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Wednesday, 17 December 2014

The Lens of Scarcity -- Economics in Contemporary Society

It is 2010 and I am a year ten pupil at a mid-decile school trying to decide what subjects to take. Economics was one of the options but it wasn't on my subject selection sheet when I handed it in. However, one of my close friends had quibbled over it himself. From what I remember of the time would suggest that if he asked me about it, I probably would've said that economics was about something like money. We all know, intuitively, that economics has something to do with the economy and the economy with money. Therefore, economics, I feel, occupies a place in the public's consciousness as something like "the study of money" or, perhaps, "the study of the economy" (which is, in itself, actually a rather nebulous term).

It is early 2011 and I am a year eleven pupil sitting in one of my first few economics lessons. My teacher is asking what the economic problem is. I think, I thought I was pretty clever and my answer, once an appropriate number of people tried and failed, was "The Global Financial Crisis". Maybe I had no idea or maybe I was sitting there thinking, "Well, that was the problem and it isn't any more: it's 2011". Whatever the case, a friend of mine sticks her hand up and says something like, "Isn't it the financial crisis?" Now I've got no idea for sure and it is readily apparent that no-one else does either. As a class we'd fallen for a trap laid and expertly sprung by a man who, in hindsight, was one of my better teachers. The actual economic problem, it soon transpires, is that of scarcity. Which is to say, having unlimited wants and needs but only limited resources with which to meet them.

It is mid-2011 and I am having a conversation with another friend of mine who not only also does economics but is also incredibly good at it. We have been learning the content for NCEA Level One's Demand and then Supply standards. This is not really what I was expecting and it, at least at first, makes me remember something really vague from maybe year seven (I'm not sure now which year it was either). However, I haven't disliked what we've been doing but my friend and I are looking forwards to the market standard which seems more interesting: it's supply and demand. I can't remember if we'd been introduced to the circular flow model at this stage but, right now (Dec 2014), I can't help but feel I was interested (at least in part) in the market because we'd be moving closer to what my expectation of economics was.

It is late 2011 and I am working on my final economics internal for that year. My main thought is that I only got merits for the other two and I need to an excellence in this one to be able to get an excellence endorsement for economics (one of my personal goals, along with getting over eighty excellences altogether... but secretly my ambition is over 100, I only met the first). While I would ultimately manage to get the E but not the economics E endorsement, what stands out very soon afterwards about this standard is its emphasis on values. Basically, like parts of the Demand standard, the internal was about understanding how and why people make choices when faced with scarcity. It's also, having checked the title of the standard, about government choice: "Demonstrate understanding of a government choice where affected groups have different viewpoints". As far as I remember, some basic polls were deployed to deal with our topic of whether or not to sell fatty foods in the Canteen (unless that's not what we did).

So, what's the idea behind these paragraphs? The idea is that what people think of when they hear economics is not, in many senses, what it is. Macroeconomics does look at the big picture and what's going on with the economy. Microeconomics. though, is something that I get the feeling economists are more interested in. At any rate, microeconomics does reveal the bigger point of economics: it's a social science. Much like geography, economics is interested in understanding the human world and it does so through what I would consider to be the lens of scarcity. It is because of scarcity that we have to make choices and it is because we make material choices that the economy is one of the things (or, arguably, the main thing) that economics is interested in. But, economics isn't just that. That's obvious when you think of economics as being about scarcity and, so, choice. It becomes apparent that economics is interested in how things end up being allocated... allocations are, in essence, how the question of scarcity is "answered" and represent the end outcomes of choices. But allocations also ask further questions and because scarcity isn't solved by them, you get more choices to make.

Economics is also a discipline that has been led astray by politics. That is, in the developed world, certain ideologies (particularly conservative ones) have sought, with a large degree of success, to own the discipline. That is, they want to convey the idea that because an idea is ideologically right-wing it is necessarily consistent with economic theory. The arguments, or rather the idea that arguments exist, gets lost on many people. But, most importantly, this just further conceals the idea that economics is actually about scarcity and choice. The position of the public becomes something like, "Economics is the study of how to achieve economic growth". The wider relevance of economics, particularly in terms of sustainability, becomes lost. If you think about it scarcity and sustainability are nearly inextricably linked. By implication, this casts extreme doubt on the ideologies that try to "own" the field because they, frequently, do not consider this idea sustainability. That's not to say that there aren't economic arguments for multiple positions. It is to say, that by trying to own the discipline in ways that arguably only history is sought to be owned, what economics is gets lost.

So, what's my point? Nearly there, but first another detour. At the University of Auckland, economics is a subject within the Business School that has to compete with other subjects for students to major in it. They, therefore, try to sell it. And they do this by introducing Economics 101 with lines like, "Voting decisions require a basic understanding of economics" and "Probably the most important reason for studying economics is to learn a way of thinking". My lecturer laughed (or made to) at the former but he also said, "Economics is amoral" or something like that. The thing is, I would disagree with that laughter... understanding this basic idea of something about scarcity and choice (and if you needed a third key word it'd be allocation) is something which I believe is absolutely crucial to a democratic party. But, it is also important to know that economics is amoral. It does, however, endow one with the tools to conclude the morality of a decision as it does study the consequences. Ultimately, what I am saying is: any education system that turns out people whose idea of economics is not best summarised with "scarcity, choice, allocation" has failed its society utterly. That is, in my view, the reality of NZ. If you don't take economics voluntarily (as I did by a quirk of fate) you will not get that impression. You will be my year ten self.

That's the problem. The solution is, in fact, not difficult. Either make economics a core subject covering what I discussed above or work it into social studies more than it is. I think, to someone who thinks like me, reading the first four paragraphs would convey my point powerfully. But we did an exercise in social studies in year ten that while I recognise it as having the scarcity, choice and allocation questions in it... while doing it, that wasn't there. What we did get out of it, however, was an exploration of fairness in international trade and the distortive effects of historical colonial actions. That's still valuable and shouldn't go, but economics needs to take on a more central role than it currently has.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Inequality in Education

In a previous post I talked about how the new Scholarship fee structure is not a good move with the core of my argument being that it further contributes to socio-economic inequality in education. We're all aware that the divide between rich and poor in New Zealand is fast developing into a serious issue in our society. Some of our parties are more concerned about it than others (the Left does appear to be returning to its roots after decades in the wilderness trying to find itself) but all of them are more or less at a stage where any activity in this area is simply to allow their favoured policies to creep in. The divide within education is stark and it speaks of problems further down the line. While University Entrance (UE) isn't something that everyone needs it is something that everyone should be able to get. Yet, we see a clear split when we look at the data by socio-economic decile. We've created a tiered education system that disadvantages those from poorer background: just look at the decile split in UE.

Source.
As we can see there is a massive divide between the poor and wealthy. It's a larger gap than that which exists in the three levels and that can possibly be explained by UE being a more complicated qualification than the levels. With NCEA Level One passing just means that one has to be able to pass more than eighty credits at any level as well as meet basic literacy and numeracy provisions (these also contribute towards the eighty). Passing the other levels is just as simple. UE, though, has traditionally been 42 credits split across four approved subjects (i.e. not all subjects count). Those 42 credits come from four subjects such that two subjects contribute 14 credits each and the remaining two contribute a further 14. While these are at level three, the literacy (8 credits, four each in reading and writing) and numeracy (14 credits) come from levels two and one respectively. This is far more complicated and the award is somewhat confused with Level Three (they're distinct). The new (and now current) version is just as bad. It requires ten literacy and numeracy credits (same levels), 14 credits in each of three approved subjects and level three. One reads numerous articles and pieces about lower decile schools opting for a more practical version of Level Three. While this fine, I think that many pupils (in any decile) aren't aware of the distinction between "Subject good enough for UE" and "Subject that only contributes to Level Three". This may not explain the greater gap but I think it is a reasonable explanation to offer. But why does the gap exist at all?

There's a lot information out there that seeks to explore that question. I'm not familiar with all of it or, indeed, most of it. In fact, based on what I do know, no-one has a definitive explanation for why schools in New Zealand are what we might call "terribad" at not allowing socio-economic status of a pupil to predict their performance in school. This is despite, or maybe because of, the decile system that is partially there to try and address the resource gap that exists between the home environment and the school one at different rungs of the socio-economic ladder. In this blog, I'm going to ignore any responsibility I have to fact check and will, instead, make purely ideological arguments with some residual influence from evidence I have encountered previously. Does that sound stupid? Well, it's how the current National govt. (in particular with its partner ACT) and probably most politicians approach education. Sometimes they get it right and other times they don't. Ideological approaches may require less effort (my reason for using one) but they're very hit and miss.

Deciles

In theory, by paying more per pupil to low decile schools those schools are able to afford better resources and make sure that pupils have access to such things as the internet. On the other hand, no amount of expenditure from five years onwards is going to make up for the pupil having to be taught to read once they enter school as a new entrant... and while I haven't checked if this assumption is true, I assume that it is more likely that pupils whose family backgrounds involve deprivation are going to be less able to read. Learning to read and write at the age of five is, frankly, a disaster and one I'm not sure one can recover from. Conclusion: extend 20 hours free early childhood education policies. There is also a bigger point to be made here. Expenditure in the school that, say, equips every pupil with a laptop is all very well and good (despite my serious concerns about over digitisation of education) but it's far less good (to wasted) if the families of the pupils typically don't have internet access. This problem is made worse by the state of modern libraries. Take Papakura's new one... when they went down a floor they lost almost every single decent workspace in the library. I can barely remember the old Bookinopolis but the new one (in Pukekohe) managed to retain quite a lot of workspace even if it's not what I'd describe as ideal. Unless we see a radical change in pupils' attitudes to school libraries this is going to be a problem. Conclusion: as a society we need to work on improving social access to decent public workspaces and internet, as well as reduce any digital divides that may exist in homes.

How can deciles work against improving equitable outcomes in New Zealand's education system? Well, it's more deciles and zones in combination. I like both ideas but the problem with deciles is that many parents (who are not normally, I assume, such idiots) don't understand the decile system. As a consequence, we get what might be termed "white flight" if it wasn't something everyone wants to do. Parents see that their child(ren)'s school is a low decile one and assume that this translates to its being bad (in a similar way to private = good). This is not the case, it just means that the school has got a slightly different funding arrangement to one that's further up the road. As a consequence, a lot of parents try to avoid sending their children to such schools and because of zones this almost invariably means they have to move house. It follows that school zones and a misunderstanding of deciles are creating neighbourhoods that are increasingly homogeneous in terms of socio-economic status (a term I'm increasingly disliking).

So, why's this an issue? Well, personally, I firmly believe that having children all mixed in together raises the performance of all of them. I personally think that there will always be some sort of advantage to being wealthy and we do know that the presence of smarter children does tend to drag overall attainment up. But, it's also more in a sense of, almost, moral/spiritual (ethical? I'm not sure what the term/word I'm after is) development in having pupils from diverse backgrounds interacting. In this sense, school choice... which invariably involves removing zones... wouldn't solve this issue because it would merely exacerbate the "flight" aspect. Ultimately, this is a deeply complex and one that can't just be treated to independently. Conclusion: we need to seriously rethink growth and social policies as well as urban development as a whole in NZ and do so with educational inequities in mind.

Homework

This actually ties right back into what I was just discussing before about resource gaps and workspaces. I wouldn't mention it because I feel my conclusions in those areas already solve it (more homework is not a solution, four hours a week actually appears to be the ideal) but it was something that popped up in PISA's work so in the name of having some "weight" to this post:

The bottom line: Homework is another opportunity for learning; but it may also reinforce socio-economic disparities in student achievement. Schools and teachers should look for ways to encourage struggling and disadvantaged students to complete their homework. They could, for example, offer to help parents motivate their children to do their homework and provide facilities so that disadvantaged students have a quiet place to complete assigned homework if none is available in their homes.
Source: Does Homework Perptuate Inequities in Education?

Resources

Well, I've talked about a resource gap before but I didn't really explain what I mean. This is mostly because it's quite straightforward. A wealthy household can afford such things as computers, textbooks, regular internet access, smartphones, tutors etc. whereas, for the most part, poorer households have to make more tradeoffs to obtain such things. For the truly deprived, a lot of this stuff (hell, even regular meals) is next to impossible to obtain. For many others, parts of it are out of reach. This is also a pattern that is repeated in schools. Going back to "Separate, But Equal" in the US, what was the reality was that "black" schools quite simply were trying to be mid-20th century schools with 19th century resources. It wasn't equal... that was a huge part of the problem (obviously, the segregation's being motivated by racist thinking was bigger). Do we see something similar happening in our schools? That is, do we see lower decile schools struggling to obtain resources of sufficient quality to improve outcomes for their pupils? I'm going to go ahead and say yes. I don't just mean good textbooks and work environments (wobbly desks aren't ideal, yeah?) because I also need include teachers as a resource.

I know that sounds a little strange and I know that the term "human resources" gets a lot of humour at its expense but teachers are a resource. They are also a resource that reacts to conditions such as a behavioural problems in ways that textbooks typically don't. Sure, a book flying across the room isn't useful to anyone but it's quite different for the teacher who has to contend with such an issue. I'm not saying that lower deciles schools look like this because, certainly at younger year levels, I don't think they do. I am saying that I think many prospective teachers have ideas like this floating around in their heads because behavioural issues are probably more likely to pop up. In general, I get the feeling that teaching in a lower decile school is seen as more problematic. That is to say, when you consider things like behaviour, the greater likelihood of having troublesome home environments (where this isn't manifested by bad behaviour), nutritional issues, disadvantages in terms of internet/books etc and the greater likelihood of having not started school with basic literacy down to pat I think we can see a picture that makes low decile sound like the start of a bad job offer. Now, despite the decile system, I think lower decile schools still get far less than they need to and this means that not only are teachers probably not so keen on teaching at them, but the schools are also out-competed for teachers and can afford less in the way of support. And support is something all teachers need, Conclusion: let's see how National's efforts pan out, but also let's work on those support structures some more.

Parental Involvement

This is very important and it's possibly the last aspect of a picture that's been building throughout this post... the fact that education is not just about what happens at school. Parents need to take an active role in their child's education: interested parents leads to engaged children. It's a bit late to start taking an interest by 12 because the pupil will probably have got the idea (from American media) that they're meant to think their parents are the enemy... interest would be perceived as something more akin to pressure or oppression. But, at a younger age, parents talking with their children about school doesn't have that and it also means reading with children and helping them with work. Again, this is harder when you're a lower socio-economic household. The parents may not have time (on account of numerous dead end jobs), may have problems such as drinking or gambling, may not have much experience of parental involvement themselves to guide them, may not have the confidence to take an interest and are probably quite likely to have picked up a dim view of school whilst they were pupils themselves. It's sadly cyclical (these things usually are). This is also another complex issue that I don't have an idea to solve. Maybe an app... which may just reflect a problem that will face the next generation of school reformers. But, seriously, I don't know. A good place to start, I suppose, is just getting the parents into the school environment regularly... even if it's not in an educational context. If this means fortnightly school-ground picnics or something, so be it.

Conclusion

Inequality in education is a serious problem that doesn't deserve this kind of ideological treatment. If we continue to allow inequality to persist along socio-economic lines like we have now, in the future we'll face a two-speed society. That will have broad consequences for growth, stability and pretty much any aspect of human life that we could care to take. The graph at the start of this post suggests that some of the socio-economic gap is closing but PISA data suggests that NZ's pupils are becoming less resilient. That is, over the last decade (2003-12) we've seen the proportion of 15 year olds who achieve well in an international test and come from low socio-economic backgrounds decrease. PISA, in fact, paints a pretty negative view of education and inequality in New Zealand. Goes well with our overall trend of worsening relative to our previous performance in PISA (in terms of mark, not ranking).

Infosys 110: A Review

Introduction -- A Game of Two Halves

Going into 2014 I had no idea what this course was about. The stories my friends would tell me about it on the train didn't help: "frogs and parking?!?" "make a video" "highest paid job" "what even is an information system?" The course itself did clear up the first three very well (although the third is pretty obvious) but I'm still not confident in saying that an information system is a group of things that work towards a mutual goal and do so with information. It's also not a course I'd have ever chosen to do in the sense that one might choose to do PSYCH 108 over in a BA or a BSc.

Follow-Up Blogs: Exam Resource and Deliverable One.

Aim

To convey the importance of information, systems and IT to business. It is, of course, a core course and the university probably has its own aim for Infosys 110 but, from my perspective as a student in 110, that's what its aim is. It also serves as an intro to its department so some Operations Management promotion creeps in.

Model: What does Infosys 110 Look Like?

Infosys is a big course. When I did it there were apparently 978 students who received lectures in two streams. The lecturers for each stream are, to my knowledge, the same and split the course in half. For Semester 2, 2014 the first lecturer was Anson who had the misfortune to deal with the dead boring business and systems topics. The second lecturer was Andrew who got to deal with the more interesting technologies and transformations units. He's probably also one of the better and certainly one of the more personable lecturers around but any impressions of him are influenced by the massive spike in interest that happens (particularly once one gets to transformations). That split exists primarily to provide a clear framework for the course. You need to understand some basic elements of business before you can, in the words of my description of 110's aim, understand "the importance of information, systems and IT to business". The middle sections of systems and technologies very clearly slot in there and transformations deals with topics like security, ethics and projects... which is basically how the middle part of the course actually manifests itself in practice and how to deal with their consequences (such as the adaptation topic right at the end).

Infosys 110 is one of those courses where the course book is a must. That is to say, the book is a printed version of all the slides (and some administrative stuff) used in lectures so that notes can be written on them. Naturally, there is a digital version that can be substituted in. However, any given lecture will not really extend on what is on the slides too much. Some basic contextualisation on what's on the slides, maybe some explanation, some additional test/exam/assignment information and the odd video (or varying relevance). Andrew will also use numerous anecdotes that, frequently, amuse. In theory, the bulk of the learning is from the textbook but I read very little of that and managed an okay mark (i.e. an A-). This is not something I'd recommend. The course, does actually practice Andrew's "read for your degree" philosophy. The compulsory tutorials function more or less as sessions to explain in additional detail what needs to be done for the two halves (deliverables) of the assignment and also to meet your partner for Deliverable One (D1). They also include a 1% quiz with three questions and multi-choice options..

Assessment

Like all the core business courses that I have done (and indeed, all non-history courses I've done) Infosys 110 comes with an exam and a mid-semester test. Unlike Economics and Business, however, it also has an assignment (in practice, though, D1 and D2 are really two assignments). One could argue that the practical stuff is also an assignment but I wouldn't as all you do is follow some basic instructions in either My IT Lab (for excel) or Code Avengers (for javascript). They're time consuming but parts of the latter are fun and the former comes with a horrible voice so use it whilst muted.

The test/exam side is split into two halves. Firstly, there's the multi-choice section (itself split into two parts, one mark and two mark questions... the latter of which are applied). These are pretty straightforward but, in the exam especially, rote memorisation of otherwise trivial "results from lecture" does pop up. This is, from all perspectives, a bad thing because it means that the example illustrating the concept becomes more important than concept. To phrase that another way, "Memorisation of examples is theoretically a bad idea. You should, instead, understand why they're examples (i.e. what features do they share)." That's something I wrote on Piazza but it's not an issue that occurs in the short answer sections. Furthermore, memorisation is somewhat discouraged by the cheat sheet (we'll return to this). Secondly, there's the short answer section which combines a primary school style reading comprehension test with an NCEA economics/science external approach. That is to say, questions will require students to recognise and explain theoretical concepts in a A4 length case study. Incorporating features from the case study is a must but this does have a few traps... one of which I fell into in the test. All in all, I'd say the exam is noticeably easier in terms of short answer than the test with the mcqs being roughly equal.

The assignment comes in the aforementioned halves of D1 and D2 and an overall summary is that it's about using information systems to help create solutions to real world problems. D1 consisted (for 2014 at least) of a video that provides some context to the problem (causes, size etc.) and outlines a solution. There are many examples of such videos on Youtube. These are watched by all members of the tutorial and feedback is given by both them and the marker. It's also, despite its relatively short 3min length, both fairly easy and time consuming. However, with an even workload between partners, it's not difficult to have it done well before it's due. I'd argue that having a good problem is the hardest part as the videos don't even require narration. D2 is independent and an altogether different beast. It represents an analysis of how a business could actually implement the D1 solution and involves such things as Business Process Modelling, Industry Analysis and a bibliography. It's almost as meaty as a history essay but not as interesting (at least for me). I didn't spend anywhere as much time on it as I should have and, in general, didn't put as much work into it as it actually needed when I did work on it. As a consequence, I (or rather my partner and I) did very well on D1 and I barely scraped a pass for D2. One good thing about D2 is that you can contact your marker and ask for some more specific feedback. I would advise not going, "Yo, can I have more specific feedback, bro?" or anything with that sort of vagueness. I would, and indeed did, provide specific areas for explanation (partly with an eye to getting more marks, partly to improve my exam result).

Looking at the assessments as a whole? Infosys will provide feedback but due to the large course size, this will not always be that detailed but (certainly with the test) it may contain some very interesting data. At the end of the test, for instance, I was given a class rank (as, I believe, was everyone else). However, more feedback is always available if you ask. Marking and return is also prompt... even with the exam (which they sent back... meaning if you recorded your multi-choice answers you could get an exact result for the exam much sooner than in other courses).

The Cheat Sheet

This is, arguably, the most interesting feature of Infosys 110. That is, none of the eight other university courses I've done have allowed students to try and write down every single thing in the course on a single, double sided, hand-written piece of A4. In fact, I haven't encountered anything like that since 2012 when (as far as I remember) I had a completely open book internal assessment in economics (still sat in test conditions). The difference between the two cases is that that internal was purely about working theory into reality whereas the cheat sheet pretty much only helps with theoretical multi-choice questions. That's right, the cheat sheet is of only limited utility for the short answer questions that are worth 50% of both the exam and test's available marks.

Anyway, there are two primary competing schools of thought on the cheat sheet. The first is the "write everything down in your best approximation of size four font" school. I don't know how well that works for them. My friend did this and argued that in the process of doing that you get far more information into your head than otherwise. Obviously, you can refer to it if you get stuck. Personally, that sounds too much like the ultimate cram to me and I already feel as if I cram too much for my own good (cramming has the "look at all this information I knew when I did the test" effect). The second school says that too much time is spent on the cheat sheet and it doesn't matter that much. This is where I belong and my cheat sheet just consisted of a few concepts I knew I wouldn't remember (a bad sign the use of remember rather than know) and some diagrams/other graphics. Come the exam, I just added a few more concepts that consisted of acronyms like FURPS or the "ilitities" that were just there so I'd be able to recall what all the aspects of the components were. In fact, I used the same piece of paper because I went with a "limited preparation, try to cram" approach for the exam. In both cases, I didn't do badly on the multi-choice parts. What let me down in the exam was not having read all of the textbook and not having really learnt some reasonably important concepts. Basically, I think both schools work but for an education purist (in the sense that education is about learning), the second is the one to side with.

Content: I'm Just Copying the Template

While copying the template is something that happens in D2 (to format the report) what I mean is that I am following the template I set out in the Business 101 & 102 review. I actually think I've pretty much covered the content in the general sense I did in that review. However, maybe a bit more explanation is needed.

Business -- the first quarter of the course relates to the vision, strategy, industry analysis type stuff that does pop up, funnily enough, in Business 101. They're definitely distinct towards the end but on the whole this is what this is.

Systems -- the second quarter explains and explores the broad information systems. Transaction Processing (TPS) and Decision Support (DSS) Systems are probably the most useful and they're certainly the most basic ones in the course.

Technologies -- the third quarter deals with some IT concepts. One lecture even rips into a computer, in the sense that Andrew showed us some old components of now 'deceased' computers. Also covers Business Intelligence again, this time in how it relates to data.

Transformations -- as I said before, the final quarter really ties the previous three quarters together or, rather, deals with the three combined rather than in the isolated manners done in the first three quarters of the course.

Finally, the textbook greatly expands on the material. Frequently, it'll have new stuff as well that isn't covered in the lectures (and I read hardly any of it, which should convey an inkling of how much of the course is in the textbook only).

Success: Not Just the Final Lecture

Coincidentally the final parts of the Infosys Course Map and my review share the same title: success. This explains my subtitle. However, I don't really have any real, meaningful advice. I stumbled through this course, riding my luck and whatever work ethic I happened to have on any given day. From what I did do:

  • Read the textbook and take notes. Stay on top of these readings. Seriously, the chapter I did read right at the start was a major crutch when I went to do my revision.
  • Ask questions of your tutor, especially about how to answer short answer questions in the mid-semester test.
  • Infosys 110 is one of those courses where a revision programme that includes stating each concept and an explanation of it works (at least, insofar as it helps you pass.. long term retention? not so sure).
  • Use Piazza. This is important because Andrew may share information that matters with one stream but not the other(s).
  • Do the practicals on time, and if there are bonus marks from something like Peerwise available, don't assume they won't make a difference (in hindsight, I should've gone for them).
Conclusion: Isn't This the Final Part/Conclusions Don't Count

I called Infosys a game of two halves. This is true. The exam/test is split into two big parts. The course comes with two lecturers (one for each half). The assignment is split into two. But, mostly, the course stands out for the stark difference in the levels of interest in half one and half two. The former is mind numbing, the latter entertaining. In the end, I got an A-, which makes it one of three courses that I got an A- for in semester two (along with History 106 and Business 102). I'm happy with that only because the mid-semester test was so average and D2 so bad (which is what I mean by riding my luck). Eventually, I got an 85% in the exam, which I am very pleased with given the aforementioned. However, while parts of this course were definitely interesting and good to know, I feel as if I will only recall things from this by consulting my notes (except, probably TPS and DSS). Having done it, it's still not something I'd tell another me to take except in the sense that it does move out of that comfort zone of economics/history/classics.

Ultimately, the fact that I would describe its being administratively above and beyond as its single most significant positive feature, is a damning indictment. The fun of the second half is, really, rather hollow because it's not the point.


Tuesday, 9 December 2014

English

We can all agree that this a subject area that is of fundamental importance in an English speaking country (even if said country is theoretically bilingual like NZ*). However, in my experience, English is neither well taught nor well treated. A large part of this first part is that there is no real way that one can actually teach some aspects of English, the person at the front of the class just has to throw stuff out there and hope the pupils catch it. As a consequence of this, people who write exams for English have to come up with questions which pupils are unlikely to have had time to pre-prepare essays on. That's a bit of a bother for them but it does show that the assessment structures in place are robust enough to provide some room to correct curricula error. I should point out that I achieved average results (7A, 14M, 7E credits) for year eleven and good to very good results for years 9, 10 and 12 in English before dropping it due to no longer liking it... and I have, therefore, not touched English education since 2012.

What do I think the purpose of teaching English is? Well, English is the primary language that we use and people need to be both competent and confident in the use of it in creative and formal writing, reading and speaking activities. While we do need to be able to read for meaning in creative texts, they should primarily be read for enjoyment in a more emotional rather than critical respect. However, reading for meaning in such texts is the overwhelming focus of English in schools and that is even done well. As a rule, my experience suggests, a teacher will select a text, tell pupils to read all of it (or pay attention as they watch it) and not rely on Spark Notes, inform the pupils of all relative aspects of it and then watch as the pupils regurgitate that information in however many exams there are. This is simply fixed by making all assessment require that pupils draw connections between multiple texts of the same type, and teaching each text in the same way they are done now. That is, read, say, Lord of the Flies, discuss it individually and then read, say, Vanity Fair, discuss it individually and then get pupils to answer questions on their selected group of texts. You can do this for films as well. It's not difficult change to make as (for NCEA at any rate) the type of questions already exist for this. In fact, ideally, the pupil must select the additional text individually having run it pass their teacher to check for appropriateness as that would remove the ability of the teacher to regurgitate the meanings of the connections between the texts. I did one standard in Y12 that involved this with four texts as an internal that require the texts to be linked by a theme. The mechanics are already there and the specifics can be worked out. Let's move on to other parts of English now that we've covered reading for meaning in creative texts.

English is so much more than just reading. In fact, I would argue that the ability to create works is the far more important part of English. In this sense, we could retain the current regurgitation issue described and corrected above and fix it by requiring the essays to have some sense of flair/style/grammar that is assessed. So, not only is the content important, but the essays become something specific. So, say, one would say one's answering question 2 on character in the format option number 3 (say, a persuasive essay based on emotional rather than logical appeals... the marker would, I think, expect an engaging essay rather than a more dour factual analysis). Maybe. In general, though, the creative writing aspects are well catered for at the moment. The formal writing has the regrettable tendency to be an essay written for some other purpose that is then corrected for grammatical (and spelling) mistakes rather than a new piece (particularly a new piece written in a formal style that is not a persuasive essay). This is an easy fix and may just have been the result of laziness on the part of my teachers. The response standard that I never understood the point of in Year Eleven occupies (or, perhaps, I feel now as if it should occupy) a sort of middle ground between the reading and the writing... it should be considered as English's equivalent of showing the working in maths: a standard that requires the candidate to explain how and why they reached the conclusions that they did with grammatical and other stylistic choices. Maybe that's what it was and I never got that. Whatever the case, I think grammar needs to be taught to both teachers better and to pupils. With a better grasp of grammar writing outside of the English class' contexts and reading more widely would be easier. It should, in point of fact, do more to solve the long term issue of universities criticising the (academic) literacy of their pupils than anything else.

Creating works also refers to speeches. They are probably the most useful (and theoretically meaningful) aspect of English done in schools combining public speaking, writing and researching (or not, I once did a speech on the subject of which dragons I had made up myself were the best) skills. However, in my last two years of English my teachers went, "Speeches are optional" and probably fewer than half the class in both years got up and spoke. This is simply resolved by making sure it doesn't happen and, perhaps, one could add an additional layer of complexity in requiring the pupil to analyse what they said and did in a manner not dissimilar to what happens in NCEA drama. I believe in Y13 the English teachers made everyone do seminars which obviously embody some similar ideals. I say, include both as mandatory assessments. The seminars as an informative, multi-media presentation and speeches as a purely verbal presentation (although not necessarily a persuasive one). The seminars could be substituted for dialogues which require the further skill of being able to co-create something. Obviously both could be linked with reading for meaning very easily.

Finally, I'll mention unfamiliar texts. While I struggled with this and, indeed, loathed it throughout my two years of NCEA English I now recognise it as theoretically being at least as valuable as speeches. The problem with unfamiliar texts is that the candidates are often left with an unclear idea of what one is to do. Essentially, one must be able to understand how and why the creator of a text used certain techniques. This involves being able to read for meaning and being able to recognise the aspects of writing that one has available... you can't really respond adequately to how and why techniques are used without understanding, first, the point of the texts. Improve the teaching and this will be improved with no further alterations. To my mind, its love of techniques is close enough to the grammatical side that I feel English loses somewhere in the holidays between year eight and year nine.

In summary, more grammar (both as a distinct part of the curriculum and as a part of other aspects of it), greater emphasis on creating work and less emphasis on reading for meaning in creative texts whilst simultaneously increasing the number of creative texts read.


*No love for NZ sign language although it is also an official language along with English and Te Re Maori, sorry.

Well, A Lot of This is About Uni...

University, to my mind, is the primary embodiment of tertiary education (although it is obviously not the only form of it). Metaphorically, if primary education represents the foundation, and secondary the structural frame, tertiary education must therefore be the dressings of the house: what makes it how it will be. That is, the nature of the house is decided not by where the walls are but by what goes into them, their colours and the stuff that is held within them. We could also see education as something that narrows. Primary develops a broad view that grounds a pupil sufficiently that they can start to go in some broad and vague direction on entering secondary. Secondary provides both the place to stand and evaluate specialisation and a protective framework to start that process of specialisation. In tertiary, one goes all out in some sort of specialisation with only limited room for a broader basis... such as the conjoint (and, to an extent, the double major -- obviously going back for another degree does this too but it doesn't count).

So, that's the personal point of university. What does that mean more broadly for society? Well, we've seen that it's the tale of specialisation and in a functioning society we need people who are able to do different, specific roles. There is definitely room for jacks of all trades and polymaths but, as a whole, the societies that work best have some sort of adaptable specialisation in them. The adaptable bit is actually really important because we see, in the natural world, species that die off because they're too specialised in a changing world. If we think about this societal context, such "species" end up having to be carried by society or function in roles that don't necessarily make sense (such as a gardener who's really a rather unhappy nuclear physicist), both of which can be bad things. So, what university has to be able to do for society is provide people who can perform specialised roles but, at the same time, have the skills and attributes that mean they are versatile and can adapt to do something else as well. It's essentially the same problem faced by soccer teams. A striker who's offensively average relative to their peers may well be the superior player holistically because they can perform defensively or work in different roles (such as, for instance, playing out wide) whereas said peers can only function as offensive strikers. Adaptation may require some degree of retraining but as long as that retraining isn't complicated by the existing specialisation everything's fine.

If you take me as an example, I think you can see this idea of the roles of primary, secondary and tertiary education quite well. In primary we did pretty much everything that needs grounding in. Basic facts in maths, some strategies for approaching problems, basic grammar, spelling, writing, reading etc. Topic Study also provided an option to explore less directly relevant topics so you would end up doing things that involved some sort of scientific or social engagement. In general, primary school would or could build a broad programme of learning around some sort of theme like space or ponds. 

In secondary, the story of specialisation began with the general primary one. The difference was, artistically, one ended up with some sort of specialisation. No longer did everyone do music, drama, art and dance but, instead, pupils would focus in some sort of area. I ended up with art and drama (the latter of which I actually carried right through, although it peaked in terms of enjoyment in Y11). For the first few years, pupils improved in the core areas of English, science and maths and developed things like technology, PE and languages in new areas... as well as finally meeting social studies properly. By Y11 the pupil was considered ready to engage in some sort of specialisation... with maths, science and English being compulsory (I ended up adding history, economics and drama to that). In the final two years, the level of specialisation increased (in fact, I ended up with classics, history, maths, drama and economics for both with English being replaced by study for Y13) but there was still some more general level necessitated by the number of choices available. In this sense, first year university is essentially only different to the end of college in that there are more subjects available and less room in the timetable (sort of).

That being said, the university timetable will look very different to a school one. For instance, Auckland's runs from 8am to 6pm five days a week and, as such, is far more open. In fact, it was so open in my four course first semester ever at the start of this year I felt if I had to check to confirm I hadn't done something horribly wrong. I hadn't: the huge gaps (especially on Thursday and Friday) were meant to be there. Well, I say that but most people prefer to avoid having gaps longer than two hours if they can, even though later on in the semester the gaps are good for doing work. In general, I would agree that a more compact timetable is better as it is less tiring in a physical sense (except when you have to criss-cross campus with minimal time for food-breaks). 

As I have a fifty-five minute commute to get to uni, I try to avoid 9am uni starts and if it's 8am I will boot it out the window and remove it from consideration. However, I don't always have a choice. Provided that I continue to pass everything the second half of next year will see me have to 9am starts a week due to a course that also means I cannot take a course in one of my majors that semester. Hopefully I can avoid situations like that again but the reality is once you're past stage I papers one is liable to be dealing with courses that have only one stream for lectures and possibly completely immobile aspects like clinics or something (whatever it was that was causing the clash between stats and economics). However, in stage one (particularly for business courses that aren't ECON 101, and, presumably, 111) there are likely to be multiple streams for lectures as well as tutorials. As should be clear from this paragraph, where in college the pupil chooses the subject and the school creates the timetable, the university student must choose their subjects from courses that the university has already allotted certain times for. It speaks of the greater onus on the student that uni has as a whole, and can be kind of complex as an exercise.

This post is a mess. It covers something of the place of university in society, the way society functions, what the purposes of the three stages of education are and even some advice on the nature of the university timetable. There's no real theme. Is it general? Personal? Who knows? But, there is some value to be found in reading it. Comments welcome (indeed, desired).

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Auckland's Transport Future

A short and sweet return to general views, although the personal series will continue.

Auckland will soon face a transport crisis. Well, it will if no-one does anything. That is, both the city's road and rail capacities will be reached. While the number of passengers on off peak trains can increase the ability to run more trains will cease when Britomart reaches capacity in a period we can think of as being a metaphorical tomorrow rather than next week or next year. It's not far away (the road issue is, I believe, further ahead but still relatively soon).

Consequences of Capacity

Growth in transport will cease. It follows that further economic growth becomes just that more difficult. You can't grow revenues without goods having some way of reaching their purchasers. Services cannot grow if their consumers (who are also vital inputs in the production of services) cannot reach their physical destinations. More pupils can't get to school. This picture gets a bit troublesome when you consider that these things don't just stop. The population (and so numbers of pupils) keeps growing. More transport needs to happen and when you're at capacity things clog up, which means not only does growth cease but it actually will become negative. Quality of life (over on the human side of life) is reduced because clogged transport networks aren't good for either mind or body. In a theoretical sense fewer people would use transport but the reality is that most transport isn't undertaken for laughs, people have to go places.

Solutions for Capacity

Obviously, we can know these sorts of things are going to happen so we can work to avoid them. Traditionally Auckland's grown its transport capacity by working on roads. This is 1950s American muscle car kind of thinking. This is back before MAD or anything that made people stop and think about the wider consequences of crap. WWII was over and won and the US thought it was on top of the world with nothing bad in the future and no thought for it. It's got over that mentality but NZ hasn't. We stumble along thinking that "she'll be right" and when we talk about sustainability it's a fringe environmental thing. I mean, we currently think that an almost pre-industrial, dairy-based economy can sustain an industrial society (nay, a digital one). No party, in the human side of things, wants to look ahead to the next day. The left's a little better than the right (especially the Greens) but they're both bad. The one place that does have a slightly better grip on things in Auckland Council but they're mostly in it for "the world's most sustainable city" angle. Their dodgy motives don't matter though, they've got the right idea. And that idea is the City Rail Loop.

The Problem with Roads

Looking at that, well, rant above, the question, "What is so bad about roads?" is begged. Firstly, we've got the whole "emissions" angle. That's obvious but, sadly, it doesn't sell well to, arguably, most people. Secondly, we've got the wider idea of sustainability. That doesn't sell well to many either but that's because they don't grasp economics as well as they think. If we say that economics is all about economic growth (it's not but just say it is), sustainability is fundamental. You can't grow in a system that will collapse. That's what roads will do. If you build more roads congestion doesn't ease. People think that they will be able to get places faster so more people start building roads. If you build it, people not only will come they will be impossible to keep away. Adding another lane to a motorway very quickly just means another lane of cars going no-where. So, roads don't really solve the issue of capacity because they just encourage more people to use inefficient means of transport (i.e. personal vehicles, one person one vehicle is a terrible ratio). Roads also have the additional problem of needing quite a lot of space. In some sense they're a lot more flexible in course than rail but they can only grow by physically expanding. This is not true of rail (which we'll touch on later). As a logical outcome, you're going to run out of space for large transport arteries eventually. This is particularly true when you realise that things like motorways just encourage (and, indeed, facilitate) sprawl, which takes up more land. It's readily apparent that roads just aren't compatible with real or trickle-down economics but somehow people are convinced that they are.

The Rail Loop

Rail has a big advantage over roads in that one unit carries dozens of people. If you can cycle trains through faster you can increase capacity (and this is more easily done than with cars). Getting trains through faster also makes them more attractive to people because then you can just turn up and hop on (which is kind of possible now if you don't mind waiting for maybe half an hour). Britomart, though, is currently like having the Southern Motorway end at the Nelson Street offramp. That's obviously stupid. The rail loop solves this inanity. Instead of trains having to wait a while before being able to depart or having to stop for five minutes in the tunnel leading into Britomart they'll be able to run on a loop and just keep going through. As a consequence of this, more trains will be able to use Britomart, thus capacity of the rail network as a whole is increased. Furthermore, you can run more trains as well. In terms of the longer term, you can even use the rail loop to fix two huge problems. Imagine, for instance, we never built the harbour bridge. That's what not having trains out to the North Shore means. Imagine, again, that there were no motorways going to the airport and a combination of suburban roads and backstreets (including the ever busy Great South Road) were required. That's currently what happens with the trains: you've got to connect via bus (and buses are the poor man's train).

The Complication

Trains and Auckland, in fact, sustainability and Auckland are topics that come under continuous attack from people who have no understanding of history, urban planning, economics, geography or, indeed, anything other than how to make knee-jerk reactions. These people aren't idiots either. They know how to frame their arguments so that they read as being something other than a modern day equivalent of, "It's a Witch!" that play on the less rational parts of the modern NZ worldview. In the NZ Herald, just the other day, there was one such argument. A law student trying to hitch her opposition to the CRL to the Dirty Politics/govt. transparency bandwagon. That's downright devious and it's the sort of discussion that could mean Auckland, a city still (in the 21st century!) trying to electrify its trains, stagnates even more. NZ's not a big player on the world stage but, surely, we can recognise that the world stage isn't something that we should willfully deny the advantages of. And denying the CRL is to deny its ideas and, ultimately, economic access.

The Outlook

Sadly, with National in charge it's dubious. Hopefully they can come around and support the Rail Loop properly. Firstly, they create the super city to deny their big picture obligations to Aucklanders. Secondly, they set targets that can't be reach quickly without the CRL to start their funding early. That adds up to, "Not interested." But, maybe, just maybe, the Council will be able to soldier on alone and they'll get far enough that, at least, someone like Bill English will open their eyes a bit more. Or maybe I don't have enough face in the Council. All I know for certain is, the longer we continue to entertain the delusions of opponents, government support for something it should be in on will be further away.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Business 101 & 102 A Review

Introduction  -- 1% Jargon, 99% Common Sense

The University of Auckland tries really hard to sell these paired courses to students. Meet new friends. Great introduction to uni studies. Develop Team and Communication skills. That sort of thing. Students, in contrast, are very negative in their assessments of all features of the courses... except, maybe, their teams if they like their groups. Honestly, it's not like what I was expecting from the uni's messages but it's not that bad. That said, our facilitators for Business 102 did say that the course is up for changes and depending on how extensive they are (or if they happen) my personal view may well be of interest only historically.

Follow-up Blogs: Exam Resource.

Aim

Business seeks to provide some core skills for business and introduce students to management (focus of 101) and marketing (focus of 102). These are both core courses for a BCom and have to be taken,

Model: What do these Courses Look Like?

The courses share the same model and location (a specially prepared room with octagonal tables, which strongly recalled my hexagonal primary school experience). All learning is done before each week's two hour, team-based workshop from prescribed textbooks, webcasts or digital readings. During the workshop facilitators will engage in mini-lectures to provide another, more personal explanation of the key concepts. Facilitators are accurately named and exist more or less to guide discussion and explain tasks. In the first workshop, students are grouped into teams that they will retain for the entire semester (this is a semi-randomised process that is intended to achieve maximum group diversity... a cynic would argue that it's really meant to spread the students with poor English skills around so they're not concentrated in a few groups). These teams will construct a paragraph response collectively once a workshop and will also present a three minute explanation of given concept towards the end of the semester. Other group assessment includes five multi-choice questions, which are identical to those done independently by group members immediately beforehand. There is quite a lot of downtime in each workshop. Piazza provides a forum for course-wide discussion (and the courses are huge, around a thousand each), split into 101 and 102 boards though. Team evaluations do occur.

This is, ultimately, a model that I can really get behind and support. That's in a theoretical sense of the idea but also an assessment of the experience that I had with it. The flipped classroom concept is one that does pop up at uni a lot, especially with respect to arts style tutorials which involve discussions of readings. Business does it well. The readings contain what is needed to be known and if the explanations don't make that much sense there is usually at least one of the two facilitators who can explain them. The textbook is crap though in that the Bovee and Thill one is very American and its examples are totally useless (unfit for purpose) because the vast majority don't relate to the NZ experience whatsoever. The smaller one is hardly used but is more relevant due to being Australian and drawing on NZ examples as well. Know your audience and tailor the message damn it! The course as a whole provides a lot of time to reflect on what is being done. Normally uni's a constant barrage of information with no room to breathe (i.e. the traditional lecture model) nor engage with what's being done. Business isn't like this with its downtime (thus replicating the tone of the college classroom far more easily than tutorials do*) and the application exercises that get students to engage with the material continually. Ultimately, the structure of these courses provides a welcome harbour in the wider storm of lecturing.

Assessment: A Testing Time

60% of the available marks for 102 were derived from the exam. Groupwork comprised 20%, the independent multi-choice 10% and the mid-semester test 10%. 101 was similar but the exam was worth less as pre-works existed back then. They were chucked out the window due to widespread unpopularity. The pre-works were sort of more practical "create your own example" sorts of things that had participation marks attached. If it weren't for the participation marks I'd have said they were a good idea, there was plenty of potential for feedback on writing and structure. In Business content is the most important feature but the way in which answers are written matters quite a bit as well. The pre-works could've been a valuable means of communicating strengths and weaknesses but they ultimately ended up just measuring who could read the fine print in the weekly guide properly. As a consequence, I think the course was improved by their demise between the end of semester one and start of semester two (note, here I am treating the courses as parts i and ii instead of course and sequel course).

The exam and mid-semester test function much like what I think of when I hear the word "exam": a couple of questions (five and ten for 101, five and eight for 102) with single paragraph responses. As I said above, the structure of the answers does matter. I forget what Business used but it's the TEER (topic sentence, explanation, example, relevance) or SEX (sentence, explanation, example) model that everyone's familiar with. Think of each paragraph as being a short essay. Examples are sometimes called for in the question but, as a rule, if it makes sense to use an example there should be one. The course also likes links to be drawn between content (this is something that the team presentation works on) but these should only be done when they make sense and are natural (i.e. there's some fluid relevance to mentioning, say, corporate social responsibility in your answer to a question about organisational culture; sometimes that's a natural link and sometimes it isn't). However, while good structure can help poor answers, to do well one needs to be right, concise and clear. Luckily, Business is one of those courses where you're given the space that's viewed as sufficient for someone with normally sized writing... and there is planning space provided (as with all exams). Ten minutes of reading time is too long but not a total waste of your time either.

The 3 minute Team Presentation is also important enough to get mentioned by itself. It's worth 20% of the team performance marks (the other 80% coming in 10% intervals split evenly between group multi-choice tests and the application exercises) and it is the final bit of groupwork. A few weeks before the presentations are made the topics are handed out to groups by lottery. Working independently, each team comes up with a slide to function as a background to their presentation that will usually summarise the content in an interesting fashion (personally, I think the more visual ones were good). The content consists of an explanation of the concept allocated, an example (ideally related to NZ), and a link with any other concept from the course (if the presentations are not designed to function as useful elements of the revision process they've been subjected to environment pressures that have forced them to become like that). As most teams are six or seven people in size, the averaged speaking time is quite low (which is important as all members must speak, albeit not necessarily for the same length of time). Teams are advised to consider clothing that presents a coherent team image (such as, everyone in business suits, dark colours, Hawaiin shirts) and I do feel that a jumble of colours or styles does hurt one's mark. It is confirmed that teams who do more than just speak, who add some extra element to their presentation do better... even if it involves nothing more complex than holding up signs at given points.

The Team

In Business you are in a team! You will be a team player! You will not have a designated leader! You will learn about teams! You will have to do stuff! You will not have to listen to someone yell like this! You will, however, have to deal with the thus described environment. You may have people who have limited English skills, are considerably older than most people, live far from uni, work a lot, etc. You will have to learn how to work with these people, even if you hate them. In short, Business does force you to have a professional outlook to working in your teams. As each week basically resets, however, you won't have to be nothing but the professional and the down-time means you are not always in "team work mode" during a workshop. The biggest challenge, really, is getting people to spread the writing around and remembering that when you don't do the readings, it's not just you that suffers. Luckily, Business does have team evaluations that are a bit complex to do but simple enough once you've done them once. They provide an opportunity to point out strengths and weaknesses of team-mates as team members. If you have someone who does all the writing, consider if they're an idea hog, carrying your lazy arse or they've been trying and failing to get other people to write stuff down. If you have someone who never talks, are they shy, deadweight or being shut-out of the conversation by loudmouths? These are the kind of issues the evaluations help to resolve. Warning: not all team members may take these as seriously as others.

A final thought is this: an awesome team doesn't necessarily translate to an effective team. My 101 team was great. Great people, even workload etc. I hope that, on the whole, that they consider me their friend as I do them. My 102 team did quite a bit better. However, I wouldn't really consider them my friends, at least not in the same way. In short, 101 = awesome team. 102 = effective team (despite having two members with more limited English, although definitely not not fluent). The facilitators do note down team scores throughout so you can get sort of competitive between teams. You may encounter "super groups" who almost always get an aggregate of 10/10 for a week's work.

Content: 1% Jargon, 99% Common Sense

This is the aspect of the course that creates my defining summary of it. I like it so much as a summary that I've now mentioned it twice, in full. It's pretty true. Business consists of quite a few things that you recognise instinctively but, perhaps, haven't thought about. A lot of the rest is self-explanatory but you just wouldn't encounter it from Business' perspective (i.e. the consumer versus business mindset): that's still common sense. Very little of the course is actually confusing and usually that's because of jargon. The jargon is also confusing in the sense that you don't quite remember what it is (for instance, angel investors). Across both courses, there was a small amount of material that was more complex and required more consideration (for instance, negative reinforcement; which I recall as being both passive reinforcement of a behaviour and also reinforcement through the removal of negatives). This is all very well and good but what is the content about?

Business 101 is very broad. It covers the sorts of skills that are necessary in the modern business environment, management concepts and advertising concepts. However, for all this, it's also manageable content. At no stage did I ever feel overwhelmed by how much there was. I did get irritated by the almost stark divides evident in content but I represented all the concepts in a mind map and drew links between them. This made for a way of understanding the course. You could see that these aspects from marketing connected very well with these ones from management. For the most part, though, one will see links within management because that's the bulk of the course (maybe a half versus a third marketing and a sixth misc. skills). The most interesting stuff, for me, was the motivation topic that came right at the end. I'm interested in economics and history so, by implication, I am interested in people and that's something that the motivation stuff really tied into.

Business 102 is not so broad but there is so much more. I looked at the content that I needed to review prior to the exam and I hit "the Wall" before I even began. Ultimately, I took the triangle of learning concept and narrowed things down by looking at what came up in application exercises, objectives and aims, mini-lectures (which were mostly absent from 101), the multi-choice quizzes etc. I could've and wanted to look at a thing on CECIL (the university's knowledge management system) that narrowed down the really important topics but I looked in the wrong place so I didn't. However, with this done I did another mind-map and that prepared me to go through and use my "understand the concepts" approach to studying. The overall impression? A hell of a lot marketing stuff. Right now I cannot really recall anything that stood out at me as being about management but I just checked and how could I have forgotten ethics, diversity and the Three R's of human resources management? That I forgot probably shows that I'm one of those people who tends towards, "I knew it for my exam".

Success: What Makes It?
  • Notes. There is a lot of reading in 101 and a lot more again in 102... or at least there was in 2014... and notes are absolutely critical in doing well throughout the courses as well as in tests and exams. Notes from within the workshops are, to my mind, very good as well.

  • Concepts. This basically means understanding the core concepts in the course and also how they related to each other. I'm not normally a fan of mind maps (my brainstorms tend to be lists) but they are really rather useful when it comes to the exam.
  • Communication. Piazza exists as a tool to both answer and ask questions. I found it to be really useful towards the end of 101 and I should've used it more in 102 but I was generally busier (having five instead of four courses) so maybe that explains why. However, face time with facilitators and friends from other streams is also really useful. Other people exist: make contact with them. Also, talk with your team.
  • Writing. I don't think doing old exams helps but I do think practising the writing side of the course is just as important as the reading and understanding of the concepts. To this end, I suggest, get involved with the group and write at least one application exercise is good. I wrote almost all of them in 102, quite a few independently in 101 and some more again as Frankenstein-like ones. I really think the experience helped me.
Conclusion:

That was my experience of these courses. Due to scaling I ended up with an A in Business 101, having done terribly on the mid-semester test and something in the seventies (I believe) in the exam. I was surprised and pleased by this in the same way that I was shocked at how badly I did in the test (i..e barely over 50%). In Business 102 I got an A-. I was disappointed with this and I assume that I did roughly as well in the exam as I had in 101 despite getting 82% in the mid-semester test. I haven't got a copy of my script back yet so I'm not sure exactly what happened though. Maybe I did badly, maybe there was no scaling and I did roughly the same, maybe the increase from 50% to 60% from the exam affected me. I really wish they gave us actual marks for the exams...

Ultimately, I liked Business 101 and 102. I didn't like it a lot but there were a lot of features to it that I will defend theoretically and remember well from reality, and I certainly didn't dislike it. That being said, it's far from everyone's cup of tea and I don't think it lives up to the Business School's expectations of it. Hopefully I'll be able to find out just how much it will be changing, I like to stay in the loop in these sorts of things.



*There was one brilliant tutorial for Economics 101 right at the end. Most people didn't turn up because it was the last one and our already awesome tutor just got that little bit more epic. The course was worth it just for that, honest. No other tutorial (incl. two history and maths courses, and the Infosys tutorials) ever came close.

A Personal View: Introducing a Blog Series

This blog begins with "general views" but, for once, I will discuss a less big picture topic. So, where the other posts have added to the wealth of material on the national assessment structure known as NCEA, criticised a new payment scheme for the national Scholarship examinations or discussed mathematics in NZ's schools today this one will discuss courses at a specific NZ university. Welcome to "Stage One BCom courses at Auckland; a personal view by H. East". The title is a direct allusion to one of the documentaries that established that medium.

Firstly, what is a BCom? Basically, it's short for the Bachelor Commerce which works like a BA or a BSc in that there are a number of disciplines in the area that relate to a big theme. Where BAs are for arts and BScs for science, the BCom exists for business. As a consequence, one can study things like management, marketing, accounting and even a social science (i.e. economics).

Secondly, what am I doing? What sort of perspective are these views going to come from? Currently, I'm down for a major in economics although I may try and find another major in the BCom. The reason for that question is that  I am actually doing a BA/BCom conjoint with history. Originally this was because I also wanted to do maths as well (in the BA) but that's too difficult for me and I've only passed the two courses I've done in maths due to Auckland's dodginess (i.e. scaling), but I'm not principled enough to go up to them and say, "Fail me." Now I rationalise the conjoint decision with, "I decided to do economics as a BCom course because I wanted the broader exposure to business topics." That's not the whole truth, of course. My original justification is that I wanted three majors and, honestly, I still do. Additionally, I am, to an extent, experiencing buyer's remorse and the sunk cost fallacy. See, stage one courses are relevant to everyday life.

Thirdly, what do I hope to achieve? Why am I writing these? Every year I like to reflect on what I have done. Usually this has meant waiting for my NCEA results and then discussing them, frequently in conjunction with how the year went as a whole. Naturally, I'm not at college any more and I no longer do NCEA, but I still want to do this sort of thing. This time, though, I feel as if I can say things that are also helpful to people more broadly. So, on the off chance someone considering a BCom stumbles across this blog I'd like them to read my thoughts on the courses. I'd also like to have the facility to receive comments and to dedicate some formatted effort to the work. In short, this is mostly for me but it does have the potential to help.

So, let's start the series and post the overview.


Wednesday, 26 November 2014

NCEA

I've talked about NCEA quite a bit and I know a lot of people do. However, a lot of people love to talk (specifically complain) about NCEA with only a vague understanding of how it works. I've decided to add to the wealth of material explaining NCEA with my own understanding of it. Just a quick note, while "the NCEA" is, strictly, more correct than NCEA no-one will take you seriously if you call it that. Stick with NCEA.

NCEA is a three-tiered standard-based qualification. The three tiers are NCEA Levels One, Two and Three; these are usually taken by Year Elevens, Twelves and Thirteens respectively. To pass NCEA Level One, a candidate (i.e. pupil) needs to gain 80 credits at, at least, NCEA Level One. The candidate also requires ten literacy and numeracy credits that are part of a variety of standards across many subjects: not just those in English and maths. The following two levels also require the ten literacy and the ten numeracy credits to have been met. However, Levels Two and Three can carry 20 credits from the preceding level over; thus, a candidate needs only 60 credits at Level Two or higher for Level Two and so on. Oh, and if you get 50 credits above achieved, you get at least a merit endorsement, Now, that's an overview: it needs breaking down further.

What are credits?

They are, simply, a way of counting how much something is worth. A can of baked beans is sold for $1, it's "worth" a dollar. A standard is passed and it's worth, usually, 4 credits. There is some allowance for the amount of effort that is required but this is flawed. For example, the Level Two statistics standard that I sat in 2012 was worth a miserable two credits. It was, in my view, at least three and it would've been better had our other internal, on graph theory, been worth three as well... rather than the 2/4 reality. The Level Three trig and simultaneous equations were both piss easy and more deserved of two credits than the Level Two stats standard that we did. Achievement with excellence in a four credit standard will yield four credits -- as will barely scraping an achieved.

What is a standard?

It's a thing to be assessed. A standard has a number and also an explanation. For example, one of the level three classical studies standards is: 91394 Analyse ideas and values of the classical world. The standard embodies the paper (i.e. the assessment) as well as the criteria that the candidate must meet to achieve (and which additional criteria are needed for merit and excellence). In this sense, standards are the heart of NCEA. They are what candidates do, what teachers mark and they are what performance is measured against. I'm a huge fan of standard based educational systems because they're transparent and the candidate (i.e. the pupil) knows that their work is at a certain level. Standards mean that a candidate's performance is theirs and doesn't reflect the wider intelligence of their cohort. For universities and employers and everyone really, it's totally useless knowing that Johnny is in the top 2% of his cohort. That doesn't actually say whether or not he knows what he's meant to. 99% of the cohort could be thick as bricks, or maybe they're super intelligent. If you see that Johnny achieved 91394 with merit then you know with absolute certainty how much he knows. Relative rankings have their place (for instance, deciding who gets a scholarship) but in the general purpose sense standards are far superior.

You get unit and achievement standards, and it is sufficient to know that unit = N or A and achievement = N, A, M or E.

What are Internals? Externals?

These are the two different ways of marking NCEA standards. Internals are marked throughout the year by the school. They are often written by teachers within the school or modified versions of more widely used standards. Externals are marked externally, i.e. by NCEA markers. They are usually sat in the National exams that happen in November (and run into early December?) but in some cases work done during the year in schools counts (Art and Graphics are good examples of this sort of subject). Externals are, as such, mostly exams with some portfolio work. Internals can be done in tests, written reports, PowerPoints, blogs (I guess), speeches, plays, and really any method of assessment that the teacher considers to be appropriate for the standard. I am given to understand standards are subject to moderation but, for the most part, National Moderation works on a sample basis.

What is Level One? Two? Three?

This is a quick answer... these describe the relative difficulty or level of the work being done. While a candidate may not always feel as if level one work was actually easier than level three work (who knows, they may have just worked harder), the levels represent broad categories of difficulty. This is more or less the experienced reality rather than the theory which I think is clear. There is a definite leap from level one to level two, but I don't recall noticing a jump except in terms of workload (even with a subject less) when going from two to three.

How many credits in a level?

This varies and it varies a lot. The number of credits that a candidate has available is dependent on both their subject choices and their school. It also depends on their teacher. For instance, some schools might offer only one internal for level three calculus and choose to focus on the externals. Other schools might choose to offer as many internals as there are (I'm not sure how many there are, we did two). As a general guideline I found that one could make a functional estimate of six standards per subject and four credits per standard, leaving an estimate of 24 credits a subject. A lot of courses/subjects will have at least one standard worth more than five and it's a rough approximation so you need to check how many credits a candidate has available by counting them. It's worth recalling that a candidate with 124 credits gets the same qualification as a candidate with 81 credits. A lot of people consider this to be an issue with NCEA but it's a minor quibble as NCEA recognises achievement in other ways.

How does NCEA recognise achievement? It's only got four marks...

If you can pass, you get achieved. If you do well, you get merit. If you do very well, you get excellence. This isn't quite how it works (i.e. an excellence means additional criteria as well extended achieved level criteria are met) but it's how NCEA is experienced by candidates. To many people, not being able to tell if Johnny's excellence is better than Mary's is a problem but recall what I said earlier about relative rankings... they don't matter so much. However, NCEA does reward consistent performance and I think it rewards it well. I'll now explain those methods of reward.

Certificate Endorsement

This is probably the main form of reward and it relates to the overall certificate that one achieves. If, for instance, you get 50 excellence credits and achieve NCEA Level One you will be awarded "NCEA Level One with Excellence". In practice this means one needs to get at least a third of their available credits at excellence, which is not that hard to do if one can work at a very high standard for the entire year. Depending on subject choices, it is unreasonable to expect to be able to pass with excellence before externals start but it is entirely possible for some people to do so. Frankly, I agree with those who say that NCEA just lets people slack off before the exams because of this in that 50 is too low, I think it should be raised to 60 credits given that most candidates will always sit at least 120 credits (i.e. 5*24). This will mean basically everyone will not pass with excellence before the external exams. Achieving fifty merit and excellence, or just merit, credits leads to certificate endorsement with merit. Basically, certificate endorsement just means, "This candidate was able to maintain a high standard throughout the year". (That being said, one could bomb all internals and be the bomb in externals and still get a certificate endorsement.)

Course Endorsement

Three credits from each of the internal and external standards, and at least 14 credits altogether obtained in a single year within a course leads to a course endorsement. These aren't nationally comparable because different schools do choose to use different standards and, therefore, offer differing numbers of credits. As such, Johnny's merit course endorsement in Year Eleven English may be less impressive than Mary's because Mary's school's Y11 English offers 20 compared to 28 credits. That's another made up Johnny/Mary example but it shows the point.

What about Scholarship? Isn't that part of NCEA?

Scholarship and NCEA are separate but Scholarship is administered by NZQA and functions pretty much like NCEA does. The candidate turns up to the exam room, opens the plastic wrapping after a life and death struggle and writes stuff to answer the standard. Scholarship is a higher level examination with variable passing scores and all passing does is get the candidate money. In theory, 3% of the NCEA cohort in a subject will achieve Scholarship. This doesn't always happen and low numbers skew the numbers a lot but it's good enough. A lot of CIE and, presumably, IB pupils also have a go at Schol (as is the shorthand) and they can do well. However, it is harder for them as Schol does use the same base material as NCEA. Some subjects will be more affected by this than others... History is one of those that wouldn't be. It's also worth recalling that in Schol the markers look for somewhat different things as well (for instance, writing that has flair). There have recently been some (to my mind grossly unfair/inequitable) changes to how candidates enter Schol and payment is required for all of the standards entered. There are two kinds of pass: Scholarship and Outstanding. There is also a single "Best in Subject" award. Schol is exactly the sort of thing where relative performance is okay.

Is University Entrance a form of Reward?

Sort of. UE is an award that NZQA gives to Level Three achievers who have met some additional criteria. Again, it's not really a part of NCEA but in this case it is exclusively based on NCEA results. To my mind, this is a far superior system to having some additional testing to go to uni. However, UE is a minimum standard. This means that if you've got UE a university doesn't need to accept you but they do know that you've theoretically got the knowledge base to be able to complete a university degree. Prospective university students have to be aware of the additional criteria their desired unis enforce. The current requirements for UE are:

  • NCEA Level Three
  • At least 14 Credits in each of three subjects (i.e. 42 all up)
  • 5 Credits in Reading and 5 Credits in Writing at Level Two or above
  • 10 Numeracy Credits at NCEA Level One or above

What are Literacy and Numeracy Credits?

NCEA recognises that literacy is required to achieve in many standards, not just those in English. Something similar can be said about maths. As a consequence, NCEA publishes lists of standards that meet literacy and numeracy requirements.

What is Grade Score Marking?

As of 2013, this is how all externals are marked. Any question is marked out of 8 with N0, N1, N2, A3, A4, M5, M6, E7 and E8 being the possible results. For standards that have multiple questions (i.e. pretty much all non-essay based standards) NCEA publishes mark ranges that correspond to the NAME marks. A GSM of 32/32 and 29/32 with a GSM of 28-32 achieving excellence are, on paper, worth exactly the same thing. Perfect scores for papers with three or more questions were, in my experience as an NCEA candidate, reasonably rare. The best I ever did was 31/32 for Genetic Variation in Year Eleven... a standard that many of my friends managed 32/32. The message is, have an awareness of how this works and use it to help provide motivation but it doesn't matter too much.

Hopefully that's a clear explanation of both NCEA as a general system and also some specific aspects of NCEA with some commentary provided. I know for a fact, though, that there are clearer explanations out there. NZQA and schools put a lot of effort into making sure pupils and their parents understand the system. In my experience, pupils get it very quickly and understand that NCEA looks at the long term performance, not just a month's worth of cramming... although for most pupils they'll probably have around 50% of their credits available in externals (if they do more conventional subjects).

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Listen to the Axe Grind

Ah, the Listener. It's a pretty good magazine but when it comes to NCEA it has an axe to grind and neither rhyme nor reason is apparently going to fix that. Random comments on some unread blog aren't either but we are here so... I'll follow the standard pattern, i.e. respond paragraphy by paragraph.

The Government has voted confidence in Hekia Parata by retaining her as Education Minister. Let’s hope she can now earn the confidence of parents, students and teachers by taking a more transparent, evidence-based approach to education policies.

Hekia Parata is a failure. Everyone with even the slightest interest in education (in NZ) knows this. John Key knows this, hence her demotion. However, John Key is also aware that given National's ideas (and those of its partners) putting a competent minister into the portfolio will simply tarnish them. It's worth recalling that Parata used to be seen as an up and coming female MP. Now she's literally a joke in school plays. But enough about her, the problem with this paragraph is that it already sets up the farce that is the article. Firstly, notice that I describe Parata as having been demoted. This is a very important point if you're, like the Listener, talking about the Government's confidence in her: my mentioning it isn't a mere reflection of my dislikes of National or her (the extended tirade ridiculing her, though, is; I'm fickle). Secondly, the terms that the Listener uses to describe its vision for the future of education in New Zealand are both out of place. The former because it is hard to imagine a more transparent system than NCEA (we'll elaborate on this) and NZQA's approach to it. The second because of how the editorial goes.


Britain, acknowledging the limits of the all-must-win-prizes philosophy, is scrapping resits, limiting internally assessed work and encouraging students to study tougher, more traditional subjects.

Okay, so how similar are Britain's systems and ours? I don't know this off the top of my head. I guess it's not really very similar to that in Harry Potter (which I do know off the top of my head, hmm) but it's close enough. Like NCEA there are multiple levels. You've GCSEs and you've got A levels. Unlike NCEA's levels which correspond, essentially, with the final years of school there is a gap between them. Looking at this website, pupils doing GCSEs do far more subjects than is the norm in my experience (for instance, at my school we had six subjects... they do eight to ten). A Levels are, then, a two year course following that from which university entrance is determined; as far as I can tell, there is no overall minimum standard for UE as is the case here, everything is determined by the unis themselves (as is the practical reality here). Okay, so what sort of assessment actually happens? To be honest, not having any familiarity with British education it's actually quite hard to answer this question. As it's late I'm going with, there was, previously, too much coursework (i.e. internals) for the conservative Michael Gove (about as well liked as Parata, I believe) so they've started to switch back, for GCSEs, at the least, to a pure exam format. Firstly, that's daft. Secondly, I have no problems sitting exams, in fact I'd go as far to say a lot of them are enjoyable.

Education Secretary Nicky Morgan says the ever-higher grades and pass rates Britain has been trumpeting were not matched by improvement in actual educational standards. On the contrary. As she said in the Times, “England’s performance in international studies stagnated while other countries’ surged ahead, and employers and universities cried out that young people weren’t leaving school with the knowledge or skills they needed. This wasn’t the fault of hard-working teachers, but of a system that prized all the wrong outcomes. And it was the most disadvantaged children who suffered the most, as schools were encouraged to push these young people towards poor-quality qualifications …”

I'm going to assume this is PISA. As a reminder, PISA is fifteen year olds. This means people studying towards GCSEs. At least PISA mostly covers them. To respond to this quotation you need to know more about education in the UK than I do, I'm inclined to say that the Listener is aware of the extreme decentralisation (at least compared to NZ) that complicates assessing a fair view of this (certainly, it's beyond the 12:30am brain).

And here? Our Education Review Office (ERO) has already warned that some schools are shunting Maori and Pasifika students towards easy-to-pass subjects, with low expectations of their abilities. The ERO flagged this as one of four “challenges facing all secondary schools”.
And this is a problem with NCEA, how? Come on, Listener, answer that question. Oh, they can't without explaining that the approaches of such schools, while seriously flawed, aren't issues with NCEA. If we were all doing CIE or IB (the latter of which seems like a foreign version of NCEA with some forced cultural activities thrown in; not that there's anything wrong with the foreign bit) this would still happen. These schools, aware that the likes of North and South and Metro want to create league tables, would still find pathways that flatter themselves. I definitely think that such schools are failing their pupils and violating their duties as schools, but it is not a problem with NCEA or NZQA. The subjects in question are left ill-defined so we cannot even judge what they are. Maybe the ERO didn't do that, so let's look...

However, it is also clear that some schools are seeing vocational programmes mainly as a way to increase qualifications for Maori and Pacific students, particularly for the boys. While many students experience the benefits of these vocational courses, very few schools were developing academic courses specifically to increase the numbers of Maori and Pacific students who are able to enter university. 
While many Maori and Pacific students may succeed in vocational contexts, and thereby achieve NCEA Level 2, the question remains – how many Maori and Pacific students may also have thrived in more academic programmes that responded to their interests, strengths and aspirations? Schools need to raise the expectations for some of these students by ensuring that their curriculum and systems are enabling Maori and Pacific students to achieve to their potential.

I think this is what the Listener's talking about (found here), under the heading, "Vocational courses and ethnicity. The ERO says that schools are shunting pupils off into vocational (which are entirely worthwhile) pathways without dedicating enough time with such pupils in academic pathways (i.e. those that lead to university). This isn't quite what the Listener has to say, but it's close enough (there is a huge difference between easy-to-pass and vocational, for instance). Basically, the ERO is saying that schools need to engage these pupils in school in ways that aren't trade related. That's a difficult issue to solve and I'm not going to pretend I know the answer. However, I'm going to say that forcing people to do the bull that passes for NCEA English probably isn't it. Anyway, back to the Listener.


It’s time to acknowledge that Britain’s missteps are being replicated here. Some evidence, in brief:
• The Government is fixated on raising pass rates and has made pulling off an ambitious rise at Level 2 one of its targets.
• Our performance in international benchmarking tests such as PISA has “stagnated or declined”, while our NCEA results have continued to climb.
On the first point, targets are good... how you achieve them is the issue. On the second point, I must stress that we're going backwards in PISA compared to ourselves. Is this a flaw with NCEA? No. As I have said elsewhere, PISA covers pupils who are either approaching the start of their NCEA journey or are right at the very start of it. PISA is, in other words, indicative of deeper failings. And, in fact, given National's been around for six years now, the backwards performance relative to ourselves probably has a lot more to with late-Clark era Labour and Key-era National not doing enough with early childhood and primary education than anything else. The international side of PISA isn't worth looking at when the big problem is our historical data. If it helps, Finland has similar although less extreme trends in PISA to us.

NCEA-based University Entrance certificates no longer do what they say on the box. NZQA is now making UE harder to get, but the University of Auckland has already substituted its own basic entry requirements. An internal memo said UE was not a sufficient entry threshold because it let in too many students despite “ongoing weaknesses” in literacy. The university’s head of admissions said “we have an obligation to students to make sure that they’re not being set up to fail”.

I have never, not for one second, ever thought that the UE standard that NZQA sets to be anything other than the very minimum level. I'm not sure, to be fair, whether or not this is the point of the UE award. It's worth pointing out that Auckland uses a rank score method which is exactly the same for prospective students whether they do CIE, NCEA or IB... it's just a different formula for each qualification.

Speaking of ongoing weaknesses in literacy, though... NCEA English is a complete joke. Unfamiliar texts and speeches are probably the only standards that are worth their salt. I'd chuck the formal and creative writing ones in there as well but, and this is a big but, too many teachers will let pupils adapt essays written for other purposes to the formal aspect and, simultaneously, allow an absolute minimum of creative writing to count. As a consequence of this, I can recall writing only one thing specifically for the level two standard. This is literally the only area where unis have an advantage over NCEA: not allowing the same work to count for multiple different assessments. Unfamiliar Texts is, in my eyes, hard. It is, also, far superior to the "regurgitate whatever your teacher told you" essays of the external English exams. Find another way of teaching understanding of set texts that avoids that little quibble. NCEA is an assessment system, but the way it is used to assess English is nuts (hell, I reckon less than half my year twelve class actually wrote let alone spoke speeches) and I think a large part of that is because we, as a country, need to seriously re-consider what we want English, the subject, to be about. I know what I want: less regurgitation and more pupil created stuff.

Having surveyed 15 institutions, the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) had profound and widespread concerns about the way NCEA prepares engineering students. Even among those who attained the requisite standards at school, most weren’t ready for tertiary maths and physics. Maths skills in particular were poor across the board.

Tertiary maths, as in pure maths, is radically different to NCEA maths. It is, also, much harder. However, a PhD student that I know has described NCEA maths as maths for engineers so who knows. I believe this report also included the comments of Dale Carnegie, whose views on NCEA and engineering I have considered earlier. Returning to maths, though, there is room to reconsider here. For one, let's get set notation in schools and also matrices.

 Like Britain, we have mistaken an easy tick-box system for true learning, with Parata appearing almost wilfully blind to the devaluation of the concept of “achievement”. Yet even she can no longer ignore the evidence that although NCEA is generally robust, the huge pressure she has put on schools to achieve pass rates come what may is distorting and devaluing its outcomes, with teachers feeling they must herd the seemingly less able students towards easy subjects rather than challenge them.

NCEA doesn't scale. NCEA doesn't use multiple choice. NCEA makes what it requires of pupils absolutely clear. In fact, NCEA makes its criteria very clear. So clear, in fact, if the criteria seems just as difficult from year to year you'd be able to tell if grade inflation is actually happening. I don't have the resources to do that, the Listener does: time for it to put its money where its mouth is I think.

No one wants students shunted back to the guinea-pig maze of the early NCEA, or to old-school systems like Bursary and School Certificate. A few simple changes could restore the system’s fidelity: limiting the proportion of internally marked credits; requiring students to continue foundation subjects such as maths and English to higher levels; and restoring transparency so parents can again see the illuminating results data from the NZQA, which for the past year have been withheld.

That transparency thing is not quite true. The information is mostly still there: it's just not very accessible. NZQA tries to dodge the point but restoring how the thing was is still perfectly viable: if it would just remove the ability to break school level data down further (i.e. into ethnicity and gender). Its privacy concerns were well founded, but its response has been extreme. Limiting the proportion of internally marked credits is nuts. Sometimes an exam is just plain useless... for instance, they're prone to creating regurgitation and brain dumps, and they also can't test the ability to research. Exams are, inherently, restricted in what they can assess. Assessment should meet the purpose, not the other way around. Maths, from a practical perspective, tends to run out of immediately obvious applications at year eleven. From a university pure maths perspective, it has some way to go (not that I think lectures are a good way of teaching maths). English... has problems.

But most importantly, the Government simply needs to back off, to stop compelling schools to achieve ever-vaulting pass rates, irrespective of the true merit. We need to focus, as the UK has done, on whether the qualifications actually mean anything.
It’s absurd that while Parata’s ministerial colleagues are lauding our science and technology future, the TEC is revealing that schools are steering many students away from the hard-to-pass maths and science studies vital to that future. In the longer term, Parata is setting her own Government up to fail in its key objectives.
Do our qualifications mean things? Well, yes. If you, as an employer, cannot understand what an NCEA student can do, you're an idiot. Every standard is online, type in the number and read its criteria. That's the beauty of a criterion based system. Is grade inflation happening? Who knows? Again, with criteria, you can answer this quite easily.

Is NCEA maths easy to pass? Well, you don't pass the subject but the easiest standards I ever did came from level three calculus. Is NCEA science easy to pass? Well, year eleven isn't (particularly genetic variation). I stopped taking science there (I met the dismal one, and it was more interesting), but a lot of my friends (in fact, nearly all) didn't and they would tell stories of difficult assessments. So, who knows? The Listener definitely doesn't. It has a very clear agenda (NCEA is teh evulz !1!1) and it has shown time and time again that it won't honestly balance what it writes.