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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Learning Intentions & Creativity in New Zealand Schools

By Peter DeWitt — March 21, 2014 6 min read
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When I first read the Davinci Code by Dan Brown, I had to take breaks where I walked away for twenty minutes, an hour, sometimes a day. The book was so cerebral to me that I needed to take breaks because my brain hurt. Other times I would have to look up what Brown was referencing, and often found myself going off on tangents, before I would refocus and go back to the book.

I love when something inspires us to think. He Davinci Code forced me to jump into the pit of learning (Nottingham). It’s how I feel as I sit here in Auckland, New Zealand about to attend the three day education festival. As someone who loves education, having dinner conversations that focus on education, the night before I attend a three day festival centered around education, gets me excited.

On Thursday, I was able to visit a couple of primary schools. For full disclosure, both schools are Visible Learning schools, which I am a trainer. Over the years I have been critical of corporate reform, but I am inspired by Hattie’s work. I cannot deny that there are many misconceptions about Hattie’s work, but I’m not so sure those people ever read the Visible Learning books or saw a school in action. The schools I visited yesterday only reinforced that feeling.

Two schools, in two very different areas. One was Stonefields School, which was only opened a few years ago. If you have been around long enough to remember the open classroom model, than you may be able to picture Stonefields in your head. After you gain the picture in your head, multiply the creativity you see by about 10, and then move on. When you look at the picture below, you will see students in uniforms. Uniforms are the norm for students in New Zealand. It’s not a private vs. public issue.

And yes, the school has incredible diversity and challenges as well. In fact, both schools have students who are white, Asian, and from diverse Pacific Island backgrounds as well, which means English is not the primary language of many students or their parents.

In New Zealand students begin school at year five. I’m not talking about a date at the beginning of the school year like we have in the United States, but rather that they start school on their actual fifth birthday. Many students begin their school experience during the year, and not on the “first day of school.” New students are celebrated. And yes, some parents forget or ignore to send their children to school on their fifth birthday.

Stonefields has hubs, and they were designed by the principal Sarah Martin, and her staff. Each hub is for a different year, but those hubs may house students from the year before or a year after. For example, Hub 5 may very well have year 4 or year 6 students. While in those hubs students get time for creativity called “Breakthrough” time.

Based on the Google 20% rule, which Google may not even offer anymore, these students can follow their own paths, either alone or as a group. They set their goals at the beginning of the year, but they are authentically assessed throughout their experience, both in their breakthrough time, and their regular school time. It’s important that they know where they are going, and how they are doing.

Feedback is key. After all, students come to school to learn. Learning is about the challenge, and the social-emotional component. It’s not either or.

The second school was Sylvia Park School. Sylvia Park was “low performing” until about 9 years ago when Barbara Alaalatoa, the principal entered into the school. They worked hard, looked at the data, and had to set common goals. Barbara and the staff focus on learning intentions with students, and their work, as she says it, is never done, and it’s also never easy.

It was inspiring to see students work individually or in groups. Some of the teachers were holding small group sessions for students who needed remediation, and I watched as students stood up and left the group because they felt comfortable that they knew the information already at didn’t need the level of remediation the teacher was offering.

I also watched as students opened up their Google documents to share what they had been learning, and took a look at the feedback the teacher offered to them. Some of it was not any different than what happens in elementary schools around the United States, but the feedback was different. It was direct, and personalized for the learner, and was not “loosy-goosy.” It was all part of a well-orchestrated machine that takes a considerable amount of planning and collaboration with the teachers and school principal.

Rules Are Universal

Like the United States, New Zealand has rules too. They have a charter system that they have to go through every few years. Representatives from the ministry come into school to give them feedback and reports. All schools have areas they have to work on in order to remain effective. Keep in mind, that when I refer to charters I am not referring to charter schools. These are public schools like you would find in any neighborhood in the states.

Throughout the day, and throughout my experiences learning from John Hattie, I do believe that all teachers and students need learning intentions. Those learning intentions are based on standards. I have often asked whether it’s the standards that are bad or what we do with them. New Zealand has standards, but the learning intentions that are decided, at least in the schools I visited, come from the principal, teachers and students. It is collaborative learning at its best. According to both principals, it is hard at times, and very messy as well.

I would like to think that we could do the same in our schools. We should have national standards that are designed collaboratively by teachers, researchers, parents, students, etc., and then have the flexibility to adapt those standards to the learning intentions that we design with students and parents. As much as some may say that we have that flexibility, we don’t have it in many schools.

How Rules Are Delivered

When given a rule from the top, that rule is dissected by the second party who receives it, and based on their experiences, expertise, and self-confidence, deliver it to the next party in very different ways. One principal may tell teachers that they can adapt the standards and create the learning intentions that will best suit students, while other principals may say adopt it and do it all the same. Some principals and teachers believe in ongoing dialogue with parents and students, while others only participate in their very own monologue.

As educators, we still need time to digest the changes we have been under over the past few years. I think some are very harmful. New Zealand has a battery of standardized nationally-normed tests, but they can choose from a list, and teachers are not penalized by the results, but they are very much held accountable by their principal, but most of all by their students.

In order to move forward, regardless of our situations, we need to find ways to adapt to the changes, without being forced to adopt them all. I cannot speak for all schools, but I can control my own actions as a principal, which means continuing to encourage teacher, student and parent input no matter how many changes have come along (I will always be vocal about the bad changes).

For each of us that adaptation looks very different. Perhaps it’s because I saw two school communities with constraints practicing creativity, and encouraging student voice, but I can’t help but keep questioning how we can best adapt to our changes.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.