The average student

the average student

I’ve been thinking lately about the average student … the learner in your classroom who works steadily and unassumingly, who doesn’t require too much intervention and who achieves middle of the road grades. A decade ago, as a full time teacher, I considered these students to be my easy students. As long as they made regular progress and met appropriate learning outcomes for their age and stage, I was doing my job.

Fast forward ten years … I am now a mother of three young children and as part of my role with CORE, I develop curriculum support materials. With wisdom and experience, I realise that I was selling my so called “average students” short.

This year I’ve returned to work as a teacher one day a week. As I re-enter the classroom I have a new outlook on students who are considered to be average, and a new appreciation of the far reaching influence of teacher expectations. In this blog I share several epiphanies that have led me to re-shape my teaching approach.

Epiphany 1: The power of believing that you can improve

Several months ago I watched a TED talk delivered by Carol Dweck. In the talk, Carol reflects on the power of “yet” as she describes an American high school that gives out “not yet” grades to students who don’t pass a course. She commends this idea because it delivers the message that students are on a learning journey where their minds and abilities can be developed. This talk struck a chord with me. It has led me to realise both the peril and futility of labelling students as average. If we promote a growth mindset in our classrooms, where the teacher and students reject the idea that intelligence is fixed and believe in their ability to improve, then everyone can reach their full potential and be anything but average.

Since returning to the classroom, I consciously look for opportunities to build a growth mindset with my students. Some strategies that I’ve tried so far include:

  • Praising students’ efforts and perseverance instead of solely focusing on outcomes and achievement.
  • Sharing stories about myself as a learner, describing the times that I have had to put in more effort and seek extra support to grow my mind.
  • Asking my students to reflect on moments in their life where practice led to improvement.
  • Encouraging my students to relish the challenge of hard work and to recognise mistakes as opportunities for learning.

Epiphany 2: Teacher expectations shape student achievement

Research clearly shows that teacher expectations influence student performance. Timperley and Phillips (2003) report that teachers’ expectations for student achievement become their goals for the students and shape their daily classroom decisions and actions. Rubie-Davies (2014) found that teachers who group students according to their ability often expose different groups to very different learning activities. Students who are considered to be high achievers are given complex, exciting activities and are often able to exercise choice as they learn. Students who are considered to be average and low achievers are given easier work, often of a repetitive, skill based nature. Furthermore, students who are consistently labelled as average or low achievers often suffer low self esteem and a lack of belief in their ability to improve.

I recall, slightly shamed faced, the way that I taught multiplication in my first few years of teaching. Consistent with school wide expectations, I taught my middling year 4 students the 2x, 5x, and 10x tables and I left the remaining multiplication facts for the year 5 teacher to cover. Although a significant number of students mastered these times tables quickly I didn’t push them to go further. As I battled the crowded curriculum, I settled for “just good enough” and inadvertently built them a ceiling of achievement.

As an educator today, I aspire to be a high expectations teacher to all; someone who nurtures every glimmer of potential that students show; someone who pushes for more. Some practical steps I am trying in the classroom include:

  • Setting individual goals with students based on their current needs.
  • Recognising and celebrating individual talents through praise, awards, and tuakana-teina relationships.
  • Planning more challenging tasks to stretch students.
  • Using high expectation language such as “not yet”, “personal excellence”, “being your best”, etc
  • Providing choice in learning activities so all students have the opportunity to complete cognitively demanding tasks.
  • Grouping students in a variety of ways, rather than consistently grouping students by ability.


“When students are given more advanced opportunities to learn, they can make more progress than might previously have been thought possible."
Christine Rubie-Davies, Becoming a High Expectation Teacher, 2014, p 218.

Epiphany 3: Motivation is everything

My middle child is sometimes dreamy and forgetful. There has been many a time when we have had to turn back home during our car trips to school because he has forgotten his school bag or his shoes. I often have to repeat instructions to him because he can’t remember what he has been asked to do. It came as a huge surprise to me when, as a four year old, he immediately memorised a 4 digit pin number to access his Nan’s iPad. He only had to be told the pin number twice and it stuck fast in his memory. This leads me to my final epiphany … students learn best when they are motivated to learn.

There is extensive, well-documented evidence that shows that students are motivated to learn when:

  • they are interested in what they are being taught
  • they can see tangible benefits to their learning
  • they see their own identities, values, and cultures reflected in what they learn
  • they have input in the design and direction of the learning programme.

I recently watched an EDtalk where Ewan McIntosh from No Tosh discusses the benefits of students directing their own learning. Ewan gives an example of a primary school in Scotland where teachers capitalised on students’ interest in diggers. He reports that the motivation, engagement, and input of the students led to an astonishing depth and breadth of learning.

Carol Dweck, one of the world’s leading researchers in the field of motivation, states:
“Motivation is often more important than your initial ability in determining whether you succeed in the long run. In fact, many creative geniuses were not born that way. They were often fairly ordinary people who became extraordinarily motivated.”

This year, as I work with my class of six year olds, I am incorporating new strategies to increase student motivation and foster a love of learning. Some new approaches include:

  • Listening to the voices of my learners to find out what it is that they are most interested in.
  • Incorporating teaching and learning activities that reflect these interests.
  • Including real life learning experiences wherever possible.
  • Allowing students to make suggestions and choices about their learning.
  • Celebrating the diversity of my students, incorporating their cultural identities, contexts, values, and languages into my teaching.
  • Adapting my planning and timetable when students’ interests lead elsewhere.
  • Seizing the teachable moment.


Teachers should never stop searching for better ways to educate, engage, and motivate students.  As I reflect on my personal and professional growth over the last ten years I can’t help but wonder how I will evolve as an educator during the next decade. One thing I know for sure, I will rally against the notion of an “average student” because I have come to realise that average students need not exist. The voice of the average child, illustrated in the poem below, will be heard and acted upon.

The Average Child by Mike Buscemi
I don’t cause teachers trouble;
My grades have been okay.
I listen in my classes.
I’m in school every day.
My teachers think I’m average;
My parents think so too.
I wish I didn’t know that, though;
There’s lots I’d like to do.
I’d like to build a rocket;
I read a book on how.
Or start a stamp collection…
But no use trying now.
’Cause, since I found I’m average,
I’m smart enough you see
To know there’s nothing special
I should expect of me.
I’m part of that majority,
That hump part of the bell,
Who spends his life unnoticed
In an average kind of hell.

Mike Buscemi


Is your school coherent?

variable message sign

Teachers and curriculum leaders, when was the last time you looked at the Directions for Learning, the so-called front end of the NZ Curriculum? It includes the Vision, Values, Key Competencies, and Principles.

Under Principles, one item is called Coherence. NZ Curriculum Online has a whole section on it at

Coherence has three parts; Connections, Transitions, and Pathways. I am going to concentrate on Connections and use examples from the project I work in LEARNZ.

Connections within a learning area

Connections are defined in this instance as: links within and across learning areas.

How do you make connections within a learning area? As well as other techniques, I believe many teachers already use first-rate questioning skills during class discussions that make such connections explicit for students. That may often take place in summary sessions towards the end of “topics”.

Read the rest of this entry »


Transforming our learners’ experiences

Transforming our learners’ experiences

“Leaders that sustain their transformation always remember the reason for the journey: Transformation leads to new ways of helping families to self-sufficiency. Transformation increases capacity to help communities” (Oftelie, 2014).

Talking about ‘transformation’ can feel rather esoteric, vague and resonant of a hundred other buzzwords of the moment. That said, what’s important is to recognise that, internationally, many organisations and schools are having conversations about how we can rethink the design education systems and learning so that our learners and colleagues can gain the greatest opportunity to learn.  This was the essence that lay at the heart of my recent CORE Breakfasts in Wellington and Christchurch a few days ago, both fully sold out and livestreamed across New Zealand.

View Slideshare presentation

It’s easy to talk about educating students for ‘jobs that don’t exist yet’ – in fact, it’s pretty much the meme du jour when people are arguing for change. There is no doubt, of course, that there are substantial changes occurring in economies, social structures, cultures, governments and so on, driven by globalisation and technological developments. The 2015 CORE Ten Trends offer a useful overview of the big picture shifts that we can see across international discourses around schooling and education.

Preparing students for this changed environment is a central driver for transformation – and it raises questions that go right to the heart of what schooling is for. Evolution over centuries highlight that schools have been designed for a variety of purposes: to pass on cultural important knowledge and behaviours; to educate a new clergy through monastic teachings; to instil basic literacies and maintain orderly citizenry; to prepare people to make worthwhile contributions to society.

With recent changing environmental factors has come increased understanding that these previous systems, designed around the teachers’ intent, do not prepare all learners adequately for “a decent life”. We are seeing renewed appreciation for the impact of systems that are oriented to the learner. In effect, a shift from seeing education in terms of human capital and shifting towards seeing it in terms of human rights (Reis Monteiro, 2014).

Our moral imperative

Fullan & Langworthy (2013) remind us that “effective and sustainable change happens when there is a consensus among all stakeholders that the new goals are a moral imperative” while Timperley et al. (2014) suggest that “momentum for substantive transformation builds from multiple inquiries that show change for learners is possible.” It involves a combination of shared vision, and negotiated processes that make impact visible over time.

Removing barriers for learning Arguably, it is a moral imperative that is more compelling than economic drivers when it comes to motivating ourselves to reimagine what’s possible. Thinking about removing barriers to learning for the students, whānau and colleagues with whom we spend time every day has an immediacy to it that preparing for jobs of the future fails to achieve.

The breakfast sessions this week focused strongly on transformation as a shift towards inclusive, culturally responsive models. These are guided by the central philosophy that all learners deserve to belong at school and ask us to think about how we can deliberately design learning that is deeply motivating and agentic for students we are with today.

Transformation: Processes and Signposts

transformation At the breakfast sessions, we explored the ‘why’ of transformation, as discussed above, and then dived into concepts related to transformation being both a process and also qualified by a set of ‘signposts’. Processes for transformation, embodied in a range of frameworks from spirals for inquiry (Timperley et al., 2014) and design thinking to Universal Design for Learning and Appreciative Inquiry, all centre on models that are socio-constructed, start with evidence of people’s differences and needs and involve participants throughout an iterative, reflective process. At its heart, transformation towards inclusive environments cannot be imposed or ‘done to’ – it is a negotiated process from start to finish.

Equally, if a process of change is to be a constructed one, there can be no pre-set destination. Rather, it is a mindset, a continual process of evidence-based reflection and renewal. That said, in order to create change in what we think and believe, we need to make our tacit understandings explicit and compare what we do with examples of where we might go. This can help create a shared language for change in relation to what we know to be effective for modern, diverse, tech-rich environments. Again, while no size fits all, the Ten Trends, the trial ERO indicators, the 7 Principles for Learning (Dumont, 2010), Hattie’s Visible Learning syntheses all might offer starting points for schools as they reflect on what’s important. At their heart lie learning models that deliberately offer agency and inclusive practices.

Considerations for leaders: Where to begin

Crucially, we need to accept that there is no blueprint or quick tick sheet for reimagined models of education. Negotiated processes take time, must involve students, whānau, community, teachers – and are iterative. One is never ‘done!’ Leaders of all organisations, not just schools, are experiencing this same disruption.

We’re living in one of the most disruptive times since the Great Depression. Demand for services has risen sharply, while resources are constantly contested. The best leaders are not hoping for magic bullets—they’re transforming their organizations by reviewing their value proposition, scanning for value opportunities, and adapting their policies, programs, production, and provision” (Oftelie, 2014).

While this can feel uncertain (and exciting!) it means that modern leadership needs us to accept that this is ‘the work’, not an add-on but a way of living the work.  Being flexible and reflective are important. All inquiry learning is messy but messiness is part of transformation.
We know change creates high levels of stress due to the ‘cognitive dissonance’ that can occur when we are confronted with ideas that are different to how we have always done things. It goes right to the heart of our values and beliefs. So, a clear process that is made visible and involves all participants is key. Change is easier to manage if you know there will be dips and challenges on the way and if you feel like you have real skin in the game.

Note: This CORE Breakfast session will be presented again at ULearn (October) and in Auckland, 6 November.



Image sources:


Uia mai koia whakahuatiake ko wai te tupuna e?

Making iwi visible

PūkākīYou may ask, who is this ancestral figure standing before me? You may have recognised his face on the twenty-cent coin. Did you ever stop to think of the story behind this carved figure? Did you know he has a living whakapapa that flourishes today and was once revered for his fighting prowess and leadership? That his charisma is still as influential now as when he once walked the land?

Uia mai koia whakahuatiake ko wai te tupuna e?

Ko Pūkākī! His name is PŪKĀKĪ!

I gaze at him and I see my Nan. I look at him and I see my children. I touch him and I feel my mokopuna — those that are here now and those still to come. How can this be? Because he is one in a long line of tupuna I can exalt and lay claim to in my whakapapa. If there should be a hint of self-importance in proclaiming this, I confess it with undenied arrogance, and hope that all children of Māori descent can do the same with their tupuna. Why? Because not so long ago I was asked who was one of my heroes when I was at primary school, and sadly, all I could say was Christopher Columbus? Marco Polo? Auē!

They were some of the greatest explorers of all time when I was at school. We were told stories about their exploits, discoveries, and personal challenges. I did not know then that there were as many explorers and heroes in my Māori world of Te Arawa who could equal their heroism and self sacrifice. Navigators, architects, scientists, horticulturalists, builders, artists, and many charismatic leaders. Not surprisingly, there were just as many women as there were men. We had our own Queen Victorias, Queen Elizabeths, and Henry the Eighths!

As my tupuna were not exalted in the schoolbooks that I read, nor illuminated in the curriculum that served us, I did not realise my line of descent or its magnificence. We might have sung about some of our tupuna, but their stories were largely marginalised and invisible to us in class. A clear example: the Hauhau rebellion. I read, or maybe heard, that they were a band of armed rebels fighting against the government. In my head, Hauhau’s were rebels on the run. Hauhau’s were Māori. I was Māori. Being Māori was bad. I remember a sense of shame, but did not really know why. What I came to learn much later in life was the true reason for their rebellious actions.

I do not write this to pathologise past colonial injustices, or eulogise past legislative violations of the Treaty of Waitangi. Far from it! My deliberate act of facilitation? To ensure that you as an architect of classroom content ensure the authentic voice of iwi resonates in the curriculum that serves our mokopuna. Iwi are the keepers of tribal memory. Iwi are the guardians of knowledge for future generations. Iwi will future-proof our last bastion of truly being Māori — the marae. Your role in the classroom as an ambassador, a conduit, or a storyteller for iwi is critical in shaping mokopuna views of the world.

Riches, remembrance, reclamation

Committing energy to an iwi audit or an iwi environmental scan, can reveal rich resources lying in wait for their inclusion in the curriculum. The recovery and remembrance of hapū and iwi stories offer students opportunities to experience qualities like perseverance, courage, humility, resilience, sheer determination and compassion, coming alive in ancestral stories. Inspiration comes from knowing who you are, whom you represent, where you come from. Schools play an important role in sustaining tribal knowledge. This reclamation of stories, of language, of connection are needed now more than ever for Māori students to affirm their identity, to nourish and ground them in a fast-paced technological world. If you honour iwi in your curriculum, then hapū and whānau will follow. Make it your mission to illuminate iwi voice. Find out who the local hapu are, and how many mokopuna from these hapū attend your school, or are in your class. If we are proactively seeking ways to make whānau visible, then mokopuna will see themselves reflected in the content.

Whakapapa defines your unique place in the world. Drilled in me from a young age, each whānau gathering affirmed this over and over again. My Nan, the matriarch, referred to in our whānau as “The Sheriff”, never let us forget what her badge of honour said: Ngāti Pūkākī – descendant of Te Whanoa. I was a proud Māori at home. I was even prouder at the pā. My cousins could build tin boats that sailed on our lake. We were young entrepreneurs — performing haka on the doorstep of our whare tupuna to earn lolly money. We felt the independence of gathering koura and cooking our catch over an open fire. We were masters of our pā environment, yet at school, we left most of our Māori-ness at the gate and picked it up on our way out — maybe it was just me who felt this way in my early days at Primary.

Anyone can do it

I believe there are treasures in every iwi waiting for schools to see their worth. With a little investigation, imagine how richly resourced your content could be? In showing examples of what I found, I’m challenging you to go and look for resources in your own back yard. I’m sure you will be surprised at what you find. What might you discover sitting with your iwi? Your surrounding hapū? Your own whānau that might help resource your curriculum?

My quick hunt reveals…

Te Taumata o Ngāti Whakaue

Currently Te Taumata o Ngāti Whakaue have initiated a number of programmes to support schools, early childhood centres and whānau to be knowledgeable in the language, culture and identity of ‘Ngāti Whakauetanga’. Programmes range from Matakōkiri (a unique iwi based Science programme offered in the school holidays for descendants and their whānau), Rangihakahaka (designed to localise Ngāti Whakauetanga in to the school’s curriculum), Amohia (a Whakaue based literacy programme) just to name a few.


Some information

Curriculum use

Te Rangihakahaka


Te Rangihakahaka

Te Rangihakahaka is a professional development initiative set up by Te Taumata o Ngati Whakaue with the express intent of educators implementing localised stories in to their programmes. Underpinned by Ngāti Whakaue identity, language and culture the initiative links directly to the vision of Ngāti Whakaue – Ngāti Whakaue iho, Ngāti Whakaue ake.

Booklet with notes on signifcant landmarks, place names, geographical features, street names, and local maps. Also discusses possibilities for curriculum integration and the rationale for sharng Ngāti Whakauetanga. Images both historic and current give a sense of place and belonging. 

For:recording notes as people are taken on guided tours (hīkoi) of significant places by a knowledeable guide
Use with:
ākonga, whānau, kaiako, support staff, Boards for Trustees

Ngāti Whakaue
Early Readers

Ngāti Whakaue - Early readers

A series of Early Childhood readers, written and published by Te Taumata o Ngāti Whakaue Iho Ake Trust. Contributed to by Ngāti Whakaue whānau, they are designed to celebrate Ngāti Whakaue reo, identity and culture. Images that are instantly recognisable and significant to Ngāti Whakaue flood the pages as a reminder of the pride in ancestral connection. Our people, our reo, our icons – proud mokopuna.

Beautiful images with simple sentences in Te Reo o Ngāti Whakaue Māori that can be used as readers with mokopuna and whānau. 

Use with:
Students, whānau and kaiako can create their own stories complete with images that reflect the local environment.

Practising simple sentence structures
Recounting stories
Substitution of own vocab and images to tell your own story
anguage whakataukī, whakatauākī, etc.

Ngati Whakaue – Te Arawa Writer’s Grant
In 2011 Ngati Whakaue Education Endowment Trust Board set up a grant entitled Ngati Whakaue – Te Arawa Writer’s Grant. It’s purpose, to support, develop and nurture Ngati Whakaue-Te Arawa Writers.

Kepa Ehau
me ōna Hononga

Kepa Ehau me ōna Hononga

This book is not sold in shops. I hope it will one day

Kepa Ehau me ōna Hononga’, penned by Rangitihi Pene is a biography of Kepa Anaha Hamuera Ehau of Te Arawa. One of the greatest orators in Te Arawa, the book chronicles his adult years, significant influences on his life and his gift to his people. Appendices offer the reader eight examples of Kepa’s eloquent orations and written examples from Kepa’s whakapapa book. He further discusses English devices and literary techniques that Kepa used to infuse his speeches with lore, tradition and imagery rich in metaphor and poetic technique.

An amazing biographical resource rich with story, historical evidence and beautiful language excerpts. Rangitihi has included examples of Kepa Ehau’s oratorial pieces. Rich in metaphor and imagery they evidence craftsmanship at its best. Rangitihi offers an ananlysis of some of the literary devices used that illustrate assonance, metaphor, alliteration, biary opposites etc.
Use with:
students and adults studying the depth of the language

How? – one example
studying poetic devices
crafting your own speeches
use of metaphor, imagery to make a point
Study of English using Te Reo Māori examples
There are also links to radio archive recordings of Kepa Ehau delivering his speeches.

Pou o Whakaue

Pou o whakaue

Purchase from: Mc Cleods Booksellers Rotorua

Written by Cyrus Hingston, Pou o Whakaue tells the history of eight marae of Whakaue: Te Papa i- Ōuru, Paratehoata me Te Kohea, Te Kuirau, Owhata, Hurungaterangi, Te Koutu-Tumahaurangi, Waikuta and Whakaue. It describes key ancestral figures, significant landmarks, the meeting houses, the people and their memories of the marae and relationships to the ancestor Whakaue and Te Arawa whanui.

History of eight marae

Use with:
Students, whānau, kaiako, hapū, iwi

Example of how students and/or schools etc could write a history of their own marae – he sues interviews, research, maps, Māori Land Court Records etc to tell each amrae story in both languages.

Kaiako and/or whānau in collaboration with local hapū/iwi, could build a bank of marae resources for each marae in the local area

Guided tours of the marae
Telling stories at noho marae

Mitai Rolleston
He Kanohi Kitea
o Ngāti Whakaue

Mitai Rolleston
Purchase from: Mc Cleods Booksellers Rotorua

‘Mitai Rolleston – He Kanohi Kitea o Ngāti Whakaue’ is beautiful tribute to the late Ngāti Whakaue kaumatua Mitai Rolleston who dedicated the last 25 years of his life in service to his iwi, Ngāti Whakaue. Collated by his daughter Toni Cummins, this book features memoirs and tributes from many of Ngāti Whakaue who he worked closely with as well and those whom he represented in his role as kaumātua. At the heart of this book is his unwavering love for Ngāti Whakaue reflected in the voices of the writers.

Biographical account written in the words of the people – “Waiho ma te tangata e mihi” – Let others sing your praises

Use with:
Students, whānau, kaiako, hapū, iwi

Students could write biographies on significant kaumatua/personalities in their area by working with poeple to tell their story of the person whose life is being acknowledged

Other Publications celebrating Ngāti Whakauetanga

The Haane Manahi Story

Haane Manahi story

The Haane Manahi Story written by Paul Moon is a biography detailing the life of Lance Sargeant Haane Manahi of 28 Māori Battalion and his astonishing feats of bravery at Takrouna, Tunisia, during the Second World War. Recommended for a Victoria Cross by four Allied generals, including Freyberg and Montgomery, the book uncovers the events surrounding the Victoria Cross recommendation and its downgrading to a Distinguished Conduct Medal.

Biographical accountof Haane Manahi’s life

Use with:
Students, whānau, kaiako, hapū, iwi

Take excerpts from the story that emulate heroism, courage under fire and ask students to find their own stories

One story in the book talks about Haane seeing a ‘tohu’ of one of our Ngāti Whakaue Atua called ‘Makawe’. This story could launch stories of tribal ‘tohu’, kaitiaki and stories from whānau. It highlights the importance of spirituality and gives a lived example – something we don’t often see.

a comet returns


This story written by Paul Tapsell explores the legacy left by Pūkākī, an important chief of Ngāti Whakaue, a hapū of Te Arawa. This rich piece of history relates relevant whakapapa, history of his carving and as a featured exhibit in the Te Māori exhibition, his origins, how the carving was acquired by the Crown and how Ngāti Whakaue eventually regained it from the Auckland Museum.


Biographical account of Pūkākī

Use with:
Students, whānau, kaiako, hapū, iwi

There are waiata included and their reason for composition. Great starting poiint for unlocking the richness in waiata especially mōteatea.

There are photo interviews with significant Te Arawa personalities of the time. Students could do the same to build a rich resource on one tupuna of interest to the iwi.

Other resources

TV on Demand
Karanga Series
Waka Huia
Iwi Anthems
Te Matatini
Children’s Books – Aunty Bea’s books on Ihenga, Tamatekapua, hoha Te Taniwha


Ngā mihi ki:
Te Taumata o Ngāti Whakaue
Paepae Wānanga o Ngāti Whakaue
Ngāti Whakaue Education Endowment
Ngāti Whakaue Writers and Historians
Kura Reo o Ngāti Whakaue Ringa Raupā

Discover the hidden treasures at your fingertips

  • Check out if your local iwi have an education arm or an office where they may have some resources you could use, adapt or maybe suggest a network of people you could contact to resource your curriculum
  • Check out TV Resources
  • Radio NZ Archives Collection
  • Local Authors and Historians in the area
  • Local museum and libraries
  • Hapu/iwi might organise waiata, reo, kawa and tikanga wānanga — attend if you can
  • Your whānau and students are rich resources
  • Iwi/hapū and whānau want to help — your sincerity will determine how much they share

Be the transformative influence to enable the integrity and beauty of iwi voices into the content of your teaching and learning programmes. Rich curriculum design inspires learning. Learning facilitates knowledge creation. Knowledge creation enables the mokopuna to tell the story in their words. You don’t re-interpret the stories to be shared — iwi, hapū and whānau define it for you. Your magic as a teacher rests in how you share it in a compelling way, you make iwi visible and alive in the eyes of the mokopuna.

“Until the lion can tell his own story of the hunt, the hunter will always tell it”


‘It’s what our parents want’ — Really?

Intensive Community Participation Project-Collaboration

Over the last three or four years I have been struck by the number of times I have seen early childhood services adopting traditional school-like rituals for their four-year-old and sometimes even younger learners. Extension sessions especially timetabled for the nearly five-year-olds, mat times peppered with today’s weather, letters of the week, and counting exercises, and even the practice of reserving story reading and music experiences for group times when all children are present, are all examples I see of this trend.

Granted, these services also have considerable chunks of time when children are able to play and choose from a variety of activities offered. However, ironically I often observe many missed teaching opportunities to capitalise on precisely the kinds of learning (literacy and numeracy) that teachers are aiming for in the more structure sessions of the daily programme.

Consciously or subconsciously these teachers appear to have been swayed by the argument that, no matter how well resourced and intentioned, a play programme alone is not enough to support this ‘real’ learning needed for school.

As I puzzle over how these more didactic practices exemplify Te Whāriki, our early childhood curriculum in action, I am prone to ask teachers how they arrived at these. The reply is almost inevitably; ‘It’s what our parents want.’ Some teachers also add, ‘It’s what the schools want, too.’

Now don’t get me wrong, one of the most positive developments over the last three decades across our education system has been the increased attention given to parent/whānau aspirations for their children. Te Whāriki has rightly led the way in this by recognising ‘Family and Community’ and ‘Relationships’ as two of the four foundational principles on which early childhood learning and curriculum is built. Early childhood experiences are more likely to be successful for children where parents/whanau feel able and confident to contribute. However, in their well-intentioned efforts to please parents/whānau (and in some cases schools), some teachers appear to be undervaluing their own, hard-earned professional knowledge of wise practice. The result is that the balance between providing what parents/whānau want and drawing on evidenced-based professional knowledge of effective teaching and learning has got a bit out of kilter.

Does this matter? Yes it does if we are to take our role seriously and aim to give children born today the best possible foundations for lifelong learning. It matters because what is important to learn is evolving in response to an increasingly technologically driven, globally connected, and environmentally challenging world. Parents/whānau can’t be expected to always foresee the educational implications of these changes. It also matters because now more than ever before there exists a body of evidence-based literature with some clear messages for teacher practice. Take for example, brain research, which in the last two decades has opened up a raft of new understandings about how patterns of learning are established in the first two to three years of life.

Adopting a ‘both-and’ perspective

How then do teachers blend the interests and wishes of parent/whānau with professional knowledge and research, especially when the two often seem to be at odds? In their book Skilled dialogue: strategies for responding to cultural diversity in early childhood, authors Isaura Barrera, Robert Corso, and Dianne Macpherson have coined the phrase ‘3rd space’. By this they mean developing a mindset that integrates the influences from diverse perspectives so that each is valued and contributes to decision-making. They refer to the 3rd Space as consciously working towards a ‘both-and’ perspective. I think it is time we saw a little more 3rd-space thinking when it comes to determining what influences teachers’ decision-making. We can’t on the one hand complain that early childhood is the poor relation of the education system while on other hand sit back passively and let others determine what we do.

So, how can we apply this 3rd space idea to an area like parent aspirations for their child’s early literacy learning, a topic particularly prone to the issues I have raised in this blog post? Here are two suggestions to get you started.

  • Distinguish between the ‘what’ (parental aspirations) and ‘the ‘how’ (ways to achieve these). For most parents/whānau their concerns are aspirational, they simply want to see their child do well in literacy. Teachers can show they are treating these aspirations seriously by taking the lead on the ‘how’, based on the best professional knowledge and evidence available.
  • Develop a centre culture that values professional knowledge and research, and ensure staff keep current in best practices,for early childhood learning contexts through ongoing professional learning.
  • Rather than having special school preparation times and activities, put efforts into increasing the opportunities offered children to practice their literacy in purposeful ways during everyday routines and play. I believe that, by doing this well and often, teachers can provide learning that is both educationally sound and what parents want, in other words; high quality.


Brave new world

Applying radical new thinking to learning design

learning design

I have been working on a technique to bring about innovation in learning design. It's not entirely my own idea, and the most powerful influence probably comes from an article written by Seymour Papert in the 1998 June Edition of Game Developer magazine and titled, Does Easy Do It? Children, Games, and Learning.

Anyway, I have been experimenting with the idea of designing learning using the language of game designers. I base the idea on the premise that the language in which you say something shapes, or at least colours, the reality. For example: English people say, "Life is what you make it". For my Mancunian grandparents that meant walking to the cotton mill in the dark, clocking in, clocking out, staying sober, clothing and feeding the family, and once each year taking them on holiday to the seaside. Contrast this with the French expression, "La vie, c'est bricolage." Now this suggests to me that you can craft your life, that it's a creative process, that it's sensitive, and may even be fun.

The learning design I am working with is that of George Gagnon and Michelle Collay, described in their 2006 book Constructivist Learning DesignThe language I am working with, which is not usually applied to learning design but to games design, is that of Ernest Adams and Joris Dormans as described in their 2012 book Game Mechanics: Advanced Game Design.

The Gagnon and Collay constructivist learning design performs equally well in the classroom or online. This makes it particularly useful for designers of blended learning, because the format works in both the real and virtual environments. It is defined by its structure:

  • situate the student
  • group the students and the materials
  • bridge the learning
  • set a task
  • let the task result in an exhibit
  • convene a final reflection
  • and bind the whole thing together with well-crafted questions.

The Adams and Dormans language is a symbolic language, joined by connectors. A Source produces a smooth or intermittent flow of resources that flow into Pools or down Drains. Actions can be performed on the resources, which can also be Converted and Traded. It can be run in the Machinations simulator to test and tune a game design, and it can be used to observe the emergent complexity of negative and positive feedback loops. It also manifests itself as a pattern language, which becomes particularly useful when a group of designers get together to workshop a design.

Pulling the whole thing together into a lesson plan (be it offline, online, or blended) goes something like this:

  • Get all the students together and situate them in the environment, in the procedures, and in the topic.
  • Have the students self-assign into groups, or assign them to groups; switch on the beat, it might fire once a second, once a minute or once a day, until the game ends
  • The Source now starts pouring resources into the Pools, one for each group, and one common Pool, available to all
  • The members of each group confer and decide to Action, Convert, or Trade their resources
  • At a point in time the lesson-game moves to the next phase as everyone comes together in the forum to answer the Big Question.
  • With the Big Question answered the lesson-game moves into the Final Reflection.
  • Game Over.

What I have just described is the basic structure. Woven into this drab backcloth are coloured threads of complexity that enrich the lesson-game. Positive feedback loops drive the lesson-game forward at an ever-increasing rate, and negative feedback loops hold it from running out of control. Stock solutions to design problems are drawn from the Pattern Library: Dynamic Engine, Stopping Mechanism, Attrition, and Escalating Challenge, to name a few. Sometimes, to tip a wink at games folklore I dub the Big Question the Boss Monster.

By the time you have real people divided into teams wearing modified 3D cinema glasses such that the blue team can only see the red and green resources, and the green team can only see the blue and red resources; by the time some lunatic is enacting the Source and helper-elves are carrying them to the Pools, and the Traders are trading and the Converters are converting, and the resources that have not been converted by the end of the beat are thrown into the Drain, you'll be having insane FUN!

That is the essence of games in learning: raise your heart rate, get a glow on, rush around laughing, and who knows? The probability of learning something is certainly no less than sitting in a row staring at a whiteboard.


Stephen is looking forward to meeting like-minded teachers, learning designers, and lifelong learners at ULearn15 especially those attending the ULearn Permission to Play pre-conference. He challenges you to invoke and apply radical new thinking to learning design as your contribution to this brave new world.



Growing a multi-cultural family

growing up in a multi-cultural family

It wasn’t easy growing up a ‘half caste’. I never quite knew where I fitted in. On one side, I always felt too black, and on the other, too white. My families loved me for me; they didn’t see a colour, but I still wasn’t like anybody else. I was born European-Māori, and was raised European-Samoan. That often gets a few sideways glances, but I think I’m so lucky.

Now, having two beautiful children who have a mixture of European (Irish, Scottish and English), Māori, Tokelauan and Samoan, they’re even luckier. Our daily mission, for us as a family, is to teach, nourish, and support our children to feel at home in their mix of cultures. And this is their “normal.”

An important part of our journey as a family is to acknowledge each of our cultures as being equal. In our house there is no hierarchy of cultures, as they are equal, and each is as important as the other.

My husband and I are not fluent in any other language (yet) apart from English, but we try. Often you’ll get a sentence made up with Māori, Samoan, Tokelauan, and English all at once! it’s a total mess to anybody else who’s listening, but our kids know what we’re saying, and every day we’re learning together.

You would have heard the saying “it takes a village to raise a child” and it’s right; my husband and I can’t teach our children their cultures on our own. We’re blessed with family, friends, and amazing teachers who help us daily to teach our children the ways of their cultures. This looks like: bedtime prayer and pese in Tokelauan, or their karakia mo te kai in Māori, singing Samoan pese while cooking tea (or being told off by Grandma!), Tokelauan family reunions on a marae, family lunches with sapa sui, talo, pepetu (Tokelauan pancakes) and cottage pie. That is our kids’ ‘normal’ — and they love it.

Our daughter is in a full Māori immersion class, and she picks up languages with ease, while our son is in a mainstream class. Both are doing amazingly well, and they teach each other and support each other without any prompting from us. An example: our son, who is younger, is teaching our daughter how to read in English, and our daughter is teaching our son how to recite his mihi in Māori and Tokelauan. Perhaps I’m biased, but I’m beyond proud. :)

I think it’s important for our children to see others — not just Mum and Dad — acknowledging and encouraging different languages, and seeing others be proud in their cultures. Our children are sponges, they’re eager to learn, and they have millions of questions. It’s okay to not know the answers; part of the fun is finding the answers together. How come Grandma always gets to eat first? Why aren’t you allowed to sit on tables? Why doesn’t Nanna speak Māori?

As I said earlier, I was raised a proud European-Samoan, and grew up knowing nothing of my Māori roots. It never really interested me, but looking back, I always felt like something missing. Once I became a mother I realised I didn’t want my children to have those same feelings that I had. I began my own journey to learn more about my father and my Māori roots, and I feel a lot more at peace within myself. I’m proud to be Māori and learn about my culture and the reo, and pass this knowledge onto my children. It’s taken me 30 years to grow into my skin and feel ‘normal’ in my cultures, so from day one it’s been important that our children not only know their cultures, but also that they grow up learning them too. I believe, if they feel ‘whole’ from day one, if their foundations of themselves are strong from the beginning, then their feet are firmly planted and they can only grow stronger from there.

The paths our children decide to take as they grow in life is up to them, but as a parent I feel it is my responsibility to do everything I can to give them a strong foundation in each of their cultures.

Looking back at the generation I grew up in, there weren’t as many children with mixed ethnicities as there are today. When I see the mixture of kids in my own children’s classrooms, a few questions come to mind as a parent:

  • How do you support your child’s culture/s?
  • How do you acknowledge each of your child’s cultures if there’s more than one?
  • What do you do and where do you go if you can’t support them yourself?

One step at a time, one day at a time, go on the learning journey together.

Ko te ahurei o te tamaiti arahia o tātou mahi.
Let the uniqueness of the child guide your work.


The year was 1987

A friend and I were discussing that we might have peaked at the tender age of 13. He was in a TVNZ show, and genuinely impressing his classmates by being picked up from school camp by a TVNZ car still rates as a definitive highlight; I was in the hockey rep team, and also managed to pick up the Third Form prize for Economics.

The year was 1987. The year that fluro was popular and Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet was played everywhere and, more importantly, it was the year that Te Reo Māori became one of the official languages of New Zealand; on the first of August.

A lot has changed since 1987, and generally for the better. However, te reo Māori is not as well spoken in New Zealand as it could be. How could we fix this?  I think the elephant in the room is that we need to invest time and money in teaching Te Reo Māori at kindergarten, primary, and high school. How will this help?

Me Horoi Kue, e Te Taui

horoi(a): wash

Me horoi koe, e te tau!
You should wash, my darling! – this is an example of using Me – Should
The graphic is mine, but the kupu (words) come into my inbox from Kupu o te Rā

1. Language learning assists with further language learning

Have you ever spoken a language overseas? I only spoke limited transactional French when I was in France, but the joy on the face of the French and the appreciation was immense. We are much more likely to earn respect from other countries if we increase language learning as a whole. How will learning Māori help? Māori has similar vowel sounds as a lot of other languages — Japanese and Spanish to name two. Once you have mastered the Māori vowel sounds, it is easier to tune into another language.

My French teacher also said that, once you add a second language, adding a third, fourth, and fifth becomes easy. She speaks nine languages, and says, ‘You already know English, and that’s the hardest language to learn’.

Learning te reo Māori also makes you aware that other languages are structured quite differently from English. In te reo Māori you say, “Karakia (prayer) tīmatanga (opening)”, and in French you would say, “La table rouge” rather than, “The red table”.
There is often discussion about what language our children should be learning; in 1987 Japanese was the language most mentioned, while today Mandarin is a popular option. I applaud learning other languages and think that having te reo Māori taught will assist the learning of other languages. We also are able to practice te reo Māori, as we have access to those learning and native speakers, and if te reo Māori is taught in school, this will only increase.

2. Assisting our children

My friends, who were born overseas and live in New Zealand, are bewildered by our lack of language learning in our schools as part of the curriculum. Most of them talk to their children in another language at home: German, French, Samoan… and all of them wish that Māori was taught at school to everyone.

It is now general knowledge that there are connection pathways in the brain that exist only in those who know more than one language. The benefits of bilingualism are well known: improved mental agility, faster learn­ing of tertiary languages, protection against age-related memory loss.Why aren’t we giving our children every advantage we can? Other languages assist in so many ways: it cements the grammar of your own language and it helps you with other skills, for example, 80 in French is 4 x 20 (maths!); and best of all, it adds poetry and another view or perspective on the world.

He aha te mea nui o te ao
What is the most important thing in the world?
He tangata, he tangata, he tangata
It is the people, it is the people, it is the people
Maori proverb
From the He Tangata website

3. Pride in who we are as a country

It seems to me that we pick and choose where we support Māori culture in New Zealand. Most New Zealanders adore the haka, and also feel pride when visiting dignitaries are given a pōwhiri. We need to go deeper with our respect of Māori culture — we need to teach te reo (language) Māori for a start. What other country doesn’t have one of the official languages included as a core subject at school? Can you imagine that in France?

I was recently talking to a friend whose grandmother was not only banned from speaking Te Reo Māori at school, she was sent home from her first day at school with a sticker on her dress with a 'new English name 'as the teacher couldn't pronounce her Māori name. Around the same time this was happening, my mother-in-law had her hand tied behind her back by her teacher to stop her writing with her left hand. My left handed son is able to write with his preferred hand — can we move away from the 1960s?

Although I am a fifth generation Pākeha and not Māori, te reo Māori is an official language of my country. When I flew back into New Zealand recently from Australia, Māori greetings and songs filled my ears and I could not have been anywhere else. If we are also often asking why young Māori men are over-represented in negative statistics, perhaps we need to ask what positive moves we can make to assist in overcoming this. Respecting and valuing Te Reo Māori throughout the schooling system will surely assist.

4. The tamariki are already on the journey

My children’s pronunciation is far superior to mine. They can pronounce basic sentences and even like to tease me occasionally when I kōrero (talk) te reo Māori commands where I have actually requested the opposite:
Me: ‘E tu’
Mr 8: (big cheeky smile) ‘Why are you asking us to sit down?’).
Their favourite activities at lunch are Kapa Haka and Chess (not at the same time). And last year, my eight-year-old told me his favourite subjects were when he learnt some basic New Zealand sign language and also te reo Māori.

I just attended my tamariki tāne (sons') assembly. The tamariki (children) are the announcers each week (age 5–10); they greeted us in te reo Māori; announced the room names (flawlessly!) in te reo Māori; we sang the national anthem — well, the children sang strongly and we adults stumbled through — and we sang Rā whānau ki a koe, (Raah fah-no kyaa qweh) to those having birthdays. This is what they do every week, not just for te wiki o te reo Māori, Māori language week.  The journey has begun.

It’s time.
Let’s do it.


This blog post was inspired by the recent speech by Finnian Galbraith.


Making learning visible

making learning visable

Creating visibility around student learning can redefine a learner’s understanding of the world.

When facilitating in classes, I often open with the question, ‘Do you know how many people in the world have access to the Internet?’ There are a myriad of guesses from the students. Very few get anywhere near the 3.1 billion internet users suggested by websites such as Internet Livestats. By the time this blog post is published, I’ve no doubt that number will be closer to 3.2 billion and still climbing. Of course, these are estimates, but the realisation that the potential audience for a student’s learning could number in the billions is a very exciting place to start with a classroom full of learners. Be under no illusion, I’m very careful when I use the term ‘potential audience’, because, without driving traffic to any online space where learning is shared, it is as redundant as the marked work in an exercise book from years ago that currently resides in the bottom of a box in the attic.

But, it begs the question, why isn’t everyone sharing his or her work online? For some, it’s simply a lack of knowledge. If you cannot identify a vehicle within which to share, then you cannot begin sharing. For others, it’s fear. Students and teachers alike are often afraid of criticism or being judged by others. This is something we develop as we get older; my two-year-old son certainly isn’t fussed by what others think of his finger painting! It would be easy to say to those, ‘Get over it’, but it’s not that simple.

It’s a mindset shift. It’s an understanding that sharing learning online needn’t be in the form of a portfolio or record of achievement. It could echo the journey that millions of students take every day, the visual growth of knowledge and progress in an online forum. And lastly, for many, it’s time! Teachers in New Zealand are no different from many others around the world: overworked, exhausted, and constantly being bashed by the media.

Why? How? What?

I’m very fortunate to work in one of the world’s leading education sectors, and within that, alongside a well-known, progressive group of schools — a truly inspirational and world-recognised cluster — focused on accelerating student achievement in a low socio-economic area. And they’re doing it! So I thought I’d take the opportunity to delve a little more into the ‘Why’, the ‘How’, and the ‘What’ of creating visibility around learning —a reference to Simon Sinek’s amazing Golden Circle TED Talk.


I briefly touched on this earlier, but I often ask students why they feel it’s important to share their learning. The usual answers of, ‘to connect with my family’, or, ‘let others see what we’re doing’ come up, but when you drill down a bit further, students as young as seven or eight years old begin to talk to you about audience and purpose. It’s amazing to watch the transformation in a student’s effort and dedication to learning when they realise that the audience is no longer their peer, their teacher, or (in the very ‘best’ case) the principal. The audience becomes real. It becomes unknown but exciting. The awe and wonder that comes from a student asking the question, ‘Who could end up reading this?’ is a magnificent sight. We should never stray from  the vision within the NZ curriculum — to create young people who are confident, connected, actively involved, lifelong learners. Forgive my paraphrasing.

So, I return to the Why that underpins the need to make learning visible. Our learners need to be confident when sharing their learning, proud of their progress first, and then their achievement. They have the right to connect beyond the four walls of their classroom. This enables them to seek feedback from those interested in their learning wherever they may be in the world. They can connect through structured commenting, through ongoing feedback in an online environment as well as the classroom, gaining perspective and new momentum. Our learners need to look for their audience, find the opportunities to connect and engage both in and out of the classroom, and become actively involved in online communities and develop their voice. And lastly, it falls upon us as educators to show students that learning doesn’t end at 3pm. It isn’t constrained by the four walls of the classroom. It’s re-windable. It’s about finding passion and pursuing dreams!


How can this be achieved? In a Google Apps For Education (GAFE) environment, it’s certainly a little easier. Access to collaborative tools, sharing formats, and a wider, authentic audience means that the purpose behind learning can be far more powerful. Outside of it (with a little grit and determination) visibility within learning is certainly just as possible. Within a progressive cluster of twelve schools here in New Zealand, students each have a blog. This is a seemingly underwhelming statement until you realise that there are around 1500 active blogs within the cluster, all being posted to regularly by students, and all being commented on regularly by other students from all over the world.

So my ‘How’ becomes, ‘How do I do it?’

Start small, create a class blog, and post examples of students’ learning. Encourage others to look at it, comment on the learning. Share the comments with the students. Parent engagement is a powerful tool to motivate learners. The wonder of a conversation between parent and child about their day that doesn’t start with, ‘How was your day?’ Instead, it begins with the parent sharing their thoughts on their child’s learning posted online that very morning! It’s about looking for opportunities to connect with other blogs, and analysing the style of comment you’d like to see — Is it positive, thoughtful, and helpful?

So, create a simple blog, share ongoing learning to engage the community, and connect students to the world. They can also use some of the many apps out there to help capture their learning and experiences as they happen, stopping it from becoming yet another thing to do! Of course, there will be times that a post needs to be something special, not a snapshot window into the classroom, but a carefully constructed display of the brilliant things happening in and outside of the room — but I can’t think of many better teachable moments, can you?


And so, I come to the easiest part of all. If you know Why and How you’re sharing, then the What falls into place effortlessly. Whether a student blog or a class blog, what to share isn’t really the question. It’s more about defining what the purpose of the blog is. To me, it isn’t a portfolio of best work. It isn’t a place for typed-up stories after being drafted in books, or perfect, finished pieces. It’s a place to show the journey — the ups, downs, ins and outs. The rollercoaster that learning can be. Whether it’s simple photos of the stages involved in creating a piece of artwork, or a digital story plan, it’s about showing the process and thinking just as much as the outcome. A blog can be a place for incredibly elaborate animated movies, or a quick picture of something that made a student think, and everything in between! It’s a place to show student voice, progress, achievement, failure, success, choice, and perhaps, most importantly, reflection and growth.

Something I’ve lived by over the past few years has been, don’t be afraid to FAIL. Because, in itself, it’s simply your First Attempt In Learning.

Further reading:


Ten Trends 2015: Learner agency

Most people are familiar with the ‘old’ way of doing things in schools: the teacher controlled what was learnt, how it was learnt, even where and when it was learnt. But, a key trend that has characterised education in recent times is a move towards learners owning more of the process: to give them ‘the power to act’ in their learning, or what is known as ‘agency’.

Agency can take many forms; from being empowered to make decisions about which activity to move onto next, through to learners being empowered to take positive social action in their communities. Providing choices in learning (whether to work individually or in a group; whether to provide evidence of learning using a piece of writing or a diagram) is an important factor in engagement, which is, in turn, a contributor to student learning and success.

learner agency

Many schools now build student agency by doing things like fostering a greater sense of ownership and self-efficacy in learning, inviting students to have a voice in that learning, and even to take more control over the way things are learnt. Student-led inquiries are one way to build agency, as learners often control not only the challenge or question that is explored, but also the method of investigation, the tools that are used, the action taken as a result of the inquiry and the means of demonstrating evidence of learning.

An interesting challenge with this way of learning is scaffolding all learners towards success, particularly when all of them have very different levels of experience and expertise when it comes to the inquiry process. We know that without some core knowledge and skills- such as questioning, researching, investigating or analysing information- it’s going to be difficult for them to be at their best as learners. This is about getting that balance right between ‘just in case’ learning and ‘just in time’ learning.

A crucial outcome from these new approaches to student agency is the development of so-called ‘soft skills’ such as self-management, prioritising, time management and teamwork. It’s probably these skills and competencies that will serve our students best in the future because it’s the ‘soft’ skills that are often the hardest skills to develop.

In this video, Claire Amos describes how Hobsonville Point Secondary School is embedding learner agency into their school culture.


  • What different components of agency can you identify throughout the video? What is agency comprised of?
  • What is the relationship between building ‘base’ knowledge and skills, and providing agency over leading?
  • Student-led inquiries are one way to provide agency, but how else do schools and centres offer it?
  • How does providing agency prepare students for the future?
  • In what ways does the role of the teacher change in a ‘high agency’ environment? In what ways does it stay the same?


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