knowing, and doing. It helps us inclusively respond to the needs of individual ākonga, who are at the centre of all we do. Ākonga will be able to see their languages, cultures, identities, and strengths in what they learn at school. This will empower ākonga to go boldly into an ever-changing future and contribute to local, national, and global communities. This vision will primarily be realised by kaiako and school leaders, in partnership with iwi and their school communities. However, it will be important for all New Zealanders to be part of this journey and help create multiple pathways towards equity and success for all ākonga. (Our emphasis.)
A racialised curriculum
After classifying children racially, the Curriculum Refresh embeds this identity categorisation. We are to be recognised in the education system as either Māori or not. Yet the reality is that modern individuals choose which identity matters to them, a choice informed by personalities, capacities, interests, goals, family, communities and heritages, and likely to change during the lifespan as circumstances change. At school we share the identity of pupil and student.
In contrast, the culturalist ideology now informing education policy places our identity as an ethnic one, a view that risks perpetuating fixed racial stereotypes. More seriously, it links culture to race, a link justified by the belief that how individuals think, behave, and relate to others is pre-determined by their genetic ancestry.
This race-culture link is seen in the Kaupapa Statement that ‘Ākonga will be able to see their languages, cultures, identities, and strengths in what they learn at school’. It is a pre-modern race ideology that will destroy our modern future-oriented education system and should be seen for the revolution it is.
Problem 2: The effects of radical change
The second problem to which we draw your urgent attention is the effects of this radical transformation of New Zealand education. They include ‘culturally responsive pedagogies’ – the idea that diverse way of ‘being, knowing, understanding and doing’ require different learning approaches. An example of this is the misguided belief that Māori- and Pacific-heritage children learn better in groups. Literacy too is under attack by those seeking to ‘decolonise’ reading and writing – see https://nzareblog.wordpress.com/2022/03/22/maori-literacy/
The knowledge equivalence error
We draw your attention specifically to the effect on the curriculum caused by the false claim that traditional knowledge and modern science are equivalent (mana orite). This is damaging, not only to science education within New Zealand but to our nation’s international reputation.
The damage occurs in two ways. First, the interweaving of mātauranga Māori across the science curriculum forces a comparison between the two knowledge systems in ways that do justice to neither. Traditional knowledge has its own value and purpose and belongs in curriculum subjects such as social studies, geography, and literature. But it is not science and does not belong in the science curriculum.
Second, the NCEA Reform and Curriculum Refresh bring pseudoscientific ideas into science due to the poor transposition of some concepts from mātauranga Māori. For example, the NCEA Chemistry & Biology Glossary introduces the idea of mauri as a relevant concept in biology and chemistry. It defines mauri as:
The vital essence, life force of everything: be it a physical object, living thing or ecosystem. In Chemistry and Biology, mauri refers to the health and life-sustaining capacity of the taiao, on biological, physical, and chemical levels.
Vitalism, the idea of an innate ‘life force’ present in all things, has surfaced in many cultural knowledge systems, including European, but has been soundly refuted and is not part of modern science. Inserting mātauranga Māori into the science curriculum will, not only lead to confusion in our schools and for our students, but will destroy our nation’s reputation for quality science.
A scholarly account of the difference between mātauranga Māori and modern science which compares the properties of each knowledge type, their differences, their relationship, methods and procedures for their development, and policy implications is available on pages 13-21 in https://www.hpsst.com/uploads/6/2/9/3/62931075/2019nov.pdf
Please halt the Curriculum Refresh
Asserting that the Treaty of Waitangi is ‘a fundamental component of our constitution’, Te Mātaiaho: the Curriculum Refresh’s radical goal is to ‘foster the next generation of Te Tiriti partners by moving beyond the rhetorical notion of “honouring” Te Tiriti to giving effect to it’ (p. 5).
But the status of the Treaty is subject to unresolved political contest. It is undemocratic to engineer a revolutionary constitutional change through the educational curriculum.
We ask for the restoration of an academic curriculum and qualification system based on the democratic principles of universalism and secularism; a system that enabled generations of New Zealanders to acquire the universal knowledge of humanity. It was the reason for the nation’s successful education system that has lasted nearly one hundred and fifty years. The transformative Curriculum Refresh will undo the principles and practices that made such success possible with dire consequences for New Zealand’s future.
Prime Minister Hipkins, the Curriculum Refresh and the NCEA Reforms were developed on your watch as Minister of Education. It is, therefore, incumbent on you to repeal them before irrevocable damage is done to our country. As Prime Minister, you are certainly in a position to do so.
Professor Elizabeth Rata, Director of the Knowledge in Education Research Unit, Faculty of Education and Social Work, University of Auckland.
Distinguished Professor Peter Schwerdtfeger, Director of the Centre for Theoretical Chemistry and Physics, Massey University Auckland.
Dr Raymond Richards, Research Associate (retired Senior Lecturer in History), University of Waikato.
Dr David Lillis, Retired Senior Academic Manager and Senior Lecturer in Statistics and Research Methods.
Cover image by Tim Foster at Unspash, https://unsplash.com/photos/cRDUjKh6Xj0