Powerful play: Continuity and inquiry for children starting school

Children at play

A number of new entrant teachers I’ve spoken to lately have been exploring how they can best support inquiry learning with children new to school. Some have found the more traditional inquiry methods don’t seem to work so well with this younger group of children. So, they are interested in finding alternatives to supporting children’s thinking and creativity, while encouraging them to delve more deeply into ideas, concepts, and topics. At the same time, they are interested in supporting children’s transitions to school by making more connections to their prior-to-school experiences from early childhood education and home.

The New Zealand Curriculum (NZC) gives some guidance here. It states:

The transition from early childhood education to school is supported when the school:

  • Fosters a child’s relationships with teachers and other children and affirms their identity;
  • Builds on the learning experiences that the child brings with them;
  • Considers the child’s whole experience of school;
  • Is welcoming of family and whānau.

This new stage in children’s learning builds upon and makes connections with early childhood learning and experiences. (MOE, 2007, p 41)

Building on and making connections

Let’s break down these ideas from The NZC a little, particularly the ideas about learning building on, from, and connecting with, prior learning and experiences. What are the experiences and learning children bring with them?

For many children, part of this prior-to-school experience and learning has occurred through their participation in early childhood education. But, what does this mean?

If we assume a child has participated regularly over an extended period of time in a quality early childhood education setting, we might expect they have experienced an environment where play is the valued mode of learning. It’s highly likely that their interests, goals, and strengths, developing learning dispositions and working theories will be central influences for programme design on a day-to-day basis.

They will have experienced a modern learning environment — most early childhood settings have never known any other way. Everyday they will have had significant periods of uninterrupted time with other children and with teachers. This time will have allowed opportunities to develop short and long-term, personal and group projects and inquiries that will have emerged in response to both spontaneous and planned experiences.

Inquiries and projects in ECE

Examples of inquiries and projects I’ve seen in early childhood education settings include:

  • Investigating whether or not volcanoes erupt on purpose
  • What lives under the ground
  • How water travels and where it goes
  • What’s inside a rock
  • How to catch the wind.

These investigations aren’t topics selected by the teachers in advance, but rather, responses to the everyday wonderings of children that emerge through rich play tasks. Teachers have the critical role of both fostering and encouraging these inquiries — by way of their minute-by-minute interactions with the children, as they listen carefully to children’s emerging ideas, questions, ‘soft-spots’, and fascinations — as well as planning possible opportunities and possibilities to stretch the ideas and grow the learning.

Not every child’s experience

While I know many early childhood teachers would concur with this view of how teaching and learning happens in their place, this is only a snap-shot of what a child might experience in a quality early childhood education setting. However, it’s important to acknowledge that this won’t be the experience of all young children starting school. Nevertheless, building on children’s known modes of learning, and on what children find interesting, will go some of the way to supporting continuity for children and engagement.

Some suggestions

So, with all that in mind, I have a couple of suggestions as to what entrant teachers might like to try out in their classrooms:

Suggestion 1 – Embrace play as a legitimate and powerful mode of learning

Sometimes play is described as informal learning, but be assured play is learning, and there’s a plethora of evidence to say this is so. Of course this isn’t a new idea but many countries around the world value this form of learning for young children (over other more formal forms of learning) for much later in a child’s life than we in New Zealand do.

A recent article featured in the New Zealand Herald, “All work and no play”, illustrated the interest by some schools and parents in this country to introduce formal learning to three and four year olds. This position contrasts sharply with that of the Too much, too sooncampaign in the UK that includes calls from leading academics to wait until children are seven years old to start formal learning. Interestingly, this campaign draws on the research of Dr Sebastian Suggate whose Otago University study found children who learnt to read at five years old were no more successful at reading than children who started reading at age seven.

Play is real learning too

Play isn’t some sort of soft approach before the ‘real’ learning begins. That idea is a hangover from education’s industrial era. Play has been consistently described across time as central to cognitive, language, cultural, and social development. Lev Vygotsky said that ‘In play a child always behaves beyond his average age, above his daily behaviour; in play it is as though he were a head taller than himself. As in the focus of a magnifying glass, play contains all developmental tendencies in a condensed form and is itself a major source of development.’ (Vygotsky, 1978, p 102). He believed it was incorrect to conceive play as being without purpose. He considered that play as supporting the development of a child’s cultural knowledge that helped frame future learning of the child(Drewery & Claiborne, 2013).

I’m really confident that play is also the preferred mode of learning for young children. They get it. Play is what young children do. It’s what they know, and they are good at it.

More space, more time

There is some significant work happening in schools where teachers are creating greater space and time for play in their classrooms. However, my challenge to new entrant teachers in particular is to take it further.  What I mean by this is, teachers should dedicate more regular times to it and use these opportunities for rich and complex learning.

Often, times for free-choice play (outside of morning tea and lunch time) are activity-based and provided in a small window of time, and are limited to the likes of one morning a week. This play is much more contained and constrained than what young children coming to school are used to. I acknowledge it’s not easy to find more space and time, especially with so many expectations on both children and teachers. But, I’ve seen plenty of teachers push back on these pressures, and they report having happier, more engaged children. They’ve also had less behaviour issues to deal with. Interestingly, these teachers are more energised and happier too.

While ideally there would be more regular and longer periods of time for children to become involved in complex, creative play, I believe it’s almost more important to be aware of who is designing what goes on during this time. More often than not this play is set up around adult-determined activities. While many of these activities are familiar to children, they don’t necessarily encourage the more complex inquiries that children are used to. Which is where my next suggestion comes in.

Suggestions 2 – Let children’s ideas and interests do more of the driving.

While many children enjoy learning through tabletop activities, or choosing from a range of a choices on offer, there are richer possibilities for how this time and play might be used. When adults listen to children’s working theories, interests, and passions, and use these to design complex and connected-learning opportunities, they effectively put children in the driver’s seat: the authentic ideas of children become the important questions to be explored.

By allowing children space and time to play they will show you what they know, what they are capable of, and what they want to learn about. Through play they explore and express their ideas, interests, and passions — but you need to listen to these carefully to know what to pick up on. Here you will find a bottomless pit of material for designing richer, more authentic, interest-centred inquiries and projects where children are engaged in complex thinking, expression, and exploration. Trust me. You’ll be overwhelmed with choice of what to delve into with children, and believe me when I say that the ideas they are interested in exploring are more interesting and compelling than any topic or activity we could dream up.

To get to this space, some teachers will need to become more attuned to children’s interests and passions. It will mean allowing children to hold a bit more of the power.

Examples from ECE

If you’d like to get a sense of some projects and inquiries of children in early childhood education settings, go to these links:

Drewery, W. & Claiborne, L. (2013). Human Development: Family, place, culture. Sydney: McCaw-Hill Education (Australia).
Ministry of Education (2007). The New Zealand Curriculum: The English-medium teaching and learning in years 1-13. Wellington, New Zealand: Learning Media.
Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind and Society. USA: Harvard University Press.


Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and teaching

Have you heard of Universal Design for Learning (UDL)? In this post, I’ll start with a quick definition, then describe why we need UDL for improving learning outcomes in 21st century classrooms. I’ll outline where LEARNZ is on its UDL journey. Then I’ll suggest teachers do three things; firstly, adopt a more inclusiveness UDL mindset, secondly, train their students to help themselves, and thirdly, use e-learning sites like LEARNZ to save time and improve learning outcomes. Lastly, I’m going to give my opinion on why teachers have never been more important.

LEARNZ website and UDL

What is Universal Design for Learning?

In a nutshell, UDL is a framework for inclusiveness whereby a teacher:

  1. taps into their students’ interests to challenge and motivate them
  2. provides various ways for students to learn
  3. provides options for students to demonstrate their learning.

Message 1: Yesterday’s classroom practice is not enough

I can still remember classroom lessons from the 20th century, some where I was a student and some where I was the teacher! A few went like this: everybody copy the written notes, then turn to page 66 and do exercises 1 to a million, then swot it all up and do the written test – no pictures allowed!

Without going into why teaching was sometimes like that in the past, this type of classroom practice hasn’t been acceptable for some time, and things have improved significantly. For instance, there has been a lot of work done over the last two decades on:

  • making learning resources more visually appealing
  • teamwork and problem-solving
  • using real-world examples to make learning more relevant
  • individualising assessment.

All the same, despite parts of our education system being world class and our high fliers experiencing international success, we still have a persistently “long tail” with too many New Zealand kids not engaged and “left behind”.

Message 2: Inclusive learning is a valid goal – UDL is a valid framework for achieving it.

If learners are excluded from learning because of language or cultural differences, because they are vision or hearing impaired, because they have limited reading or writing or numeracy skills, or because of dyslexia or dyspraxia issues, then learning outcomes are not going to be good for them. Inclusiveness has to lead to better engagement and better learning outcomes.

There is a wealth of research evidence to support UDL as an inclusiveness framework. The 3 Principles and 9 Guidelines and 31 Checkpoints of UDL have come from world-wide reviews of 10 years of research and over 1,000 articles. This evidence has driven a huge number of articles about how to implement UDL, numerous learning tools for UDL, and repositories like a British Columbia website for schools, dedicated to UDL that New Zealand schools may find useful. Some may say that the effectiveness of UDL is self-evident and, indeed, that UDL is something best-practice teachers have always inherently followed, albeit under less wide-ranging frameworks, under other names, or in a more fragmented way.

Although it would be ideal if everyone in the state or private system had one-to-one tutoring from a trained teacher, it just isn’t practical. However, a one-size-fits-all, teach-to-the-middle, factory-like system doesn’t cut it either. Is there some sort of middle ground where teachers don’t have to do all the heavy lifting?

Message 3: LEARNZ uses UDL to help learners and save teachers’ time.

Starting in 2013, the LEARNZ Team at CORE have been looking to UDL, as part of our continual improvement programme, as another way to enhance the learning and teaching experience on LEARNZ field trips. We have taken many small steps, some of which include:

  1. Tapping into students’ interests to challenge and motivate them. Children are naturally curious about the world around them. LEARNZ uses the online medium to provide an experience that is real, that frames and contextualises global and local issues. The LEARNZ teachers and the field trip experts regularly challenge students to question their thinking; whether it’s in an audioconference or on our Ask an Expert web board, or when they “look students in the eye” down the lens in a video clip.
  2. Providing various ways for students to learn. One new initiative for all our virtual field trips, is that all the background pages have a headphones icon at the top so that students can click on it to have the page read to them by the LEARNZ teacher, not by some robot voice. Teachers and students love having this option! See page reading in action for Memorial Park.
  3. Providing options for students to demonstrate their learning. Throughout each field trip, in context, are different suggestions for students to build on their learning, or reconstitute it. Indeed, the Creative Commons Share licence on LEARNZ encourages students and teachers to repurpose our content with their own.

Message 4: Three easy ways for overloaded teachers to use UDL

Implementing UDL with classes might look like a lot of extra work, and it would be if teachers took it on themselves to develop all material for students in text, picture, sound, and kinaesthetic formats. I suggest, though, that teachers primarily took on UDL more as a shift in thinking, or as an attitude or aspiration, and tried the following:

  1. Think like a learner. Whenever you are planning for your class, through your new UDL lens, think what it might be like for students with hearing or vision limitations, or students who read or write poorly. How about you ask them for suggestions? For example, many students struggle to present live to an audience. You may suggest they make a video, which enables multiple takes and reviews, and the facility to replay and re-publish.
  2. Train your learners. Learners can help themselves. Students with smartphones can use free apps to help with reading and writing, or consult an online dictionary or thesaurus. It’s not tricky or difficult. Your Internet Use Policy should provide some certainty that students stay on task and use such devices appropriately.
  3. Use an e-learning site like LEARNZ. Try one of our field virtual trips to see how much heavy lifting you can save yourself, and how well you can help students to engage.

Message 5. Teachers have never been more important.

This is another story, but for now, all I’m going to say is that we live in an increasingly complex world with increasingly complex jobs, using more and more specialised tools and language to solve increasingly complex problems. Teaching is no exception. I’ll expand on these ideas in my next post.


10 things you need to know about Pasifika peoples in Aotearoa (dispelling some common myths about the Pacific)

Pasifika parent afternoon

Prompted by my colleague Manu Faaea-Semeatu, I put together the following list that should help educators to better understand Pasifika.

1. What “Pasifika” actually means

Pasifika is a term that is unique to Aotearoa and is a term coined by government agencies to describe migrants from the Pacific region and their descendants, who now call Aotearoa home.

2. Pasifika peoples are not a homogenous nation

Pasifika in Aotearoa refers to people who are descendants of the Polynesian nations of the  Cook Islands, Tonga, Niue, Samoa, Tuvalu, Tokelau. This means we don’t all speak the same language.

3. Fiji is not considered part of Pasifika (Polynesia)

Fiji belongs to a group of nations referred to as Melanesians. Other nations in this group include Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia (part of France), West Papua, Indonesia and Papua.  However we can still include them in the definition of Pasifika within the context of Aotearoa.

4. Not all people from Pasifika cultures can speak their heritage languages

Pasifika peoples in Aotearoa, especially if they are born here, may not necessarily have learned to speak their heritage languages. Usually this is because they have not had access to opportunities to learn their heritage language either in the home or at school.  However, some Pasifika peoples may speak their heritage languages in church communities or in their homes if they have strong speakers to help teach them.

5. Not all Pasifika peoples come from one Pasifika nation

Intermarriage is, or interracial relationships are, quite common amongst Pasifika peoples or with Pasifika peoples and other cultures. So, it is not unusual to have students in classrooms who, for example, may be both Samoan and Tongan, or Māori and Cook Island. This means that students in schools will benefit from teachers getting to know the subtle differences and nuances of the cultures of their learners.

6. Pasifika peoples like to congregate in group settings

Pasifika peoples like to work in groups to collaborate better with one another, which is traditionally part of their village life before migrating to Aotearoa. Pasifika learners dislike being singled out as this shatters their confidence and potentially harms their self-esteem.

7. Pronunciation of names

If you learn how to correctly pronounce names of Pasifika peoples, this will earn you much respect. Even using phonetics to get the right sounds will take you a long way when working with Pasifika peoples. By making the effort to ensure you use correct pronunciation, it shows that you respect Pasifika peoples and their cultures.

8. Establishing positive relationships with Pasifika peoples

Communication is the key and will result in a better partnership and outcomes between school and the home. To establish positive relationships, you must work with families to improve parents’ participation and contribution, even if you encounter some reluctance on the part of families to engage.

9. Pasifika voice

It is important to respect Pasifika peoples’ voice regardless of their language barriers. For example, even though their tone of voice when speaking their heritage language, or in English, may sound argumentative, they should be empowered to be heard and valued.

10.  Improve communication with Pasifika communities

Use accessible language in communications to homes and the workplace, and avoid professional jargon that might work to isolate or disempower Pasifika peoples.

Helpful links:



Ten Trends 2014: Learning analytics

CORE's Ten Trends for 2014 have been published. This post considers the third of these trends: Learning analytics. We shall be publishing posts on one of the trends approximately each month. You are encouraged to comment or provide supporting links.


The easiest way to start thinking about learning analytics is to draw a comparison with what happens in retail. Big chain stores around the world are getting really good at recommending products to consumers. One in particular done some incredible stuff around this — they know that if a woman of a certain age starts buying unscented lotion, a bigger handbag and multivitamins, there’s an extremely high likelihood that she’s pregnant, and would like more reviews and recommendations related to maternity products and babies. Now you might think that this is about moving baby products onto consumers, but, if you think about the fact that one of our goals is to get the perfect, most engaging learning opportunity in front of a student at just the right moment, this kind of big data analysis, or learning analytics, becomes very powerful.

Let me give you another example: Amazon’s ‘people who bought this also bought…’, or their ‘recommendations for you…’ section is basically learning analytics. This kind of thinking has been brought into education to help raise literacy levels. The New Zealand library management and cataloguing software Koha has analytics built into it: if a student rates a book 5 stars, the software is able to look across all borrowers and say ‘other people who rated these books 5 stars also rated this book 5 stars — would you like to read it? We’ll reserve it and text you when it’s available.’ You can choose to limit your analytics to you or your school only, or vastly increase the accuracy of your predictions by looking across all other users who have rated items.


Undoubtedly, the crucial impact from learning analytics is our ability to offer Increasingly personalised, meaningful, engaging learning experiences for students. To track their progress, get early intervention information as soon as possible, and to make informed decisions about strategies that are most likely to make a difference for that student.

The other crucial impact of learning analytics is the opportunity it gives us to strengthen partnerships between school, the student, and parents and whanau. Becuase if we’ve got this wonderful data about a student’s progress through learning, why would we keep it to ourselves — what a great way to align the support offered to students at school and at home than to be completely transparent and invitational in the way we arrange learning?

So what? — The implications

We need to ask what data we’re gathering about our students and their progress through learning. If we’re completing tasks in a range of different online spaces, how do we bring all of that disparate data about a learner and make it whole again — make a complete picture of this child.

Another implication for us is the challenge to use that data once it’s gathered. There’s a great saying about data: it needs to be useful and used. It must be relevant, reliable and meaningful, but it’s pointless to gather data if we’re going to use it. What are your teaching as inquiry processes like in your school? How well is data used when making decisions about what needs to be learnt next and how students might best learn it? Are you drawing on the rich data you have about your students?

Some of the ethical implications for us centre around data sovereignty and privacy, the real power of learning analytics is unlocked when you’re able to work with large data sets — which means sharing data across schools. How are you going to ensure you deal fairly with students and other schools when sharing data? If you’re contributing to national-level data collection, have you thought through the implication around who has access to it, how student rights are managed?

If we can start to make use of learning analytics to get the right learning activity into those student’s hands, and maximise the engagement and motivation they have for that learning activity, we’ve got a really powerful model for personalising learning for every student.


  • What data are we gathering in our schools?
  • How is it being stored and managed?
  • Who has access to it?
  • How is it being used to inform what is happening at school level?
  • How is it contributing to national-level data collection to inform strategic decisions around resourcing etc.?

Examples and links:

For more about the Ten Trends:


Learning for the future

Yesterday, Now, Tomorrow

It is widely understood that advances in technology have created a rapidly changing world. We’re globally connected, life is more complex and uncertain and there are increasingly challenging questions for us to grapple with.

We can appreciate, therefore, the difficulties that this must create for schools.  Keeping up with this pace of change and ensuring that students are being taught in a way that reflects the current world they live in is challenge enough, let alone educating them for a future world of which we have little conception.

In the past, education served both a social role of keeping students off the streets and an economic role of providing a workforce for a narrow range of known jobs.  With the advent of technological change, these sorts of roles are no longer required; the growth of the knowledge age has brought with it the need for urgent educational change.

So looking to the future what will be important for students to know?  And, how can we make sure that all students are able to access this knowledge?  What content and what skills will support all students into a future quite different from ours? Recent research suggests:

  • knowing oneself
  • understanding how to learn
  • collaborating effectively with others
  • working in teams on worthwhile authentic tasks
  • having a choice
  • having a voice
  • being creative
  • being able to problem solve
  • making use of effective technology.

Bolstad et al in Supporting future-oriented learning and teaching – a New Zealand perspective suggest we need to adopt a much more complex view of knowledge, one that incorporates ‘knowing, doing and being’.  21st century learning principles such as ‘a commitment to personalized learning, embracing diversity, rethinking learners’ and teachers’ roles and forging new partnerships are also mentioned  (Bolstad et al., 2012).

For me an image comes to mind of students immersed in learning, where they have the opportunity to behave as mathematicians, scientists, writers, artists and musicians exploring their topic of interest to their fullest capacity, drawing on the support of peers and experts and sharing their new learning out into the community.  ‘Being’, ‘doing’ and ‘knowing’, in other words.

Guy Claxton (2008) points out that we ‘can continually develop our portable capacity to learn in new and challenging circumstances throughout our lives.’ And I would argue we are more likely to be able to do that if we experience rich future-focused learning opportunities. However I wonder where our current model of ‘accountability’ assessment sits with all of this.
What sort of ‘knowing, being and doing’ might then support students to function, participate and thrive in a complex future world, and what pedagogical lens can we critically apply to learning activities and events to ensure that they equip students for their future?

What questions could we use to ‘future proof’ learning in our schools? Perhaps we could ponder the following when planning work for students to do:

  • Why will it be important for students to know this?
  • Where could students be expected to make use of this knowledge in the future?
  • How does this knowledge link to a student’s current context and community?
  • What ‘future – focused’ skills are built into this activity?
  • What opportunities and technological tools are there for students to access and reshape this knowledge in a new way?
  • What impact will this knowledge and artifact produced have on the student and their community?

I wonder what else is needed to enable schools to think more critically about what learning practices should be stopped, what should be continued, and what ought to be started in order to better prepare all students to be effective and knowledgeable participants and contributors in their future.


Bolstad, R.,Gilbert, J., McDowall, S., Bull, A., Boyd, S., & Hipkins, R. (2012). Supporting future-oriented learning and teaching – a New Zealand perspective.  Report for the Ministry of Education. Wellington: Ministry of Education

Chambers, M., Powell, G., Claxton G. ( 2008) Building 101 Ways to Learning Power. Australia: Hawker Brownlow Education

Yesterday, Now, Tomorrow Image:  http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/images/agree-terms.php?id=10088342


My achievements are a team effort

Ehara taku toa i te toa takitahi, he takitini

My achievements are the result of working with people. The importance of working collaboratively in a team can never be underestimated. It requires a commitment from everyone, and in particular the nominated leadership.

Teamwork in teaching

As school communities we pride ourselves on working as a team. However, when I am working with kaiako (teachers), I find that they can sometimes be quite isolated in their classroom environment and, therefore, in their practice. The classroom seems to be their go-to zone — their security blanket — and everything in the classroom is driven by them, both the good and the bad.

Why not step out and observe good practice within other classrooms? Every school has staff who are experienced, innovative, and positive; observing good practice regularly is a great way to grow as a teacher.

Māori have always learned practical skills through observation. Fishing, hunting, gardening, weaving, carving, hangi — all those practical tasks were learned by observing, then pitching in and giving it a go. Then the knowledge and skills were passed on. Karanga, whaikōrero, and waiata were also learned through observation, listening, rote learning, and eventually performing those roles. These were the essential parts of the traditional Māori curriculum!

We, too, can learn from good practice, observation, listening, and asking questions. In this way we utilise the strengths of all those around us.

I have always been a big believer in mentoring. We identify those about us who we trust and respect professionally and personally. Then we meet regularly — formally and informally — to discuss a shared set of goals or outcomes. A key part of that relationship is that they come to observe our teaching practice to critique.

Teaching can be a lonely job if we don't work collaboratively. School leadership must encourage and lead this. E hoa mā karawhuia! Mahia te mahi.

Ehara taku toa i te toa takitahi, he takitini.

This post was originally posted on Whare’s blog.


Using digital tools to build literacy skills across the curriculum

Access to tools that can support literacy across the curriculum are increasingly at student’s fingertips. As part of a Universal Design for Learning approach, choices and supports for all students are built into the learning design at the outset. Consequently, students should have access to tools that personalise learning and match their needs and preferences across the curriculum. Here are three ideas teachers and students can use to support this approach.

1. Get familiar with Text-to-Speech

Text-to-speech (TTS) software enables a student to select and listen to text in a document or on a webpage. The software usually highlights a paragraph at a time as it is read aloud and often tracks each word as it is spoken in a second colour.  TTS software is usually free and built into most devices or can be enabled in a web browsers. It is also possible to purchase more sophisticated TTS tools bundled with other features such as word prediction.

Although the synthetic voices in TTS can take a little getting used to, students can use TTS to:

  • listen and read along to unfamiliar texts to develop fluency
  • increase comprehension and access to texts beyond reading level
  • rest tired eyes and access the text via audio
  • listen to the text whilst doing another activity such as exercise, travelling on the bus or walking home from school
  • listen back to written work to assist more accurate editing of text.

To get a sense of the potential impact of making text to speech available to students, take a look at this video of US high school students describing the difference having access to text-to-speech has made to their independence, their confidence as learners and to their increasing achievement.

2. Turn on the closed captions on YouTube videos

When using YouTube as a teaching resource, build in learning supports at the outset by selecting video that has closed captions, identified by the cc icon rather than machine captions “guessed” by YouTube. Using closed captions can boost literacy, reading speed, and vocabulary for readers who need additional support.

By turning on the closed captions, students can choose to:

  • watch the video, and/or
  • read the captions separately or at the same time
  • access the interactive transcript posted below the video.

The transcript is really useful when a student needs to find a quote or wants to scan a video to find a specific piece of information. Visit Media Access Australia for more information.

3. Demonstrate how to declutter web pages to support concentration

Introduce students to tools, such as Readability on the Chrome browser or the Safari Reader function on i-devices that strip away the clutter on web pages, so that students can focus more easily on a particular article.

Dig deeper

For more information on Universal Design for Learning and the tools above, check out the following links:

Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

Text to speech tools

  • Natural Reader download: Floating toolbar. Selected text will post into toolbar window. Text highlighted in short sections and read aloud. Can sync with Google Docs.
  • Natural Reader Online TTS: Upload document. Text highlighted in short sections and read aloud. Can sync to Google Docs.
  • Mac “Speak selection”: Built-in text to speech program. Speaks selected text in all applications including text on internet pages.
  • Read and Write for Google Docs: Toolbar opens at the top of a Google Docs page. Selected text highlighted yellow, each word tracked in blue as read aloud. NB Trial version has more features. After 30 days you are left with the basic TTS tool


A year of YES: How the Young Enterprise Scheme unlocks a world of possibility for secondary students

YES students

Where school failed me

The current scope of school subjects is very narrow relative to the number of career possibilities that exist. This is especially true for the 21st century student who, regardless of their geographical location in edge-of-the-earth New Zealand, will enter a global, connected, and varied job market. School as I knew it fell well short of preparing me to make a living in a world of such limitless possibility. Indeed, even if I had known this kind of world existed, how could I ever hope to contribute meaningfully to it?

Career is not the same as contribution

Sadly, “career” was a word more commonly heard during my high school days than “contribution” — what you were going to “do” when you grew up seemed more important than who you were going to “be”, and our future careers were so strongly tied to our school subjects that it was hard to see the possibilities beyond them. Most of us now know that the formula for success in life is much more complicated than “career choice = pharmacist = subject choice = chemistry”, but how can we teach young people to have work goals beyond a respectable job with adequate remuneration? How can we help to develop them as complete, confident, contributing citizens?

The year of the YES experience opened my eyes

It is only now, at the age of 28 and through witnessing the confidence of peers ten years my junior that I feel I am beginning to see the power in a year of YES.

To clarify, this is not about “The Year of Yes” as advocated in the memoir of author Maria Headley, who resolves, for an entire year, to say “yes” to every man that asks her out on a date (hilarity ensues). No, we’re not venturing into Carrie Bradshaw and Mr Big territory here. However, both my and Headley’s “Years of Yeses” do share one common theme: The power of possibility.

My year of YES (Young Enterprise Scheme) began in March 2013 when I first acted in a supporting role to Judith Tatom, regional coordinator for the Canterbury YES programme. Since then, I have seen what young people are capable of when someone says: “It is possible.” That statement was a seed from which little companies sprang forth — some are now saplings with a year’s worth of growth on them. In years to come these saplings could grow, cross-pollenate, drop their own seeds, and create entrepreneurial forests in abundance comparable to pre-colonisation Aotearoa. In other words (and before I leave the horticultural metaphor behind entirely): Cultivating entrepreneurship and confidence at a young age could cause widespread shifts in our future economies, societies, and communities.

Real-life skills at school can show a life-student possibilities and give permission to succeed

Young Enterprise Scheme

These companies, or “demonstrations in possibility”, could have an exponential impact on the number of people in society who feel able and encouraged to lead, voice their ideas, earn a living working from their passions, and contribute to a whole greater than themselves. Some of the companies I witnessed in 2013 had a very strong social or community focus: A team from St Margaret’s College started Surrounded by Love, a not-for-profit that supported the families of cancer sufferers; a team from Christchurch Girls’ High petitioned for free WiFi on city buses; another from Christchurch Boys’ High sold seeds and planters made from used wooden pallets to encourage people to grow their own food and recycle; Nothink Ltd from Hornby High developed a specialised pen-grip for sufferers of a rare condition which made holding certain objects difficult; and the New Plymouth Girls’ High team, Exposure, (overall winners for 2013) partnered with the Cancer Foundation to develop and sell UV sensitive wrist bands, which changed colour to let the wearer know when they needed to apply more sunscreen.

Often, teenagers are painted as a selfish and unruly bunch — hormonally insane, consumed by their immediate worlds, and probably not the first members of society you’d expect to, well, care. But many of these students already had a strong sense of “what was needed” and a willingness to “make it work”. All they needed was permission to succeed.

Companies that were more profit-driven still necessitated the same teamwork, commitment, knowledge of ethical practice, and most importantly, a belief in the worthwhile-ness of their product or service. Some companies fizzled, or “fast failed” in time to reinvent themselves, others continued to grow and thrive well past submitting their annual report for judging; but no one could complete the scheme without having learned valuable life lessons that just can’t be taught in Spanish or accounting class.

Why not learn some life-skills earlier than after we’re twenty one?

I feel I had a good education, from a good school, with good teachers, and good peers, but in retrospect, I can see there were things missing; things I would come across much later in life and say “Oh! How useful! If only I’d known that all along”. I would realise I had been inexplicitly told throughout my education journey not to think for myself until at least my third year of University. Fortunately, I was encouraged by some less precious first-year professors to take some risks and posit ideas at 100 level — but why not earlier? Why not always? And certainly, why not before the age of 21 when, as the tradition goes, we are finally handed the keys to an as-yet-unknown adult world? What does one do with a key that is given without the knowledge of all the possibilities it is designed to unlock? Just hang it on the wall?

The Young Enterprise Scheme is more than playing shop

The Young Enterprise Scheme is much more than just kids “playing shop” and mimicking their elders. It requires them to participate in the same world as the grown-ups. It is one way we can cultivate in our young people the kinds of life skills that school, family, and community can struggle to provide: How to get to work on time, willpower, emotional control — there are no school subjects specifically designed to teach these. After a year of YES, skills forged in the pursuit of a shared goal will prove more valuable than the products or companies themselves.

2014 is the YES year of Possibility and We can

I recently attended Enterprise Day, the first event in the 2014 YES calendar for participating secondary students throughout the country. It is when the first round of mentorship, coaching sessions, and start-up presentations take place. The word I most relished hearing from students at the end of this day was “can”. A close cousin of “possibility”, the word “can” was repeated as if the students had just happened upon something miraculous: “We can do this”, they said, “we can actually create a company. We can take our idea and turn it into something bigger”.

What is most exciting for me this year, is not imagining what kinds of products and services the class of 2014 will bring to the Dragons’ Den (although they are always impressive); it is imagining who these YES participants might become after this powerful lesson in possibility.

We can provide these early possibilities

The world as we experience it is expanding, and it is so easy to feel small and insignificant. We need to bolster our young people with small wins early on in their lives, so that they feel empowered to contribute later. We need to provide “fast fail” opportunities and demonstrate how to bounce back. We need to teach them, and allow them, to think beyond the confines of their classrooms and schools.

A year of YES addresses these needs in a unique, practical, and comprehensive way. It’s creating a braver, better New Zealand by teaching its young people just how valuable, powerful, and clever they really are.

 Examples, links, and further information


Improvement vs transformation

About this time last year I wrote about two agendas that are driving change in our education system — these are the improvement agenda and the transformation agenda. In preparing for an online course I'm about to teach I put together the short video above that is an attempt to illustrate the relationship between these two agendas, and how they need be working together, not viewed as 'either-or'.

The critical thing, however, is the notion of the 'third place' as the aspiration or goal we must have for our work to re-define schools and schooling, otherwise we simply get caught in the trap of continuous improvement, which sees us doing more of the same, but better.

The 'third' place is where we will achieve the practices required to operate effectively in a modern learning environment, where professional practice is de-privatised and collaborative activity becomes the norm, and where schools cease to be completely autonomous, competitive units, and become a part of a network of provision.


Ten Trends 2014: Living in the digital now

Ten Trend 2 – Living in the Digital Now from EDtalks on Vimeo.

CORE's Ten Trends for 2014 have been published. This post considers the second of these trends: Learning Agency. We shall be publishing posts on one of the trends approximately each month. You are encouraged to comment or provide supporting links.

The current digital revolution is probably one of the largest transformations to ever have taken place in human history. We’re all facing the challenge of living in the digital now and it only takes a quick look at the media to see that ideas of participation, identity, democracy, formal and informal networks are really being challenged. Where traditionally we might have looked to institutions of long standing or to well-established experts to solve problems for us, increasingly now we're sourcing information online, we're curating it, we're finding solutions, we're doing things digitally.


The growth in technologies that allow people from around the globe to communicate and collaborate together have created a situation whereby previously disparate cultures have come together and new cultures have emerged. We’ve got a pretty well established set of principles, rules, understandings for what it means to be a really positive member of a community. What we don't have because it's been happening relatively quickly and recently, is the same set of understandings, rights, and responsibilities for living in the digital now. And so one of the things that we need to really do is work with our students to develop those expectations, those understandings.


Take for example EdChat NZ, which is something that runs once a week on Thursdays. People from all around the country come together and using the Twitter hashtag #EdChatNZ they discuss a particular topic. You ask questions, you provide opinions, you link to articles and research, you make opportunities for other people to be involved and to come in, and, really, the teachers that are involved in it model the kind of digital citizenship that we're looking for from our students when they are living in the digital now.

Another challenge that living in the digital now presents us with is centred on ownership and copyright. Traditionally, one person, or a couple of people, have created a piece of work. Now collaborative documents or file sharing tools mean that not only can more than one person work on a resource, but literally hundreds or thousands of people can work on it. So traditional notions of ownership begin to be challenged. We’ve seen the emergence of things like Creative Commons licenses emerge as a way for people to navigate around the tricky area of ownership, and as a tool to encourage others to edit, add to and build upon their work.


These new worlds are tricky for educators to navigate because, while we want to make use of these tools and opportunities, we want to do it in a way that ensures our students are safe, affirmed, and guided through the development of skills required to be good members of their communities. Some schools are involving the students in the process. So, instead of just having a digital citizenship lesson once a year, they are actually helping the students to identify what their own needs are in the digital world, and then using inquiry learning to help students to build resources, help videos, tutorials, and posters that other students can use to navigate through the digital world.

So you can see that a lot of parts of our culture, democracy, identity, leadership, the way that we work with others, are being challenged by living in the digital now. The only thing that's really clear is that in order to successfully navigate through these challenges, we're going to have to walk alongside our students and communities and be learners alongside them.


  • How well do our schools and classrooms (both physically and in terms of the programmes and behaviours) model and reflect the ‘digital now’ that is the experience of students and staff outside of school?
  • Are you regularly reviewing what learners have access to and are using at home and in the community?
  • How is this then reflected in your curriculum and pedagogy?
  • What is the range of literacies we need to be considering? Cultural literacies? Maori literacy digitally? Pasifika literacies digitally? Digital and media literacy as well as technological literacies?

Examples and links:

For more about the Ten Trends:

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