In previous articles, we have investigated the brand new app that The Human Rights Commission and The Teaching Council of Aotearoa New Zealand have put together. The first module was an introductory one and contained the usual fallacy of assuming disparities in ethnic outcomes are caused by racism. In module 2 we were presented with the issue of low self-belief which we were led to believe was caused by teachers and schools. Today we look at module 3 and low expectations.
From the outset, I had more hope for this module. It’s a well-known truth that teacher expectations are extremely significant in the learning process. There has been significant study into this and a psychological phenomenon known as the Pygmalion effect has been noticed. Essentially, the idea is that learners internalise the expectations their teachers have for them. If a teacher has high expectations for a particular child, the child will rise to meet those expectations, and conversely, if a teacher has low expectations for a child, they will sink to meet those expectations. One classic study gave teachers a class that was described as containing extremely gifted students. Teachers were told who these students were. At the conclusion of the study, these students had fared the best. What the teachers didn’t know, was that these ‘gifted students’ were selected at random, and were ordinary children. So, low expectations and high expectations from teachers and our educational system do matter. More on this later, but back to the module for now.
We are initially presented with a quote. Studies have shown that Maori students recognise when teachers have low expectations for them and so put in less effort than they do for teachers who have high expectations for them. We are then reminded of the possibility of implicit bias. It is, we are told, important that we ‘heighten our awareness of these biases.’ These implicit biases may be impacting our view of our students and therefore limiting them. To determine whether we have implicit biases we are then directed to an American Implicit Association Test. The test begins by getting you to identify dark and light faces that come up on your screen, pushing a key with your left hand for light skin and a key with your right hand for dark-skinned. Next, we are presented with good words and bad words and have to sort them out likewise. After this things are mixed up with faces and words appearing. Then various combinations are made so that the person taking the test is thoroughly confused.
What does this supposedly prove? An implicit preference for Light Skinned People relative to Dark Skinned People is assumed if the test subject is faster to sort words when ‘Light Skinned People’ and ‘Good’ share a button relative to when ‘Dark Skinned People’ and ‘Good’ share a button. In the interests of full disclosure, when I sat the test this on two different occasions this week, I came out as supposedly having a slight automatic preference for Dark Skinned People over Light Skinned People. I am not aware of any such bias in my teaching practice.
To begin with, what is really being measured here? Might it just measure familiarity? We tend to find people we are around all the time better looking and tend to associate them with ‘good’ just because they are familiar. But does this mean in a classroom situation we would unconsciously have lower expectations for those who are less familiar? I am not sure this follows at all. It might be equally likely that we expect more of them. It’s not at all clear to me what the test ultimately proves.
Realistically in 21st century New Zealand, there would not be many teachers who unconsciously expect less from a darker (or lighter) face. I think we are too multicultural for that to be a reality. Our actual experience as teachers would counter this supposed implicit bias. For example, my teaching experience has been in classes where children with lighter skin are a distinct minority. Do I expect more or less from them than I do from the many different darker-skinned ethnicities I have taught? I doubt it. I have taught high achievers from many different ethnicities. I do not bring expectations into classes I teach based on skin colour, and I suspect few teachers do despite the absurd and unsupported claims of people like Whetu Cormick who suggests many New Zealand universities are “pumping out teachers and many of them are biased, they discriminate and they are racist.“
Nonetheless, I do believe low expectations are having a negative impact on Maori and Pacific education. The irony is that it is not the conservative teachers, those who oppose the ‘Treaty Partnership’ nonsense being foisted upon the education sector, those critiquing the proposed new history curriculum, those critiquing the vacuous New Zealand curriculum and calling for more stringent standards, or those calling for an end to race-based entry into tertiary courses who have lower expectations for some learners. No, we are the ones who expect high standards from all our learners. We are not the racists.
Let me give four brief examples of the low expectations I see in education. To begin with, let’s take our friend Whetu Cormick, former President of the NZ Principals’ Association. In 2019, in a response to a press release from The New Zealand Initiative critical of New Zealand’s education, Whetu Cormick suggested that what we need is a curriculum that is relevant to the community. He wasn’t worried that many New Zealanders didn’t know the names of the continents. If a kid in Bluff cares more about muttonbirds than continents, that’s what he should learn about says Cormick. So condemning a child to ignorance is OK as long as he studies what his culture is interested in. That’s low expectations.
We also see the tyranny of low expectations in the public schools that extirpate any books of the Western canon from their English literature courses and encourage children to choose books that they can ‘relate to’ as if brown children are incapable of relating to people of the past in the same way Pakeha children can. Surely Shakespeare is foreign to anyone living in 21st century New Zealand, but the riches we can glean from his study of human nature transcend culture and time.
Again we see low expectations in this ridiculous notion that to celebrate culture we must always have children dressing up in cultural garb and performing. If that is taking children out of academic learning time, which it so often is, we are short-selling those children academically. Schools should not be about teaching children their culture – that’s the job of the family. Schools are there to provide what family usually cannot – an academic pathway to success.
Finally, let’s not forget, the low expectations of thinking academic learning has to in some way relate to Tikanga Maori. You know, the typical nonsense that a teacher must relate all his lessons to the children’s cultural background. How does one relate differential calculus, or inorganic Chemistry to Maori culture – or any culture for that matter? Are we not humans, and isn’t investigating the world and seeking to understand its complexity and design a part of our human nature? Isn’t that larger than our own particular culture?
The truth of the matter is this: the path to wealth and success for many children in poorer families is not through focussing on their own community values and culture. In some cases, these values are precisely what is causing or exacerbating poverty. Rather, education should enable all our children to access the riches of the wider community. Education is not about keeping our children comfortably coddled in the culture and community they grew up in. Rather we need to be offering all our children the treasures of millennia of Western Civilization (and the many cultures and that have contributed to this). Let’s not sell our children’s birthright for a racist mess of pottage. Let’s give all our children their birthright as citizens of a Western democracy.
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