Developing Critical Thinking through SOLO

One of my big focuses for the year with my class is around developing critical thinking. In particular, this was a big focus last term as we worked on our eco-houses. It was also the focus of a recent observation by my syndicate leader. We use the ARA Pathway coaching framework for our observations at school, which is really helpful in enabling teacher reflection. As part of this, we set a follow up goal, for where to next, and part of my goal was to blog about critical thinking, as this is always a good opportunity for me to reflect and process ideas.


In term one, I visited the local college, to have a look at a science lesson and see what our students are heading to next. The thing that really struck me was the way the teacher actively talked to the students about how they could use the language of SOLO to deepen their thinking and explanation. I’d used SOLO in previous years, but hadn’t really taken my students through the language of it this year. We started using it to form success criteria in term one with a book/movie comparison, and I built on this in term two with a piece of writing we did around significant family members for Matariki and as part of an empathy building focus (something we’re definitely working on as a class).


Using the SOLO symbols on the board with levelled success criteria helped my students to see the progression of ideas and the relationship between them. I start with multi-structural, because by the time we get to looking at the actual explanation through writing, student’s already have an idea of what they are looking at. Acknowledging this with my students – actually pointing out that they have already passed prestructural and unistructural stages – seems to instantly give them a positive jolt, an ‘oh yeah, I can already do that, so I’m part way there’.


The thing I really like about using SOLO in this way is that it forces me to really tease apart what I am looking for in regards to critical thinking – how easy is it to just say ‘I’m developing their critical thinking’ without actually really being clear on how you are doing that. This in turn makes it clear for the students what the process of developing their critical thinking looks like, and in turn has led to much better writing/explanations of their ideas.


I’m still very much developing my understanding of SOLO, but I definitely think that getting in and giving it a go has really helped me come to terms with it and I can see hugely positive benefit it is having with my students. I guess now I am wondering where to next with it as so far I’ve mostly focused on it through explaining ideas in writing (it’s been amazing for developing students’ ideas strand). I’d like to try it in different contexts. With our modules for next term, there will be good opportunity to continue it in writing as we look at persuasion and cause and effect around global issues, as well as looking at static image, film or debate to present ideas. I can see how I could use it really effectively to help support students through starting to unpack cause and effect of some of the global issues they are passionate about. I’m also interested to see how I can use it to support learning in our integrated maths topic to do with fuelling athletes. Not quite sure what that looks like yet though.

Two terms in Reflection

There’s no doubt it, life is busy this year, but I don’t mean the self important, stressful kind. There’s just lots happening this year.


As always, I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting, and I am just loving the dynamics of my syndicate this year, so we’ve been doing a lot of reflecting together, but it is time to get some of the thoughts that have been going around in my head down on the blog.


As with last year, I wanted to continue to teach in cross-curricular modules as this gives such great parent and student buy-in, not to mention straight the fact that it straight away takes away the ‘but what’s the point of this’ comment. So I started with a two module structure – A and B. As term one progessed though Module A started to take over, and we kind of let it, and that was okay. In term 2 I thought let’s start again with two modules and we’re doing a syndicate project, so let’s call that Module C. Can you say stupid move? I can. And we did. Together as a class we realised (about 5 weeks in) that we were overloading ourselves and trying to do much. So we settled for doing less better and simplified things.


In thinking about and planning term 3, I’ve decided to get even simpler. Making sure that modules only have two curriculum areas, making the outcomes much more achievable and also shortening the time frame – 5 week modules instead. We’re planning a big project as a team this term so I’m trying to make sure that all the outcomes of the modules can tie into this, instead of creating more work for myself and the students. Do less better is the goal!


Term Two – Sustainability Expo

Even though term two, might have been a lot of hardwork and at times felt really difficult, I did really enjoy it. We started team teaching as a syndicate for our shared module, which was a really awesome experience. We’ve by no means got it sorted yet, but we’re really enjoying the process of collaborating as we figure it out. I think it was particularly great to see each other in full flight as teachers and see each others’ strengths and support each others weaknesses. Our use of space when team teaching was tricky though – we didn’t often get this right. We have a shared learning area and then four classrooms separated by glass – and we mostly used the shared learning to come together, but found it hard to incorporate the classrooms effectively. We have started some work with our students about how use spaces in an innovative way using the Caves, Campfires and Watering Holes guide from Core Education:

I think getting this sorted will help us with managing the team teaching more effectively.


Our focus in this unit was Sustainability and we started off with the big question ‘How do the products that we use affect the bees?’ We choose to focus on the bees as our syndicate is home to the school’s apiscope (indoor bee colony) and we have outdoor hives as well. We began by looking at the fact that the bees are dying to hook in students’ emotions and then we focused on building basic bee knowledge as a start point. From there we began to look at how the products we use affect the environment. Students then chose one product to investigate further and wrote a report on this. Finally, they created their own bee-friendly or sustainable product that used bee-products, which they then had to packaging and market at a sustainability expo for their parents and peers.


The feedback from the students was that they really enjoyed the project and loved getting practical and making the product. As a final assessment of the project students wrote a detailed reflection of the process. While they now have a good understanding of the concept of sustainability, I think some of them are still struggling with being able to explain this in relation to their products. Upon reflection I think we needed to spend more time looking at the connection between bees and sustainability so that the students understood this in greater depth.


One of the things I think the students did really well was to give each other feedback about their products. The students were also able to think critically about how they might improve their product, though some of them found it difficult to take feedback from others and turn it into practical solutions.


As a teacher, the takeaways for me have been:

Allow Time – we were so pressed for time with this project that it made it difficult for the students to really put in the finessing time we wanted. Plus we totally ran out of time for them to revise their products!

Give models and exemplars – intermediate age students really need to see what things look like – particularly around presentation standards and quality

Focus on crafting – this links into the first two and is going to be our focus for term 3 – creating something to a high standard.

Exploring Themes

This term we are reading the book ‘The City of Ember’ by Jeanne DuPrau. We’re reading this as part of a focus on dystopian fiction over the year. Our school wide, year long focus for 2015 is sustainability, so this is the sense through which we are exploring dystopia – as sustainable (or otherwise).
The City of Ember is a particularly interesting read with a sustainability lens. The book opens in the prologue with the builders of the city discussing how long the city will last and how people will know when it’s time to leave. We then fast forward a couple of hundred years to a classroom where the class 8 students (equivalent of our year 8) are waiting to receive their job assignments. We follow two main students as the begin their jobs, and lives as adults (yes, at 12, and yes, that blows the students minds!). As they settle into their responsibilities as citizens of Ember, they discover that the city is not built to last, and in fact was never intended to last. Things are falling into disrepair and one day, the lights will go out for ever.
You see Ember is a city in darkness, though we do not know it at the beginning Ember is built deep underground and sustained by electricity generated from a hydroelectric generator that uses water from an underground river.
We’re about 4 chapters in at the moment, and the students are really enjoying it. In our literacy focus session yesterday, we explored some of the imagery and themes a little bit deeper.
We started off with 3 portions of text from the book, which described what Ember looked like and how it worked.
Students then had to discuss the question – ‘What sustains life in Ember?’
They came up with all sorts of ideas:
But eventually, we distilled them down to one main one – electricity. Without electricity there is no light, no warmth. This led us into a discussion about themes and ideas that run through books. We focused on the idea of light v. darkness and talked about how this links into the citizens’ greatest fear – that one day the lights will go out and com back on.
We used the text to look for evidence to support and back up our ideas and talked about how we can use quotes from the text to support this.
I then asked the students to discuss why the city was called Ember, and to make connections with all that we had discussed that afternoon. They came up some really interesting ideas that I hadn’t even thought of (I love it when that happens!).
We then took one of two phrases/themes – either the word ember or the theme of light versus dark and using a limited colour palette we created quick images that represented this. On the back of these we then wrote a list of words or phrases or ideas that we associated with the picture.
We will use this to build understanding of metaphor and simile over the coming weeks.

Unlocking Learning: Key Competencies and Engagement in the German Classroom

This year I have been part of the TPDL Teacher Professional Development Languages Course. It’s been a really great and challenging experience, and for our final assessment, we had to complete a learning inquiry looking at the way task-based language teaching affects an aspect of learning in our language class. Here’s mine:



Teaching as Inquiry is an important concept in the New Zealand Curriculum (2007). Serving to improve both teacher professional learning and student outcoomes, the process involves enquiring into an aspect of your own teaching practice, focusing in particular on the strategies used to unlock learning for students.

This teaching inquiry report links task-based language teaching (TBLT) with New Zealand Curriculum’s key competencies, exploring the relationship between the two, and how this in turn supports student engagement in my German classroom.


As both a classroom teacher at an intermediate, and a language teacher I am exposed to a range of different pedagogies. As task-based language teaching has become part of my pedagogical practice in teaching German this year, so too has my focus as a classroom teacher changed to centre increasingly on the salience of dispositional thinking and learning, and the role of ‘key competencies’ in supporting students’ learning. Both are fast becoming passions of mine, so naturally I wanted to see if I could combine these two things, which are working so well individually and investigate how they play into each other.


Literature Review

Task-based language teaching (TBLT) is a pedagogical practice, which has evolved from more traditional models of language teaching and learning. Language teaching has traditionally followed what we might call the PPP model – present, practice, produce (East, 2012). Indeed this was commonplace within New Zealand schools until recently and still continues to be used in a large number of schools today. In the 1960s, language pedagogy began to move away from this model, and started to focus on something radically different – communication (Ellis, 2009). Of course, this may seem obvious to us now looking back from the 21st century, but at the time it was a radical notion.


As the pedagogy of language learning evolved in New Zealand, new ideas came to the fore, and in the early 2000s the concept of task based language teaching started to gain popularity (East, 2012). With implementation of the new New Zealand Curriculum in 2007 and it’s being mandated in 2010, Task-Based Language Teaching quickly became the language pedagogy of choice for New Zealand teachers (East, 2012). The New Zealand Curriculum takes a communicative focus to language teaching and learning. This is reflected in the centralisation of the communication strand over language knowledge and cultural knowledge (Ministry of Education, 2007).


Task-based language teaching is essentially a way of teaching a language that focuses on communicative competence – that is learners communicating with each other successfully. It challenges the teacher to create authentic contexts for interaction, something which resonates strongly with ideas of dispositional thinking, according to Hipkins et al. (2014). TBLT calls these authentic contexts tasks and requires them to meet certain criteria to offer maximum benefit to learning. Tasks must; require interaction; have a gap of some sort that needs filling; achieve a non-linguistic outcome; require learners to choose the language they use; and be assessed by the completion of the task rather than the language use (Nunan, 2004). In essence this is problem-solving in a foreign language.


There is still little research drawing explicit links between task-based language teaching and dispositional thinking, so in the following section I have opted to highlight some of the most salient points about dispositional thinking and draw connections between these and task-based language teaching.


Dispositional thinking as pedagogy highlights the importance of and need for emphasis on cultivating the dispositions for learning as opposed to knowledge or skills (Claxton, 2008). It focuses on creating a mindset where students are open to development and learning – aptly described by Carol Dweck as a ‘growth mindset’ (2006). By emphasising dispositions, described by Guy Claxton as habits of mind that support learning (2008), we are able to create a responsive pedagogy which is future focused and learner centred. Our New Zealand curriculum uses the 5 key competencies as a vehicle for doing this (Ministry of Education, 2007). Hipkins et al. (2014) posit that dispositional thinking and emphasising the dispositions or the capabilities or competencies – whichever language you choose – through authentic tasks is the best way to build a future-focused curriculum. This idea of authenticity reflects the core values at the heart of task-based language teaching, indicating that there is considerable mutuality between the two pedagogies.


Other researchers concur, arguing that as teachers we need to be more future-focused and adaptable and as Bolstad et al. (2012) put it we need to adopt “a more complex view of knowledge, that incorporates knowing, doing and being. Alongside this we need to rethink our ideas about how learning systems are organised, resource, and supported.” This clearly has strong echoes of task-based language teaching’s shift from a more simplistic PPP model of language learning to a dynamic and complex idea of language learning as a communicative act. At the same time this emphasises the need to deepen students’ thinking, and suggests that they way we organise learning can help us to achieve this. The above quote from Bolstad et al. (2012) is also highly reflective of Ellis’ 11th principle for language teaching that indicates that there is a subjective element to teaching and learning a language which enables students to make sense of language learning in their own ways (Liddicoat & Scarino, 2013), not only ‘knowing’ a language, but also developing an understanding of what it means to ‘do’ and ‘be’ in that language.



There are many characteristics of task-based language teaching that reflect important elements of dispositional thinking. Firstly task-based language teaching prioritises interaction – important for speaking a foreign language definitely – but also highly engaging and reflective of the way 11 – 13 year olds make sense of their world – in fact, how we all make sense of our worlds according to McDowall (2010). It places meaning at the centre – never mind whether you do it perfectly, start by trying. And, as we have already discussed it is authentic – based on problems, contexts and real world scenarios.


Task-based language teaching scaffolds students in their language, drawing on the Vygotskian theory that “knowledge is acquired primarily through social interaction and that providing a supportive environment in which interaction can occur enables children to advance to higher levels of knowledge and performance” as cited in (East, 2007, p. 32).


And perhaps most interestingly, I believe it is strongly grounded in the New Zealand Curriculum’s key competencies, which are not only an integral part of the way students learn, but also key skills in today’s fast paced, technology driven world where globalisation is a daily fact of life, as Hipkins et al. (2014) argue.


There is a part in the Learning Languages Curriculum Area Overview which reflects this notion;


“Languages link people locally and globally. They are spoken in the community, used internationally, and play a role in shaping the world. Oral, written, and visual forms of language link us to the past and give us access to new and different streams of thought and to beliefs and cultural practices… As they learn a language, students develop their understanding of the power of language. They discover new ways of learning, new ways of knowing and more about their own capabilities. Learning a language provides students with the cognitive tools and strategies to learn further languages and to increase their understanding of their own language(s) and culture(s)” (Ministry of Education, 2007 p. 24).


Rationale and Focusing Question

Learning a language is not enhanced by integrating the key competencies into teaching and learning, it requires the key competencies to be taught effectively. The key competencies are at the heart of learning a language, and the key competencies in turn provide a New Zealand framework for developing dispositional thinking in students. Both task-based language teaching and dispositional thinking are future-focused in their nature, and through my research, I have come to believe that both are vital for create a responsive curriculum and pedagogy within my language classroom.


The research I have conducted has led me to understand that task-based language teaching and dispositional thinking (via our New Zealand key competencies) are intricately interwoven, but are in essence tools – not the outcome. As an intermediate teacher, my priority in teaching a second language has always been to introduce students to the possibilities that come with learning a second language – focusing primarily on student engagement. As this is an important facet of my language teaching, I decided to use it as part of my focusing question, which is:


How do language tasks and the key competencies interact to support learner engagement in German?



I have 26 learners in a composite year 7/8 class, about 50/50 male and female. My students have a range of ethnicities and cultural backgrounds and a number identify with multiple ethnicities. Almost 50% of students speak at least one other language. I have a group of dyslexic students in my class and my students work between level 2 and 5 on the curriculum with most working happily at early – mid level 4 across most curriculum areas (aside from learning languages). They are a diverse bunch of learners and while this brings some challenges for the German classroom, it’s bought a lot more opportunities. Learning a language has been a great leveller. Everyone in my class began at level one of the language learning curriculum, with no advantage over each other.


My students began the year with no choice in the matter of language learning, since they were all in my class, they were all going to learn German all year. While most students were curious (thankfully none we’re downright disinterested), engagement and interest ranged from very low to moderately high. Most of my students had little or no knowledge of German beyond the odd greeting and of course Hitler. Once we dealt with the Hitler issue, we were able to move on to the language and culture itself.


I am both my students’ classroom teacher and their language specialist teacher. My students have between 1 – 3 hours of German a fortnight depending on what else is going on in class. This is usually broken up into one or two 45-minute chunks and then little bits and pieces dotted in around the rest of the timetable. We regularly use German for greetings and other in-class formulaic language throughout the day.


Having started with the basics, we’ve now moved on to look at Essen und Kaufen in der Stadt (eating and shopping in the city). And the lesson I’m focusing on in this teacher inquiry is mid way through this unit.



The focus of this lesson was threefold, give students an opportunity to practice the numbers 1 to 20, introduce German currency and talk about places for purchasing food – the Bäckerei, Flesicher, and Obstmarkt (bakery, butcher and fruit market respectively) and to introduce the new words teuer and billiger or cheaper and more expensive for comparison.


The task students were set was to purchase the items on their grocery list for as little money as possible and then calculate how much change they had left – all in German of course. In this task I aimed to bring in cross-curricular elements, particularly maths, creating links to our financial literacy topic. Five students and I (so that I could hear and free assess the students in interaction) played the role of shopkeepers. Students had to approach and ask us whether we had items and how much they cost in order to find the best shop to purchase a particular item.


The lesson began with a pre-task, brainstorming the sort of language we might use in a shop and going over some newish language that the students had only encountered once before. We then moved onto the task proper and followed up with a discussion about which was cheaper and looked at the words teuer and billiger (cheaper and more expensive) to help the students express their meanings in the target language.


Reflection on Task

From teacher observation, a range of German phrases and sentences were used:

  • Guten tag!
  • Hallo
  • Danke
  • Ja
  • Nein
  • Hast du…?
  • Ich habe…
  • Ich habe das nicht
  • Was bedeutet das?
  • Es ist …. Euro
  • Nummer 1 – 20


A significant portion of the language was what we had discussed might be useful, however it was good to hear the students drawing on their prior knowledge of interactions with phrases like ‘guten tag’ ‘danke’ and ‘was bedeutet das?’


From teacher observations during the task, all students were speaking German most of the time and all of the time for interactions directly related to the task. Every student succeeded in completing the task, some faster than others, and most students were actively engaged in the discussion and comparison post-task.


In reflecting on this task, I sought specific data and feedback from students about their motivation and the skills they feel the use in task-based language learning. I collected this by way of independent reflection questionnaires. At my school we use Guy Claxton’s Building Learning Power framework for making the key competencies more accessible for students. Students were asked to identify which of these dispositions they used during the lesson. They were also asked about their enjoyment of German, their response to the task and given an opportunity to provide any general feedback.

The forms were anonymous and only took few minutes.



One of the biggest constraints in my German classroom is keeping students motivated to learn when there is a high discrepancy between their cognitive level and the language level in the target language. Introducing elements of other curriculum areas, particularly maths, has been successful in managing this. Maths is an especially effective example because little vocabulary is required for students to think at a cognitive level more closely aligned to their own abilities in their first languages.


Time is also a constraint, with only 3 hours maximum a fortnight, and often less, it can be challenging to ensure that students are retaining vocabulary when they are not using it.


Within this task itself, students’ memory and knowledge of the numbers was the biggest constraint. While they could easily use and understand a range of phrases in interaction asking for the price was difficult because they were struggling to remember the numbers.


Next Steps

Feedback from the task enabled students to talk about how they found the level of the task, most feedback was encouraging and suggested that this task was at the right level, however a handful of students found the task too easy. This suggests that I need to increase the differentiation within tasks and allow opportunities for those students who are confident in their German to extend themselves.


I really liked the authenticity that creating cross-curricular links brings, however I feel this could be deepened by bringing in more of an inter-cultural element. Contrasting and discussing differences between the places we buy food in Germany would be one example.


My final next step is to focus more on form in an intercultural context. This task was a perfect opportunity for students to talk about and practice using the formal language in interaction, which we didn’t do.



Before beginning the analysis of this task, I knew that I needed to link the Building Learning Power language my students know with the key competencies, so I began by mapping the BLP dispositions onto the key competencies. Students were asked to identify as many or as few of these dispositions as they thought they used in their learning task. All students choose at least one and most choose 3+. As you can see here, these are spread across all 5 of the key competencies, and the specific dispositions are indicated. Being absorbed in their learning and collaborating with others were clearly the most widely used skills. Adventuring, imagining new ideas and connecting ideas together were also identified as being important for the task.



While thinking was identified as the most used key competency, managing self followed a close second, reflecting the need for a non-linguistic outcome and the importance of learner choice in language use in TBLT. This is particularly evident in the prioritisation of thinking over using language symbols and texts. This then correlates, as we shall see with a high level of engagement in the task and learning German more generally for my learners.

Untitled3 copy

When students were asked to report their engagement in learning German on a scale from “yep! I totally love it” to “really not a fan”, all students placed themselves in the neutral to extremely highly positive band. 18 out of 26 students reported high levels of enjoyment and motivation in learning German.

And in their own choice of words this is the students’ response to the task – the bigger the word the more people chose it.

Words like ‘fun’ ‘awesome’ ‘interesting’ and ‘interactive’ again reflect the high level of interest and engagement in the task.


It is clear to me from both my own professional reading and the data from my students that TBLT draws heavily on the key competencies whether explicitly or inadvertently – it requires students to actively be using all 5 in a holistic and authentic way. This in turn reflects a positive trend in high levels of engagement and enjoyment in language learning for my students. Students find TBLT an enjoyable and interactive way of learning, but to conclude our journey I’ll let them have the last word:


“It helps actually communicating with German in a conversation”


“It makes me think about the words that I should use in that sentence”


“I remember things better when I act it out”


“I learnt how to interact with other people while learning German. I felt I was engaging a lot more than just learning words and remembering them (which I suck at.)”


I believe it is because they are using all 5 of the key competencies in an authentic context that students are highly engaged, interacting and engaging with others while also thinking critically through German about a range of issues. After all, as one of my students put it:


“It shows me effective real life uses for my knowledge”



Bolstad,R. Gilbert, J., McDowall, S., Bull, A., Boyd, S., and Hipkins, R. (2012). Supporting Future Oriented Learning and Teaching – a New Zealand Perspective. Wellington New Zealand: NZCER Press. Retrieved from

Claxton, G. L. (2008). Expanding young people’s capacity to learn. In: British Journal of Educational Studies. 55 (2), p. 115 – 134 19 p.

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House

East, M. (2012). TBLT in New Zealand: Curriculum renewal. In Task-based language teaching from the teachers’ perspective. (pp. 19-47). Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Ellis, R. (2009). Task-based language teaching: Sorting out the misunderstandings. International Journal of Applied Linguistics 19 (3). 221- 246

Hipkins, R., Bolstad, R., Boyd, S., and McDowall, S. (2014). Key Competencies for the Future. Wellington, New Zealand: NZCER Press

Liddicoat, A. & Scarino, A. (2013). Intercultural language teaching and learning. New York, NY: Wiley Blackwell. (Chapter 2: Languages, Cultures, and the Intercultural. pp 11-30)

McDowall, S. (2010). Lifelong Literacy: The Integration of Key Competencies and Reading. Wellington, New Zealand: NZCER Press

Minsitry of Education (2007). New Zealand Curriculum. Wellington, New Zealand: Ministry of Education.

Nunan, D. (2004). Task Based Language Teaching. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press

Evolving the Curriculum: Focus on Values

There is so much dialogue about the need for education to evolve. From TED talks, to twitter chats, youtube videos to HuffPost articles -it’s literally everywhere; in popular literature, academic literature, on the news, in the media, in politics and of course in schools. But for all we talk about it, the question has to be asked – are we actually evolving education? And if we’re not, why not? If we are, are we doing enough?


This year I realised I’d done enough thinking, and I really needed to start doing. So I did (don’t worry it wasn’t thoughtless change – I kept thinking too). And the place I started was with our own New Zealand Curriculum. This document is amazing. It has already laid out a map for our learning evolution, now we just have to be brave enough to follow it.

In the front of the curriculum (page 7 to be exact) is this diagram entitled ‘directions for learning’ (see I told you – map!). What I love about this image is the way it organises learning. At teachers’ college I was taught to always start with the achievement objectives, but if you look here, you’ll see that they form only a very small part of a whole. Through this diagram, the New Zealand Curriculum advocates a a three-way approach – values, key competencies and learning areas. These are guided by the curriculum’s vision and underpinned by the curriculum’s values. All these parts together make up the whole of education.


Of course all of these bits are equally important, but I want to focus today on the values.


This term the teachers in our syndicate have been working with groups of students on wicked problems, using design thinking to tackle these. As our students work on these they have been noticing and commenting on the learning dispositions (key competencies) they have been using as part of the process. These dispositions will then help them in creating CVs, portfolios and learning paths later in the term as part of our Future Selves topic. But the really interesting bit (today at least), is the way they students are using the values of the curriculum as a focusing lens for their ideation and investigation.


The NZC explores seven principles, and has an eighth overarching idea, which are explained like so:

“Students will be encouraged to value:

  • Excellence, by aiming high and by persevering in the face of difficulties;
  • Innovation, inquiry and curiosity, by thinking critically, creatively, and reflectively;
  • Diversity, as found in our different cultures, languages, and heritages;
  • Equity, through fairness and social justices;
  • Community and participation for the common good;
  • Ecological Sustainability, which includes care for the environment;
  • Integrity, which involves being honest, responsible, and accountable and acting ethically;

and respect of themselves, others, and human rights.”

(New Zealand Curriculum, 2007, p. 12)

The curriculum further goes on to explain that the values should then be interpreted by the school in consultation with it’s community. Our school values look like this:
“At [our school] we want our students to be constantly
pursuing excellence in everything they do. They will value:
  • Integrity
  • Personal responsibility
  • Diversity
  • Lifelong learning
  • Creative and innovative thinking
  • Positive relationships
  • Collective achievement
This is underpinned by Tūrangawaewae – a sense of one’s place in our changing world”
As you can see, there are many similarities, but also naturally some differences. I particularly love the last line in our school’s values statement about Tūrangawaewae and the sense of place in a changing world.
But stating the values isn’t enough – and talking about them isn’t either. Not if we’re going to evolve education; so lately I’ve been starting to explore and unpack these with students. In the wicked problem context described above, I asked students to choose two key values to explore their wicked problem – human rights and the media. I created a values frame that looked like this:
Untitled 2
After a brief discussion of what the different values meant, it was interesting to see which ones the students chose to focus on, because of course this will change they way they approach things. Unsurprisingly, a lot chose diversity and community (two of the more understandable ideas and most relevant to the context) but I was interested and pleased at the number of students who chose to focus on ethics.
We’re only a little way into this process but already I can see that my students are starting to think critically about values and the actions that stem from them. By giving them the language to use, and the concepts, they are becoming increasingly aware that values give rise to opinions and opinions to perspectives and, often in the case of wicked problems, perspectives to conflict. So as they continue to explore the context and settle on their own particular smaller problem to apply the design process to, I plan to provide my students with lots of opportunities to discuss differing opinions and how values might frame these.
“Ahh, but what does this actually look like in the classroom?” you ask. Well it will start with these discussion questions:
  • How might humanitarian organisations use social media in innovative ways?
  • How could social media be used to develop a culture of excellence in human rights reporting?
  • How might personal ethics be supported through social media?
  • How might improving our ecological sustainability (environmental practices) reduce breaches of human rights?
  • How might it benefit refugees if we apply the principle of equity, rather than equality?
  • How can social media bring communities together to support human rights?
  • How does diversity impact on human rights?

And then we’ll go from there – where exactly we’re still figuring out.

See the thing I realised last term, is that it isn’t ever going to happen if you wait until you the end destination to set out. You actually just have to start and trust that the road will guide you, a sentiment Tolkien captured perfectly.

“The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.

Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.

And whither then? I cannot say.”


So wither I’ll end up? I do not know, but the journey so far, though just begun, has been most marvelous indeed.

RTC: Professional Learning

My school has just started a new process where each term we focus on a different Registered Teacher Criterion (RTC) as part of our appraisal. In term 3 our focus was on number 4:

Demonstrate commitment to on-going professional learning and development of personal professional practice.


  • Identify professional learning goals in consultation with colleagues
  • Participate responsively in professional learning opportunities within the learning community
  • Initiate learning opportunities to advance personal professional knowledge and skills

As part of our professional practice we need to document how we are doing this and a blog post seemed the natural way for me to reflect.

Indicator One: Identify professional learning goals in consultation with colleagues

At the beginning of the year I identified 3 learning goals, which you can read about here. As the year has progressed I’ve added a couple and changed a few, so now my goals are:

  • Provide creative and integrated learning opportunities for students within mathematics to increase students’ engagement and lift achievement levels of all learners.
  • Provide meaningful audiences for students’ writing by integrating GAFE and blogging into our classroom programme to increase students’ engagement and lift achievement levels of all learners.
  • Explore the role of drama in literacy as a strategy for lifting students’ achievement in reading and developing character empathy.
  • Develop and extend my understanding of Kaupapa Maori theories of education and integrate these within my teaching practice, focusing on whakawhanaungatanga and taonga tuku iho.
  • Explore future focused pedagogies, in particular Universal Design for Learning and Design Thinking, and integrate these into classroom practice.
  • Investigate opportunities for curriculum integration and focus on developing dispositional thinking within the classroom.

These goals ave developed out of a lot personal reflection, a myriad of conversations and of course inquiring into my own teaching practice and seeking feedback from students.


Indicator Two: Participate responsively in professional learning opportunities within the learning community

I’m very lucky to be part of two really awesome learning communities, my first and primary community is my school and within that my syndicate. As part of my school learning community we regularly have PL on a range of areas, and regular Te Reo Maori PL with our fabulous DP Lena. I am also part of a professional learning group at school focusing on raising the achievement of priority learners in reading, and this too has brought about some fantastic PL opportunities and plenty of discussion. This year’s opportunities for professional learning to date have included:

  • Leading a regular tech session in term 3
  • being part of a professional learning group
  • taking part in e-learning PL with Alex Perry
  • taking part in data analysis and assessment PL on asTTle writing, STAR and Maths PAT
  • Leading staff meetings on e-learning
  • Presenting our vision of e-learning to the board
  • Taking part in writing moderation as a syndicate
  • Teaching my syndicate about design thinking
  • Implementing new opportunities for students voice in our planning practices
  • Leading school wide implementation of Google Apps for Education
  • Sharing ideas and resources with other staff


Indicator Three: Initiate learning opportunities to advance personal professional knowledge and skills

I’m also fortunate to be part of an amazing community of teachers online through twitter, blogs and of course the thing that brought us all together #edchatnz. As part of this community this year I have:

  • had ongoing professional conversations with educators in and around New Zealand via blogs and twitter
  • regularly participated in the twitter chat #edchatnz
  • started the Middle School twitter chat #midedchatnz which I host every fortnight
  • attended the inaugural #edchatnz conference at Hobsonville Point Secondary School
  • blogged my learning
  • presented at the Connected Educators Month Eduignite evening in Wellington
  • started to help with the planning for EducampWelly in 2015

This year I have also been lucky enough to be part of the Teacher Professional Development Languages Programme (TPDL) which is an intensive language teaching and learning course. This has involved taking the University of Auckland paper EDPROFST360 Language Learning in the Classroom, studying German through the Goethe Institut, taking the European Framework for Languages Proficiency Exams (A1) and having in school visits to develop my language teaching pedagogy.


Reflective Question: How do I continue to advance my professional learning as a teacher?

Obviously I want to keep doing all the things I am doing, particularly with regards to connecting online with other educators. I’d also like to take more opportunities to visit other teachers and classrooms and see how they are doing things. I’d like to continue to explore Design Thinking and learn more about Universal Design for Learning. I’m also thinking about applying to be a Google Certified Teacher next year and an Apple Distinguished Educator. I’ve got a long list of professional readings too, the start of which is below:

The Falconer – Grant Lichtman

Invent to Learn – Sylvia Libow Martinez & Gary Stager

Can Computers Keep Secrets? How a Six-Year-Old’s Curiosity Could Change the World by Tom Barrett.


Integrated Modules: One Term In

Term three saw some big changes for me in my professional practice. After attending the #edchatNZ conference and getting super inspired, I decided to take a risk and try all the new ideas that had been slowly taking hold of my imagination in the last year. So I mixed everything up and I rearranged my timetable and I linked up new things, and hacked things that weren’t working. It was awesome and you can read about it here.


Of course whenever you try something new it’s important to reflect critically. While it definitely felt like an awesome step in the right direction, there are lots of things that need refining, reworking and adapting. But like everything in life, it’s a learning process. The questions I have used to guide my critical reflection come from my school’s Teaching as Inquiry Process.

New teaching and learning tasks – what did I try?

I moved from teaching subjects to teaching concepts, from teaching in isolation to teaching in an integrated way, because I believe this is far more reflective of what learning looks like in everyday life. I developed two modules – one based in maths and science (also incorporating PE), and one based in English and Social Studies (also incorporating drama and health). These modules each had 4 1.5 hour blocks per week. The two modules both related to our overall theme – communities. Both modules used design thinking to lead students through the process and develop their understanding of cause and effect (the underlying concept we were focusing on).

I tried to make the learning more of an organic flow, rather than fixed group rotations. I used a combination of collaborative and independent tasks and provided lots of discussion opportunities. We used the SOLO Taxonomy to develop a way of measuring our learning and understanding of concepts. We focused on ideas and understanding the reasons for things – trying to go deeper and think about how and why things work and happen.


Resources – what did I use?

The SOLO Taxonomy was particularly useful and I really like the SOLO self assessment tool developed by Pam Hook. The students found this very easy to use.

The use of visual images was an important part of our English/Social Studies module and formed a really effective base for eliciting ideas, emotions and issues.

The SOLO Hexagons were also useful as a visual way for encouraging students to see connections between their ideas.

The Building Learning Power Empathy and Imaging Rubric that we developed also served as a useful basis both as a teacher to guide learning, and for students as self-assessment and check points.

Using authentic data (students’ heart rates and the results from a SPARC survey) provided a really great foundation for our maths/science module and really helped the students see the authenticity in their learning.

And finally the design process organisers that I developed based on the Standford d. School‘s way of approaching design helped to firstly guide students through what is undoubtedly a complex process and also helped to deepen their thinking.

Outcomes – Successes and trials. What was successful and what wasn’t?

The design process worked really well – it was surprisingly simple for the students to follow and needed little teaching scaffolding. I was really impressed with the depth of thinking and understanding that this helped to generate.

The rearranged timetable and being able to spend  a whole morning focusing on one thing worked really well for the English/Social Studies Module, but felt a little bit more forced for the Maths/Science Module. The students really loved being able to focus on one context and stay focused on that for a prolonged period of time and so did I. The flow of learning worked really well in the English/Social Studies Module I think because there were better connections between the areas. At times the Maths/Science Module felt a bit disjointed and almost too contrived.

The self management of students was fantastic and they were really deeply engaged and absorbed in what they were doing, to the point where they often got quite cross when I stopped them. They were able to move in and out of independent and collaborative work naturally as needed which was very cool to see happening.

The sophistication of the learning coming out was great and they all developed a deep conceptual understanding of the topics we were talking about. I saw fantastic work on recrafting in writing (which was a much needed area of attention in my class) and they were making excellent use of peer feedback too using the rose bud thorn idea introduced to me by @geomouldey. While there was some great mathematical thinking going on in the module, I don’t think I provided enough opportunity for skill practice. Though again I find this a hard one because it was statistics based and that is more about the thinking that the specific mathematical calculations.

Overall English/Social Studies worked well, had a very natural flow and produced some very deep and critical thinking, Maths/Science worked well but took longer than expected, felt a bit too contrived sometimes but ultimately still produced some great statistical reasoning.


Student Voice – what did my target group think? What feedback did they give me?

The students’ feedback was very positive, and I was really pleased about how much they loved the changes. Of course there were a few who preferred a more traditional way of doing things, but those tended to be my bright students who liked being able to coast along rather than actually working hard and found that harder to do in the new way of doing things.

The particularly liked the longer time to focus on things, without arbitrarily shifting to maths just because it was after morning tea now. They liked the flexibility of learning and being able to work in different places and ways. They also found they design process useful though got frustrated that they ran out of time to go all the way through to the end. Most of them found the SOLO taxonomy helpful though said it wasn’t very useful.

Learning Conversations – After talking with my leadership team support person what did I decide to do next?

I have been talking to my syndicate leader and one of the DPs all the way through this process, but also had a fantastic conversation with my principal towards the end of the term. She basically gave me an open slate to keep trying this way of doing things, as long as I kept documenting the process and kept reflecting on it. She also said that I should be prepared to share this with people. So based on all the awesome conversations I have had with people, I’m going to try this again this term, but maybe with a few less cross-curricular connections – particularly with maths. Sometimes it’s okay and actually necessary to focus on just one area for a while. I’m going to just try to integrate two areas this time, but still have one as a primary focus for the maths-based module (the English/social studies one works with two focus areas) as this fits better with our algebra topic.

I think I’ll save the specific details of next term for another post as this one was only really meant to be a quick (ha! who am I kidding?) review of last term.


Ultimately I feel like I’m on the right track, I know it’s deepening students’ conceptual understanding, I want to but more thinking into how to integrate the maths better, and I’m really enjoying teaching and planning this way.

Communities, Tribes and the Learning Renaissance

“What is a community?”

That’s the question we’ve been asking as a class and as a school this term. My class are looking at this from a few of perspectives:

  1. As a community of learners, working together to develop our learning muscles.
  2. As a community of hackers, building, hacking and creating our learning space to work most effectively for us.
  3. As part of our Community Perspectives module, looking at the way events affect communities and how we hold differing perspectives depending on the communities we are part of.
  4. As part of our Vital Stats module, looking at the way individuals within sports communities use statistics to make decisions.

As part of our discussions in the Community Perspectives Module, my students came up with 10 principles which they felt were important parts of what it takes to be a successful community:

  • People
  • Communication
  • Time
  • Respect
  • Common point
  • Ownership
  • Commitment
  • Environment
  • Collaboration
  • Trust

Firstly, I’m super impressed with the language these 11, 12 and 13 year olds came up with. Secondly, I think they’ve hit the nail on the head. And finally I think the way the came up with these was totally in keeping with our communities theme. Individually they came up with 5 or 6 each, but together they’ve got everything covered.

So naturally, all this talk of communities has found its way into my thinking. What does it mean to be part of a community of educators? For me it means:

  • working together with others to achieve better outcomes for students
  • feeling like I have ownership and am part of a something important to me
  • being challenged, extended and made a better teacher through collaboration and the support of others within my community.
  • working alongside my colleagues to achieve something bigger than myself

I’m lucky, I’m part of multiple communities as an educator, I’m part of a global and national community of connected educators – we connect, engage, support and challenge each other and most of the time we do this online, through Twitter. I’m also part of my school, team and of course class communities, but it’s the first and last communities I want to talk about today.

Recently I watched Seth Godin’s TED talk about The Tribes We Lead. In this talk he speaks about the way we can affect change through connection. According to Godin, our world is organised into tribes and has been since long before recorded human history began. Tribes enable us to connect with others and feel that we belong. A tribe is a group of people aligned around an idea, connected to a leader and to each other. In  many ways this reflects the definitions my students created of communities. When we unpacked the word together in class we identified two root words that make up the word ‘community’, ‘common’ and ‘unity’. In a community we should be working together (unity) for a shared (common) purpose.

So what does all this have to do with education, aside from being an interesting discussion in a class? Well, I think it can all be defined in one simple hashtag. #edchatNZ – the little hashtag that could. There is no doubt in my mind that #edchatNZ has changed me, as an individual, in my philosophy of teaching, and most noticeably in my teaching practice. And I know it has done so for many people. Not only has it become my community – my tribe – it’s inspired me to take the awesome things I’m learning back to my school, and back to my tribe of learners. With all these new ideas and challenging concepts, not only am I questioning everything I’m doing, I’m teaching my students to do the same. It may be time consuming and hard work and drive other teachers in my school up the wall, but I can see the benefit in my students. They don’t accept status quo just because it’s also been status quo, they’re not sucked in by media and they don’t cave under peer pressure (well as much as is possible for 11 – 13 year olds). They desperately want and need to understand why we do things the way we do, and if they can see the logic or the rationale behind something and agree with it, then they are behind it 100% and boy do they give it their all.

Last week a came across a retweet on twitter talking about a learning renaissance rather than a revolution.


For me, the students I have this year and the way they approach their learning is this renaissance in action. In his talk, Godin speaks about the way we create change, and he asks 3 questions:

  • Who are you upsetting? (Because if you’re not upsetting someone or something you’re not challenging the status quo)
  • Who are you connecting with?
  • Who are leading?

The first question serves as evidence of change or lack thereof, but the last two is where the change really happens. When we connect with others we are bringing together a multitude of ideas, talents, creativity, and capable hands that can work together to affect change. But what about leadership? How does that fit into the picture?

The #edchatNZ community began with a lone nut – the wonderful Danielle Myburgh. As she started to share her passion a community started to form around her, it grew and began to connect in multiple and diverse ways becoming a tribe, and now with increasing momentum, it’s affecting real change in education communities and schools around the country. But at the same time, it’s also empowered each of us edutweeps (twitter educators – education + twitter + peeps) to return to our own schools and classrooms and lead change there.

So how do we do this? How do we lead change and build a learning renaissance? (I love that phrase so much more than ‘revolution’).

We live in age now where it’s no longer good enough or even effective to try and sell an idea, instead we need to tell a story. Godin describes an ongoing cycle:

This cycle appeals to me and I think it is a good way to reflect on what we are doing to be agents of change within our own learning communities. I know that I am really good at making changes for my own learners, and I’m certainly getting better at connecting with my tribe but do I tell the story of what I’m doing?

I have no doubt there is the beginning of a learning renaissance happening in for my students, but I’m not yet telling that story effectively and if I want to help lead a movement and create a culture of inquiry and innovation within my school I need to be.

So how I can do this?

This is the part I’m still figuring out, but here’s what I’ve got so far:

  • Talk about with my students and build their language of learning so they can talk about it with other students and teachers
  • Invite others into my class to hang out and get a sense of the way we’re mixing it up in room 3
  • Blog more often
  • Blog more deeply – less of the surface stuff more of the challenging and questioning stuff (like this post)
  • Share my blogging, I communicate well through words, it’s always been my natural medium, so I need to use this and I need to be willing to put it out there – especially with colleagues at school
  • Keep tweeting, cause magic happens on twitter

So to finish, I’m going to leave you with a question:

How are you telling the story of the education renaissance?

Epic #edchatnz Reflection

Wow! What a week. Last weekend I was lucky enough to attend the first ever #edchatnz conference organised by the amazing Danielle Myburgh and her extraordinary organising committee. It was a mindblowing experience and I took so much away from it. I also really enjoyed sharing it with my mother, @majessti as we’ve never spent time together as colleagues.

Friday started with a plenary session from Danielle Myburgh and HPSS Principal Maurie Abraham – both of whom I really enjoyed hearing speak. I then headed off to Dianne Cavallo‘s session on Design Thinking in the classroom. I spent a good chunk of time discussing ideas with my mother in the middle session before finishing off the day with some time spent in Steve Mouldey‘s class and then attending the unconference session.

I felt like I got into a better groove on Saturday and starting with face to face #edchatnz was the best way ever to start a day.  Mark Osbourne‘s session on Modern Learning Environments was equally awesome and after morning tea I headed to Ros Macheachern‘s session on teaching and learning at HPSS. I finished up with Lea Vellenoweth‘s workshop on building a restorative culture and of course the day officially ended with a final plenary from Karen Melhuish Spencer and then Danielle wrapped everything up beautifully

I loved everything but the stand out points for me were definitely sitting on Steve’s class and Ros’s workshop, and coming back to school they have certainly been the ones that have influenced me most.

So, the big question – the question really – is what do I do with all the awesomeness now I’m back at school?

Easy – take the leap of faith (thanks @boonman for the inspiration to do this).

On Monday night I sat down with the curriculum, photocopied every level 4 page and started scribbling and highlighting – finding links with “Communities” – our term 3 theme. Yes, I already had plans in place but they weren’t quite doing it for me or (as it turns out) my students. They lacked an overall cohesion, but once I started going through those curriculum areas with a highlighter things started to come together in a big way. Once highlighted I cut up the curriculum (photocopies – not my actual curriculum doc – don’t worry!) AOs and started to group them. I’ve loved the idea of multi-curriculum area modules since I first heard HPSS staff talk about them, and seeing them in action on Friday only made me more excited. I really believe this is a powerful way to teach.

So I grouped my AOs, and suddenly all these awesome connections became apparent. Everything just clicked. I developed 4 modules – two maths based, two English based for the term. Just like HPSS I gave them names – we’re currently working on Community Perspectives and Vital Stats, and will then go on to Trading Me and Persuading Me later in the term. I developed little blurbs for them a la HPSS and set learning objectives just like I would with any unit plan. Only this time I didn’t put them into my old planning template – this time I tried something new. Ros had given us a copy of the HPSS planning template and the focusing questions and visual layout made a lot of sense to me, so I reworked it into a version for me school (well, just for  me at this stage – but one of the DPs is very interested in it and how we could use it across the school).

Community Perspectives Module Plan

Community Perspectives Module Plan

We are a Building Learning Power School, which means we use Guy Claxton’s approach to developing learning muscles. As a staff we see this as an extension and an expansion of the NZC’s key competencies, so it was obvious to me that Claxton’s teaching toolkit would form the centre of the planning as it underpins what we do as teachers. And I added a few things – particularly looking at diverse learners and focusing on Kaupapa Māori principles of education.

I knew that I wanted to focus more on coaching students in their learning, something we’ve been talking about a lot more as a school lately, and I also wanted to spend more time on concepts and developing conceptual understanding. The SOLO Taxonomy has provided the perfect vehicle for doing this – and my students have responded really well to it. But that’s a whole other blog post.

Finally I wanted to hack up my timetable. As an intermediate classroom teacher, I have a lot more scope to do this than some. We have 3 blocks of 90 – 110 minutes each day. Typically a school day at my school starts with English in the morning and our syndicate does fitness just before morning tea, maths in the middle block, and the other curriculum areas packed into the afternoon. Friday’s have always been a little bit different. I knew in order to maintain our school’s strong focus on literacy and numeracy I would need to ensure that the number of hours spent on maths-related learning and English-related learning would need to remain the same, but I wanted to allow for a more organic flow to the day. Our afternoon’s are pretty full this term and work around my release to teach dance, assemblies, and syndicate rotations. Where I could make changes was in the morning. So now my timetable looks like this:

My new timetable

My new timetable

Monday and Thursday we spend all morning on an English-related module, Tuesday and Wednesday are maths/science-related. The introduction of my time has formalised what used to be ‘finishing time’ and also gives students some scope for their own passions – something they’re very excited about (thanks HPSS for the name). As syndicate we’ve decided to go from ‘fitness’ to active recreation which again gives the students more choice, and also removes any connotation of physical education, which isn’t always as active as we’d like – this is about being active! Learning Focus is an opportunity for us to develop learning skills, solidify our understanding of the SOLO taxonomy and explore what it means to be a Building Learning Power school in more depth.

So, what do the students think of all this?

Well, we’ve only had two days of working with the new timetable and module structure, and already they love it! I’ve had so many students come up and say how much they like having time to really get into one context/topic – even some of my quiet, less opinionated students have come and talked to me about it. One of my students who doesn’t always find learning easy and is VERY shy too came and told me how much easier she has found the new way of learning with a huge grin on her face. Teacher win!

And what do I think?

I love it. Of course it’s going to be a work in progress and will need refining, but everything is and my students know that as much as I do. But even on the first day it just felt so right and I came away on an absolute high like I haven’t felt in months. I loved having more time to go deep and not being constrained ‘maths time’ or ‘English time’. The depth of thinking I saw in that first lesson was so sophisticated – I actually felt guilty that I hadn’t given them opportunities to reach these depths sooner! The language students were using to discuss communities and they concepts they were coming up with really validated what I was doing.

Now I just can’t wait to continue!