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.

Modular Learning

I keep finding it hard to write a blog post. Hard to find time to stop and actually write a reflection. Which is not to say that reflections aren’t happening, just so often lately they don’t end up getting written. Actually, when I say lately I really mean the last year and a half. When I first started challenging my pedagogy and the way I did things in the classroom, I found that writing was really helpful, and easy to manage, but as I’ve become more settled with being unsettled, I’ve found my writing has tailed off. Which is a shame, because I know it is a really useful tool to help me process things.

At the end of this term, it will be 2 full years since I started teaching in a totally integrated style, and while it hasn’t always been easy, I’ve certainly never wanted to turn back. One of the things I love most about the way I do things is that it is constantly evolving in response to the needs of my students (this is the 3rd class I’ve worked with in this way).

This year I have 29  year 7 and 8 learners. As with most classes I have a real mix of students. They are a very lively and outgoing bunch (for the most part) and have such a huge amount of energy. They love sport (first time I’ve every had a class that loved sport so much), enjoy art and LOVE singing. Most of them will give anything a go at least once and as they will tell you – they are highly motivated by food. Seriously, we even had to include it as part of our class values at the beginning of the year – we value food. They crack me up regularly and they are COMPLETElY different to the class I had last year.

As with the previous two classes I’ve had, we base our integrated learning around two modules. These modules are a combination of two main subject areas (others might be involved but are not the primary learning focus) based around a context. One is also maths and something else based, and one is always English and something else based. Most of our learning is worked into these modules. Extra things such as languages, te Reo and various other projects that are happening around the school i.e. this term wearable art and science curiosity clubs, syndicate arts opt-ins make up the rest of our timetable. The modules are inspired by the way they do things at Hobsonville Point Secondary School, but I’ve adapted it for my context. You can read more about how I started this here. And how it develop here.

Usually I give modules equal weighting – i.e. a 50/50 split. Once, last year, I disastrously tried to fit in 3. Turns out two is plenty for a term. I generally work on a term by term time frame, mixing it up each term to keep my interest and my students’. This term I’ve mixed things up a bit, trying a 30/70ish split for our two modules. Instead of a module A and a module B we have a big module and a small module. The reason for this is primarily because one of the projects we are working will start to cross over into English as well as maths and science when the students get into some information report writing. So I thought rather than limit the scope of the module, I’d extend it slightly. Like I said, always adapting…

So anyway two modules this term – Small Module: Stars and Seasons: Exploring poetry and the night sky. This module focuses on English and Science (you’ll see there is quite a strong science focus this term – quite deliberately). We are looking at what happens in the changing seasons, and how this affected by the movement of the planet. Students are exploring poetic language and metaphorical devices to express their understanding of each season. We are also including some work around Matariki as part of this. As with all good intentions, this hasn’t quite gone according to plan. With so many disruptions in the first half of term due to Stage Challenge and all manner of other cool stuff we haven’t managed to complete this as early as I wanted to, but it’s wrapping up and will hopefully be finished by the end of next week. I’ve also found it challenging to balance the amount of writing the students need with the science concepts I wanted to look at. Probably a lesson for me in not over planning.

Our Big Module has got the students super excited at the moment – Playing Houses: Design an Eco-House. This module focuses on English and Science/Technology. Students are designing their own eco-house following the design process, and researching and inventing their own technologies and scientific principles to include. The maths focus is geometry and measurement with a particular emphasis on shape, scale, perspective, area and volume. The science/technology focus is on researching and developing understanding of ideas in science with a focus on sustainable building practices. It’s hard to believe just how highly engaging this is for my learners. The last week has seen them drawing their houses in 3 dimensions from an isometric perspective (a particularly challenging feat when your house is not a simple cube – and most aren’t!) and then begin looking at floor plans. This week we have been looking at the different shapes used within our houses and the advantages and disadvantages of such shapes in building. The depth of thinking has blown me away. Students were identifying things about their design (and mine) that I hadn’t even thought of, such as the way a curved roof would minimise exposure to the wind and allow better dispersion of water across a green living roof. Our next step with this is to look in more depth at placement of houses, positioning and the best angles for getting maximum sun for passive solar heating, and then move on to planning and researching and then writing about a specific technology that the house uses and the creating gardens.

As you can probably guess from my enthusiastic descriptions – I am particularly enjoying and excited about the big module, though I’m also really looking forward to seeing the rest of the poems come together too. I’ve set myself a goal to blog more – so expect to hear (read?) more about how these modules are progressing soon.


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.

Building Learning Power

At my school we practice building learning power, Guy Claxton’s innovative approach to learning to learn. Personally I think it’s brilliant. It builds students’ dispositional thinking to enable them to experience success in their learning. It gives them strategies that they can use to negotiate difficult situations in their learning and elsewhere in life too. It builds on the key competencies, adding a richness and depth that I find really engaging. Plus it has given our school a common language to work with as we learn, grow and explore.
I’ve been practising building learning power for the last 3+ years now, and I can really see the positive benefits it has had with my students. However I wonder whether I have taken it deep enough. Yes, I use the language, but have I really allowed it to change my teaching practice, to filter down into ALL of my conversations in ALL learning areas ALL of the time? Probably not. That’s a big ask. But I can look at my progress, and I can hold this as an ideal to work towards. (Yes, that’s me, forever the optimist!). I love the phrase that teachers at HPSS use – ‘warm and demanding’, by which they mean being kind, compassionate and approachable, but also having high expectations of students, staff and selves, and finding ways to raise them up so that everyone achieves their potential.
So how am I being warm yet demanding?
Firstly by not shying away from tough questions. My students this year, seem to be taking a bit to wrap their heads around the type of questions I’m asking – not so much of the what, where, who or when, but rather why and how might we? I also believe in reciprocity – if I’m going to ask my students tough questions that challenge them to actually think about their ideas, rather than just remember information, then I need to take their questions seriously too.
I need to have high expectations of my students and myself. I need to communicate these clearly but gently, and make every effort to help my students reach these expectations. My expectations need to be a realistic stretch for my students and they need to be differentiated so that they can all experience success.
I need to be kind, compassionate and considerate and gentle with my students, other teachers and myself. I need to place value, and spend time helping my students to tend to their Hauora, their wellbeing, and of course I need to be approachable. I need to ensure that my busy-ness doesn’t get in the way of spending time getting to know my students, particularly in the mornings, which is so easy to do!
I need to ensure I create rich programmes that are engaging, require critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, innovation, while giving students scope for some self direction. And this brings me full circle back to Building Learning Power. By moving beyond a traditional knowledge dissemination model of education, we allow students more freedom to develop their dispositional thinking, to learn how to be learners, what works for them and what doesn’t. To fail and grow from it. To wonder. To question. To try. To succeed.

In Class: Introducing Grit and Growth Mindsets

Last week, I introduced my students to the idea of a ‘growth mindset’ and ‘grit’ today. It was interesting.
I began by writing the two words on the board and asking the students to think, pair, share about what those phrases could possibly mean. It took a bit of unpacking, and quite a lot of persuading to get some discussion out of them (they are a VERY quiet class). I can see that’s something we’ll need to work on this year. But we started to unpack what the terms actually meant. The students seemed to get growth mindset a bit more readily at first, but grit quickly caught up.

The initial brainstorm

We talked together about how it can be hard to have ‘grit’ or a ‘growth mindset’ all of the time, and how we often find this easiest when we a re pursuing our passions. On big sheets of paper I had written 3 questions:
What are you passionate about?
What ‘lights your fire’?
What do you care deeply about?
Students then had 5 minutes to answer each question by writing their answers around the question on each piece of paper. It was lovely to see the things that are important and get to know them a bit better. Of course there were lots of expected answers – sport, family, animals, food, but there were a few unexpected ones too – wifi being top among those! I shared my answers with the students, explaining that reciprocating is really important to me (education, design and the people in my life, respectively if you were wondering). I then talked about 6 things I had written on the board under two headings, 3 Things I believe and 3 Things I Know.
3 Things I Believe:
  • Failing is good. Failing forwards is even better.
  • Everyone can succeed.
  • Life is as good as you make it.
3 Things I Know:
  • You all have huge potential.
  • I will work my butt of this year to make learning work for you.
  • Fun is essential.
I’m not sure how much the students have taken it on board yet, I suspect they won’t really until they see it in action, but for now I’m just going to keep saying it and doing it until it does sink in.


We finished off by creating either a brainstorm, a collage, illustrations or a list showing what we understood by those two terms. The searching and finding of images and discussing with their friends really helped to solidify their growing understanding, and, given how reluctant they are to talk at the moment, was also a great way for me to check their understanding too.
Half a week later, it’s been interesting to see them start to take these concepts on board, while I haven’t heard the terms come up in class, I have definitely seen them in action. Can’t wait to get more in depth with these concepts over the coming weeks!

Something for the Week

Oops! It’s Tuesday night and I’m just publishing this now…. Nevertheless here are some interesting educational goodies from my meanderings around the internet over the last week.

Modern Learning Environments in NZ Schools – 3 excellent Case Studies

I’ve been hearing great things about this book – #EdJourney by Grant Lichtman

14 things that are obsolete in 21st century classrooms

Exploring ‘grit’ and growth mindsets with yr 7 and 8 – Kerri Thompson

I really want to read this book

Former colleague/tutor teacher, Jason Ataera talks about leading change within schools

Maths ARA Analysis 1

Lately there’s seems to have been a lot more discussion about the need for critical feedback and reflection as journey towards a learning renaissance. @geoumouldey and @mattynicoll in particular talk about this on Twitter. Personally I couldn’t agree more, but it was this week that everything seemed to click into place.

I was lucky enough to have my awesome syndicate leader Louise come and observe me teaching maths at the beginning of the week. One of the things I really like about having someone come in when you are teaching is that they notice all the things you don’t – all the awesomeness but also the things that could be improved, and I particularly value the detailed feedback Louise gives.

We use a framework called ARA – Aims, Reality, Actions to discuss and reflect on our practice, and target these around observations of teaching and learning so that we have a second person to discuss our ideas with.


In this lesson we were using lego to build Aztec pyramids and then recording the patterns we noticed as part of algebra.

Lesson Context

Students were using Aztec pyramids as a context for building understanding of number patterns and algebraic rules. We were practicing tabling the patterns we noticed in a square-based step pyramid using a 3D model built out of lego. We worked together as a group with a shared model and recorded the information together. Students were then given opportunity to create their own pyramid and identify the patterns they could see within these. Once they’d identified the pattern they had to figure out the rule. The follow up lesson the next day was then on how to encode the rule use algebraic norms.



All students are given support and opportunity to share, collaborate and engage with learning.

Students are given opportunity to make connections between practical and abstract ideas.

This will be evident when:

  • Students build, create and notice patterns
  • Students can explain changes to a pattern in mathematical language and record these ideas using algebraic concepts
  • Students interact with each other and work collaboratively to share ideas



Students were highly engaged by the maths warm up game and were all involved in discussion about it. Students made choices about they level they worked at and were able to self-evaluate as they worked to ensure it was a good challenge but not too hard. Student would have benefited from some more feedback time to discuss strategies beyond their own group. The main teaching was highly engaging, all students were actively involved in the task. Discussion and practical hands on materials that weren’t traditional ‘maths’ materials drew students into the problem. I used questioning to build the understanding slowly and to encourage students to notice and make connections to other areas of maths. We discussed misconceptions so that we were all on the same page. Students enjoyed a short burst of discussion followed by time to get ‘stuck in’ to the task.

The observed reality was verified by student feedback that Louise recorded and also her notes and feedback from the observations as well as my own reflection. I think the lesson was successful. Students were all engaged and very motivated (never underestimate the power of lego!). They were active in both discussion and practical tasks and were challenged to find the links themselves.



Although the lesson was successful, I can still see a number of next steps and ways to tweak it. Firstly I want to continue the hands on approach but try different materials – maybe toothpicks and plasticine. I think this really benefited the students as they could take an abstract idea and represent it visually. I want to continue to focus on this for a bit longer even though they got it once to make sure the conceptual understanding is really embedded and understood at a deeper level. I also want to continue get students to work together on their maths, as this seems to provide far deeper learning. I need to provide scope for challenge by extending the context (or having a extension of the context ready to go – perhaps a ‘how might…?’ question). And finally I want to end the lesson with more opportunity to reflect on what made learning successful and draw more explicit links to Building Learning Power – i.e. actually commenting on the skills as I see them being used.

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.

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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:
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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.