9. Developing student agency and motivation through effective teaching as inquiry

Cover of 9th narrative

East Taieri School in Mosgiel has a roll of around 300 children in Years 1 to 6. Most are European/Pākehā; approximately one-tenth are Māori.

The number of children achieving success rises as children move into the upper primary school. In reading and writing, about 60 percent of children achieve at or above the expected levels in Year 1, while around 90 percent reach or exceed the expected levels by Year 6. Leaders explained the positive trajectories occurred as they focused on:

  • increasing learner agency
  • examining the effectiveness of curriculum and pedagogy
  • developing teacher evaluation and inquiry systems.

In this narrative, we look specifically at how the school has gone about increasing learner agency.

The initial inquiry

“At East Taieri School learner agency is about using pedagogical approaches that enable students to take change of their own learning. A positive and structured environment is created to enable students to develop the skills and attitudes to become active learners. Through choice, reflection, goal setting and assessments, learners will be empowered to take ownership of their own learning.”
School statement

The leaders of the middle and senior syndicates were participants in the National Aspiring Principals’ Programme. During a weekend course, they heard leaders from another school talk about their collaborative teaching and learner agency practices. Subsequently the leadership team (and later, other staff) visited the school and saw some of the practices in action. As part of their involvement in the programme, the two syndicate leaders then initiated a joint leadership inquiry in which they sought to further their understanding of collaborative teaching and learner agency.

The school already had a culture of continuous improvement. Teachers had high expectations of themselves. They continually looked for ways to make a difference for their learners. They willingly helped each other and shared strategies they were using with children who needed extra support. They enjoyed opportunities to inquire into areas they were passionate about and would share their findings with others. Through honest and open conversations in syndicates and staff meetings, they acknowledged each other’s efforts, while at the same time, scrutinising them to evaluate their impact on student outcomes. A natural next step was to develop collaborative teaching practices that would support the implementation of new teaching and learning strategies.

The changes were led by the two syndicate leaders. Their inquiry gave them the opportunity to research further the relationship between learner agency and improved student outcomes, and to consider how they could lead implementation of new practices. They found Julia Aitken helped clarify their thinking about the ‘why’ of change while Simon Sinek gave them ideas on how they could enlist the cooperation of their colleagues to bring about far-reaching change.

Recognising experience and knowledge were prerequisites for significant change, the syndicate leaders decided they would start with teachers who were keen to be involved. There were four in this category, plus a fifth who wanted to limit their commitment to the reading programme.

Knowing and reflecting on achievement and progress

Leaders and teachers identified that, to have agency, students must understand the learning progressions, be able to recognise what they have mastered, and know what to do next. So they broke the curriculum into bite-sized portions and progressions and then introduced ‘learning pathways’ for use in reading, writing and mathematics.

Using the pathways, the children identified and then highlighted in yellow what they had already accomplished, in purple the steps for which they had proof of capability and in green their next steps.

Teachers and leaders also examined their own assessment beliefs and practices to make sure they supported learner agency. They identified the following as key principles:

  • teachers and children gather and analyse information and then use the findings to adjust their teaching or learning
  • assessment involves a collaboration between teacher and student, with the purpose of determining what the student knows and what their next steps should be
  • where possible, children should be involved in decisions that relate to assessment. They will value assessment results as pointers to their next learning steps
  • assessment, both formal and informal, helps teachers and students identify trends in achievement and progress.

Following the introduction of this more collaborative approach to assessment, the children became familiar with and understood the learning progressions, and they used them with some confidence to develop goals. Children also reviewed how they were going with the Key Competencies and set goals in relation to them. They spoke knowledgably about the ‘testing’ they did ‘to see where we are’.

“There are different types of assessments. Snapshots tell teachers where we are; they are about strategies we know. Snapshot tests are also used to find out how we are coping with a new strategy. After a test we go into our guidebooks and put in our goals for maths, writing and reading. After every knowledge test our goals change and we highlight more in our learning pathways. Our goals come from this pathway tracking.”

“PATs [Progressive Achievement Tests] are painful to do, but it’s good to see the results. We talk to the teacher about our results.”

“Our writing samples are ‘marked’ by teachers using a code and a ‘score’, e.g. 3B, which shows us where we are at. The teacher told us where we should be, e.g. 3A. She said to not to freak out – it tells her where we are at so she can push us along.”

Children in the middle and senior syndicates had assessments from earlier years in their learning journals (portfolios) and could refer to these. These included exemplars with teacher feedback as well as PATs and other diagnostic tests.
The extensive use of Google Docs ensured that each child’s achievement and progress was visible and could be discussed, analysed and monitored by the class teacher, in syndicate meetings, and by leaders.

These two children are tracking their progress
These two children are tracking their progress

The learning journals were also extensively used by the students and their parents.

“We have two to three years of learning in our learning journals now. We can look back and see how we are going. We use them in our reports and three-way interviews. We are in charge of them.”

“I can look to see what I’ve done. I noticed I had been two years on the same stage. In the third year I moved up to the next level because I tried. I tried a new strategy because I was always getting the same score and was doing the same thing. Plus we had freedom to choose and have more control of our work, so that helped.”

“Our learning journals help us make decisions about our own learning. We can go back and see what we need to work on and we choose an activity to do this. The pathways let us know what we are strong at and what to work on.”

“Our journals help us doing reports with parents. Our parents work on things at home – things we are not good at. We take them home after our interview so we have more time to show them and talk about the things in them.”

“We have mentor buddies. They help us by talking with us about what we can do and help us decide our goals. We also role play parent interviews. Our buddies help us improve what we share.”

Understanding the learning processes

Classrooms displayed vibrant looking learner prompts and checklists to encourage independent learning and reflection.

Each week children monitored their progress and identified their next steps with the help of curriculum overviews. They were supported to take risks with their learning and were open to feedback that would improve their work.

Systems and processes, often formalised as in the example following, provided structure and support for independent learning. (Note the influence here of the Key Competencies.)

In classrooms, we saw children working independently, in small groups, and with the teacher. Children revised earlier learning, did lots of work in pairs, and quickly completed critiquing activities before beginning their own writing. The teachers worked collaboratively and seamlessly; when the one leading the activity needed to work with individual children, another would take the lead.

Class activities

Class activity where children work independently

Joint planning and shared expectations gave teachers the confidence to move into shared teaching. We noted too, that teachers had a deep understanding of how to tap into each child’s interests and engage them. They used approaches that promoted inferential thinking, expanded comprehension, and highlighted connections across the curriculum.

Classrooms provided rich environments where children were able to learn where, how, and with whoever they wished. Children talked about the fun, creative activities they were involved in. They felt their teachers pitched their work at the right level. They particularly enjoyed using information technologies for research, e-ako maths, and contributing to their own website.

Monitoring and evaluation systems highlighted improvements, while cycles of inquiry were well embedded, sustaining and increasing student agency and wellbeing.

Developing agreed expectations

For any new development to succeed, leaders and teachers need to develop shared understandings about what is wanted or expected. In this case, they developed shared expectations about effective pedagogy and more detailed expectations for teaching reading, writing and mathematics. The following table lists some of their shared understandings about effective pedagogy.

Effective pedagogy at East Taieri School


  • encouraging risk taking
  • giving positive feedback
  • positive relationships between pupils teachers and parents
  • encouraging children to take responsibility for their own learning
  • peer-support systems within classes and across the school
  • having confident, happy children
  • staff collaboration, syndicate/school-wide planning and activities
  • having an inclusive, caring, sharing culture
  • drawing on strengths.


  • having an inquiry approach to learning and teaching
  • encouraging children to articulate their learning
  • modelling reflective practice
  • questioning/discussing/feedback
  • encouraging students to self assess and set goals for themselves
  • involving students in parent-teacher interviews in Years 4 to 6


  • ensuring students understand what they are learning, why they are learning it and how they will be able to transfer their new learning
  • challenging children to take their new learning further
  • making links to prior learning
  • sharing students’ learning with the community and celebrating new learning in a variety of ways
  • using open question
  • exploring wonderings
  • encouraging students to apply new learning in real life situations.


  • learning together – teachers seen as learners as well as students
  • respecting each other’s views and opinions and accepting differences
  • using a range of thinking tools
  • involving students in peer teaching
  • using a wide range of assessment tools
  • having collaborative discussion about results and asking ‘Where to from here?’
  • providing a range of support/extension programmes.

The school’s organisational structures, processes and practices allowed two leaders to develop their interest in new teaching approaches. Collaborative learning and decision making made sure the new approaches were well known and were implemented for an increasing number of children.