Carpe Diem

Photo by Philippe Bout on Unsplash

The headline “scrapping Latin a mistake” caught my eye earlier this week. The article on One News leads with the view that New Zealand’s education system is about to get an overhaul by the Government and one of its proposals is to scrap Latin from NCEA.

While some may even wonder why it is that Latin is still even on the NCEA list (after all, the Catholic church hasn’t used Latin in its mass for over 50 years) – the teachers and students interviewed for the article were adamant that there remains a good case for the language to continue to be an option in NCEA. They claim that Latin will be useful to them in later life as it is the language of the law and government and science and technology. They even quote Mark Zuckerberg as saying that Latin was really useful when he started computer programming and software design because it’s the language of patterns and coding.

While I’m not really interested in entering into the argument for or against Latin as an NCEA subject, I am interested in the dilemma created when decisions have to be made about whether or not to continue offering a subject, such as Latin, based on the fact that there are such a small number of teachers teaching it and a relatively small group of students taking it. Some might argue supply and demand here – the limited number of teachers in turn limits the number of schools being able to offer it, and in turn the small number of students taking it.

Whether it’s an interest in Latin, astrobiology, Egyptology, philosophy or viticulture and enology – a student’s ability to pursue studies of interest to them will inevitably be limited by the choices offered to them at the school they are enrolled in. And the ability of the school to offer these subjects is in turn influenced by the size of its roll, which in turn determines the number of teachers, and the number of teachers (and the specific interests they bring with them) will in turn determine what subjects are on offer. Even if all of these factors align and it is possible for a school to offer the course in question, it will still depend on whether enough students are prepared to enrol in it to create a ‘class’ deserving of a place on the timetable.

This is the dilemma facing every school – and every student. While we have been fortunate for many years in NZ to have Te Kura (the Correspondence School) provide a (last resort) option for students to take some of these specialist subjects that aren’t available in the school they are attending, there are still some fundamental problems in our schooling system that need to be considered and addressed if we are to truly say that we are a ‘learner centred’ system, with a personalised approached designed around the needs, preferences and world-views of the learner.

Which brings me back to thinking about Latin. It seems to me that a key problem we have here is actually the structures we have allowed to continue to dominate us and the way we ‘do school’. Consider…

  • Subjects – by taking a specific area of human knowledge (in this case Latin as a language) and ‘packaging’ it up as something unique and separate from all other areas of human knowledge we create a rod for our own back. Surely, if Latin is the language of commerce, science and law, it would make sense to ensure it is introduced and learned in that context.
  • Timetable – by insisting that each ‘subject’ has a line in the timetable, we create divisions that often exclude other choices and excludes learners from taking other options that appear in that line.
  • Courses – by insisting that learning in any subject must be taken as a ‘course’, and that a course must (usually) be for a whole year (or in some cases, a semester) we create further barriers to participation. What if the interest of the learner is in only a part of a course – a specific topic within the course that applies in other areas of their learning for instance?
  • Assessment – by insisting that assessment is what happens to provide evidence of achievement within a course, we again limit the flexibility for learners to provide evidence of just the piece of learning (e.g. a topic or theme) within the course that they feel they need as a part of their wider learning portfolio.

At the end of the day, the decision about whether to include a ‘subject’ in a school’s curriculum, or even within the broader framework of NCEA, should have less to do with the dilemma we have in trying to ‘shoe-horn’ an ever expanding demand for ‘subjects’ into a box of limited dimensions and be more focused on creating multiple opportunities for learners to access the learning they need – regardless of whether it can be provided for within the staffing and timetabling constraints of the school they are attending.

The question should not be “do we do away with Latin?” (or any area of learning for that matter). It should be “how can we create opportunities for our students to access the learning in specialist areas to best meet their needs and preferences?” And where our traditional, structural mindset presents us with problems to do with timetable, staffing or assessment, we must be prepared to challenge those structures so that the focus is always on learning and what is best for the learner – not on structures and what will best ‘fit’ for the school (or system).

If learning Latin is indeed important for the futures of at least some of our students, then we shouldn’t be making decisions about doing away with it based on what’s best for the structures we’re committed to maintaining. We should be considering all sorts of alternative approaches to ensuring that learning about Latin is an option available to all students – regardless of whether they are privileged enough to attend the schools with staff still capable of teaching it.

As I see it there are two key issues to be addressed:

  1. Access – how could we make greater use of the small number of specialist teachers in a particular learning area – so that all learners could benefit from their wisdom and experience? How could we better utilise online learning to make this happen? What would be required to change at the school level in terms of timetable and curriculum design to accommodate this?
  2. Size – what if we were able to provide more ‘bite-sized’ learning experiences in specialist areas instead of semester or year-long courses? What if we adopted the use of micro-credentials for recognising what has been achieved instead of the larger assessments required to meet an achievement standard (or equivalent)? What if the specialist learning was accessed within or as part of a broader field of study and contributed towards a larger goal or opportunity?

Until we show some real courage and leadership at a system level we will continue to deny our young people the opportunities they are seeking in areas that are of genuine interest to them. We will continue to see the sort of decision making about course design and offerings that are based on the needs of the school and of the system.

It’s not an impossible dream – in fact, it’s a dream that many of our young people are already experiencing. Problem is, they are stepping outside of our current system to do so. How about we make it the norm for every learner – regardless of where they are located or their their social status?

As Robyn Williams’ character, Mr Keating, challenged his class in the film, Dead Poet’s Society,Carpe Diem, seize the day boys. Make your lives extraordinary!” ( or more accurately, “pluck the day”, taken from Roman poet Horace’s Odes, written over 2,000 years ago.) I say to educators – “Carpe Diem, seize the day and let’s make our schooling system extraordinary for our learners!”

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