School leaders wanted their Year 7 and 8 students to be more engaged in their learning and keen to come to school. Leaders held discussions centred on the question: ‘What would school look like if it was not compulsory?’ These early discussions broadened out to involve the community in a re-evaluation of the school’s vision.
Once the school started making changes, the need for others became apparent – changes that could not be confined to Years 7 and 8.
What we had wasn’t broken but we knew there would be a better way to deliver education that every child can benefit from.
It has been a bold six-year journey for Ngatea Primary School. In 2011 it piloted the use of 1:1 digital devices in its Year 7 and 8 classes. This changed the way the students learned, which required teachers to become more flexible and collaborative in their teaching. The following year students in Years 5–8 brought their own devices and staff started using Google Drive.
By 2013 the school was piloting a flexible learning space (FLS) for Years 7 and 8 in conjunction with personalised timetables and a learner-led curriculum. The success of this pilot led, the following year, to the removal of physical barriers between other classrooms, creating more FLSs across the school.
In 2015, building on its experience of a learner-led curriculum, the school began to: develop a local curriculum for the whole school, make its progress reports more dynamic and accessible on multiple devices, review its charter, and define the key competencies in terms of ‘learning powers’ – the traits and strategies that are integral to life-long learning: ‘being me’, curiosity, connecting, creativity and resilience.
In 2016–17 the primary focus was on consolidating and developing the framework for their local curriculum to reflect good practice.
School leaders suspended regular staff meetings so teaching teams had more time to focus on their planning.
Two teachers collaborating is better than one, but the power of three is ideal. More becomes harder again.
Teachers completed personality questionnaires to better understand themselves and how they relate to others. The insights gained were helpful for creating effective collaborative teams. Teams were encouraged to trial innovative strategies. When these proved successful they were extended throughout the school.
The curriculum is pervaded by the ‘learning powers’, which are understood and supported by the wider school community.
Teachers scaffold development of the learning powers in students as they progress through school. For example, the teacher actively helps students identify and develop their curiosity. They may say, for example, ‘Yes, you like art, but what are you curious about that you can share through art?’ The student may then decide to explore what global warming will mean for the local beach, using art as a medium to communicate their findings.
Aspects of the school’s appraisal process have changed as teachers have come to experience greater collaboration and feedback, formal and informal, as members of teaching teams. In particular, appraisal now emphasises trialling ‘spirals of inquiry’ (Timperley, Kaser, & Halbert, 2014) to encourage teachers to engage more deeply with research and explore teaching strategies that may work for their students.
Ngatea has a mix of single-cell classrooms and collaborative spaces. Minor classroom upgrades have increased the number of FLSs.
Teachers like to keep an FLS uncluttered, and to select furniture when they are clear about how the space can best be used. The larger the space the more flexible it can be and the better the student behaviour.
Each FLS provides a range of different spaces: quiet zones, zones where learning teams (self-selected social groups) can collaborate, make and create, and rooms for teacher-led activities. Teachers discuss with students how the various spaces can be used. Students learn to use an FLS in different ways at different times, depending on the need.
In Term 1 2017, the school finished creating a new, inquiry-based curriculum designed to ensure that students are increasingly able to lead their own learning.
In Years 1–3 this takes the form of encouraging students’ wonderings and questions, and some mini research projects. In Years 4–6 the focus is on supporting students to understand who they are and what they are passionate about. Students in Years 7–8 undertake inquiry learning based on their passions. Based on the ‘if you have learned something, you should be able to teach it’ principle, students from Year 5 onwards lead workshops for each other and for younger students. Once a year the school holds a school-wide conference with nearly a hundred workshops, of which about half are student led.
Students’ interests, passions and strengths drive the curriculum, not assessment. This means that the curriculum is engaging and encourages students’ curiosity. Teachers support and extend students’ learning, including by identifying when workshops are needed, responding to student requests for workshops, and conferencing with individuals and groups as required.
Reading, writing and numeracy are naturally embedded in the students’ inquiries. Those having difficulty with reading are not given more of the same; instead, the teacher aims to increase their learning excitement by finding something that holds real interest for them.
Books are chosen by our interests rather than reading levels which I really like because I’m not a really good reader. I like reading books that really challenge me but aren’t really at my reading level.
Over a two-year period leaders and teachers monitored student inquiry projects and noted areas of commonality. They found seven recurring areas or concepts: forms of life; earth and beyond; change; how things work; past, present and future; environment and sustainability; people and identity. The school’s new curriculum maps these areas/concepts onto the learning areas of The New Zealand Curriculum.
Students in Years 5–8 manage their own timetables online, deciding which workshops, commitments and meetings they should set in place first. They understand that they setting priorities and that they need to be flexible if things change. They can work individually or in learning teams, request help or workshops, accept guidance as needed, and lead parent conferences.
Learning teams design their work plan for each term in consultation with their teacher. They map curriculum coverage using a tracking template.
Students working in teams are supportive of each other and develop a strong sense of ownership towards their learning. Teachers value and acknowledge learning successes, evidence of agency, excellent effort and progress.
Teachers use assessment information to track progress and ensure that students are learning across the whole curriculum. Where this is not the case they guide them to work in the neglected areas. Students must also do a group inquiry project, which provides an opportunity to deliberately cultivate competencies that are required for collaboration.
Digital devices have changed how Year 7 and 8 students learn. A consequence is that teachers have had to collaborate more and plan more flexibly. It was collaborative planning that first highlighted the desirability of FLSs.
Digital technology is used to extend and enrich learning and to improve communication with parents and whānau.
All students in Years 5–8 have a digital device. This was made possible by a trust, set up with the support of contributions from community businesses, which buys devices in bulk for the school. Thanks to the trust, parents are able to pay for a device in instalments or even receive full financial assistance. As a result, all students have equitable access to digital technology. The board pays a technician to support digital technology in the school.
In the senior school digital tools are now integrated into every aspect of teaching and learning. Google docs are used extensively for timetables, planning, prioritising and goal setting, online profiles, blogging, and feedback from teachers, students, parents and whānau.
We have blogging teams that have a role of giving feedback to others.
- Year 6 student
The use of digital devices is now routine for students working on inquiry projects. They use them for research, for writing, and for presenting their completed work. Access to digital technology enabled a student with dyslexia to share his learning in the form of a video, for which he won an award.
Teachers have developed templates for students, which are designed to scaffold deeper thinking at each stage of project work and encourage reflection. Students make good use of these to design their curriculum and demonstrate their learning. Teachers work continuously with students to ensure that they are being challenged and that they are on track to reach their goals and the desired learning outcomes.
At Ngatea Primary School, agency involves more than self management. Students in Years 5–8 know their learning smarts; they have learner profiles; they know the conditions in which they learn best, that there is not necessarily one right way to learn, and that everyone is different. They have developed a growth mindset.
Students use a simple learner agency matrix to help them gauge the extent to which they have developed agency in their learning powers. Around the school there are prompts that reinforce the learning powers, reminding students when and how to use them, and helping them articulate their value.
Students use their own assessment data to establish priorities and set goals, which they annotate with explanations of why these are important to them. They do this with support until they can do it independently. The students blog about their progress and include evidence of achievement. Parents and whānau can access these blogs at all times and if they wish (increasingly they do) add their own feedback. This transparent sharing of information promotes the development of strong learning partnerships between teachers, students and home.
Another recent initiative is live reporting via online student profiles, which, for parents of students in Year 4 and above, replaces the traditional twice-yearly reporting. Teachers update the profiles whenever they have assessment information or other relevant information to report. Like the students’ blogs, the profiles are available to parents at all times.
Ngatea Primary School has significant strengths across all six domains of ERO’s indicators framework, particularly in evaluation, inquiry and knowledge building for improvement and innovation. Strategic planning, charter and vision are all closely aligned. The school made good use of an external facilitator to develop the charter and vision with the community and so strengthen the educational connections and relationships.
School leaders keep a ‘future thinking book’, which contains ideas gained from conferences and readings; the ideas in this book have influenced various changes. To keep abreast of current developments, the school hosts a visiting speaker once a term and invites staff from other schools.
Leaders collect and analyse data to monitor and evaluate the impact that new practices are having on student achievement. Like leaders in other schools, they were initially concerned that focusing on developing learning powers might detract from achievement in reading, writing and mathematics. They found instead that developing the students’ capacity to learn in no way diminished their achievement in the core areas. Indeed, there were other benefits: teachers no longer had to struggle to keep boys engaged, and referrals to the Resource Teacher: Learning and Behaviour (RTLB) decreased in number.
Visits from other schools make us realise how powerful our learning and teaching is – has become.
It was inspirational to listen to them talk about their journey and was a privilege to be able to walk through their school and see the collaboration of the teachers and the abundance of the learning that was occurring. The spaces were inspiring and I was amazed to see every single student engaged in their learning. We were encouraged with what we saw and know that we are on the right track upskilling for the future and being able to incorporate the modern learning that the government expects. Ngatea Primary School are [sic] five years ahead of everyone with their pedagogy so it is encouraging to know that this is not an overnight change that can happen.
Extract from a visiting school’s newsletter.
Be knowledgeable. Seek external expertise where needed. Know how to manage change.
Just do it! Don’t spend too long investigating – start trialling – do it.
Create an environment that is not too comfortable so they [teachers] can see the need for change. Visit other schools and make the change teacher driven, supported through strong leadership decisions.
 Several of the schools we visited commented on improved behaviour and greater focus on learning in FLSs. They put these outcomes down to changes in pedagogy at least as much as to changes in environment.