Those in chrg @ NZQA nd thr heds red

by Stephen Ross
First Published: New Zealand Herald, Nov 12, 2006  READ


I am a qualified teacher of English. And one of the teachers who taught me to teach summed it up succinctly one morning in class. He drew a dog and a hoop on the blackboard. We the students were dogs and – metaphorically speaking – if we wanted to qualify, we had to learn how to jump through the hoop.

This is to say, we had to perform. If we wanted to be teachers, we had to reach a standard in our skills and abilities to teach. This standard was quantifiable, irrevocable, and most importantly non-negotiable. You either learned how to “perform the trick”, and jumped through the hoop, or you didn’t. And if you didn’t, you failed. The end.

I wonder how many students in New Zealand high schools know what a metaphor is – or more interestingly, if they could spell it.

Additionally, I wonder if the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) understands the concept of standards, and of the achieving of them.

I ask this because management at the NZQA has stated that text abbreviations will be permissible in this year’s NCEA exams – specifically the idiosyncratic text-abbreviated language predominantly used by young people in cellphone texting and email messaging.

“U mean i can rite liKe this IN a x-zam? KeWL. Way 2 go dude.”

What is the NZQA thinking? Have their brains been abbreviated?

Is their argument for this that old chestnut, that language is a “living thing”, and as such we should welcome any new variation – indeed, abbreviation – into the fold of proper communication?

I hope not. Language may be a “living thing”, but at any one time there is an accepted and recognised standard – a fixed and wholly describable (and therefore teachable) version of what is correct, and what is incorrect.

Anyway, doesn’t the NZQA understand the difference between formal and informal? And have they never heard of the expression, “There is a time and place for everything”?

Linguistics has a name for this: “code switching” – the changing of language “style” from one situation to the next, depending on appropriateness.

For example, a letter written to a potential employer will differ greatly in tone and style to that of a chatty email or text message tapped out to a friend. The average high-school student will be aware of this.

We learn to code switch from infancy, and by the time we’re in our teens, it’s instinctive. Rule of thumb: if it’s important, it’s almost always formal. Ergo, an exam is formal, because it’s extremely important.

The NZQA apparently doesn’t understand this.

The NZQA also appears not to understand why young people use text-speak to begin with. They do it because it’s quick and a shortcut, but much of it stems from the fact they are lexically challenged.

So then it becomes a psychotically cruel circle. If they can’t spell well, reducing the standards of achievement will give them a better chance at attaining a higher mark, but in consequence, the reduction in standards means their chances at improving their ability to spell plummets even further.

And then one day they will leave school, and they will write that letter to their potential employers.

“Deer sir … ”

Education, by its very definition, is meant to be the improvement of a student’s skills and abilities, not the reduction of them.

And where will these reductions end?

Is education in New Zealand schools heading in the same direction as school sporting activities? Will it one day be not the passing of the exam that counts, but the taking part? Will one day, merely “giving it a go” be the benchmark of our education system?

That would be a sad future, and one in which our children will simply be dogs. No tricks. Just dogs.