Oaklynn Special School - Student learning and effective teaching

This was a major, strategic evaluation and improvement process that began in 2010 and was continuing when ERO visited the school in 2014.

Collaborative inquiry groups were put in place for the school’s evaluation. These groups also became the vehicles for ongoing professional development. Leaders and teachers faced the challenge of evaluating student engagement within the special education context, and adapted tools from existing research to do so. Engagement for targeted students improved as a result of their pedagogical shifts.


The principal felt that while strategic and school planning had been embedded at the management level for a long time, there had been growth of teacher involvement and the use of teacher inquiry as an element of school evaluation. The publication ofThe New Zealand Curriculum, Best Evidence Synthesis (BES), Autism Guidelines and Registered Teacher Criteria had all acted as triggers to further promote teachers’ involvement in review and development.

Reflection on the documents above caused leaders to think about how they could do things differently to improve staff professional learning and collaboration, and bring a sharp focus on what their students need to learn.


How might we use this process and evidence in our context?

The school used the Problem Resolving Action Research approach championed by Eileen Piggot-Irvine1 to structure their inquiry. This iterative, developmental, participatory and contextually responsive approach was seen to be a good fit for their purpose and they had used the approach before.

Teachers formed specific professional learning groups, which were distinguished according to the needs of students. Teachers wanted to be in ‘like’ groups so the school set up three groups – one each for students with moderate learning needs; with profound and multiple learning needs; and with autism spectrum disorder.

Action research started with reconnaissance rather than a predetermined direction. The teachers were valued as experts who knew a considerable amount about their own students and their own contexts. The professional learning groups began by considering where they were now: what it was that their students needed tolearn and what they needed to learn as educators to support any new approaches. The professional learning groups also looked into what good looks like, drawing on local and international research, and what other schools were doing.


How can we use existing inquirprocess to look more closely at our practice?

What do we know about current practice?

What does good look like?

One particularly influential programme was the Relationship Development Intervention. 2 This approach “turned the teaching of autism on its head”. The school had adapted this programme to be more easily applied in their school. They had combined it with elements of Greenspan Floortime Approach3 along with other pedagogical approaches and called it ‘Experience Sharing’. Teachers became aware that their focus had been on managing autism, rather than challenging it. This insight was seen as applicable to all the professional learning groups, not just the autism spectrum disorder group.

Collaborative sense making

What insight does the information we have gathered give us?

Leaders were conscious of the potential for teacher overload, so the development process was staggered over the year. Teachers had training in the various pedagogical approaches.

Goals for the implementation of the quality interaction (QI) approaches were incorporated into all teachers’ performance management goals. QI was a framework developed collaboratively by staff that made explicit the four key areas of focus for enhancing student engagement: responsive adult; student as an individual; fundamentals of learning; and management of class and resources. Indicators of effective teaching were identified and linked to student learning, which created a sense of teacher responsibility for learning. Leaders provided a template to help structure teachers’ critical reflection so they focused on how they knew what good looked like, and how they could identify that they were doing it.

Leaders and teachers also became involved in a research project called the Complex Learning Difficulties and Disabilities Research Project (CLDD) operating in the United Kingdom. 4 This project had a focus on engagement for learning.

Teachers now saw engaged behaviour as the single best predictorof successful learning. Effective teaching practice was therefore seen to be practice which supports engagement.− Principal.

Increased engagement was included as a specific goal in students’ individual education plans (IEPs). Teachers chose their least engaged students, 17 in total, and monitored their progress through the IEP goals. Firstly, leaders and teachers set about finding the answers to their questions:

  • What does the responsive adult look like?
  • How much engagement is needed to impact on learning?
  • How do our students learn? What do we have to change?

Prioritising to take action

What do we need to do and why?

What support do teachers need to make the changes expected?

Measuring engagement of students with special education needs posed a challenge. To systematise and formalise the process, the school adopted an observational tool from the CLDD project, called the engagement profile and scale. Teachers videoed their practice and, using the scale, collaboratively scored the engagement ofstudents. Collecting this kind of rich data on practice allowed teachers to evaluate the effectiveness of their implementation of the various QI approaches, and to test the first part of their hypothesis.

At the end of 2012, analysis of the IEP goals revealed that 15 of the 17 students had increased engagement. Teachers also gave lots of positive feedback through annual kanohi ki te kanohi (face-to-face) interviews with the principal. Responding to this success, the senior leadership team decided to give more autonomy to teachers in terms of their ongoing monitoring of engagement.

However, analysing teacher critical reflections at the end of 2013 showed that one year of structured support was not enough time for the engaged learning model to become sufficiently embedded in teacher practice. A second year of structured support would have increased teacher autonomy in the approaches.

The principal had attended substantial PLD in coaching, and the impact of coaching as a leadership style was a focus for monitoring progress at the end of 2013.

Coaching is the dominant approach, improving organisation and people together. The majority of staff preferred the coaching model to the older ‘peer supervision’ approach, which had been previously used in the school for around for 12 years.− Principal.

Staff described coaching as being “inspiring, promoting collegiality, and giving an opportunity to REALLY reflect”. Staff also reported being able to use coaching in their own work, and across different contexts, including the schools’ professional learning groups and the behaviour clinic. The senior leadership team recognised that they had been trying to implement too many things at once, and needed to prioritise for the following year. Consequently, in 2014, leaders decided to reduce the number of focus areas for teachers to two.A return to the QI framework highlighted that in order to build on previous learning, teachers required PLD in the area of ‘Management of class and resources. The focus for 2014 became TEACCH5 and coaching.

Monitoring and evaluating impact

What is happening as a result of our improvement actions?

What evidence do we have of progress?

What are we learning here?

Do we need to adjust what we are doing?


What will we do differently?