A Knowledge Currency to Save Money in Education

We have just witnessed a three-week debacle in the politics of education, ending in a back down by Minister Hekia Parata who had been told by her Finance Minister to save money.  Badly advised and supported, she chose the wrong method (increasing class sizes) and had to completely reverse her decision. Teachers and parents throughout the country said with one voice they don’t want class sizes reduced and they triumphed.

Parata still has a problem. She wants to deliver quality learning without increasing the education budget. In these days of austerity, the problems are international.

This made me go back to something I had read about a learning currency proposed in Brazil in a book called Creating Wealth by Bernard Lietaer and Gwendolyn Hallsmith.

Called the saber, the proposal is that children mentor their juniors and earn a currency called sabers for doing so. Sabers can eventually be cashed in to pay for university education. It works like this: The Education Ministry gives out sabers to 7 year olds who each find themselves a 10 year old who can help them learn something of their choice. They pay the 10 year old in sabers. Then the 10 year old asks a 12 year old who in turn asks a 15 year old, and they ask a 17 year old.  Each hour spent earns a saber.

The dated sabers owned by 17 year olds are now taken to the university, who exchanges them at a 50% discount for national dollars. (The reason is that half the university’s expenses will have to be in national dollars.)  So what has happened in this process? We all know that you learn a little of what you hear in a lecture, more if you both hear the message and see it, but a larger percentage if you see it demonstrated or discussed. And you learn more still if you practise it.

Yes, you learn 90% of what you teach. So it works by getting learners at all levels to mentor their juniors. Hence there is a great deal of extra learning at all levels. First, every saber circulates at least five times through five different pupils so it does five times the good of one transaction. Then the schools saves national dollars by not increasing teacher pupil allocation. Lietaer argues that in some cases there could be as much as a hundred times as much learning for the buck as before. Even if we got it to ten or twenty times the learning, that would  dramatically raise literacy and numeracy in our country.

This currency is cancelled once the sabers are cashed in for university education for a nominated year. This design is to encourage smooth and fast circulation of the currency, and ensure that the number of students arriving in any university doesn’t exceed the capacity to handle them.

New Zealand has succeeded remarkably well with education. We have advanced from chalk and talk to “learning by doing”, to group learning. We have been using multimedia for years. However we have not yet advanced to the stage of every learner becoming a teacher.  So although the above is just the bones of a well designed currency and it needs fleshing out by the experienced educating community, it has great promise.

Another interesting proposal to save money came from the principal of Shirley Boys High on TV3’s “The Nation” June 10. Among his many other suggestions, John Laurenson proposed integrating the whole education sector, which of course would be needed for sabers to work well.