Thursday, August 2, 2018

Empowering students to own their learning

John Spencer's and A.J Juliani's book, "Empower. What happens when students own their learning" has come at the right time for me. 

With Chapter headings like;
  • Our job as teachers, parents and leaders is not to prepare kids for 'something;' our job is to help kids prepare themselves for 'anything'. 
  • Assessment should be fun. No, really, we're serious.
  • The system should fit the student instead of the student fitting the system.
it's easy to get a sense of the key messages within the book. Couple those key messages with some funky, non-traditional layout and this book lives up to it's title. 

The book itself empowers the reader.

A key message for teachers considering how to Empower their learners starts with asking:

What decisions am I making that students could make for themselves?

It's  a shift from a compliance mindset to a self-directed mindset.

So, how to get active learning? It doesn't happen by accident. It isn't about guiding from the side, it's guiding on the ride. Spencer and Juliani quote guides like Gandalf, Yoda and Ms Frizzle as examples of guides on the ride.
Remembering that when a student doesn't know what to do in Maths we show them, when they don't know what to do in writing, we show them, then the same needs to apply when a student doesn't know how to self-start or self-manage - we need to show them. We teach them along the way, when they signal they need help. (This might not come from the student actually asking for help)

We're sometimes fearful to "release" ourselves enough from what we think we need to do as teachers and that students who have choice in their learning can end up doing nothing meaningful, and I've seen this happen. (Think of the student who looks very busy on their device but achieves nothing).
A recent post called, "Swim a bit Deeper" offers some great ideas about how we can ensure students are involved in worthwhile self-directed projects of work.

So, where to from here for me? I'm thinking ahead to our next step in Inquiry learning at Winchester School and how we might move from Inquiry time to Inquiring classrooms. What will be involved in making this transition?

  • Teachers will need to have a similar mindset to mine.
    • Get copies of the Empower book for others to read
  • A 6 year journey at our school might need to have stages: Ignite, Launch, Explore.
    • Map what needs to happen at each stage to develop students who truly can own their learning
  • Work with staff to develop "smorgasbords" for independent learning activities
  • Model this approach through the professional learning programme for teachers
    • How might I give choice and ownership to teachers of their professional learning?
It's a bit of a scramble of ideas, but from this will come clarity as I think through my reaction to the "Empower" book.

This self-starter is under way.
(Read the book and you'll get it)

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Developing a local curriculum (At Winchester School)

How to review a school curriculum.
This writing outlines some of the processes undertaken and explains some of the decisions made when reviewing a school curriculum. Others wanting to review their own school curriculum might find our journey useful.

This year I was appointed principal of Winchester School situated in Palmerston North. Our school curriculum was reviewed with our school community.

The New Zealand Curriculum Identifies five Key Competencies:
  • Thinking
  • Relating to others
  • Using language, symbols, and texts
  • Managing self
  • Participating and contributing

In addition English, the arts, health and physical education, mathematics and statistics, science, the social sciences, and technology are identified as the learning areas. So the question is asked, Which is the most important? Knowledge or skills?

Shane Kennedy’s post, ‘Curriculum, the culprit?certainly caused me to pause and think more deeply about what is most important. In deciding what is important we often turn to measures of academic performance, and the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) has been a favourable measure by many who make decisions about education in our country. If however, we change the lense by which we judge the outcomes of our education system, then we might be surprised by what we learn about our students and what we see as a result of our system.

  • What if student well-being or happiness was the most important outcome?
  • What if we judged the success of our education system on what we observe in our society?
  • Have we got our priorities right?

Content or knowledge teaching
To clarify, I do believe in content or knowledge teaching because there is a time and place for us as teachers to impart ideas and clarify understandings. However, if all we do is teach content, then we’re neither fulfilling the full vision of the New Zealand Curriculum, nor are we equipping our students with all the necessary skills that they will need to actually ‘cut it’ in today’s society. Also, who decides what’s most important or what will make our youth most likely to succeed?

The only way to really know is to ask your school community. I interpret this as developing a local curriculum.  That is, one where our school’s community has decided what will be prioritised. In New Zealand we have the autonomy and the freedom to develop our own curriculum and to decide what we believe is most important for the students of our schools. Asking our community what they value above all else determines what we focus on. And what is focussed on gets achieved.

We’ve placed Key Competencies as being important within our school curriculum. When I had been principal for a few weeks at my current school, I simply asked, “What kind of learner do you want your child to be?
All responses were wordled and the following image helped us see what our community wanted.

There was some initial alignment to Michael Fullan’s New Pedagogies for Deep Learning work which has 6 competencies: collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, citizenship, character and communication.
After further consultation with the community, staff and students, we’ve decided on our outcomes for Winchester School.

Students, teachers and parents were consulted as to what they considered to be important to learn about. As the outcomes emerged it was important to consider what we learned about and how this would support our outcomes. For example, in the wordle above, our community indicated that we want our children to be confident.  Therefore we have to consider what learning experiences will enable this outcome to occur.

Using an Inquiry approach to learning became apparent because this would support our prioritised outcomes. These ideas were coupled with our outcomes and then the New Zealand Curriculum was considered again to ensure all learning areas would be explored by our students.

A Local Curriculum
Developing a local curriculum is important because the process consolidates what each school does. A local curriculum should not be about cutting anything out, but rather highlighting what is most valued from the school community's perspective.  A local curriculum enables a common language to be developed within each school and is the framework for planning. The review process gives a focus and a reason for doing what we do. Considering what the NZC states and ensuring that all learning areas are included is also an important part of the process.

Our New Zealand Curriculum places a heavy emphasis on the Key Competencies and some critics would question how these outcomes might be measured. Questions asked could include, ‘How will our school know if students are improving at being Confident or Creative?’ This is a fair question. We are embedding our outcomes into reporting to parents so that progress and achievement can be seen over time. We are developing key descriptors for each of our four outcomes so we can report against those.

When placing Key Competencies so importantly within our curriculum, a key component in knowing whether students are developing their skills will be teachers observing students. Kath Murdoch has a term for this; release. She names "release" as one of 9 key teacher attributes in her book, "The Power of Inquiry".
A teacher who can release themselves from the learning process for periods of time is able to observe what is actually happening in the class.

There are many facets to consider when developing a local curriculum. I've outlined the thinking to date and wonder what we might not have considered so far. The opportunity to write about this recent work was well timed. It has allowed me to reflect and to justify the decisions that we've made.

I hope that outlining the process we undertook is useful for any reader considering what process they might use as they review their own school curriculum.

Fullan, M., McEachen, J., Quinn, J. (2016). New Pedagogies for Deep Learning. NPDL Global Report. (1st ed.). Ontario, Canada: Retrieved from

Kennedy, S. (2014, March 05). Curriculum, the culprit? Retrieved October 15, 2017, from

Ministry of Education (2007). The New Zealand Curriculum. Retrieved October 15, 2017, from

Murdoch, K. ( 2015). The Power of Inquiry : Teaching & Learning with Curiosity, Creativity & Purpose in the Contemporary Classroom. Melbourne Seastar Education

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Personalising the learning app

I think there's still a bit of confusion for some over the term "personalising" learning. 

“Make Learning Personal” (Bray & McClaskey, 2015) states that in a personalised learning environment, “Learning starts with the learner. Learners understand how they learn best so they can become active participants in designing their learning goals along with the teacher. Learners take responsibility for their learning, they are motivated and challenged as they learn so they work harder than their teacher.”

The challenge for us educators is to find how the system can fit the learner, rather than the other way around.

I've come to think of it like the Stuff App. Here I'm able to personalise my news feed and scroll past the stuff that's not relevant. I can change my view to compact or expanded and I can select local news or whatever category I wish to include. Some might take this for granted but when we think of how News has evolved over time, this app approach certainly allows for personalisation compared to the news on TV. 
When watching TV News, we have to wait for the parts we're really interested in and sit through all the irrelevant parts. Even in a newspaper i'm able to skim over the stuff I have no interest in - although I've had to pay for the whole paper!

I guess a lot more media is heading this way - how many under 20 year olds actually watch "free to air" TV? I'd suggest not many. They've become accustomed to viewing what they're interested in, be it on youtube, or paying for a TV series they can download and watch immediately, rather than waiting for it each week on TV.

So, how might this apply to education?

How might we enable students to pick and choose the parts they need and want rather than having to wait for the "newsreader" to get through all the boring bits or having to wait for the weekly instalment?

Why not let our students download what they want, when they want and have a more personalised experience?

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

What's the point of School?

Professor Guy Glaxton posed this question in the title of his 2008 book, "What's the point of School?" It's a punchy title that contains a huge question!

I've been writing a section for our school website called, "Our Future Direction" and I'm using this to ask largely rhetorical questions of the parent community at our school. I'm drawing attention to this via the school newsletter and am hopeful that people are considering the ideas ahead of some consultation that we will have about the future direction of our school.

I've come to this. What is the point of school? Things have got complicated. Really complicated. So, it's important to remind oneself of the moral purpose of what I'm doing. For me, and I hate to sound like a Miss World contestant here, but I do want to make the world a better place and to have world peace.

We need to consider what's really important here. What do we value most in education? In school? What are we all about? Why do we do what we do?

Watch the clip below and ask; why do we do what we do? What's the point of school?

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Making it make sense

I'm so close to making it make sense that I can almost taste it. It's right there and it's becming clearer and clearer how to bring the parts if my school's curriculum together.
Context is that I've had 3 terms leading at my current school and I'm slowly getting my head around it.
It happens in phases. It has to. It goes like this. Phase 1: observe and ask questions.  Get to know people. Build trust. Build relationships. Be real. Give it time.
Phase 2: systems.
Phase 3: curriculum. Learning.

I'm almost out of the systems phase and have now got the head space for phase 3 and it's about time!

We have a pretty good curriculum.  It almost makes sense to me. I've inherited it and some aspects are taking me a while to fully understand but I'm respecting the fact that some good decisions have been made before my time and that it makes sense to others. By observing and listening there are so e loose ends that need bringing together.

And that's the work we're about to embark on. It'll involve everyone. It'll be messy for a while. It'll be challenging for some. It'll be rewarding.

We need to sort our learner profile.  Note learner not graduate profile. It needs to be about now not 6 years from now.

We need to know what we want our learners to be like and why. Is the ability to move quietly in single file from point a to b still important? Is neat handwriting valued or a thing of the past? Is critical thinking something we value? If we really want our learners to be creative, how might qe really give effect to this?

Once we have our core skills named then we can match the contexts from our rich curriculum to those. E.g. traditions, culture or entrepreneurship might fit under a "confident " type banner.

I've found viewing "Most likely to Succeed" again an inspiration and this clip here very thought provoking too.

I am looking forward to getting back to my desk and planning ahead for term 2. Talking with learners about what they want the school to be like and what they want to learn about is going to be interesting. 
Asking the same of parents and staff will be too. My job is to bring it all together and identify if we have any gaps.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

The new guy.

I've begun at a new school as Principal after 7 years at my first school as Principal. I've moved from a rural U3 school to urban U5.

I came home from day one and felt pleased I'd had 7 years experience to equip me to deal with day 1. I'm nearly 2 weeks into it. It's been a blur. It's exciting. It feels right. I'm being well supported and made to feel so welcome. i'm aware there'll be a honeymoon period.

I was welcomed officially by the school through song, some short speeches and flowers for my wife and a book for our 2 year daughter. Nice. Meet a prospective parent. Time in rooms. Chat to some students. Lunchtime. The afternoon whizzed by and I then went out and farewelled everyone at the front gate. Board meeting that night and it was over.

This week I've been having 30 minute one to one chats with each staff member. We're breaking ice and talking about things that have come to light from a self-review sheet I gave out at Teachers only day in the school holidays.

I'm learning lots. Asking questions. Trying to contribute and take the lead. I know nothing is really going to happen until I get relationships going, send some time and build the relational trust. Everyone gets it. Time. Energy. And more time.

I came in feeling a bit sorry for the school to be honest. 20 years with an outstanding leader and a staff that have been together for a long time. And then, BOOM, me! I was worried that it would be strange for them, I'm sure it is. I was worried that they'd worry I would come in and make all these changes. I said reassuring things to let them know that I'm more about evolution than revolution, so they needn't panic.

I had an epiphany today. It's not them that will change as much as what I will. Everything's new for me. It's the same for them, apart from me. It's a different person, and yes, I'll have a different way and different strengths and weaknesses, but things will be the same, for a while anyway. I will change though. Far more quickly.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Is school just preparation for life?

I kind of understand what people mean when they say that school is preparation for life, that primary school is preparation for secondary school (and therefore secondary school must be preparation for university and so it's university that is preparation for real life). And I guess that means that kindy is prep for school.

My problem with this chain of thinking is that it belittles the significance of the "now" in each instance. What is happening now is important for each learner and is real life to them.

I tend to agree more with Dewey's quote above. The power of this way of thinking is that rather than viewing our work as preparation for the next stage we must consider what will make learners successful now. By guaranteeing their success now, we are probably guaranteeing their success later too. And by success I don't necessarily mean achieving NCEA or going to university.

When I consider what I would deem as being successful in life, I tend to think that someone is doing something they are passionate about, that they have chosen to do (not forced into or fallen into by default), that they treat themselves and others well, that they can contribute in positive ways to their community, they're happy (content) and they have a positive view of themselves.

We must consider if what we are doing is ensuring that learners of all ages are being successful in their life now, not just later.

My belief is that they Key Competencies of the NZ Curriculum are the essential ingredient in the recipe of ensuring our learners experience success both now and in the future. Are our classrooms based on teaching these competencies and allowing authentic opportunities for learners to practice and demonstrate these?

In order for schools to fulfil the vision of actively involved, confident, connected and life long learners then Key Competencies need to be at the fore of our thinking in curriculum design and school culture. It would be pointless to have learners who can only relate to others sometime in the future and who can manage themselves at some later point in their life. Surely, to be successful at school then learners need to be competent at these skills as soon as possible.
Think about your "ultimate learner" or what your top 3 outcomes are for learners in your class or school and then ensure that your class/kura is enabling learners to become capable in this now, not just in the future.

Is school just preparation for life?