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Help at hand for dire learning?

Despite having banged on about the parlous state of New Zealand’s education sector for three days straight last week, it comes as no pleasure to note yesterday’s media stories about the latest evidence in our ongoing slide in educational achievement.

In case you missed it, the results of the most recent OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment [Pisa] were widely reported. They make for depressing reading.

Since 2000, every three years [other than during the covid-19 pandemic] Pisa has been assessing the reading skills of 15-year-olds in member countries; maths was added in 2003; science in 2006.

Barring one brief blip in the 2003-2006 period in which there was an infinitesimal improvement in science and reading stayed steady, New Zealand’s results have been steadily heading south for the past 23 years.

The latest recorded basically means that today’s 15-year-olds are reading about as well as 14-year-olds were back at the turn of the century [essentially, a year of learning has been lost during that time] while in maths the equivalent of about six months of schooling has evaporated in just the past four years [since 2003, around 1.5 years of maths learning has gone down the tubes].

Still, on the bright side, there’s been what’s described as “an unprecedented drop” in educational achievement right across the OECD in the past four years and ours hasn’t been quite as catastrophic as experienced elsewhere, so we can all cling to that relative ‘success’ at least.

The OECD has largely attributed that freefall between 2018 and 2022 to the covid-19 pandemic, although it’s almost certainly more accurate to point the finger at the pandemic response of various governments that saw schools shuttered in favour of ‘distance learning’ – even though there was, as now, a great deal of evidence to suggest that, with rare exceptions, school kids had little to fear from the virus.

Anyway, interestingly enough this widespread decline in educational achievement appears to mirror a fall in IQs across Western countries that kicked in around the start of the new millennium.

Over the course of the 20th century, IQs rose dramatically around the world by about 30 points [to put that in context, someone with an IQ of 100 is considered to be of average intelligence while someone with an IQ of 130 is considered to be intellectually gifted].

The fact that the trend is now heading in the opposite direction does put a bit of a kink in the idea that the human species is on some kind of pre-ordained onward and upward trajectory.

But it could be a blessing in disguise.

As noted in earlier columns, the advent of artificial intelligence has been accompanied by anxiety [including on the part of many who are driving its development] that it could result in the evolution of a super-intelligence that decides human beings are surplus to requirements.

At the very least, AI is going to result in a massive disruption in employment, but whereas earlier automation meant a great many blue-collar jobs went west, AI is coming for white-collar gigs.

So perhaps it will be for the best that an increasingly idle population is also a significantly stupider one? Well, until we get to the scenario outlined in E. M. Forster’s short story “The Machine Stops” at least.

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