How much do our children know about this country?

Not much, according to test results from a Christchurch school that education experts say would be mirrored across New Zealand.

Queenspark School asked 137 eight and nine-year-olds (Year 4 and Year 5 students) 60 basic New Zealand general knowledge questions and just 14 of them got more than half right. Most students scored 10-40%.

Sample general knowledge questions included asking students to name our capital city, highest mountain and largest city. They were also asked to name the famous Kiwi who first climbed Mt Everest, and to identify the three colours of the New Zealand flag.

The reason for the poor showing? Educationalists say schools now focus on teaching pupils how to learn rather than basic facts.

Professor Terry Crooks, of Otago University's National Education Monitoring Project, said the results would be the same at any New Zealand primary school. "It's just not in New Zealand either, there are plenty of international examples of even adults being tested on knowledge of local history and geography and the results always cause concern."

Crooks said the New Zealand curriculum had not emphasised history or geography as a key part of social studies for several years.

The project's previous research showed a quarter of primary school students could not place Cook Strait on the map and Mt Cook got placed "anywhere".

The teaching priority was to give children information and ideas that helped make sense of their lives. "In science we're more interested if they understand how night and day come about than whether they know what the fifth planet from the sun is," Crooks said.

Kids could always know more, but it was a "balancing act" for schools.

Writer and satirist David McPhail said general knowledge was a good thing. "I know it might not be of much use for a nine-year-old to know what the longest river in New Zealand is, because there is no way of applying that, but we should at least nurture some knowledge of our own environment."

McPhail said parents played a big role. "When my kids were growing up, every night when we did the dishes we had a quiz, which made doing them bearable, because there was a bit of fun if you got the questions right."

Queenspark principal Ross Willocks said the school set the test after deciding pupils needed more New Zealand general knowledge.

He was not alarmed by the results. "I expect it's pretty typical."

Teachers had developed a programme to build pupils' knowledge before retesting them later in the year. "With regards to general knowledge, teaching and learning is a lot more than just filling up empty vessels with facts it's about thinking and problem solving. However, we still believe it's important for kids to have a strong sense of their country and culture."

Willocks said schooling had changed since his students' parents were taught, but the basics of strong literacy and numeracy remained.

He did not think there was anything amiss with the curriculum. Schools were wary of teaching just to tests because this in itself could not provide pupils with the right skills for a fast developing world