1 Sports
2 Culture
3 Trades
4 Academic
A Softer Option
The Future

 RMJ Atkinson, teacher

The author of this programme is currently working in a high school in New Zealand so this programme is designed with that environment as a basis; there is no reason it could not be altered and adopted by other schools in other countries.

New Zealand high schools enrol students for five years (aged 13 ~ 18), after which students either move on to tertiary education, enter a trade as an apprentice, or seek a general job. Schools in New Zealand typically have students for at least six hours a day and most of that time is taken up with academic study where they sit restlessly on hard chairs staring at whiteboards trying to remember 'stuff' for tests and exams. I aim to change that. Completely.

The current educational paradigm is based on academic study. The entire curriculum is designed like a pyramid, with primary school students at the bottom and university professors at the top; the whole system is designed towards becoming that professor. It is a one-sided approach where everyone is pushed along together until, at some point, they reach their 'limit' and either fall or get kicked off the educational conveyer belt and become workers.

Teaching is just delivery; most of what students study today is based on receiving and remembering information, yet, more than ever before, in today's world, almost any information we need is instantly available at the push of a button. The current paradigm was set up to provide industry with mildly educated workers who would understand and obey instructions in their one-job-for-life. The current educational system remains single-minded in its methods of indoctrination. Those that fail to fit in are either forced to fit in more strongly or are pushed out. Teachers do their best and rely on their own improvised methods of 'differentiation' to improve the lot of those less 'academically' minded. Creativity, often nothing more than a lip-service window-dressed aim, is stifled early on lest it interfere with the almighty standardised tests and exams. The future requires teachers that stimulate and provoke a multitude of answers. The students need to become seekers, not receivers of education. The future needs people who can search and find their own creative solutions. In the future, the most successful will be those who are highly motivated to achieve excellence in anything and everything they set their sights on.

The typical student today sits on a hard chair in front of a small desk for six hours listening to their teacher and writing notes - and they are not happy. The students are restless. Too much sugar, too much TV, too many video games, too much tapping and chatting on the phone; it has become a real problem. Nothing is being done about it; no one has a solution; the problems get worse. They are not listening and they are not taking notes. This programme aims to change that. 

Though not always true, tradesmen by and large are typically made up of those who got kicked off the educational conveyer early on. However, Bob the Builder, Phil the Plumber and Eric the Electrician have all been able to learn a heck of a lot about their trades. They listen to their peers and learn what they need by themselves. Not only that, there are increasing numbers of ordinary people making names for themselves in online intellectual debates on topics they have become interested in. At school, they may have had no apparent intellectual vitality in the eyes of their teachers, but in their chosen profession they are often motivated to learn a great deal by themselves. Simply, most people have a great capacity to learn if well motivated. With true purpose, most people have the capacity to learn whatever is required in their immediate sphere of interest. What we need to do is to create a programme where students want to come to school everyday to - develop themselves. Schools need to offer choice and relevance, both of which lead to ownership.

The origin of the idea

I first did an apprenticeship in a steel foundry and became qualified in various aspects. At some point, I ended up helping train others to get qualified. Then, all change, I went to university to study languages and eventually became a teacher. I have worked in several schools and have always had a keen interest in sports. My first teaching job (1989) was teaching English at a high school in Japan. The school was entirely sport oriented (but also taught all the standard subjects). Certain sports clubs would start training at 1pm, others from 2 or 3pm; some would not finish until 6pm. They were very serious about their sports. As a direct result of this, the school came first or second in several nationwide sports competitions in the year I was there, which was very impressive considering that there are 130 million people in Japan with thousands of schools. However, because they concentrated on sports they did not do so well academically. What with the primeval push for education in Japan, I believe that same school has now become more academically oriented. I remain astounded at their sporting accomplishments while I was there and the recognition the students received.

In 2008 I worked at a top ranking school in New Zealand. I coached soccer, wrestling, and robotics and during the five years I was there got a really good look into how they ran things. They had an excellent cultural programme and the school band was fantastic. This is a high decile school where academic standards are high and all sports and other extra-curricular activities are undertaken after school finishes. The students were highly motivated from the outset and most lived locally. It was impressive to see just how well a school can motivate its students to do well. The academic and sporting achievements rank among the best in the country.

In 2012 I worked at Aoyama Gakuin in Japan, a prestigious university with an excellent array of sports. One of my classes was a low level English language class full of sports students who struggled to learn English. Naturally, perhaps, I went to watch them train and occasionally compete and was amazed at how hard they trained and how successful they were. I have been involved with various sports over the years but I have rarely, if ever, seen students train so hard from their own volition. They all wanted to be Olympians. All of them had that dream and their motivation was incredible. I spoke with all sorts of people (I speak Japanese) and realized how well people could do if they just love what they do.

In 2014 I worked at Yongin University in South Korea. This is basically a sports oriented university. They offer all the standard subjects to a high standard but sport is their main reason for existence. Naturally, I gravitated towards the physical education department and got to see how students trained. From many conversations (I also speak Korean), most of the sports students were very happy with everything they were doing, including their classroom subjects. Again, I was highly impressed with their commitment to training and their desire to become national, international, and even Olympic competitors. The intensity of the training would put most Western programmes to shame.

Working in the above schools, while taking an interest in sports, allowed me to see how successful it can be for a student to be able to pursue their own interest. The above schools concentrated mostly on sport but the idea herein is to give students a choice whereby they have the opportunity to focus on one main area of interest for an extended period of time. They are free to stick to that same area for their entire high school life, or to switch areas on a yearly basis.

Recently (2018-19), in my current school, I have seen incredible change in boys starting a new Trades-oriented course. Previously lackluster, totally unmotivated students acquired new focus and made a 180 degree change with a view to leaving school at the end of Year 12 (one year early). By the end of the year, all of the students had learned various metalworking skills in which they became totally absorbed, passed various qualifications, and gained various engineering related apprenticeships or jobs. The course gave the boys real-world direction and they became focused on achieving everything that was put in front of them. In short, they grew up and became adults and before the school year was over all but one had gained an apprenticeship or a job.




Developing the self - in practice

The idea of this educational reform is to vastly reduce the academic focus and concentrate on developing self-directed learning and meaningful skills. Success in one area of life can only lead to benefits in other areas. The opportunity to really excel at something, combined with subsequent increases in determination and perseverance to succeed, will provide gains in confidence and the creation of better character.

In this programme, a student would be free to change their chosen area at the end of the year. Or, they could choose to continue it. A student who did rugby for three hours a day for five years would narrow his potential but would be an absolute expert at rugby.

The purpose of morning study is to reach a certain level of literacy and numeracy. If not achieved, it would have to be studied again the following year. With such a plan, a two year junior programme could be completed in one year by a keen student thereby giving them more freedom to chose what they wanted to do. This would motivate some to study harder. In terms of results, competence supersedes qualification (I don't want to see your piano certificate - I want to hear you play).

Afternoon programmes would have zero assessments. All study areas have equal weight. The entire emphasis is to be on the 'doing' and to do it as well as it can be done, intensely, over a long period of time. On graduation they would receive a report on what they have achieved.

After graduation, the school releases its students into the local economy. They will have had a great learning experience and will have enjoyed it. At school, they will have succeeded and bettered themselves. Their self-direction and creativity will have been expanded. They will have the ability to adapt to learn new skills. In their future, they will know how to continue to succeed and better themselves. 

Programme Focus

Students could


choose the same study area each year for five years


Switch to a different area after a couple of years


choose a completely different area each year


focus entirely on academics if they so wish




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 Copyright rmja

Last updated: 02/25/18.