Exemplar Review - Alfriston School - Rich curriculum

Background

Introduction

Under Part 28 of the Education Act, 1989, the Chief Review Officer has the power to administer reviews either general or relating to particular matters, of the performance of applicable(pre-tertiary) organisations in relation to the applicable services they provide, and prepare reports on the undertaking and results of such reviews.

An exemplar report may be produced when ERO finds an organisation demonstrates effective practice in relation to specific aspects of performance.

Effective Practice: Keeping children engaged and achieving through a rich curriculum

ERO reviewed Alfriston School to investigate the teaching approaches and strategies that have led to considerable improvements in achievement in Years 5 and 6. In particular, we wanted to learn more about any curriculum changes that the school had introduced which may have been influential in bringing about these positive achievement trajectories.

Alfriston School was selected from a database of 129 schools, with rolls over 200. The school was chosen because increased numbers of students were achieving at or above standards as they moved through Year 4 to Year 6. The school’s achievement levels were also higher than the average for their decile.

Before the review, we sent the school a set of discussion points and questions for leaders to consider. We asked leaders what they saw as the reasons for their positive achievement trajectory. We then looked for evidence of the approaches and strategies used, and the outcomes, by:

  • talking with children, parents, teachers, leaders and, where possible, trustees
  • observing in classrooms
  • looking at documentation, student work, class displays and the school environment.

Context: Developing and implementing a rich curriculum

The principal function of The New Zealand Curriculum[1] is to “set the direction for student learning and to provide guidance for schools as they design and review their own [local] curriculum.” In acknowledging that context matters, the intent of The New Zealand Curriculum is that schools develop local curricula for their students that are challenging, engaging and relevant. Each school is expected to design a bespoke school curriculum that takes account of the vision, values, key competencies, learning areas and principles of The New Zealand Curriculum, while also focusing on the school’s own local priorities and values, and the strengths, needs and interests of their students.

While a school’s curriculum framework is intended to provide information about the requirements and boundaries of students’ learning, teachers have latitude to interpret and adapt the curriculum in light of what they know about the students in their own class and school.

ERO’s findings from the past decade indicate that more is required to increase teachers and leaders appreciation of the permissive nature and intent of The New Zealand Curriculum and to implement responsive curricula in their schools. New Zealand prides itself on its child‑centred approach to learning, yet school practice is not consistently matching this rhetoric. 

Responsive curriculum incorporates connections to students’ lives, prior understandings, and out-of-school experiences. It draws on and adds to parent, whānau, and community funds of knowledge. Student identities, languages and cultures are represented in materials used in the enacted curriculum. Cultural and linguistic diversity are viewed as strengths to be nurtured.

Through our national evaluation programme ERO has found that children experience widely divergent opportunities to learn within and across schools. There is some confusion around the different intent and role of the principles, values and even the key competencies of The New Zealand Curriculum in improving outcomes for all students.

As schools develop their curriculum they should take into account the cultures, interests and potential of all their students. Many primary and secondary schools do not adequately draw upon contexts and themes relevant to diverse learners. While references to diverse students might appear in the overarching statements of a school’s curriculum, classroom planning and practice frequently misses opportunities to reflect the culture, knowledge and understanding of these learners and their families.

Many teachers are not making use of valuable information about students’ cultural backgrounds to plan programmes that celebrate and further extend students’ understanding of their own and others’ rich and diverse cultural backgrounds.

For students whose strengths and passions lie in science, social studies, technology, health and physical education or the arts, there can be long periods of time when these learning areas are not part of their curriculum. Some important aspects of learning are neglected and curriculum often lacks depth across these learning areas.

This report shares the leaders’ and teachers’ curriculum planning, implementation and reflection strategies along with their focus on building opportunities for teachers to collaborate and learn from each other.  

Exemplar: Building capabilities to implement an integrated curriculum

Leaders began making the changes towards having a more integrated curriculum in 2011. Previously, although teachers were working hard, their planning and teaching was done in isolation and  curriculum learning areas were taught as discrete subjects. The sharing of successful practice wasn’t common across the school.

As part of their curriculum review and development, a new goal was established that sought to strengthen and enrich all areas of the curriculum, linking them by relevance. Leaders and teachers saw that children were highly motivated to learn about the arts and English learning areas from their involvement in the school’s annual production. The event not only brought children, parents and teachers together, but the children enjoyed working together across age groups and enjoyed higher levels of engagment. Teachers wanted children to transfer the success they were experiencing during the production to other curriculum areas. Leaders saw that their performing arts production could be used to bridge the gap between learning areas.

“We saw it as an opportunity to bring the whole school together for deep learning. We knew we would be able to clearly show the links of the integrated learning from the stage to the page.”           

Leader

 Subsequently, over recent years leaders carefully developed teachers’ capabilities to work together to implement an integrated curriculum, linked to the school’s annual production in Term Three each year. Every year, their curriculum focus widened and became more complex.  In some years, the production was specifically written to focus on a curriculum area that would most benefit their learners. The chart below outlines the production and the growing foci.

Production - 2012 Broadway Bound

Capacity building focus - Performing arts

  • Teachers sharing and observing others' practice.
  • Deliberate teaching about how children could support each other's learning.
  • Seeking and using student feedback.

Production - 2013 A Night at the Gallery

Capacity building focus - Performing arts - Visual arts Visible Learning Principles

  • A group of teachers undertook the planning to integrate literacy and technology into activities children engaged with to design wearable arts. 
  • One teacher also integrated mathematics learning into the topic.

Production - 2014 Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat

Capacity building focus - Performing Arts, Social Sciences and Visible Learning Principles

  • Visual Arts ‑ making canopic jars and hieroglyphic artwork
  • Social Science ‑ Egyptian life and rituals
  • Science ‑ Land features and land marks
  • Mathematics  ‑one class investigated mathematics in Ancient Egypt
  • English – Listening, Speaking, reading and building new vocabulary

Production - 2015 This is your life: Gloria Dale Scientist

Capacity building focus - Performing arts, Visual Arts, Science, Technology

  • Continuing with Visible Learning
  • Introduced Whānau Groups –Tuakana Teina learning model
  • Including school target focus in the unit planning (literacy and boys’ achievement).

Production - 2016 The Lion King Junior

Capacity building focus - Performing arts, Visual Arts, Social Science, Science, Technology, Learning Languages

  • Identity, language and culture – the understanding that all cultures can collaborate when there is a shared sense of purpose and meaning.

In 2015, curriculum review identified the need for children to experience more opportunities to engage in science. The questions leaders and teachers asked during the review were as follows: 

  • How well does our school’s science teaching complement student achievement in numeracy and literacy?
  • What literacy and numeracy strategies can be applied to improve student learning in science?
  • To what extent is science education responsive to students’ different abilities, genders and cultures?
  • Science Pedagogy ‑ how well do science lessons at our school connect with the lives of students?
  • Science Pedagogy - what data do we have to identify what students’ think of their science lessons?
  • Science Pedagogy ‑ how is student thinking, discussion and investigation supported by classroom teaching?
  • The Strategic Place of Science – what events, learning experiences or celebrations do we have to value science and science learning?

Science then became the major focus and was explored through the school’s major production, This is Your Life! featuring a fictional science professor, as well as being integrated through reading, writing, mathematics, drama, dance and e‑learning. The leaders initiated the planning for the integrated topic by determining the links between the production and possible science investigations. They then thoroughly examined the science curriculum strands from The New Zealand Curriculum and divided all the ideas from the productions into the strands from the science curriculum.

Curriculum Planning

“We [leaders] did the initial planning because we wanted to make sure the curriculum was enhanced and not compromised by the school’s production. We also wanted to take the teachers though a stepped approach to developing an integrated curriculum. Finally we wanted to make sure the science unit benefitted everyone, both students and teachers”.

Leader

Teachers met together in the holidays to begin the planning for the integrated units that linked to the production. Before they met, leaders prepared key resources such as video clips and other internet links, a synopsis of the script, school‑wide learning themes and developed some possible learning outcomes. Leaders also modelled activities teachers could use with children. The purpose of the planning day was to share thoughts and opinions to create the very best learning experiences for the children. 

During the initial planning for each of Term Three’s topics, teachers carefully considered a series of questions designed to elicit a shared understanding of what they wanted the children to learn and how they would go about facilitating that. The questions differed depending on the key curriculum area of focus. Below are the questions considered for the planning of the 2015 science/arts integrated topic.

  • What are the main scientific outcomes you want for your students?
  • Do you need to add to your own scientific knowledge? What is that knowledge?
  • What experiments will your students undertake and how will they be recorded?
  • What artwork will be integrated/displayed?
  • How will the physical appearance of your classroom promote science learning?
  • What format will the open afternoons for parents take for your class?
  • What format will the open afternoons take for your whānau?
  • Have you addressed all the outcomes (oral language, written language, visual arts, digital, etc.) specified in the planning templates?
  • How will you promote assessment capability and visible learning principles throughout this learning?
  • How will you manage the differing capabilities and levels of science knowledge in your class?
  • How will you cater for students who already have a developed base of science knowledge?

The questions above were subsequently used when planning any integrated topics.

Teachers and children working together

Alfriston School had always tried to maintain a sense of family where children could enjoy working together. Leaders decided to extend the concept of family/whānau by formalising opportunities for both children and teachers from across the school to work together.

In 2015, leaders introduced whānau grouping to necessitate both further collaborative planning and teaching and the sharing of practice. Classes from different year levels were purposefully grouped together to help children and teachers with different interests and levels of experience, work together. The whānau groups in 2015 also aimed to:

  • allow for tuakana‑teina learning, in which older children helped and learned from the younger ones
  • allow children to experience deep learning across the science strands
  • help teachers learn about students from other year levels and build relationships with them
  • build a collective responsibility for student achievement.

Although much of the work was undertaken in children’s usual classrooms on ‘Whānau Fridays’, classes were split into cross‑level whānau groups, each focusing on one of the four science strands:

  • physical world
  • material world
  • living world
  • planet Earth and beyond

Leaders also built in opportunities for teachers to learn from each other by having teachers observe others’ science teaching practice while their class was at the Performing Arts Centre working on parts of the production. Not only did they see how other teachers implemented science investigations they also saw what children in other year levels were capable of.

Implementing an integrated curriculum

Teachers in each whānau group used a planning template and a set of questions to consider as part of their planning. They were asked to think carefully about and record:

  • the current skills and knowledge of the children and how they could build on these
  • genuine and engaging learning experiences for the children
  • how they could best use e‑learning and devices
  • what ‘success’ would look like
  • content and quality
  • outcomes for students
  • differentiated activities within the class and the whānau group
  • how this topic could support the school’s charter targets through literacy links and focusing on boys’ achievement.

The following tables show how learning in two science strands was integrated with learning across the wider curriculum. The first gives an overview of some of the integration of learning linked to the physical world and the second shares some of the learning linked to living world objectives. All classes also used reading resources related to the topic in their instructional reading programmes.


The Physical World

Procedural writing - Writing scientific experiments. Writing instructions for making porridge.

Oral language - Scientific discussions. Making predictions. Hypothesising. Explaining results. Making conculsions.

Numeracy - Measurement – speed, distance, time. Geometry - angles. Statistics - graphing experiment results.

Music - Exploring sound wave, visible sound waves in a guitar. Light and mirrors song performance, including dance. Other music and dance from the production.

Visual art - Themed around 'light'. Scientific sketching. Marble art force and movement. Silhouettes – using light and dark.

E‑learning - Google Apps suite to showcase and share learning with peer and families. Using Google Sketchup to design science lab and sets for the production.

Science - Building a rocket. Dehydrating food. Making volcanoes, ice cream and 'goop'. Heat on the move - transferring heat though temperature difference.



The Living World

Procedural writing - Writing instructions for others. Writing about an experiment.

Oral language - Scientific discussions. Making predictions. Hypothesising. Explaining results. Making conclusions. Teaching other children.

Numeracy - Measurement, capacity, mass, number, observing plant growth, size of orchid roots, etc. Statistics. Sequencing.

Drama - Acting out the photosynthesis process.

Visual art - Looking at parts of a flower. Chlorophyll rubbing. Pencil sketching techniques.

E‑learning - Google Apps suite to showcase and share learning with peer and families. Locating and sharing YouTube clips on pollination etc.

Science - Growing plants, dissecting a plant/flower, looking at plant cells magnified. 

Investigating:

  • how plants drink water using celery and food colouring
  • what happens when leaves are blocked from the sun
  • the role of the scientist
  • photosynthesis, seed dispersal and pollination.

Teachers learnt it was important to give children sufficient related opportunities over time to revisit and consolidate learning through practice and review and to apply new skills in purposeful ways. They worked collaboratively to plan and implement a curriculum that would engage children in experiences across the learning areas and use their own and the teachers’ strengths. They were skilful in developing termly topic studies that combined many learning areas while undertaking an annual major production.

Weekly reflections from the whānau activities were introduced to contribute to the improvements. These written reflections:

  • provided evidence of the effectiveness of the approach to determine it should continue
  • further encouraged teachers to work together across the year levels
  • helped determine what specifically had worked well and what should be changed
  • identified some individual aspects of children’s engagement and leadership when working across different age levels.

Reflecting on Teaching Practices

All teachers in a syndicate completed weekly reflections. Their school’s reflection template involved considering the four questions shown here.

  • How did you use Whānau Friday timetabling this week? (E.g. – as a whole whānau, rotations, individual classes)
  • What hands‑on learning happened for your kids? How engaged were your learners? How do you know?
  • Breakthrough moments for your students and yourselves?
  • What would you change if you could do the lesson again? How would you refine the learning experiences for better student outcomes?

When completing the reflections, teachers included detail about the actual activities, resources and internet links used and how successful they were. They also commented on individual and group behaviour, describing what excited them and what didn’t work as well. These reflections were so detailed they would be useful for other teachers in the school when planning a similar topic or approach in the future.

Whānau Fridays were an established and successful strategy, particularly for integrated learning. Older students said working with the younger children improved their own learning, while teachers found their role morphing from teacher of content to teacher of learning. A parent open day near the end of the term also gave children the opportunity to share what they had learnt during the term.

Other integrated topics not linked to the school’s production

Teachers then planned other integrated topics using the processes established in 2015. However some terms the children worked within and across the teaching teams rather than across the whole school. Teachers aimed to make sure integrated topics included authentic learning with a tangible outcome at the end of the term.

An example of a recent integrated topic not linked to the school’s annual production occurred in the second half of Term One.  During each Whānau Friday the school was divided into three teams of five classes from across the year levels. The topic Education Outside the Classroom was designed to give children practical activities to learn together while also focusing on getting to know and working successfully with others. 

ERO spoke with some Years 5 and 6 children who shared some of the things they enjoyed when working in their class or during Whānau Fridays:

“Lots of the little ones had really good ideas about how to hold the structure together in our marble race”.

“The younger children seem to have more open minds when they share their ideas.

When we were doing the orienteering code we helped each other find the codes. Some of us got really excited”.

“When we did the buddy reading I didn’t have to do much. I saw one of the juniors got stuck on a word and the other juniors asked her questions and collaborated to help her”.

“In our class we started off doing a budget for our food for camp as part of our maths. But then we really went for it and started planning other trips. We had $20,000 to plan a trip to London. That included flights, accommodation, trips, rentals and food. Some of us then decided to plan a trip to London for the same length of time with unlimited funds One boy managed to spend $2 million. In some of the budgets we had to convert the currency from euros to dollars”.

Years 5 and 6 children

 

Teachers also saw the benefits of working more collaboratively. They valued the opportunities they had to:

  • get to know other teachers’ successful strategies and activities
  • use their own strengths in cooperative teaching activities
  • plan activities together during staff meetings
  • reflect on outcomes together to improve their own teaching.

They also reported they subsequently worked more closely with teachers from different year groups more frequently. They had started working together during the integrated topics and Whānau Fridays, but now collaborated to share ideas, successes and concerns related to many more aspects of their teaching.

Why is this exemplar important?

The principal function of The New Zealand Curriculum is to “set the direction for student learning and to provide guidance for schools as they design and review their own [local] curriculum.” In acknowledging that context matters, the intent of The New Zealand Curriculum is that schools develop local curricula for their students that are challenging, engaging and relevant.

Leaders and teachers at Alfriston School had designed a bespoke school curriculum that took account of the vision, values, key competencies, learning areas and principles of The New Zealand Curriculum, while also focusing on the school’s own local priorities and values, and the strengths, needs and interests of their students.

Leaders deliberately led curriculum changes to make sure their integrated curriculum gave attention to all the science strands and focused on both interactive and experimental learning. Leaders began planning a whole term topic that integrated science learning with the annual school production. Leaders used questions to guide teachers through the planning, implementation and reflection stages of the topic. They provided many opportunities for teachers to work together and learn from each other.

Leaders and teachers used their new curriculum approaches and strategies to:

  • determine and respond to local priorities
  • check how well the new inquiry allowed students to engage with different learning areas
  • model best practice for designing a rich integrated inquiry
  • integrate literacy and mathematics teaching and learning into their inquiries, matched to the students’ strengths and needs
  • establish approaches and times for teachers to work collaboratively (planning and teaching)
  • work with teachers to prepare detailed guidelines, cycles and progressions to highlight expectations for students and teachers
  • introduce processes for both teachers and students to reflect on outcomes and engagement during the inquiries.

Leaders’ full involvement in the curriculum planning, monitoring the implementation and reflecting on practices helped make sure students had effective, sufficient and equitable opportunities to learn.

Recommendations for system improvement

ERO recommends that school leaders continue their improvements and share with other schools their approaches related to: 

  • leadership for excellence and equity
  • educationally powerful connections and relationships
  • responsive curriculum, effective teaching and opportunities to learn
  • professional capability and collective capacity
  • evaluation, inquiry and knowledge building for improvement and innovation.

ERO also recommends that school advisers and PLD providers share this exemplar with other schools to improve their performance.

Diana Anderson

Deputy Chief Executive Review and Improvement

On behalf of the Chief Executive/ Chief Review Officer

April 2019


[1] Ministry of Education. (1993). The New Zealand Curriculum. Wellington, New Zealand: Learning Media Limited, 6.