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Thoughts from professionals: on education

Menzed is always looking for new and old opinions, and wanted to see what those in the know thought about New Zealand’s education system. So we tracked down some people in the know, and asked them a question:

"Is our education system
failing our society?"

We tried to get as wide a range of opinions as we could, though of course some professionals were unable to reply before Menzed went to press. It is nevertheless a great privilege to have such worthwhile contributions from eminent players in the educational world, and if you have similar or differing opinions from what has been written here, please send them to editor@mensa.org.nz with ‘Letter to the Editor’ in the subject line.


New Zealand Educational Institute - Te Riu Roa NZEI is our country’s largest educational trade union, with over 50,000 members.

Current policies in education are certainly failing students and teachers. Attempts by the government to force all children into the one-size-fits-all box known as National Standards do not take into account the personal backgrounds, learning needs and special talents of our children. New Zealand is known internationally for its curriculum that allows teachers to nurture creative thinking and a love of learning while balancing the needs and interests of individual students. However, that is under threat, as National Standards measure only reading, writing, and maths, and pressure is growing on teachers to focus on those areas to the detriment of science, computer skills, physical education, languages, and the arts.

Gifted and talented children often don’t fit into the National Standards box any more than children whose ability to learn is affected by an impoverished home life. If changes to the education system continue down the current track, we will be labelling many of our children as failures from their first years at school. And if we fail our children, we fail our society.

If you have a moment, you may also be interested to watch this clip of Prof Yong Zhou, who is an international expert on creative learning, and spoke in NZ late last year. He is a very engaging and thought-provoking speaker. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ueWHrjv9ps

Bruce McLachlan Bruce McLachlan is the principal of Swanson Primary School, which has been in the news recently for the changes that it has implemented to its rules, particularly around play time. By removing playground restrictions, allowing children to play bull rush and climb trees, for example, Swanson is reported to have seen greater productivity by students and less disruption, as well as improving skills for later in life.

Many people over the years have commented on what makes New Zealand special.  We punch way above our weight in a number of ways.  The country is beautiful, the All Blacks and the Silver Ferns are frequently world champions, and our education system is the envy of many.

While we as a people can’t take credit for the beautiful panoramas around us, we can certainly take credit for producing sporting, entrepreneurial and/or pragmatic citizens.  And who is responsible for that?  Parents and teachers.

Our education system is not failing our society.  On the contrary it ensures that it thrives! Don’t get me wrong though.  When I talk about the education system, I am talking primarily about the 100,000 teachers.  By and large teachers rejoice in their learning and want to share it with their students.  The other parts of the system: governments and bureaucracies are simply obstacles to be overcome!

Swanson School has recently attracted worldwide attention for doing something different.  Our playground is basically an adult-free environment where free play is encouraged and accepted.  Play can be defined as ‘children's behaviour which is freely chosen, personally directed, and intrinsically motivated. It is performed for no external goal or reward, and is a fundamental and integral part of healthy development - not only for individual children, but also for the society in which they live.’

Children control the intent and content of their play.  What kids do in their own time, away from the control of adults, is what they have always done: play.  Today we might more accurately call it ‘free play’, to differentiate it from what it has become today: a much more ‘supervised’ activity.  On many occasions a parent or teacher might ‘reward’ a child with an opportunity to play, or provide or allow a particular play experience. This unconsciously reinforces in adults the notion that they have an important role in the play experience.  They don’t.

On many occasions in recent weeks I have been asked by journalists what the New Zealand Ministry of Education thinks of what we are doing at Swanson.  The answer is, ‘I don’t know.’  They haven’t asked me and I haven’t told them.  Is there another education system in the world where individual schools and teachers are given the freedom and trust to try new things, to the extent that we are in New Zealand?  I think not, and that is why I am still a teacher after all these years.  I believe I can still make a difference in my little part of the world.


Tracey Martin, M.P. Tracey is the Education Spokesperson and Deputy Leader of the New Zealand First Party. For completeness and transparency, spokespersons from all four major parties were asked for comment, but not all could respond before the deadline—others will be published in later issues as they arrive to maintain neutrality.

Is our education system failing our society?’
Our answer is quite simply ‘No’.

In our view, it is the current government funding model that is failing our education system. New Zealand First would ‘front end the spend’ where dollars are aligned with need and not decile rating. There are students at both ends of the learning continuum - special needs and gifted and talented – across all education sectors: early childhood, primary, secondary and tertiary.   But let us be very clear – unlike the current Minister of Education we are not talking about funding on a value-add or achievement-outcome model in any way.

New Zealand First is keen to see the national collation, analysis and reporting of entry data for all new entrants within the first months of formal schooling. New Zealand First asks why are we not collecting baseline data that clearly identifies the learning needs of brand new ‘schoolies’ - every new entrant teacher in the country would be able to tell you who needs extra support and who needs extension.

What our society has asked of our public education system continues to change. New Zealand First believes that it is time to have an education summit; a forum for robust discussion between all stakeholders after 25 years of ‘Tomorrow’s Schools’ that includes the voice of students, parents and caregivers, support staff, teachers, school leaders and school trustees. We need to listen to the people in and around our classrooms and school grounds who share the responsibility for educating our children today for their tomorrows.

New Zealand First believes that we have a quality public education system but acknowledges that there are areas for development to meet the needs of all learners. Our national curriculum document provides our teachers and learners with wide success criteria but current government policy has narrowed the definition of success to the detriment of learners. We believe that ‘success for Kiwi kids’ needs to be redefined and not transferred from other nations and cultures. Until recently, New Zealand schools had the opportunity to participate in the well-respected initiative, Te Kotahitanga. New Zealand First would re-establish the funding support alongside nationwide professional development by rolling out this initiative for all schools.

‘What is success?’ New Zealand First has significant concerns about the use of PISA as the ‘high stakes’ marker of our national educational well-being. We would welcome greater attention to the report findings of GEM (Global Entrepreneurship Monitor) as the ‘can-do attitude’ and ‘make it happen capacity’ of Kiwis is known throughout the world. New Zealand First would replace the government’s literacy and numeracy national standards with a return to a more holistic curriculum level band system developed in conjunction with the education sector.  It is our view that this system would more readily recognise each individual child and the different rates and methods of learning that are a reality for our young people.

We are concerned that one of the other areas the Ministry does not require nor collect data around are the numbers of students whose schools have identified as being in the top academic band. How can resources and funding be allocated to those students to extend their creative and critical abilities? To simply have a cohort that is ‘Above’ this government’s literacy and numeracy lines is not good enough if they are committed to raising the achievement of all students and providing the challenge that keeps our young people engaged in education, seeking to be their personal best, not just focusing on the often quoted ‘tail of underachievement.’


Tristan Pang Tristan is a New Zealand Mensan and whizzkid who is currently studying mathematics through Auckland University, aged twelve. His answer is adapted from a speech made this month to the Festival of Education in Auckland—the full speech may appear in a future issue: keep your eyes peeled!

I describe myself as a curious and fun loving 12-year-old. But for me, learning is an amusing game. I became very interested in mathematics from an early age. I kept exploring and discovering new concepts and the more I learned the more fascinated I became. Before I was five I covered all the available National Curriculum & NCEA maths books from Year 1 to Year 13.

When I was nine, I found that there was something called “private candidates” in the Cambridge International Exams. So I started sitting the exams and each year I moved up another level. I am now studying maths at the University of Auckland. I am planning to be a full time student at the university next year. I am also self-studying some Cambridge Science and English subjects for sitting the exams later this year.

When I was nearly five, I started to go through the maths topic strand by strand: number, measurement, geometry, algebra, and statistics. When I finished the strand of “number”, from the year 1 book to the year 13 book, I then moved onto the strand of “geometry”, and so on. In the existing education system, the same topic is scattered over a number of years and jumps between topics. I found these scatterings and jumping into different topics like reading a chapter of a story book every year but you have to wait until next year to find out what happens next!

I believe that the 21st century is truly the digital age. It has fundamentally changed everything. Technology enables us to not only learn more, but to learn more effectively, and at our own pace. If our schools embrace the e-learning global trend, I believe the education standard will be lifted significantly.

It would be a great idea if more teachers adopted the “flipped classroom” model where students do the conceptual learning at home and class time is used for problem solving and discussion. We can find learning more interesting as we can take in a more active role. With technology, everyone will be equal. We can choose to learn from any lecturer or teacher from any part of the world. This is the way we need to be thinking. In my opinion, mentorship is one of the best educational approaches for meeting the needs of the students, particularly gifted and talented learners.

I always dream of a perfect school day, which is where schools would each specialise in different subjects for half a day every day. Students could attend half a day at school in the morning with their peers doing some interactive activities or lessons such as PE, drama, music etc…, then in the afternoon, students would attend academic lessons outside their own school at their own ability levels, or home-schooling. The academic lessons could be held by different schools or institutions grouped by geographic location. Everyone can meet their own learning and social needs from the morning school and afternoon school, irrespective of their age. In fact, I’ve never understood why students are grouped together by age. It should be based on their ability.

A self-learning day in a week is also an excellent alternative I would like to see implemented. If we were to have a self-learning day at school, everyone can take this day to consolidate the whole week’s learning, plus explore something of their own interest at their own pace. I believe this is the way gifted and talented children like to explore knowledge themselves. As students, we all have something that we’re really passionate about and yet all too often those passions are not able to be properly explored within a typical classroom setting.

I like our education system. It’s very balanced in its approach: academic, sports, music, personal development are equally weighted. But I’m a bit greedy! I want to have a better NZ and a better quality of life for everyone in the future. I believe education is crucial to achieving this goal. With higher education, people can earn their own living and be more responsible citizens.

What’s important is that we all have a responsibility and an obligation to support education. There’s an old African proverb that says “it takes a village to raise a child.” In my village I’ve been very fortunate to have lots of people support me in my education.

Today, I represent all the other children in this country who want that same opportunity for themselves. My hope is that we can all work together to deliver that opportunity for them. That’s the challenge I want to leave you with today.

Chris Hipkins, M.P. Chris is the Labour M.P. for Rimutaka, and currently holds the Shadow Education and Early Childhood Education portfolios  for the Opposition.

When universal, free secondary school education was introduced here in New Zealand we lived in a very different time. Young people could still leave school with relatively minimal qualifications and walk straight into a job. If that one didn’t work out, there were other options. Today, young people leaving school face a very different reality.

Not only has the ready supply of low-skilled jobs reduced significantly, the types of skills and attributes that employers look for in new recruits has also changed. Whereas once upon a time the basics like literacy and numeracy were enough to get your foot in the door, today’s employers are looking for school-leavers who also have excellent interpersonal skills, communication skills, creativity, adaptability, time management, and resilience.

Our education system, and the people who work in it, have recognised these changes, and what goes on in our schools has changed accordingly. Kids are all different, they learn different things at different rates, and our schools should be focused on bringing out the best in each of them, rather than labelling and ‘standardising’ them.

The introduction of the NCEA heralded a new approach. Instead of setting arbitrary hurdles for kids, teachers and schools are now focused on identifying what they can do and where they need to improve. The introduction of the NCEA has provided more opportunities for schools to customise programmes to bring out the best in every student, and the results are showing.

Under the old system, a set number of students passed and failed each year, and exam results were scaled accordingly. That’s no longer the case. We just can’t afford to write-off that many students. We need to bring out the very best in all of them.

In the 21st century, we need an education system that produces citizens that are creative, innovative and adaptable. It is the power of our ideas that will determine our future prosperity. As you read this, a Kiwi teenager could be working away in their bedroom on the next iPhone app sensation. Within weeks it could be downloaded onto the phones of millions of people around the world.

In 2003 three students from Helsinki University of Technology participated in a video game development competition. Six years later their company released the first version of Angry Birds, a game that has subsequently been downloaded over a billion times, making it one of the most popular games in the iPhone store. Their little start-up company now generates an income in excess of 75 million euro a year.

That’s the type of creativity and innovation we need here in New Zealand. In a new millennium and our education system needs to adapt to that, and schools are already adapting. Our schools are embracing 21st century learning.

The walls are quite literally coming down. Classrooms are no longer square boxes with a teacher standing at the front of the room. The whole world is now our classroom, and every one of our experiences on life’s journey provides another learning opportunity.

Our students today are more connected to the outside world than they have ever been before. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard a teacher explain how one of the kids in their classroom has taught them how to do something involving technology.

When I was at school we were taught that knowledge is power, that facts are weapons. Today humanity’s knowledge base is expanding at a far faster rate than we will ever be able to cram it into a kid’s head.

Knowledge memorisation and recall is no longer king. Ability to access, filter, and interpret knowledge is far more important. Learning, as it has always been, is a lifelong process.

The NCEA, based on our world-leading curriculum and its competency-based approach, recognises that. Students certainly need to know how to read and write, but they also need good levels of communication, self-management, perseverance, curiosity, and social skills.

What can easily be measured must not become the sole measure of success. Learning in the 21st century is personalised, it’s interactive, and it’s social. It’s time the government caught up.