NCEA L1 & Digital 2020: Unlocking paradigm tensions between traditional & transformative education

New Zealand Education recently announced:

“NCEA Level 1 will remain optional but it will change to become a broader foundational qualification that allows students to keep their options open, while Levels 2 and 3 become more specialised”

The retention of NCEA L1 is a huge triumph for educationalists who voiced concerns that the risk (of its proposed removal) threatened further simplification NCEA. However, for many, particularly large schools, the changes might prove to be the undoing of the traditions that called for NCEA to return schools back to an exam-based / post-learning paradigm - a new inter-school competitive landscape has just emerged!

That being, NCEA is a tremendous transformative education framework. When proposed, in the early 2000’s, NCEA was designed to lead New Zealand’s talent development future into the idea-economy. NCEA’s framework was the call to action for a complete switch of education towards higher-order cognitive development, creativity and applied (now) 1:1 and highly personalised learning. As a culturally responsive and high-engagement learning blueprint, NCEA was the golden-ticket for schools to graduate from the Victorian era’s multi-period timetable, teacher-at-front mass-delivery, low impact or churn-based post-learning assessment models (which reduces education to “telling” or, proportionately, 2.89 hours per year, per learner, of educator time (if a teacher stops telling)) - all bogged down by heavy admin.

However, apart from isolated cases (where magic does happen), seldom has NCEA's potential been used as written on the tin, that of a National development platform of educational-transformation (as per its design) (since its implementation). Instead, performance drivers were introduced which incentivised schools to increase participation which eroded the scheme’s cognitive development purpose. State-Principals, the only educationalists paid for performance, receive(d) payments based on the same mass-delivery churn/low outcomes that preceded NCEA. Schools market for headcount, often using sort of digital conformity-message with race-to-bottom technology or gimmicks that create the false appearance all is good. Cash is king, but with weak forms of infrastructure led, BYOD, gamification gimmicks and minus a trans formative-education framework to cognitively empower the individual learner, the emperor certainly has no clothes!

By retrofitting a modern transformative NCEA into a system built for the Victorian revolution education model, when the Boards and Principals are paid to preserve the latter, clearly NCEA never really stood a chance. As New Zealand’s inter-generational decline in world innovation rankings and today’s worsening skill shortages continue to tell the story, nor did the learner.


Schools are now obligated to adopt Digital 2020 which is more in line with original NCEA. Digital 2020 requires a focus towards transformative education; or a major shift towards teaching/learning and triple-loop immersive education - the only model for genuine digital-competency development with “progress measurement”. Tests and exams – are no longer fit for purpose in this world. Teacher-at-front; not compatible. Going from Single-loop to Triple Loop is a massive undertaking.

Digital 2020, across all “subjects”, requires students to, essentially, create, design, build, apply-skill and evaluate said work - building confidence learners and talent for the future society.

Students require time and space to generate confident to leverage higher-order thinking skills. Teachers need this time to help, use new-types of engagement tools to measure progress and intervene. This is a modern teaching and learning construct. This construct requires large-learning time (new-timetable models), real-time insights that measure engagement, competency development and assessment as one-concern – in near real-time or real-time. This is completely opposite to the heavy admin, low-attention / low engagement, short-burst timetables for prevailing low-order fact based remembering models with basic content put on slides for teachers-at-front to narrate to masses. And, where post-learning-assessments spoon feed a learners ability to regurgitate, but does not measure teaching quality, student engagement and offers no learning-intervention mechanism.

Many schools, and how they operate, are simply not set up to deliver this form of transformative education. With Board’s running off year vs. year comparisons of last-years low-end assessment results (giving the false impression all is good and of which offer actually no comparison at all) – this erodes any care or attention to a schools actual teaching and learning state or quality in the current year. This may explain why NCEA (the full system) has morphed into a glimmer of its former self and been changed to such an extent to operate, once again, with post-learning-assessment (exams and assessment).

....hey, but what about all the other changes?

Digital 2020, with options for STEM, Cross-curricula or better, interdisciplinary and authentic-immersion education, fundamentally conflicts with delivering the new-modified NCEA which returns education back to the Victorian era of subject based delivery with exams at the end of the year; a single-loop education model. Then you have the NCEA L1 ‘changes’. This includes numbing together subjects, such as sciences, for later separation into specialist subjects….

It goes without saying therefore, that the recent changes for new NCEA L1 has the potential to force a new-type of competition (noting competition is demonised in schools) and may force “the system” into addressing the long argue argued for disruption in education. This because the changes themselves are highly disruptive in so far as they occur amid three deeply conflicting propositions; noting none of the underlying systems of education that shackle schools to the Victorian paradigm have been targeted for change.

If the first two conflicts weren’t enough, it could get even trickier for confused schools (which are not set up or incentivised for transformation) in so far as do schools now:

1.   Retain Tradition/Abandon Digital 2020: Retrain traditional education, teachers-at-front and post-learning assessment in order to adopt the new-NCEA back-to-exams requirements?

2.   Abandon NCEA Traditional/Go Digital 2020: ditch the new-NCEA back-to-exam requirements and implement school wide Digital 2020

3.   Try a paradigm switch @ L1or Year 11: ditch creativity at y9/10, run standard subjects (&or with digital substitution); run a ‘hope’ model to set them up for a pure NCEA exam model in L1, then drop in students into the more significant L2 and L3 years into a completely unfamiliar immersive digital 2020 model.

4.   Go Triple for both: adopt the new NCEA L1 changes, but submit a new model of education to support a rethink on all new-changes - as the recent NCEA L1 changes assist neither paradigm.

Overlay this with parental and labour-market expectations to develop talent upon the best digital platforms, where schools are being bombarded by a raft of poor ‘technology choices’ (Chrome Books, Ipads and G-suite) and IaaS cloud-choices which masquerade as education outcomes; challenges come in as schools are locked out of the proper technologies needed to implement digital 2020 i.e. Digital 2020 is a framework of education that measures the digital competency development of a learner, but not on gimmicky technologies adopted through price-drivers or box ticking.

In parking pay and incentives for a change-conversation, none of the options are easy. Running a ½ way house, option 3, between two polar opposite paradigms is arguably the toughest. However - all options call into question the integrity, planning, validity and capability of boards, leadership, management, programme, operational-structures and teaching models – and all of the box ticking that legitimizes status quo?

Who is going to raise the idea of change? Who is going to deal with the complexity? Who is going to lead it? Who has the courage to go against the grain even though that is what is being asked?


Integral to this, for schools that have persisted with fixed multi-period timetables, teacher-at-front and post-learning assessment, and those that have peddled NCEA L1 credits at year 10 – it is the NCEA L1 changes that may see schools considering the most compelling and easiest option - a binary choice:

1.   Defer or Eek out traditional education for as long as possible


2.   Be first or leading – go transformative - start again.

With Education Review Officers seeking digital 2020 adoption and the promise of Board erosion through regional-hub models, the former prove as challenging for school boards as parental abandoning of schools that fail to show real or credible modernity.

Thus, and this is where the incentives come back in, as schools are funded-per roll and the principal paid this way – by and large, schools have the reason to align themselves to market / labour force needs. i.e. talent development. The opportunity exists for schools, seeking to grow, connect with community, address skill shortages and differentiate, is to leverage the NCEA changes as a means to justify abandoning status quo.

Enter-stage left – Digital 2020: Cross-curricula/vocational with triple-loop education. 

Applying Digital 2020 or any form of Cross-curricula on any single-loop traditional system does not work nor does it go well as a digital substitution within the same structures.

However - in secondary, initiating cross curricula programmes with triple loop, as a new norm from year onwards, in “Technology” may enable schools to establish supply-lines into industry. This is through end to end vocational-curricula pathways delivered via immersion learning (for digital 2020). Based on a mix of Tech, Sciences and or Arts vs standalone subjects, and drawing distinction between the substitution models of project and or self-responsible learning, Cross-curricula with Triple Loop through Immersion, is the game-changer. This mix proves big difference between children making progress in a "subject", being left to their own devices and/or doing some occasional practice in it (if time allows). It also does not need to stop with STEM orientated domains.

There is a big difference between children making progress in a "subject" and doing some occasional practice in it (if time allows). Thus, only real way to ensure rigour exists with any shift to a Digital 2020 paradigm, in contrast to the kind of unfocused topic work that emerged through “self-responsible” and or “project learning” - is to abandon post-learning-assessment and inquiry "learning" (a mask on post-learning-telling/assessment). Triple Loop learning is required. Systems-design-critical thinking are mandatory. As well as shifting the bias of education back to the learner, not the assessment or curriculum - Triple loop, with high quality digital tools, enables real-time validity of learning, engagement and outcome.

Triple loop reality is the only way to check engagement exists, outcomes occur and that the overall coverage of the curriculum has progression-objectives, tailored to the learner; and that they do so upon real digital tools.

By running STEM, Interdisciplinary and or Immersion, learners create and prove real links in knowledge, not contrived ones - proof occurs because higher-order learning requires synthesis. As education is 1:1, genuine connections between subjects occur naturally to the learner not forced by a linear teacher centred unit plan that avoids any attention to the learner. As a result, end of year examinations can still occur, but the advantage is that students enter these experiences brimming with proven experience and confidence.

However, the implementation of this will still requires schools to:

·        abandon / replace multi-period timetables with dual or triple timetable models (equivalent of ‘triple-periods). .

·        structural reform; flattening out and empowerment of front-line teachers/departments – who should have a voice at the “board room table”.

·        abandonment of shifting school-management (assessment management systems into the cloud; rethink towards platform as a service intelligence enablers which focus on learning quality)

·        abandon Chromebooks/Ipads and toys!

·        avoid gamification, vendor-based gimmicks and bribes!

To adopt authentic-transformation, schools would need to weigh up the size of potential stigmatization for those in traditional subjects operating with the prevailing lower-order non-digital 2020 focus vs. new-paradigm learning. That being - whether the NCEA L1 changes are deemed good or bad, ‘pass or fail’ is almost irrelevant - for large(r) schools with entrenched traditions and inertia the pace at which they need to respond to their smaller competitors will need to be rapid and emphatic.

However, and with that said, with quality leadership, front-line teacher voice and change management schools already operate these formats through secondary tertiary programmes. Given this, these are big calls for schools to make. Some have already started (and well). That said - transitioning is not easy. As things go on, schools will be peering over the ground fences of their neighbouring competitors to see what's going on. It will now be a case of which schools emerge first to corner their local or regional populous.

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