The Heavy and Crushing Load

Stuart Mason, Chemistry Teacher – High School

“My vision of the future is no longer of people taking exams and proceeding on that certification from the secondary school to the university, but of individuals passing from one stage of independence to a higher, by means of their own activity, through their own effort of will, which constitutes the inner evolution of the individual.” (From Childhood to Adolescence, 1948)

The industrial model of education sorts the population into vocational and academic streams through the unsubtle method of failing or passing exams sat in rows in silence, an experience with little practical relevance to very much else in life. The danger is that an examination system “…becomes a heavy and crushing load that burdens the young life instead of being felt as the privilege of initiation to the knowledge that is the pride of our civilization.” (From Childhood to Adolescence, 1948). But, well then, when it comes to experiencing elements of social (adult) life, or taking pride in the achievements of civilisation and experiencing an inner evolution, is NCEA any better for the individual than School Certificate, Bursary or the systems typical of Dr. Montessori’s time?

The flexibility, choices, internal assessments and lack of emphasis on failure all help. These days NCEA allows students to make positive choices to stay at school and follow vocational pathways in courses that contribute credits towards an internationally recognised qualification. Compared to the Old School, NCEA has a different attitude. It is a better fit for a Montessori programme and its goals. Still, it needs to serve the needs of humans as they are. It needs to know its place.

While some schools push their Year 10 students into starting NCEA Level 1 early there is no NCEA assessment in our 12-15 programme. Dr. Montessori recognised a temporarily diminished intellectual capacity in these students, the social newborns. The Kawakawa class is a place of social learning, of working through questions of identity and discovering how to be useful and valued in one’s community. There is academic and practical learning, but the day job of the adolescent is to test the adulthood of the adults in the space and to experience an education that is ‘an aid to life’. NCEA assessment is not compatible with those needs and tendencies in our 12-15 year olds. Coffee House, by contrast, is a joyful celebration of learning, full of character and humour that really explores identity and valorisation. There’s no need for them to sit in silent rows.

The transition between the 12-15 class and the 15-18 programme can take a while for some students. Typically in Year 11 they are Year 10 students until about May and become Year 12 students around September, by which time they have rediscovered their own agency for learning and realised a renewed intellectual capacity. And, actually, with less of the burden of assessment judgement dependant on exams, students even find the exams an engaging challenge.