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Aurora Institute

Snaps from Aotearoa New Zealand

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Learn Lessons from the Field

This is the first article in the series Baskets of Knowledge from Aotearoa New Zealand, which highlights insights from a totally different education system about what is possible in transforming our education system. Aotearoa is the Māori word for New Zealand meaning ‘long white cloud,’ indicating one of the ways the ancestors traveling from the Pacific islands could identify land. New Zealand is on a powerful trajectory toward biculturalism. Thus, when possible, I will be including Māori concepts along the way to honor their efforts and do my little bit to return indigenous language and culture to its rightful place.

I’m just back from three weeks of school visits in Aotearoa New Zealand and trying to process all that I learned as quickly as possible. Like the Māori god Tāne who brought three baskets of knowledge to humanity, I have returned from New Zealand with three baskets of knowledge. The first is an understanding of the New Zealand education system. The second is about New Zealand’s journey of reconciliation of past injustice toward biculturalism, returning Māori culture and language to its rightful place. The third basket is full of ideas of how the first two can inform, inspire, and guide educators and policymakers in shifting toward personalized, competency-based education.

Before I begin I want to start by thanking Derek Wenmoth, Nick Billowes, Mary Anne Mills, Rose Hipkins, and Carolyn English for their generosity of knowledge and networks. They spent hours with me to make sure I understood the basics of the policy and organizational structures; answered my clarifying questions; and dived into rich conversations about many challenges that are shared by both countries. I am truly indebted!

Below are a few “snaps” of my learning (as in snapshots – New Zealanders, like their antipodean cousins the Australians, have an affinity for breaking words down into the shortest version possible). New Zealand is the size, both geographically and in population, to Colorado. Thus, I think the insights are best translated to states rather than trying to make the leap to implications for federal policy, especially given that states have a more meaningful authority over education.

Expertise Blooms When Grounded in Autonomy: Every school in New Zealand is autonomous. It’s hard for the American imagination to believe, but it is true. Thirty years ago, in a policy called Tomorrow’s Schools (now under review to see how to improve it), all schools became autonomous, governed by a board of trustees composed primarily of parents and community members. It’s a policy that requires trust – trust that parents, community members, principals, and educators can learn to do what is necessary and will act with the best interests of their children in mind.

With 2,500 autonomous schools funded by the Ministry of Education, guided by high-level national curriculum framework, and subject to quality reviews by the Education Review Office, it’s difficult to identify standard practice. Some schools tend to be more traditional, while others pursue “modern” or “future-focused” pedagogy similar to our personalized learning. Principals, their leadership teams, and teachers (who are unionized) have had to learn how to run high quality schools that respond to the communities they serve. It didn’t happen overnight. Step by step, they have developed the capacity to manage facilities, strategically develop budgets, and design schools and learning experiences around pedagogical philosophies.

There have been bumps along the way – each one an opportunity for learning rather than a reason to terminate the policy. There are weaknesses in the policy; similar to the United States, it’s hard to intervene in schools that have lost their way and are not functioning or performing well. However, it appears that overall the policy is working well. I found myself envying the degree of flexibility the schools have to design in response to the interests of their students and communities. Compliance orientation is limited, with almost everyone I spoke with having a “can-do” attitude. In fact, this attitude is understood as a national trait referred to as the “number 8 wire” mentality – one that can take whatever is at hand, even if it requires one to think laterally, to find a solution to a problem.

What would it mean if a state could provide autonomy for its schools within a zone of safety so that every bump didn’t immediately result in backlash? Rather than change one policy at a time or establish innovation zones that allow for waivers, what might a state be able to do to clear the slate completely to create more autonomy for its schools? What else might need to be in place? Or has the compliance orientation shaped our thinking in the field of education so deeply that our vision has become clouded?

Common Languages of Learning: One of the biggest differences I found in my discussions with policymakers and educators is the clarity about pedagogical philosophies (although I cannot confirm that this is as true for more traditional schools, as my visits were aimed primarily at those schools pursuing “modern pedagogy”). The national curriculum framework provides direction such as vision, values, key competencies, high level principles, and the achievement objectives in eight areas of learning (remember to think of this within the context of our state policy, not our federal policy). It also provides guidance that includes effective pedagogy and assessment.

Thus, the New Zealand Curriculum Framework provides a strong starting point for a common language of learning without being prescriptive. Almost every school I visited started with the Curriculum Framework to develop a vision for teaching and learning that created a common language of learning. For students, it gave them language to talk about their own process of learning as well as to understand how the teacher was organizing activities. For teachers, there is a common set of language that supports them in their collaboration and to guide the development of learning experiences.

Many of the schools were using Māori concepts in describing their values, school design, and learning experiences. This not only demonstrated respect for Māori culture, but also embedded aspects of the culture into the core of the school.

I wondered as I considered the different ways that New Zealand schools were defining their approach to learning if it might help us in our work for each school pursuing personalized, competency-based education, if they haven’t yet, to create a common language of learning for their school. By making it explicit, it can also become something that we can share, reflect upon, and improve.

Challenging Conventions: Several educators mentioned that they seek to “challenge convention.” It wasn’t meant that they challenge all convention all the time. It is an orientation to make sure that practices, even the most mundane and discrete, serve a meaningful purpose – and if not, to challenge it and replace it with something better “fit for purpose” (another concept used frequently). The government challenged convention when they shifted from a policy of school certificates based on external examinations designed so that only 50 percent would receive the certificate (similar but not the same as a diploma) and replaced it with National Certificate of Educational Achievement in which students earn standards-based credits in pursuit of three levels of academic achievement. Schools challenge many, but not all aspects of convention (there is national yearly schedule for when students are in school). Bells may be replaced with music or not be used at all. Standards-based credits may be organized into high interest courses co-created with students rather than academic domains. Māori immersion schools challenge the idea that learning needs to take place using the English language.

Do we have a deep understanding about the conventions shaping our schools? Their purpose? The implications for learning? There has been a lot of attention to grading, but what about other conventions? Why do we organize academics in the domains we currently use? Is there another more meaningful way to do so? What if students earned credits for achieving sets of academic skills and knowledge, rather than organizing everything by courses and semesters?

Lifting My Expectations: Aotearoa New Zealand’s efforts to create a bicultural nation lifted my vision for what is possible. New Zealand is taking the Treaty of Waitangi, signed by the British and many of the Māori chiefs, seriously. (The video at the bottom of this website will tell you the story of the Treaty.) The English and Māori versions of the Treaty used different concepts that have had to be reconciled, with the result that New Zealand is on a pathway toward biculturalism. (There are also people from the Pacific Islands as well as immigrants from all over the world in New Zealand, but there is general agreement that biculturalism is the first step toward multiculturalism.)

It isn’t as if biculturalism has been introduced overnight. It’s an ongoing process and many described it as in its infancy. Conversations with Māori people I met along the way made it clear that they feel there is much more to be done. However, some land as been returned to iwi (we might think of them as a tribal government), and schools must honor the Waitangi Treaty, including honoring the te reo Māori (the Māori language). Many Māori concepts and values are used to shape school cultures, and I couldn’t help but wonder about the ways that these values might shape schools and the children in them.

If New Zealand can heal from its colonial past, why can’t we do it in the United States? What is preventing our American states to begin a process of reconciliation and fully embrace the language and culture of the Native Americans and Native Alaskans, the original caretakers of our lands? We don’t have to wait for a federal consensus. Hawaii is taking steps in this direction. So too can other states. In this way we begin to build a stronger culture of inclusivity and belonging.

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These are just a few of my take-aways. In the next few articles, I will outline the New Zealand education system and hopefully it will spark our imagination for what is possible.

Read the Entire Series: