Collaboration — so much more than parallel play!

Collaboration has become a real buzzword in schools recently. Modern Learning Practice (MLP) is built upon a foundation of collaborative practice and places like the VLN are full of discussions around the value of working closely with colleagues. Thinkers like Fullan (eg 2011) and Timperley et al all claim that collaboration is central to their understandings around school development and teacher professional learning.

But what does Collaboration look like? Really ….? How do we know it when we see it … hear it. … experience it? This has had me wondering a fair bit recently. My concern is that we often identify what I would call connecting or cooperating as collaboration. All three of these things are in fact quite different, and developmental I believe. I have attempted to capture the differences in the diagramme below:

Collaboration model
Illustration: Greg Carroll 2015


This is where teachers come together for a specific purpose and agree to work together, share resources etc simply to serve an agreed outcome or purpose. This is generally short-term and intermittent. A lot of teachers are connecting on social media for example and this enables them to use a collective intelligence to find specific resources or ideas. The NZ Teachers (Primary) Facebook page and Twitter in some instances could be examples of this kind of connection.
Each person who is connecting with the others could still function quite adequately if the relationship didn’t exist (but is is better for everyone while it does).

This is where my metaphor of parallel play comes in. Developmentally children play alongside each other before they play together (connecting before cooperating).  They use the toys to play their own games in the sand pit before they share them and play together. The Venn diagrammes above show this.


This is more in-depth more long term, and more closely linked. I have worked in many schools where teachers in syndicates co-operated a lot. This also happened across the staff for Units, sports days and so on. We shared students for literacy and numeracy between classes in order to cater for ranges of needs at both ends of programmes. We could have survived without the other people but our programmes and the outcomes for the students were certainly better because of the ways we worked together. We planned together for core curriculum areas, aligned Inquiry topics and shared resources and ideas for how we could make things as successful as possible for our students.

Many teachers also cooperate for their professional learning. Social media and forums like the VLN are hotbeds of people sharing ideas, practices and resources. People come together for their professional learning in PLGs or other forums at agreed time frames but often have little contact with each other in between times. They could operate without each other, but the collective brainpower of the minds working together certainly make it better.


This is where people are so inextricably linked that they couldn’t function without the others. The effect is much bigger than the sum of the two parts. In MLP this is the thing that makes the difference. Teachers share and organise the programme in ways that mean you couldn’t split the ways of working back into its parts again. Again the Venn diagramme above shows this.

Learners of all kinds collaborate in many different ways and in many different forums. There are lots of good examples of teachers and classes collaborating for their learning (eg VLN Primary). Enabling eLearning is full of in-depth and ongoing examples too. Social media can also provide forums for people to engage with each other in these ways.

The key thing here is the complete reliance on each other to achieve the shared goals.  No one person could do it on their own.


In my experience we often see confusion between these three ‘levels’. People often refer to cooperation as collaboration in particular. True collaboration is actually still quite rare I believe.  I have also seen quite a few so called Modern Learning Environments where in fact the teachers are simply cooperating to use the space/s provided. They share the physical spaces and places, and sometimes some of the students, but also are largely ‘the rulers of their own kingdom’ in a series of classrooms without walls in a big open space. This is often what we saw in the days of ‘Open Plan’ in the 70s and 80s.

So I guess the questions that occur to me are around how we know true collaboration when we see it. How do we know what to notice? The defining questions I think we need to ask are:

  • Could this scenario continue to operate if one of the partners became disengaged or was not there for any length of time?
  • If you analysed the ways of working, which Venn diagrammes above would be the most necessary to record what is happening?

If collaboration is identified as being such a critical factor in MLP (and I absolutely believe that it is!), and therefore in MLEs, it is essential that we know it when we see it.  It is equally as critical that we know when we are not.


The business of learning

Stephen in thought

As a learning designer, I've still got a lot to learn. Not about learning, but about the business of learning. 

Changing times

Back in the day, when teachers wore gowns and boys had short haircuts, the teacher was a superior being who dictated what the lesson would be, and how the outcomes would be judged.
Learning was like school dinners: there it is, if you don't like it, go hungry. Or, in the tougher establishments like the ones I attended: there it is, eat every last bit of it, even if it is disgusting, it's good for you, and you can't leave the dining room until you've made a clean plate. Homework and detention were very much the same thing but went by a different name. But now the student and her parents are the customer and the learning spaces, methods, and materials are our product.

Now we've swung our thinking around and most people subscribe to the environments and principles of modern learning. The expectation in this new learning environment is for continuous pedagogical and technical innovation. Unchanged for hundreds of years, the rate of change of learning is now a power curve. Consequently, we find ourselves in need of some professional development in the area of innovation and business start-up. I say start-up because the change from old school to new school is so radical it's an entirely different world.

Learner focus

The learning designers on the Instructional Design team at CORE Education are totally committed to taking a learner focus, as opposed to a curriculum focus, or worse, a teacher focus. However, old habits die hard. As the oldest member of the team I sometimes need to be reminded to focus on the learner, their motivations, and their needs. That may be a narrow profile that we can target with pinpoint accuracy, more often the learners fit into a broad spectrum of people and then the task is harder. 

The principles of Universal Design for Learning and the tenets of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines act as our guide and underpin our work, but really it boils down to giving the learner ownership and offering them choice. Especially with adult learners, but with younger learners too, it's like asking: what do you want to be able to do; what do you need to learn to do that; how do you want to learn it; and how do you want to demonstrate that you can now do that thing you identified at the start? So, what we really design and build these days is not learning, but a framework for learning.

Fiscal challenge

CORE Education is not for profit, but we still need to make money just to survive. To this end, we have established an internal incubator, not unlike Google Labs, but on a more modest scale. Our learning designers are among those who have put forward project ideas. It's burned into our psyche to think: How can my idea improve the quality of our learning designs and implementations? But now we need to think: How can my idea improve the quality of our learning designs and implementations, and be productised, and be monetised?

Virtual challenge

Productise and monetise are not words that come easily to our lips. We don't like to dirty our hands with the filthy lucre. So it's a challenge, and show me a learning designer who does not rise to a challenge! One popular innovation process that we take to like ducks to water is Design Thinking. We workshop the learning problem. The workshop unfolds in stages: empathise, define, ideate, prototype, and test. At its best Design Thinking is high-energy fun, iterative, productive, and ultimately points to one or more candidate solutions. While you can do it at four tables pushed together in your nearest cafe, ideally it takes place in a specially designed collaborative space with aids like portable whiteboards, projection screens, configurable furniture, and soundproof pods. Either way, that's face-to-face. So, here's the Challenge for our team, because we are a virtual team, and we rarely meet face-to-face. How do we innovate effectively in a virtual incubator?

Risk taking

I don't have the answer, but I'm looking for it. For years, I sat on a domain name, virtualincubator.co.nz, but recently I let it go. I keep having ideas for learning frameworks, most recently, an alternate reality games in education framework (ARGEF). But I continue to stare at the wall, racking my brains for how to productize and monetize it. Such is the life of the budding entrepreneur. What gives me hope are the experiences of most start-ups today: the business model is elusive; there is usually a long freeware phase; the freeware phase often morphs into a freemium model; and, the sun has set on the boxed product. Risk taking and failure are wholly acceptable in this brave new world. Success stories usually reference several preceding failed attempts. Perseverance seems to be the key.


From Virtual to Reality

An insight into the use of virtual field trips

Routeburn Track panaorama

When I tell people that I’m a virtual field trip teacher, I can get a variety of responses ranging from confusion and scepticism through to surprise and even envy. It can be challenging to explain what a virtual field trip is, and what it isn’t. Sometimes people struggle with the concept, thinking that real field trips are being replaced by online programmes. But in reality, virtual field trips can provide the inspiration for rich learning journeys and spark community involvement.

The Virtual Great Walker field trip

Last term I was involved in the ‘Virtual Great Walker’ field trip and I have to admit that initially I had some concerns. Firstly the plan was to only walk part of the track as a day walk. Secondly this trip had to inspire action, as the great walks cannot be fully appreciated virtually and they certainly can’t be done from the comfort of your own home. How could this trip inspire youngsters to take the virtual into reality and get walking?

The field trip needed to capture the essence of the world-famous Routeburn Track, but this posed some challenges. We knew that we would not be able to access the website if we walked all of the Routeburn Track, and we would have to carry all our filming equipment. I felt that we had to walk the whole track to do it justice, so a plan was developed. We would walk the Routeburn over the weekend so we could be ready to talk to students during audioconferences back in Queenstown during the week.

Behind the scene

Usually, our field trips involve daily audioconferences and activities, with experts who feature in videos and answer students’ questions in pre-booked audioconferences. These daily activities are followed by an evening of frantic effort back in an area with an Internet connection. Each night two people from the LEARNZ team edit videos, write diaries and ambassador updates, and upload images to the LEARNZ site so students can see what has happened the very next day. This material stays online for students to revisit or use retrospectively. For this field trip we would have to film everything over the weekend and then upload it to the site over the following three days.

Before starting the field trip, background pages were developed on the website to allow students to build their knowledge of New Zealand’s Great Walks, their biodiversity, and how to safely complete such a walk. These pages are designed to give just enough detail to inform students of key concepts so they can start more focused, meaningful inquiries of their own, and ask quality questions during the field trip audioconferences.

Experts to guide the way

The next challenge was how to organise transport to the beginning of the track near Te Anau and from the end of the track in Glenorchy. Susie Geh from the Department of Conservation (DOC) in Queenstown made this all possible and accompanied us on the walk. LEARNZ works hard to make connections between experts and students. It can be difficult to find people willing to take time out of their busy schedules to help on trips, and not everyone is able to communicate well with students. Fortunately, over the years, we have met some fantastic experts. I have worked with Ruud Kleinpaste (aka the Bugman) on a number of trips, and knew that, alongside Susie and other DOC staff, he would make the perfect addition to the team. After numerous phone calls and lots of organisation, I managed to meet Ruud, Susie, and videographer Pete Sommerville from LEARNZ, in Queenstown.

The adventure begins

From here, Susie drove us to Te Anau where we stayed the night ready to begin our walk the following day. After picking up hut tickets and checking the weather, we drove to The Divide where we met members of the Kids Restore the Kepler group. They wanted to go for a day walk and share some of the work that they have been doing on the Kepler Great Walk. These students were knowledgeable and passionate about Fiordland, and bringing birdsong back to the area. It was great to be able to share their work with students from all over the country.

Rain set in after lunch, making our portrayal of the western side of the Alps authentic. Moss-covered beech forest kept us all enthralled as we spotted different birds and invertebrates. Ruud could barely contain his enthusiasm as he leapt from one rotten log to another in search of bugs. A night at McKenzie Hut saw us refreshed, ready for the climb over Harris Saddle. The weather cleared and we were rewarded with stunning views over the Hollyford. The camera hardly spent any time in the pack as we tried to capture the essence of the area and our journey through it.

That evening Ruud took us bug hunting by torchlight, and it was intriguing to discover species I had never seen before. Our final day on the track led us downhill to the road end, where students from nearby Glenorchy School greeted us. They are an Enviroschool, and were keen to share some of the work they have been doing in pursuit of their Green Gold Award. An Enviroschool is a school whose entire curriculum is based around the main theme of sustainability and they can work with their community to achieve bronze, silver and green gold awards.

These students make money for the school through selling vegetables. They also source local native seeds to grow seedlings in their nursery. These seedlings will be planted nearby to help restore a wetland area.

Where to from here

DOC had arranged a pick up for us, so we all piled into the car and headed back to Queenstown ready for a long-awaited hot shower. Experiences such as these are impossible to fully capture through a virtual field trip, but they’re not supposed to. While talking to students in the audioconferences that followed, I could hear the enthusiasm of students from different parts of the country. Many spoke of the plans they had to get out and about on tracks in their own area, and some had formed groups to help restore parts of their local environment. Seeing students inspired by field trips such as this is what the use of digital technology should be about. We need to use technology to engage and inform students so they are inspired to form new ideas, collaborate, and take action. We need to make the virtual a reality!


Is it time to ditch the pen and speak your writing?

Speech recognition and writing

Speech recognition allows you to speak aloud to your device and have words typed as you speak. The software is not quite ‘Star Trek’ quality yet, but it has improved so significantly in the last few years that it is now a real option for text entry. Even better, it is included free in many operating systems.

Many versions of the software only work when they are online as your speech is literally sent across the internet, interpreted in the cloud and then returned to the device in text format.

With Bluetooth, wireless, and cloud technologies you can do cool things like talk into your phone and have the text come up in a document on any computer screen (in the same room or in a shared document across the other side of the world), all in real time.

The question is, should 21st-century learners labour to write with a pen or keyboard, or can they simply speak their writing? Is it cheating and how will it impact on their literacy and learning?

Is speaking cheating?

It depends on the learning intention.

If the learning intention is for students to express themselves or to show their understanding, then speaking to write is just as valid as writing with a pen or typing. It is simply the means of getting your word onto the page.

If the intention is to develop the ‘skill of writing with a pen or keyboard’ or spell words correctly then of course speaking is not appropriate. These intentions are often important for younger learners and less of a focus for older students.

Pros — why use speech recognition?

It is fast. The average adult writes at about 31 words per minute* while they speak at more like 150 words per minute. Speech recognition software uses context to recognise speech so most work best when you speak at your normal pace in whole sentences or paragraphs rather than individual words.

For those with writing difficulties or a strong preference for speech, it is critical because so much of the work produced and assessed in the education setting is still required in written format. Speech recognition gives these students the opportunity to show what they know rather than repeatedly defining them by their writing difficulties.

It offers options for those with who have writing difficulties. For those who have physical disabilities, poor fine motor skills, handwriting legibility, and other writing problems (e.g. very poor spelling), speech recognition offers another way to get their words onto the page.

It has huge (and largely untapped) potential for communication with students who are hearing impaired or Deaf. A speaker can use the technology to convert their voice to text, enabling immediate, real-time access for a student who cannot hear the spoken word. This option is not nearly as good as sign language or real-time captioning but is starting to be a reasonable third choice for students who are Deaf or hearing-impaired and can read well.

Cons — what are the down sides?

Speaking to write is a very different skill to speaking in conversation. The student must compose sentences in their head, speak (preferably the whole sentence) clearly and then review what has been written for accuracy. Speaking to write is a complex skill that will need to be learnt and practised. We should not expect that just because a student can speak, it will be easy for them.

The software is not yet capable of 100% accuracy so the student will always need to review the text and make corrections (using voice or keyboard).

There is currently no Māori speech recognition engine so te reo is not an option. Some of the products can recognise a few Māori words or can be trained to recognise new words.

The use of speech recognition in a classroom requires careful consideration. Many students are reluctant to speak their work aloud in front of their peers and although microphone technology is improving all the time, a quiet setting will give greater recognition accuracy. Because of this, students are sometimes sent to other rooms to do speech recognition. This, in turn, may lead to the student being isolated from their peers.

NCEA externals are still handwritten, so longhand is still necessary. This is very likely to change in the future and NZQA has already begun digitising assessments. Unfortunately having reliable speech recognition available for any student who wants it in our NCEA assessments is still a long way off. For more information see Innovation at NZQA.

Speech recognition requires power and in most cases, a good internet connection. We only need to think of the recent terrible crisis in Nepal, or even closer to home, the handwritten ‘HELP!’ signs hastily scribed by those trapped in high-rise buildings during the Christchurch earthquakes. Handwriting was crucial when all networks were out and power was lost to some of us for months on end.

Are crayons, pencils and pens out? What does the research say?

Recent neuroscientific research clearly shows us that students acquire early literacy skills most effectively by learning to write by hand (James & Attwood, 2009; Longcamp et al, 2008; James & Engelhardt, 2011). The tactile, physical act of writing by hand recruits the visual area of children’s brains used in letter processing, and the motor regions seen in letter production, in ways that don’t occur through tracing or using keyboards (Alonso, 2015).

So, perhaps surprisingly to some of us, using a range of ‘old digital’ (in the finger sense) media —- e.g. plasticine, sandpaper, paint, crayon, pencil, pen and glass (tablet finger writing and using a stylus rather than a keyboard) — remains important for now, especially in the early years of emergent writing.

For older students, there is also evidence that note taking by hand rather than keyboard may help comprehension. Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014) showed that college students who take notes longhand take fewer notes overall, with less verbatim recording than those who use keyboards. But they perform better in both factual and conceptual learning.


So we shouldn’t be throwing away those pens and pencils just yet. Writing by hand is still an important skill that has a significant role to play in developing early literacy skills. It also appears that handwriting notes supports comprehension and retention of information.

Speech recognition though, is one of the many great tools that students can use to produce written content. It definitely has a place as an option for writing so let’s add it to our learners’ repertoire of skills – especially for older learners who already have handwriting in their toolbox.

What is sure, is that ever-widening opportunities are becoming available to our students. Those who learn to use these amazing writing tools – whether separately or in combination – will find truly inspiring, supportive, motivating and exciting prospects in our evolving classrooms and learning spaces.

For more information and reviews of a variety of speech recognition tools see:
Speech Recognition on the assistive technology VLN


* http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Words_per_minute


Alonso, MAP. Metacognition and sensorimotor components underlying the process of handwriting and keyboarding and their impact on learning. An analysis from the perspective of embodied psychology. Social and behavioural sciences (2015); 263-269. doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2015.01.470

James, KH and Engelhardt, L. The effects of handwriting experience on functional brain development in pre-literate children. Trends in Neuroscience and education (2012). http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.tine.2012.08.001

Mueller, PA and Oppenheimer,DM. The pen is mightier than the keyboard: advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. Psychological Science (2014); 25(^) 1159-68.
doi: 10.1177/0956797614524581. Epub 2014 Apr 23.

The University of Stavanger. "Better learning through handwriting." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 24 January 2011. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/01/110119095458.htm


Christchurch 2015 Polyfest — the Pasifika Education Plan in action

Christchurch Polyfest 2015

This March, I attended the Christchurch POLYFEST 2015 held at the Westminster Park — the first time the event has been held outdoors. The Polyfest was an opportunity for the Pasifika community to celebrate the diverse cultures of the 19 Christchurch secondary schools in a lively and colourful event.

I also found it to be an excellent illustration of the Pasifika Education Plan (PEP) in action. The PEP encourages:

 “Working together ensures that activities that are required to lift achievement also responds to the identities, language and culture of the different Pasifika groups.”
(Pasifika Education Plan 2013-2017, p. 1, Ministry of Education).

Here’s what impressed me about this event.

What an exciting opportunity for the young men and women who will be the future leaders of our Pasifika community! They stood tall and showed off their unique Pasifika culture, their talents, and, above all, the enjoyment of being ‘Pasifika’. ‘Well done’ to them.

Polyfest dance collage

There were the usual magnificent displays of cultural dancing. But, this event was not all about the demonstration of ‘cultural dancing’. For example, there was the ‘Teta-Sopoaga’ Speech competition. This competition provides opportunities for Pasifika students from junior to senior levels in secondary schools to participate. Students are given the opportunity to deliver their speeches in either English or in their heritage language.

Importantly, even pre-schoolers were included when the early years children were brought up on stage to answer simple questions and were rewarded for their participation. This involvement shows the significance of early learning as a fundamental part of preparing our Pasifika learners for educational success.

Polyfest community support

The community was out in full force. Parents set up stalls and raised funds to assist their respective schools. School principals, teachers, board members, grandparents and families with their young children were there to support their older siblings, nephews, nieces and children.

Education partner organisations and agencies were there too. This involvement provided unique pathways for prominent groups such as Mana Rapuara Aotearoa (CareersNZ) to attend and outline their mechanisms for support of career aspirations for our Pasifika students. The Pacific Youth Leadership and Transformation (PYLAT) Council also participated in their role as a lead voice for Pacific Youth, having become a charitable trust and organised themselves around topical youth issues. 

Such events provide Pasifika children with the opportunities to see, hear, and recognise their own cultures, languages, and identities that reflect in the community. Working together like this goes a long way to lifting achievement among Pasifika children; it showcases what is essentially the Pasifika way.

If you are interested to investigate more about Pasifika Education and the Ministry of Education’s initiative in supporting Pasifika success check out the Pasifika Education Plan.


Snapchat, ephemeral content, and transient attention

ephemeral content

Does the consumption of ephemeral content — those bite-sized, self-destructing user interactions — go hand in hand with a weakening of our capacity for the kind of deep processing that underpins mindful knowledge acquisition, inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination, and reflection?

Ephemeral content

With the development of new communication applications and software comes an ever-diminishing amount of time required to receive and consider content: Vine’s 6 second videos, Twitter’s 140 character messages, Snapchat’s disappearing images and video, and most recently Meerkat’s streaming video that only exists for the viewer as they watch it. Snapchat, Yik YakFrankly and Confide are all apps that revolve around bite-sized, self-destructing user interactions.

This is not an insignificant trend, with Snapchat recently surpassing Instagram and Tumblr as the fastest-growing social app, growing from 30 million active users a year ago to 100 million six months ago to an estimate of nearly 200 million in January 2015. Snapchat users, predominantly teenagers, now share over 150 million pictures every day.

This trend towards a growing variety of ways for us to access ephemeral content essentially involves the delivery of content that is designed to be short-lived.  In terms of digitally exchanged messages and information, ephemeral content works against the idea that content is captured, stored, accessible, reviewable, and shareable forever. Ephemeral content is no longer just the preserve of Snapchat users either, as it appears there is a wider move amongst multiple social media platforms to offer expiration options for our social content.

Does the rise of Snapchat and the digital world of ephemeral content mean an acceptance of the notion of the fleeting, of the impermanent nature of content?  And what are the implications for learning?

Multiple demands on attention

Neil Postman in his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), believed that the attention span of humans is decreasing as modern technology, especially television, increases.  Nicholas Carr, writing in WIRED in 2010 warned that, “When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. Even as the Internet grants us easy access to vast amounts of information, it is turning us into shallower thinkers, literally changing the structure of our brain.” The information flowing into our working memory is termed “cognitive load”, and many studies have shown that switching between just two tasks can add substantially to our cognitive load. It would seem that in the world of multiple screens and fast consumption of ever smaller chunks of data, where we generally juggle several tasks and attention, the switching costs must increase.

This information environment is not surprising for anyone working in the mobile/digital world. Mobile productivity today means having to manage a constant flow of workplace, personal, and news information. Nine hundred million workers, 35% of the global workforce, are “mobile workers,” meaning that they use mobile technologies such as laptops, tablets, or smartphones, for work purposes at least occasionally.  It seems that we are willingly being trained to expect a constant flow of information. Do we have strategies and skills that enable us to manage these multiple demands on our attention, especially for learners and learning?

What does this mean for learning?

We have always skimmed newspapers and magazines to get the essence of a piece of writing. We teach the skills of effective skimming and scanning because these abilities are as important as the ability to read deeply. Carr believes that the problem is that skimming is “becoming our dominant mode of thought. Once a means to an end, a way to identify information for further study, it’s becoming an end in itself—our preferred method of both learning and analysis”.

Developmental Psychologist Patricia Greenfield reviewed more than 40 studies of the effects of various types of media on intelligence and learning ability. She concluded that “every medium develops some cognitive skills at the expense of others.”  She writes that our growing use of the internet and screen-based technologies has led to the “widespread and sophisticated development of visual-spatial skills.” But those gains go hand in hand with a weakening of our capacity for the kind of “deep processing” that underpins “mindful knowledge acquisition, inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination, and reflection.”

It is reasonable to assume that the distraction and inattention inherent to the screen culture inevitably works against deep reading. Robert Waxler and Maureen Hall, in “Transforming Literacy: Changing Lives Through Reading and Writing” say that while celebrating speed, multitasking and fast reading, we should also celebrate slow reading, which allows for self-reflection and “imaginative flights to deep and contextualized space”. They caution that, while narrative “invites us into the interior of ourselves”, the world of ephemeral digital content tends to “flatten out the self in the name of speed, leaving little room for empathy and self-reflection”.

Supporting students

It’s likely that the attraction of distracting content along with transient attention will be a growing challenge for teachers and learners.  This may already be manifested in students’ attitudes to learning  and the learning behaviours they have developed out of school.

Do your classroom observations of children's learning habits substantiate the claims of short attention span, skimming, and (more particularly) resistance to deeper engagement?  If so, what can we do to help students as they navigate these new waters? How can we adapt pedagogies to support learners as they explore different ways of approaching different forms of content, and for different reasons?  What new strategies or new literacies will children need, and what are the implications for the dispositions and media consumption habits that learners will bring into the classroom in the future?



Building collaborative Teaching as Inquiry teams using Spirals of Inquiry

Spirals of Inquiry
Image: Timperley, Kaser & Halbert, 2014

Building Teaching as Inquiry projects collaboratively is becoming more commonplace as teachers shift their learning and teaching practices (Modern Learning Pedagogies) to co-teach or team-teach learners, for whom they are collectively responsible, within changing learning environments (Modern Learning Environments). There are lots of benefits in building collaborative inquiry projects, even if teachers are still operating in single-cell classrooms.

As the Future Focused Inquiries (FFI) facilitation team, we support leaders and teachers to inquire into their own practice to make decisions about ways to change their practice to benefit learners. In this blogpost I and two colleagues  (Suzi Gould and Togi Lemanu) from the FFI team share our experiences in facilitating collaborative inquiries in schools.

This handy article explains the difference between Teaching as Inquiry and Inquiry Learning. We use this a lot when introducing Teaching as Inquiry in schools. We also use the most recent framework for supporting Teaching as Inquiry, the Spirals of Inquiry.

Two common themes that arise for those implementing collaborative TAI

We have found two common themes that arise  for teachers and leaders as they grapple with implementing collaborative Teaching as Inquiry (TAI) processes:

  1. How to manage change and motivate teachers to engage in TAI processes and practices; and how to transition from existing processes so that teachers are well supported to adopt/engage in TAI as a way of growing professionally as well as improving student outcomes.
  2. How to build collaborative teams that effectively gather and review evidence to develop a focused collaborative inquiry into practice.

Motivating teachers to engage in Teaching as Inquiry processes and practices

Three ways to engage teachers in Teaching as Inquiry are:

  1. the effective use of evidence about learners,
  2. keeping a manageable pace when learning about Teaching as Inquiry, and
  3. developing evidence seeking and inquiry/growth mindsets to improve collaborative teaching and learning.

Persevere with Scanning

As we work with teachers in teams, we ask them to spend at least a whole term predominantly in the Scanning phase of the Spirals of Inquiry. The Scanning phase asks teachers to think more widely about their learners, considering a more holistic picture of what helps them to learn, and what does not. If done well, they don’t talk about solutions at this stage, but only the current situation for learners.

We also explore the Seven Principles of Learning, and use these as a guide to review everyday experiences in the classroom of both the student and teacher. This research, based on the science of learning, is being utilised by teachers to determine new ways of gathering evidence, scan what is going on for their learners, and inform 21st Century learning environments (or future-focused education).

Pace is important

Spending at least a term in the Scanning phase enables teachers to work as a team to explore and innovate ways of scanning the current situation from a wider perspective than that of the professional — they gather data from learners and their whānau.

Slowing down this phase of the inquiry process enables teachers to gather a wider perspective of the student, and gain a deeper understanding of the learning ecology. Knowing what ‘Scanning’ is and isn’t is important to support effective gathering, use, and storage of evidence about learners. It also allows space for collaborative learning conversations, and the development of an inquiry and evidence-seeking mindset.

As teachers move through the Scanning phase with each other and their learners, they build a sense of ownership over the process, and are motivated to use the data in meaningful ways to inform next steps about their practice. The first time through the Scanning process can feel slow, frustrating, and ambiguous, but if teachers persevere and have rich conversations about the data with each other in relation to their teaching practice, they will begin to see themes emerging and areas to focus on together. We like to call this “slowing down to speed up” — where teachers and their learners use scanning data to focus the inquiry through consideration of their practices and why they use them.

Inquiry mindsets

As teachers consider their practices, we might encourage them to see these as one part of the picture — imagine a picket fence, made up of slats, it is not the slats alone that provide the form of the fence — it is the spaces in between that also create the whole image. The idea here is that we must listen carefully to the voices not always heard — cast our assumptions aside, and look innovatively towards the change that will make a difference for these particular learners.

Learners are aware of the process, and are enabled to have agency over the inquiry through developing their own understandings about what helps them to learn, and what helps them to actively engage in learning. We encourage teachers to use the suggested questions provided by Kaser and Halbert (2014). For example:

  1. To what extent can learners connect with and learn from the broader environment?
  2. To what extent do they learn on a regular basis from members of their community?

Context is important. As facilitators, we support teachers to engage in Teaching as Inquiry in ways that are relevant to their school community (mainly their learners and their whānau). This includes being culturally responsive. For example, engaging with the Talanoa model and exploring posts from experts like Togi Lemanu about engaging with Pasifika learners and their families helps teachers to shape the way they scan and inquire in culturally appropriate ways.

Building collaborative teams and a collaborative inquiry focus

Collaboration is more than simply sharing ideas and practices or visiting/observing each other. Collaboration involves teachers committing to a common goal or focus using inquiry practices, challenging and critiquing each other respectfully, focusing on evidence-based needs, and having clarity about their roles in the work/process. Building trust is important if teachers are going to be able to collaborate in this way. We like to use the “Actions that Engender Trust” from Dalton’s Learning Talk series to support teams to reflect on their current team work, and to improve the way they enable trust to be built in an ongoing way. These actions relate to the need for us to build effective communication skills that are inclusive, and that encourage a “growth mindset” that  help people explore possibilities and build relationships (Dweck, 2006).

We watch and mentor teachers and leaders through the process

As facilitators, we watch the team-building process closely. We guide and mentor teachers and leaders in how they reflect on their own practices that may be contributing to the situations emerging from the Scanning phase. With support, they learn to ask themselves and each other what is leading to the situation, and how they are contributing to this. More common themes emerge across their own teaching practices, and a set of focused inquiry questions emerge for the team to work on together.

These types of open conversations don’t occur automatically. Facilitators support teaching teams to use the language of inquiry to ask questions of the data, of learners, and of each other. Learning Talk resources help guide teachers in their use of language that will foster inquiry.

Sensitive building of rapport with teachers is essential

Supporting teachers through the inquiry and change process involves listening to their stories. From there, as facilitators, we can start building a relationship with the teachers. Teachers might offload about their school life and, sometimes, that is what is needed for teachers to break out in conversations/talanoa so that we are welcomed in supporting them.

At times, supporting teachers individually can be difficult. Having a collaborative fono/meeting with staff involved, and having all principals attend is a great way to support teachers in building their capability. Facilitation involves building relationships, connecting with teachers’ stories, and encouraging collaboration.

Finally, think carefully about how to engage with and use evidence

We recommend that teachers and leaders think carefully about how to engage in Spirals of Inquiry or Teaching as Inquiry. Ensure that you’ve really considered what  practices in your school need to change and why. Use wide-ranging evidence that includes the perspectives of learners and their whānau. Trust that common themes will emerge from the data you explore, and keep your inquiry focus manageable. There is always more than one thing to work on at a time, so, as educators, we need to prioritise those that will have the greatest impact for learners. Slow down to speed up!



Timperley, H., Kaser, L., and Halbert, J. (2014, April). A framework for transforming learning in schools: Innovation and the spiral of inquiry. Centre for Strategic Education, Seminar Series Paper No. 234.

Dalton, J., and Anderson, D. (2010). Learning Talk: build understandings.

Dumont, H. et al (2010). The Nature of Learning: Using research to inspire practice. OECD Publishing.

Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: How you can fulfil your potential. Ballantine Books

Kaser, L., and Halbert, J. (2014). Spirals of Inquiry (PDF)


Student data and privacy

big data

A panel discusses what data is collected by schools, and who owns it.

One of the trends that has been evident for some time, and continues to develop in education, is the collection of “big data” and the use of learning analytics: the collection, analysis, and reporting of large datasets relating to learners and their contexts. As more and more learning activities take place digitally, and as more and more data is gathered about learner progress, we have the opportunity to be more evidence-based in how we support learners.

One of the implications is that there are issues around who uses the data: are learners or their families empowered to access and reflect on the progress that they are making?

During Privacy Week 2015, CORE eLearning and Future Focused Facilitator Andrew Cowie hosted a panel discussion covering some of the issues associated with data ownership. The discussion included the right to privacy, the right to access that data, and the long-term implications for schools, students and their families.

Andrew’s two guests were Katrine Evans, Assistant Privacy Commissioner, and Sean Lyons, Chief Technology Officer at Netsafe.

The panel acknowledged that, as well as the need for schools to collect data on behalf of the Ministry of Education, student data increasingly includes records of progress and achievement, work samples, individual student’s digital portfolios, school video records, and images. Rather than any one person owning this information, the school, families, and students all have rights to the data collected.

In some circumstances, schools use learning analytics to interpret the data sets to help predict students’ future behaviour and learning potential. Katrine points out the likelihood of students using their increasing awareness of the range of data being collected about them, to question these predictions that schools may be making about them.

The panel also discusses online behaviour, where data is being collected, and where students are allowing information relating to online behaviour to be obtained by agreeing to terms of service that they are unlikely to have read.

This video is part 1 of the two-part discussion on student data and privacy. You can also find out more about the learning analytics trend, watch more videos on big data and learning analytics, or check out the links in CORE’s Bundlr collection.


  • What data are you gathering in your centres and schools?
  • How is it being stored and managed?
  • Are families and students able to access this data?
  • How are you supporting students to understand their rights in terms of privacy, understand what data is being collected about them online, and how they can access this information?


Virtual learning: a springboard to restoring the broken bond between children and the outdoors

Kids in forest

Growing up in the 60s and 70s

Our local stream was a quick five-minute ride from home. In these pre-mountain bike days our 3 speeds made the rough track to the bridge hugely exciting. The stream was a wilderness of old willows, a shifting riverbed and a busy road bridge. For much of my early adolescence I played, swam, camped, cooked over fires, fished, fought and generally mucked about in this wilderness. My parents, mostly unaware of what we were up to, didn’t care – provided we were home for tea.

That was growing up in the sixties and seventies. A free-range childhood. We didn’t know about stranger danger, endangered species, ozone depletion or climate change. We did know every nook and cranny of that streambed.

Growing up today — it’s different

Today our children have different experiences. They spend more time IndoorsThey do more organised sport in human-created environments of asphalt and turf. Our children are well informed about the decline of natural values; our ever-increasing list of endangered species and habitats at risk. Nature has become a doom and gloom story.

Nature-deficit an alarming trend

Author Richard Louv in his book Last Child in the Woods explores the divide between children and the outdoors. He calls the lack of nature in the lives of today's wired generation, nature-deficit. He attributes nature-deficit to some of the most disturbing childhood trends such as the rise in obesity, attention disorders, and depression.

It is true that for all of human history children have spent much of their time outside either playing or being in nature. It is part of what and who we are – we’re genetically wired to need nature. Louv argues that treasured moments of wonder in nature, such as discovering what exists on the underside of a rock or hearing the wind in the leaves, are a rich source of spiritual growth.

While better informed, our children are being put off nature

In recent years I have taken interest in this so-called nature deficit disorder. I’ve wondered about what it is to be a Kiwi; the relationship we have with our natural heritage; what we think about 100% Pure; and what the separation of a large proportion of our children from the natural world will mean for New Zealand and Planet Earth.

Our students are arguably better informed about their global environment than ever before. Their awareness of the natural world is largely through television and the Internet; their awareness more an abstraction than a personal reality. The message delivered inadvertently through schools and the media is that the outdoors is dangerous. Regulations and expectations of safety make playgrounds too safe. There is little room for creativity and expression. Our children’s environment is increasingly de-natured and their perceptions of the natural world are devoid of personal experiences.

What does this mean for the likes of virtual field trips? The answer is surprising.

So perhaps you’re thinking this is all a bit rich coming from the Project Director of a virtual field trip programme? Well it could be if student involvement in virtual field trips (VFTs) resulted in less time spent outdoors. The evidence suggests otherwise. Teachers are telling us that students are inspired during VFTs by getting to know people who work in the outdoors. They are motivated to learn more about conservation and want to get involved. The student experience with environmental VFTs is creating a desire to get out and do stuff in the outdoors.

Look at some of the feedback we’ve received:

The children were enthralled by this trip. They all want to go and walk the Routeburn for real now! A great way to 'hook' the children in. So interactive and 'real'.
Joanne Mortimer from Weston School

Students found it very engaging and enjoyed being able to go on the LEARNZ website at home as well.  One student and their family is now going to go and walk the Routeburn Track next school holidays.
Te Whaea Ireland from Karoro School

They developed their knowledge of pest threats in NZ and also developed a positive attitude to how they can help with campaigns like Project Crimson & Living Legends. LEARNZ is an excellent programme.
Philip Lightbourne from Kairanga School

The biggest benefit was being able to relate to it on a personal level and also to be able to follow up on it in our local community. 
Jane Pearson from Hira School

My students enjoyed it and learnt so much. They were inspired and did their own projects on kauri dieback.
–  Julia Kippen from St Mark's School (Pakuranga

LEARNZ is wonderful for those students who learn in different ways e.g. listening (and they can refer back to recordings to check information). We are now interested in "adopting" a local reserve and planting some natives, including kauri.
Debra Sheeran from Pukenui School

We also followed up with a visit in our local area to a native bush stand.
– Vicki Karetai from Brooklyn School Motueka

We are now going to visit the local bush and observe our trees.
Sharlene Tornquist from Kaiwaka School

Virtual field trips could be a vehicle for a real-life appreciation of nature

We haven’t designed our VFTs to necessarily achieve outdoor activity outcomes. But why don’t we?

The evidence is that LEARNZ VFTs have the capability to motivate large numbers of students. So what if we placed more emphasis on action outcomes from our VFTs? What if we partnered with organisations that could broker relationships between schools and local environmental projects? What if virtual field trips became a platform for energising and mobilising the imagination and spirit of young people? And what if there was a campaign to soak up that energy where young people could get involved with nature.

Your comments welcome

What do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts about nature deficit. How can we restore that age-old relationship between people and the planet? If you've seen your students inspired by a LEARNZ field trip, what were the outcomes? How might we organise ourselves to harness that inspiration and get kids outdoors?


Tautua nei mo sou manuia a taeao — Serve now for a better tomorrow

Ruta presenting

O le Vaiaso o le Gagana Samoa. The celebration of Samoan language week will take place from 24 May to 30 May 2015. Learning a new language gives us new insights into new ways of thinking, and shared understandings of cultural beliefs and practices.

The Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs is working closely with the Human Rights Commission and FAGASA to promote Samoan Language Week activities. The theme for the Samoan language week is “Tautua nei mo sou manuia a taeao — Serve now for a better tomorrow".
According to the Human Rights Commission website, “Samoan language week was first promoted by Radio Niu FM as part of a series of Pacific language weeks leading up to Māori language week. In 2007 it was promoted in schools by the Fa’alapotopotoga mo le A’oa’oina o le Gagana Samoa i Aotearoa (FAGASA).

FAGASA is an independent organisation with the aim to nurture and promote Samoan language in New Zealand.The Samoan language week is now celebrated in New Zealand, Australia, United States of America and Samoan communities across the world.

Why learn Samoan in schools?

New Zealand is a country in the South Pacific. Samoan people make up nearly half of New Zealand’s Pasifika population and Samoan language is the third most commonly spoken language in New Zealand. Our society progressively reflects a diversity of languages and cultures. The Pasifika Education Plan 2013-2017 vision is to see “Five out of five Pasifika learners participating, engaging and achieving in education secure in their identities, languages and cultures and contributing fully to Aotearoa New Zealand’s social, cultural and economic well-being.”

Language is a key element of culture and helps us give meaning to things we use and create in everyday life. Learning Samoan language and culture empowers Samoan children to know they are of Samoan heritage, to uphold their sense of identity and belonging, and to advance the knowledge of their language and culture.

If children whose first language is Samoan can maintain that language, the development of their knowledge, and confidence in their cultural heritage and language will be enriched. It is important that Samoan children and children who are interested in learning the Samoan language and culture are more involved and take part in activities within schools, the community, church and family. As they become parents they will be able to pass on the language and culture to their fanau.

Also, for children whose home language is Samoan, maintaining their first language will enrich their learning of English. Research says that children with English as their second language are assisted to high levels of achievement across the curriculum when their first language is used as a language of instruction (Ministry of Education,1996). Learning Samoan will enable children to function more effectively in New Zealand society and the global world, as well as in Samoan contexts.

My personal experience in Samoa and New Zealand and the change in society

Growing up in Samoa where the language is spoken and used at all times has enriched my personal and professional journey. I was immersed and nurtured in the Samoan language at home, school, church and the village. I was exposed to and developed my use of Samoan language in different everyday situations — for example, church, cultural events, family gatherings, weddings, and daily life. Now, as an adult living in New Zealand, I am often given a role of speaking in different educational and personal contexts. I am expected to deliver speeches using Samoan language that will suit any formal or informal situation, and I am able to do this confidently. I always open my speech in front of Palagi using my mother tongue, almost like a weapon; it gives me strength and confidence before I begin using my second language.

I often think back to the place where I was first employed when my husband and I moved from Auckland to Christchurch in 1982. My Samoan friends and I were called into the office and given a warning not to speak Samoan while we were working. It was considered to be very rude and disrespectful for Palagi. I felt so small. My own identity, language, and culture were squashed. I couldn’t figure out why we were considered to be rude, but I found out that Palagi didn't understand what we were talking about.

I guess our society has changed dramatically over the last decade. People are accepting and respect the colourful identities, languages, and cultures that people bring, adding to the rich diversity in our world.

Who are the learners of the Samoan language?

  •  Learners of Samoan language who bring with them previous language experiences to early childhood, schools and tertiary.
  • Learners who have some prior experience, but don’t come from Samoan-speaking family
  •  Learners who have little or no knowledge of Samoan language and culture
  • Learners who are interested in learning Pasifika languages
  • Learners who are studying and participating in Samoan language courses
  • Learners with special needs, as it should be an inclusive programme, for all.

How do early childhood services promote and foster Samoan language?

My research colleague and I were visiting a Samoan centre recently, and we noticed two girls were at the writing table chanting the story of Noah and the Ark in Samoan language. What was fascinating about this experience was the way these girls chanted and exchanged questions and answers about Noah. They were very confident and spoke Samoan fluently. Both of them were New Zealand-born Samoans. This example reflects how teachers and children in Aoga Amata use and maintain the Samoan language and culture when families attend the service.

There are many ways to foster and promote Samoan language in early childhood and school environments, including:

  • The learning environment as a third teacher, where language and culture are visible for children to revisit and promote discussion about their learning experiences.
  • Invite Samoan families to share their cultural knowledge as this will add depth to the programme and also strengthen partnerships with families.
  • Integrate and celebrate Samoan language as an integral part of their daily programme and routines.
  • Use natural resources, stories about Samoan culture, posters, games.
  • Teachers and children visiting the community and celebrating cultural events.
  • Support the development of programmes that are responsive to Samoan community needs and projects.
  • Invite Samoan cultural groups to the centre and invite children to join in and have fun.
  • Use Samoan language through greetings, farewells, simple phrases, songs and dances.
  • Provide Samoan language learning opportunities for teachers and children from non Samoan speaking backgrounds.
  • Samoan language should be used in assessment.

“Tautua nei mo sou manuia a taeao — serve now for a better tomorrow”

The  Samoan language week, from 24 May to 30 May, is celebrated across sectors from early childhood services to tertiary institutions, government departments, churches, libraries, families and  communities.

“Tautua nei mo sou manuia a taeao” — serve now for a better tomorrow. This is a challenge for us all that we need to reflect, re-examine, re-evaluate our pedagogical teaching practices to ensure that Samoan language and culture is enacted and woven through the curriculum rather than just a one week celebration every year.

In Samoan culture, when children speak the Samoan language, parents feel a sense of pride for their children. In the past, most Pasifika families believed that speaking and teaching their children in English opened the door to success. This approach has slowly changed where parents and families are using and promoting Samoan language at home, church, school and the community with their fanau.

A leai se gagana ,ua leai se aganu’u, a leai se aganu’u ona po lea ole nu’u.”
When you lose your language, you lose your culture, darkness descends on the village. (Fanaafi, 1996, p.1)

Further information and suggestions

For further reading and information about Samoan language you can visit the links that have practical examples to support you, children, and families in your education services. You will find a recent article in the Education Gazette about a preschool that is participating in the Pasifika Leadership programme, and how they embraced, celebrated and enhanced Samoan language and culture in their service.

Here are some ideas to get you started:

Talofa lava – Hello/Greetings
Mālo le soifua – Hello/Good health
O ā mai oe? – How are you?
Manuia fa’afetai – Very well thank you
Manuia le aso – Have a great day
Tofā soifua – Good-bye

Ia manuia le Vaiaso o le Gagana Samoa. Fa’afetai lava!

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