Ten years ago, Māori students confirmed for us the central importance of teachers establishing whānau (extended family-like) relationships, Whanaungatanga, to their successfully engaging and achieving at school… Whanaungatanga is necessary and foundational. Bishop, R & Ladwig, J & Berryman, M. (2013).
In October 2017 I was Austin bound to peek in the doors of four schools who held reputations for offering ‘disruptive’ education, inclusive education, and/or high academic achievement.
In my introductory blog, Destination Texas: Disruptive education as a means for student agency and inclusivity, I summarised the schools I was afforded to visit by CORE Education:
- two private schools offering an alternative entrepreneurial approach KoSchool(middle and high School) and Acton Academy(elementary, middle and high school);
- Magnolia Montessori for All, a public elementary school created to address the achievement inequities experienced by some children; and
- LASA East Austin, a selective public magnet high school for liberal arts, science, and mathematics.
In my second blog Student agency and inclusivity: 4 Texan schools I discussed the four key themes that emerged from my visits. Primarily how the schools viewed:
- learner agency (assessment and reporting)
- the role of $ money — private versus public
- physical environments and the connection to teaching pedagogy.
So, what does all of this mean for teachers and leaders in Aotearoa, New Zealand? What did I learn about inclusivity, parental expectations around assessment and reporting in disruptive education, and the impact of the physical environments on teaching pedagogy?
Considerations for senior leaders
In visiting these four schools I could see clear parallels between Texas and New Zealand with regards to lower achievement levels of certain ethnic groups compared with white students. Public schools like Magnolia Montessori for All genuinely focused on key competencies to support their students’ social and emotional needs (as we would say in Aotearoa — whanaungatanga). Private schools like KoSchool ensured that students were wrapped in support from many areas: teachers, school leadership, parents, outside agency support, outside vocational interest businesses. Michael Strong, founder of KoSchool, didn’t want an ‘either/or’ approach. They worked in deliberate ways so that both social/emotional needs and learning needs were addressed concurrently.
What was most apparent was that schools that genuinely put students at the heart of their learning and connected with the cultural, learning, social, and emotional needs of their students, did challenge the low achievement statistics. These students were not seen as the failing ‘tail’ in a bell curve of student achievement that needed to be fixed. These students were viewed as capable of learning like all students, and the teaching methods and curriculum reflected ways to engage and support their learning. The students’ cultures were celebrated and interwoven into the school curriculum and teaching pedagogy. It was part of the fabric of their schools. As a New Zealander visiting these schools, Russell Bishop’s research, Te Kōtahitanga, sat on my shoulder as I walked the corridors of each school, which was working hard to challenge the low achievement statistics of certain ethnic groups.
These ‘successful’ schools didn’t offer this support on their own. Parents were closely connected to their children’s education in the ‘disruptive’ education schools. For example, at the Magnolia Montessori for All learning was considered a priority for parents as well as their children, and they provided regular sessions where parents connected with educators and discussed relevant issues. This level of connection provided a tightly woven community around a student where they felt a sense of belonging. Who they are as individuals was celebrated. So, what could that look like in Aotearoa? I imagine a first response would be concerns about teachers spending time in evening meetings with parents. And it’s a valid concern. At the very least this level of parental involvement is a shift away from a twice-yearly parent-teacher interview where, at some schools or kura, a parent is ‘told’ how their child is performing.
From the experiences I had in Texas, a few of the questions that I’d recommend we continue to ask ourselves are:
- How we can blur the boundaries between home and school?
- How can we include a student’s culture so that they bring their identity with them rather than leaving it at the school gate to fit into a Pākeha world?
- Do we need to look at taking small steps, such as looking at the clothes/uniform students’ wear, so they can come to school feeling comfortable and connected with their culture (as Fraser High School has done)?
- What other inclusive measures can we take so that students are ready to learn?
Assessment and reporting
“This is a story about … whether an entire generation of kids will fail to make the grade in the global economy because they can’t think their way through abstract problems, work in teams, distinguish good information from bad, or speak a language other than [their own].” TIME magazine, How to Build a Student for the 21st Century, Wallis and Steptoe (2006)
I was fascinated to see how these schools reported achievement to parents and whānau. Would they report using traditional modes of using subject grades or would they take a different approach?
At times I could see there was a disconnect between attitudes of learner agency and a focus on inclusivity and the traditional grade reporting system that the schools followed. This was explained by most schools as providing what the parents requested. It’s an important point. We are often defined by our experiences and it is comforting for parents to see familiar reporting methods when wanting to understand the progress of their children. However, the world has changed dramatically since these parents were at primary or secondary school. The competencies our children and students require are vastly different to those their parents were schooled in. If you take a glance over the 2017 Ten Trends you will see highlighted the need for young people to develop competencies in cultural, technology, structural, economic and process areas. Likewise, the OCED in 21st Century Skills: How can you prepare students for the new Global Economy? looks at the capabilities our students’ need for their future (not ours).
Parents who sent their children to ‘disruptive’ schools were less likely to insist on traditional means of reporting, but even they voiced their fears of not understanding how their child was achieving. They were more comfortable in less traditional forms of reporting if it was evident that they:
- saw value in what their child was studying (and they were heavily involved in the school to view this)
- they could see tangible progress through set programmes
- they were aware that their child’s social/emotional needs were being met by the school (and they hadn’t elsewhere).
Clearly, a shift in teaching pedagogy is a major shift for parents and whānau, not just students. Some questions for us to consider include:
- How do we include our communities in understanding that shift?
- How do we engage in their understanding of what skills their children need for their futures?
The role of $ money — private versus public:
While I could see that it was easier to be inclusive in private schools, with flexible curricula and money for resources, it was also possible in public schools that made it their business to do so. These schools recognised the importance of employing teachers and leaders who represented the students they taught. This was not an uncomplicated undertaking, but it was a stance that Magnolia Montessori for All overtly considered when employing new teachers to reflect the ethnic diversity of their school. It was also an important consideration for LASA, who choose teachers who were outstanding in their fields and later retrained as teachers. They saw these individuals as having the passion and expertise to inspire the interests of specific students, particularly in STEM subjects. The principal, Stacia Crescenzi, spoke of a teacher who had a Masters in Physics and who had worked outside of education. She sought him out after he retrained as a teacher. She chose him specifically to connect with those students who were hugely passionate about physics. Unsurprisingly, Stacia didn’t come from a secondary background either. She taught Psychology at a university prior to being appointed to the prestigious school and was comfortable looking outside of education for teachers who would be able to meet the needs of her students. Likewise, Michael Strong, founder of KoSchool, was careful to choose teachers who showed experience or willingness to teach using Socratic dialogue and support the diverse emotional and social needs of their students.
These schools certainly gave me pause for thought about the tendency of New Zealand schools and kura to ‘advertise the position and wait to see who applies’. These Texan schools were very strategic about hunting for teachers who would support their vision and meet the culture of their schools and specific needs of their students.
Considerations for teachers
As Hattie (2017) has highlighted, the most important factor in student achievement is the teacher; it’s all about our relationships with our students. To a certain extent, the building of a relationship that genuinely celebrates students’ cultural, learning, social, and emotional needs is ‘easier’ in a primary school where teachers spend most of each day with their students. However, that doesn’t let us secondary teachers off the hook. I ask myself:
- What do we do as ‘ordinary’ teachers to really know the cultural backgrounds of our students, their interests, their ways of learning?
- How do we challenge their ways of learning within the constraints of our school’s structures?
- If we have some influence on the number of NCEA credits our students are completing, the length of teaching periods and the structure of the school day, then fabulous, but if we do not, what can we influence once they are in front of us for a period?
- What deliberate actions do we take to create learning programmes that are about learning rather than NCEA assessments?
If we value learning agency, what does it look like in practice in a traditional secondary school?
The structure of a traditional secondary school doesn’t really enable us to see ourselves as teachers of learning, given that even the timetable states that the students are coming to us for an hour or 45 mins to learn ‘English’, ‘Maths’, or ‘Social Studies’. It is tempting to dismiss the importance of getting to know our students, their needs, and their interests, as we have so many assessments pending. How many schools give their teachers the flexibility to co-construct student assessment programmes with their classes? How many schools put the learning first and treat assessment as a bi-product, rather than a driver of that learning? It’s not an easy task. Teachers have senior leaders, BOTs, and the school community measuring student success through NCEA achievement data. However, I was struck by parental attitudes in the four schools I visited. They wanted their child’s social and emotional needs met, as well as achieving highly academically. And the correlation was right in front of me — students who felt like they belonged because of the efforts of their schools, did achieve well and contradicted the national statistics for their ethnic group(s). The research is undeniable also; students whose social and emotional needs are met achieve better academically (Sparks, 2013).
So, how does our teaching pedagogy reflect that we value student agency? If we are talking about NCEA requirements of students’ creating original, perceptive, and insightful ideas yet we are teaching ‘chalk and talk’ with a few token groups work activities, then I feel we have a disconnect. While the practices of Socratic discussion would take time to evolve, this is a means by which to genuinely give students the time, space, and belief that they can discuss the bigger issues of their learning.
The power of goal setting in creating learner agency
Goal setting was an integral part of learner agency in some of the schools I visited. The schools that did this well spent considerable time on supporting the students to form realistic goals guided by the parameters of grade level expectations. Schools like Acton Academy celebrated goal setting at the beginning of a semester by inviting the community to come to a signing ceremony where each student signed their plan for the semester, which demonstrated a high level of support from both within the school and from their whānau. These goals were referred to on a daily, weekly, sessional (the school ran for six weeks of learning at a time before breaking for a week), and semester basis. Meeting goals were recognised and applauded. Students genuinely chose their own pace of working and did not move up to the next grade level (step of their Hero’s journey) until they met the requirements.
It was truly impressive to see students taking ownership of their learning, supported in a multi-level classroom and their guides (teachers) and whānau. This is, I believe, a far cry from a casual attempt to get students to set goals at the beginning of the year, perhaps a loose attempt to refer to them during the year, and then a check in how they got on at the end of the year. In this elementary school, the goal setting was made tangible by individual programmes for Core Skills, so that students could meet their own goals in Maths, Reading etcetera.
The challenge for me was how this could look in practice in Aotearoa — especially in a secondary school. Often, a form of goal setting is a ‘task’ given to a form teacher or similar. The key to success is the frequency by which the students are held accountable to their goals and the support that is wrapped around them. Clearly, there is room for robust discussions around how individual teachers could support students regularly to revisit their goals and their action steps to achieve them. A key question is, how can whānau be involved in this process? You might find it worthwhile reading Rebecca Sweeney’s blog on Beyond Goals | Scrapping Goals in a Complex, Fast-changing Environment where she explores a definition of goal setting by David, S., Clutterbuck, D., Megginson, D (2013). While this blog focuses on cluster/Kāhui Ako goal setting, it still holds relevance for student goal setting too.
What is the connection between physical environments and teaching pedagogy?
Because of the opportunities presented by the Canterbury quakes and the rebuild, the idea of MLE and collaborative teaching opportunities emerged, and this has been surrounded by controversy for some. On my trip to Texas, I was, therefore, interested in the teaching pedagogy I would witness and how schools would make use of physical spaces.
One of the things that stood out to me when visiting these four schools was how little the physical buildings affected student achievement in comparison to teaching pedagogy. While schools like Magnolia Montessori for All made a bold and conscious effort to design their buildings like homes rather than classrooms, it was their approach to teaching and learning that stood out in making tangible differences to student success. Even in private schools such as KoSchool, where the buildings and classrooms looked very familiar for any teacher teaching in a ‘regular’ school, again it was the student-centred approach to learning (especially Socratic dialogue) that produced independent, original thinkers.
It was a privilege to visit, witness, and reflect on the work that these four Texan schools do in Austin. These experiences will sit with me for a long time and influence the work I do with leaders and teachers in Aotearoa, New Zealand. These key themes stand out to me:
- Relationships matter — if we really want to address the disparities of student achievement for Maori and Pasifika in New Zealand, then this is the first place we must pour our energies. I don’t mean token efforts to ‘know’ our students, but to really know them and build a sense of Whanaungatanga. I can see that these relationships do not just start and end with the student sitting in front of us, but include whānau and community too.
- Learner agency — is a huge shift in mindset for parents, and we have to lead the way. While it is comforting for parents if we present them with a familiar approach to teaching pedagogy, it is not going to prepare their children for the world they are going to live and work in.
- School structures support change — while it is possible for individual teachers to embrace a teaching pedagogy that is inclusive, student-focused, and responsive to individual needs, it is certainly easier to do so when a school’s structure also supports that vision.
If you would like to discuss any of the aspects I have mentioned, or questions I have raised, I would be keen to talk with you. So, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Feature image — Greetings from Austin, Texas by chefkeem on Pixabay under CC 0
Map of Texas, by GDJ, on Pixabay under CCO
Map of NZ, by cmccarthy2001, on Pixabay under CC0
All other images by the author