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Rare and perfect – parallel education

The debate about single-sex versus co-ed schooling is age old; whichever side you want to take as to which is best in terms of learning outcomes, you will be able to find research supporting your view.  So you might say it is not worth the debate; get over yourself and move on to something more important.

That would be the attitude of Prof John Hattie, for example.  His significant meta-review of research into the influencers of achievement indicated that there is little research support for single-sex classes or schools if we focus solely on measurable and significant differences in learning improvements.  Hattie does note that most research has been done in this area on secondary school pupils; there has been little research carried out about geneder separation in the primary school.

But it is telling that there is quite a body of research, particularly recent research into brain function, that tells us that males and females do think, learn and react differently in learning and social situations.  We must add to this the increasing number of psychologists, people like Leonard Sax, who tell us that boys and girls require both similar and different inputs and experiences in their socialisation if they are to become successful self-actualising young adults.  And we should not dismiss too quickly the preferences that children themselves display during this time to be with their same-gender peer group.  If, as we are told repeatedly, our performance in any learning and/or social situation is strongly affected by our self-esteem, then single-sex classrooms are almost vital, particularly for girls.

Cathedral Grammar is one of only two schools in New Zealand, the other being the Middle School of St Kentigern College in Auckland, which organises itself as a parallel-education institution; boys and girls taught largely separately but educated and socialised on the same campus.  In the case of Cathedral Grammar, this is from Year 4 – 8 while St Kentigern it is from Year 7 – 10.  Ask those involved in these two parallel-education enterprises about the efficacy of the arrangement and you will find nothing but enthusiasm for it and its outcomes.

If we ask the pupils in our parallel-education classes if they would prefer single-sex classes or co-ed, the answer is pretty clear – they do!  To be fair, the girls are stronger in their preference for it than the boys but then the girls have much more to gain from classrooms where they get what they need – the opportunity to feel safe in their learning endeavours, away from the competitive instincts of the boys!  And the older boys, when pressed will acknowledge that they work harder when it is just boys in the room.

And if we ask our teachers whether or not single-sex classrooms are worth the effort, there response is overwhelmingly in favour.  Daily, they see the effects of positive self-esteem on the learning, particularly for the child, boy or girl, who is not a strong academic, in not having the other sex as part of the learning environment.

That, of course , is the difference with parallel-education as opposed to single-sex education – and there is a difference.  In a parallel-education environment, it is only the time inside the classroom where the genders are segregated; out in the playground and in the orchestra, other cultural activities and camps, the genders can interact socially in appropriate ways.  At Year 4 we find the genders separating from each other by choice in such environments.  By Year 7, the girls are leading the way back for the genders to socialise.

A member of Ofsted, the United Kingdom equivalent of the Educational Review Office, who visited New Zealand recently was delighted to find that a school existed where parallel-education was practised successfully.  She described it as “rare and perfect”.  That it is rare is a historical accident; if schools had started out this way, the arrangement would be seen as normal.  Now we know that males and females have different learning needs that are hindered by the presence of the other gender in the same classroom, schools don’t really have an excuse for not adopting parallel education.

That it is “perfect” is a fact known to those who experience it – the lucky ones.

Technology in your child’s life

Technology invades every part of our live.  One of the pupils in my mathematics class tried to go “technology-free” to raise funds for World Vision; it was just about impossible for him to avoid it!  We are technology enabled; and our children, the Generation Z, are growing up in a world in which the technology is even more deeply embedded than it is for their parents.

Television, Xbox, ipods, ipads, cellphones, video games – and very soon, the merging of all these technologies into one super piece of technology – these are at the very core of our children’s worlds.  Add to this hardware the software that gives these items their magnetic attraction – Facebook, etc – and it becomes a very attractive and intoxicating medium in which our children work, play and make/keep their friends.

There are many benefcial aspects about technology; none of us who have grown up in previous generations can deny that technology aids us immensely in constructing meaning, in advancing communication and in helping us all to keep information at our fingertips.

But like food and medicine, because something is good for us, it does not logically follow that the more we have, the better it is for us.  Nor does it follow that if it is good for adults, it must be good for children. Nor even that if it does not harm adults, it will not harm children.  And this applies to technology in so many ways.

For instance, in the area of self-esteem, recent research in New Zealand has shown that for pre-teens, teenagers and even young adults, even very small doses of ostracism by a peer group causes profoundly disproportionately negative changes in self-esteem.  In fact, the researchers have been able to show that girls in particular will tolerate bullying in preference to ostracism.  Consider then the effect on young people of being ignored on Facebook; and that is before we consider the effect of negative comments in that medium.  The pressure not to be ignored creates the pressure to be noticed, which leads young people inevitably to being outrageous or extreme in what they say or do online.  And that leads to all types of unsavoury and unlooked for consequences, particularly when judgement and discernment are little more than social skills yet to be developed.

Sleep has been shown to be critical to healthy development in children and teenagers.  Inadequate sleep has even been shown to be linked to obesity.  If we look at the average hours of television watching (which are falling slightly), the average weekly hours of computer viewing (which are rising), the average weekly hours of social networking (which are soaring) and the average time spent texting, the number of hours in a day left for learning, real face-to-face social interaction, sport, family and sleeping is under great threat.

The reality is that young people are increasingly in danger of missing out on sufficient real-life social interactions and on sufficient sleep as they struggle to balance competing and demanding self-interests largely mediated by technology. Short of banning technology, which is possible but not very practical, how can parents guide their children through this mess of conflicting interests?  These are my suggestions to parents of young people:

  1. Set and stick to age appropriate boundaries.  No 7-year-old needs a cellphone.  Make having one an age-appropriate milestone; Year 7 is perfectly early enough. Make the legal age for an account on Facebook the age-appropriate moment – 13 years.
  2. Set and stick to time limits.  If boarding schools (and many do) can insist that cellphones are placed in a locked cupboard to charge overnight so that pupils have an hour before lights out when no texts are sent/received, so can parents!  Make school nights television-free and video-game-free, or limit it to 30minutes (and enforce it).
  3. Insist that bedrooms are computer-and-television-free zones.  Television and compters should only be in family areas where content can be monitored and usage controlled.

Our children’s brains, particularly the frontal lobes which control judement, risk-taking and discretion do not mature, researchers now tell us, until after the age of 22.  Until then, our young people need the adults around them to set limits and provide structure so that technology is part of their world but the dominator of it!

The triumph of form over substance

It has been a seductively slow crawl, an oozing more than a rush, a smothering taking many decades. Which is why, of course, its advance has been largely unseen, its dead hand largely unfelt – until now when it is too large, too heavy and too obvious to go un-noticed by the observant.  It is the advance of ‘form’ at the sacrifice of ‘substance’.

It has taken many forms and the attack has been launched by well-meaning people with nothing but the best of intentions.  It has arisen from the desire to protect the more vulnerable, to protect self-esteem, to advance society, to eliminate privelege and to bring down tall poppies.

Its most striking success has been the elevation of the idea of “skills” as somehow being much more valuable than “knowledge”, a idea that has spawned degradation of curricula and teaching programmes.

It is no longer acceptable apparently to expect learners to know much information, certainly not to have to memorised it. Pupils apparently need not know what a gerund is, or where the Netherlands are, or why the First World War started or exactly why oil floats on water.  At most they might be expected to only know of these things  or, worse, to have only experienced it and theorised about it or, worse still, how they might find about them in an information system.  The skill of being able to use an information system is elevated above the value of the knowledge that the system contains.

Being able to interpret a political cartoon is, apparently, more important than retaining the knowledge of how the electoral system works.  Being able to tesselate a shape is more important than being able to multiply two 4-digit decimals and obtain the correct answer.

It is not necessary to memorise your times tables, nor to know where to place an apostrophy to indicate possession nor how to read music.  Things things can be done by a computer, so this ability is obviously superfluous and a waste of time acquiring it.

Schools rush to integrate subjects and topics because that is the desired form and believe that they are ‘modern’ and ‘progressive’ in doing so without noticing that the learning outcomes of the integration have degraded knowledge to a lowly place behind process. Thus my daughter leaves primary school have experienced the ‘fun’ of spending a whole term integrating learning around the topic “Felting” but recognises that she cannot write a decent essay or understand geometry.

Competition in this milieu is, of course, is a very degraded concept.  The very idea of competition in schools invokes the idea of winners and, heaven forbid, losers, whose self-esteem will be damaged.  If there must be winners, let everyone win something; everyone deserves a prize, even it is just for turning up – certificates for participation are a sign of the success of form over substance.

And it has been worse for boys than for girls.  The slide from the sharp edges and challenging peaks of substance to the softness of style has left boys floundering at school. Boys need to have concrete tasks and challenges to master and put behind them. Boys need competition to provide incentive and challenge; they need to know, to have certainty, to understand, use the information and move on to the next stage or task, preferably quickly and without too much looking back.

Girls also need substance but their need is not motivational.  Their need, like boys, is to leave school knowing sufficient information that they can make informed choices in a complex world.

For despite the fact that we certainly cannot know everything and that we can find out just about anything that we want to know in some information system, it is the things that we “know” in a visceral, internal, partly sub-conscious way, on which we rely when we make most real decisions – decisions about what to say in this context or do next in this situation.  The decisions of the day that determine what we do and how we react and who we are are are not made consulting computers.  They are made on the hoof as we interact with our environment and the people around us.

And it is in these countless daily moments of decision-making that we rely on the content of what we know, what we believe to be true, what we have internalised from our years of growing up in families and in schools.  Some of these lessons and knowledge is as simple as “I can do this”, “I can succeed”, “I am a good person”. Some of it is complex knowledge of minutae of no great importance such as the form of the lock washer on the thrust bearing of 1956 Hillman Hunter.  Some of it is broad understandings of inter-related facts about the world, how it works, where and how people live it it, how they feel, what their motivations are and how economies work.

Some of it is deep functional core knowledge like multiplication tables, spelling rules and grammar. Some if it is being able to retrieve without effort the uplifting nature of Shakespeare’s words on Henry’s lips as the king cries, “Once more into the breach, dear friends!” effortlessly linked to the knowledge of who Shakespeare and Henry were, where England and France are and that these countries were once bitter enemies (has that changed?). Some of it must be new knowledge – of Parihaka, of the differences between the versions of the Treaty and of the meaning of whanau.

None of this is skill.  In the end, we are what we know.  Not that skills are not important, but knowledge is vital. So we must value it in the way we write our syllabii, organise our lessons and reward our pupils.  There needs to be real competition, not just in sport, but in academic learning as well – we have to value the learning, not just the presence in the classroom.

And let there be prizes…not for everyone, but for those who strive as well as those who achieve highly.  If we do not value those who are the best and those who are better than us then we debase ourselves and style again overcomes substance.

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The Cathedral Grammar School
26 Park Terrace
Christchurch 8013

Phone: (03) 365 0385
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The Cathedral Grammar School
PO Box 2244
Christchurch 8140