(The bulk of what follows is taken from an email from Gordon Dryden.)
Gordon Dryden is one of the most remarkable persons I have ever had the pleasure to meet. Journalist, radio and TV host, raconteur extraordinaire, consultant, and an all-round great guy, Gordon was the perfect host. He is also New Zealand’s biggest-selling author with The Learning Revolution selling 10.2 million copies in China alone.
Gordon says he’s “very much a product of the New Zealand primary-school system” – and the country’s high rate or reading. He left school illegally, at age 14, after one year at high school, and then “started relearning”. In a land of completely full employment, apparently everyone who left school could get a jobs. In his first year of work, he actually went to “night school” four nights a week and took Latin by ‘correspondence school’, then worked a year on a farm while he took correspondence courses in journalism and short-story writing; later learned shorthand and typing at a city private commercial school “for girls”.
He says his experience was not unusual in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Nearly all his age-group colleagues in journalism “learnt their trade on the job” ‹ and this ties in closely with “the Kiwi concept” of “learning by doing”. In fact, when asked to summarise his 544-page book on learning in a sentence, he says that’s easy” “If you want to learn it, do it.”
He adds: “No one ever learned to ride a bike from a lecture on bike-riding. You learn to walk by walking, to type by typing, to use a computer by using a computer. And you learn best by using the whole world as a classroom. When I was a kid growing up in the saw-milling lumber areas of country New Zealand, if we wanted to have a swim, we had to first build a log dam in a stream to build our own swimming pool. If we wanted to go rafting, we had to build our own raft. If we wanted to play in a hut, we built a tree-hut.”
New Zealand did, however, built a great public library service. His “greatest-ever education step”: being taken by his school headmaster to the local public library, introduced to the Head Librarian and told, “This is not just a place to borrow books: it’s your window on the world ‹ and the collective recorded culture of our species.”
Here, for the record, is Gordon Dryden’s view of New Zealand with special emphasis on their education system.
- Country the same size as Japan or British Isles, and same as US state of Colorado, with 4 million people and 40 million sheep (once 70 million.)
- The world’s only one-crop economy where nearly all the population enjoy a fairly high standard of living – our one crop being grasslands farming.
- World’s first democracy: the first in which all women joined men in having the vote for Government: 1893. (The American territory of Wyoming introduced votes for women a year or two earlier ‹ mainly to attract females to the male-dominated West.)
- One of the world’s last major land masses occupied by human beings: around 900 years ago when Polynesian explorers from the central-south Pacific traveled by canoe to the islands that are now regarded as the southern tip of the Polynesian triangle, with Tahati in the east and Honolulu in the north being the other tips.
- Minor European settlement by whalers and sealers from around 1800, many travelling from British penal colony in Sydney, Australia. Up until that time the native Maori population had no written language, nor did the rest of Polynesia. Christian missionaries started arriving from 1814, started first schools, learned Maori language and produced the first written versions of Maori language, with cooperation of some Maori tribal chiefs.
- British Government signed a treaty with many of the Maori chiefs in 1840 (treaty of Waitangi: Wai = water; tangi ‹ weeping or funeral. This “weeping waters”). The treaty preserved Maori tribal ownership of land and waterways, but with governance by Britain. Became a self-governing British Dominion in 1900. Still a member of the British Commonwealth, with a British-style Westminister Parliamentary democracy, but a proportional-representation voting system based on the German model.
- Universal free, compulsory and secular primary schooling decreed by law since 1877. Free compulsory education up to age 15 from the mid 1940s; now extended to 16 years.
- One of the world’s most egalitarian countries.
- Has long since virtually eliminated poverty.
- One of the world pioneers (since mid-1930s) of the welfare state, along with Sweden and Norway.
- In the mid-part of the 20th century, consistently in the world’s top five countries to lead the world in productivity. Nearly all those productivity gains made in farming and farm processing and exporting. For most of the 20th century remained the world’s biggest exporter of lamb, butter and cheese, and the second biggest exporter of wool.
- From about 1938 to early 1970s, 100 per cent full employment. Even now, national unemployment well under 4 per cent.
- Country hit by major hardship in the worldwide depression of the 1930s: up to 25 per cent unemployed. Social-Democratic Labour Party came to power in 1935, and introduced a mass programme of Government building of rental houses (all New Zealand materials), roading and the building of hydro-electric stations for mass electrification of countryside ‹ and planting of world’s biggest man-made forests, smothering the central North Island with fast-growing pine trees. In turn these have given birth to a strong wood and pulp-and-paper exporting industry.
- Among the big innovations to spur the country’s exceptional living standards: refrigerated shipping, which allowed New Zealand to become, in many ways, the off-season farmland to Britain in particular; aerial top-dressing (or crop-dusting: spreading fertilizer by plane); electric milking machines (invented in Sweden); New Zealand circular-designed milking-sheds on farms; tanker collection of milk from farms (like giant petrol-tankers collecting milk from 100-acre dairy farms every day); cooperative ownership of dairy companies (processing, meat, butter and cheese); farmer-ownership of farm-processing and/or marketing boards (Meat Board, Dairy Board, Wool Boards); and container-shipping.
- National character: low-cost innovation. They say the average New Zealander can fix anything (from cars to boats) with a “piece of No. 8 fencing wire” (the kind of wire used in farm fences). This stems from the country’s original sailing-ship isolation from the “home” country of Britain.
- Because of the farm-based nature of the “original economy” (tourism is now the major foreign-exchange earner), the country has developed an interesting “school model”: 2700 schools for 4 million people and around 500,000 K-12 students. Because 1 million of the 4 million population live in the main North Island city of Auckland – more than the entire population of the South Island (which is bigger in area than the North), the 2700 schools include many country ones with only one teacher or two teachers, with high-school children then bussed to school in the host of farm-servicing smaller towns. This has helped develop a primary school system whereby many age-groups learn together. Thus, when instant communications and digital technology have appeared over the past 15 years, many primary schools have opted to extend their “integrated studies” philosophy into whole-school learning. The New Zealand school year is divided into four terms, with a two-week holiday between each, and a seven-week summer break. So it is quite normal for an entire school to be studying one total “inquiry-based topic” every term. And that topic might well be “learning how to learn” or “conservation” – with all other specific subjects (such as arithmetic, reading, history and geography) blended into that study.
- This type of primary education owes a lot to the original “constructivist” theories of the American philosophy and educational leader John Dewey in the early 20th century (although few New Zealanders would ever use that term), and then Professor C.E. Beeby, who became Director General of the New Zealand Department of Education in the late 1930s.
- New Zealand’s modern foreign policy. It’s had a strong nuclear-free policy, and has refused to support the American and British war in Iraq. In fact, some of its most striking billboards these days are for the Hell Pizza chain, each with a photograph of President George Bush and slogans like: “HELL: It’s too good for some evil bastards”, and “Hell. Even it has its standards.”
- Its robust grassroots democracy. Every school, public and private, is elected by the school’s parents, with minority board-posts elected by teachers, and, in high schools, by students too. Nearly all sports clubs, from golf to rugby, are cooperatives owned by their members. General election turnouts for most of the last half century have regularly topped 90 per cent, although have dropped slightly below that in some recent years.
- Its excellent press. (New Zealand Herald, the main newspaper, one of the best in the world. Likewise, National Radio, a BBC-type national service. Big emphasis on international news.) Among the world’s top-book-buying and reading nations. Good robust debate. (Any international visitor to its primary schools is struck by the democratic “feel” of all classrooms, and the egalitarian nature of the relationships between principals, teachers and students.)
- The way it leads the world in using interactive technology and instant electronic communication to rethink schooling.
- The open, friendly nature of the society. “Meet the friendly New Zealander” used to be regarded by the locals as a bit of a joke, but it’s true (I think).
- Religious tolerance. Though nominally a “Christian” country, few attend church regularly. And most people, if asked, will describe the national religion as rugby football. Strong Asian immigration presence in the last 25 years or so.
- The ability to take the mickey out of themselves and each other. (“We’re now approaching Auckland international airport, and will land in a few minutes if we can get these sheep off the runway. Please set your watches back 25 years.”)
- University and polytechnic rolls have increased dramatically in recent years, but the country is still very much “grounded in doing”. Many competent company managers, for example, have no university education. But the country has still managed to produce its fair share of scientific and educational achievers: Lord Ernest Rutherford, Nobel Prize winner in atomic physics; Maurice Wilkins was the third-cowinner of the Nobel Prize for the discovery of DNA ‹ with Crick and Watson; New Zealand’s William Pickering headed up the US Jet Propulsion Lab that launched the first solar moon probe.
- The country’s big personal achievements have been in sport. In fact, between 1960 and 1964, six athletes living within a mile or two of each other in Auckland held either the world record or the Olympic Gold Medal in all male distance track events from the half mile and 800 metres through to the 10,000 metres. And later another Aucklander, John Walker, became the first man to run the mile in under 3 minutes 50 seconds. Edmund Hillary and his Himalayan companion Tensing Norkay were the first to climb Mt Everest. (Hillary, later New Zealand High Commissioner to India and a former beekeeper, remarked, at the end of the return journey down the mountain: “Well, we knocked the bastard off.”)
- International yachting achievements, including winning the America’s Cup twice for “super yachting”, and then having a New Zealand-led and crewed Swiss yacht win it a third time. In fact, many of the world’s top super racing yachts have New Zealand skippers and crews. Building such boats is a national industry, and every second house in Auckland is said to own a pleasure boat, many of them home-made.
- New Zealand’s female leadership: New Zealand head of state (Governor-General), Prime Minister, Chief Justice, CEO of top public-listed company (Telecom), and a succession of female mayors of major cities. So strong is the female influence in politics (the last two Prime Ministers, from different parties, have been women), that cynics call the capital city “Helengrad” (after PM Helen Clark), and one minor party is campaigning this year under the slogan “A man for a change”.