What really drives learning in the senior secondary school?

The Education Review Office (ERO) is urging a rethink of what schools teach and the way they teach in the senior secondary school.

In What drives learning in the senior secondary school, ERO carried out 12 in-depth case studies in schools who were considered to be among a group of leaders across New Zealand in embedding The New Zealand Curriculum in their secondary school programmes.  While many of the schools investigated were working towards a coherent senior curriculum, only a minority successfully provided this. ERO’s recent report outlines some of the successful elements of curriculum planning that is putting these schools on the right track.

ERO’s report is intended to inform the review of the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) recently announced by Education Minister, Hon Chris Hipkins. ERO’s findings provide some important sign posts for reform, most significant of which is the need to consciously align assessment within the intent of the New Zealand Curriculum.

The New Zealand Curriculum (NZC) is intended to set the direction for student learning and provide guidance for schools in designing what they teach and how they teach it. The New Zealand Curriculum provides direction on what is deemed as important for young people to become confident, creative and connected lifelong learners.

What this study shows is that NZC and schools approaches to teaching and learning in secondary schools is often overshadowed by the requirements of NCEA and our current unit standards approach to assessment. This approach works against students adopting project based or collaborative styles of learning and minimises the emphasis on the NZC’s key competencies or values. Equally, the senior school generally limited opportunities for student directed learning. Yet these are the skills and strategies that will be required of most once they enter the work force. What was of most concern was the way teaching in the senior schools tended to hold students back from pursuing their passions.

This was never the intention when introduced and in many secondary schools the NCEA framework has displaced the curriculum for seniors in terms of what is taught and how it is taught.

Quality education is about much more than gaining qualifications. Schools need to be preparing students for lifelong learning beyond school.

ERO also found that in schools where what was being taught was dominated by NCEA, too many assessments and taking unnecessary credits were adding additional stress to students from Year 9 onwards.

In several of the schools that ERO looked into, the key challenge was how to continue approaches that were working successfully in the first two years of secondary school into the senior school years.

In a 2015 NZCER study, this concern was identified by a majority of principals, yet few have been able to shift the focus of their senior school programmes. Schools who were trying to break away from this approach reported to ERO that they had a sense that they were “doing it alone” when it came to achieving greater coherence in the senior school. These schools expressed a desire for better public understanding about more rounded approaches to delivering education.

This report addresses this request by showcasing some approaches that schools have used to successfully align NCEA with NZC.

A key feature in schools that implemented NZC well was the prioritising of curriculum over credits. A student at Logan Park High School noted:

 “[Here] we fit NCEA into learning rather than fit learning into NCEA. If the kids are interested and engaged, they will get the results without counting the credits.”

Students at Logan Park also talked about wanting to be at school as social beings, to discuss, argue and develop their ideas and knowledge. This framing ensures that the values and competencies of NZC are promoted and young people leave school equipped with the skills and capabilities to succeed in their endeavours.

Another impactful approach, implemented by Rotorua Girls’ High School, was fully acknowledging the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi and the bicultural foundations of Aotearoa New Zealand as required by NZC. Rotorua Girls’ High School they wanted to make cultural changes needed to view education through a Māori lens and locate students in the school’s culture so they would be confident to be citizens of the world. They achieved this by engaging with an inspirational Te Arawa woman, Te Ao-kapurangi, who epitomised these qualities. From here, senior leadership and iwi identified areas of focus for the development of the curriculum, the outcomes of which are described in the school’s graduate profile.

While there were only a minority of schools who successfully embedded NZC in their secondary programmes, stories in this report illustrate that it can be done. Many schools had some aspects that are beginning to provide rich learning opportunities and environments for young people. Holistic and deliberate consideration and review is needed. Schools must be willing to shift their focus from gaining credits to instilling the values and principles of NZC to support young people to become confident, creative and connected lifelong learners. A quote from a student at Logan Park High School encapsulates the value of this shift in thinking:

“It can be scary not doing things for credits - what’s the point? But now I’m excited about learning - I love it again.”