Let’s Talk About… Our Journey With Student Led Conferences – July 2016

The desired outcome of making learning visible is having students who can talk about their learning as clearly as their teacher. How well students do this, is proof of our success in this mission.

One of the criteria within the visible learning framework is that teachers are inspired and passionate. A by-product of this is students who are able to speak with passion and power about their deep learning; what they know and how they learned it, what was tricky and how they overcame difficulties. They exhibit the dispositions of good learners and rise to the challenge of confidently delivering an informed message to their audience. At Opaheke School we are on a journey to have learners who are self-regulating, set goals, monitor their own progress, and reflect on their strengths and areas for improvement. These skills are important to us because these are the skills that will help our students to be life-long learners.

Starting the Journey

We’d been carrying out student led conferences (SLCs) for a few years in the senior school with varying degrees of student involvement.  Last year, for instance, some of the conferences were more three-way than student led, and the junior conferences were more the traditional parent – teacher meetings.  This year we modified it in a bid to bring greater consistency, success and ownership. Change, we know, can be daunting and become stressful so the journey has been one of scaffolded baby-steps.  To be successful we would need our students, teachers and families willing to try something different.  This change from the traditional parent-teacher interviews in the juniors to three-way conferences, and the shift to a more consistent student led conference in the seniors, has meant there is a structure in place to help students develop their thinking and  share their deep learning in a way that is accessible to their families.

I wish I could say that on the journey I had absolutely no doubts about what we were doing, but the truth is I did have minor panics and sleepless times. I had no doubt that running multiple student led conferences in a room is a successful model. My doubt was around my ability to ensure buy-in from staff and families; that part was my role!  If we got that part wrong we’d be sunk, so yes the transition to multiple SLCs was daunting; we needed to build a shared picture of what it would look like and map out a plan to move forward.

We began by establishing a shared understanding with our students, staff, and community last year. We visited schools, where students talked about their learning articulately and confidently. If they could do it then so could our students. Eager and motivated by what we had heard we looked at video clips of how students talked about their learning, what they did when they got stuck, and how they talked about their thinking. We shared these with students in the senior school.  We planted a seed.

At the start of this year we shared our vision about multiple SLCs with Year 4-8 teachers and asked them to identify what support they would need to get this off the ground. This included digital learning journals, modelled conversations and a video of multiple conferences in action. We defined the purpose, described the role of teachers, parents and students and created a list of helpful questions. We share this information on our school website and informed parents through newsletters. Teachers worked collaboratively to identify what would be included in the SLC, creating exemplars for staff to use with their students.  We worked with a small group of students and parents to create a video of what the multiple conferences would look like. Teachers modelled SLCs with students multiple times, and then students practised with one another, taking turns being the parent. A role many students enjoyed!

Students who needed a scaffold to begin with were able to use exemplars or scripts to help the flow of their learning conversations. These then evolved into student and parent prompts (open-ended questions) to help keep SLC conversations moving smoothly.

Developing the technology

It was about now we needed technology to support our pedagogy, to find ways to make sharing our reflections easier and more convenient. A tool that the students could use easily to gather their thoughts, assessment information and evidence of learning.

With a little bit of SharePoint magic and the help of a team we set up student learning journal blogs. The blog template in SharePoint allowed us to do everything we needed in a simple and intuitive way. Categories helped us tag and sort entries, include images, embed video and presentations.

As this was new for many staff we provided some specific professional learning around the implementation of blogs into classrooms.  Using MS forms we sent out a short survey asking about current skill levels and the types of support required, to enable the use digital technology to be successful.  Once the survey was complete we allocated weeks to deliver support.

Some teachers opted for all of this PD and some attended just the aspects they specifically needed. Rather than keep pouring PD we wanted teachers to share in the control of the PD so that it was useful to them.

Listening to our staff and families

Key to making this successful was listening to the concerns raised by some staff and some parents and then gathering feedback once the event was over. The number one shared concern was that parents and teachers would not get time to talk to each other.

There was also a concern that the younger students particularly wouldn’t be able to share their learning process and give a true or clear picture of where they are in their learning, but because we expect our students to reflect and self-evaluate so often, we are helping them develop these conversations. Sure they may require more support to begin with, but that’s just a natural step in the learning journey.

Some teachers were afraid the technology would get in the way, or there wouldn’t be enough devices for students to access if there were other families in the room, and some thought that the learning blogs would be the only or main focus to the detriment of other aspects.

In designing our SLCs we made sure to address these concerns. We scheduled them conveniently, made them accessible (afternoon and evening sessions to accommodate working parents, welcoming younger siblings), and made them purposeful for parents and students alike. Allowing time slots of 45 minutes meant that although there were up to four families in the room at a time, there was still a ten-minute timeframe in which parents and teachers could speak. We encouraged these to be about the learning rather than focusing on other aspects.

Student-led conferences are not the only time our students are invited to talk about their learning. Through everyday lesson teachers provided opportunities for students to articulate their learning process, strategies, strengths, challenges, and how they work to meet learning targets. Our students are becoming increasingly used to sharing the story of their learning journey with visitors that come into school as part of our Microsoft Showcase School status. Empowering our students to do this leads to deeper learning.

Co-authored with Nikkie Laing.


Saving My Sunday (SMS): Onenote.

As a busy mum, teacher and DP I’m constantly looking for the most time efficient ways to do all the things I have to do.  Choosing the best tools is essential if I want to be effective so I was surprised when I recently read an article outlining ‘50 Education Technology Tools Every Teacher Should Know About’ because it didn’t include Onenote.  Why surprised? Put simply Onenote ‘Saves My Sundays’. Due to the flexibility of the tool and the opportunities for collaboration, I no longer sit at home each Sunday planning for the groups I teach.


One of the major aspects of teaching is planning. Making the learning as engaging and personalised for the students as possible, allowing them to demonstrate progress towards the intended outcomes is more effective if the students can be involved in the process.  I need a tool that will allow me to gather student voice, record plans, and have flexibility to be modified in the moment of teaching.  As an advocate of formative assessment and visible learning I also need the students to be able to evaluate the plans and give feedback so that the subsequent plan really hits the mark for them. The added bonus is that if the students are recording this information, I don’t have to; I don’t have to assume what worked well, or what they are struggling with. They tell me what they learned, what evidence they have to demonstrate their learning, what went well for them and what needs to be done again, or done differently, and what the next steps are. I no longer need to rely on a feel for the group progress but have explicit individual feedback.  By involving the students in the planning, as well as the delivery, students are taking ownership of their learning. This can only have a positive impact on motivation!

onenote evaluations

In life before Onenote, I endeavored to share plans with students, and encouraged them to write on them during the sessions. This works well in theory but the reality was I’d spend valuable time hunting for missing pages from the plan as helpful students would tidy up, or file them in the wrong group box.  Onenote eliminates lost planning papers, and saves me from hunting through screeds of other papers dumped unceremoniously on the desk.

Because of the ubiquitous nature of onenote students can go back and check what the intended learning was, and where it fits in with the bigger picture. They can add resources that they think are worthy of sharing to aid the learning of others in the group. Suddenly it’s not me spending Sunday evening searching for tedtalks or youtube clips. Accessing the resources in the plan occurs at the click of a button (literally). Gone are the days where I have to rewrite URLs on the board, only to be typed in incorrectly by students, causing a tuneless chorus of “it’s not working.”One note Plan.PNG

The students I teach are from different classes and different year levels. Onenote allows me to share the planning with each teacher connected to the student, and I can also give editing permissions so teachers can contribute any information they have to support the students’ learning. Keeping them in the loop has never been easier.

I’m sure there are more reasons I could share as to why I love the onenote tool for planning, but the most effective way to find out about its potential is to try it for yourself.

Let’s talk about… reflecting on Manaakitanga

Photo courtesy of Raynah Thomas
Photo courtesy of Raynah Thomas


Manaakitanga: A deepening understanding

A reflection as part of the EDBOOKNZ collaboration project

Defining Manaakitanga
Manaakitanga is the concept of respect. This involves having care for others and their wellbeing, generosity of spirit, hospitality, kindness and support. It revolves around the notion of developing and maintaining respectful relationships so that all can thrive in an environment conducive to growth.
Manaakitanga allows people to connect with others in the group and, like Whānaungatanga, serves to strengthen each member of the group.
Tataiako explains Manaakitanga as showing integrity, sincerity and respect towards Māori beliefs, language and culture.
Graduating Teacher Standards associated with Manaakitanga:
There are three Graduating Teacher Standards associated with Manaakitanga. GTS 3, GTS 4 and GTS 6.
GTS 3: Graduating Teachers understand how contextual factors influence teaching and learning.
Key Indicators:
a. have an understanding of the complex influences that personal, social, and cultural factors may have on teachers and learners.
b. have knowledge of tikanga and te reo Māori to work effectively within the bicultural contexts of Aotearoa New Zealand.
c. have an understanding of education within the bicultural, multicultural, social, political, economic and historical contexts of Aotearoa New Zealand.
GTS 4: Graduating Teachers use professional knowledge to plan for a safe, high quality teaching and learning environment.
Key Indicators:
a. draw upon content knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge when planning, teaching and evaluating.
b. use and sequence a range of learning experiences to influence and promote learner achievement.
c. demonstrate high expectations of all learners, focus on learning and recognise and value diversity.
d. demonstrate proficiency in oral and written l anguage (Māori and/or English), in numeracy and in ICT relevant to their professional role.
e. use te reo Māori me ngā tikanga-ā-iwi appropriately in their practice.
f. demonstrate commitment to and strategies for promoting and nurturing the physical and emotional safety of learners.
GTS 6:Graduating Teachers develop positive relationships with learners and the members of learning communities.
Key Indicators:
a. recognise how differing values and beliefs may impact on learners and their learning.
b. have the knowledge and dispositions to work effectively with colleagues, parents/caregivers, families/whānau and communities.
c. build effective relationships with their learners.
d. promote a learning culture which engages diverse learners effectively.
e. demonstrate respect for te reo Māori me ngā tikangā-iwi in their practice.

Photo courtesy of Raynah Thomas
Photo courtesy of Raynah Thomas

The PTC associated with Manaakitanga:
There are two Practising Teacher Criteria associated with Manaakitanga. PTC 2 and PTC7. Fully certificated teachers engage in appropriate professional relationships and demonstrate commitment to professional values. Fully certificated teachers make use of their professional knowledge and understanding to build a stimulating, challenging and supportive learning environment that promotes learning and success for all ākonga.
PTC 2 is about commitment to promoting the wellbeing of all akonga.
Key Indicators:

a. Take all reasonable steps to provide and maintain a teaching and learning environment that is physically, socially, culturally, and emotionally safe.
b. Acknowledge and respect the languages, heritages, and cultures of. all ākonga/learners
c. Comply with relevant regulatory and statutory requirements.

PTC 7 is about a collaborative, inclusive and supportive learning environment.
Key Indicators:
a. Demonstrate effective management of the learning setting which incorporates successful strategies to engage and motivate ākonga/learners.
b. Foster trust, respect, and cooperation with and among ākonga/learners.

How could we tell someone about Manaakitanga?
Manaakitanga is about respecting people and their culture. We can tell people about Manaakitanga by showing it in everyday life. It is about treating colleagues, students and their families fairly and with respect, for example pronouncing Māori (and non-Maori) names well, if not perfectly, knowing about the local tikanga and understanding the values, traditions, and sense of humour of the community, using te reo Māori in class and encouraging students to speak Māori or home languages if the students so desire.
We can tell people about Manaakitanga in the way we show respect for and embrace Māori language and culture. Including whanau and the Māori community in school decisions and school policies through a process of regular consultation shows Māori contributions are valued by the school. It tells the community their perspectives and values are respected. Teachers, leaders, staff show they care about students and their families by talking positively about them. It leaves no place for deficit thinking or deficit talk.
What is an alternative explanation of Manaakitanga?
There is power in diversity. Our similarities help us to connect with one another initially but it our differences that allow us to learn from one another.
• Take time to know each other
• Make connections
• Acknowledge similarities
• Celebrate differences
• Respect for all
• Listen to one another
• Learn from each other
• Love one another
• Live together in understanding

What impact might Manaakitanga have on our practice?
Building and nurturing respectful relationships with students, whanau/ families, colleagues and peers. Knowing how all the students in our classes learn, what helps them to learn better and what hinders their learning. Having a holistic understanding of our learners so that we can make connections.
Acknowledging everyone, regardless of who they are, or where they come from, has the right to be respected, to learn safely, and in a way that is meaningful to them. It is not the students’ role to learn the way we teach, but for us to teach the way our students learn. Opportunities for collaboration, co-operation

What are the positives of Manaakitanga?
There has to be many, probably far too many to mention here. Every school should have Manaakitanga at its heart, weaving through every brick, wrapping itself round every member of the school. Schools should, in my opinion, emanate the principles/ values that are Manaakitanga because this is how we connect to each other. This is how we feel safe, physically, emotionally, mentally, psychologically. This is how we are enabled to step up and step out of our comfort zones and take risks in our learning which ultimately lead us to being the better us. This is how we learn with and alongside others, for the benefit of ourselves, our peers, our whanau and our communities.
Manaakitanga allows us to value others and in turn to feel valued. It is about acknowledging the needs of others as well as ourselves so that we are adding to, as well as taking from, the kete.
Manaakitanga allows us to be our true selves- a right we all should be given.
What are the challenges of Manaakitanga?
Building trust between students and between students and teacher is essential to empowering all students to reach their potential. Taking the time to build relational trust is essential yet easily overlooked in the busyness of the school day and full curriculum. If we value this then we must make time for it.
A teacher’s life is a hectic one- there are never enough hours in the day to do all the things we want to do but just as we must make time to build a culture of trust within classrooms so to we must do this in the staffroom with our colleagues. We need to support each other and be generous in our praise of the work that our teachers do. At the same time we need to respect one another enough to have those challenging conversations and hold ourselves and each other accountable.
For me a sign of the depth (if that is the correct term) of Manaakitanga is when students and teachers have built a learning focused relationship whereby each gives and receives feedback and holds each other accountable. For some altering the dynamics in the student- teacher relationship so that there is a shared locus of control is challenging.

What are we still wondering about Manaakitanga?
We wonder
• How well Manaakitanga is understood in our schools
• How well Manaakitanga is happening in our schools.
• How we can gather evidence about Manaakitanga.
• How, in an ever increasing multicultural society, we ensure that all of our students’ backgrounds and cultures are valued and represented.
• How much time we spend explicitly teaching the values encompassed in the concept of Manaakitanga
• We wonder if we provide enough opportunities to really get to know our learners holistically.

Whose voice is not being heard?

As a class teacher I would regularly write a class list from memory. The missing name on the list, or if my memory had served me well, the last couple of names on the list were my ‘invisible children’. They were the students who were not renting space in my head for one reason or another. This quick activity allowed me to refocus my attention towards them. If they are the invisible students they are quite possibly the voiceless ones too.

Photo courtesy of Raynah Thomas
Photo courtesy of Raynah Thomas

I wonder how good we are at hearing the voice of our wider community. We consult families but do we need to cast the net wider? Many of our five year olds have been to pre-school and I wonder how good we are at engaging with them to gather information about our new students so that we can better know our learners.



Graduating Teacher Standards

Practising Teacher Criteria

Let’s talk about… VisiblE-Learning

When you combine the philosophy of visible learning and the philosophy that sits around e-learning you end up with a model that will increase student outcomes. How so? By combining the two and creating a seamless entity you end up with increased student engagement and increased motivation. You end up with motivated teachers. You end up with increased student learning. A win-win –win situation all round.

At Opaheke School we are making a difference but we want to make more of a difference. We are always constantly trying to improve, and our professional inquiries this year have focussed on looking for ways to improve student progress by introducing ‘Mymobile Learning’ and ‘Visible Learning’.

During two recent staff meetings I listened to teachers describing and explaining how they are incorporating a range of digital technologies and explicitly taught strategies to make the learning visible and clear to students. Our teachers are trying new things, such as flipped learning, digital modelling books, and variations on powerpoint such as sway and they shared this in the staff meetings.

The idea of flipped learning fascinates me. In a study, National Faculty Perspectives on Flipped Classrooms, 81% of those surveyed reported improved mastery of information and improvement in communication, collaboration and problem-solving skills. Now it seems to me that if we want 21st century learning, and 21st century skills, flipped learning has real potential. I love the fact that the learner can revisit as many times as they want or need and then pull out what they are finding tricky so that we can get straight to the nitty gritty without the merry dance we normally participate in trying to get to the nitty gritty.

flipped learning1
A poetry unit studied by year 7/8

At my previous school, my class had a web page where I uploaded videos related to literacy. Students would use this often, to learn new information, revisit and clarify their prior understanding and to help explain their thinking to others. The videos provided explanations, step by step exemplars and models. It wasn’t until the classroom computers were all out of action that I realised the students were asking me much more meaningful questions because their surface questions were answered as they watched the videos. We were getting to the deeper learning much more quickly because the students could access information as they needed it time and again. Just as importantly I no longer felt like a broken record. I felt re-energized in my teaching. Let’s face it, there are only so many times you can explain what a verb is before losing the will to dig deep and find inspiration. Discussions went from “What’s a powerful verb?” to “I’d like to look at the use of anaphora in speeches. Can I look at some examples from history?”flipped learning 2

It wouldn’t be right to talk about ‘visiblE-learning’ and not mention the impact of OneNote. Using this tool I have been able to share the planning for the lesson with the students in the collaboration site. (I’ve always shared my planning with my students but doing it digitally is so much more convenient and efficient.) We’ve co-constructed the success criteria and students have evaluated their learning against the intended outcome using the success criteria. They knew the ideal, the reality and the next steps to reach the ideal. And it meant I had a really clear picture of who needed what in the next lesson. The sense of agency increased through the use of the tool and for me that is one of the most important aspects in improving student outcomes.

collaboartive evaluations
Early stages of students evaluating the work.

The ability to record the feedback through audio or video option is something I want to explore further after seeing this in action at the recent information session with Travis Smith, but even without this facility OneNote has allowed for the students to give each other feedback about their work. It’s allowed for collaboration and publishing. OneNote gives you the freedom that traditional modelling books don’t. If I see things that I think will be good models as I’m trawling the internet I can just link it to my modelling book. Anytime, anyplace, anywhere. There’s even a tool that will let me create a quiz and collect data about who is accessing, how long they are spending on the questions, which areas will need further work and what doesn’t need a revisit. I’m looking forward to using this particular tool with maths enrichment next year.

Digital chatBoth concepts of flipped learning and digital modelling books (OneNote I this case) allow teachers to make content more engaging and interactive for the learner. With quality teachers driving this we can’t help but raise student achievement, right? Signs are that we are on the right track. We’re starting to build momentum and a name for ourselves.Opaheke Rocks

It would be very tempting to see e-learning and technology as the panacea to all that ails in the classroom without giving it much thought, but to improve student achievement the use of digital technology and e-learning has to be carefully thought about, quality opportunities constructed and expertly woven into the plan.  Just check out the recent OECD report which was pretty damning of the impact technology has on learning. The problem is not with the technology but in how it is being used. This brings me back to making the learning visible, being clear about the tools we are using and selecting the right tool for the job, whilst ensuring that we are developing and constantly improving the dispositions of successful learners- collaboration, innovation, self-regulation, challenge-taking and (critical, creative, caring) thinking. Hopefully, the examples given above, show a cohesiveness between visible and e-learning.

Let’s talk about… Striving for Excellence

One of our school values is ‘striving  for excellence’. As I was thinking about appraisal today, it occurred to me that appraisal should be all about striving for excellence, as should the practising teacher criteria.

I am privileged to be in a school that values and promotes the concept of agency and building learning partnerships. We have spent this year focusing on making the learning visible to our learners. It’s tempting to picture only students when we talk about learners, but the reality is everyone in the school is a learner. If making the learning visible by being transparent is good for student learners then it is also true for adult learners too. If we want our staff to continually improve then we have to work with them, alongside them, making professional development as transparent to them as their lessons are to the learners in their classes.

Our teachers are working hard to develop students’ ability to talk clearly and knowledgeably about their learning, but it is equally important that our teachers can articulate their own learning and goals, what they are doing in their classrooms, why they are doing it, and to be able to research and learn more about the impact of their practice on their students.  Our intention is that the appraisal system we have developed will enable this rich reflection and evaluation to take place. We haven’t got it right yet. It is still developing- very much an ongoing work in progress.

Being the new person in the school responsible for the overview and development of appraisal and appraisal systems is quite daunting. Add to that we were using technologies I not used before and then factor in that this year has seen changes to the appraisal  system across New Zealand  (and I’m not just talking about the change from registered teacher criteria to practising teacher criteria) and you’ll have an inkling as to why this journey has been both interesting and challenging.

It’s coming up to the end of this appraisal cycle and I’ve been reflecting on how far (or not!) I’ve come on my journey and what drives me to keep on wanting to improve appraisal. For me, appraisal is about improving and not just proving. No matter how good their practice every teacher has a responsibility to themselves and to their learners, to keep improving on their best.  Putting time into helping teachers improve practice and provide quality learning opportunities impacts on student outcomes.  Everything comes back to the students. They are the reason I do what I do, the reason I drive down the motorway five days a week.

I am disappointed not to have covered as much ground with the appraisal systems as I wanted. By the end of 2015 I wanted to have unpacked the practising teacher criteria with staff, and identified what good evidence looks like as well as what good practice looks like and how that may look different for different levels of experience. And once I stopped beating myself up over not having even started this aspect I could then start to think of the things I have achieved with it. As the new member of staff I’ve had to take time to build positive relationships with staff whose professional identities and roles are complex.  These relationships need to be nurtured and developed in order to build open and honest communication, mutual support and respect.  In addition to this I’m finally feeling confident using OneNote as the tool for recording and storing/ accessing and sharing our appraisal information. Yes, there were teething problems and my lack of knowledge about the digital side of things made messages less clear than they should have been.

Next year we’re going to unpack the criteria together and have the rich discussions about what they mean and what they look like; not because I think it’s important but because when we choose to be teachers we make a commitment to our students. They are the future. They are the ones who will go out into the world and make it a better place, or not, depending on the experiences we give them.  Every child deserves an excellent education and the highest possible quality of teaching and learning opportunities. It’s our job to give it to them. Until parents knock down the door demanding a satisfactory education over an excellent one, we will live our school value and ‘strive for excellence’.

Let’s talk about… Manaakitanga- Leading with moral purpose.

The Concept of Manaakitanga




Previously I looked at the concept of Manaakitanga through the eyes of a teacher. As a leader in the education system I also need to look at this important concept through the leadership lens. Manaakitanga through this lens is about leading with moral purpose.

Harris (2009) described leadership as being “primarily about influence and change, about providing “spaces” and ‘opportunities’ for creative, future leaders to develop.” In order to do this leaders need to develop professional relationships across a range of stakeholders, develop strong lines of open communication, learn alongside others in their setting and lead by example.  Gone are the days when effective leadership of school consisted of the headteacher or principal sitting in an office all day, seeing the occasional student for matters of discipline. Today the role is much more hands on, or as I like to call it, organic. Great leaders make a difference to outcomes by rolling up their sleeves and getting involved with the nitty gritty of education. Vivianne Robinson refers to this as a focus on ‘pedagogical leadership’, arguing that “the more leadership is focused on the core business of teaching and learning the greater the impact on student outcomes”.  Student outcomes is after all what it’s all about so it makes sense that there should be a focus on this from the leaders. Not rocket science, right?

Robinson goes on to identify five dimensions of leadership and the effect size they have on student outcomes:

  • establishing and communicating learning goals and expectations (0.35)
  • strategic resourcing allocated to priority teaching goals (0.34)
  • direct involvement by leaders in planning, coordinating and evaluating teaching and curriculum (0.42)
  • promoting and participating in teacher learning and development (0.84)
  • ensuring an orderly and supportive environment so that teachers and students can focus on teaching and learning. (0.27)

As a leader I have to interact closely with data, pour hours of time and energy into reports and analysis of numbers and effect sizes, but this isn’t what will make the real difference. Sure it’s an important element but it’s the relationships, communication and interaction with people and the learning and development that makes the real difference, energises me and builds credibility.

” Having a commitment to improved learning and social outcomes is not just about supporting and guiding students, it also involves a commitment to the professional growth and support of other school leaders and teachers.”
” Having a commitment to improved learning and social outcomes is not just about supporting and guiding students, it also involves a commitment to the professional growth and support of other school leaders and teachers.”

The model here identifies four qualities that underpin successful leadership. One of these is manaakitanga. Put simply this concept relates having integrity, ensuring that decision making is ethical and contributes to building a culture of trust, respect and openness. Successful leaders manage interactions with stakeholders with Manaakitanga. They have knowledge, understanding and sensitivity to differing cultures, experiences and world views of those in their setting, but more than this, they are committed to making a difference by researching what works, what is right and what is best for students and the school. As leaders, we need to have a commitment to ensuring what is best for learners so that all learners can achieve their potential. Great leaders, in my opinion, inspire you go beyond your potential. Their belief and commitment to you enables you to be a better you.

If this sounds all warm and fuzzy and leads you to believe that being a leader is easy, stop right there. Leaders work with people. People are complex. Some would benefit student outcomes by changing practices and some are resistant to change. When practice needs changing it calls for some challenging conversations. Engaging in open to learning conversations where parties are open to listening, changing thinking, checking assumptions is essential if we are to continue to act with integrity. Manaakitanga- leading with a moral purpose- means we have to have those tough talks and they don’t leave us feeling warm and fuzzy.

Fern Raynah Thomas
Photo: Raynah Thomas

Does knowing this impact on my leadership? I would like to think so. There comes a time when situations test you and what you believe in.  There are things that, for me, are non-negotiable. Those things I stand with my back to the wall and come out fighting for; Assessment for learning, visible learning, student well-being, student voice, agency  and restorative justice practices are just a few. These practices not only make a difference, they have HUGE impact on student outcomes. Our core purpose.  Yes, during my time in leadership in New Zealand schools there have been times when I have been ‘challenged’ on these beliefs, but with these beliefs comes a passion, research and manaakitanga.


Robinson, V., Hohepa, M., & Lloyd, C. (2009). School Leadership and Student Outcomes: Identifying what works and why. Best Evidence Synthesis Iteration (BES). Wellington: Ministry of Education.

Leading from the middle: educational leadership for middle and senior leaders. M.O.E

Kiwi leadership for principals: principals as educational leaders. M.O.E.

Bezzina, M (2007) Moral purpose and shared leadership: The leaders transforming learning and learners pilot study  Australian Catholic University

Let’s talk about… The Learning Climb

We’re on a journey to make learning visible. As you would expect we’ve been looking at research to see what works and what has the most effect. We’ve decided on our five dispositions and now we are talking about describing what learning feels like. James Nottingham talks about the learning pit but we’ve decided not to use the analogy of the pit but rather pull out the ‘4Cs’ that Nottingham identifies on his pit diagram.  Could we use the 4C’s if we inverted the pit diagram and turned it into a mountain? After all, learning new things can seem like an uphill struggle at times.

My thinking is that you can have any analogy you choose but to be true to the concept of Nottingham’s pit the analogy needs to include the following

Learning pit* Concept (what is being learnt)

* Conflict (Where the learning becomes challenging – without this no learning occurs)

* Construct( constructing a clear understanding. This is where you get the ‘Eureka’ moments)

* Consider-(reflect on the learning. The metacognitive stage)

So what are the steps on the learning journey?

Preparing for the climb. Photo: Raynah Thomas

Step One – Preparation:

To successfully make it to the peak of the learning mountain takes preparation. Learners gather the equipment or tools that are needed for the learning climb and they practise to get their mind physically fit. Learning requires preparation of the mind as well as equipment.

Step Two – Use your teachers:

If you were climbing a mountain you’d want to have a guide providing encouragement, advice and support. Whenever you are trying to learn something new you often go to an experienced person to get good advice. Without your guide you won’t make it to the top of the mountain. Without a teacher and their advise and examples learning becomes much harder.

Step Three – Break it down:

You’re not going to climb a mountain without taking it slowly at times and having rest stops. The same is true when you are learning something new and challenging.  Without the step-by-step approach you run the risk of making avoidable errors. During a climb regular breaks are required. A time to rest, reflect and check the equipment to make sure everything is in order. Brains need breaks too.  A quiet place to sit and consider what you’ve tried so far, what’s working, what isn’t. Brains need nourishment and water breaks to work efficiently and think clearly.

Step Four –  Overcome anxiety:

We all know about feeling anxious or nervous. We may even fear failure. I’m sure if I were climbing the mountain I’d fear I would fall, fear I’d make one wrong step. Overwhelming “what-ifs” would plague my mind. Learning new things, going out of comfort zones and challenging oneself can have similar feelings .

Step Five – Believe in yourself :

Many people attempt to climb mountains and many people fail. Not because they are physically unfit but because of their mental attitude. Henry Ford is quoted as saying “Whether you think you can, or whether you think you can’t, you are probably right.” Hmmm I think he may be on to something here.

Self-belief and determination can move the metaphorical mountain. If you are  determined to make it to the peak, you’ll succeed. Same with learning. I’m not saying it will be easy just because you believe but self-belief does make a difference. Nike has a commercial where  “Athletes tell themselves they can do the impossible, even when they are not sure they can.”

Step Six –  Teamwork: 


Edmund Hillary didn’t climb mountains on his own. He had a team of people tied together with ropes and harnesses. The reason? If one person fell, the others would drop and slam their ice axe into the slope, holding on tight, keeping them from sliding down the mountain. Being a team member has benefits – safety, a sense of security, keeps you at a good pace. In a school there are many people who are in your team, and you are in many different teams.  Being part of a team makes the hard stuff more manageable. Team discussion, strategising and bouncing ideas off each other allows for the next steps to be taken.

Step Seven – Persevering through learning pain/challenge: 

What is it they say? “No pain, No gain.” If you’re going to climb a mountain you are going to feel pain.  Aching thighs, calves on fire, burning feet, throbbing with every step taken. Boots cut into shins as your mind screams “Enough!” The guide will encourage you and tell you “You need to work through your pain”. To stop would only lead to more pain. Learning is hard. It is challenging. It’s not meant to be easy. We need to carry on regardless or “keep on keeping on” as David Bailey once said.

Step Eight – Encouragement:

So you’re climbing a Mountain, almost at the peak, and everything is overwhelming. You’re ready to give up. You need someone to keep encouraging you, giving you feedback and feed forward. “”You can do it. Move the left foot slightly to the right. You’re nearly there;” Learning is no different. You need the feedback and feedforward. You need the cheering on the sidelines encouraging you when you think that you are completely stuck. Sometimes you need it more often than other times. But you don’t always need to hear it from other people. Developing an inner voice to feed you encouragement is an essential part of the learning process.

Step Nine –Celebrate the successes : 

Making it to the top of the mountain means you have been successful. Each step has brought success closer. Some of those steps have been minor successes of their own.  Celebrate. Celebrate the big successes and celebrate the small ones. That in itself is its own form of encouragement towards the next step.  Don’t fall into the trap of comparing yourself with the success of others. Own your success- it is afterall yours because you made it happen.

Finally (for now) Step Ten  On top of the Mountain: 

At the top of the mountain you can look out, process the journey and all that you have achieved; Think about the climb. AS you descend everything seems easier, clearer. At the top of our metaphorical learning mountain we do that too. We have struggled with many ideas and concepts on the way up. Now we can synthesize ideas and create new ones. That’s learning. At the peak of the mountain we think about our thinking and strategies; On the way down we have clarity and then new information emerges that challenges what we know and a new climb begins.

Will the mountain analogy work? We’re about to find out!