Following is the Introduction to Our Secondary Schools Don’t Work Anymore: Why and how New Zealand schooling must change for the 21st century, by New Zealand educator David Hood. Permission to reprint this introduction was granted by Profile Publishing Limited.

Why this book?

For me, 1997 marked 35 years of involvement in education and training. Those 35 years have seen the most dramatic and unprecedented period of change in history. World commentators are saying we are into a once in one or two hundred year change process, more dramatic than that which saw the advent of the industrial society. We use the term ‘revolution’ to describe that period in our history. As we move out of the industrial age into the new age of information technology another revolution is occurring.

The process of change is a traumatic one for nations, organisations, and individuals. Nations have to restructure their economies; organisations, public and private, have to restructure themselves, their processes and their systems. Today all of us are feeling the impact of change. We are all having to come to terms with the reality that the unprecedented and unpredictable is the norm both now and for the foreseeable future.

For those of you old enough like me, cast your mind back 35 years. In 1962 my wife and I arrived in New Zealand from the United Kingdom. Travel over such long distances for most people was still by ship, a six weeks journey. However, we flew in a piston-engined DC6. The journey was planned to take eight days. It took eighteen, due to unscheduled stops for engine repairs! In 1962 pubs in New Zealand closed at 6 pm; the whole country closed down at 5 pm on Fridays until 8.30 am on Mondays. If you wanted a meal, a hotel was about the only choice, and if you arrived one minute after 7 pm you were sent away with empty stomachs. In 1962 New Zealand enjoyed one of the highest standards of living in the world and one of the lowest unemployment rates. It was rumoured that one of the Prime Ministers of that time, Keith Holyoake, knew the names of the 19 unemployed!

In 1962 New Zealand had a highly protected economy. The United Kingdom provided a guaranteed market for a narrow range of primary produce, our only significant exports; that guaranteed market guaranteed our high standard of living. In 1962 the European Community was largely talk, CER and GATT unheard of, ‘globalisation’ a term yet to be coined; the video, microwave, mobile phone, photocopier, fax machine, personal computer, satellite communication not yet known, except perhaps on the drawing board.

In 1997 high speed travel within New Zealand and to the rest of the world is experienced by many of us. We have the choice of fast food outlets and cafes; we can shop seven days a week. Electronic appliances abound in our homes; the personal computer is as much a feature of today’s home as was the television set in 1962. We have come to accept unemployment levels of over 5 percent as ‘normal’. For many of us permanent and full-time employment is becoming a thing of the past. And New Zealand is no longer isolated or protected from the rest of the world. We might not like all of these changes, but they are the realities of the modern age.

In the late 1990s we also have the age of the global economy; traditional barriers to trade, commerce and workforce mobility are being rapidly removed through a multitude of inter-nation agreements. The traditional bases of wealth are shifting from the ‘old west’ to the ‘new’ economies of Asia and South America. Information can be exchanged almost instantaneously through satellite communication, and knowledge is growing at an exponential rate and just as quickly becoming outdated. New technology is having an increasing impact on our daily lives, in the ways we live and work. And it is beginning to impact dramatically on the way we learn.

The nature of the workplace and of work itself is also changing rapidly. In order to raise productivity new, technologies are being used increasingly in the workplace, and new forms of work Organisation are being implemented in more and more organisations. These changes are increasing the demand for higher level and more varied skills among workers in almost every sector of the economy. New Zealand, like many industrialised countries, is having to face the reality that new economies have the capacity to produce a wide range of goods from textiles and footwear to sophisticated technological products at a lower wage cost. The key to survival in such an environment is to raise worker productivity and product quality. That is the only way to justify higher wages and maintain a high standard of living. That means a more educated and better trained workforce – the high skill/high wage scenario emphasised by governments in New Zealand and overseas.

All of this means we can expect more change over the next 35 years, potentially more dramatic and traumatic. Charles Handy, one of Britain’s foremost business gurus, describes the modern era as the Age of Unreason, a time when the only prediction that will hold true is that no predictions will hold true. It is a time, Handy argues in his book The Age of Unreason, for bold imaginings, for thinking the unlikely and doing the unreasonable.

What is true, is the recognition that education holds the key to success in this dramatically changing world, for individuals, for businesses and for nations. Today education is viewed throughout the world as the essential component of economic competitiveness. However, to put it bluntly, education is also essential to guarantee economic survival, and with it the standard of living, and the quality of social services we would all like to enjoy.

The role of schooling and secondary schooling in particular is to prepare young people for this fast changing world. We would expect, therefore, that schooling would be markedly different to what it was 35 years ago. There has been change, and some within the educational establishment would argue there has been too much. In reality however, secondary schooling, internationally, has changed little from the time provision for all children became common in many countries early this century. New Zealand secondary schooling, like its counterparts in other parts of the world, is highly resistant to change in the conduct of its core business of learning.

I attended secondary school in England in the 1950s; there is little difference today in the way schools are organised for learning. Structurally the curriculum is much the same as it has been for the last 50 years, as is how teachers approach the curriculum. Students are still divided into classes of about the same number, primarily based on age. The day is rigidly fixed within specific time-frames and divided by inflexible timetables. Teachers teach subjects, and front up each hour to a different group of students. Classrooms are designed and used as they were 50 years ago, even though the decor might have changed. Assessment of learning is still dominated by national external examinations.

Whether we were successful or not in our secondary schooling, or what the experiences of our children are or have been, we tend to view these characteristics as being what schooling is about. Because schooling has been part of our lifetime, and the lifetime of our parents, we tend to accept how it is organised as ‘natural’ or ‘given’, the only way the world can be. We tend therefore not to challenge them because they are the characteristics of the ‘real’ school. And yet they need to be challenged. There are two main reasons.