03 Motivating and engaging children through a rich local curriculum

ERO's School Evaluation Indicators state that The New Zealand Curriculum is enabling and future focused and is intended to promote self efficacy. This requires a learner centred approach, where teachers choose contexts and design learning opportunities in discussion with their students and support them to work collaboratively on challenges and problems set in real world contexts. 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.

Each term at Sylvia Park School teachers implemented an inquiry designed to make their children curious about what they needed to learn and what was happening in their lives, their community and the world. The curriculum was organised to focus on contexts relevant to the time and to make sure children had experiences across The New Zealand Curriculum that linked to and enriched their lives.

This narrative shares the approaches and strategies leaders and teachers used during one term's inquiries. To find out more about some of the school's other inquiries go to Teaching approaches and strategies that work.

The school's visions outlined some of the key things the board and leaders would like children to achieve before they left the school at the end of Year 8.

One vision was to have children demonstrate initiatives to contribute positively within a changing society. The school's inquiry topics helped children towards achieving this vision. The inquiries also kept children engaged and motivated to learn. When ERO met with a group of parents, they told us they believed the reason children continued to improve their achievement levels while at the school was likely to be because of the interesting inquiry topics.

Each term, the whole school was involved in an inquiry designed to make children curious about what they needed to learn and what was happening in their lives, their community and the world. The curriculum was organised to focus on contexts relevant to the time and to make sure children had experiences across The New Zealand Curriculum that linked to, and enriched, their lives.

The inquiries were often planned to incorporate major events happening in their community, New Zealand, or worldwide such as elections, referendums, Olympics or natural disasters. Teachers planned other inquiries to make sure children had opportunities to explore the arts, science, environmental and social issues, and to meet achievement objectives across the breadth of The New Zealand Curriculum.       


The inquiry in this example was started as part of the centenary of World War One. This topic fitted well with the centenary and allowed children to look at something major in New Zealand's history. Many children had requested an inquiry about our history when they had completed reflections and suggestions for future inquiries as part of their previous end of inquiry reflections.

The starting points for the inquiry were a statement centred on a curriculum area and a question that linked to the children's lives.

Inquiry statement: Learning from our past to lead the future - E puta ki Taiaatea!

Focus statement: Keep Calm and Carry On 

Focus Question: How can we deal with conflict

Planning the inquiry

An inquiry team and a literacy team comprising teachers and learners, undertook planning and monitoring. Joint planning by the two teams made sure consistent practices built on what had gone before and that children experienced learning opportunities across The New Zealand Curriculum. The teachers in each whanau team (teaching team or syndicate) would take the curriculum overview and devise innovative and creative activities to support the children to pursue the inquiry into the different learning areas.

Leaders asked teachers to push the boundaries by giving children opportunities they might not have considered. Children's interests were incorporated into what they were learning by teachers. Teachers carefully considered what had worked well before, what their children needed more practice with and what they were interested in when planning the inquiry. They also had to make sure the topic was broad enough to allow children to make choices about different aspects that interested them.

Teachers also sought to increase children's knowledge of events from their own family's history. As many of the children in the school were either Māori or Pacific, the inquiry related to World War One included a focus on the Māori battalion and events in the Pacific Islands. Children's history from their culture was highly valued.

The school's inquiry process

The six phases of their inquiry cycle are shown above. Often the teachers did some type of presentation or whole school activity on the first day of the term to get the children interested and excited about the topic. The amount of time taken in each of the phases differed, depending on the children’s prior knowledge. In this inquiry, time was needed to explore a wide variety of school journal stories, short film clips and historic news articles. In this particular inquiry, the Years 5 and 6 Te Manawa whänau team added further questions in the school’s inquiry process as shown below.

Involving the children in planning

The children were involved in the planning and contributed their ideas about what they would like to learn. Children were encouraged to wonder about the inquiry statement: Learning from our past to lead the future - E puta ki Taiaatea!

These ideas were sorted into groups of questions that children later worked in inquiry groups to research further. Children's questions were sought during the Tuning in phase to ensure prior knowledge. Some of the questions children in one class wondered about are shown here:

I wonder:

>     how many New Zealand men died at Gallipoli?

>    who the General was who sent the soldiers to war?

>     how long a trench is?

>     how often the troops had to move places?

>     how long it took their letters to get here?

>    who sent the ’return to sender' letters?

>    why girls didn't get conscripted?

>    why they left their dead behind (Gallipoli)?

>    why they didn't retreat in the first place (Gallipoli)?

>     how many Turkish people died?

>    why they had to fight in Turkey in the first place?

>    who started the war and involved New Zealand?

>    why they started a war instead of creating a treaty?

>    why New Zealanders were ordered to go to war?

>     if any people refused?

>    why that man (the politician from Waikato) wanted Maori to go to war?

>    why the Maori men thought that they should fight for the king of England?

>     how many Maori men went to war and how many died?

>    who thought up the conscription lottery?

>    what all of their reasons for refusing to go were?

>    why they didn't let men with bad teeth go?

>    where Influenza came from?

Children were also continuously involved in decision making relating to the direction the inquiry was taking, and progress towards answering the inquiry question. Additionally they co-constructed criteria for the key competency, Thinking - Relating to Others that was then displayed in the classroom.

An iterative team plan, collaboratively developed by all teachers in the team, gave detailed guidance about the journals, film clips, news links and other teaching resources teachers could use to motivate and engage children. Advice was also given about possible questions to make sure the inquiry continued to focus on children's ideas and interests. An example of the advice is shown here:

Questions to consider when co-constructing your class treaty:

>   What kinds of rules apply to you?

>   How do they help you and other people to stay safe?

>   What are the consequences when rules and expectations aren't met?

>   Would your school rules work well for people in the community?

>   Why do you think that creating rules and consequences are/ aren't a good way of having an agreement with people and avoiding conflict?

>   What are some ways we can create expectation about our behaviour on a national level?

Activities were carefully planned to allow for a balance; children learning about events and then linking these events to their own lives. They also integrated objectives from across the learning areas of the curriculum. Much of the learning happened during reading and writing programmes, as well as in the timetabled inquiry times. Some of the learning activities for Years 5 and 6 children included the following:

>   reading and reflecting on resolutions from journal stories about some type of conflict

>   investigating New Zealand involvement in seizing and maintaining peace in German Samoa

>   King and Country - whanau and iwi debate the issues of going to war

>   looking at the language used in posters displayed during the war to control people's behaviour

>   discussing and agreeing to their own class treaty

>   developing a timeline of the child's life before investigating a timeline from the triggers to the end of World War One

>   looking into why we have rules and the consequences of not meeting those expectations

>   inquiry groups researching sets of I wonder questions

>   completing an art installation that involved writing to their future selves.

Making learning exciting

When ERO spoke to children about why they were so motivated by their inquiries, they told us their teachers always made their learning come to life. In this inquiry, one classroom and the staffroom was turned into Camp Gallipoli. The classroom was arranged as trenches to show the children what cramped living conditions soldiers had endured. Before the children went into the classroom and trenches they helped prepare a traditional meal they would eat later.

The children stayed overnight at their Camp Gallipoli before going to the dawn service. While in the trenches, children made diary entries and ate hard tack and ANZAC biscuits. Later they moved to the staff room and created poppies to wear at the dawn service. They also played games popular with children during the war and set up their beds. After eating dinner, they watched a film clip about soldiers arriving in Gallipoli, before finally adding new diary entries to highlight what the soldiers might have been thinking. Their teacher read them a story about Caesar the ANZAC dog before the children went to sleep. The next morning they ate breakfast and went to an Auckland dawn service followed by a choral service.

Although ERO focused on the Year 5 and 6 children's inquiries in this narrative, every team in the school took the initial inquiry plan and adapted it for the age group of the children. They all developed class treaties that fitted in well as a collaborative Term One orientation activity.

A child shares one of her diary entries

The class attending an ANZAC dawn ceremony the next morning

Children at the school's ANZAC service

Making ANZAC biscuits

One of the highlights that the Years 1 and 2 children talked about was when they made ANZAC biscuits. Year 7 and 8 children recalled many things including investigating the significance of the poppies and the different designs of the commemorative poppies from other countries. They also investigated New Zealand's more recent role in peacekeeping in the Solomon Islands.

One of the whole school events was an ANZAC day service held at the school. Teachers told ERO that although it was a simple school ceremony, the way the children acted and spoke made it a very solemn and emotional event.

Before the service, each class made a wreath to take to the occasion. Every child designed a wreath and then each class used a well established and democratic process to decide which wreath they would make before working together to make the agreed design.

This is my wreath. It is made out of string, cardboard and paper poppies. The class voted for my wreath to be made. I liked everyone making a poppy for the wreath.

What the children learnt from the inquiry unit

At the end of each inquiry, children reflected on their self management skills when working in their inquiry group and they identified other successes or barriers to learning they noticed during the inquiry. Below are some of the many reflections from Year 5 and 6 children.

This inquiry has taught me how important it is to stop and understand that the enemy is another human. Try to always choose a solution to conflict that is best for everyone - and sometimes you've got to really think outside the box.

This term through team building activities and other social experiments like being cramped in a trench for an afternoon I learned that in order for the group to succeed you must follow the orders of the leader. Even if you feel jealous that the leader is not you, it is for the good of the group. I also learned to frame up my questions, research properly using key words and to present my learning in a Google presentation.

I learned how solving conflict is all about communication, selflessness, building a good reputation, choosing a good path, and being respectful.

In life you must take the experiences you have, learn from them, keep calm and carry on rather than using them as excuses for inappropriate behaviour.

Year 5 and 6 children

Not only had children investigated and immersed themselves in events of World War One, but they had also explored their own role in dealing with conflict.4

The school's curriculum design and implementation was highly responsive to the aspirations of students and successfully drew on and responded to culture and prior knowledge.

[4]  To find out more about this inquiry and the other interesting learning opportunities children had, use this link.