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A possible future? Senior secondary education in the year 2030

Rachel Bolstad

Fictional article written from the perspective of a senior secondary student from the year 2030.

Inspired by the NZCER book  Disciplining and drafting or 21st century learning? Rethinking the New Zealand senior secondary curriculum for the future.

Journal issue: 

A possible future?

Senior secondary education in the year 2030

Rachel Bolstad

This fictional article written by a senior secondary student in the year 2030 is entirely imagined, but inspired by ideas expressed in a book I have coauthored with a colleague:

Bolstad, R., & Gilbert, J. (2008). Disciplining and drafting or 21st-century learning? Rethinking the New Zealand senior secondary curriculum for the future. Wellington: NZCER Press.

One thing I’ve learned about researching the past is that it definitely helps you to understand and appreciate the present. My name is Sina and I’m a Year 13 student at Eastern Bay Learning Campus. This year, I and a group of other senior students have been researching changes to New Zealand senior secondary education from the 1980s to the present (2030).

How did we come up with this topic? Well, to round out the New Zealand Studies component of our Learning Portfolios we had to “design and carry out a research project to analyse developments in some aspect of New Zealand’s social, cultural, ecological, and/or economic history”, and “present our work to a relevant audience”. During our brainstorming session one student in our group happened to mention that during a recent visit with his grandparents, they’d been telling stories about what secondary school was like back in the 1980s. We started to wonder: How much has secondary education changed since our parents and grandparents were at school? We took our idea to our research mentor, Mrs Moore. She thought it was a great idea and helped us refine our research plan and research questions. We decided to conduct oral history interviews with adults who’d been secondary students, teachers, and educationalists from the 1980s to the 2020s. We also read quite a few old books and reports about the old curriculum and assessment systems for senior secondary learners in the 20th century and early 21st century. To give you an idea of how deeply we researched, some of the materials we looked at weren’t even published on the Internet!

Our school has a relationship with the University of the Third Age (U3A)1. When we contacted U3A to find some older people to interview, they invited us to present our findings to a local U3A group at the end of the term. Excellent—here was our “relevant audience”! We discussed our ideas about how we wanted to present our work with our contact person at U3A. Together we agreed we’d give an oral presentation to the U3A audience and produce a digital documentary that could be viewed online at any time on the U3A webspace. I wish I could show you the whole thing here, but since I can’t, I’ll just discuss a few of the main differences that we noticed between secondary education “then and now”.

The learning environment: Then and now

The learning environment in the late 20th and early 21st century was very different from how it is today. For example, in Years 11–13 our parents and grandparents would choose about five or six “subjects” to study each year. A typical day would involve going to four or five different classrooms, sitting with about 30 other students, and learning each different “subject” with a different “subject teacher”—each subject seemingly unrelated to the next! The people who were “teachers” only worked at the school—yes, all day, every day! Students in the 2000s seemed to have more choices of “subjects” than those in the 1980s, but even in the first decade of the 21st century they almost never learnt with people or organisations outside their school, except for a very few who were doing special programmes outside the mainstream, like “transition”, “STAR”, or “education for enterprise”.

In contrast, today our learning environment is quite different. Yes, we still have a learning campus (“school”) with lots of buildings and people and resources in them, but we definitely don’t sit in a different room each hour of the day and learn about one discrete “subject” in each class. Our teachers still have specialised knowledge in different areas like science, language and communication, mathematics and computation, business, sociology, community development, etc., but instead of just teaching us everything they know in separate classes, we work with different combinations of teachers at different times depending on when they have the kinds of expert knowledge and experiences to help us with a particular aspect of our learning activities. Our teachers in school also help us form relationships with other people who contribute to our learning—in other words, we have teachers outside school, too. These can be all kinds of other people in the community—scientists, artists, small business owners, tradespeople, you name it!

Each student also has one adult in our school who’s like our personal mentor the whole way through secondary school. They help us put together our Learning Portfolios over time (more about this later), and make sure that we’re making good choices about our learning activities. They work closely with our post-school advisory team, which helps us decide what we want to do when we leave school and ensures we develop our Learning Portfolios in the right directions to get us there. Actually, because our mentors really get to know us over time they end up doing a lot of other stuff that helps us as well—like when students are having really bad problems at home or they’re not managing their behaviour very well, they make sure we see counsellors or get whatever help we need to get us through our troubles.

Being a learner: Then and now

For our grandparents’ generation, being a school learner apparently involved a lot of time listening to teachers and copying down a lot of information, but amazingly, hardly ever actually doing anything with all that knowledge (apart from writing it all back down in exams— see the section that follows). A few older people told us that they sometimes wondered what the point was of memorising all that information when they forgot it again as soon as they left school. But the weird thing is that heaps of the knowledge they were “made to learn” is really important and useful stuff! For example, one adult said that he had to memorise the Periodic Table but couldn’t remember if he’d ever used that knowledge again in his life. I find that pretty hard to believe as we had to use all kinds of knowledge about the chemical properties of the Elements last year when we were working on a project with Manaaki Whenua/Landcare Research to measure soil contamination levels at the old industrial site at the edge of town. But obviously students in the past must have been engaged with their learning at least some of the time. An example: one woman we interviewed (aged 38) is now a scriptwriter and director. She said she first got interested in drama and production when she was getting involved in her school’s Shakespeare productions and something called “Stage Challenge” around 2009.

Another thing our interviewees told us was that when they were at school they sometimes felt like they were learning stuff because they “had to”, not because it was relevant for developing their learning power or because they’d use all this knowledge to do interesting things. One person actually said, “Most of what I’ve learnt that’s helped me in life I learnt outside of school”. For me that was hard to imagine. I mean, I’m only 17 years old and I’ve already had experiences undertaking environmental research with Landcare Research, scripting and producing a play for young children based on a medieval French poem, developing a business plan and budgeting for a youth café, and heaps more. As well as developing my knowledge in lots of different fields, I’ve also got loads of evidence in my Learning Portfolio that shows how I’ve learnt how to manage working in a team with other people, manage my time effectively, present and communicate ideas to different audiences, analyse lots of qualitative and quantitative data, and lots more. If this stuff isn’t going to help me in life then I don’t know what is!

Assessment: Then and now

One of the biggest differences we found between secondary school “then” and “now” relates to the assessment of learning. For our grandparents’ generation, the main way their learning was assessed was through written exams at the end of each school year. In these exams they had to show that they remembered all the things they’d learnt in each “subject” by answering questions and sometimes writing essays, depending on the subject. They didn’t have to show how they’d used that knowledge in a real situation, or anything like that. Their scores in the exams were what determined whether or not they would be allowed to go to university. For our parents’ generation the assessment system was a bit different. From the year 2002 they introduced this new system, the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA), which included a lot more ways for students to show their learning, like “internal assessments” for projects they did during the year. Our parents had more ability to pick and choose which bits of their learning they wanted to be assessed on, but apart from that they had surprisingly little involvement in decisions about the actual assessment of their learning.

I’ve already alluded to our current assessment system a few times. Basically, from the beginning of secondary school we start compiling our Secondary Learning Portfolio. This multimedia portfolio shows what we’ve learnt across lots of different knowledge areas, as well as how we’ve developed different key competencies over time through our learning activities. As learners we are really quite involved in the assessment of our own learning. For example, we spend a lot of time developing our learning goals and evaluating whether we’re achieving them over time.

Final thoughts: Senior secondary school, then and now

There’s so much more to say about how senior secondary education has changed in the last 50 years, but not enough space here to say it. For example, in our research we investigated some of the ideas that led to all the changes that we can see today. Early this century, there was a strong push towards reshaping schooling away from “20th-century learning” and towards “21st-century learning”. This was a big part of our documentary—I wish I could show it to you now. Since I can’t, let me finish by saying, I’m glad that people in the past had the vision to create the senior secondary education system that we have today. I now know it wasn’t easy, but I am convinced that it was worth it!


1&&&U3A is an organisation which aims to share knowledge and advance the education and active study of people who are retired.

Rachel Bolstad is a researcher with the New Zealand Council for Educational Research. She is a regular contributor to set Research Information for Teachers and is the author of a number of popular future-focused literature reviews.