Building student learning focused relationships – critical friendships

Working in a learning hub is a great way to get to know students individually – to know their strengths, passions, aspirations, their learning, their whanau.

However, the challenge is how to get them to build learning focused relationships with each other. Teenagers tend to have some difficulty in providing peer feedback which is deep, honest and useful. In order to keep social relationships strong, they may not be truthful or as truthful as necessary when supporting each other in learning.

In Orakei hub, I tried (unsuccessfully) to set up the concept of tuakana-teina within my hub. Some struggled to articulate where they could support others; interestingly, they were all able to state where others in the hub could help them.

So back into a new term, I have a new plan. Rather than pushing some students towards a tuakana-teina model (this may be on the cards for the future), we are using a critical friendship model.

I introduced the concept on Monday and asked them to select (via google form) some students that they would like to work with and a justification why, as well as any student that they would prefer not to work with. Not surprisingly, many of the students picked their close friends. I looked at their selections and paired them up with their second or third choices.

Today we started off our extended hub class with:

  1. listing characteristics that they wanted to see in their (yet unnamed) critical friend
  2. listing characteristics that they individually would bring to the critical friendship – strengths. Then they followed up with areas where they felt that they may struggle being a critical friend
  3. Then they found out who their critical friends were
  4. Next step was to compare their lists to establish their agreed ‘rules of engagement’

    Students sharing their expectations of the critical friendship

    Students sharing their expectations of the critical friendship

  5. Then review their critical friend’s “learner story” and give feedback on the quality of their reflections (we had already co-constructed the success criteria for this).
Working with critical friends

Orakei hub students: Working with critical friends

Collaboration is important not just because it’s a better way to learn. The spirit of collaboration is penetrating every institution and all of our lives. So learning to collaborate is part of equipping yourself for effectiveness, problem solving, innovation and life-long learning in an ever-changing networked economy.” – Don Tapscott





Making the relevance clear

On Friday morning we (the HPSS assessment team) supported our staff to develop their curriculum rubrics. The idea here is that there is clarity from the learning goals of the module through to the individual aspects of our learning design model which formulate the learning objectives to be assessed.

We are using SOLO taxonomy as the qualifiers to unpack the curriculum levels. I am so very grateful to the wonderful Pam Hook for her support in developing this approach. Friday’s professional learning was really positive and most teachers were feeling empowered around making the learning clear for their students.

Clarity and relevance are essential components of effective pedagogy. If the students (or teachers) are not explicit in what the learning is or why it is relevant, there is the risk of engaging in busy work. Likewise even if the teachers are clear, students who do not understand would simply comply rather than engage in the learning actively.

Saturdays are my day off. I often work on Sundays – prep, blogging, marking, providing feedback for learners etc. – but Saturdays are for me. So when I was laxing on the sofa, watching rubbish TV on Sky’s Vibe channel – I stumbled across Mary Portas’ “Queen of the Charity Shops”. In this show, Mary is overhauling a charity shop (in a similar manner to other challenges she has tackled in the retail sector). I was hooked, partly because the volunteers were resistant and partly because Mary’s point about selling were so profound.


She talked about the two key things in retail – features and benefits. Features are what makes up an item – be it an exposed zip, 5 inch heels, pleather jacket – whereas benefits are why the shopper wants/needs said item. So as I was sitting there, on my day off, I realised that this could be a useful analogy which we could apply to learning. This is the hook for relevance.

So often, especially in secondary schools, students are often learning something for the sake of learning it. Or they don’t know why they are learning it. Or they can’t see the point of what they are learning.

What if we, as teachers, were to commit to “selling” the features and benefits of a concept, context or skill in our teaching practice. Heaven forbid anyone read this as “because it is on the test” but instead what if we were to make the relevance clear for our learners so they can make sense of what they are doing and why.

So what does that look like then? I’m teaching two distinct things tomorrow. In my learning hub we are focusing on “my learning” or understanding themselves as learners; tomorrow’s lesson is going to be around goal setting.

  • WALT: To set relevant, effective goals as learners
  • Features –  relevance, informed by evidence, timely, measurable, knowing how to measure them
  • Benefits – by setting your own goals, based on your needs, you put yourself in the drivers seat of your learning

Whereas in my Year 9 module (with a social science focus) which I teach with Tracey, we have a different learning objective altogether.

  • We are learning to “evaluate the impact of Irish migration on American society”.
  • Features of this will be the specific aspects of migration
  • benefits to consider negative and positive perspectives of migration, to challenge our own assumptions about migration

I’m keen to explore with the students the benefits that they see. We could co-construct these as a class or in smaller groups.

Both of these benefits will link to the wider educational impact of learning for the individual. It is not about the stuff we are learning; it is about why what is happening in the classroom is relevant for each individual.  Sometimes inspiration come from the strangest of places.


Autopsies versus check ups: views on assessment

An amazing colleague of mine (@MissDtheteacher) tweeted a great link written by Dr. Justin Tarte (@justintarte) a few weeks ago. As I often do on Twitter, I flagged it as one to skim and scan. Yet this post, 10 questions to ask yourself before giving an assessment, really struck a chord with me. I loved the medical analogy of autopsies (summative assessments) and check ups (formative assessments) – this really resonates with my thinking around assessment.

All three forms of assessment are valid – diagnostic, formative, and summative – and each serves a purpose. My concerns as a secondary school teacher, and a researcher, is that summative assessment is too prevalent and the dominance of summative assessment in schools creates a culture where attaining a grade is more important than learning. When  I was completing my masters research and writing up my dissertation, this was a conclusion that I reached and is supported by seminal and germane literature from around the world.

So the question has to be, why are we, as educators, still so keen to lay our students learning out and dissect it on a metaphorical autopsy table? Wouldn’t we be better to spend our time healing our students, through diagnostic and formative assessment, rather than carving them up to figure out what has happened?

It is widely accepted that an assessment for learning approach is empowering for students – it puts them in the driving seat of their learning and the teacher’s actions are focused on the learning needs of the individuals in their classes.

“Assessment for Learning is the process of seeking and interpreting evidence for use by learners and their teachers to decide where the learners are in their learning, where they need to go and how best to get there.”
Assessment Reform Group, Assessment for Learning: 10 Principles, 2002

This sounds like common sense and you would be hard pushed to find a secondary school teacher who does not agree with this ideal – yet why are secondary schools struggling to embed assessment for learning and rather use assessment of learning (summative) or assessment as learning (teaching to the test / performative measures being used to provide feedback)*.  A focus on grades, levels and sublevels, NCEA credits and University Entrance requirements are limitations for our students as they act as barriers for effective assessment – these act as the tools of the coroner as they conduct their autopsy.

So what would the alternative look like? I think that it could be a healthy blend of diagnostic, formative and summative assessment being integrated using the principles of AfL – giving the reins of learning over to the student. The principles of AfL are:

  1. Clear goals / learning objectives – clearly articulated to students
  2. Co-constructed success criteria
  3. Explicit teaching of what quality looks like – through exemplars
  4. Inducting students into the “guild” of the assessor (Sadler, 1989)
  5. Peer and self-assessment
  6. Powerful feedback about closing the gaps in learning as the learning is occurring

Sound easy, right? Sadly, the greatest barrier to effective AfL is the teacher. Teachers all mean well but a truly student-centred approach requires the teacher to let go of the locus of control, to step back and to allow the students time to learn, to make mistakes and to close the gaps in their learning – rather than the jumps the teacher has already planned for. There needs to be a shift in focus – from thinking that the teacher is the sole person who can help the student to acknowledging that the role of the teacher needs to be quite different. They need to making the learning visible, devise learning activities to allow students to work toward their learning goals, showcase different strategies that could be used to close gaps in learning, be one of the people that provides feedback about where the student is going, how they are going and where to next (Hattie & Timperley, 2007). If the teacher does this, they are more akin to the friendly GP giving a check up on learning, rather than the grim, clinical coroner wielding an autopsy saw.

Dr.Farouk - Stethoscope.-Source - Flickr

Dr.Farouk – Stethoscope.-Source – Flickr

* Lorna Earle uses the term ‘Assessment as learning’ in a different manner.


Assessment Online, TKI, Principles of assessment for learning (retrieved 6 Oct. 2014)

Assessment Reform Group, Assessment for Learning: 10 Principles, 2002 (retrieved 6 Oct. 2014)

Hattie, J. & Timperley, H., The Power of Feedback, REVIEW OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH 2007 77: 81

Sadler, R. D., (1989) ‘Formative assessment and the design of instructional systems’, Instructional Science, 18 (2) pp. 119-144

Lessons learnt

We’ve been really fortunate in setting up our new school to be able to visit so many amazing schools. I think for me, the biggest revelation educationally has been the visits to our contributing primary schools. Not only are we fortunate to be based in a primary school at the moment, but we are also connecting with students and teachers in the other primary schools which will feed into Hobsonville Point Secondary School.

I feel embarrassed to say that I continue to be blown away by primary schools.

The students are so engaged, the learning is visible and celebrated. I am more and more convinced that all secondary school teachers should connect with primary, and probably tertiary as well. The more we know about each stage of education in New Zealand, the more we can share pedagogy, innovation and best practice.

I have been known in the past to fall into the secondary school teacher mindset thinking that the ‘real’ learning happened at secondary school. My thinking was turned around when I embarked on my Masters in Education a few years ago where I was the only secondary teacher in one of my papers. The ease with which these amazing teachers were able to draw on a range of research and practitioner based evidence to support their ideas humbled and inspired me, I have never made so many notes of things to go and look up in any other academic setting.

I guess that this started me thinking about my own preparation for education in New Zealand. Like most New Zealand trained secondary teachers, I completed my Diploma in Education over a year, straight after finishing my degree. It was intense. I really enjoyed it and I can say I learnt a lot. However, a few terms into my first year I was convinced that I had learnt nothing, I was ill prepared and the job as a shoe salesperson was still an option.  Further into my teaching career, this abated but I still feel that I have only scratched the surface in terms of what I should know or could know.

Therefore, another lesson I have learned in the last few weeks at Hobsonville Point Secondary School is the importance of reading. This was not new to me; I came from a school where big decisions were always based on sound research and as a professional learning leader, HOD and recently completed Masters student, I did my fair share. I think for me the lesson is that all teachers need time to read. I have really enjoyed the academic and professional reading that we are currently doing. I like to approach things in a robust manner and make notes to collect my thoughts as I go. These are here in case anyone ever wants to look at them.

The biggest difference over the last few weeks has been time. I harp on about it all the time. Time is my nemesis. I like to be busy and have occasionally struggled with the lack of frenzy (which is a usual lament of teachers in term 3).  The time to read, to think, to ponder, to plot and to plan has been invaluable and for me, has made this the most enjoyable term three of my teaching career. The difference is that what I am reading is so relevant to the here and now, it has immediate practical ramifications and sings to my soul in terms of the vision of the school. However, the luxury is that there is no need to processed and pondered by a set deadline. We have the must-do readings, the should dos and the could dos. If something sparks an interest, that is where you should mosey academically.

If I have learned anything in the last few weeks, it is this:

1. all teachers should have the option to do what we are doing. A sabbatical term to reinvigorate your practice would have so many potential spin-offs for students in New Zealand. I know that these are options for long-serving teachers but a school based sabbatical could be the way to go.

2. Secondary teachers should engage with their primary counterparts. Be humble. Observe and listen – there is a lot of learning to do here.

3. Read. Read widely and often. Read a variety of texts, from very academic tomes to Ministry of Education publications (these are actually really good)

4. Use teacher PD time effectively – talk about education, link to research where possible, talk and talk some more. When you’re sick of talking, listen.

Dali’s Persistence of Memory